This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 21st century novel.
There were quite a few books I wanted to re...moreThis read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 21st century novel.
There were quite a few books I wanted to read in the 21st century category. I picked this one for several reasons, one of which being that having studied African-American literature and especially African-American women writers, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at what black women were doing in France. Second of all, the author was involved in some sort of scandal (at least that's what the press called it) for having spoken her mind on Sarkozy's election. Not exactly being a fan of the man himself, I couldn't help but sympathize. Also, it didn't hurt that it'd won the Goncourt in 2009.
Marie NDiaye is a woman of color struggling with her black inheritance (if there is such a thing). The lady was born in Pithiviers which is not too far from where I used to live in France and believe me, there's NOTHING exotic about Pithiviers. Her Senegalese father returned to his native country when she was a year old and since then, she's only seen him three times. In fact, Trois Femmes Puissantes is the only novel of hers in which she mentions Africa. Was I being prejudiced when I picked this book for the reasons mentioned above? Most certainly, and I clearly wasn't the only one (not that it makes it okay in any way, mind you!) as Marie NDiaye has often had to explain her strange situation in the face of her black inheritance and has even come up with the phrase "truncated mixity" which is quite interesting: Marie NDiaye doesn't feel that she can be referred to as African or even as mixed as there was no one to pass on any "African" knowledge or culture to her as she was growing up. It's an interesting perspective that probably deserves to be debated but I guess what it basically mean is: "I may be a black woman but my books are not all going to take place in Africa, I want to be free of your expectations in that regard, free to write what I feel like writing, Africa or no Africa"... which is fair enough and really something most black women writers could relate to, truncated inheritance or not.
At any rate, Africa or no Africa, I really enjoyed reading Trois Femmes Puissantes and I'm surprised that even winning a prestigious European literary prize doesn't mean that foreign fiction will be translated into English quickly. When I see foreign publishers struggling to match US or UK publications for fear that their readers will have gone to read the English edition instead of waiting for the translation, I'm always amazed and a bit sad to see that English speaking editors clearly do not have the same concerns.
But back to the book... Marie NDiaye's prose is quite distinctive. Having only read this one title, it's hard to know if it's her usual style or just a one-time experiment for TFP. I'm quite tempted by the former explanation possibility though. Her sentences are long, very long sometimes (I had to adapt my read-as-I-walk pace!). In fact, they're not so much sentences as stanzas at times. It nicely complements the touches of magical realism spread throughout the narrative and also highlight the poetic metaphors and recurring images that travel from one section of the novel to the next (as you might have guessed there are three sections to this book). These images sometimes echo the meaning they had in the previous section, but more often than not their meaning changes subtly. I'm especially thinking about the use of that of the bird which can translate into vengeance or a harbinger of death.
TFP revolves around three main characters: Norah who's come back to Senegal following her father's request, Fanta who's left Senegal years ago and now lives a mediocre life in France with her alienated husband, and Khady, the most touching of all three, who's forced into exile by her in-laws following the death of her husband.
All three stories reveal each woman's inner strength by showing that despite past and present circumstances, they are not altered at their core. They know who they are and what they are capable of and no father, brother, husband, child or other can change this. They give, take, love, are betrayed, break down and fall, die but deep down inside they retain their humanity.
While I had clear preference for Norah's storyline (I would really have wanted to read more of it), the book's overall strength resides in its diversity. These three stories are told in very different ways. While there are strong touches of magical realism in Norah's story and she's very concerned with other people's behavior and intentions, their perception of herself and also the past, Fanta's character is solely described through the eyes of her husband Rudy, and Khady is the most self-aware and self-sufficient character of them all although her story is quite a tragic one.
I really enjoyed reading this novel and would recommend it to anyone looking for something original, something touching and poetic but also strong and determined.(less)
This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 20th century novel.
Cecile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life w...moreThis read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 20th century novel.
Cecile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, the sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy. United by the theme of love, the writings in the "Great Loves" series span over two thousand years and vastly different worlds. Readers will be introduced to love's endlessly fascinating possibilities and extremities: romantic love, platonic love, erotic love, gay love, virginal love, adulterous love, parental love, filial love, nostalgic love, unrequited love, illicit love, not to mention lost love, twisted and obsessional love...
