Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult – Good reading time

May 1, 2021 10 comments

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (2014) French title: La tristesse des éléphants. Translated by Pierre Girard

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult was our Book Club read for April. It’s a tricky book to review because the risk of spoilers is very high and any hint at the key clue of the book could totally ruin the book for other readers.

So, I’ll go with a light summary of the plot. Jenna Metcalf is 13, she lives in New Hampshire with her grandmother. Jenna’s parents used to run a sanctuary for elephants and Alice’s researches were about grief among elephants. Her father Thomas has been in a psychiatric ward for ten years, since Jenna’s mother Alice disappeared during a fateful night. An elephant caretaker was killed by an elephant, Alice was wounded and she disappeared from the hospital. No one has heard of her since.

Jenna has Alice’s notebooks and she hopes that they hold clues that will help her find her mother. She can’t imagine that her mother left her behind. Her first investigations are online, tracking missing persons and looking for information about her mother and that night’s event. At some point, she decides that she needs help.

She hires Serenity Jones, a medium, in the hope to find out if her mother is dead or alive. Serenity is a gifted medium but she lost all credibility after a public mistake. She used to help the police find missing persons, dead or alive. But she became cocky, used her talents for money and fame and lost her touch. She reluctantly accepts to help Jenna.

Jenna also hires Virgil Stanhope, the cop who was on her mother’s case. He left the police force and now works as a PI, tracking unfaithful spouses. Jenna hopes that he will reopen the investigation and help her.

This unlikely trio teams up to look for Alice. That’s the basic plot. Now my opinion about the book.

The point of view alternates between Jenna, Serenity, Alice and Virgil. Jenna’s, Serenity’s and Virgil’s voices make the story move forward. They relate the current investigation and come back to their personal history, their mistakes and how they arrived at the point where they all met. Alice talks about her research, about the elephants, her life in Africa and her marriage to Thomas.

I enjoyed reading Leaving Time, I was looking forward to the next chapter and had an excellent reading time. The book was suspenseful, well-written and well-constructed. Maybe too well.

It’s flawless like a well-oiled machine, like a Hollywood blockbuster. I thought while I was reading, “I bet she has a degree in literature and studied creative writing.” Bingo, according to Wikipedia. You can feel it when you read. The characters are designed to have issues, our improbable trio of amateur sleuths have the conflicts you expect. Each character of the drama that happened ten years ago has a secret past and personal wounds. It’s as good as a TV series, and I say that without any contempt.

I was absorbed and interested in Alice’s research about elephants. I was invested in the story, I was in New Hampshire with the characters and forgot where I was for a while. The ending threw me off.

Jodi Picoult will never be a genius of literature but it’s OK. She writes well and holds her reader’s attention. Sometimes we don’t need more, because entertainment and escapism are a precious commodity in today’s world.

Inspector Dalil in Paris by Soufiane Chakkouche – Moroccan debut crime fiction

April 28, 2021 8 comments

Inspector Dalil in Paris by Soufiane Chakkouche (2021) Original French title: L’inspecteur Dalil à Paris. Not available in English

Soufiane Chakkouche is a Moroccan author who went to university in France, got a degree in business intelligence and changed of career to become a journalist and a writer. He writes in French.

Inspecteur Dalil à Paris is his debut crime fiction novel, a new genre for Moroccan authors, according to his indie publisher, Jiggal Polar. I’d never heard about him but his book was on display in a bookstore, which proves again that independent bookshops are vital for new authors. (Btw, April 24th was the fortieth anniversary of the Lang Law, the one that imposes a unique price for books and thus helps independent bookstores keep their clients.)

Inspector Dalil is a retired officer of the Moroccan police. The chief of the Bureau Central d’Investigation Judiciaire in Casablanca asks him to come back and work on a case in Paris with the French police.

Bader Farisse has been kidnapped in Paris, in front of the mosque on Myrha street. He’s Moroccan student who is doing a PhD on transhumanism. He was working on a project to implant a chip in people’s brains, that would grant them immediate connection to the internet and augment their brain capacities. Their surfing would be untraceable, which means that terrorists and criminals could be connected and act without leaving any trail . Add the quicker and better brains to the mix and you get a very desirable invention for terrorist organizations but also for secret services.

Since Bader is Moroccan and has been abducted in Paris, the French and Moroccan police collaborate to find him before it’s too late.

In a crime fiction novel, the good plot is essential to keep the reader interested but the salt of this kind of books is in their lead characters and whether the reader has certain fondness for them.

Inspector Dalil is an odd ball. He has an ongoing discussion with his Little Voice, who gives unsolicited advice, makes sarcastic comments and points out what Dalil would prefer to ignore. Dalil has old fashioned but efficient investigating methods. His consensual personality allows him to navigate the political aspects of his job in Morocco but also to deal with Commissaire Maugin, the slightly conceited head of the Quai des Orfèvres, the French police.

Chakkouche has an unusual style for a crime fiction writer. There’s an underlying ironic tone in his prose, as if Dalil never takes things too seriously. Murders? Tiny human affairs compared to the great scheme of things. This slightly amused tone belies the seriousness of the plot and I don’t know whether it comes from a Moroccan storytelling tradition or from the author’s own voice.

I thought Chakkouche used too many question marks, that his style was loaded with weird expressions, odd words and stylistic device. At beginning of the book, he sounded clumsy. At the end of the book, I had gotten used to his personal ways with the French language and I thought he was using French with gusto, like you’d enjoy a great dessert. It’s unorthodox but it’s the charm of Francophony, reading how French is spoken and written in other countries.

Now I’m curious to see if Inspector Dalil will have another adventure in Paris or in Casablanca.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – Gordon and his pride and prejudices

April 17, 2021 19 comments

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936) French title: Et Vive l’aspidistra!

The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell is my second read for the #1936Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Gordon Comstock lives in a boarding house in London. He’s almost thirty, works at a bookshop for two pounds a week and has declared war to the money-god. He barely survives on his wages.

He earns enough to support himself but has no money left after he pays for his essentials. He’s very proud and doesn’t accept any help from his friends. For example, his good friend Ravelston is rich and he’d rather not go to the pub than let Ravelston pay for a pint.

Gordon has a girlfriend, Rosemary, who also lives in a boarding house. Neither of them can invite someone of the other sex in their room. They are condemned to meet outside and stay outside since Gordon doesn’t have any money to invite Rosemary even to a tea-shop and of course, he won’t let her pay for them. As Orwell sarcastically points out:

It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money. The ‘never the time and the place’ motif is not made enough of in novels.

So, Gordon is sexually frustrated and Orwell has a go at the Nancy Mitfords of the world. It’s not easy to be in a relationship when you can’t invite your partner to your home or go anywhere.

Gordon used to have a ‘good job’ in an ad agency where he showed some talent as a copywriter. But he despises capitalism and doesn’t want anything to do with money making. He fancies himself as a poet, has published some pieces in several newspaper. He’s rather live off literature but when did poetry ever paid off?

The pretence was still kept up that Gordon was a struggling poet – the conventional poet-in-garret.

It also means a hungry poet. With principles. Strong enough to hate his ‘good job’, quit and take a lesser-paid but nobler job in a bookstore.

Gordon doesn’t want to succeed. At all. It would mean that the money-god won and he’s pig-headed to the point of stupidity. He’s prideful and won’t accept help. He’s prejudiced against the middle-class, represented by their aspidistras. He loathes the middle-class and doesn’t want to partake in their way-of-living.

