Three crimes is a charm : England in the Middle Ages, high tech in Virginia and a haunting past in Finland.

January 29, 2023 12 comments

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (2007) French title: La confidente des morts. Translated by Vincent Hugon.

This is the first instalment of a series by Ariana Franklin featuring the female doctor, Adelia Aguila. We’re in Cambridge, in 1171, during the reign of King Henry II of England. Adelia came from Sicily with Simon of Naples and Mansur.

They were sent by their king upon Henry II’s request. Children have been murdered in Cambridge and the local population accuses the Jews of the crime. They have been staying in a castle for months now and as valuable tax payers, Henry II wants them back to their occupations.

Adelia is an oddity for 12th century England: she’s a woman, a doctor and “mistress of the art of death”, in other word, the ancestor of medical examiners.

The book is a criminal investigation, a cool description of life in Cambridge at the time. I’m not sure that everything is totally accurate or that the characters are historically plausible but I didn’t care. I’m no historian, the main details were correct and I had a great time following this ad hoc team of investigators while they looked for the perpetrator of these gory murders.

Recommended to spend a good afternoon on the couch, with a blanket during a cold winter Sunday or lying on a towel on the beach during a hot summer day.

Livid by Patricia Cornwell (2022) Not available in French. Yet.

My daughter raised to the challenge of getting me a book for Christmas and the poor child sweated bullets and spent a lot of time in a bookstore wondering what to buy to her bookworm of a mother.

I hadn’t read anything by Cornwell in 25 years, I think. I used to read her, Mary Higgins Clark and Elizabeth George in my teens and twenties. Then I got tired of them, even if Elizabeth George is the best writer of the three. What Came Before He Shot Her is truly remarkable. But back to Cornwell.

Kay Scarpetta is back in Alexandria, Virginia, as the chief of medical examiners and let’s say that CSI techniques have progressed since Adelia’s time in Cambridge.

The book opens with an excellent trial scene where Scarpetta is testifying and put under unfair pressure by the Commonweath’s Attorney while the judge doesn’t intervene. The said judge is Annie Chilton, her college friend and by the end of the day, Scarpetta learns that the judge’s sister Rachael has been murdered and that there was an attempted terrorist attack against the president of the USA.

Scarpetta goes on the crime scene and the CIA and FBI have already invested the place as the victim worked for the CIA. Scarpetta quickly understands that Rachael was killed by a microwave gun, a very rare and specific weapon. Later, another body is discovered in the neighborhood.

Follows a family investigation since Scarpetta does the autopsy, her niece is on the case as an FBI agent and so is her husband Benton, as a secret services agent. What a family, eh?

It’s good entertainment even if the pace of the book is a bit weird at times. The description of Scarpetta’s work at the morgue seemed to drag on while the denouement was rushed and not detailed enough. The characters sounded a bit formulaic and I wasn’t too interested in the office politics and antagonism.

It was published in October 2022 and I couldn’t help noticing that the war in Ukraine was already mentioned in the book. Eight months after it started it’s already in a published book. There was no time wasted in editing and polishing this book before its publication, it seems.

Anyway, this is another Beach & Public Transport book, one you read as you watch a CSI episode on TV.

The Oath by Arttu Tuominen (2018). Not available in English. French title: Le serment. Translated by Anne Colin du Terrail.

The Oath is truly the best book of the three. We’re in Pori, Finland in 2018. Jari Paloviita is the interim head of the local police and Rami Nieminen is murdered by Antti Mielonen during a party in a cabin in the woods. The victim was stabbed in the back and Antti ran out of the cabin and was found in the woods with his sweatshirt full of the victim’s blood. There is no doubt he did it.

Inspector Henrik Oksman and his partner Linda Toivonen know it. All they have to do is follow procedures to the letter to ensure there is no room for doubt about Antti’s guilt when the trial comes.

But Jari Paloviita used to go to school with Rami and Antti. Antti was his best friend while Rami bullied him relentlessly. He and Antti share a heavy baggage as the story unfolds and we discover what happened to them during the summer 1991. They were 13 at the time and dramatic events pushed them out of childhood.

To what length is Jari prepared to go to in the name of an old friendship?

I’d say you’ll have to read the book to find out but sadly, it’s not available in English. It baffles me since Nordic crime is such a hit in the English-speaking world. It’s a real pity because the plot is tight, the back and forth between 2018 and 1991 is gripping and full of grey areas. The characters’ personal life is troubled and I can see the beginning of a great series.

This is also my contribution to Annabel’s event Nordic FINDS.

It strikes me that I didn’t choose the three books I just wrote about. I got the Ariana Franklin with my Quais du Polar entry ticket, my daughter gave me the Cornwell for Christmas and the Tuominen came with my Kube subscription. The Tuominen is probably the only one I would have bought myself, so kudos for the Kube libraire who blind-picked it for me.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy – great literature.

January 21, 2023 28 comments

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) French title: Le Dahlia noir. Translated by Frédéric Michalski.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy is probably one of the oldest books of my TBR. The mention inside says my roommate gave it to me in 1995. Ahem. I was reluctant to read it, not sure I’d get along with Ellroy. I only started to read noir fiction after I went online with Book Around the Corner and discovered Guy’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy’s a crime fiction and noir afficionado.

And now I wonder: what was I waiting for?

The Black Dahlia is loosely based upon a real case, the murder of Elizabeth Short that the press nicknamed the Black Dahlia. She was born in 1924 in Boston and was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. Her case became famous because her body was horribly mutilated and it’s still unsolved.

Ellroy uses the Black Dahlia case as a basis to write a complex story with a striking picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is our narrator. He’s a former boxer and LAPD agent. He met Lee Blanchard, another LPAD agent when they covered the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Both have a checkered past. Bucky is the son of a German immigrant who doesn’t hide his racist tendencies. Bucky’s patriotism was tested during WWII and he agreed to give his Japanese neighbors up to keep his job with the LAPD. He’s still reeling from it.

Lee Blanchard is famous for solving a hold-up case and shacking up with Kay, the criminal’s girlfriend after the trial. He still lives with her and this scandalous relationship cost him a promotion. His little sister was murdered when he was a teenager and he feels guilty of not protecting her enough.

As semi-famous former boxers, their bosses ask them to fight against each other to raise funds for the LAPD and promote a bill that would increase the wages of the LAPD agents. They get a transfer to the Warrants department. They agree to it. The fight is highly publicized, they are nicknamed Fire and Ice. Their bond is based upon camaraderie and respect but is also tainted by politics and tactics. The relationship between Bucky, Lee and Kay is central to Ellroy’s book.

