Review | Murder Chez Proust, Estelle Monbrun

16284882Can Marcel Proust inspire one to murder? In Murder Chez Proust, Adeline Bertrand-Verdon, the unlikeable president of the Proust Association, is murdered just before a Proust convention. There is an assortment of suspects, including colleagues, lovers, and her assistant Gisele Dambert. Through a stroke of luck, Gisele owns a set of previously undiscovered notebooks used by Proust which proves the originality of a key scene in one of his most famous novels. It would have settled a debate in Proustian circles, and Adeline was going to steal Gisele’s research and publish a book.

Gisele is probably the most intriguing character in the book – an aspiring Proust scholar who lives with her cat and has a penchant for carelessness. She makes some idiotic decisions, such as letting Adeline know about her research, but overall, you root for her to succeed.

Murder Chez Proust is a solid, entertaining cozy, with an Agatha Christie-type list of suspects, and a genteel approach to murder. As someone unfamiliar with Proust’s work, I probably missed a lot of the significant little tidbits the author provided, but I did enjoy the description of how the interpretation of a single scene in one of his books can cause such heated scholarly debate. I wish the book had been more steeped in the academic world – the strongest scenes featured the politicking that goes on behind the publication of academic research, and I would have liked a bit more sense of that atmosphere.

There was a subplot mystery that I admit drew most of my attention — Gisele loses the Proust notebooks and tries to track down a hotel employee who had held them last. In some ways, it stole the spotlight from the main murder mystery, but it may just be because Gisele is a more interesting character than Adeline who, though villainous and potentially intriguing, was never quite fleshed out enough to go beyond a stereotype.


Thank you to Thomas Allen for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Year of the Gadfly, Jennifer Miller

12224817In Greek philosophy, a gadfly was someone who, like Socrates, spurred people to action by relentless questioning. It is therefore an apt metaphor for an aspiring young journalist sent to a boarding school where the school’s reputation directs student publications. Jennifer Miller’s Year of the Gadfly lacks subtlety; it is Dead Poets Society within the shadowy world of The Skulls, and while the novel doesn’t always manage the delicate balance between drama and melodrama, it does hammer its point home.

Fourteen year old Iris Dupont is a journalist Rachel Berry, whose only friend is the imagined ghost of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. She stumbles upon an exciting scoop – the Prisom’s Party, a secret society in her boarding school recently revived to cause mischief in the name of standing up for the school’s founding principles. She also has an inspiring biology teacher, Jonah Kaplan, a former student of the school who, like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is determined to break his students out of the mould. He demands they become extremophiles, bacteria who survived difficult conditions to eventually evolve into more complex life forms. His words spark a fire in Iris, and unlike her hesitant classmates, she immediately declares that she wants to be an extremophile.

The novel’s lack of subtlety is its major problem. For example, in case we miss the similarity, Miller has two of the characters watch Dead Poets Society on video, and one of them comments that it’s a boarding school movie that based on the atmosphere in the opening scenes, looks like it won’t end well. That’s not intertextuality, that’s hammering a point home.

A similar intensity is in the characters’ storytelling. Like the titular gadfly, they prod relentlessly, except in this case, the reader had gotten the point long ago, and the rest of the prodding merely becomes annoying. The story focuses on Iris’ ambition, Jonah’s dealing with an unnamed incident from the past, and Lily, an albino girl who dated Jonah’s brother while at school. A major theme throughout the novel is cruelty — the cruelty that teens can inflict upon one another, and the need to bring such incidents to light rather than hide them beneath a veneer of respectability. The problem is, even the characters we seem to be meant to cheer for cross the line, and while we don’t require them to be likeable, we at least expect them to be reasonable.

It takes a while to warm up to Iris — her earnestness teeters on the brink of preciousness, and her intellectualism tips right over into pretentiousness. That being said, her every action is infused with loneliness, and even when she snootily chides her mother for using a cliche, we can’t help but feel sorry for her need to find her place in the world. We also get glimpses of a friendship she used to have, and how its tragic end had a much deeper impact on Iris than perhaps she or even her parents can handle. She is also drawn strongly to Jonah, viewing him as a mentor and a potential friend, and when this bond is later jeopardized by her work on Prisom’s Party, we see how much this tears her apart, and we feel for her.

Jonah is, on one hand, the type of teacher we all wish we had — openly disdainful of the rules, and passionate about taking his students beyond the curriculum. There’s a touch of cruelty in him though that makes him much less a mentor figure than Robin Williams’ character. In an effort to push the boundaries and force his students to truly consider what being an extremophile means, he conducts a test that, while I see its purpose, is an extremely cruel thing to do to fourteen year old children. Not only will this get him fired in the real world, but his coldness in executing it compounds the horror of what he has inflicted. Perhaps this is just because Miller chooses to delve so deeply into Jonah’s life outside of teaching, but he seems to lack the passion for his students that had made Robin Williams’ character so effective. Rather, Jonah seems passionate about being right himself and about giving the finger to his alma mater. In this way, he shares Iris’ desire to carve his mark on the world, yet for a grown man, he still seems very much a sullen child.