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak – Strube’s ‘little man’ – the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B.B.C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate!

Aspidistra

He’s almost thirty and still thinks as a rebelling teenager, when you think you won’t have the same life as your parents and then reality catches up on you. Gordon has some growing up to do and I found him exasperating and immature.

It is true that Gordon has a point about capitalism and money as the goal for life.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.

So, he sticks to his principles even if they make him sink further into poverty. Orwell has a very graphic way to make the reader understand what it means to be poor, to count every penny. Soon, Gordon understands that he cut his income himself in order not to yield to the money-god only to be tied up to it by poverty.

Money again, always money! Lack of money means discomfort, means squalid worries, means shortage of tobacco, means ever-present consciousness of failure – above all, it means loneliness. How can you be anything but lonely on two quid a week?

Orwell shows how worrying about money takes all one’s mental space and Gordon realises that fighting the money-god is not as freeing as he thought it would be.

The devil of it is that the glow of renunciation never lasts. Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success.

Orwell portrays a Gordon who wants to be noble but his going against the flow is counterproductive. He loves Rosemary (a saint, IMO, to be able to put up with him) but their relationship is in a dead-end because they can’t afford to get married. Well, at least, according to middle-class standards. Orwell hints that if they were working-class, they’d get married and see afterwards how they’d get by.

Gordon enjoys Ravelston’s company but he can never get past their difference of income and social class. Ravelston doesn’t mind but Gordon lets it become a barrier between them.

Gordon thinks he’s over the middle-class way of thinking but it’s hard to escape the mental frame in which you were raised into. He struggles to set free but the ties are strong and his refusal to go Dutch on meals with Rosemary or to let Ravelston pay his beer show that he’s not free from the middle-class minset.

It’s exactly the same for Ravelston who comes from the upper-classes and claims that he’s a socialist while he secretly dislikes poor people.

The truth was that in every moment of his life he was apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor.

He tries to play down his wealth but his social origin speaks up as soon as he’s caught off guard.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying mocks the English class system and its stultifying codes. It shows that it’s hard to change of social class, to shed one’s education and become someone else.

From the beginning to the end, Gordon got on my nerves. I was amazed at Rosemary’s patience with him and at Ravelston’s steady friendship. They don’t give up on him and he should be grateful for them. Disliking the main character doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book. Orwell gets his point through and shows the mechanism that changed the 1968 revolutionary students in what we call in France the “caviar left-wing”.

Something else. Each time I read a British book, I come across singularities that remind how not-British I am. In Barbara Pym, you’ve got all the subtle differences between churches and who goes to which. In several books, I noticed derogatory remarks against Welsh people and digs at Scotchmen.

‘Gordon’, ‘Colin’, ‘Malcolm’, ‘Donald’ – these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge, and the works of Barrie and Stevenson.

And somewhere else.

Mr McKechnie wasn’t a bad old stick. He was a Scotchman, of course, but Scottish is as Scottish does. At any rate he was reasonably free from avarice – his most distinctive trait seemed to be laziness.

I find this pretty harsh but what do I know, right?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is well-worth reading, Orwell’s prose is witty, cutting sometimes but always excellent.

Highly recommended.

PS: Here’s Karen’s review.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie – The #1936Club

April 14, 2021 26 comments

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. (1936) French title: Cartes sur table.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie is my first read for the #1936 Club hosted by co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I bought it during my stolen escapade to an English bookstore in Paris last February.

Mr Shaitana collects various objects but puts his life on the line when he decides to invite to diner four sleuths and four murderers who got away with it. After the meal is over, the guests are split into two rooms to play bridge.

The four sleuths are Superintendent Battle from Scotland Yard, Colonel Race from the Secret Service, Hercule Poirot, a private detective and Mrs Oliver, a crime fiction writer.

The four murderers are Dr Roberts, a middle-aged and jolly GP, Mrs Lorrimer, a very clever widow and skilled bridge player, Major Despard who seems to have been to every corner of the British Empire and Miss Meredith, a rather poor young lady who works as a paid companion.

Mr Shaitana stays in the room where the four criminals play bridge and is murdered, stabbed with one of his own daggers.

Scotland Yard opens an investigation and Superintendent Battle handles it in his official capacity. However, he decides to involve the other three. Each has their own method to dig out the truth and of course, Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells is always ahead.

Agatha Christie draws a very clever plot, full of suspense and with original premises. Colonel Race is less involved in the investigation than the three others but Christie shows three different and yet complementary ways to search for the culprit.

Battle has his official position and the means that go with it: he’s all about clues and interviews.

Poirot takes the psychological route and asks left-field questions to understand the murderer’s mindset and deduct who did it.

Mrs Oliver uses her literary clout to befriend Miss Meredith’s friend and collect gossip about the past. I suspect that Mrs Oliver is a sly caricature of mystery fiction writers like Agatha Christie herself.

When I was in my teens, I read a lot of Christie books, all in French. It’s the second time I read a book with Poirot in the original. It’s a delight to read Poirot’s English and its French ring. Poirot never makes too many blatant grammar mistakes but here and there, his turn of phrase sounds French. Like here:

Je crois bien – a Grand Slam Vulnerable doubled. It causes the emotions, that! Me, I admit it, I have not the nerve to go for the slams. I content myself with the game.

It causes the emotions implies an improper use of the, something French native speakers struggle with when they learn how to speak English. When do we have to use nouns without articles? That’s a tricky question for us.

The I admit it is the literal translation of Je l’admets, which is often used in French but sounds weird in English. It’s the same about I content myself with the game, which stands for Je me contente de jouer and means I only care about the game. I’m not a native speaker myself but I don’t think one would use sentences that include it causes emotions, I admit it or I content myself with.

Here’s another example:

It is not my business – no. But, all the same, it offends my amour propre. I consider it an impertinence, you comprehend, for a murder to be committed under my very nose – by someone who mocks himself at my ability to solve it!

In this passage, you comprehend is the literal translation of vous comprenez which, in this context, means, you see. And someone who mocks himself comes from the French se moquer, which is reflexive. Poirot means either that someone makes fun of his ability to find out the murderer or wants to test it.

It amuses me to spot the things in the text. However, the language I certainly didn’t understand in this book is the one regarding bridge. I don’t know how to play bridge and I was totally lost in the explanations of the game, like in the first quote. I get the general meaning but not the subtelties that helped Poirot solve the crime.

Cards on the Table is an entertaining book, published in 1936 but it is timeless. Nothing from the outside world and its political affairs interferes in the characters’ lives. It is a good Beach and Publish Transport book. Un roman de gare, quoi!

The #1936Club starts tomorrow – some reading suggestions

April 11, 2021 26 comments

Tomorrow starts the #1936 Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It lasts a week, from April 12th to April 18th.

I’m in with two books, Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie with clever Hercule Poirot and Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell with stupid Gordon. I should be able to post my billets about these two books in the upcoming week.

Incidentally, I’ve read two other books published in 1936 in the last four months.

In December, our Book Club had chosen War With the Newts by Karel Čapek, a stunning dystopian fiction. It’s an odd book, a strange patchwork of narration, board minutes, newspaper articles and other sources. It takes us to a fictional world where a population of working newts colonizes the world. It’s a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfalls of wild capitalism. If you haven’t read it, the #1936 Club might be the perfect time to do it.