As you imagine Bucky and Lee are detached to the police force dedicated to solving Betty Short’s murder. They get swallowed in the case and the book moves to a classic investigation.

Ellroy follows the thread of a murder investigation and shows corruption and power fights in the LAPD. He takes his characters to the shadiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and takes pleasure in describing brothels, dives, underground gay and lesbian meeting points and seedy hotels. He also brings us to rich neighborhoods and uncovers the ugliness present behind closed doors and polished manners. Greed. Sex. Perversion. They invade every corner of the city and Ellroy exposes what’s behind the Hollywood dreamy facade.

He conveys the pulse of the city, its rapid growth and real estate moguls, the Hollywood hype and the sordid world of hopeless hope of aspiring actresses.

He takes us across the Mexican border to Tijuana in an even more violent and corrupted country. He describes perfectly the intricacies of office politics in the LAPD, the violence against suspects and police procedurals. Or lack thereof.

It’s well-oiled book that keeps the reader on edge. I wanted to know how Bucky would come out of it, if Ellroy would make his characters solve the murder while reading about Los Angeles in the 1940s. I was curious about Bucky, Lee and Kay’s trio. I wondered if the big LAPD machine would run over Bucky or if he’d make it alright.

A brilliant book but I’m glad I waited to read it. There will be more Ellroy in my future.

For the record, I also have the graphic novel of this book by Miles Hyman Matz and David Fincher and it’s a good companion book.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga – the dark sides of real-estate in Mumbai and of human behaviour.

January 15, 2023 18 comments

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga (2011) French title: Le dernier homme de la tour. Translated by Annick Le Goya.

Bombay, like a practitioner of yoga, was folding in on itself, as its centre moved from the south, where there was no room to grow, to this swamp land near the airport.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga is set in Mumbai, in the Vakola district near the airport, in a two towers apartment complex built in the 1970s.

Tower B, known as “Vishram Society” is like a vertical village of lower middle-class people. It’s also known as ‘cosmopolitan’ (i.e. ethnically and religiously mixed.) The various families have been living together in this building for years, they’ve raised children, grown old and have to share their private lives due to paper thin walls and building practicalities. Like in small town life, everybody knows everything about everyone and keeping a secret is illusory.

The Secretary [the concierge], not for the first time during his tenure, cursed the early – morning cat. This cat prowled the waste bins that the residents left out in the morning for Mary [The cleaning lady] to collect, in the process spilling beans, bones, and whisky bottles alike. So the residents of the building knew from the rubbish who was a vegetarian and who merely claimed to be one; who was a rum – man and who a gin – man; and who had bought a pornographic magazine when on holiday in Singapore.

What was I saying about secrets?

Now, in the ever growing and changing Mumbai, a property developer, Mr Shah, has set his eyes on two towers built in the 1970s. He wants to buy out all the current owners, demolish the towers and rebuild expensive condos on the land.

Mr Shah is ready to pay a hefty sum to all the owners based on the square meters of their apartment to encourage them to move out.

A useful note at the beginning of the book explains that Mr Shah’s offer is equivalent to $330,000 per family, in a country where the average per capita annual income in 2008 was around $800. So, if people accept Mr Shah’s offer, they become very rich and have enough money to relocate somewhere else.

Last important thing to know: Vishram Society is a Registered Co – operative Society. Not a jungle. If even one person says no that means that the Society cannot be demolished.

The novel shows the dirty methods used by property developers in Mumbai to put their hands on prime land, to throw working classes out of some neighbourhood to gentrify the area. In Mumbai, slums, older building and modern towers are near each other and this passage about a beach sums it up:

Here, in this beach in this posh northern suburb of Mumbai, half the sand was reserved for the rich, who defecated in their towers, the other half for slum dwellers, who did so near the waves. Residents of the slum that had encroached upon the beach were squatting by the water, defecating. An invisible line went down the middle of the beach like an electrified fence; beyond this line, the bankers, models, and film producers of Versova were engaged in tai – chi, yoga, or spot – jogging.

Builders have no qualms about bullying people into agreeing and they have special people to do it.

Every builder has one special man in his company. This man has no business card to hand out, no title, he is not even on the company payroll. But he is the builder’s left hand. He does what the builder’s right hand does not want to know about. If there is trouble, he contacts the police or the mafia. If there is money to be paid to a politician, he carries the bag. If someone’s knuckles have to be broken, he breaks them.

People in Vishram Society have heard stories about builders’ methods and swindles. They are cautious, they wonder where things could go and how they can be sure to get the money after they’ve signed the papers to sell their apartment.

Rather quickly, all the inhabitants agree to sell and the only one who doesn’t want to is Masterji, an old widower who refuses to leave the memories of his late wife and daughter behind. At least, that’s what he thinks his motives are.

This opportunity to get rich for the owners and to get richer for the promoter is like a bomb in a carefully built life balance between the inhabitants of the Vishram Society.

Last Man in Tower relates how Mr Shah manoeuvres to get what he wants. It also depicts how this tower-village copes with the one inhabitant who blocks their way to wealth.

Adiga’s book is cleverly done because it is not Manichean, the bad developer on one side and the poor old man on the other side. The greedy people and the virtuous one. Mr Shah intends to pay the money he promised, in the builder category, he’s not the worst one. But still. He counts on the neighbours to pressure Masterji into selling.

Masterji’s neighbours want the money, and most of them for good reasons: to provide for their son with Down’s syndrome after they die, to raise their children in a better neighbourhood, to help their grownup children to settle in life, to live a little and stop counting every penny.

And Masterji’s refusal is not just sentimental. There’s something else at stake here, someone who wants to stand up for himself when he wasn’t able to do it in this life, someone who sticks to his principle for the sake of them only.

Last Man in Tower is a dark tale, a book that shows how quickly people turn on each other when money is involved and circumstances push them to pick a side. We know that dark side of humans, we’ve witnessed it in wars and it’s the same mechanism at work here.

Adiga’s novel exposes the workings of the real estate market in Mumbai and digs into the dark corners of the human soul but it is also a vibrant picture of Mumbai and life in this sprawling city. The slums, the markets, the temples, the overcrowded public transports, the heat, the monsoon and the incredible pollution.

South Mumbai has the Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building, but the suburbs, built later, have their own Gothic style: for every evening, by six, pillars of hydro – benzene and sulphur dioxide rise high up from the roads, flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide join each other, swirls of unburnt kerosene, mixed illegally into the diesel, cackle like gargoyles, and a great roof of carbon monoxide closes over the structure. And this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light, every bridge and every tunnel during rush hour.

