Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

290897Blurb:

Set against the translucent beauty of France in summer, Bonjour Tristesse is a bittersweet tale narrated by Cécile, a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink of womanhood, whose meddling in her father’s love life leads to tragic consequences.

Freed from boarding school, Cécile lives in unchecked enjoyment with her youngish, widowed father — an affectionate rogue, dissolute and promiscuous. Having accepted the constantly changing women in his life, Cécile pursues a sexual conquest of her own with a “tall and almost beautiful” law student. Then, a new woman appears in her father’s life. Feeling threatened but empowered, Cécile sets in motion a devastating plan that claims a surprising victim.

Deceptively simple in structure, Bonjour Tristesse is a complex and beautifully composed portrait of casual amorality and a young woman’s desperate attempt to understand and control the world around her.

Review:

I was lying in the sand, taking a handful of it in my hand, letting it flow from my fingers in a soft, yellowy stream. I was thinking that it was flowing away like time, which was a simple idea and that it was pleasant to have simple ideas. It was summer.

A rich, liberated young French girl lives in a villa on the Riviera for the summer with her lothario father and his woman of the moment. Her days are spent sunbathing, swimming, walking in the countryside, visiting fashionable somebodies in trendy bars, eating, drinking and drinking, wanting love, not understanding love, but most of all and always, not thinking. Her days are full of not thinking. That is to say Cécile’s days are not full at all. So when the arrival of Anne, a cold but brilliant Parisian, usurps her father’s attentions, pulling him away from pert 20-somethings and into the halls of potential matrimony, Cécile begins to plot.

The halcyon summer days on the Mediterranean, full of nothing and everything at the same time, represent Cécile’s fading childhood. At 17 she will soon become a person, and eventually a person will want to think, and eventually these thoughts, if unwieldy and untested, will destroy. And afterwards, there will no longer be a villa on the Mediterranean, or there might be, but it will be filled with tristesse, that is, sadness.

Cécile boils up a plan worthy of a third Parent Trap movie to separate her father from Anne. But at the very beginning of her machinations, she already regrets them. The relationship dynamics here are rich and confusing. There’s definitely an Oedipus complex happening here: Cécile’s father dates women not much older than her, and Cécile idolizes him, takes his advice on love as gospel, aspires to love like him…maybe because she’s in love with him? Her competitor to this crown is, of course, Anne, whom she simultaneously admires beyond belief, indeed hopes to imitate and learn from, and wants to annihilate.

There are plenty of subtly romantic moments between all the characters, the most stirring of which a mere caress of Cécile’s face by Anne on the patio. The story devolves like a match of tug-of-war that will inevitably be lost. Cécile is on the cusp of liberty and meaningfulness and thought, on the verge of adulthood. She pushes herself forward and pulls herself backward, but she will definitely fall into the future, she will definitely hurt herself there, and she definitely cannot go back.

In Bonjour Tristesse she says hello to the loss of innocence but in this short, sharp little novella, also leaves a beautiful remembrance of losing it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

47780Blurb:
Prize-winning author Anna Gavalda has galvanized the literary world with an exquisite genius for storytelling. Here, in her epic new novel of intimate lives-and filled with the “humanity and wit” (Marie Claire) that has made it a bestselling sensation in France-Gavalda explores the twists of fate that connect four people in Paris. Comprised of a starving artist, her shy, aristocratic neighbor, his obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother, this curious, damaged quartet may be hopeless apart, but together, they may just be able to face the world.
Review:
Anna Gavalda has a wonderfully infuriating way of writing like so…
Making your eyes flitter down the page.
Making your heart bat harder with each revelation.
Until she concludes a thought.
Like this.
With oh-so-much meaning.

Her writing is more alive than most, an especially impressive feat since I’ve read her work in French, not English, and I lose myself and die a thousand readerly deaths much more often when reading in French. But her words flow inevitably forward. If, as many authors have proclaimed, the goal of a writer is to get the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next, Anna Gavalda is nothing short of a genius. Myself and others may be tempted to label this short, direct style as cutesy and simplistic, but it’s gosh darn compelling, if we’re being frank.

Less compelling, however, is the story behind the words. We have a nearly plotless novel here; all that happens is outlined in the blurb, apparent from the initial chapters, and fated by the gods of storytelling. Nothing much occurs and what does occur does not surprise. The four characters–a ragtag team beaten by the world who will find happiness in their shared ruins and slowly rebuild each other–are terrific sketches, but what they do is nowhere near as passionate as Gavalda’s prose. I’ve only previously read Gavalda’s slam-dunk short story collection, I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere, which hides this weakness of hers. Petite novelettes are perfect for her character-centric writing; this novel of nearly 600 pages was vast and vacant, the winds of disinterest blew through its empty and tired intrigues.

