Review: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe

9780143113232lChez Moi by Agnes Desarthe was written in the author’s native French and translated into English.  This meandering story is about Myriam, a 40 something woman with a haunted past who secures a bank loan based on a fictitious resume to open a restaurant.  Chez Moi (“my home”) is just that, both home and eatery, tucked into a small corner on a quiet Paris street without so much as a sign announcing it.  Myriam sleeps on a donated banquette in the dining room and bathes in a deep stainless steel sink in the kitchen.

 Myriam attempts to do everything by herself- shopping, cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, and bookkeeping.  She’s a talented cook but doesn’t have any business sense whatsoever.  Almost despite herself she begins to have regular customers but soon finds she cannot do it all alone.  Just when she needs him most, the best waiter in the world appears.  Ben has grown up in the neighborhood and knows everybody.  He’s savvy with money and knowledgeable about the internet and in the kitchen.  He helps Myriam’s business really take off, but more importantly plays a role in healing her fractured heart and helping her move on from her past.

 We learn about Myriam’s past as she ruminates over mistakes she has made in her life.  Her biggest heartache is her failing as a mother to her son, Hugo, who she never loved properly and to whom she has done something entirely repellant.  She doesn’t see how the situation can ever be repaired.   Fleeing her life some years ago, she has shut down emotionally.  Over the course of the book she starts rebuilding her relationships and begins to make new friends.  She learns to rely on herself and trust her abilities. I wanted Myriam to succeed and I rooted for her, although I thought she was a bit disturbed. 

There are a couple of interesting peripheral characters.  Vincent is a florist in the shop next door with a crush on Myriam and breath that could kill an elephant.  Little brother Charles is a successful businessman, and Ben the waiter is happily asexual. 

Food and friendship are at the heart of Chez Moi.  It’s a slim volume but a slow read.  The vivid description of food is a highlight and the writing is pleasant but there is virtually no action.  Some might find it boring, but I liked Myriam and I’m glad I got to know her.  I liked the book for it’s dreamlike quality, the interesting turn of phrase and use of language.  I’d recommend it to those who enjoy character driven stories and beautiful writing, but if you like a little more plot and a story that moves along quickly, this isn’t it. 

I heard about this book from author Jennie Shortridge, who recommended several books as alternative choices for book clubs in this post.  My own book club will discuss Chez Moi in January.  It will be interesting to see what everyone thinks, because it was definitely a different kind of read than what we’re used to.

Review: Netochka Nezvanova – A Penguin Classic

A few months ago, Penguin Classics was offering a random classic novel to anyone who signed up.  You filled out a form and then were told what novel you’d be receiving.  Mine was Netochka Nezvanova and frankly, I was a little scared.

I worried that it might be too literary and dark, but was grateful that at least it was short (less than 200 pages).  It took weeks to arrive, so long in fact that I thought (pleasantly) that maybe it would never get here.  But then it did, and once I started reading I got completely caught up in it.

Written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1849, the story is unfinished because the author was arrested and exiled to Siberia for his ties to a radical political group.    It was supposed to be a novel on a grand scale and this published part was only meant to be the introduction, but Dostoevsky never returned to it after his release from prison.  It was translated into English in 1984.

The book is set up into 3 parts, which vary widely in tone- all are narrated by Netochka but at various ages, so the ‘voice’ changes considerably.  Each part is set in a different location.

The first part portrays Netochka as a young child with her mother and stepfather, living in great poverty.  Poor little Netochka Nezvanova (“Nameless Nobody”).  Her father dies when she is very young, and her mom remarries a failed musician, Efimov.  “Father” has delusions of grandeur, believing he is the world’s greatest violinist.  He had some talent early on but through conceit or fear he squandered it, locking up his violin.  They live in squalor because he refuses to work, forcing his sick wife to eek out a living by ironing and doing wash.  He criticizes other musicians, sometimes comically and to the amusement of others in the theater district, who buy him drinks and goad him into giving his “expert” opinions on the musicians of the day.  He blames all of his problems on his poor sick wife, who he claims is holding him back.  He spends each day drinking and bullying Netochka, who loves him dearly, into handing over the few coins her mother gives her to go out and buy bread with.  Finally he is given a concert ticket to see a great musician, and it dawns on him that he is not the virtuoso he thought he was.  Netochka’s mother dies on the night of the concert, and “Father” goes mad, taking Netochka away but then running off into the night without her and dying alone a few days later.  Netochka winds up on the doorstep of The Prince, an acquaintance of her stepfather.

