The end of the Kathy Reichs project, Chanel the spy, an annoying French Mad Man, race and women issues and a retelling of Pygmalion on last month’s reading list.
Sleeping with the Enemy Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent, Hal Vaughan
“You know, Mr. Vaughan, these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.”
Rumours of Chanel being a Nazi agent, introduced to the ways of Hitler’s Germany by her Second World War lover Baron von Dincklage are not new. Former foreign correspondent and diplomat Hal Vaughan’s publication is the first biography focusing on the topic, on its whys and hows. Until then, Chanel’s possible collaboration had been dismissed by her biographers at best as legend, at worse as nothing more than an aspect of her strong survival instinct, backed neither by actions nor by convictions. Vaughan, lacking the fashion background which has lead many to rehabilitate her on grounds of coming up with the little black dress and Number 5, believes that Chanel was an unapologetic antisemite and homophobe with strong right-wing beliefs. Did she see siding with the Nazis as the best way to protect her fashion house? As the easiest mean to secure her nephew’s release from German prison? Did she consider it the only way to gain back full ownership of Chanel Parfums, her licensing operation property of the Wertheimers, a Jewish family now running the entire business? Vaughan’s case is well-built thanks to quotes from official archives and Chanel friends and acquaintances, even though his timeline is sometimes sketchy and his analysis judgmental, especially regarding Mademoiselle’s string of lovers. Even if you’re not 100% convinced that Chanel was a Nazi agent after finishing this book, you’ll never see her the same way gain.
The Overnight Socialite, Bridie Clark
This is yet another rose-tinted retelling of the Greek myth of Pygmalion. This time, Mr Higgins is Wyatt Hayes IV, an anthropologist with time, pedigree, money and little academic future who decides transforming a white-trash American into a grand socialite might just be the perfect pet project (and his ticket to the New York Times best-seller list). The story line being as old as the world, no event in Lucy Ellis’ journey comes as a surprise. It is all to Bridie Clark’s credit that the story and characters are endearing and compelling, despite a social analysis which is little more than surface.
Grave Secrets, Kathy Reichs
This marks the official end of my summer project reading every Temperance Brennan novel written so far. Of course, a new one has since come out in the UK but I’m now taking a much needed break from the world of Bones, only watching Tempe on TV. The most important thing in Grave Secrets, which takes place during the excavation of a Guatemalan mass grave, isn’t the central and rather boring mystery around the deaths and disappearances of girls of various social backgrounds in Guatemala City. With the fifth book in the series, Reichs sheds some light on the Guatemalan mass killings (or was it a genocide?), highlighting how little we know, how little has been done to indict the culprits and how thirty-year-old atrocities are still impacting the entire country. Educating while entertaining, focusing on the world’s duty to remember rather than ignore sees Reichs at her thriller best.
Image: Optical Realities, Guatemala. Human remains recently exhumed from a mass grave in the Quiche region of Guatemala where thousands were killed and “disappeared” during the war. (Panetta)
99 Francs, Frédéric Beigbeder
Beigbeder’s cult French novel 99 Francs follows the car-crash trajectory of his main character: the first two chapters are great but before long, you grow as tired of Octave’s antics and pseudo rejection of the system as he claims to be of them. Whether Beigbeder planned this sinking feeling is unclear, especially since the narrative construction of splitting the book into six chapters, one per grammatical person, has strong potential. Its flip side is that the reader grows more and more estranged from the narrator and his determination to get fired from his ad agency job by writing a tell-all book. Octave’s relationship with his reader is ambivalent, being both one of close confidence and total manipulation, as an ad man claiming to despise advertising techniques and to tell us all about how they work while being proud of his ability to influence people and despising anyone who buys into his lies.
Earlier blog post: Should brand names be localised in translation?
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
More than a book about racism in the old South and grass-root civil rights movement, The Help deals with the emancipation of women in the 1960s, no matter their age, background or skin colour. Young college graduate and journalist hopeful Miss Skeeter is determined to write a book on what it means to be the colour help in 1962, to be always considered inferior and to have little opportunities and choice when it comes to your future and your family’s. Skeeter’s desire to get a job rather than get married and have babies, to her mother’s and friends’ dismay, pregnant maid Mimi’s eventual decision to leave her brutal husband after one beating too many and maid Aibileen eventually discovering how writing talent can lead to new prospects also send a strong message of hope and freedom. The three voices narrative, unsettling at times, allows a more honest story telling while depicting in details life in Jackson in 1962, its routine and its relationship with national events, especially Kennedy’s assassination and Martin Luther King’s speeches.