When I was reading, I thought it was a bit too long but now that I write about it I realize that the pace of the narration suits what the author had to show and say.

The book was published in 2011, wonder how the real-estate market is in Mumbai now.

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams – it’s a question of hooks

January 8, 2023 4 comments

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams. (1953) – “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive.”

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams was previously entitled Hell Hath No Fury. This noir thriller dates back to 1953 and I guess it was renamed after the film version of the book was released in 1990.

In French, it was translated by Bruno Martin for the Série noire collection in 1955. The French title was Je t’attends au tournant and I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore.

The original translation seems out of print which is good because it’s an abridged version. There’s no way to translate all the sentences of a 190 pages English book into a 185 pages French paperback, since the said French paperback is smaller than the English book and French takes more words than English to say the same thing. I checked a random paragraph and bingo, the original sentences are cleverly cut to keep the book under 200 pages as it was supposed to be read in one sitting on a train journey.

Lucky French readers, Gallmeister published a new translation by Laura Derajinski 2019 and kept the title Hot Spot. These different translations didn’t impact my reading though, since I read The Hot Spot in English.

Now, the book

I lighted a cigarette and smoked it out nervously, listening to the night sounds and thinking of the dangerous mess I was drifting further into all the time. I had twelve thousand dollars I couln’t touch, I was crazy about a girl who was in some kind of trouble she couldn’t tell me about, and I was getting more hopelessly fouled up every day with crazy Dolores Harshaw.

This is Harry Madox. He’s a twenty-eight drifter who comes to a small Texas town, finds a job as a car salesman and settles in a boarding house. He works for George Harshaw who also has a side-business in car loans to go with the dealership. Gloria Harper runs the loan office.

Harshaw is married to Dolores who seduces Harry for what he thinks is a simple hookup. She doesn’t see it that way and although she’s definitely not in love with him, she sinks her hook in him and wants him all to herself. He’s her ticket out of her boring marriage. But Harry falls for Gloria who has a lot of issues of her own. When Gloria and Harry start dating, it sends Dolores on the war path.

Besides the sex and love affairs, Harry put himself in a nice little mess of his own doing when he robbed the local bank.

Two events sparked this crazy idea: first, during a fire on Main Street, he noticed that all the people were focused on the fire and that the bank was left almost unattended and second, as Dolores asked him to help her move some boxes in an abandoned building near the bank, he noticed it was full of junk and that is was an incredible fire hazard. What if he set the building on fire, robbed the bank and made sure to be seen helping the firefighters?

That’s what he does it but the local sheriff is cleverer than he expected. He doesn’t buy it and intends to question him until he relents and spills the beans. He’s only released from custody because Dolores spontaneously lies and gives him an alibi. His relief is short-lived. Now she has him and she knows it.

Harry still thinks he can get out of it if he lays low but his feelings for Gloria get in the way. He feels protective of her and things get out of hand when he tries to help her with her own issues.

Harry is taken in a web of lies and crimes. Dolores is a skilled manipulator but she’s enabled by Harry’s actions. The robbery and his relationship with Gloria give her leverage. She’s poisonous but his actions leave him with his flesh exposed and she just sees where and how she can sink her hooks into him.

The Hot Spot is a masterpiece of noir fiction. All the right ingredients are there.

An unreliable narrator who would want us to forget he’s a bank robber. A beautiful young woman who’s not as innocent as she seems. A femme fatale who knows what she wants and how to get it. And the whole plot, clever and articulate as a Shakespearian tragedy is served by an excellent literary style. We are with Harry in this little Texas town. We imagine the heat, the town, the dealership, the cars and the characters in their 1950s outfits. We sweat with Harry and recoil from the violence and we see how events unfold in an implacable manner.

A must-read for all crime fiction lovers.

Have a look at Guy’s excellent review here.

My 2022 reading highlights : another excellent year with books

January 1, 2023 39 comments

It’s already this time of year : the end-of-year wrap-up. I feel like I’ve been in a rush all year long but when I look at my reading year, I still managed to read 75 books (that’s my usual) and a lot of them were excellent.

As usual, I’m not big on statistics about genders, centuries, genres and translated books. I’ll give you my very subjective list of best books read in 2022 and in totally random categories that make only sense to me.

Best Least Commented Billet

I looked into my billets in search of the least commented ones. This year, the winner is Shiner by Amy Jo Burns. It could have been a solid contender for a Bleakest Book category too. What a terrible story of the domination of men over their wives and children, of ignorance, of lost opportunities, of poverty and of the dying way-of-life of the mountains.

It’s a good book, I wonder why almost nobody responded to this billet.

Is it well-known in America and in the UK?

Best Gallmeister Book

I’m fan of books published by Gallmeister. They publish excellent American literature with a focus on crime fiction and Nature Writing, the books that Oliver Gallmeister loves and wishes to promote. Since 2022, they’ve branched out and have Italian books too.

Among the ten books that I read this year from their catalogue, all of them could be on my best-of-the-year list.

For this category, I choose Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, it lives up to its reputation. I haven’t read a lot of westerns but this one is really beautiful on every aspect. The characters, the descriptions of landscapes, the atmosphere of the ending of the Frontier era.

Best Non-Book post

2022 was the centenary of Marcel Proust’s death and I’ve attended several exhibitions and read books by him or about him. I loved visiting these exhibitions and sharing them with you. Given the responses I received to these billets, you have enjoyed your travel armchair visits to Paris and Proust.

There has been two billets about Proust and Paris at the Musée Carnavalet, one about Proust’s life in Paris and one about People and Characters that compared characters of In Search of Lost Time and their real-life counterparts. I wrote about the exhibition Proust on his mother’s side at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme. This one explored Proust’s Jewish side as his mother was Jewish.

And the last one I attended was about the making of In Search of Lost Time at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Commenters were quite enthusiastic about it. Thank you for reading these billets about exhibitions you’ll most probably never attend.

Best Most Relaxing Book

Usually, this category includes lighter reads or books you read for entertainment only. This year I want to take “relaxing book” at face value and I pick Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm.

He describes his winter alone in the Idaho woods near Montana. It’s candid, well-pictured and it runs interference with whatever is bothering you.

Pure bliss, pure armchair travel and a book that reminds you what important and what isn’t.

Best Read With-Sister-in-Law

I read a book per month along with my sister-in-law. (Hi, S!).