And yet.
That writing.
Heavy on punctuation, on labelling feelings, on fragmenting thoughts.
It pulled me through.

(I’ll stop now.)

But this pathetic attempt at imitation shows how much her words tumbled and scattered in my brain. Gavalda might not tell the stories that I want to read, but she tells them in the way I want to read them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

22725443Blurb:

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back.

Review:

I propose a new rule for the 21st century, for this bright new era where mental illness is less stigmatized and your grandmother has a therapist, your 6th grade teacher has a therapist, even your 5 year-old neighbor has a therapist: can we please never ever discuss what your therapist tells you? Can the patient and wise words of your psychoanalyst live in the space between her mouth and your eager, desperate brain?

Listening to someone talk about therapy is the new listening to someone talk about her dreams. So much utter nonsense that I just can’t be bothered by. Pity that the character who has second-billing to Anna Benz, a Swiss and second millenium Madame Bovary, is Doktor Messerli, her therapist. Doktor Messerli has developed her entire methodology from Freud and Jung, which means to say everything she says is a load of abstract navelgazing with no real purchase on her patient’s inner life. Unfortunately this novel, which records the rapidly unraveling affairs of lonely, passive Anna, is positively graffited with short psychoanalyst asides:

The face one wears as an adult is a mask that’s cut to fit in her youth. Every mask becomes a death mask when you can no longer put it on or take it off at will. When you mistake the persona you project for your living soul. When you can no more distinguish between the two.

I hate thinking so much about thinking. It makes my pulse gallop. Psychoanalysis of this sort (and it truly does occur and recur every few pages throughout the book) is a web from which you cannot escape. This constant analysis of Anna’s character by Doktor Messerli (who is, of course, nothing more than an authorial stand-in, a god in the sky to push the story, and more particularly, the story’s “themes” along) is professional and sanitized and incomprehensible, which renders any readerly attempt of analyzing Anna’s character cloudy. I spent most of this book stuck in a web of outdated Jungian aphorisms, leading me to groan, “Save me from all this thought so that I can actuallythink!”My mother, daughter of a German father and an American mother, often yelled when my father and us children demanded some domestic task of her, “I’m not your Hausfrau!” Anna lacks my mother’s vivacious ability to act, to exclaim, to deny, leading her to become a Hausfrau. Like Anna Kareninabefore her, Anna’s femininity translates to passivity, and her passivity translates to doom. Anna can’t speak Swiss German, despite living in Zürich for 9 years. Culturally removed, she can’t make friends. Without a bank account of her own, she can’t leave her husband. Quite basically, she lacks a vocabulary—linguistic and psychological—to get what she wants, even todecide what she wants. Anna simply can’t. And she knows it:

I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct.

Anna’s passionate about her misery. But at a certain point even her misery becomes too much. She can no longer passively accept life; she must live. Observing these consequences is where the novel excels.

Choppy, meandering, spliced with unnecessary asides on Swiss German grammar and silly scientificating about the properties of fire, and, of course, plenty of falsely opaque psychoanalyses,Hausfrau is flawed and frustrating. But it’s believable, crushingly so, and incredible to realize that an American woman living in Switzerland in the 2000s may not be so different from Anna Karenina and the 19th century Russian ballrooms she called home and prison.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

186074Blurb:

Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.

Review:

In the strangest corners lurk the most surprising discoveries. Who knew I’d find a veritable nominee for most insufferable literary character of all time in a 2007 fantasy novel? Take these three examples, words spoken by Kvothe, a magician wunderkind:

Here, talking to a professor, he compares himself to his classmates:

Master Kilvin, I am better. I learn faster. I work harder. My hands are more nimble. My mind is more curious. However, I also expect you know this for yourself without my telling you.

Here, talking to his love-interest, he tries to woo by dripping condescension:

”If someone found a loden-stone made of brass would it be like other brass?”

“Maybe it would be like copper and zinc,” I said. “That’s what brass is made of.”

Word of advice, love interest, run to the freaking hills.

And again, what a loveable scamp Kvothe is, condescending once more to the girl he wants desperately to impress:

“But if one of us jumped off a roof, we’d get hurt because we’re heavier. It makes sense that bigger things fall even harder.”

She was right, of course. She was talking about the square-cube ratio, though she didn’t know what to call it.

