The second full month of lockdown in France was rich in reading time for me. I dipped into many different genres and discovered a new favourite along the way.
Notre-Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo
In the exploration of the biggest books on my TBR, I dived into another 19th-century classic. I was looking forward, in Notre-Dame de Paris, to the stunningly poetic prose I had enjoyed years ago in The Man Who Laughs, also by Victor Hugo (in which I'd happily skipped the endless political digressions). Well, unfortunately, I didn't enjoy this one. At all. I was determined to finish it, but I kept looking at the page number and that's never a good sign.
In Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo wants to give the readers an overview of 15th-century Paris in all its dimensions. The story of the hunchback & Esmeralda is just one part of his plan. Even though I knew I didn't end well, I wasn't prepared for such a story. Spoilers ahead (but if it can save you some reading time, all the better)! Esmeralda is a 16-year-old woman trying to survive by dancing and singing in the streets. All the men of the story fall under her spell, including Quasimodo, about whom Hugo writes black-on-white that he's a monster and that his physical difformities are the reason for his wickedness (hello James Bond villain). I don't need to tell you how sick that made me feel. Frollo, enthralled by Esmeralda, tries to abduct her with the help of Quasimodo. Later in the story, Esmeralda (who just escaped being raped) is arrested and condemned for murdering the captain. In prison, Frollo comes to visit her and proceeds to tell her to shut up while he explains how miserable he is. Things don't improve for Esmeralda who basically goes through hell because men can't restrain themsleves and keep trying to claim her as their own. In the end, I couldn't even tell if this book was the most sexist I'd ever read or if it was a masterful portrait of men driven to madness.
Moral of the story: keep to the Disney version. And thanks for attending another one of my Ted Talks.
The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor
Somehow, each tome in Okorafor's Binti trilogy is a writing masterclass in itself. The first one was only a hundred pages long, but it packed as much as some 300-page volumes. The second drew on the same fertile soil and made me feel closer to Binti as a character, while still surprising me. The third one expanded the story even more, which I hadn't thought was possible. It went from surprise to surprise without loosing its strength, and was as inclusive, diverse and fast-paced as the first two. It did feel a bit repetitive in its structure, but what a great trilogy! I'm glad I ventured again into the realm of Sci-fi.
The Reader on the 6.27, by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent
Guylain Vignolles works in a factory where unsold books are destroyed and made into paper paste. Every once in a while, the machine needs to be cleaned, and from its iron jaws Guylain manages to salvage a few pages that have come loose from their binding. Every morning, in his 6.27 train, he reads a few of them to his fellow commuters
This book charmed me almost from the start. It is told in a fairy tale tone that brought a smile to my lips even considering the daily - even dreary - atmosphere of the story. It would be hard to point out exactly what did it - perhaps the writing style, when the author describes mundane things with a touch of extravagance. The cast helped, too. Guylain himself was a little tricky to grasp, but his flamboyant friends and the people he meets are a delight to read about. Not all of it was perfect (I sensed a tiny but fierce streak of fatphobia that did not agree with me), but the overall impression it left me was that of movies such as Les Emotifs Anonymes (Romantics Anonymous) or This Beautiful Fantastic (I can never thank you enough my friend Kimberly from Lacelit for making me discover this gem), which cast a fresh, enchanted light on day-to-day narratives.
The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
At last a feminist story from the 19th century! My short foray into 19th-century fiction wasn't that successful in terms of peace of mind (Little Women and Notre-Dame de Paris, while complety unrelated, both made me quite angry), so I was delighted to read this short but dense, stream-of-consciousness short story published in 1892. The narrator is a woman spending her vacations in a rented house with her husband. While he, as a doctor, advises her to get plenty of rest, she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper covering the walls of the nursery they're sleeping in. What I loved about this story is that it offered no clear explanation of what was happening, making it possible for the readers to interpret it as they wish. Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the psyche of her narrator, giving voice to someone her husband regards as "hysterical".
Edit: after writing this review I had a quick look at the author's life, and it turns out she had deeply problematic opinions about African Americans. I just wanted to acknowledge that. There are several articles on the subject you can find really easily online.
The Binding, by Bridget Collins
Re-reading a favourite book is often a bit of an adventure. I can't help but fear that a story won't live up to my past enjoyment of it, that I'll discover something I hadn't noticed before which will stain it irremediably. Last year, I considered The Binding one of my two favourite books of 2019. Recently, I've been taking a look at new reviews of the book and people have explained very convincingly why they had trouble with it. I understood their grudges so I thought I wasn't going to like The Binding as much as last year. Well, I did. There is such an atmosphere in this book that simply draws me in. The first third is pure delight - not much happens, but there is a lot of noticing how the light changes throughout the day, a lot of unanswered questions, of learning a craft and quite a lot of mystery. I thought the book could end there and I'd be happy. Then the second part rolled in and I fell head over heels for the relationship between the characters. The third part was more fast-paced and I missed one of the characters, but I had a great time anyway.
So all in all, I understand that it's not a perfect book, but I love it to bits. And I'm excited for Bridget Collins's new book, The Betrayals!
The Great Gatsby, by Francis Scott Fitzgerald
Read this book. Liked it.
Do you ever read book that fails to leave any impression on you? It happened to me with this one. It is so famous I had expected to be surprised by either the story or the narrative style, but I must have too limited experience with books of that period to notice it. I enjoyed the character study, and really appreciated that it was an outsider who told the story. Other than that, I don't have a lot to say!
The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim
Out of all the books I've read during lockdown in France, I think this one has been the most perfect. Four ladies meet via an ad in a newspaper and decide to spend a month in a castle in Italy though none of them has ever set foot there.
There was just the right amount of British extravagance to balance the minute character study and the thoughts, sometimes frivolous, sometimes deep, each woman has in their turn. I wrote down many touching considerations I could totally relate to, however different I felt from these ladies. This is a book I know I'll re-read many times, and I'm happy to have found a new favourite.
Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project
This free ebook brings together 11 very short stories written by women authors of all backgrounds and identities. They range from sci-fi to fantasy to myth retellings, which should make sure you find one you like!
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What did you read in May?