The 2nd section is set in the Prince’s household, where young Netochka is being nursed back to health in opulent surroundings, with servants and tutors.  The Prince has a daughter, Katya, who is the same age as the little orphan.  Katya rules the roost and is full of life and fun, quite the opposite of Netochka.  Netochka becomes intensely infatuated with Katya, kissing her as she sleeps (they share a room) and literally trembling when she comes near, and feeling destroyed when she is away.  Katya is by turns attracted to the quiet Netochka and repelled by her, but soon she returns her feelings and they spend their days (and nights) holding hands, laughing, crying, and kissing (lots of kissing).  This mutual crush went on until the mother and tutor became alarmed and decided to separate them.  The Prince’s family leaves for another residence and make arrangements for Netochka to live with Katya’s adult sister and her family.

The 3rd section is set at the sister’s home.  Alexandra and her husband raise Netochka as their own child, teaching her and growing to love her and marvel at her intelligence.  They discover Netochka is a gifted singer and find a tutor for her.  The sister is chronically ill and begins to neglect Netochka’s studies, but Netochka finds a key to the library and spends a great portion of time reading.  One day she finds a letter in a book that illuminates the true relationship of her caregivers, and she is tortured by this knowledge, going to great lengths to cover up what she knows.  I found this section to be the least interesting of the 3.

And then.. the book abruptly stops.  This is a fragment of a book and an early example of the work of the author who went on to write the famous Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).  It is written with much heart and earnest expression.  It’s interesting for it’s period detail and the examination of the different social classes in Russia at that time.  I would recommend it to those who want to broaden their horizons a bit or to anyone who likes Russian literature.

Literature: Booking Through Thursday

Lit-Ra-Chur April 3, 2008

Filed under: WordPress — –Deb @ 1:21 am 

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  • When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
  • Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?
    The word LITERATURE sends shivers down my spine.  Mrs. Worsham and AP English Lit spring to mind.  I can almost see her pinched face and hear her trembly voice saying, “Class, read chapters 11-17 tonight, be ready to discuss the plot analysis flow map tomorrow and our quiz will be Friday.  Any questions?”  I think of dealing with clunky language and archaic turns of phrase, questioning every possible motivation for each character, discussing the merits and relevance of the work to modern times, and I shudder.  For me, this has nothing to do with reading for pleasure.  But it was also many years ago.  

    It occurs to me that I ought to give the dreaded LITERATURE another chance, reading it without deadlines and threat of a poor grade if I don’t quite understand the broader themes.  Our book club has talked about reading some classics, and that’s been met with some groans and a roll of the eyes from me, but maybe it’s time.  

    What about you?  Do you read LITERATURE, or fear it?


Booking Through Thursday

Read with Abandon? October 25, 2007

I hope I did this right. It’s my first time doing a meme. Here goes:

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Today’s suggestion is from Cereal Box Reader

I would enjoy reading a meme about people’s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

I’ve abandoned a few books this year.  Here is my list:

1. Bel Canto by Anne Patchett

I can’t for the life of me figure out what anyone sees in this book. I was bored to tears. Every other line is devoted to a flowery description of the central character’s fabulous voice. I get it! She’s amazing! No need to pound me over the head with that fact! I gave it 200 pages to do something for me, and it didn’t.

2. Harvesting the Heart by Jodi Picoult

Now this is an author I like. My Sister’s Keeper was terrific. But there were just too many coincidental things happening here to make it even remotely believable. I didn’t care about the characters. I lost interest and never went back to it.

3. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

This is a classic, written in 1940, and chosen by Oprah for her Book Club. Lots of prose, not plot driven at all. I tried to like it. I may go back to it. Probably not.

4. When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin

Very sappy and predictable. Too manipulative. Would probably do well on the Lifetime channel.

5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn-

I know, I know. I will give it another try.