Bury the dead and Mend the living – réparer les vivants (The Heart/Mend the living by Maylis de Kérangal, book review)


My grandmother mentionned this book to me, a while ago. She said “it’s a book about a heart transplant, it is well written, you should read it”. I know one should always listen to one’s grandmother, and that I in particular should have paid attention because when my grandmother finds a book well written she usually means business (she’s hard to please, in the best of ways of course), but in that case I heard the part “it’s about a heart transplant ergo it is for you” and was – at the time – tired of reading books about medicine. Well, I picked it up despite it and, of course, my grandmother was right. This truly has, as a main subject, the heart of Simon, a young man who dies suddenly, and what becomes of it in the rushed hours after death, when it is decided that it could be transplanted. And from this death – the surreality of it, for the parents, who have to grasp what a cerebral death is, the enormity of grief, the impossibility of death for the living, the young, the healthy, to the symbolic meaning of the heart as much more than a pump, and the difficulty of the decision of donating, for the family, it covers a mountain in a few pages. Everything is true, is well said, in sentences flowing in a fast heart beat, nothing is superfluous, nothing is romanticized but, in this short window in the life and death of a few people, everything is there. And as it ends, leaving you breathless and unsure of the future of this heart beating anew in another person’s thorax, and wanting to carry on with the parents of this young man, the nurses and doctors you meet briefly but who are all so real, so raw, you realize your own heart has been beating frantically with it, all along. 

I could go on and talk specifics but I think the simple truth is there: listen to my grandmother, folks, as for once a french book I’m raving about has been translated (the title is alternatively (I guess there must be a US and UK title) The Heart:a novel or Mend the living, which is much closer to the original title and echoes a quote from Platonov that one of the characters has kept with him: Burry the dead, mend the living. A noble pursuit.

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View(s) from the top of my book

Now, I don’t read as much as I usually do these days (for a holiday standard, at least) mostly because I walk, stop for food, walk some more, mingle with cows and pilgrims alike (and after 10 days of walking the differences -at least in personal hygiene- are disappearing quickly) and when the walk is done, the clothes washed and rewashed,  the food prepared and the guidebook for the next day read, I usually manage a few pages before total coma. Which is a shame because the books I have with me are good. So I’ve started reading at noon, during picnic break, which I try to take in a scenic and secluded place (when possible, sometimes the stomach just has to rule on its own) and so here are what some of the views from the top of my book have been lately (plus a lot of cows and fields, but those I didn’t bother to photograph, it is amazing how lazy you become after walking so long).

Art, sexism,migraines and lots of Woolf – Non fiction reads of the past months

I realize there has been quite a lot of books I read recently that I didn’t write about – not that I’m trying to thoroughly review everything I read, far from it – but amongst those are 3 non fiction books which I’ve loved and would fit together nicely in a feminism-art-literature bundle, so I decided I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to rave.

Firstly, I read Everyday sexism, by Laura Bates, a few months back. I had read an essay of her in  the the collection “I call myself a feminist”, an interesting essay to me but generally deemed a  sort of shortened version of this book to the other reviewers of the feminist orchestra book club who had already read it. So I went for the original piece.

Originally an online project started by Laura Bates to catalogue experiences of daily sexism – when she realized she wasn’t the only one suffering from and accepting a variety of comments and attitudes (from the supposedly fun  street harassment comment to sexual abuse) – this is a compelling testimony of all the voices (not exclusively women) who replied to Bates project and shared their story. It is organized in chapters sorting through a woman’s development, from primary school to professional career, with specific insights into woman with double – or triple burdens of discrimination, like muslim woman, or LGBTQ+. Each chapter starts and is strongly based on those individual testimonies, making a chorus of voices, which, even if it has no pretence at being a statistically significant sample, is a perfect way to show the universality of those experiences of sexism. And it allows Bates to simply present and link those voices, without preaching. The voices are enough.

After finishing it, overwhelmed with the chilling statistics about rape and the collective voices of systematic abuse, battling with a sense of despair, you do have to remember that there has never been a better time in history to be a woman than now, and to take some poise and comfort from projects like this and #shoutingback: there is a strength to gain in not letting any of it go unnoticed, and a strength in responding.

