Days have looked just like one another in March, but fortunately I've been able to travel to the end of the world and beyond thanks to books. I'm quite happy with how diverse my reading wrap-up is, even though I haven't discovered a new long-lasting favourite.
The Black Violin, by Maxence Fermine · 1999
In this very short novel, rather a novella, the author tells the fate of two men possessed by music: one is a violonist, the other a violin maker. The former dreams of composing a master opera, while the latter's dream is embodied in a black violin capable of reproducing the most beautiful voice he has ever heard.
Maxence Fermine's style is delicate, precise without ostentation. It goes straight to the point, sketching scenes as soon as they fade away. There lingers a diffuse but nice impression, thanks to the subtle blend of a touch of the fantastic in this historical fiction.
Tolkien, Race and Cultural History, by Dr Dimitra Fimi · 2008/2009
I read little non-fiction outside of my PhD research (illustrations for J.R.R. Tolkien). This one doesn't relate directly to my subject, but it is fundamental when researching Tolkien, and it was high time I read it.
This essay puts J.R.R. Tolkien in the cultural context of his time. Dr Fimi looks at folklore, languages and the relation between myth and history in a delightfully accessible manner. Her book is both firmly based on academic research, *and* enjoyable to read for the simplicity with which it puts forth interesting considerations. Despite starting my PhD 4 years and a half ago (gasp), I still struggle with some non-fiction, especially the one written in French, which I often find hard to grasp (some French academics enjoy hiding their ideas behind big words and intricate wording). On the contrary, this book felt almost like Dr Fimi was explaining things to me in a conversation. Having read many articles on J.R.R. Tolkien, I now realize how many of them stemmed from ideas presented here. I'd say it's a very good starting point for anyone wanting to dip their toes into scholarship regarding Tolkien.
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, by Zen Cho · 2012
Jade, or rather Geok Huay, is a young Chinese woman in 1920's multicultural London, eeking out a life as a writer of women magazine columns and literary reviews, until one day her path crosses that of the famous author of the moment whose book she has just written a scathing review of...
This novella was a lot of fun, with a diverse cast of characters (both in terms of origin & sexuality). The narrator tells her adventures in her journal, and her witticisms reminded me of I Capture the Castle (a book I adore). One thing that really threw me off, I'd rather point out, is the very graphic sex scene. I wish, given that the narrator tells the story retrospectively, that that scene had been put a little more into context rather than being thrown at the reader like that. Apart from this, there were interesting character dynamics, and a lot of themes packed into this quick story, including a distinction between romantic and sexual attraction which was quite welcome.
Rep : Chinese MC, Indian secondary character, lesbian secondary character.
CW: sexual content, mental illness, possible assault (depending on how you read it).
The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien · 1955
Some things do not change. That ending still breaks my heart.
These words by Gandalf felt particularly welcome during this re-read:
"Courage will now be your best defence against the storm that is at hand - that and such hope as I bring."
The Bone People, by Keri Hulme · 1984
I started writing a blurb for this book but I couldn't put my finger on the atmosphere. How to describe something that is so dark, so poetic but also so mundane? The Bone People is a sneaky book. It starts quite lyrical, lures you in with the author's very unique way with words, and slowly lets darkness seep in until you can't stop reading but you're increasingly disturbed by what you discover. This is a harrowing, harrowing book. It's mostly about the peculiar relation between the three main characters - reclusive artist Kerewin Holmes, the boy who meets her and disrupts her world, and the boy's father Joe who is capable of the most tender fatherly love and the most excruciating violence. These three humans gravitate towards each other, staying at arm's length or coming dangerously close to one another.
The author's Maori culture shines through, seeping into words and sentences to add a glint here, a depth there.
Rep: aro/ace MC.
CW: child abuse, suicidal thoughts, mental illness, alcoholism. Mentions of cannibalism, cancer.
L'Imprudence, by Loo Hui Phang · 2020
This short, intensely sensitive novel draws the portrait that the nameless narrator tells her brother. The autobiographic nature of the text is never far, when you realise how close the author's journey is from her narrator, torn between Vietnam, Laos and France, where she never quite belongs. She is too Vietnamese to be French, too European to be Vietnamese, and she explore these different facets of herself starting with her relation to her body, in particular her body in the transient relationships she weaves with strangers. She stages herself, observing her intercourse with a detachment that is not as cold as it seems at first, and constantly avoids voyeurism. She also probes the relationships with each member of her family, when they go back together to her childhood town. There, she faces once more the gap between the different fragments that make her.
