Young, lovely and local: Sophie Divry and Michelle Bailat-Jones

You may think it’s shallow to judge books by the author pictures. Yes, it is, and, luckily for most authors (myself included), I don’t.  Until I come across two women writers who seem to have talent, looks and youth all on their side. Furthermore, they each live about an hour’s drive away from me. Let’s hope that there’s something in the local water – to improve my talent too, as age and beauty are beyond repair…

sophiedivrySophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain (When the Devil Came Out of the Bathroom)

Sophie Divry has caught the imagination of the English-speaking reading public too, with a translation of her first book ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’. That was a charming story of a lovelorn librarian and her passion for books and the arts more generally.

This is her fourth novel, as yet untranslated in English, and the story seems to be more anchored in present-day reality. And a drab reality it is too: we hear of the trials and tribulations of an educated young jobseeker (also called Sophie) in Lyon, who is trying to write a book and make ends meet by doing little odd jobs which pay late, and then cause her unemployment benefit to be stopped temporarily. Meanwhile, she tries to make the right (i.e. filling) choices in the supermarket when all she has left is 17.70 euros, sends off job applications, fills in forms, goes to the jobcentre, sells off her toaster and her books, fends off cold callers and tries to reason with bureaucrats.

Of course, this being Divry, the realism is tempered with some surreal touches. Sophie has conversations with Lorchus, her personal demon and the devil of the title, who tries to encourage her to steal or become a drug dealer or attack someone to rob them.

You need to make a choice, my dear. You’re either on the side of the winners, always emerging victorious, or else on the side of bacteria, crying over every bill and moulding away a little every day. Rethink your values. Free yourself. Honesty, sharing, sobriety – that’s all chicken poop. Are you going to listen to your Mum all your life? [my translation]

Meanwhile, her large family in the south of France are less than helpful (not that she wants to confide in them about her troubles), nor is her friend Hector, who is obsessed with the pursuit of the unattainable Belinda. Nothing much happens really: we just follow Sophie’s daily life, her anxieties, her frequently very funny rants about contemporary French society and its failings.

lediabledivryThere is a faint glimmer of Virginie Despentes in Divry, not just because of the similarities in subject matter. Divry has less realism and more of a touch of Russian fantasy (I was thinking of Bulgakov throughout). I liked the way the characters intervened, demanded to play a bigger part, how the devil draws provocative pictures in the book, how she tries to get her revenge on him and her friend Hector. There is a tongue-in-cheek postmodern satire here which is rather delightful.

However, I found the writing style annoying at times: too much of an essay or a personal rant. The long enumerations – of how her family talks, what they eat, the men she doesn’t like, the list of anxieties in the supermarket – can be an amusing device and very effective the first time it is used, but when it’s constantly repeated throughout the book, it becomes just a lazy technique. The end was very abrupt and unsatisfactory as well, and the bonus material at the end did nothing to remedy that. However, there was something about the mix of candid depiction of poverty and rampant imagination which did appeal to me. I will be reading more of this author (I still haven’t read her first book, and have heard good things about La condition pavillonaire), and I am sure she will get better and better.

Michelle Bailat-Jones in Lausanne
Michelle Bailat-Jones in Lausanne

Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountain

One writer who already seems at the height of her powers is Michelle. Disclosure moment here: I know Michelle personally, and that usually puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will I lose a friend if I don’t ‘love’ the book? How can I be honest about a book for other future readers without offending a friend by not giving them five stars? And if I gush, will people think I am biased and disregard my review?

Well, all I can say is that this debut novel made me cry. It did help that I was in Japan in a typhoon at the time – and the story is set in Japan just before and during a great storm. But it’s a moving and beautifully-written story no matter where or when you read it.