Without transition, but not straying very far from feminism, I also read “Art objects – essays on ecstasy and effrontery” by Jeanette Winterson.

Which is about what it states, honestly. And is, as books of essays go, slightly atypical in tone, because it is Winterson, and she doesn’t do mellow, academic ramblings. She does passion. In this, she covers the necessity of art, and what she means by art (as truth, as objection, as the title says), but also specific writers such as Virginia Woolf, and the never ending struggles of being recognized as a writer without any association to your sex or sexuality. As I said, it is not nuanced in the traditionnal style of essays, where writers would seek to also present other points of view, at least to argue them. Winterson has no time for counterarguments, she wants to talk of beauty and truth, and she talks of it beautifully. And it doesn’t matter that you may or may not agree with everything. I read this and wanted to go to a museum, re-read Virginia Woolf,  go to a gallery and mostly, sit and think. Because this is so concentrated with ideas you will need a moment to breathe.But breathlessness, in this instance, is exhilarating.

In contrast – of tone mostly – I reread Siri Hustvedt’s Essays (mostly because I had at that point of the travel read everything there was in my e-reader). These are split into three parts, as the title suggests (it’s what also links these books, accidentally, straight-forward titles): the first about living experiences, like living with a migraine or looking into the mirror, the next more intellectual activities like writing and the last about seeing and art – covering a variety of visual artists from Goya to Louise Bourgeois.

Hustvedt is a writer with a fascination with psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and is well versed into their different languages, as she shows in one of those essays, excursion to the Islands of the happy few, which starts with intentionally obscure quotes from each domain just to make a point: specialist in every field approach  common themes with a vocabulary so obtuse they can’t communicate across branches any more. She, in contrast, dwells from  one to the other, from Freud – with the right amount of disassociation, of course and mostly Winnicott to Luria,  linking our particular appreciation of portraits with the fusiform gyrus and mirror neurons. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, read Hustvedt, she is crystal clear and manages to juggle difficult thoughts and concept to present a concise idea, without simplifying.

I would bet it is even more enlightening to someone to whom neuroscience and psychoanalysis is a black box, in fact I distinctively remember that I found it a lot more earth-shattering the first time I read this, before studying medicine and reading Lacan and some of his friends, but her ability to sore across fields of research and bring a new perspective still astonished me.

Well, I had started this post thinking I would do mini-reviews, and I see I’ve raved for a long time indeed. Concision is something I will never attain, I’m afraid. I will live you with a bundle of quotes from those, and hope it will give you a few ideas should you be looking for non-fiction reads!

From Hustvedt:

“Words quickly become thing-like. It has often fascinated me how a psychoanalytic concept such as internal object, for example, can be treated as if it weren’t a metaphor for our own inner plurality that necessarily includes the psychic presence of others, but as if it were something  oncrete that could be manipulated – like a shovel” 

“We become ourselves through others, and the self is a porous thing, not a sealed container-(…) Americans cling desperately to their myths of self-creation, to rugged individualism, now more free-market than pioneer, and to self-help, that strange twist on do it yoursef, which turns a human being into an object that can be repaired with a toolbox and some instructions. We do not author ourselves, which is not to say that we have no agency or responsibility, but rather that becoming doesn’t escape relation.” 

From Winterson:

“When I let myself be affected by a book, I let into myself new customs and new desires. The book does not reproduce me, it re-defines me, pushes at my boundaries, shatters the palings that guard my heart. Strong texts work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists” 

“The twentieth century, in the footsepts of the nineteenth, as difficulty with the notion of art as ecstasy”

“There are plenty of Last Days signposts to persuade us that nothing is worth doing and that each one of us lives in a private nightmare occasionally relieve by temporary pleasure. Art is not a private nightmare, not even a private dream, it is a shared human connection that traces the possibilities of past and future in the whorl of now.”

“People who claim to like pictures and books will often only respond to thosep ictures and books in which they can clearly find themselves, This is ego masquerading as taste. To recognise the worth of a thing is more than recognising its worth to you.”