In March, for Southern Cross Crime Month hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, I read Death in Ecstasy by Nagaio Marsh, a clever and entertaining investigation by Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his journalist friend Nigel Bathgate. It’s a perfect read to spend an evening with a book and forget about the world. Readers of classic crime will have a great time with it.

I also would like to draw your attention to Return to Coolami by Eleanor Dark. According to its blurb, it is an emotional novel that explores the psychological impact of four people thrown closely together during the course of a (…) two-day motor car trip from Sydney, across the Blue Mountains to the country property, Coolami. I heard of it in January, when Bill at The Australian Legend hosted his Australian Women Writer Generation 3 Week. I haven’t read it yet (I might read it in the summer when Lisa organizes her Eleanor Dark Week) but I’ve read her Lantana Lane and really enjoyed her writing.

I realize that this billet reveals one thing: how dynamic is our corner of the bookish bloggosphere. Events are numerous, varied and remain a wonderful and friendly opportunity to discover new books or eventually read ones lying on the TBR. Many thanks to all the bloggers who take the time to host such events.

Happy #1936 Club!

Open Season by C.J. Box – my thoughts about Joe Pickett vs Walt Longmire

April 7, 2021 6 comments

Open Season by C.J. Box (2001) French title: Détonations rapprochées.

Open Season by C.J. Box is the first instalment of his crime fiction series.

Set in Saddlestring, Wyoming, it features the Game and Fish Warden Joe Pickett. In this first volume, Pickett has been appointed in Twelve Sleep County for three months, after his mentor Vern Dunnegan suddenly retired. His friend Wacey works in the adjacent area.

Joe moved into the Game & Fish state-owned house with his family, his wife Marybeth and his daughters Sheridan and Lucy. Another baby is on the way. The family barely survives on Joe’s salary.

Box describes the inconsistence between game warden recruitment requirements and the wages they get for their degree and dedication:

There were 55 game wardens in the State of Wyoming, an elite group, and Joe Pickett and Wacey were two of them. Wacey had received his B.A. in wildlife management while bull-riding at summer rodeos before Joe had graduated with a degree in natural resource management. Three years apart, both had been certified at the state law enforcement academy in Douglas and both had passed the written and oral interviews, as well as the personality profile, to become permanent trainees in Jeffrey City and Gillette districts respectively, before becoming wardens. Each now made barely $26,000 a year.

No wonder Joe’s family struggles to make ends meet.

Joe is still a rookie and has acquired an unfortunate notoriety when a poacher, Ote Keeley, took Joe’s gun while he was writing Keeley a ticket for poaching. Joe isn’t a good shot, at least on fixed objects. He’s an honest game warden, a job he loves and takes seriously. He’s an ordinary man with a strong moral compass.

When Ote Keeley stumbles and dies in Joe’s garden, Joe gets involved in spite of him. Ote Keeley has been shot. Sheriff Barnum leads the investigation and the case involves an endangered species and the project of a gas pipeline from Canada to California. A classic case of protection of nature vs greed and the promise of jobs for the locals.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I also read Craig Johnson’s crime series also set in Wyoming. So, how do the two compare?

I’m afraid Box isn’t half as good as Johnson. If I compare Open Season to The Cold Dish, Johnson is superior to Box in plot, characterization, sense of place and style.

Here, I guessed the plot quite early in the story, but maybe Box improved in the following volumes. The characters are less quirky and original, even if having a game warden who isn’t an excellent shot is a great idea. I wasn’t in Twelve Sleep county the same way I feel transported to the Absaroka county.

Saddlestring was a classic western town borne of promise due to its location on the railroad, but that promise never really played out. In the 1880s, a magnificent hotel was built by a mining magnate, but it had faded into disrepair. The main street, called Main Street, snaked north and south and had a total of four stoplights that had never been synchronized. The two-block “downtown” still retained the snooty air of Victorian storefronts designed to be the keystones of a fine city, but beyond those buildings, the rest of Main Street looked like any other American strip mall, punctuated by gun shops, sporting goods stores, fishing stores, bars, and restaurants that served steak.

This is almost everything we learn about the place. Open Season misses the little moments we have in The Cold Dish, Longmire going to the Busy Bee Café, the exchanges with Lucian, the former sheriff and all the little interactions with the locals that make the place come to life.

Johnson’s books are also closer to Nature Writing. Contrary to Box, who was born and raised in Cheyenne, Johnson isn’t a native from Wyoming. And yet, he has a way to describe nature and its impact on people’s lives and way of thinking that is a lot more convincing.

Johnson’s Wyoming is also more multicultural than Box’s. In the Longmire series, Johnson has native American characters, the Cheyenne reservation is part of the local life and there’s a volume about the Basque community. Craig Johnson has been to Quais du Polar several times and I remember hearing him say that books set in Wyoming that don’t include Indians don’t reflect local life properly.

And Box’s Wyoming is made of white people who love guns, hunting and fishing.

Today was, he knew, likely to be the last Sunday for at least three months that he would be able to cook breakfast for his girls and read the newspapers—and now he hadn’t even been able to do that. Big game hunting season in Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming, would begin on Thursday with antelope season. Deer would follow, then elk and moose. Joe would be out in the mountains and foothills, patrolling. School would even be let out for “Elk Day” because the children of hunters were expected to go with their families into the mountains.

Wow. A day off school to go hunting!

Both books include funny details about local life, like the electric plugs on parking meters to heat cars during the winter or the local way to shield their hats from rain:

A few ranchers stretched plastic covers, sometimes referred to as “cowboy condoms,” over their John B. Stetsons but few people owned umbrellas.

Can you imagine the Stetsons with the plastic over them? Sounds like a funny sight.

Style-wise, Johnson is more literary. The descriptions are more poetic, little thoughts about life are peppered in the books. It’s deeper in a off-handed way, especially considering Johnson’s great sense of humor. I love writers with a good sense of humor.

The general feeling is that Box describes a more conservative white community than Johnson. I’m sure both Wyomings exist, but I’m more inclined to read Johnson than Box. I’ll probably read another Box or two, to see how the characters develop and because it’s still good entertainment.

Recommended as a Beach & Public Transport book.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – meet Prudence, the Harriet spinster.

April 4, 2021 19 comments

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953) French tile: Jane et Prudence.

After reading Ravage, I needed to read something nice, clean and proper and turned to Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym.

Jane and Prudence met in Oxford when Jane tutored Prudence. Despite their age difference, they remained good friends. After Oxford, Jane married Nicholas, a clergyman. They have a daughter, Flora who’s going to Oxford in the fall. Prudence does editing and secretarial work for Arthur Grampian, a professor. When the book opens, Jane is about to move to a new parish in the countryside, near London.

Prudence is twenty-nine, lives in London in a flat and works to support herself. She’s unmarried but has had several admirers in the past. She cleans up well, is charming but never managed to find a husband. She has a crush on her boss, Arthur Grampian. Jane hopes that Prudence forgets about married Arthur Grampian and finds a suitable candidate in her new parish.

Jane and Nicholas move into their new vicarage and through Jane’s eyes, we see how they settle down in their new life. Jane used to research seventeenth-century poets but abandoned any attempt at a career when she married Nicholas. And now, she always feels like a failure even if Nicholas seems to love her the way she is.

Jane is not cut out for being a clergyman’s wife, of what she thinks a clergyman’s wife should be. She can’t cook, she never can say the right thing at the right time, she can’t be bothered with parish work and she’s not very religious.