In November, we had picked The Hot Spot by Charles Williams. I haven’t written my billet about it yet. I’m glad I waited until the beginning of 2023 to make my best-of-of-the-year list. This is a masterpiece of Noir crime fiction. Brilliant plot, excellent writing, convincing characters and all the Noir codes are respected. It was my first Williams and now he’s sitting next to Jim Thompson on my mental bookshelf.

Best Translation Tragedy

A Translation Tragedy is a book available in English but sadly not in French or vice versa. This year I’ve read twenty-three books that are not translated into English (more than last year, 15) and five that are not translated into French.

Only nine of the twenty-three books not available in English are French books, the others are from French-speaking Africa (Republic of the Congo, Benin, Algeria and Mali), Japan, Italy, Hungary, Mexico, Portugal and Sweden.

In this category, I also have Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami which is composed of various texts that exist in English but have not been gathered in a book. It’s the same for The Book of Christmas by Selma Lagerlöf.

On another note, I find it strange that The House Where I Once Died by Keigo Higashino hasn’t been translated into English since some of his books have been translated.

I’ve tried to read more books by African writers and I wish that Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala were translated into English. It’s a wonderful portray of women who fight for their rights in the Republic of Congo.

I can’t leave behind the wonderful Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi. It’s an excellent crime fiction book that mixes a fascinating murder plot, traditions from Sardinia, two catching investigators and a very atmospheric setting.

Among the five books not available in French, like last year, I wonder why Paul Thomas (New Zealand) is not available in French. Fallout was excellent just as Death on Demand in 2021. I’m would find its public in France as we are fans of crime fiction and his Maori maverick police officer would be a hit.

Best Book-I-Want-To-Buy-To-All-My-Friends

Well, it would depend on the time and the friend. I’d either pick All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren or The Marseille trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo.

All the King’s Men is based on an actual politician and the author found the right balance between telling the rise and fall of a man, examine the life of his right-hand man and mull over the meaning of life and of right and wrong. Not a beach-and-public-transport book but still one I want to share and discuss. It has been republished in a revised translation and the book itself is beautiful.

The Izzo is more entertainment. I loved it and read it while I was in Marseille. It was a wonderful travel companion even if the city has changed a lot since Izzo wrote his books. The reason I loved it so much is the unique atmosphere of the books and how they transport you to Marseille and its area. And yet, Izzo doesn’t sugarcoat the Marseille reality and his tour-de-force is that you still want to hop on a plane and visit Marseille despite all the gritty places he takes his readers to in his books. You just wish that the main character, Fabio Montale, would take you on a ride by the sea and to a local restaurant.

Best Book Club Read

Our Book Club year picked In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and I’m really happy I have read it. I thought it could be too dry for me but not at all. I know it’s a controversial book because it’s based on a real case and it was written only a few years after it occurred but it’s still an excellent book.

Best Non-Fiction

I challenged myself with one non-fiction book per month. I’ve kept up with the list I had made, except for the “Derrida 101”.

The one I’d recommend, beside In Cold Blood and Indian Creek is Proust by Samuel Beckett. It’s an excellent companion book to In Search of Lost Time. Beckett wrote this when he was in his twenties and he’s incredibly insightful.

Best Recommended Book

My choice is Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk.

I started this reluctantly as I found it daunting but I trusted Bénédicte from Passage à l’Est when she told me I’d like it. I loved it and I’m grateful for book blogging or I wouldn’t have read it.

As we say in French, only stupid people don’t change their minds.

Best Book set in the Apalachees

I’ve read several books set in the Apalachees since we were travelling there in August. I read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and was a bit disappointed by it. I thought it didn’t age well but their hiking on the Appalachian trail was still a performance.

There’s Shiner by Amy Jo Burns that I mentioned earlier. Bleak but based on real patterns and events in the mountains. It’s set in Virginia or West-Virginia.

I loved Country Dark by Chris Offutt and its character, Tucker. This one is in Tennessee and hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park helped me understand Offutt’s novel even better as the constraints of nature became clearer. This billet didn’t get a lot of audience but you’re missing out on a great book.

North Carolina was represented by two books. The first one is Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash. I wish I had had the time to do a proper billet about this excellent novel. Vishy read it too and wrote a review here.

The second one is The Night That Held Us by David Joy. It’s in the top five of the best books I’ve read this year and the winner in this category. You bet I’ll be reading more by him. He’s got everything I love in a writer: short books that pack a lot, a precise writing, a wonderful sense of place, complex characters who have to deal with a set of rotten cards and sometimes take wrong turns in their lives.

Best Chilling Book

That’s definitely Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett as it really gave me the chills but I could have chosen Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy.

Both describe horrific situations that could come true. Vigilance is about a reality show that involves mass-shootings and Little Rebel how ordinary people become terrorists. Both plausible, both terrifying.

That’s when you need the comfort read delivered by novels set outdoors and with characters who find their peace of mind in a river.

Best Fly-Fishing Book

I didn’t read a lot of books involving fly-fishing this year but I did pass by a fly-fishing museum. I read another book by Keith McCafferty, Dead Man’s Fancy and it was lovely to spend more time with Sean Callahan and Sheriff Martha.

Best Feminist Book

Our Book Club had included in The Awakening by Kate Chopin in our choices for 2021/2022. I thought it was very ahead of its time as the heroin refuses to stick to the position she’s supposed to fill as a bourgeois wife in New Orleans.

Best atmospheric crime fiction

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden took me to the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The crime fiction plot was excellent, well-driven and kept my attention. I got attached to the main character who’s struggling to sort out his life, raise his nephew who has lost his parents, grieve his sister and accept the support of his community.

As I’m always curious, I loved reading about life on the reservation and about Lakota customs. The author doesn’t reveal anything about secret rituals that hadn’t been described before. I am grateful that he managed to share about his culture without betraying confidentiality about certains rites.

Well, that was my year 2022 in books. I’ve spent a lovely afternoon among my books and plotting my 2023 reading year.

What about you? When you think of 2022, which book comes on top of your mind?

Happy New Year 2023! Bonne année et bonne santé!

January 1, 2023 12 comments

I don’t know what to wish for 2023. 2022 has been pretty awful for the world, hasn’t it?

Heat waves, hurricanes, drastic cold, steady destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. A dreadful war in Ukraine, full of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Inflation. Covid 19 bouts. People killed for wanting to be free. Extreme-right rising everywhere. Dictators or populists in power in many countries.