A wonderful neologism has emerged in the past few years: “mansplaining,” i.e., when a man condescends, often unconsciously, to a woman because a concept is just too difficult or too important for her to wrap her pretty mind around. Kvothe is a mansplainer supreme, to be sure, but his condescension is not gender-choosy: he will be insufferable to anyone, though for him it’s not being insufferable, he’s just being Kvothe; sorry he happens to know everything!

I liked this book in spite of its protagonist. For fantasy fare, it serves up all the staples with gusto: minstrel songs, magical school, dragons, mysterious villains, warring nobles, journeys by foot or by horse, drinking ale in inns…you know, the regular. This is the first book in a planned three-part series, and in classic fantasy style, it discusses the protagonist’s quest.

Nothing excites me more than the word quest. Those five letters promise so much epicness, so many trials and so many tribulations, so much work in pursuit of an ideal ending. In short, a quest promises a story. The story presented here deserves the term quest. It spans centuries and inspires legends. However: is it really a quest if everything comes easy to the quester? If nothing is worked for—or maybe the quester must work a little bit, but his work is guaranteed to work out for him? Kvothe has no weaknesses. Sure the book discusses his poverty and his youth as barriers to success but poverty and youth aren’t true weaknesses! These are circumstances, not qualities. A weakness is arrogance. A weakness is stubbornness. A weakness is rudeness and condescension. Kvothe embodies all these weaknesses, and yet, the book acknowledges them as pluses, not character flaws.

Two books remain, so we shall see if Kvothe’s weaknesses are exposed for what they really are. But I doubt it, mostly because of Patrick Rothfuss’ interesting narrative choice: aside from a few brief intermissions, Kvothe is telling the story. He is in charge of what is presented and how he is depicted. I’ll be back for book two eventually to see if he learns (and it should be easy for him with that big enormous brain of his!) that refusing to accept any personal flaws makes someone perhaps the most flawed individual he can possibly be.

 

3.5ish stars out of 5?

Review: A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil by Jane Bussmann

18264396Blurb:

After scriptwriter Jane Bussmann moves to Hollywood, she realizes her day job interviewing celebrities sucks. She goes to Africa in search of a dreamy activist and ends up uncovering Joseph Kony’s crimes.

Review:

This is an occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious book about genocide and the mass kidnappings and rape of tens of thousands of Ugandan children. If you’re still with me after that description, know that it’s also about well-intentioned but misguided Western governmental interference in African affairs, a Useless Person learning how to become Useful, and Ashton Kutcher.

Clearly it’s a bit piecemeal, a collage of assorted ideas with ragged edges sewn together. But its main conceit is Jane Bussmann, celebrity journalist, can barely stop herself from committing suicide mid-interview with Ashton Kutcher, immensely idiotic but almost universally praised actor, and thus decides to pursue real journalism. She tricks her way to Uganda by pretending to be a foreign correspondent and not the author of “Nicole Richie’s Sexy Summer Bikini Bod!” and tries to blow the whistle on Joseph Kony, the leader of a militant Ugandan rebel group that kidnaps children to serve as wives and soldiers, before discovering that the situation is much more complex than simply painting Kony as the “Most Evil Man in the World.”

Here’s the thing: Jane’s background in humor writing and celebrity journalism both makes and breaks this story. Jane is a self-deprecating reader stand-in. She’s just as unknowing as most of us on these topics, just as shocked, and just as horrified that she, as well as nobody else, is doing anything about it. Her affable ignorance excuses our own ignorance while her visceral reaction against what she learns prods us to learn more too. But I think this book was also intended to be read as a decent exposé of Kony and what the Ugandan government may or may not be doing to help prop his rebel regime up. And as far as that goes, Jane fails. She lacks the geopolitical background to tell a cohesive narrative about how Kony came to power and how he’s managed to stay in power so long. She’s able to identify a problem and say, “Hey, hey! That’s not right!” (more than most people in the world, who, willfully or will-lessly, are content to be blind) but she can’t explain how it came to be problematic and possible solutions for it to no longer be problematic.

But honestly if reading about dreadful war crimes and the inefficient meddling of Western charities and governments combatting them was always this fun, I think the general human population would be much more informed about various atrocities occurring throughout the world. And yeah yeah, I hear ya, being “informed” doesn’t necessarily lead to meaningful change, but it’s a start. We may live in what Jane calls “The Golden Age of Stupid,” but I still believe that most of us are compassionate people. Often things that are entertaining are considered unworthy of serious attention. Yet Jane has written an entertaining book about a serious subject, and it’s an approach I’d like to see more of.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

2807199Blurb:

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House–and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

Review:

Much like the protagonists of her novels American Wife and Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld, and her writing, are interesting, though interesting in a very quiet way. On the surface her work is unassuming: a charming combination of chick-lit and literary fiction. But after finishing American Wife I believe her work is more complicated than it initially appears. Sittenfeld doesn’t commit to telling the most thrilling story but she does commit to respectfully recording the mundane events of a mundane person’s mundane daily life—and as a result, she shows that no one’s life is truly mundane.