Some treasured gold you’ll find in unlikely places – The suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

summ

definitely not my copy, which looked as if an army of backpackers had stomped on it with the full force of their combined body and rucksacks

If you’re anything like me, you are currently slipping your 3rd cup of coffee of the day – despite it being 10.05 a.m, but I woke up early and had to do some stats, the horror! so everything is forgiven – and your hair has started self-dreadlocking on its own volition, because it does not agree with the constant changes in humidity levels I put it through. (Picture one of these bits of dry bushes flying in the Desert, like:

desert

an entirely faithful portrait of yours truly – missing the coffee cup

Well, maybe not that exactly. But if you are any-other-thing like me then you are probably fascinated with crime novels. I read them on bouts of 3 or 4 in a few days, like an addict, with the same amount of love for every sub-genre, from the Nordic noirs to the quaint English Miss Marple style, the dark and violent American thrillers, the food-obsessed and funny Italians, the metaphysical and historical meanderings of Fred Vargas (French), the Chinese, and even, recently, the Lao. Continue reading

I shall not be afraid anymore (of buying books)

I’ve just had a flash of literary kinsmanship, a true moment of realisation that I owe to the wonderful Jeanette Winterson, and which will probably reveal itself to be very dangerous for the state of my finances and bookshelves, but here it is:

I’ve been dipping in and out of Winterson’s art objects, a collection of essays on art and literature and Virginia Woolf and so much more, a collection so dense and fascinating I usually read one then pause for a few days to let it sink in. And today, the one I read is called “The psychometry of books”, and it is about book collecting. It starts: 

“Book collecting is a  obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin  of stamp-collecting, a sister or the trophy cabinet,  bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.”

How true, how perfect. I wanted to shout, to sing those lines aloud (even if that might get me transfered to the closest asylum and despite my love of the country I really don’t want to try out Cambodia”s mental health care, thank you very much). Somebody (well of course not just anybody) gets it.

I would have been content just with that,  but a bit further comes the line which I will now utter everytime I ask myself whether I should be buying more books or not:

“That is the way with books. You regret only the ones you did not buy.”

So from now on, fellow book-addicts, I shall procede without guilt and remind myself every time I feel apologetic about having bought a couple books, that first it is not really a choice, more a question of fate. And mostly, that it is the ones you don’t buy that you’ll regret. Enough said.

P.s. since it is now universally proven that it is acceptable to buy books, buy “Art objects”. You won’t regret it.

A ballet of Ghosts, corruption and sandwiches – The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill book review (#AW80Books Laos)


Books imitate life, as always, and in this case my next stop on this literal journey (see #AW80books) after Myanmar / Burma is – as in life – Laos. And what a stop. I found this book, The coroner’s lunch, while visiting a rehabilitation centre in Vientiane dedicated to victims of landmines and UXOs (Laos holding the grimm record of the most bombed contry in the world, much of it still remaining and causing casualties to this day), a very informative – and rightly depressing – centre, so when I saw they sold a series of books by Cotteril, who has been teaching and living in Laos for decades and decided that all the profits from those should go to Laos and specifically this centre, I was more than happy to  combine a good deed with the acquisition of a new books (because buying more books, when for a good cause, does not count, that is the rule!).
Anyway, I mostly expected a pleasant book and an opportunity to learn more about Lao culture. It is that, of course, but so much more:

This is a crime series, in a very light-hearted tone, with as a protagonist and main detective a 70 year old disabused coroner, Dr Siri Paiboun, who has a dry wit and a limited experience at his job but what he lacks in technical equipment and knowledge he makes for in intelligence, and with the help of a charmingly orignal team composed of a young, quick witted nurse, a morgue assistant with down syndrome and a remarkable memory, a old friend with political connections and, mostly, the spirits of the dead who find their way to his morgue table.

In a collection of small annecdotes slowly building a main mystery, navigating between party politics (this takes place just a few years after the communist revolution in Laos), international relationships with Vietnam and neighbour’s quarels with a skill that has much to do with recklessness, as he doesn’t have much to loose anymore, Dr Siri and his dry wit takes you on a tour of Laos, from the sandwich stalls in Vientiane to the Ethnic minorities of the North. 

It is both playful and informative, just about the solar oposite of the dark, brooding tones of the scandinavian thrillers I was reading a few days before, but just as fun, and, from what I’ve seen of the Lao spirit, a good representation of the philosophy of its people. 

