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Archive for April, 2012

Happy anniversary, Book Around The Corner!

April 30, 2012 45 comments

Two years ago, I started a crazy adventure: this blog. My first post was about Romain Gary. Of course. It took me hours to write it. Later, I published an entry about the difficulty to write in English and if it’s still not easy, it’s not as difficult as before.

Before Book Around The Corner, I’d never visited a blog or commented on a forum. I just typed how to start a blog in a search engine, found help on a French site and discovered that WordPress was mostly used by Anglo-Saxons. Exactly what I was looking for, so WordPress it would be. The first months, I didn’t talk about this new hobby. People around me don’t have a blog, an ebook or even a web phone. I knew they’d think I was crazy. Now I’m more open about it but when I explain that I blog about literature and in English, they look at me as if I were an alien embodied in a human envelope. They don’t know what they’re missing, the fun, the exchanges, the discoveries.

I even owe my new job partly to this blog as it improved my English so much that I had my “Frenchness” recently questioned during a business lunch because a) I don’t drink wine b) I can speak English properly. The puzzled man joked that he was at loss: what kind of a Frenchwoman that could be?

To English speaking natives reading this blog I’ll say that I love your language. I’ve always enjoyed learning it. I wasn’t even put off by the first semester of class that had us repeating endlessly fascinating dialogues such as: Where is Brian? Brian is in the kitchen. In the kitchen? Yes, he’s in the kitchen. (My husband remembers it too and a French humorist made a sketch out of it. Just to point out I’m not exaggerating.) OK, I have to admit George Michael did more for my knowledge of should-have/would-have/could-have phrases than my teachers. Now I’m thinking that Germany lacked of something in pop music and that’s probably why I never got past Bernd and his Moped. As a result, I can’t read in German and I still want to learn more about the English language. The French is more flexible in its syntax but I love the elasticity of the English to create new words and expressions.

That said, English-speaking bloggers need a word to name their articles, a special word that isn’t review. French bloggers have a nice one for their posts. They call them billet. (pronounce beeyay) I like this word. A billet doux is a love note you pass to your lover, a billet d’humeur is a column in a newspaper, always an opinion, not a professional review. So you’ll hear about billets now, no more reviews because sometimes I write love notes about books, sometimes I’m a little provocative and most of all, literature isn’t my profession.

I was thinking that some of you might come to France this summer and I’d like to suggest a visit to Metz, a city only distant from Paris by a ridiculous 1:15 hour of TGV (high speed train). It’s an old city, the Romans named it Divodorum. Its architecture shows the centuries: Roman baths in the basement of the Museum, a church and a square from the Middle Ages, a gorgeous cathedral with stained-glasses by Chagall, buildings dating back to the Louis XIV era, gardens in the city centre, the romantic banks of the Moselle river, a railway station as a witness of the German occupation from 1870 to 1918. I’m uploading pictures for you. This is the city I think of as my hometown, my favourite city, the harbour I need to come back to once in a while.

But enough about me. I thank you for reading my billets, commenting when you feel like to, following me in my little escapade from everyday life and for catching the little literary bubbles I blow from France to you, wherever you are.

Cheers,

Emma

____________

Metz: the cathedral

Metz: the stained glasses in the cathedral

Metz: the banks of the river Moselle

Metz: Place de la Comédie (Theatre/Opera)

Metz: A quaint fromagerie (cheese shop)

Metz: a typical building

Metz: La Belle Epoque

Categories: Personal Posts

Muriel & me Part II: the cold shower

April 28, 2012 17 comments

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark French title: Complices et comparses.

I’m a participant of the Muriel Spark Week hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Harriet from Harriet Devine’s Blog. I read The Prime of Miss Brodie in December and I wasn’t thrilled by it but it is nonetheless an excellent book. One of my problems with it was the language, I had a paperback edition and I thought my next Spark should be in kindle format, to have a constant access to a dictionary. This is how I ended up reading Aiding and Abetting.