The biggest problem, perhaps, is Prisom’s Party. Because the school is so desperate to gloss over their activities, it feels that we are meant to cheer on their revolution. Yet, similar to Jonah, they push things too far, and sometimes to little purpose other than making people take notice. In one scene for example, they convince an entire cafeteria to turn on one of the students, who hadn’t done anything wrong. As Iris noticed, some of the students didn’t even know why they were joining in, nor did they notice the student cowering in the centre. Prisom’s Party later explained that this was a test against mindless obedience, which indeed is an important subject, but victimizing a student simply to make a point crosses the line.

Iris, Jonah and Prisom’s Party are all puffed up with a feeling of self-importance, arguing that fighting for their principles justifies hurting other people. This isn’t quite as black and white in the book, of course, and Iris in particular, is all too aware of being in over her head at times. Still, the delivery is ham-fisted and relentlessly intense, such that even the ultimately tragic chapters on Lily almost feel like a welcome relief.

Year of the Gadfly could have used more subtlety and a lot more light-heartedness, but overall, it is an entertaining book, particularly for aspiring journalists or fans of the boarding school novel.


Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Smile at Strangers, Susan Schorn

I remember the first time I tried karate. I have never been athletic, and admittedly, one of the appeals of karate class was the rather low-key way the teacher introduced me to the drills. I may not be able to do a jumping, spinning, flying back kick, but even unathletic, uncoordinated me is still perfectly capable of forming a fist and throwing a punch. And the kiai? I thought I could at least mask the wobbliness of my kicks with a karate yell loud enough to rattle windows.

Here’s the thing about karate: you stick at it long enough, you work at it hard enough, and you eventually realize that your body is actually beginning to change. And I don’t mean just getting fitter. Your moves actually get sharper — and more importantly, you’re aware of just how sharp they are and just how much sharper they ought to be. You become in tune with your body, aware of the slightest movements and aware of the slightest shifts in balance. There’s a line in Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers where she talks about a black belt’s unconscious grace. I don’t think I ever quite achieved that grace (alas, my natural klutziness has no cure), but I did have a taste of what she meant. And even now, when I see karateka perform, I marvel at the fluidity of movement, the sharpness of force, as beautiful as it can be deadly.

9780547774336Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers is a personal memoir of her life in karate. More than just a retelling of stories however, she organizes her book into kowa, Zen proverbs. Fall down seven times, get up eight. If you want to feel safe, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. You’re doing it all wrong, and that’s perfect. The best part about karate isn’t the physicality, but rather the mental preparedness the training instills. Schorn writes about her experiences in the dojo, but primarily to support what she has learned for life outside karate.

In the beginning of the book, Schorn wonders about the math behind “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” If you fall down only seven times, how can you be down an eighth in order to get up again? She eventually interprets it as an added emphasis on defiance. No matter what crap life throws at her, she is going to leap up fighting — and leap up fighting one extra time just for good measure. Later on, however, something happens that makes her realize that, while she was prepared for a battle in her own backyard, the real danger happened elsewhere, far beyond her control, and she was left to wonder what, exactly, she was readying herself to battle for.

As Schorn writes about her karate journey, and how karate classes have helped her deal with personal challenges, we see her progression, from a frightened, outwardly defiant person to a calmer, more confident one much more useful for battle. This isn’t to say that karate transformed her completely — as with my natural klutziness, Schorn still cannot escape certain fears and insecurities. But she does learn a lot, and she takes us on this journey with her.

I read this book from the perspective of someone who has learned quite a bit about karate. So when Schorn writes about how karate has better equipped her to deal with life, I completely understood. Her karate experience differed greatly from mine — she studied Kyokushin (a close fighting, full contact style) and at a women’s only dojo with a focus on self-defence. I started with Shotokan (long-range, point sparring), which is probably the furthest from Kyokushin stylistically, and even though I eventually ended up with a more mid-range style, it was still very different from Kyokushin. So I loved reading about her school’s approach to teaching karate.

Will this book resonate as much with someone who has never studied karate? I don’t know. But there is an especially striking scene that I think most of us, even non-karateka, can relate to. As part of their self-defence training, Schorn and her classmates were paired off, and one had to make a series of requests while the other could only say “No.”

“No,” I told her. “No. No. No. No. No. No.”

This would have been boring if the embarrassment weren’t so agonizing. “I hate this,” I thought; “I hate it so much I can feel it physically.” The sensation of saying “no” to another person’s face made me writhe internally, and it took all my energy not to squirm…

It occurred to me, somewhere around my twentieth “no,” that I had probably said the word more times in the preceding half-minute than I had in the preceding month. I thought back over all the times I could have said “no” and didn’t…

Repeated over and over, without explanation, without placating gestures, without apology, it formed an unassailable verbal wall made of just one brick, one tiny word: no. [pp 15 – 16]

How often have you wanted to say no but then acquiesced to be polite? We’re ingrained to want to please people, and there are people who take advantage. The mere training then, of developing the confidence to say “no,” is something I think many of us will find useful. And you don’t need a black belt to learn it.


Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.