They rose to their feet and bowed their heads. Jane tried very hard to realise the Presence of God in the vicarage drawing-room, but failed, as usual, hearing through the silence only Mrs Glaze running water in the back kitchen to wash up the supper things.

With Flora leaving the nest, Jane reflects on her marriage and the passing of time:

Mild, kindly looks and spectacles, thought Jane; this was what it all came to in the end. The passion of those early days, the fragments of Donne and Marvell and Jane’s obscurer seventeenth-century poets, the objects of her abortive research, all these faded into mild, kindly looks and spectacles. There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more. When had that day been? Could she have noted it and mourned it if she had been more observant?

I felt sorry for Jane and her lack of career. This is not the life she would have chosen for herself. No wonder she feels like a failure. However, she never loses her sense of humour:

‘I’ve been such a failure as a clergyman’s wife,’ Jane lamented, ‘but at least, I don’t drink; that’s the only suitable thing about me.’

She’s invested in Prudence’s future and sets her up with Fabian, widower in her parish. They start seeing each other and the two ladies hope for marriage…

Life at the vicarage has this sepia set of characters with churchgoers and goody-two shoes. It describes life in the early 1950s, the food restrictions have only come to an end. There are several mentions of how much men need meat and eggs, hinting that it’s still rare. (Jane tends to think women need them too and I agree with her on principle) Nicholas mentions a can of something and Jane replies that it’s American food and that it’s not available anymore, reminding us of the American food program for Europe after WWII.

Barbara Pym has a wonderful sense of humour, as always. She describes all the little quibbles in the village, the gossip around the vicarage, the not-totally-sincere charity work and all the kind of village quirks you expect.

As in other books by Pym, she doesn’t praise married life too much. Prudence is 29 and, as one of her spinster friends points out, it’s time to make a choice: look for a husband (at any cost, I might say) or settle down as a contented and active spinster. Prudence is still undecided. Does she really want to be a wife and give up her independence? Pym describes Prudence’s life in London and it sounds a lot more fun than Jane’s life as a country clergyman’s wife. No wonder Prudence is in no hurry to tie the knot.

Jane and Prudence is loosely based on Emma by Jane Austen. There’s a direct allusion to it at the beginning of the novel:

Prudence disliked being called ‘Miss Bates’; if she resembled any character in fiction, it was certainly not poor silly Miss Bates.

I guess that Jane is Emma and Prudence is Harriet. Nicholas has Mr Knightley’s kindness and humour. Fabian is Frank Churchill and you’ll need to read the book to look for the other characters!

This was my fourth Barbara Pym after Excellent Women, about Mildred, the spitfire spinster, Some Tame Gazelle, featuring Belinda, the clever spinster, and The Sweet Dove Died with Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Other reviews by Jacqui here and by Simon here.

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan – excellent

March 31, 2021 15 comments

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (2018) Original French title: Les Loyautés.

Les loyautés.

 

Ce sont les liens invisibles qui nous attachent aux autres –aux morts comme aux vivants—, ce sont des promesses que nous avons murmurées et dont nous ignorons l’écho, des fidélités silencieuses, ce sont des contrats passés le plus souvent avec nous-mêmes, des mots d’ordre admis sans les avoir entendus, des dettes que nous abritons dans les replis de nos mémoires.

Ce sont les lois de l’enfance qui sommeillent à l’intérieur de nos corps, les valeurs au nom desquelles nous nous tenons droits, les fondements qui nous permettent de résister, les principes illisibles qui nous rongent et nous enferment. Nos ailes et nos carcans.

Ce sont les tremplins sur lesquels nos forces se déploient et les tranchées dans lesquelles nous enterrons nos rêves.

Loyalties.

 

They’re invisible ties that bind us to others –to the dead as well as the living. They’re promises we’ve murmured but whose echo we don’t hear, silent fidelities. They’re contracts we make, mostly with ourselves, passwords acknowledged though unheard, debts we harbour in the folds of our memories.

They’re the rules of childhood dormant within our bodies, the values in whose name we stand up straight, the foundations that enable us to resist, the illegible principles that eat away at us and confine us. Our wings and our fetters.

They’re the springboards from which our strength takes flight and the trenches in which we bury our dreams.

This is the foundation of Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan. Through four characters, she will explore this notion of loyalties and how they affect our vision of the events we live and our decision-making process.

Hélène is a science teacher in a Parisian collège (middle school in France) and she has Théo and Mathis in her class. When the book opens, she has noticed that something is wrong with Théo but, based on her own experience, she makes the wrong conclusion. She thinks he’s molested at home.

She’s right in her observation, though. Théo is on a dangerous path. His parents are divorced and he’s split between his loyalty to each parent. Her mother is embittered by the divorce and doesn’t want to know anything about the weeks Théo spends with his father. Théo’s father is unemployed, broke and depressed. He barely makes it out of bed. Théo has promised not to say anything to his paternal grandmother. He remains silent. Théo has discovered that alcohol brings a welcome numbness and experiments drunkenness.

Mathis is Théo’s best friend and they’re each other’s only friend. Mathis drinks with Théo, in a hidden spot at the collège. As Théo’s drinking increases, Mathis feels more and more ill-at-ease with their games. But talking to an adult means betraying his friend.

Cécile is Mathis’s mother. She notices that something is different with Mathis and she doesn’t like Théo. She’ll make a discovery about her husband that will shatter her life and destroy the personality her husband shoed her in.

Delphine de Vigan explores how Hélène and Cécile’s pasts shaped them and still influence who they are and how they react to problems. As they got older, a new web of loyalties added to the one they weaved in childhood. When things go wrong, which loyalty will be the wings and which one will be the fetter?

Théo and Mathis are bound by their loyalties to their parents and to each other.

Hélène turned the loyalty to the frightened little girl she was to a loyalty to her students. She knows something is seriously wrong with Théo, even after the school nurse has examined him and assured her that there was no trace of violence on his body. She still watches him, tries to talk to his mother, shows that she cares, even if her actions are sometimes over-the-top and put her at odds with her hierarchy.

Will Théo get the help he needs? That’s for you to discover in this excellent novella. Delphine de Vigan expertly explores the concept of loyalty through a plausible story.

Highly recommended.

PS : Sorry, I haven’t found out how to insert a book cover with a proper layout with the new WP editor. I’m going to ask for help…

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas – #SouthernCrossCrime2021

March 25, 2021 9 comments

Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (2012) Not available in French. Translation tragedy.

Yes, Ihaka was unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane, none of which featured on McGrail’s checklist of what constituted a model citizen, let alone a police officer. But when it came to operating in the cruel and chaotic shadow-world where the wild beasts roam, he was worth a dozen of those hair-gelled careerists who brought their running shoes to work and took their paperwork home.

Meet Tito Ihaka, the Maori police officer in Death on Demand by Paul Thomas. When the book opens, he’s in the doghouse, sent away in Wairarapa as a demotion from his previous job with the Auckland police department. When working on Joyce Lilywhite’s death, he insisted that her husband Christopher was guilty of his wife’s murder even if he had no sound evidence of it. Joyce was a prominent business woman and Ihaka’s stubborn insistence on Christopher’s guilt combined with his brash behaviour on the force led to his fall.

Ihaka has been in Wairarapa for five years when his former boss, Finbar McGrail sends for him. Christopher Lilywhite wants to talk to him and when Ihaka does, Christopher –who is terminally ill—confesses that he ordered his wife’s murder but doesn’t know who did it. He also points Ihaka towards three other murders that seem committed by the same hitman. Christopher gets murdered and another source of information too. The plot thickens.