It’s hard to be hopeful, isn’t it? It’s enough to have one’s anxiety shoot to the roof. My philosophy is to stick to what’s around me out of self-preservation. Concentrate on what’s within my reach.

Our bookish world has proved to be a safe haven again, even if our civilized Twitter corner is threatened by Musk’s take-over of the company. What a tool.

2022 has been full of excellent reads (more of that in another billet), I’ve kept up with the blog despite my new job that has put me on a learning curve and eaten some of my time and a lot of my energy.

Many thanks to all the readers and commenters who kept on reading my billets even if I couldn’t reciprocate and read theirs. It means a lot.

I wish you all the best for 2023. May you be safe, in good health, able to pay your energy bills and live in a place where you can express freely.

I wish us all another wonderful year full of books, bookish events, exchanges, recommendations, blogs billets and Twitter chats. I”m grateful for the book community. Let’s stick together and spend another book-filled year together.

May our ever-growing TBR be our main concern in 2023.

Categories: Personal Posts Tags:

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Baindridge – it puts the reader on edge

December 28, 2022 18 comments

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (1974) French title: Sombre Dimanche. Translated by Françoise Cartano.

The Bottle Factory Outing is my second Beryl Bainbridge, after An Awfully Big Adventure and I can find similarities between the two books.

In The Bottle Factory Outing, we’re in London and our protagonists are two roommates, Freda and Brenda. They live in a boarding house and like each other well enough but have opposite characters. Freda is outgoing and flirty. She loves clothes and make up and wants to marry well. She’s energetic and knows what she wants.

Brenda landed in London after she escaped from an abusive marriage. She’s mousy, down-to-earth and wants to be left alone. She’s passive and her attitude sends mixed messages to people around her and gets on Freda’s nerves.

In the following passage, Freda and Brenda are watching a funeral from their window and their interaction gives away their personalities:

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.
‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’
‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There aren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’
‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’
‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’
‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’

See how Freda romanticize what she sees and projects her future and how Brenda remains practical and attempts to bring her back to reality? It’s typical.

Freda and Brenda work at the same bottle factory owned and managed by Mr Paganotti. He’s Italian and all the workers come from the same Italian village, except Patrick, an Irishman, Freda and Brenda.

Freda has a crush on Mr Paganotti’s nephew, Vittorio. He’s handsome, prances around the factory and flirts a little bit with Freda. She grows things out of proportion because she’s decided that he’s the perfect candidate for the handsome and rich husband she ambitions to marry.

She’s infatuated with him but she doesn’t know him well. In order to spend time with him outside of the factory, she organizes a factory outing on a weekend. But things don’t turn out so well…

Relationships between men and women are creepy in The Bottle Factory Outing just as they were in An Awfully Big Adventure.

Brenda was in an abusive marriage and even if nothing precise is revealed about her past, the reader guesses that it must have been pretty bad for Brenda to take action. And she’s barely started to work at the bottle factory for three days when she starts getting a lot of unwanted attention at work from Rossi, the foreman. She doesn’t know how to rebuff his advances because she doesn’t want to lose her job. Brenda the mouse also caught the attention of her coworker Patrick. He offers to fix her toilet to see her outside of work. At least this one seems respectful.

Freda has Vittorio’s attention but he’s unlikely to marry her and she sets herself up for deception. It’s a classic case of wishing to be the wife and being seen as a mistress. Usually, it only means a broken heart, nothing life-threatening. As far as Freda is concerned, the most disturbing events occur during the outing.

Beryl Bainbridge has a great sense of humour and it shows in her descriptions of her characters and of the outing. But the ending takes a very dark turn, one I didn’t expect. She’s an author who keeps her reader on their toes as her characters are a bit off, as they can sense that events are about to take a dramatic turn or that painful pasts lurk in the characters’ background.

This is a very well constructed novel.

Have you read books by her? What did you think of them? I still have The Dressmaker on the shelf.

Guy has reviewed several of them and his take on The Bottle Factory Outing is here.

Joyeux Noël from France!

December 25, 2022 26 comments

I wish you all a Joyeux Noël from France!

Whatever you’re doing today, I hope you’re having a great day. If you celebrate Christmas, may it be among friends and family. I hope my American readers weren’t stuck at home because of this historical cold wave and bad weather.

Here the extended family was reunited for the first time since 2019. The children are back home from school and we’re enjoying our time together. It’s good to be back to normal.

Life got busy before Christmas, I rushed through December and struggled to get in the Christmas mood and as often I found help in Christmas books.

After reading As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson, I spent some more time with Sheriff Longmire and read Christmas in Absaroka County.

Four short stories around Christmas time, with Sheriff Longmire and his daughter Caddy. In Ministerial Aid, he uncovers a swindle around selling luxurious bibles to people who are grieving. In Slick-Tongue-Devil, he lets an elderly lady believes he’s Jesus to help her in her case of domestic abuse. In Toys for Tots, he gives a veteran his dignity back, making him a hero. And in Unbalanced, he rescues a hitchhiker.

Each story has the same feel as all of Craig Johnson’s books, a mix of humour, of goodwill and empathy.

Then I turned to The Christmas Book by Selma Lagerlöf, the author of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. It’s a lot more traditional than Craig Johnson but just as delightful.

The book includes eight short stories mostly based upon Swedish legends: the legend of Saint Luce, how robin got their red breast…It brings this magical atmosphere that comes with legends and fairytales.

My favorite one is actually The Christmas Book, the only one that is a regular short story.

A little girl expects books for Christmas and is disappointed because she opens present after present of useful items for knitting, embroidering and sewing. What if she doesn’t get any book? She eventually gets one by La Comtesse de Ségur, all in French and she spends her holiday improving her French to read it.

I can totally relate to this young girl.

And now I’m reading short stories by Angela Thirkell, Christmas at High Rising.

I haven’t finished the book but I love the light and playful atmosphere. It’s an excellent introduction to the Barsetshire series and I think I’m hooked. I enjoy my time with Laura Morland, her friend George and her boisterous son Tony.

This is going to be a nice TBR of thirty light books to turn to. Many thanks to British readers for the recommandations, she’s not a well-known reader in France.

Finishing these stories will put a nice conclusion to the 2022 Christmas festivities.

And I wish you again a Merry Christmas!

Categories: Personal Posts Tags:

Five crime fiction books, all different

December 21, 2022 4 comments

Friendship Is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle (2018) French title: L’amitié est un cadeau à se faire. Translated by Simon Baril

This is my second book by William Boyle after The Lonely Witness and he’s definitely an author I want to keep reading.