I have so much love for this unshowy style. So often I feel deafened by how loud people are yelling to get their voices heard in today’s world. But I can count on Sittenfeld for small but poignant renderings of unremarkable girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately in American Wife, she loses the essence of her story. Instead of always magnifying on Alice, the unabashedly normal Midwestern girl who will remarkably become First Lady of the United States, the story focuses too much on Charlie, her husband and future Leader of the Free World. This broader scope weakens the novel because sometimes it doesn’t feel like Alice’s story but merely a story in which she plays a large role.

Alice’s character is based on Laura Bush (indeed, my post-reading Wikipedia research shows that Ms. Bush inspired this novel a lot); thus her husband is modeled on the infamous George W. Bush. Unfortunately, it follows the Bush saga too closely. I would have preferred a simple fictional vivisection of First Lady life because the similarities to real life were eerie and distracting. It was impossible to view the characters as merely fictional creatures; I kept seeing Alice as Alice-cum-Laura Bush and Charlie as Charlie-cum-Mr. President-George W. Bush.

Like her debut novel Prep, American Wife is a lesson in passivity. It’s a very feminist book without proclaiming itself as such, suggesting that the people who might best lead a country—in this case, women: whose inferior position has taught them compassion—will never run a campaign for that very reason. We also see, again, how being white, rich and male in America can grant you your every wish. Conversely we see how fundamentally unfair it is to be a wife. A wife compromises herself for love; she repeatedly bends her wishes to accommodate her husband. The opposite is never true, however.

But most of all, Sittenfeld teaches us to respect complexity. Contradictions—within a country, within a family, within ourselves—are inevitable. In her quiet way, she doesn’t advocate a solution to these contradictions. She doesn’t take a position. She simply points her finger towards mundanely complex things we see everyday and never notice. How wonderful it is to notice them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

7728889Blurb:

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City–and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult–also known as “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.”

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer–if he doesn’t catch her first

Review:

The Diviners in a single word: atmospheric.

Although this book is ostensibly about a serial killer and a group of teenagers with supernatural talents, it’s really about the 1920s, more specifically, the Roaring Twenties in New York City, USA. The Diviners doesn’t exist outside of this setting; or maybe it would, but it would be a much different and greatly inferior story because of it. The time period becomes a character itself in this novel, and the primary conflict of the story—the efforts of a hip, young group of supernatural detectives to apprehend an ancient killer called Naughty John—can actually be reduced to a historical conflict marking this era, the dissonance between progress and tradition. Naughty John, and many people in this period, view the future as a forbidding place full of sin while our heroine Evie and her teenaged friends embrace the prospect of limitless progress. Masterfully, Bray refuses to favor one side of this conflict over the other. While the old-fashioned ways supported by Naughty John are clearly incorrect, the progress heralded by the youth is wrong as well, as evinced by Bray’s inclusion of a eugenics movement side plot. Bray perfectly juxtaposes these two belief systems and captures the mood marking their division.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for its exploration of the aforementioned theme, but there are still a few flaws, mostly flaws of excess. There are too many characters, all of them terribly interesting, but besides Evie, I never knew whose story this was. It jumped around, and when it seemed that Bray would finally unite her characters, it was a false alarm. Bray was such a tease in a way, introducing a character with an intriguing backstory and then never discussing him or her again. Bray’s other crime of gratuitousness is the length of this tome. It’s LONG, much too LONG. In particular, as I neared the end, all I wanted was a climax. Finally, hark a climax appears! but then I had to suffer through interminable pages of denouement. I would’ve appreciated a good curtailing; there are a ton of ideas and characters and mythologies crammed in this book, and at times, it was simply too much.

Despite these flaws, I’m totally invested in this world and cannot wait for the sequel. Even though I know I’ll forget many of the finer plot details and minor characters, this read will persist for a while because of the general feeling it evoked in me. Featuring both gorgeous, authentic language—which many reviewers complained of being over-the-top but I found perfectly suitable; where else could I learn the slang term “elephant’s eyebrows”?—and the glamorous ambience of this historical era, The Diviners, in a somewhat oxymoronic fashion, both romanticizes and realistically represents New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

Readalikes: The nonfiction novel The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, which examines the work of a serial killer during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Creepy and cool, it captures the same discordance between tradition and progress.

3.5 stars