The investigation about Joyce’s murder starts again, led by Ihaka’s nemesis, Detective Inspector Charlton. When Warren Duckmanton is murdered, Charlton has too much on his plate and reluctantly delegates this investigation to Ihaka. And there’s the strange attack of undercover cop that Ihaka can’t compute. The word is that this cop got sloppy and paid the price when the mob discovered his identity. Ihaka isn’t convinced by this official version and wonders what’s behind it. So, he investigates on the side.

Ihaka is a maverick in the police department and doesn’t hesitate to ruffle some feathers to go on with an investigation. McGrail has been promoted to Auckland District Commander since Ihaka’s leaving for Wairarapa and his attitude has changed with the responsibilities. Ihaka has to face the new politics at the station and live with Charlton’s constant hostility.

Death on Demand is cleverly constructed with a prologue that gives the reader some clues about the protagonists’ pasts and motivations. Several plot threads come to life, well-sewn together and that makes of Death on Demand a compelling read. I liked Ihaka, he reminded me of Connelly’s Bosch.

To my surprise, Death on Demand is peppered with French expressions like et voilà, raison d’être (didn’t know I could use this one in English), au contraire, faux pas, tête-à-tête. Many thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for their excellent editing: not one accent is missing on French words, a rare treat in Anglophone books.

This is my second read for Kim’s Southern Cross Crime Month where we read crime fiction from Australia and New Zealand. The first one was Death in Ectasy by Ngaio Marsh and since Death on Demand won the Ngaio Marsh Award in 2013, things have come to a full circle.

Highly recommended to crime fiction lovers. Sorry for French readers, it’s a Translation Tragedy book.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

March 21, 2021 26 comments

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel (1943) Original French title: Ravage.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel is on the list of books teachers in collège (middle-school) can use in French class. In my opinion, it needs to come with a truckload of explanations not to lead the students astray.

Ashes, Ashes is a dystopia written in 1943, during the Occupation. The book is composed of four parts: The New Times, The Fall of Cities, The Trail of Ashes and The Patriarch. For this reader it went from fun, to déjà-vu, to boring and to distasteful.

We’re in Paris, in 2052. François Deschamps comes to town after a stay with his parents in Provence. (Barjavel was from Nyons, in Provence). He’s waiting for the results of an exam to work in agricultural engineering and he’s looking forward to meeting Blanche, his childhood sweetheart. When he was away, Blanche has been recruited to be a new singer on a famous TV channel and is about to start a new life. She knows that François won’t approve but she wants to have fun and enjoy her life.

In 2052, people travel on high-speed trains, live in skyscrapers, have AC, can’t walk more than a few meters and eat industrially grown food. It’s always fun to read old dystopian books and see how people imagined the future.

Barjavel imagines apartments in skyscrapers with big screens on the walls with TV shows. Some things are spot on – People can “facetime”— and some things show how difficult it is to think out of the box and imagine technologies or services that don’t exist yet.

For example, when François is on the train, Barjavel imagines that, to read at night, you can adapt a screen on your book, put on earbuds and call for a service where the book is read to you. He doesn’t imagine e-books with backlit screen but an armload of readers over the phone, reading you the book of your choice in your language.

People don’t do anything by themselves. Dead relatives are conserved in apartments as if they were in a wax museum and people live under the scrutiny of their elders. Art is controlled by state run schools and only official artists are allowed to sell their work. Everybody lives in towns, the countryside has been left behind, except in some areas in Provence where a few families people kept farming like in the old times. And François and Blanche come from these families.

We’re in a society shaped by technology and François is very critical and would rather have people going back to the land. His attitude towards Blanche rubbed me the wrong way but I kept thinking that it was other times. I didn’t think Barjavel was very ironic about the ancestors’ watching their offspring. I kept thinking that it was creepy and that your parents could be real bastards you’d be happy not to see ever again. This started to feel a bit too Travail, Famille, Patrie for my tastes.

Then the power is out and everything falls apart. The heat is intense (climate change!), people start loitering, fighting and killing to survive. It’s the Fall of Cities. Without electricity, everything collapses very quickly. Lifts don’t work, planes drop from the sky, dead ancestors thaw, communications are cut and nobody knows how to do anything by hand. All we see is violence, devastation, cholera and fires destroying this modern civilization. François gets Blanch under his arm, gathers a group of people and prepares to leave Paris. This part is probably a reminder of the 1940 exodus.

François and his group leave Paris as fast as they can and start walking south to find shelter in Provence. This third part, The Trail of Ashes, is their journey to safety. We follow the group of people during their travels to Provence, through a hostile environment. The country is so dry that it’s burning everywhere and water gets scarce. I thought this part was a little too long, we got his drift from the start. Brother will turn on brother, nature quicky becomes hostile. I still didn’t like François Deschamps and his patriarchal attitude.

And then came the last part and epilogue, a mere fifteen pages of stinking garbage. The group of people have arrived in Provence and started to cultivate the fields, to provide for themselves. So far, so good. Follows the description of the new civilization built by François, the Patriarch.

They are all peasants and live off the land. A system is organized to maintain peace between communities. Villages mustn’t have more than five hundred families living in the same place and a man can’t own more land than the surface he’s able to patrol in one long summer day.

Polygamy is the rule and ugly girls are grateful for it because they couldn’t get a husband otherwise. Blanche accepted it gracefully because men had to plant as many seeds as possible to repopulate the world. François remarries at an ancient age to a very young girl to have more offspring. He’s valued as a patriarch:

Autant que sa grande sagesse, et la longue et claire vie que Dieu lui a accordée, ce qui a valu au patriarche le respect des populations, c’est que parmi les deux cent vingt-huit enfants nées de ses femmes respectives, il n’a eu qu’une fille. Encore lui est-elle venue alors qu’il avait dépassé cent ans. A cette miraculeuse abondance de mâles, les paysans simples ont reconnu la faveur octroyée par le Ciel à une race de maîtres et s’en sont réjouis.

More than his great wisdom and this long and clear life that God granted him, the patriarch won the respect of the population because among his deux hundred and twenty eight children born to his respective wives, he had only one girl. And she was born when he was more than a hundred years old. The simple peasants saw in this miraculous abundance of males, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males and rejoiced in it.

Paul, married to François’s only daughter named Blanche will replace him when he dies. Of course, Paul is blond. So, a blond guy married to a woman named White will be the next patriarch and rule France. I think that this detail is significant in 1943. (I checked, only 10% of French people are blond.)

Technology is forbidden because François is against it. Books are banned and burnt as soon as someone finds one. Books are evil. That was the last sentence that broke this reader’s back. 

Writing this billet, I reread the passages and tried to find a second meaning, a veiled criticism of this new world. The only trace of it is when a young man comes to François, proudly showing off a steam machine, built to help with field work and alleviate the workers’ burden. Barjavel seems to concede that progress is inevitable and that humanity won’t stand for too long to live at the Stone Age. François promptly destroys the machine as evil too. Apart from this tiny detail, nothing.

I didn’t expect Ashes, Ashes to reek of Petain’s ideology. One reads books by Céline with their eyes open. In my mind, Barjavel was the author of La Nuit des Temps (1968), a wonderful love story I loved as a teenager and of the Chemins de Katmandou. (1969) I never expected him to be this reactionary. Heck, I don’t expect dystopian fiction to be reactionary. I expect dystopian books to show what will happen to humanity when humanism is thrown away. And more than that, I don’t expect the rebel of the dystopian book to be the founder of a new civilization that is way worse than the one they wanted gone.