South African expat Alec has been living in a small town in the fog-shrouded mountains on the southernmost tip of Kyūshū for several decades. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer and this is in fact the story of how each member of his family – and he himself – cope with the news. Alec’s devoted Japanese wife Kanae is normally ‘a woman who keeps her promises’, but she has an unexpectedly visceral and panicked reaction to her husband’s illness. He ‘is going to leave her behind’, she repeats to herself, and her rage and denial make her run away and behave in uncharacteristic ways, which she later regrets. Some readers complain that Kanae is thoroughly selfish and unlikeable, but grief strikes each one of us in such extreme ways. Only people with no compassion or imagination can condemn her (even though I feel very sorry for Alec).

fogislandThen Alec sneaks out of the hospital and everyone fears the worst: that he has gone off to commit suicide. With a tropical storm ready to hit the island, Kanae and Alec mount a desperate search for each other, scanning their memories and searching out their favourite spots, all the places that have hidden meaning for them, always just narrowly missing each other. Along the way, they remember their great love, a love from which their children have sometimes felt excluded, and find the inner strength – individually and as a couple – to cope with the diagnosis and its inevitable outcome.

…he knows this frightened face of hers, the one she wore when her children got hurt, when Megumi announced she was pregnant and alone… and yes, he remembers this same face, too, for their period of courting when it would sneak into their more serious conversations, when it surprised them both in a moment of happiness, and he is nodding at her now, able to look at her again, because forever is such a terrifying thing, but they have already managed one forever and they have done just fine with it.

Readers who do not like the use of the present tense or long sentences, with many subordinate clauses, will struggle perhaps at the outset of this book. But if you treat it as a prose-poem and savour each skilfully constructed phrase, you have to admire how the length and rhythm of the sentence acts both as an accelerator and a brake at different times in the narrative. I was particularly attracted by the additional POV, the neutral observer if you like, who comments on the events with the ease and perspective of an ominiscient narrator (but in a less annoyingly knowing way). This is a neighbour, Kitauchi-san, who seems to have a special relationship with animals, rescuing trapped and wounded creatures in the wild. She has a symbiotic relationship with a fox, which brings to mind not only the ‘taming of the fox’ in The Little Prince but also the ‘kitsune’ or fox spirits of Japanese legends. In Japan foxes often take on female forms and prove themselves to be wise and faithful guardians of their chosen families, although there is also a more malevolent association with evil spirits too. This ambiguity of animal symbolism, together with the fog and menacing storm, serves the story well and creates the perfect backdrop for much emotional drama.

You may argue that the subject matter has been done before, but that’s not the point. It would be far too easy to resort to big emotional fanfare and melodrama with this kind of story, but the author manages to contain it all with the precision of Japanese painting or a tea ceremony, in which each restrained gesture stands in for so much more. Yet I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes as they read that last scene in the book. I won’t quote from it, as it needs to be read in its entirety for the full effect to trickle through you. Just stunning!





Dirty Little Reading Habits

I saw this fun tag on the blog 50 a Year and could not resist joining in. It’s all about those silly little rituals us gourmand and gourmet readers like to build up around our favourite activity.

Do you have a certain place at home for reading?

I can read anywhere, in any position, even if my legs and arms get pins and needles. But I will always read at least a page or two (usually a lot more) propped up on lots of pillows in my bed at night, just before going to sleep. It helps me fall asleep more easily and forget about any of the day’s less glorious moments.

Bookmark or a random piece of paper?

I do prefer a bookmark and have quite an extensive collection of them scattered all over the house. However, bookmarks have a secret life of their own and have been known to disappear suddenly when you need them most (especially on planes). So I’ve been known to use boarding passes and even banknotes as an emergency bookmark.

Can you stop reading any time, or do you have to stop in a certain place?

Always at the end of a chapter. I hope that any choking child or burning house will have the courtesy to wait until I’ve reached that perfect point of interruption!

cherriesDo you eat or drink while reading?

As a child, during my summer holidays, I would read perched up in a cherry tree, so I did develop some fruit-eating habits whilst reading a book. Later in life, this led to quite a bit of reading/snacking marathons (on crisps and chocolate, mostly), because I didn’t want to interrupt the story for a proper sit-down meal. I try not to do it so much nowadays, not just for my own health, but also for the health of the books (no nasty chocolate smears on the pages or greasy thumb prints).

Can you read while listening to music/watching TV?

I say I can, but it does mean that the music/TV just gets completely drowned out and I have no idea what is on in the background.