Friendship… is set in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and upstate New York. It all starts when Rena Ruggiero, the widow of a mafia gangster, kicks her eighty years old neighbor and thinks that she killed him as he lays unresponsive on her floor. High on Viagra, he tried to rape her.

Rena takes his car and drives to the Bronx where she wants to stay with her estranged daughter Adrienne and rekindle her relationship with her granddaughter Lucia.

She arrives there just as Richie Schiavano decides to steal money from a mafia gang.

Rena and Lucia find shelter at Adrienne’s neighbor’s house. Lacey, ex-porn star known as Lucious Lacey, welcomes them in her home and they end up fleeing the Bronx with the mafia on their tail.

The book takes a delightful Thelma and Louise turn and the reader is in for a fantastic ride.

William Boyle has a knack for a crazy plot, for attaching characters and an fantastic sense of place. A wonderful discovery by Gallmeister.

Alabama 1963 by Ludovic Manchette & Christian Niemiec (2020). Not available in English.

This is a French crime fiction novel set in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, just before President Kennedy was assassinated and right in the middle of the Civil Right movement.

Girls are rapped and murdered. Bud Larkin, a white PI, former police officer, is volunteered to help a black family find out who killed their daughter. His former colleagues also hire him a black cleaning lady, Adela Cobb. In segregated Alabama, she’ll be an asset to Larkin as black people talk to her but not to him.

As other murders happen, Bud and Adela get more and more anxious to find out who’s behind these crimes. And if this adventure can help them sort out their lives, all the better.

I’m always a bit suspicious about books written by French writers and set in America, written as if they were American writers. This one was OK, and the fact that the two authors’ day job is to translate American TV series into French probably helps writing a convincing story. They know all the codes.

I had a good time reading it, I got attached to Adela and Bud.

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson (2012) French title: A vol d’oiseau. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

This is the 8th volume of the Walt Longmire series. I read them in English now since the French paperbacks are no longer published by Gallmeister but by Pocket. The books aren’t as nice, so, the original on the kindle is better.

This time around, Caddy, Longmire’s daughter is getting married in two weeks on the Cheyenne reservation when Walt discovers that she no longer has a venue.

He’s on his way to visit another location with his friend Henry Standing Bear when they see a woman fall from a cliff and die. She had her six-month old baby in arms when she fell. The baby miraculously survived.

Walt Longmire will mentor the new chief of the Tribal Police, Lolo Long during this investigation. She’ll learn a few tricks, soften some hard edges and see how to navigate the tricky relationship with the FBI. Very useful skills if she wants to keep her job or stay alive while doing it.

As always, Craig Johnson delivers. The plot is well-drawn, a part of fun is introduced with Lolo Long’s blunders and the relationship between Walt and Caddy is lovely. This volume is set on the Cheyenne reservation and it rings true, at least to my French ears.

Craig Johnson doesn’t disappoint and I’m looking forward to reading the ninth book.

Sœurs de sang by Dominique Sylvain (1997, reviewed by the author in 2010). Not available in English

I’ve read several books by Dominique Sylvain. Kabuchiko, set in Japan, Les Infidèles and Passage du Désir set in Paris. The three books are different and Soeurs de sang is closer to Passage du Désir than to the other ones.

We’re in Paris. Louise Morvan is a PI who is hired by Ana Chomsky to find a former lover that she spotted as a character in a video game. Louise starts investigating, discovers that he’s Axel Langeais, one of the creators of the game.

It could stop here but Victoria Yee, the lead singer of the group Noir Vertige is murdered on Axel’s barge, in front of his sister Régine. Louise embarks on a murder investigation that will lead her to Berlin and Los Angeles and into the strange artistic world of the Victim Art.

I read this with pleasure, a novel set in a very peculiar milieu, the one of extreme art and I was curious to see how the story would unfold.

Ames animales by JR Dos Santos (2021). Not available in English.

This was one of our Book Club choices and it was a promising read.

It’s a Portuguese novel set in Lisbon. The main character is Tomas Noronha whose wife Maria Flor is involved with a charity that works on animal intelligence. When the director of this charity is murdered, she’s the last one to have seen him and is accused of murder.

Chapters alternate between the crime plot and flash backs where the militant and director is enlightening Maria Flor about the latest researches about animal intelligence. These lengthy explanations were too didactical for me, cut the flow of the crime investigation and I lost interest.

I abandoned the book. I don’t read crime fiction to read scientific lectures, there are radio podcasts for that. A missed opportunity.

I have also read The Hot Spot by Charles Williams but this one is so good that it deserves its own billet.

Literary Escapade: the Proust Exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

December 18, 2022 13 comments

For the centenary of Proust’s death, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bnf), the French equivalent of the Library of Congress, curates an exhibition entitled Marcel Proust – La fabrique de l’œuvre. It means Marcel Proust, the making of his work.

In French, A la Recherche du temps perdu, In Search of Lost Time in English, is nicknamed La Recherche and I’ll use that expression in my billet as it conveys a familiarity and a fondness for it.

This exhibition takes us through Proust’s creative process. For each book of we can see how Proust wrote and reviewed his work and, for the volumes published after his death, how his work came to us.

The exhibition shows 370 pieces from the Proust fund at the BnF. Marcel Proust had kept all of his manuscripts and his brother Robert inherited them when Marcel died. Suzy Mante Proust, Robert’s daughter, donated the manuscripts to the BnF in 1962.

Therefore, the BnF has almost all of Proust’s manuscripts from his school essays to La Recherche. They have 26 volumes of proofs and boards, 23 type-written texts, drafts typed by various secretaries, many paperoles, 23 notebooks of edited texts, 75 notebooks of drafts, hundreds of paper sheets, four other notebooks and one diary. That’s a lot of material and here’s a picture of the different sources.

Marcel Proust didn’t write La Recherche from the beginning to the end in a linear fashion. He wrote Swann’s Way and Time Regained at the same time. He wrote episodes of La Recherche here and there and put them in the volumes where he saw fit.

Now, let’s have a tour of the different volumes and I’ll share with you pictures and anecdotes.

Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). 1913 (self-published) and 1919 (reviewed edition – Gallimard)

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure is probably one of the most famous incipits of French literature, along with Aujourd’hui, maman est morte, from The Stranger by Albert Camus. The BnF showed the different versions of this incipit until Proust settled on Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. They did the same about the madeleine, from toast (1907-1909 drafts) to rusk to a madeleine.