Hmm. As the title of the post gives it away, this wasn’t a good experience. And as I’m even too lazy to sum up the plot, here is the blurb from Amazon

Aiding and Abetting opens sometime late in the 20th century, when an Englishman in his 60s walks into the Paris practice of famed Bavarian psychiatrist Dr Hildegard Wolf and announces that he is the missing Lord Lucan. Yet Hildegard is already treating one self-confessed Lord Lucan. And what’s more, both patients seem to have dirt on her–for isn’t she really Beate Pappenheim, a notorious fraud who used her menstrual blood to fake her stigmata? Fearing for her safety, Hildegard flees to London, where her path inevitably crosses that of two British Lucan hunters.

And oh surprise! My laziness taught me something, the Lucan case is a real one!! Being French, I TOTALLY missed that which can explain why I didn’t enjoy the book.

The reasons I had in mind before attempting to write a review and discovering that the underlying case is a real one were that:

– I didn’t care at all to discover who the real Lucan was,

– I didn’t like Hildegard and her French boy-friend Jean-Pierre,

– I didn’t buy the ludicrous side adventure of Lacey and what’s-his-name-again? sixty-years old lover (not a good sign when you don’t remember the names)

It’s well-written but the construction is chaotic, the characters highly improbable. I only finished it because it was only 176 pages long. I wonder if Muriel Spark is too British to be enjoyed elsewhere. There seem to be references a foreigner can’t catch and you don’t even realize you’re missing something. I felt the same when reading The Prime of Miss Brodie.

One positive thing though: now I know what aiding and abetting means…

After a disastrous moment with Remarkable Creatures and that chore, I rushed to In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson, convinced I’d have a great time. I was right and I’ll see you in a few days with the ecstatic review of this French novel.

Remarkably boring

April 26, 2012 21 comments

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. 2009. French title: Prodigieuses créatures.

Remarkable Creatures is this month read for our book club Les Copines d’abord and it is also a readalong for other bloggers interested in reading this novel. I’m afraid this review is going to be a breach in the book blogging etiquette: I abandoned the book of my own readalong. Of course, I feel guilty and at the beginning I wanted to stick with it and endure it until the end for the sake of that readalong. But I had to acknowledge that I started to shy away from the book and I’d rather not read at all than read it. That was the final blow, I stopped exactly at page 111 and the book has 415 pages.

In appearance, Remarkable Creatures has several ingredients of a book I should like. It is set in Lyme Regis, England, a place I visited last year and it’s always nice to read a book when you know the setting. It happens in the King George era, like Austen’s novels. It is the story of a friendship between two women who have a very unladylike passion for fossils. It tells the real story of Mary Anning, a paleontologist and her struggle to reach recognition in a men’s world and in a world where science was for upper classes. Feminism, history, 19thC England, all these are good tags for me.

Now, why didn’t I like it? I have a French edition, so my English has nothing to do with it. I guess it’s all Ms Chevalier’s fault. I was bored with the fossils. Fossils, fossils and more fossils. So many fossils names and no scientific explanation; I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn something nor was my curiosity picked enough to research the names on the internet. And the style! It took Ms Chevalier twenty pages to describe how they detached a crocodile fossil from the cliff and all in a dull style. I didn’t get attached to the characters, which is the basis for that kind of book to work. It could have been a thorough description of the life in a quaint little English town, but no. In the 111 first pages, there is no hint of social analysis, no hope for psychological insight in the characters’ inner minds. Eveything is a flat tale in alternate voices as the two women take turn to relate the events.

I’m quite alone is this assessment of Remarkable Creatures. It has a 4.5 stars rating on Amazon and 4 stars on GoodReads. So don’t be put off by this review, the problem probably comes from me.

As an aside, here are other reviews from French bloggers:

De ma Plume à vos Oreilles and Miss Alfie at Miss Alfie, Croqueuse de livres

After the Book Club meeting.