While I haven't totally completed this reading challenge I think Françoise Sagan might just be the greatest discovery that's come out of it! I instantly fell in love with her voice and style which have something airy, casual and nonchalant but are always precise and spot on. There's something effortless that transpires from Bonjour Tristesse, a novel she wrote at the age of 18 and which mainly focuses on the discovery of female sexuality in the fifties.
I read the whole think in one seating on the plane. Granted it's a short novel but I was quite literally glued to the page from start to finish.
Bonjour Tristesse is the story of seventeen year old Cécile who lives with her father, a widower for the past fifteen year and who indulges in women and alcohol. Together, they have fun, attend a number of parties and drink too much. It's now Summer; Cécile has failed her latest exams but isn't really bothered by it (neither seems to be her father). They've rented a villa in the South of France, right on the ocean, lazying in the sun and their nights clubbing. Cécile's father has brought along his mistress of the moment, Elsa. Days go by, and the trio seem happy and content. Cécile meets Cyril, a young man with whom she goes sailing. Their lazy bubble bursts upon the arrival of an old family friend, Anne Carsen.
Anne was a friend of Cécile's mother and when Cécile first came out of boarding school two years before, she spent the first few weeks with Anne who clothed her and made sure the girl knew how to behave in society. Anne is everything Cécile's father is not: balanced, classy, constant and also perhaps condescending at times. While Cécile clearly admires her, she's also a bit scared of her and knows that Anne's arrival marks the end of the Summer, or at least of her holidays.
To sum up the following events without giving too much away: Cécile's father grows clearly interested in Anne and his mistress Elsa is no competition for the mature and elegant woman. Elsa moves out, Cécile's father announces his engagement to Anne and the latter starts to meddle in Cécile's life, locking her in her room when she misbehaves and forcing her to study. Cécile then starts elaborating a scheme to rid herself and her father of Anne, manipulating her father, Elsa and Cyril, all to a tragic end. Throughout the novel, Cécile is clearly torn between her feelings for Anne and her longing for the easiness of her old life with her father and his many mistresses.
Several times, she tries to back out but is either too lazy to do so and in too deep to do anything about it.
I fear I may have already given too much away so will stop now. What I can say is that while there is a plot, it's Cécile's voice (the novel's told in the first person) that drove the entire novel. It made it intense intimate and striking. I can see how the novel's theme could have caused quite a scandal in the fifties when it was first published but there's nothing provoking about it as it merely voices what is there and is honest without trying too hard to be ground-breaking and thought-provoking. And it's perhaps for these very reasons that it is.
It's interesting to watch Cécile's growing feelings for Cyril, her inner conflicts and external conflicts with Anne who's really just trying to give her a bit of stability and balance and be the adult Cécile's father can't live up to be. Anne is also a woman, who's clearly fallen for Cécile's father like so many other women before her but hoping that this time, he will be able to commit and stick to his promises.
I think it's one of those novels that can easily be read over and over again at different stages in life and the reader will be sure to discover something new each time. I wonder how I would've perceived it ten years ago and if I would've enjoyed studying it in high school. It's one I highly recommend and I'll be sure to read more of this author in the coming years.(less)
This read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 17th century novel.
It's always with great pleasure that I take...moreThis read was for the 2011 French Female Writers Throughout the Ages reading challenge, 17th century novel.
It's always with great pleasure that I take these reading journeys in the past and meet these women writers that were then perceived as eccentric, mad and severely lacking virtue when all they were trying to do was live with the freedom that was only bestowed upon men.
It reminded me of my work on the fascinatingly enigmatic Margaret Cavendish and of how much I admire these women and the way they fought against the establishment no matter the cost. I certainly envy them their strength and how they were fearless in the face of alienation.
Marie-Catherine de Villedieu, born Marie-Catherine Desjardins (1640-1683), was a professional writer, one of the first French female writers to claim so. She wrote novels, plays and letters and was a pioneer in more than one aspect as Mémoires was the first fictional autobiography of its kind.
Villedieu is a pen name taken from a lover who promised to marry her before withdrawing his promise. Although, their relationship later resumed, no marriage ever took place. In fact, the young man ended up marrying someone else before dying in battle. Marie-Catherine took his name after his death. While this was quite a bold decision, what is even more surprising is that the young man's family accepted that she did so based on the multiple promises the young man had made when he was alive.