It was fascinating to witness Proust’s thought process, the attention to details and have the evidence that the incipit and the key moment of the madeleine were thoroughly forethought. The first version of Swann’s Way was published in 1913 but it was in the making since 1907. It goes against the idea of a Proust who wasted his time in society life and didn’t start working hard until later in life.

The exhibition also features key objects of the books and for Swann’s Way, I was mostly interested in this drawing from a magic lantern telling the story of Geneviève de Brabant.

It’s a story that the young Narrator used to love and this shows us what kids saw in their magic lanterns.

Proust was a master of copy-paste, long before office solutions and computers were invented. This board from Swann’s Way shows how Proust worked.

Fascinating, no? (Or maybe a typist’s nightmare…) Now let’s move on to the Narrator’s adolescence with…

A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) 1919 – Prix Goncourt

This volume is key as the Narrator gets acquainted with major characters of La Recherche: Robert de Saint-Loup, the group of girls to which Albertine belongs, the painter Elstir, the Baron de Charlus and the Verdurin clan. We’ll follow them all during our literary ride with the Narrator, from Balbec to Paris.

Le côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way) 1920-1921 (Published in two volumes)

The Guermantes Way is where the Narrator is of all the parties and in the heart of high society. It’s the turning point of his adult life: the high society isn’t a glamorous fairytale anymore, as the harsh words of the Duc de Guermantes to a dying Swann remind us. He’s about to explore the kingdom of Sodom and Gomorrha through Charlus and Albertine.

Sodome et Gomorrhe – 1921-1922 (Published in two volumes)

The discussion about homosexuality was conceived as soon as 1909. Marcel Proust didn’t know yet where he would include it. The reader understands as soon as the Baron de Charlus is introduced that he’s gay. The Narrator will only see the light when he catches the Baron de Charlus and Jupien.

Homosexuality is also a hot topic as the Narrator suspects that Albertine is a lesbian. He’s aware of lesbian relationships since Balbec when he saw Mlle de Vinteuil and her friend.

Sodom and Gomorrah were the last volumes published under Marcel Proust’s supervision. Marcel Proust changed the structure of La Recherche several times; for example, he toyed with the idea of three volumes for Sodom and Gomorrah.

The last three volumes were published by Gallimard with the help of Robert Proust. Here’s a letter from Gallimard to Robert Proust describing the final division of La Recherche in the current number of volumes.

The Narrator has now feelings for Albertine and their relationship mirrors Swann and Odette relationship.

La Prisonnière (The Captive) –1923

Marcel Proust wanted La Prisonnière to be the third volume of Sodom and Gomorrha and he sent to Gallimard his last review of the typed version of La Prisonnière a few days before he died.

The exhibition shows a report from A. Charmel, the concierge of the 8 bis rue Laurent Pichat where Marcel Proust lived from May 31st to October 1st 1919. This report is about all the cries from the street vendors and the various trades on a typical Parisian Street.

It will become a famous scene in La Prisonnière where the Narrator listens to the noises coming off the street. It’s a vivid passage that brings the reader to the Paris of this time, to all the street vendors and odd jobs that have disappeared now.

Except from 1909 to 1911, Proust wasn’t a solitary man. He had a lot of people around him, helping him. He sent out friends and servants to check certain details and facts and all this was included in his work.

Albertine disparue (The Fugitive). First title La fugitive 1925

Just before he died, Marcel Proust retrieved 250 pages of Albertine disparue, undermining the consistency of the volume. Robert Proust decided to keep these pages after Marcel died. I guess it was the best choice, no one knew how Marcel would have modified his work to straighten the narrative. I’m relieved to know that Marcel Proust thought that something was off in this volume as it’s the one I struggled the most with.

Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained) – 1927.

In Time Regained, Proust writes about Paris during WWI and here’s a picture of a bombing near the metro St Paul, rue de Rivoli (Night 12-13 April 1918)

It also means that the first version of Time Regained, written before the war started, has been augmented. Marcel Proust added a fascinating picture of Paris during WWI, life behind. He lost friends and acquaintances during the war and he adapted his characters’ fates to the events. He even changed the location of Combray from the West of Paris to the East.

In each room of the exhibition the visitor could see how the novel was finished and got ready for publication: drafts, notebooks, typed sheets, additions through paperoles, phrases crossed and rewritten…All precious testimonies of the making of La Recherche.

This is a major exhibition about Proust. I wasn’t aware of his writing process. I knew about the drafts, adds-on or paperoles and that he sent out Céleste or her husband to check out things.

I didn’t know that he wrote La Recherche in pieces and not in the chronological order. I didn’t know that his books were made of pieces stitched together and that Proust sewed his book together like a couture dressmaker.

I had this image of a Proust writing frantically, knowing his years were counted. It may stem from Time Regained where the Narrator understands late in the game what he has to write. But in Proust’s real life, this epiphany came a lot earlier than I thought and his work is even more astonishing.

We’re talking about a writer who had his masterpiece in mind from the beginning. Given the length, the complexity and the number of characters, his mind was more than a brilliant machine. He knew what he wanted to demonstrate but he didn’t have everything mapped out, or he wouldn’t have changed the structure of the volumes until the end or included historical facts along the way. He had key scenes written and the global idea of what he wanted to pass on about art, life, memory and our journey on this earth.

The key scenes are wonderfully polished because they were written and rewritten, his ability to adapt to real life events roots the novel in French history and this vision of society is also priceless. Proust has the amazing ability to dig deep into people’s inner life without cutting them off real life. He was like that too, having the vivid imagination of an introvert and living the life of a social butterfly.

Extraordinary.

Now, a last picture for the road, this is Marcel Proust’s writing material.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – magnificent

December 7, 2022 16 comments

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) French title: Tous les hommes du roi. Translated by Pierre Singer.

I had never heard of Robert Penn Warren before receiving All the King’s Men through my Kube subscription. I read it in a French translation by Pierre Singer and in a magnificent edition by the publisher Monsieur Toussaint Louverture. It has a beautiful golden cover, the pages are on very nice paper, the text is published in an agreeable font. It has several tiny details that cost nothing but appealed to me as a reader and showed the reverence and the care this publisher has for books. Like that MERCI printed beside the price of the book on the back cover.

A gorgeous book as an object and a gorgeous piece of literature.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) is a Southern writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for All the King’s Men a complex novel about politics, legacy and the meaning of life. A tall order.

The narrator is Jack Burden and we’re in 1936 in the Deep South. We know from the start that he’s recovering from a tragedy and the fall of his boss, Willie Stark.