Well, I feel less alone. They finished it but also found the style flat, without any flavour. Although the themes were appealing (religion, feminism, the beginnings of a science), the story wasn’t interesting. For example, none of us remembered the characters’ names, which is a really bad sign. They didn’t learn anything about fossils, even after 400 and some pages. When I asked them to relate the story, it was difficult since the plot was rather thin.

I know, I know, this was not really chivalrous towards Ms Chevalier but is it my fault if the book is tasteless?

Not the best read of the book club so far. I’m looking forward to reading the reviews of the other participants to this readalong.

I read. It’s like a disease

April 21, 2012 18 comments

L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. 2004. Not translated into English but really easy to read in French. The title means The Illiterate.

Je lis. C’est comme une maladie. Je lis tout ce qui me tombe sous la main, sous les yeux. Journaux, livres d’école, affiches, bouts de papiers trouvés dans la rue, recettes de cuisine, livres d’enfants, tout ce qui est imprimé. J’ai quatre ans et la guerre vient de commencer. I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes into my hands, everything within eyesight. Newspapers, text books, posters, pieces of paper found in the street, recipes, children books, any printed thing. I’m four and the war has just begun.

This is the start of L’analphabète by Agota Kristof. I can’t tell you whether it’s a paragraph or just a few sentences as I borrowed the audio book from the library. It’s only fifty minutes long and it’s read by the actress Marthe Keller. I can relate to that first quote. I remember how I was impatient to learn how to read, how I wanted to read and like her, I used to read everything I could. L’analphabète is a short text in which Agota Kristof narrates her relationship with writing and reading. She was born in a poor village in Hungary in 1935 and she says she always loved reading and inventing stories.

After the war, she attended a boarding school for destitute girls and she started earning money by writing and playing sketches for the other students. She was so poor that she had to fake illness when her shoes were at the cobbler’s because she didn’t have another pair to walk to school.

Then she fasts forward and she’s twenty-one, fleeing Hungary through the mountains with her four-month-old daughter and her husband. They cross the border from Hungary to Austria. She relates the journey from Austria to Switzerland, the fresh start in a new country and how she became a writer. Two things struck me in her book, the behaviour of Austrian and Swiss populations and her simple but deep relationship with books.

The Austrian villagers welcomed the refugees and helped them reach Switzerland. They gave them food, shelter and train tickets. Everything was under control, they knew the process. She describes how the Swiss were waiting for them at the train station, offering tea and coffee. As refugees, the Swiss first brought them to special homes. Then they dispatched them in different cities and helped them find an apartment, a job in a factory. She remembers the controller in the bus, sitting by her and telling her she shouldn’t be afraid, that the Russian tanks wouldn’t come to Switzerland. That kindness struck me and it struck me that it struck me. I thought “What? We, Europeans, didn’t always treat illegal immigrants the way we do now? When did we start treating refugees as criminals?” I thought about Lampedusa and its sad reputation as the destination to escape misery. And I thought about what the candidates who run for the French presidential election say or avoid saying about immigration.

I was also really moved when Agota Kristof tells her need to read and write and also her relationship with other languages. There’s a chapter entitled Langues ennemies (Enemy languages). It tells her first encounter with a foreign language when she and her parents moved to a German speaking part of Hungary. German, the language of the former dominating empire, Austria. Then Russian is the language imposed by the new communist regime. It’s an enemy that kills Hungarian culture and smothers the cultural life. Then comes the French, the language imposed by fate when she finds solace in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Agota Kristof explains she became illiterate, living in a country whose language she couldn’t speak, cut out from the society because of the language barrier and living through a long cultural desert. She depicts how she eventually managed to speak French but still couldn’t read or write. It lasted six years until she went back to school and learnt how to read and write. She was delighted to read again and overwhelmed by the new reading possibilities, all the foreign books available in French. I don’t know how I would cope with a situation like that: no book during five years except for the rare ones she could find in Hungarian from the Geneva library. Five years without reading anything new, without understanding newspapers, cereal boxes or administrative correspondence. I can’t imagine it. The French is also an enemy language for her because it slowly kills her native language in her and because it’s a constant fight to speak it and write it properly. Even after thirty years, she still needs a dictionary. It has imposed itself as her writing language but not without collateral damages for her Hungarian self.