Yet another great pick for a country, and one I would definitely recommend, and not just because it might be difficult to find other books set in Laos, so there’s not much to choose from;)

Quote: (for a sample of Dr Siri’s self depreciating tone):

“- Do you suppose it all means something?

– That we’re being left clues?

 – Perhaps.

– Then, no offense, but I fear they’ve badly overestimated us.” 

Cause you’re hot and you’re cold – reading Jo Nesbo in Myanmar  ( the Phantom, Book review)

I usually try, however much I can, to discover and read books from local authors, or about the countries I’m visiting, at least when I get there (not so much before as I feel it sometimes influences the way I’ll then experience the place, as if through the lenses of the particular author I read before coming) 

That’s why I’ve been reading two books set in Myanmar recently. But there is a particular kind of joy, as well, in reading something completely foreign to the circumstances you are into. In a way it also helps you understand the country you’re traveling in, giving you a radically different canvas to compare, helping you define it as to what it is not, just as much as what it is.
Lately, having lent my ereader to my friend, who had read all of her books (and had to wait to the next city big enough to have a second hand english/french bookshop, a tragic fate I know, and very much pity) I found myself reading one of her books. A Jo Nesbo I had not yet read (by chance), the Phantom, his last one. If you are a Scandinavian crime novel afficionado and don’t know Nesbo yet, then you are a rare thing indeed, but if just by chance you exist, Jo Nesbo is a former rock star turnrd journalist and crimes friction writer from Norway, he writes suitably dark and moody thrillers (like all the Scandinavian crime novels I know and like), that are reflections on a shifting society and gripping reads at the same time. His hero, Harry hole, is trying to cope with addiction,  his past,  his complicated love life and, if that wasn’t hard enough, a few serial killers. And everything happens under the quiet, polished and polite Norwegian society, where everybody might smile on the surface but stab you for a drug deal gone wrong in less time than it takes to say skål.
All this cold, this darkness, these repressed feelings and grim Oslo suburbs were even more fun to read about in the blazing heat, the pouring rains, the chaotic and constant noise of the Burmese cities. I would recommend the Phantom anyway -for a Nesbo it’s a particularly well done one – but even more if you can manage to buy a plane ticket just to go read it in Myanmar (well, I can meet you halfway across the globe, maybe anywhere hot and humid and definitely-not-scandinavian in its mentality), because getting caught in the plot and the dark winter in Oslo just to come back suddenly to Mandalay one hot afternoon is just about the most radically exotic experience you’ll have.

Of sin and class – only drafted:Smoke, by Dan Vyleta, book review

​The publishers of this book (at least, I’m assuming it was the publisher’s idea to do so) have been selling it as the new “Harry Potter meets his dark materials” book, ensuring – I think – that most people will be interested in reading it (so, good strategy) but also will come to it with  expectations going through the roof.

I think they must have been aware of this while coming up with teir marketing strategy, and therefore won’t feel guilty about being (maybe just a touch) over critical with it. In short, it’s not Harry Potter. It’s not His dark materials. It’s okay.

What it is, well, it is set in a fantastic version of Victorian England, where sins, or pulsions, or maybe even strong emotions, are visible as a smoke coming out of people’s bodies.

The story opens -quite masterfully – in an Eton-like boarding school, suitably dark and gloomy, where the students participate in a sort of moral tribunal (based on smoke). You meet Thomas, a boy with a dark past and even darker intensity, his friend Charlie, very posh, very proper, and a collection of somber and enigmatic headmasters. It is very victorian, thrilling and lyrical, has some of the magic of hogwarts and the premise is indeed good. 

As Christmas approaches, the boys leave school to visit Thomas’ Aunt, and go on a journey to find answers to their questions about smoke: is it really sin, is it something more, how have the richest managed to control it, and from there the novel weakens. 