I’d like to think I got it all wrong. According to Wikipedia, Ashes, Ashes was first published during the war in the collaborationist and antisemitic weekly newspaper, Je suis partout. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that Barjavel wasn’t seriously on board with the thesis developed in the fourth part of his novel. Or he really perjured himself writing Ashes, Ashes. If I missed something, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments. 

See why this book needs to be thoroughly discussed in class when young minds read it? 

Saturday News – the conversation pie, Spring for Poets and Gibert Jeune

March 20, 2021 19 comments

I don’t know how it is in your corner of the world but in mine, as we’re marking the anniversary of the first lockdown, theatres, cinemas, museums, bars, restaurants and shopping malls are still closed. Basically, the only remaining hobbies are cooking, reading, blogging, watching films at home, playing board games (try Pandemic, very timely and terribly realistic), running, biking and hiking. Yay. I’m still very very thankful for my unconditional love for books and my blogging activities.

Tarte conversation from Culture Crunch ©

Among the authorized activities is visiting local shops and indulging in food goodies. This is how I came across the conversation pie and its literary history. It was created in 1774 and named after the book Les conversations d’Emilie by Madame d’Epinay

She was Grimm’s lover and friend with Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire. (Yes, imagine that.) Madame d’Epinay wrote this book of conversations with her granddaughter Emilie as a guidebook for the education of girls. She and Rousseau had long discussions about education in general and she thought something was missing regarding girls’ education.

Her book was such a success that this conversation pie was invented. The recipe is here (and in English) if you’re curious. I’ve bought one is a bakery and it’s good. Of course, after that, you need to exercise to burn all those calories but lucky you, running, biking and hiking are authorized activities. So, All is best in the best of all possible worlds., right?

Today is the first day of spring and we’re in the middle of the Printemps des Poètes or Spring for Poets. (13-29 March). It’s an event dedicated to poetry and this year’s theme is Desire. It reminded me that I ought to read more poetry. After diving into the biography of Berthe Morisot who was such good friends with Stéphane Mallarmé that he became her daughter’s guardian after she died, I thought I’d give his poetry a try.

Full of optimism, I downloaded a collection of his most famous poems. Phew!… Granted, I’m not a great reader of poetry but clearly, Mallarmé is out of my reach. Some of his poems like Le Guignon don’t make any sense to me. I know the words but I don’t know what to do with the way he puts them together. *sigh* So much for improving my reading of poetry.

Photo from Wikipedia

This week also came with sad news. Although the government took some measures to protect bookstores from the pandemic storm, the famous bookshop Gibert Jeune didn’t survive. Set in the Quartier Latin in Paris since 1886, Gibert Jeune closed down their four shops in Place St Michel. Lots of famous writers haunted the alleys of this book temple. 

Although I’m not from Paris, I have fond memories of going to Gibert Jeune to buy school books during the summer for the upcoming school year. This is where my mother got me my Gaffiot, the French-Latin dictionary we use in class and other books to prepare exams. It was the biggest bookstore I’d ever been into and I loved browsing through the shelves. I wonder what store will be in their place, I hope it’s not another luxury clothes, beauty or telephone store.

Apart from these random news, I’m starting a new job in a couple of weeks, I expect to be very busy in the upcoming months. I hope I’ll have enough time to keep up with billets and reading your reviews.

How is it going for you at the moment? 

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Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi – And fear changes sides

March 16, 2021 14 comments

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi (1991) French title: Dirty Week-End. Translated by Jean Esch.

My Kube subscription brought me Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi, a society and feminist novella, one that was almost censored, according to the libraire who chose it for me. What a ride it was! It opens with this stunning paragraph:

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realized she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

She could have done the decent thing. She could have done what decent people do. She could have filled her gently rounded belly with barbiturates, or flung herself, with gay abandon, from the top of a tower block. They would have thought it sad, but not unseemly. Alas, poor Bella, they would have said, as they shovelled what remained of her into the waiting earth. She must have had enough, they would have said. At least, she had the decency to do the decent thing.

As you imagine, Bella did not decide to do the decent thing. Quite the contrary.

Bella lives in Brighton, in a mezzanine flat. She’s single, lives a quiet life, reads a lot and keeps to herself. One day, she realizes that a man observes her from a nearby apartment. He starts calling her on the phone, he accosts her in her favourite park. Her life becomes filled with constant fear. She shuts herself away in her flat, closing the curtains. She stops answering the phone.

And one day, she has enough of living in fear. She doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. She doesn’t want to be afraid to go out, to open her windows or answer the phone. It’s time for fear to change side.

Bella goes over the edge and starts a killing spree against men who persecute her, force themselves on her or threaten her.

It’s a rough ride and of course Bella’s solution to her problem is not the right one. But Helen Zahavi shows one thing: how fear is ingrained in women. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t walk in dark alleys. Don’t wear short dresses or plunging necklines. Don’t go in an unknown man’s car. Don’t accept a drink you haven’t prepared yourself. Take care of your own safety.

And Bella tells us it’s not normal to live in fear and in constant worry for one’s security. It’s not normal to be obliged to be prudent because you’re a woman. Bella seems to say: Enough. Guys, live my life. It’s your turn to be afraid.

I’ve read that Dirty Week-End caused an uproar when it was published and that a request for its interdiction was brought to the Parliament. Some people in 1991 England thought it was immoral, pornographic and subversive. Thirty years after its publication, I don’t see why this book should be censored. (or any book, but that’s another debate) Let me get this straight: a book with a man serial killer who preys upon women doesn’t raise an eyebrow and the reverse is immoral?

Dirty Week-End is not a revenge novel, as it has been labelled. It’s more a novel that makes some men uncomfortable because this time, the tables are turned.

Readable in one sitting. Highly recommended.

PS: Covers are interesting to compare, for that kind of book. They influence your view of the book. I think that the French and the American one with the gun are the most faithful to the text.

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage – it deserves to be rediscovered

March 14, 2021 8 comments

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage (1973) Not available in French

The worst scars don’t show at all, but you can learn to live with them. Believe me.

When I read The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, I went to Wikipedia to read his biography and discovered he’s been married to writer Elizabeth Savage. (1918-1989) I’d never heard of her –but would have I heard about her husband without Gallmeister? – and I got curious.

I am thankful for e-books and Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust because I could easily put my hands on The Last Night at the Ritz (1973) and The Girls from the Five Great Valleys (1976), her most famous novels. A woman of her time, Elizabeth Savage only started to write novels when she was 42, after her three children had grown up a bit, I suppose. I haven’t read The Girls from the Five Great Valleys yet.

The Last Night at the Ritz is set in Boston, at the end of the 1960s. The narrator of the book remains unnamed, so, we’ll call her the Narrator. She’s a middle-aged woman and she’s meeting with her fried Gay, her husband Len and her friend Wes for a luncheon at the Ritz. Gay and the Narrator have been friends since they were teenagers. They went to high school and college together. Gay and Len met in college as well.

We know from the start that there’s something final about this Last Night at the Ritz and Elizabeth takes us there in the last pages, building the suspense –you can’t help wondering what happened—and at the same time promenades us through the Narrator’s past and the present days issues.

The Narrator relates that luncheon, which turns into booking a room at the Ritz and attending a party organized by Len’s office. (Len works for a publisher, he’s an agent. Gay and the Narrator studied literature in school too but never made a career out of it.)