This book is written without pathos. Its tone is factual, descriptive but the absence of expansive feelings doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t feel strongly for her. Marthe Keller chose to read it with a foreign accent and it enforced the impression of listening to Agota Kristof herself. I listened to it twice and the second time, I finished it in my car, after a working day. When I started the engine, I was stressed by the accumulation of the tiny details of a whole working day. Deadlines to be met, suspicion of incompetence from someone I need to rely on, fear to disappoint. Then Agota Kristof’s literary voice invaded the small space in the car and erased my worries. They seemed so futile compared to what she was telling. Again, it’s a simple description without complaining but I felt compassion for her, awe for her perseverance, her ability to face difficult times. And my problems shrinked back into their appropriate size and kept the right proportion. I owe her one.

Alas, it’s not translated into English…It’s available in German (Die Analphabetin: Autobiographische Erzählung) and if you know French, you can probably read it in the original, it’s not very difficult and it’s short.

PS: I think the cover of the French edition is irrelevant.

Update in 2017: It’s been released in English in 2014. The title is The Illiterate.

The whirlwind of life

April 14, 2012 36 comments

Heloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim. Not translated into English, unlucky non-French readers…

Let’s rewind a bit. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Promising French Women Writers and eventually decided to read Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim, although it wasn’t my first choice among the titles listed in this entry. As we say in French: Seuls les imbéciles ne changent pas d’avisi.

My fear came from the title, as Héloïse est chauve means Héloïse is bald and I immediately pictured a book about breast cancer. (Btw, I’m not the only one, I told someone I was reading Héloïse est chauve and the reply was “Is it about cancer?”). No, it’s not about cancer but the book title might be a put off.

It’s actually the first sentence of the novel and Héloïse is bald because she’s only five-month-old. It’s Saint Nicolas’s day and the whole family is gathered at Jeanne’s the matriarch of the family. She has two daughters, Violette and Mirabelle. I was caught from the start. I have to say that a novel that starts with a St Nicolas evening and a character named Mirabelle can only go straight to the heart of a native from Lorraine. For my foreign friends, St Nicolas’s Day is on December 6th, and only people from Alsace-Lorraine celebrate it in France. A “mirabelle” is a yellow plum that grows in this region; in Metz, Lorraine, there is a Mirabelle Festival every year. It’s very unlikely that a French writer opens a book like this.

Back to the book. Héloïse is in her craddle and falls in love with Dr Lawrence Calvagh, who is forty years old, half Irish-half French (an explosive mix?) and a close friend of the family. Actually, he dated Mirabelle and had an affair with Violette but he’s still married to Fleur. Lawrence is a paediatrician and a Don Juan. But Héloïse is a passionate and persistent lover and the novel is about their incredible love story, intertwined with the story of the family. Héloïse is an unusual character, she’s as passionate as the famous medieval eponymous heroin. She’s artistic and becomes a photographer à la Cindy Sherman or Gilbert and George.

It’s hard for me to give back the flavour of this novel, because the style is so crucial and the characters so strange. I’ll shower you with adjectives. It’s refreshing, odd, unseen, touching, pleasant, poetic, crude, inventive, international, incredible and yet plausible. In a word, quirky.