Partly because it tries to be to many things at once: This world, where smoke is present, must be built and explained, with lengthly parallels and rewritings of the bible, tales of explorations to lands inhabited by various “non smoking savages”, and its political structure and class struggles must be exposed, also at lengths, all the while with a relatively fast plot (everythings happens in a week or two), filled with increasingly far fetched coincidences that beg the question “do they actually have a plan or do they just bump into each other repeatedly?” (which is the plot-level of pride and prejudice, by the way, so not allways a problem but you better have a few Elisabeth Bennet if it is the case), everything interwoven with metaphysical discourses about smoke, from every protagonist. 

I suppose, if you want to stand aside Philip Pullman’s trilogy, you should give yourself time and space to build a world. Here, there’s not enough of both. And while the central premise, smoke and its meaning, is promising, it seems overused as a plot device and “question of interest” and turns out to be everything and anything: sin, anger, passion, pulsions, it is hard to tell. You would have enough with it, but Vyleta somehow decided to add class struggles (and class privileges, and guilt) into the mix, and – as it is a YA novel – a love triangle (stereotypical, but then which love triangle isn’t), teenagers growing up and finding themselves, women who are all seductresses and mysterious (but never with the degree of complexity of Pullman’s Ms Coulter) and…, well, a lot.

So everything is sketched – there’s no time for more, and it is a shame, because it could have been better. Still, it’s a pleasant book, and it passes the time in public buses around dusty small towns in Myanmar. I could have said I didn’t ask for more, but it made me ask for a lot more, comparing itself to such giant books. Your fault, then, I’ll leave smoke and return to dust and quidditch matches. After all, I don’t need any other novel that is like those two, we are lucky enough to live in a world where they exist.

​Reader, I married him, (edited by Tracy Chevalier) book review

I’ve just read this in one sitting, on the plane over the middle East, instead of sleeping (who needs sleep). This is, as mentionned earlier in my haul, a collection of short stories about Jane Eyre, and more specifically, about the famous phrase in the book that gives the title to this collection. 

I think this is going to resonnate with any one who has read and loved Jane Eyre. It might also be worth it if you don’t know anything about Jane Eyre, I think most of the stories would be worthy as stand alone short stories, though it is almost impossible to judge how I would have felt about it not knowing anything about Jane Eyre. Something I almost wished I could do: rediscover Jane Eyre as the first time I read it. Anyway, I suppose the point is moot because I would guess the majority of people reading buying this book are Jane Eyre fans. And for you, reader, as Charlotte Bronte would say, it’s a treat. 

Some of the stories are set within the Jane Eyre universe, but told with a different perspective (from Mr Rochester: Reader, she married me, from Grace Poole), some are twists on other moments of the story (Audrey Niffeneger’s is about the relationship between Jane and her friend at the Orphanage, for example), other are retellings set at different times, different settings, or broader reflections on mariage, gender roles, and the power of the sentence, “reader, I married him”. Now, I just want to reread Jane Eyre at the light of all those new leads given by this book. I think the power of Jane Eyre always was the multitude of possible ways it fives to supposition, to interpretation: do we see a protofeminist in Jane, who decides to tell her own story, what do we see in Bertha, in Mr Rochester. And this book gives us many other openings, not definitive ones, but templates for the imagination and the rediscovery of the classic. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll happily return to Jane!

Sauntering vaguely downwards, and other hilarious considerations on the End of Days – Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, book review


​I don’t feel like doing a traditional review on that one. First, because it’s such a classic probably every one knows what it’s about. If not, well, in short, the Apocalypse is coming, according to the prophecies of a mad witch, the Antechrist (a boy called Adam) is nowhere to be found and an angel and a demon, both not knowing which side they’re on after such a long time on Earth, are trying to sort things out. 

Now, with that premise, and the combined writing of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, you may suppose it’s a fantastic book. You would be right. I re-read this a few weeks ago in the middle of the rainy bicycle trip, and had to explain why I was laughing so much in my tent, under a storm. No, not from exhaustion or as a nervous response to the army of ticks climbing up my tent. From Good omens. And because nothing I’ll manage to say about it will equal the words in it themselves, I’m just going to let them speak: (Warning, behind the hilarity and absurdity, a lot of these might actualy be very true).
“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.”
“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.” 
 “An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards.”
“Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours – he was incredibly good at it.”
“Anyway, if you stop tellin’ people it’s all sorted out afer they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive. ” 
And the most important truth of it all: “All tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.”