Madame de Villedieu as she is now referred to, was not notably beautiful but she seems to have benefited from a lot of freedom from a very young age. This probably encouraged her fiery temper. She was lucky enough to have a lot of connections with the world of literature and arts and became quite famous for a poem entitled Jouissance (which can be translated as "climax" or "orgasm") when she was just 18. The poem was destined to the lover who never married her and the existence of the poem was not so shocking as the fact that it had been written by a woman. As it was often the case, it seems that her bad reputation had more to do with her free spirit and her liberty of speech than anything else.
Mémoires was published between 1671 and 1674 anonymously. I'm not quite sure why given her reputation and the fact that the book contains nothing particularly scandalous, Madame de Villedieu bothered with trying to hide the fact that she had written it. The book's success was immediate and durable though it was eventually forgotten. Like so many women writers, Madame de Villedieu greatly influenced the evolution of the novel but as she didn't follow the regular norm of conduct, her legacy was unfortunately set aside.
As previously mentioned, Mémoires is a fictional autobiography, a "roman-mémoires", the first of its kind in French literature (as far as I'm aware of anyway... which should probably not count for much...). Mémoires can be easily dated as Madame de Villedieu quotes battles, cultural and many historical events. A lot of historical figures and famous people of the time also make appearances in her tales. Yet, I wouldn't regard Mémoires as a piece of historical fiction per say. It's more an account of what life was at the time: clandestine weddings, cross-dressing, life in convents, duals and trials.As far as I know, this mix of history and fiction is quite unusual for the times. Even more unusual is the idea of a memoir for an ordinary woman and not someone famous, well at least not famous for the right reasons.
Mémoires is by no means meant to be serious but entertaining and light. The main protagonist, Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, is writing her story to a female noble person she addresses as "Your Highness". From the first sentence, it appears that Henriette-Sylvie's name has been wrongly associated with certain scandals and that she is attempting to clear her name, explaining the "innocent mistakes" of her youth. Nevertheless, the aim is to please and entertain and Henriette-Sylvie has a lot of stories to tell and she is not at all as innocent as she could be... and the wonderful thing is that she makes no apologies for it, despite the novel's initial aim.
It all begins with Henriette-Sylvie's birth which is shrouded in mystery: birth on a beach, a mother's disappearance, childhood among farmers and here comes in a duke who sees something different in this child and knows she's destined for more than this. The duke places her with wealthy friends of his who have children of their own. Henriette-Sylvie grows up to be a young woman of breathtaking beauty. The one she then believes to be her father attempts to rape her when she is thirteen during a hunt. Henriette-Sylvie accidentally shots him trying to defend herself. She is then rescued by her "mother"'s lover who also falls in love with her and that is only the beginning of her adventures...
Henriette-Sylvie is not afraid of enjoying life and its multiple pleasures. Her tale is in drastic opposition to the literary inheritance of the classical age. And yet, I'm not quite sure why Madame de Villedieu chose anonymity to write this. It's been said that those who knew her and her story could easily recognize her style and aspects of her life. Mémoires is not an autobiography (well, only a fictional one) but some elements and places frequently visited do echo ones from Madame de Villedieu's life. Henriette-Sylvie is meant to be a sort of role model for women who have been accused of not being virtuous enough for their times. Though one must admit that it is hard to believe that Henriette-Sylvie is completely innocent; she does put herself in the strangest situations, and yes, she does admit to having had lovers. If there really needs to be something scandalous about the whole novel, it's probably it's total lack of guilt, but even that is drowned by the humorous aspect. Though the novel is meant to be a clarification, Henriette-Sylvie does not make any apologies for her behavior as she often depicts what courtship and what takes place around and after passion.