Emilie de Turckheim has a voice, a new and personal voice and her style is musical. I could hear rhythm and change of pace. Sometimes it races and clinks like the noise of a woman in a hurry, walking down a tiled hall with high heeled shoes. Sometimes it murmurs like a woman tiptoeing in with slippers in someone else’s soul. Her turn of phrases are her own, she makes a creative and unaffected use of the French language. I enjoyed the descriptions of Héloïse’s photo exhibitions, the moments in the family house in Corsica, the chapter when the authorities empty the Turtle Pond in Central Park. Héloïse is bald, the title says. I’d say she’s bold. All the time. Pushing the limits, going after what she wants, disregarding etiquette and customs. Let me help you discover her:

Elle a un don pour l’idéal excès. Ses colères, ses baisers, ses idées finement hachées, ses plaisirs de volcan, tout est à l’excès. Héloïse, habitante modèle de la minute et de la seconde, de la stupeur de l’instant. Sa peau imminente, ses caresses, sa voix mineure, éolienne. Sa façon ingénue et impérieuse de dire: Je t’aime depuis que je suis née! Et ses cheveux de ruche.

She has a gift for the ideal excess. Her angers, her kisses, her finely-chopped ideas, her volcano pleasures, everything is excessive. Héloïse, model inhabitant of the minute and the second, of the stupor of the instant. Her imminent skin, her caresses and her voice on a minor key, aeolian. Her naïve and commanding way of saying: I’ve loved you since I was born! And her hair like a beehive.

It sounds crazy but everything holds well together – I enjoyed the ending. The narrative changes of voice and gives several perspectives. It’s a find, really. Does someone know an Anglophone publisher who could translate her and bring this novel to you?

PS: I apologise to Emilie de Turckheim for the poor translation of her prose. The good news though is that most of the regular readers of this blog can read the original and won’t depend on my translation.

iOnly idiots never change their mind

Sloper vs Sloper

April 10, 2012 34 comments

Washington Square by Henry James (1843-1916) Written in 1880.

This is my second reading of Washington Square. It is the last book from  Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts and as Tom from Wuthering Expectations is currently in a James project, I suggested that we read it along. So there will be a review on his blog too and I’m curious to read it.

Catherine Sloper is the daughter of a well-off physician with patients among the good society. Catherine’s mother died when she was an infant and the doctor never remarried. Her aunt Lavinia lives with them, the doctor tolerates her because his sister is a poor widow and as he feels that Catherine needs a feminine presence, although Lavinia isn’t what he thinks is best for his daughter. From the start, Catherine is presented as transparent, uninteresting, the perfect wallflower.

She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a “nice” face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle. Her father’s opinion of her moral purity was abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.

She’s already over twenty and has no marriage prospect despite her thirty-thousand dollars income. Comes Morris Townsend. Handsome, talkative, friendly. He courts her, she falls head over heels for him but her father refuses to give his consent to their marriage. For him, Morris Townsend is only a fortune hunter and his daughter is making the wrong choice. He demands that she gives Morris up. But Catherine resists and the novel turns into the silent fight of two equally strong willpowers.

Dr Sloper is a scientist and he can only see life through the eyes of reason. I think, therefore I am could be his motto. He’s a very proud man, confident in his abilities to judge human nature. Once he nailed someone, he won’t change his mind, whatever happens. He decided that his daughter isn’t intelligent and made up his mind. He decided that Morris Townsend is a gold-digger and he won’t change his mind. He’s incredibly conceited about his abilities and terribly stubborn, which is quite an obnoxious combination for a character.

Dr Sloper would have wanted a brilliant girl, either beautiful or witty. Catherine is only average. Instead of accepting it as a loving father would and help her make the best of her abilities, he judges her and undermines her self-esteem with sarcastic remarks. Tenderness has always been absent from Catherine’s life and it impacts her personality. She’s shy and dull because her father smothers her, she never had a chance to bloom, to voice her opinion.

People who expressed themselves roughly called her stolid. But she was irresponsive because she was shy, uncomfortably, painfully shy. This was not always understood, and she sometimes produced an impression of insensibility. In reality she was the softest creature in the world.

She’s afraid of her father and admires him so much that she never questions his opinion. He can only be right. If he says she’s stupid, it is the Truth. Like him, she follows her reason: she lives under his roof, she has to obey.