The Narrator is unreliable, and if the reader doesn’t guess it, she says it candidly: Nobody — except for Gay—has ever trusted me. And for good reason.

The Narrator comes back to her lifelong friendship with Gay. They are very different in their approach to life, Gay trying to tick all the right boxes and the Narrator doing whatever pleases her.

My poor friend: she is so good and so grave. And so vulnerable. She really thought she knew just how it’s done. First you work hard and thoughtfully and win all the prizes. Then you marry your true love and live passionately forever after. And your children call you blessed because simplicity and discipline and truth gird you in triple brass. It isn’t all that simple. You are going to say that I am jealous, and perhaps I am—it is an idea that I have entertained. But I think I love my friend, and I think I honor those fine and wholesome notions that she has. I just haven’t found them practical. In my book, it also takes a little laughter.

Gay sounds like a lady who behaves by the book, through discipline and a bit of blindness. The two girls had an unusual childhood. The Narrator lost her parents at a young age and was raised by an eccentric aunt. Gay was raised by her grand-parents, among a swarm of uncles. Her grand-mother was a literature teacher at university (like E. Savage’s mother) and the house was full of books. Her grand-father was a drunkard.

Having met the grandmother, I understood Gay’s passion for order; after I met the grandfather, I understood her passion for temperance

The Narrator comes back to Gay’s marriage to Len, her relationship with their children, especially the oldest, Charley. We learn about her first marriage to Barry, her pain after his death, her long affair with Wes and her marriage to Sam. While her time with Barry was tumultuous, her affair with Wes was limited since he wouldn’t leave his wife, she now is into a calm, mature and loving marriage with Sam.

Her flashbacks alternate with the day’s events. Len and Gay are worried about their son Charley, who’s in Canada, fleeing the Vietnam war. Len is obviously tense and the Narrator suspects he had bad news about something. Gay doesn’t approve of Wes, wondering if her friend is cheating on her husband Sam with him. The Narrator says that Sam should be here, that she should call him but she doesn’t and we only learn in the last pages why she doesn’t.

Gay and the Narrator are like oil and water and I wondered how their friendship lasted so long. The Narrator muses:

The fact of the matter is that what everyone is looking for is total acceptance and unqualified approval. Some one person in the world who feels that everything you do is right. Not someone who tries to be a good sport while you make the old mistakes.

Usually, we have this unconditional love from our parents, maybe from our siblings. Gay and the Narrator didn’t have this kind of love, and may have found it in their friendship. Perhaps this deep need is the cement of the relationship between these two very different women.

Besides her life story, the Narrator comments on the changes in Boston. She obviously loves the city very much. The town destroys older building to build brand new skyscrapers. Old shops disappear, downtown neighborhoods aren’t as safe as before at night. She describes hippies on the street and a new way-of-life emerging from the 1960s. We’re in the Mad Men era, here.

Despite her flaws, and maybe because she owns them with gusto, I couldn’t help liking the Narrator. She lives with her mistakes and losses and doesn’t wallow, not because it’s the right thing to do (You know, the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) but because it doesn’t make sense to wallow. As she points out, if you sulk your life away, who has won? I liked her attitude, even if she sounds careless sometimes.

She also accepts other people’s flaws and doesn’t judge them for being human. I think she’s a bit jealous of Gay, of her landing Len and having children but deep down she knows she wasn’t cut-out of that kind of life and had she been in Gay’s place, things wouldn’t have turned the same way. She has the kind of lucidity I am drawn to.

And last but not least, who wouldn’t like someone who thinks that It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.

Highly recommended, especially to readers who enjoyed The Eastern Parade by Richard Yates.

PS: This is not available in French. Hence the Translation Tragedy Tag and Category.

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona – a biography

March 7, 2021 24 comments

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of Woman in Black by Dominique Bona (2000) Original French title: Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir. 

Berthe Morisot – The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona was our Book Club read for February. It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I was looking forward to reading it as it was a great opportunity to dive into the artistic Paris of the 19th century.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in a bourgeois family. Her father was a préfet, a civil servant and her mother was a lot younger than her husband but it was a love marriage. She had two sisters, Yves and Edma and a younger brother Tiburce. The three girls were close in age but Berthe was tight with Edma.

Madame Morisot had a lot to do with her daughters’ upbringing. She was the great-niece of Fragonard and was instrumental in Berthe and Edma’s painting lessons. She allowed them to devote a lot of time to painting, understood that her daughters were gifted and accepted that painting wasn’t just a hobby for them. She didn’t sacrifice their passion on the autel of bourgeois thinking. We owe her for Morisot’s paintings. Paul Claudel wasn’t as understanding.

Edma and Berthe followed different paths. Edma got married and gave up painting. Berthe kept on painting and married Eugène Manet, Edouard’s brother, in 1875. He always supported her career and helped organize exhibitions.

Dominique Bona places Berthe Morisot in her time, among her friends. And what a group of friends she had! Fantin-Latour, Puvis de Chavanne, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Mallarmé. She was an early impressionist, she remained faithful to her group and kept on working on her talent, following her path. Manet influenced her painting, especially at the beginning. They worked a lot together and she influenced him too. They had a close relationship.

Bona’s biography is chronological and shows Morisot’s personal and professional life. We see who were her teachers, her friends, where she painted and the history of the Impressionist exhibitions.

Morisot’s life is fantastic material for a book. She was the only female painter in a group of artists who revolutionized painting in a Paris. And yet, this biography is a disappointment. The style is flat, flat, flat to the point of boredom. I expected better from a member of the Académie Française.

In my opinion, Bona failed to bring the Paris of that time to life. I would have liked better descriptions of the ambiance, of the places these painters spent time in and more context about what was happening at the same time in politics, literature and science. I would have liked her to show in which society the Impressionist movement happened.

But the worst is the “secret of the woman in black” angle. It grated on my feminist sensibilities.

In the first chapters, Bona describes how many paintings of Morisot Edouard Manet did, points out that she was his most frequent model and hints that he was in love with her. She also hints that Morisot was in love with him. The last chapter of the book comments on the fact that the correspondence between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet is nowhere to be found. That’s suspicious and would mean that they exchanged love letters. Well, ok. Maybe they were lovers. Maybe she loved him and it was unrequited love. Who knows? And more importantly, what does it matter? I can’t help wondering: if Bona had written Edouard Manet’s biography, would she have chosen this angle? Would the title be, Edouard Manet. The secret of the man with the beard? Probably not. It seems to me that women artists with close relationship with other artists are always seen as their sidekick. You know, like Camille Claudel. They are mentioned in relation to their male friend or partner.

And then, there’s this passage, page 205, that left me stunned, stricken by its sheer stupidity. (Sorry if the translation is terrible, I’m not fluent in astrological terms. I barely know them in French.)

Car Berthe ne sait peindre que ce qu’elle ressent, elle exprime ce qu’elle est. Or, qui est-elle sinon cette fille née sous un signe de Terre –Capricorne—mais qu’anime un fort ascendant d’Eau—Cancer. Son thème astral, selon les spécialistes, conjugue un Soleil en Capricorne—une forte ambition, apte à se réaliser—et une Lune en Balance conjointe à Mars –qui souligne les valeurs instinctives et de puissantes aspirations affectives. Les astres qui l’ont vue naître sont propices à une personnalité douloureuse et conflictuelle, qui est à la fois Ambition et Féminité ; mais aussi Passion et Colère. Conflit permanent entre la Terre et l’Eau –la réalisation concrète de soi et les appels lancinants d’une sensibilité exacerbée—, Berthe Morisot est très différente de l’univers qu’elle peint, des toiles aux tons joyeux et calmes, où irradie le bonheur. Les experts en astrologie complètent leur analyse en opposant la position de Neptune en Verseau (ces deux planètes de la sensibilité renforcent l’influence de la Lune, déjà importante dans le signe) et celle de Saturne en Sagittaire (autre moteur de la réalisation de soi.)