One book at a time or several at once?

Am I really weird that I do have more than one on the go at any given time? I usually have about three in the mix, so that I can choose what to read depending on mood, time of day, how much time I have to read etc. I always have a crime novel close by (that’s my comfort read, even if I like them quite dark and gruelling), something in a foreign language (too much hard work to read it without occasional light relief) and then a literary novel or a volume of poetry or something non-fictiony. I don’t usually read three in the same genre and language at the same time: that would cross those dainty little wires in my brains.


Reading out loud or silently in your head?

I am almost a speed-reader (not really, I haven’t done any proper training, but I am quite fast), so far too fast to read out loud! However, I do love to read out loud if given half a chance. I used to bore my poor mother to death reading from the Mallory Towers series and The Little White Horse when I was a child, and I really enjoyed bedtime stories with my own children. Sadly, they won’t let me ‘perform’ for them anymore. I miss those cuddly, sharing moments.

Do you read ahead and skip pages?

Only if the book is really, really boring but I have promised to read it for reviewing purposes and I am trying to find its redeeming feature. Sadly, in most such cases, I will end up refusing to review it.

In my misguided youth, I may have peeked at the very last sentence of a book if I cared a lot about the characters. Unfortunately, the final sentence usually doesn’t give a lot away… and then I would have that on my conscience for the duration of the book. Not worth the guilt, I say!

Break the spine or keep it new?

Most of my books look virtually new and unread, so I expect to see them returned in that very same condition when I lend them to others. (!!!) Alas! I’ve often learnt that a bookworm friend might have very different reading habits from mine (bent-down corners, broken spines, even scribbles and greasy pawprints, to name just a few pet peeves).

But, before you think I’m too anal about it, I have to admit that I do have some well-thumbed, less pristine books in my collection. These are my faithful old companions that have followed me across borders for over thirty years now and have been re-read many, many times.

No, not my books! From
No, not my books! From

Do you write in books?

(Whispers) I used to. I feel really bad about it still.

I might do it in textbooks or reference books (the ones I own, of course, not the ones I borrow from the library, of course), but not in novels. I have a notebook to scribble my thoughts in for later reviews, but I don’t always have it to hand, so the best thoughts just fly away…

I’d love to hear all about your own secret little reading habits, if you want to let me know in the comments below. Or, who knows, maybe even join in the tag on your own blog?

Friday Poem: Beauty

Still with an Oriental twist: Chinese traditional beauty on Pinterest.
Still with an Oriental twist: Chinese traditional beauty on Pinterest.

It’s Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub and it’s been far too long since I was able to read the poems of my fellow poets located all over the world – or since I posted something myself. Looking forward to a fun weekend of reading and commenting!


I need someone to make me beautiful

where/when I can’t believe it on my own.

No powdered dab of make-up hand

or magic twirl of mascara wand.

I died for beauty…


I need a word or – better still –

a gasp

a pause

an intake of disbelieving breath

when I enter a room

or descend a stair.

Eat men like air…

I need my beauty reflected in the glow

of homecoming eyes.


When cameras and scales, dresses and youthful stares

conspire to strip

the dignity of remembered lines

of beauty past,

when flesh once succulent of gestures turns to rust

and spread is more than just another word for jam —

I need someone to notice

the worlds I still contain.

She walks in beauty, like the night…


Someone to find the marrow

of memory unsucked, unchanged – in me, in us, in life.



We Work, We Write… And Rinse, Repeat!

Life is a house of cards. Complex and fragile, it sometimes just comes fluttering down or else you strike it with Alice-like overwhelm morphed into sour temper.

Yet at other times, the weariness is forgotten and everything seems possible. Surprisingly, Beijing (with its loud, crazy traffic and humorous, hard-working and openly curious people) had that effect on me.

Vertigo over Beijing traffic (in its calmest moments).
Vertigo over Beijing traffic (in its calmest moments).
The masters of pointless walls, which never really kept out invaders.
The masters of pointless walls, which never really kept out invaders.
Pomp and grandeur of past and present...
Pomp and grandeur of past and present…
... but it's the energy, good humour and willingness to learn of its people that I really admire.
… but it’s the energy, good humour and willingness to learn of its young people that I really admire.