The first time I read Washington Square, I mostly saw the unhappy love story and the life of a woman destroyed by an inflexible father. My questions were about the Catherine / Morris relationship and the sincerity of Morris’s feelings. This time I was genuinely fascinated by the fight between Catherine and Dr Sloper. It is merciless; nobody wants to surrender and the match can only end with a KO. The doctor sees it from a detached spot, pulls the strings, sees what happens. He looks at the affair, the events as a scientist makes an experiment on insects to prove a theory. He detests Morris Townsend – who doesn’t help his case behaving like he does. He’s sure his daughter is weak-minded and unable to handle a Morris Townsend.

James is an unreliable narrator. He makes fun of Catherine and leads us into thinking that she’s slow and plain. Actually, she’s not that thick. She just doesn’t have a flirtatious or a romantic bone in her. She’s reasonable, never capricious. It’s all a question of cliché. Catherine doesn’t fit into the lovelorn-young-woman cliché. She’s an Elinor, not a Marianne. Actually, thanks to her formidable father, she despises herself:

Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine had no sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense and unexpected favours.

People around her misjudge her because she’s shy, reserved, doesn’t burst into tears or throw tantrums. They fail to understand how strongly attached to Morris she can be. She doesn’t have the required traits to attract young men, does she? She’s not graceful, good at small talk or expert in choosing the right clothes. She can’t be attractive to a handsome and highly sociable young man like Morris, can she?

But the more the novel progresses, the more she reveals herself. She knows her aunt Lavinia is silly and she doesn’t follow her advice. When she finally breaks free from her father’s spell, she perfectly assesses him.

He’s not very fond of me. (…) I saw it, I felt it, in England, just before he came away. He talked to me one night- -the last night; and then it came over me. You can tell when a person feels that way. I wouldn’t accuse him if he hadn’t made me feel that way. I don’t accuse him; I just tell you that that’s how it is. He can’t help it; we can’t govern our affections. Do I govern mine? mightn’t he say that to me? It’s because he is so fond of my mother, whom we lost so long ago. She was beautiful, and very, very brilliant; he is always thinking of her. I am not at all like her; Aunt Penniman has told me that. Of course, it isn’t my fault; but neither is it his fault.

This was written before Freud and psychoanalysis. But Catherine kills the father here and becomes an adult. Reaching this conclusion gives her the strength to resist and follow her will. She has good sense and James acknowledges that she’d make a sensible and strong wife, which can be attractive too. He explores the impact of education on children. Without the doctor’s judgemental gaze and constant reprobation, Catherine could have been someone else. James will go further on that path when he writes What Maisie Knew in 1897. Again, I’m amazed at the modernity of his vision of education. A little more love and trust from her father and Catherine would have been a totally different person.

Washington Square is a masterpiece. It’s pure essence of great literature. It has everything: a fantastic style, a suspenseful plot and a thought-provoking theme. James is incredibly funny, with sharp little verbal bullets:

Dr Sloper: You have made yourself believe that I can be tired out. This is the most baseless hallucination that ever visited the brain of a genial optimist.

Or

Catherine: The idea of being “clever” in a gondola by moonlight appeared to her to involve elements of which her grasp was not active.

Or

Catherine “You think too much.” [Aunt Lavinia] “I suppose I do; but I can’t help it, my mind is so terribly active. When I give myself, I give myself. I pay the penalty in my headaches, my famous headaches—a perfect circlet of pain! But I carry it as a queen carries her crown.

Or

Dr Sloper. He preferred Mrs. Almond to his sister Lavinia, who had married a poor clergyman, of a sickly constitution and a flowery style of eloquence, and then, at the age of thirty-three, had been left a widow, without children, without fortune—with nothing but the memory of Mr. Penniman’s flowers of speech, a certain vague aroma of which hovered about her own conversation.