I really enjoyed reading this. I'm sure I didn't get all of the humor, not knowing enough of the times' lifestyle and famous figures, but I got enough to make it worth while. And so, even if you're reading this novel on a superficial level and don't really care in what ways it relates to the life of the person who wrote it, you'll enjoy it. But if you read it bearing in mind the reputation of Madame de Villedieu's, you'll enjoy it even more. Highly recommended for entertainment but also for the historical and feminist perspectives.(less)
Last Fall (yes, as always, am a bit late), it seemed you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about his short medieval fantasy novel. The author has w...moreLast Fall (yes, as always, am a bit late), it seemed you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about his short medieval fantasy novel. The author has won quite a number of French awards, been invited and interviewed on a great many podcasts and genre-related websites. The book was even mentioned on Locus! This is in and of itself very impressive, it becomes even more when you know that this is a debut novel.
So, of course, I had to read this, and I did along with two fellow bloggers Lelf and Lishbei. We set a date at which we were to have read the book and then we exchanged back and forth.
Chien du Heaume is a very powerful story that bodes well for Justine Niogret's career. It's not perfect but then, there's no such thing as a perfect novel, let alone a perfect debut novel. A taste of her dark poetic prose is well worth it and her dream-like, Gothic setting is bound to enthrall you.
Chien du Heaume is the name of her main character. A soldier, Chien [dog:] has no name that she can remember, no family since her father's death when she was still a child. All that she has is an ax, a particular one with snake-like engravings, and that she yields expertly. Chien is not your typical heroine. In fact, there's nothing heroic about her as the prologue soon reveals. She's not evil, but she is on a quest, to reclaim her identity and her name, and she lets nothing get in the way of her quest. No damsel in distress and not some sexy warrior, Chien's path will cross that of Lord Bruec who just might be able to tell her where her ax comes from and therefore where she comes from.
I'd be hard pressed to call this a fantasy novel as there are no elves, hobbits or unicorns in sight. Some fantastical elements do make their way into the narration, but they read more like metaphors. Such is the role of one mysterious knight called The Salamander who IMHO seems to be some sort of mythological figure embodying death in a broad sense; he also marks the end of an era.
Justine Niogret is clearly a specialist of the medieval period, as showed by her glossary at the end of the novel, which details and explains, in the light and humorous tone the author displays in interviews, certain medieval weapons and habits. Chien du Heaume reads more like a historical novel set in medieval times.
I've been told that in one interview, the author claimed to have constructed her novel like a series of short stories. While there is no overall plot, besides Chien's quest for her identity (yet even that seems to recede in the background), I wouldn't regard this as a short story collection centered on the same character. This is clearly a novel, even though intricate and complex plotting are not on topic here. The flow of narration follows the rhythm of everyday life in Bruec's castle: slow, not always peaceful, but far from fast-paced.
Chien du Heaume is a novel all about sensation and how Justine Niogret's poetic prose leaps of the page and translates into ghostly images of a castle lost in the mist, cruel gory battles, knights of another era and a way of life that can only be encountered in history books.
It's not a powerful novel because of the strength of its intrigue, the authenticity of its characters or the richness of its setting (though it does not lack in these categories), its power resides in the way the written word seems to come alive as the pages turn. It's easy to excuse the sometimes clumsy uses of obvious plot devices when the novel displays such literary quality.
Chien du Heaume is probably not for the die-hard fantasy fan. Or rather, it's perfect if you are willing to try something altogether different. It's a breath of fresh air that will linger like a ghost. (less)
Science fiction and erotica... um... plenty to cover here.
When I first heard about this anthology, I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, t...moreScience fiction and erotica... um... plenty to cover here.
When I first heard about this anthology, I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, this is a French anthology that contains first-time published stories by some classic science fiction French authors (Joëlle Wintrebert and Francis Berthelot), some well-established young writers such as Mélanie Fazi, Stéphane Beauverger (whose wonderful novel Le Déchronologue I reviewed a while back), Charlotte Bousquet and Sylvie Lainé, and some not entirely unknown newcomers (Norbert Merjagnan, Virginie Bétruger and illustrator Daylon).
Second, this anthology is the remarkable work of a small independent house, Les 3 Souhaits, which is the editorial offspring of the science fiction news website Actu SF. I reviewed one of their titles, Le Guide des Fées. Regards sur la Femme [A Guide to Fairies. A study of women:] last year and they really deserve to be cheered for their original and thought-provoking work and ideas. I hope they will soon have the chance to be more widely distributed. At the moment, the only way to get a hold of their books is through their website or at conventions.