Berthe only paints what she feels. She expresses what she is. And who is she but his girl born under an earth sign –Capricorn—but animated by a strong water ascendant –Cancer. Her birth chart, according to specialists, mixes Sun with Capricorn—a strong ambition, likely to be fulfilled – and Moon with Libra, along with Mars—which underlines strong instinctive values and powerful emotional aspirations. The stars she was born under are liable to lead to a painful and conflictual personality, which is both Ambition and Femineity but also Passion and Anger. Berthe Morisot is a permanent conflict between Earth and Water – concrete self-actualization and the nagging calls from an exaggerated sensitivity. She’s very different from the world she paints, pictures with joyful and soothing tones, irradiating with happiness. Experts in astrology back up their analysis in opposing the position of Neptune in Aquarius (these two planets of sensitivity strengthen the influence of the Moon, already important in the sign) to that of Saturn in Sagittarius (another push towards self-actualization.)

See the astrological mumbo jumbo? First, it’s contradictory. How can she paint what she feels and then be very different from her paintings? Second, it’s more that stupid, it’s insulting for this extraordinary artist.

And again, I wonder: would anyone write something like this about Manet? Who would use astrology to describe a male’s artist style? Would anyone call Renoir a “boy”? Who would make Monet’s sensitivity sound like a flaw?

Just typing the quote made me angry. I see Berthe Morisot as a strong woman. She kept on painting despite the difficulties. She was gifted, smart enough to pursue her career without making any waves and yet never giving up her line of work. She didn’t marry young as it was customary in her social class. She chose herself a partner who understood her, supported her and helped her career. She was in the center of one of the most important painting movement of the century. She had her own style, she never wavered. Berthe Morisot deserves better that this astrological analysis.

My only regret is that I didn’t read this biography before going to the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019. I would have appreciated it more. And now, I want to rush to the Musée d’Orsay, see again all the Impressionists’ paintings there but of course, it’s closed at the moment.

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh – #SouthernCrossCrime2021

March 3, 2021 16 comments

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh (1936) French title: Initiation à la mort (First translation) and Mort en extase (second translation)

I picked Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh for Kim’s Southern Cross Crime Month. I wanted to read a book by Marsh something I hadn’t done since my years of crime binge-reading in my teens. To be honest, I didn’t know that Marsh was from New Zealand.

Death in Ecstasy is a whodunnit but the setting is not a classic one. No country manor or seaside resort here, but the House of the Sacred Flame, a sect located in Knocklatchers Row, London. The priest of the cult is Mr Garnett, self-proclaimed Father. The church has Initiates and two acolytes, like adult altar boys. The ceremony is in full swing…

‘Now the door is open, now burns the flame of ecstasy. Come with me into the Oneness of the Spirit. You are floating away from your bodies. You are entering into a new life. There is no evil. Let go your hold on the earth. Ecstasy – it is yours. Come, drink of the flaming cup!

… when poor Cara Quayne, who was in religious extasy and about to become the Chosen Vessel, drinks from the cup and drops dead. The wine was spiced up with cyanide.

Nigel Bathgate, who lives nearby, was in the church when it happened. Out of curiosity. After a doctor from the attendance confirms Cara’s death, Nigel rings Roderick Alleyn, Chief Detective-Inspector at Scotland Yard.

The investigation starts right away, Alleyn accompanied by Detective-Inspector Fox, Bailey, in charge of forensic and the Yard’s surgeon. We have a classic investigation of a murder that can only have been committed by a limited number of people, the Initiates.

Marsh draws up a curious group of people. Mr Ogden, an American business man who is in London on business, M. de Ravigne, a Frenchman who is in love with Cara, Miss Wade, an observant spinster, Mrs Candour, an old gossipy bat, jealous of Cara, Mr Pringle and his fiancée Jeney Jenkins and the two gay acolytes, Mr Wheatley and Mr Smith.

No need to go further into the plot, it’s classic crime. The fun of the book is between the lines and beyond the plot.

I thought that Ngaio Marsh was a lot more playful than Agatha Christie. I enjoyed the relationship between Alleyn and Nigel, who bows to Alleyn’s superiority. It’s clear in their names: in the book, Nigel Bathgate is Nigel and Roderick Alleyn is Alleyn or Chief. Alleyn teases Nigel about his journalistic style…

‘What style are you adopting? You have been reading George Moore again, I notice.’ ‘What makes you suppose that?’ asked Nigel, turning pink. ‘His style has touched your conversation and left it self-conscious.’ …

but Nigel teases back, like here:

‘Chief Detective-Inspector,’ he said, ‘I am your Watson, and your worm. You may both sit and trample on me. I shall continue to offer you the fruits of my inexperience.’

The relationship between Alleyn and Fox is also quite amusing, Alleyn giving him nicknames, like Foxkin, lightly making fun of his attempts at learning French through a radio program.

As often in books of that time, foreigners have to sound foreign and in line with what their nationality entails. This is why Nigel exclaims that “de Ravigne’s a Frenchman. He is no doubt over-emotionalized” or that Ogden looks like an American commercial: “He was a type that is featured heavily in transatlantic publicity, tall, rather fat and inclined to be flabby, but almost incredibly clean, as though he used all the deodorants, mouth washes, soaps and lotions recommended by his prototype who beams pep from the colour pages of American periodicals.”

In British books, Frenchmen are always emotional and oversexed and Americans always vulgar.

I had fun observing how Marsh tiptoed around homosexuality and what periphrases she used to make the reader understand that Wheatley and Smith are a couple. Mr Garnett reads central-heated books hidden in brown paper covers that make Wheatly blush and Marsh drops hints and roundabout phrases to let us know that Mr Garnett had sex with women among the Initiates. It seems like sex talk is a big no-no in the publishing industry of the time.

I also grinned at Marsh’s ironic mentions of the crime fiction industry, its tropes and star writers and characters. See here, when I was at 53% of the book, according to my kindle:

‘Look here,’ said Nigel suddenly, ‘let’s pretend it’s a detective novel. Where would we be by this time? About half-way through, I should think. Well, who’s your pick.’ ‘I am invariably gulled by detective novels. No herring so red but I raise my voice and give chase.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Nigel. ‘Fact. You see in real detection herrings are so often out of season.’ ‘Well, never mind, who’s your pick?’ ‘It depends on the author. If it’s Agatha Christie, Miss Wade’s occulted guilt drips from every page. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter would plump for Pringle, I fancy. Inspector French would go for Ogden. Of course Ogden, on the face of it, is the first suspect.’

Now I have to look for a book with Inspector French, preferably published in 1936 for the #1936Club.

Last but not least, I keep learning funny-sounding English words when I read books from the 1920s and 1930s. This time I’ll quote Lumme!, rum, mellifluous, hanky-panky, jakealoo or fossicked. I’m grateful for ebooks, their instant dictionary and the fun I have looking into all these words I don’t know. It’d make me sound like a great-grand-ma if I used them, right?

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