A delight, really. Side characters are well drawn too. Aunt Lavinia or Mrs Penninman can be compared to Mrs Bennett for her silly mind and her tendency to approve of romance. To her own consciousness, the flowery fields of her reason had rarely been ravaged by a hostile force. James says.

To be honest, I still haven’t decided if Morris was sincere or not. Probably not. Who has ever seen a handsome man marrying a plain and dull woman for herself only? I have the idea that James leads the reader by the nose and that things aren’t exactly how they appear. I found myself thinking about the film Le goût des autres by Agnès Jaoui. Again.

7 x 7 Link Award: my take

April 7, 2012 18 comments

Caroline kindly tagged me in her 7 x 7 Link Award. The rules are simple:

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody knows.

2: Link to a post I think fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.

3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.

So, here is my participation:

1: Well, I’ll tell you something about me that you don’t know

I hate Brussels sprouts.

2: Link to a post I think fits the following categories: 

The Most Beautiful Piece

She moves him in mysterious ways, my review of South Of The Border, West Of  The Sun by Haruki Murakami. I wrote it as soon as I ended it and the emotion filters through the post.

Most Helpful Piece

French Ways and Their Meaning by Edith Wharton. It’s also one of the most popular posts.

Most Popular Piece

According to WP statistics, the most popular piece is The Controversy Of Valladolid by Jean-Claude Carrière. It’s about the Valladolid debate and the central question was: Are Indians human or animals. A fascinating book which was made into a film.

Most Controversial Piece

The novel as a ragbag or can you write fiction about anything? It was a reaction to all the publicity done for Claustria by Régis Jauffret. The discussion was interesting.

Most Surprisingsly Successful Piece

Recently I wrote a reminder-post about Promising French Women Writers. I posted the list to keep the names in a safe place and I was surprised to receive so many comments, including one from one of the authors!

Most Underrated Piece

The mother who could not be a Mom, which is about La Virevolte by Nancy Huston. It’s a little book asking disturbing questions about motherhood.

Most Pride-Worthy Piece

Hollow Highways Revisited, which is my response to On The Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. Andrew approved of it and what can be better than a writer reading and liking your review of his book?

3: Seven other bloggers:

Pechorin’s Journal. This is the first blog I found, read and followed. I still read everything Max publishes. His reviews are extremely well-written, thought-provoking and intelligent.

Tony’s Reading List. Tony is British, lives in Australia, reads all kinds of books in English, in German or in French. I love his reviews and his sense of humour. (His tag line is Too lazy to be a writer, too egostistical to be quiet) Have a look at his blog if you don’t know him.

A Rat in the Book Pile. Sarah’s reviews are worth reading. Her choice of books is diversified in style, countries and her reviews are deep and never pedantic. And she’s fun. And I love her Extreme Reading series which shows her reading in various perilous situations.

Andrew BlackmanYes this is the writer I mentioned before. I enjoy following Andrew’s blog to discover his thoughts about his reading and also to keep in touch with his adventures as a writer.

ANZ LitLovers Lisa is Australian and promotes Australia and New Zealand literature buut she reads a lot of international literature too.

Wuthering ExpectationsOnce I told Tom from Wuthering Expectations that I’d know my English is really good when I can understand all his posts. I’m not there yet.  Meet us on Tuesday for our readalong of Washington Square by Henry James.

Romain Gary et moi. A blog in French by Delphine who, like me, adores Romain Gary.

My number seven-bis would be the bloggers I read whatever they publish and that Caroline already taggedHis Futile Preoccupations and Tales From The Reading Room. And of course, Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat. I don’t have enough time to read all the posts of the other bloggers Caroline mentioned but I know their blogs and I heartily second her recommendation.

Addition by Toni Jordan

April 1, 2012 19 comments

Addition by Toni Jordan 2008. French title : Tu pourrais rater intégralement ta vie.

 After discovering that John Self + Lou Ford = Matt Freeman  I was more than happy to bury myself into Toni Jordan’s Addition. Just what kind of addition is this?