I felt I could come home and tackle the long, long list of household, administrative, professional and creative tasks that I have set myself. Not just yet, though. Today I will take time to recover from jetlag and catch up with emails and blog posts. Otherwise, I may end up falling asleep just about anywhere, as is often the case in hard-working China.


It’s not quite Friday yet, but this may well be my Friday Fun contribution for this week, as I start to get up to speed again with all of my work. Lots of reviews coming up too!

Oh, and just a whiff of Beijing smog to spoil the air on my last day there…


Friday Fun: Japanese Landscapes

I am currently in Japan but have no time to take pictures or upload anything much, so I will use some ready-made ones to try and express all my love for its beautiful landscapes. Especially now autumn is coming…

Autumn in Tokyo, from
Autumn in Tokyo, from
Temple of the Golden Pavilion, from
Temple of the Golden Pavilion, from
Quintessential Mount Fuji, from
Quintessential Mount Fuji, from
Steps leading to a temple, from
Steps leading to a temple, from
From the 'it must have been manipulated' category: Japanese bridge, from
From the ‘it must have been manipulated’ category: Japanese bridge, from

In case you’re wondering, it is Friday here already…

My thoughts go out to the poor Japanese whose homes are flooded or washed away by mudslides in the eastern part of Japan. Sadly, these landscapes above seem as remote to them now as they do to the rest of us.

Signed, Seen and Just Missed: Morges 2015

I couldn’t resist the siren call of the literary festival in Morges called Le Livre sur les Quais this weekend, although I should have been working and packing for an upcoming business trip. But who can resist a boat trip on Lake Geneva in the company of the wise and witty Tessa Hadley?


Watching chateaux and villas (usually invisible from the road) sliding smoothly by in all their glory, while listening to fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group reading from their latest book (there were more people than that at the readings, but I forgot my camera and was late to remember my mobile phone). The full list of authors reading (with links to the books they were reading from): Lesley Lawson-Botez, Ellen WallaceKatie Hayoz, Massimo Marino, Olivia Wildenstein, Nancy Freund, Gary Edward Gedall, Peter St. John, Daniela NorrisSusan Tiberghien and Leonie van Daalen, who was also celebrating her 63rd wedding anniversary onboard.


The tent where books, authors and readers meet each other was constantly full, even at lunch time, but I forgot to take pictures of the authors I did get to see.


To arouse your envy, here’s a short list of authors I spoke to (some of them I also got to see later in panel discussions): Christos Tsiolkas, Ben Okri, Petina Gappah, Michelle Bailat Jones, Gabriel Gbadamosi, Dinaw Mengestu. And not just English-speaking ones: Yasmina Khadra, Alain Mabanckou, Metin Arditi, Romain, Slocombe, Gregoire Delacourt, Joseph Incardona (who actually remembered me from last year – I was very flattered). The pictures I did remember to take at the panel discussions are not very good, unfortunately.

Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Christos Tsiolkas and Gabriel Gbadamosi.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest Unites States respectively.
Ben Okri, Petina Gappah and Dinaw Mengestu from Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia/Midwest United States respectively.

Sadly, I did not get to see any of the Greek writers who were the guests of honour at the festival: Petros Markaris, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Yannis Kiourtsakis, Takis Theodoropoulos. Nor did I have enough time to go back to the tent and meet the following authors who are very much on my TBR list: Peter Stamm, Emilie de Turckheim, Sophie Divry, Mathias Enard, Hadrien Laroche.

In its sixth edition now, the festival is becoming perhaps just a little too big to be able to see everyone and attend all the sessions you would want (many of the most interesting ones were concurrent). To me, however, it’s an unmissable event in my annual literary calendar. And when the sun comes out, it’s even more beautiful.


A good book haul ensued as well – all with rather lovely dedications. Meanwhile, a little part of Morges will be accompanying me on my business trip: Michelle Bailat-Jones’ ‘Fog Island Mountains’ will be coming with me to Japan, where it is set.