As it always the case with anthologies, some stories clearly stand out and that selection tends to vary from one reader to the next. IMHO, the one which belittles all others is Joëlle Wintrebert's 'Camélions'. For a long time, Joëlle Wintrebert was France's only female science fiction writer, and I'm ashamed to admit that I've never read any of her novels though I have her novel Pollen (Au Diable Vauvert, 2002) in my to-read pile(s)... somewhere.
'Camélions' is about a human colony which gets stranded on a hostile planet and one woman who will bring down barriers and taboos, and dare make contact with the local population (who resemble human-size butterflies) at the risk of being shunned by her peers. It's a powerful and sensuous story about survival, love and betrayal. And now I really need to unearth Pollen and get to it sometime this year!
The other two stories which stood out for me were Maïa Mazaurette's 'Saturnales' and Mélanie Fazi's 'Miroir de Porcelaine'.
Maïa Mazaurette is graphic artist, writer and blogger most well-known for her blog Sexactu. I had the opportunity to meet her at the Salon du Livre in March and she is lots of fun to be around. Her novel Rien ne nous survivra is yet another title which needs to make it in my read pile this year!.
'Saturnales' takes place in a future in which sex, and especially first times, is carefully planned and involves so many artifices that there is little to nothing natural about it anymore, but pleasure is guaranteed. It's filled with the stingy humor that characterizes Maïa Mazaurette and will leave you half-smiling, half-horrified.
Mélanie Fazi ranks among my favorite short story writers. I read her short story collection Notre-Dame-aux-Ecailles about two years ago and while I had an overall uneven impression, I simply adore her lyrical and poetic style. Really, she could be retelling this morning's news that I would still find it fascinating. She is also a very talented translator. She got the Jacques Chambon award for Best Translation for her work on Graham Joyce's The Facts of Life (French title: Lignes de Vie which I reviewed here). FYI, some of Mélanie Fazi's works have been translated in English and appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror and The Third Alternative for those you who would like to check it out.
'Miroir de Porcelaine' is a dreamy (bordering on nightmarish), sensuous tale of lovers drawn apart by robots created for an artistic purpose. Well worth your time, and it won the Masterton Award 2010 - Best Short Story category.
I think the only thing lacking from this anthology is perhaps a compilation of short author bios because such an anthology could really appeal to non-genre readers who know nothing about these writers. Overall, a wonderful initiative and a thought-provoking result that I highly recommend. (less)
This is a wonderful and delightful YA read, part feminist retelling, part just plain fun. This is what Sherlock Holmes stories might have been if the...moreThis is a wonderful and delightful YA read, part feminist retelling, part just plain fun. This is what Sherlock Holmes stories might have been if the main character had been a fourteen year old girl who has trouble submitting to any kind of authority, especially that imposed by men.
I just wished there were more teenage girls reading this series than there are reading the Twilight series. Somehow, I'm sure this would make the world a better place if they identified with Enola Holmes instead of Bella Swan but enough of that.
Readers familiar with Nancy Springer know that this is not the first time this author has decided to revisit a given myth and give it a more modern and feminist angle. Robin Hood and Arthurian legends have already been dealt with by this author. It's not all that she's done of course, but I believe it takes a lot of gut and talent to pull off any kind of retelling successfully. And this first book in the Enola Holmes series was successfully executed indeed! I'm already eager to devour the others in the series (book 6 is coming out next year).
I don't want to give too much away; simply know that Enola Holmes is the younger teenage sister of the great Sherlock. She barely knows her older brother having lived isolated with her mother for most of her life. Her mother's disapearance drastically changes that and instead of being allowed to participate in the search for her mother, Enola is to be sent to a boarding school in order to learn how to become a "proper lady".
But, Enola aspires to financial independance, a life of adventure, freedom and well, general "inproperness" as far as her time's social conventions are concerned.
This is a light read you will rush through in a matter of hours it's so good!(less)
Meet the European superheroes of the fifties. This is kind of a European Watchmen but it's more than a mere ripoff, it's got enough of its own mytholo...moreMeet the European superheroes of the fifties. This is kind of a European Watchmen but it's more than a mere ripoff, it's got enough of its own mythology and imagery to stand on its own. Can't wait for the rest of the series to come out!(less)