Despite how prominent discussions about sex were, and how put-off they usually make me feel, I thought this was a very subtle novel. The delicate prose unfolds throughout the pages, becoming more and more emotional as the narrator gathers around her her different identities and puts them on like a coat. In any other novel, the way she defines herself through a male gaze would have exasperated me, but here it felt like a portrait in hollows and reliefs drawing the contours of a torn personnality. The narrator doesn't satisfy herself with a self-centered contemplation. She also echoes the colonial history of her three countries, and the indelible stain France left on countries and bodies.
CW: sexual content, racism, death of a parent, grief. Mention of cancer.
Il est juste que les forts soient frappés, by Thibault Bérard · 2020
CW: book about cancer & death.
Here is a book that announces its subject head-on. Its narrator, Sarah, is dead and tells the reader her last years.
In literature, there is one kind of book that makes me cry almost every time - "hospital stories" as I call them. The ones in which characters die before their time, swept by an illness against which they rage and brace. This book is one of them, and I knew it as I opened it. I wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been shortlisted for a competition at my local library. I think I unconsciously decided from page 1 not to invest myself emotionnally in the characters, knowing where the narrative was leading them. Eventually, it wasn't that hard, because notwithstanding the shell I'd built, this book didn't touch me as much as it could have.
The writing style, first, is quite oral, which I don't particularly enjoy in written format. Then, I thought the narration lacked subtelty. Underneath the first layer, it's riddled with ableism and heteronormativity, words I didn't know a year ago but that I learn to recognise when I encounter them. All those hints that there are strong people on one side and weak people on the other, that the narrator's companion, Théo, repeat condescendingly as an armour against sorrow. That all relation between two people is necessarily heterosexual and that it must end in a nice family with smiling children. That it's not that bad if Théo cheats on his dying companion because you know, he's sad. I don't know if it's my own armour against this tear-jerking narrative that made me react that way and see problems where there may not have been. I think I wouldn't have read this book if it hadn't been in my library's selection, and perhaps it would have been ok.
CW : ableism, cancer, death, grief, infidelity, medical content, suicidal thoughts, terminal illness.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams · 1979
In my science-fiction-reading quest, I couldn't really escape reading at least the first tome of Douglas Adams' cult series. Sadly, it wasn't the book for me. I do enjoy a bit of absurd humour now and then, but if it isn't backed with characters I care for, or a pleasant writing style, I quickly get bored. I think a large part of the problem I had comes from the translation. I could feel the original text was challenging to translate, and I'm not blaming the translator at all because humour is probably the most difficult thing to get from one language to another, with poetry.
CW: I didn't notice any content warning in this book, so I hope I'm not mistaken in saying it's safe!
After the King : Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Martin Greenberg · 1992
I've always seen this vintage paperback on the family shelves. No one remember exactly how it arrived there. The name "Tolkien" probably is a clue, although the book has little to do with him beyond the short but well-written introduction by Jane Yolen. And that's one of the two reproaches I have with this book. It feels like the editor was so afraid a short story collection wouldn't sell, that he put the name of J.R.R. Tolkien on the cover. While some of the stories play with Tolkienian themes, most of them only have the genre of fantasy in common. I enjoyed the short story by Terry Pratchett a lot, and a couple of others were pleasant enough, but the majority was so blatantly sexist it made the enjoyment difficult.
CW : mention of rape & suicide in the next part of my review.
I only kept reading in the hope the next story would prove better. For instance, it's the first time I read Stephen Donaldson's prose, but I was not impressed. I do hope I missed something, because having the heroic figure of his story (a man, do I need to make that clear?) ask a woman who has been raped why she hasn't killed herself, deeply, deeply shocked me, especially when this question wasn't challenged. It tainted the whole collection to me. Several of the other stories had rampant sexism like having the woman in a group take care of the children, or have to be saved. Finally, most of the stories didn't feel particularly original!
Well, this one won't be taking space much longer on my shelves.
CW: child death, domestic abuse, kidnapping, misogyny, murder, rape, sexism, sexual violence, torture, toxic relationship.
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What did you read in March?