Grace Vandenburg is 35, lives in Melbourne and hasn’t worked for 25 months. Although we only discover later in the novel why she lost her job as a teacher, we are immediately aware of Grace’s problem. Grace counts. Everything. Her footsteps, the stairs, the number of seeds on her cake. She measures everything, keeps in touch with the outside temperature. Numbers qualify things, put reassuring fences in her life.

Numbers rule her life as comforting milestones. She strictly follows the same schedule everyday; she does exactly the same things at the same time. She’s fond of 10s and thus buys things by tens at the supermarket. She’s single, usually interacts with no one but her mother and her sister Jill who minutely call every Sunday at 8:00pm and 8:15pm respectively. “Interact” is perhaps optimistic here. Grace talks to them over the phone but there is no real conversation; they exchange small news and everyone thinks their duty is done. Grace’s only relationship is with her ten-year-old niece Hilary.

Grace admires Nikola Tesla a Serbian-American scientist. He was an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity and is best known for developing the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. (Wikipedia) To me his name brought back vague memories of unintelligible physics classes. To Grace, he’s like a lifebelt. He was also a bit off-kilter and was still a genius, something Grace finds comforting.

Grace has her life mapped out, so when she realizes at the cashier of her usual supermarket that she picked only nine bananas instead of ten, her need for accuracy is such that she relieves the customer next to her of the banana he has in his basket. She’s horrified by her slip and is still recovering from it in the parking lot when the above mentioned customer catches up with her and enquires after the reason why she stole that banana.

This is how and when she meets Seamus. What will come out of this encounter is up to you to discover. In other words, read the book.

Addition is a lovely book. I wish I could do it justice by writing a lovely review. It’s a first person narrative and we see the events and life in general through Grace’s eyes. She knows her addiction to number limits her life and she lives with it.

Life would be different if I didn’t count, I know that.

But without it the world would be too big and too dangerous. An endless void. I’d be lost all the time. I’d be overwhelmed.

She has come to think of her difference as a blessing, most of the time. She sees life through a peculiar angle, blurts out hilarious replies and is as funny as her illness allows her to be. But despite her acceptance, she is suffering:

I want it to stop. I want it all to stop.

Suddenly I’m sick of it. Sick of counting all the time. Of all the little games and rules and orders and lists and chewing my food 30 times and drinking a cup of tea before bed every night. I want to have a job and go to the movies and have a family and people over for a dinner that is not chicken and vegetables. I want to be like everybody else. I want to run as fast as I can in bare feet and on grass like I’m a child and my hair is streaming behind me. I want to run and I want to feel my leg muscles stretch and pull and my chest heave in the service of my freedom.

I don’t want to count anymore.

Don’t think it’s a sad book, because it isn’t. Addition is a plea to accept difference. We want to heal mental illness for people to be “normal”. But define “normal”? It also subtly points out how our societies want us to comply with the married-two-kids-a-house-and-two-cars model. There is a tendency to present it as the only way to be happy. Once I heard someone say about a thirtysomething single woman that she had no life. How can that be? She had friends, family, a job and hobbies. Isn’t it a life? As Grace points out:

Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. 10 or 12 grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it.

You could miss your whole life.

I do like the idea of cherishing mundane events and make the most of everyday life. Jordan’s novel is a light read, funny, with an unusual character. I enjoyed the way she intertwined Grace’s life with references to Tesla’s life. I was caught by the book, I couldn’t put it down. Light literature isn’t easy to write. The author is walking on a high wire, on one side they can fall into the void of so much comedy it becomes vulgar or silly and on the other side they stare at the dangerous precipice of mawkishness.

I bought Addition after reading a post about Toni Jordan on Lisa’s blog. Thanks Lisa! I had a great time.

PS: Now that you know about Grace, you can guess there are a lot of numbers in the book. That explains the foreword I talked about here.

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