Governor Willie Stark is the king mentioned in the book’s title and his men are composed of Sadie Burke, his secretary and long-time lover, Jack Burden, his right hand and sounding board, Tiny Duffy an obsequious man Stark would rather have with him than against him and Sugar Boy, his faithful driver.

Willie Stark comes from a poor farm, studied law by himself and decided to go into politics. He’s a populist who addresses to the redneck voters and who got genuinely angry when children died in the collapse of a school due to poor workmanship. Thanks to corrupt politicians, the contract wasn’t awarded to the most competent bidder.

Jack attached himself to Stark after he covered his first campaign for a newspaper. It was in 1922 and he was a journalist at the time. Now, he’s in his thirties, has a degree in history and he has no ambition. Jack comes from Burden’s Landing, a small town on the coast. His family is wealthy, at least his mother is. His parents are divorced and he despises them a little. He sees his mother as a serial monogamist who married for the third time, and to a much younger man. His father, a former lawyer, now devotes his time to religious endeavors. Jack thinks that his mother is materialistic and that his father is idealistic. During his younger years, Judge Irwin, a friend of the family, mentored him.

Willie Stark started out his political career with excellent ethics but he soon learnt that he had to play the same game as the current political circles if he wanted a chance to be elected and pass laws.

Now he’s powerful, has enemies and knows how to pull strings. He’s ruling the State as a dictator and his long-time opponent is still after him.

The beginning of the end starts when the virtuous Judge Irwin starts sniffing around him and Stark decides to use his usual method of threats and intimidation.

Jack tells us what happened from the moment the king’s men arrive at Burden’s Landing to threaten Judge Irwin. It doesn’t work and Stark missions Jack to investigate the judge’s past and unearth some dirt for Stark to gain leverage. From now on, Stark’s orders overlap with Jack’s private life. He’s known Irwin since he was a kid, it’s his hometown and this will set everything into motion.

Robert Penn Warren writes a perfectly oiled tragedy. The various characters ignite things here and there and lives blow up.

Jack is a man whose family picture doesn’t add up. He knows something is amiss and but he doesn’t know what. His background is like a jigsaw with a missing piece and he feels incomplete. He tends to be depressed. He never got over his adolescent love affair with Anne Stanton, his best friend Adam’s sister. He goes with the flow, trying to swim in clear waters and avoid joining the sewage that surrounds Stark.

Jack takes Stark as he is: he has no illusion about what man is ready to do to win an election and yet he forgives him a lot of things because he knew him before he became governor and because the local political scene is rotten to the core. If Stark doesn’t play by the corrupt politician playbook, how can he win an election? And if he doesn’t win, how is he going to implement his program and improve the people’s lives? Jack maneuvers to stay on Stark’s good side without getting his hands too dirty.

Stark is a complex character based on the real politician from Louisiana Huey Long. Yes, he’s a bully who manipulates people around him. Yes, he’s a shameless populist. But he did something for his fellow-citizen. He had roads built. He raised taxes to improve public services and transports. He wanted to have a positive legacy through affordable health care. Robert Penn Warren shows that some good comes out of Stark’s mandate despite his despotic ways.

Like in a Greek tragedy, Stark’s public fall and Jack’s private shattering come from their Achilles’ heels. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

All the King’s Men is a brilliant novel that allies Stark’s rise and fall and Jack’s private life as he finally finds some peace. The style is elaborate and stunning. It’s a novel from the South before air conditioning. It’s hot and the weather puts a lid of languor over Jack. Since Huey Long was the governor of Louisiana, the novel is supposed to be set there but there is no direct mention of a precise Southern state. I was thinking more about Alabama or Mississippi as there is no mention to Cajun culture in the whole book.

It’s also a novel from the South before the Civil Rights movements. There are no black characters in this novel except quick mentions to black servants. This microcosm around Stark lives in an all-white environment.

It’s also a novel from the South with its religious undercurrent. Religion is not present through churches and clergymen. It’s understood in Jack’s questioning about moral compasses and fate. I can’t explain it but the characters ooze some kind of Bible Belt vibe.

Robert Penn Warren writes an intelligent book with multidimensional characters. He could have written something really polarized, good versus evil, virtue against sin but he didn’t. He chose to draw complex characters, flawed humans who have their moments of darkness and their moments of generosity and loyalty. Their emotions overrule them sometimes, they are unethical and accept to have their hands dirty. I liked Jack’s voice, lucid and poetic. No sugar coating for Jack.

I don’t know if All the King’s Men is “The definite novel about American politics” as the New York Times says. I hope not because it would be depressing. What I do know is that it’s an exceptional piece of literature.

Highly recommended.

Proust reads and reading Proust

November 20, 2022 18 comments

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (1905) Original French title: Sur la lecture. Suivi de Journées de lecture.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (1931) French title: Proust. Translated by Edith Fournier.

Proust died on November 18th, 1922. The centenary of his death has been celebrated here with books, TV specials, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, exhibitions and so on. I meant to publish this billet on November 18th but life got in the way.

Days of Reading is a short essay by Proust, where he muses over the pleasure and the experience of reading.

As often, Proust shows his talent for a catching incipit.

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all:the days we spent with a favorite book. Translation by John Sturrock.

In the subsequent pages, he remembers the glorious hours he spent with books as a child. He wanted to be left alone with his books and not do anything else. I can relate to that.

His thoughts about finishing a book, the fact that we leave the characters on the last page to never “see” them again is relatable too. Who has never reached the end of a book thinking “That’s all? What will become of them now?”. He muses over our relationship with books, our connection to writers and how they lead us to beauty and intelligence. La lecture est une amitié, he says. And yes, reading is a friendship with books, authors and imaginary worlds.

While Proust talks about his love for reading in Days of Reading, Beckett writes about his response to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Beckett wrote Proust, his essay about In Search of Lost Time, in 1931, when he was only 25. Time Regained had only been published four years before in 1927. Beckett was an earlier adopter of Proust and it says something about his ability to understand modern literature and spot a breakthrough in literature, even if Proust wasn’t taken so seriously at the time.

Proust is not an academic essay, it’s the brilliant review of a book through the eyes a passionate reader. Beckett shares his experience with reading Proust and displays a deep knowledge of Proust’s work.

He gives very detailed and precise examples – he quotes from memory, a nightmare for the French translator of his essay because she needed to find the actual quotes in French…He shows a profound understanding of what Proust intended to do with his work and he was ahead of his time.

Beckett goes through all of Proust’s favourite themes: the force of habit, the importance of a setting, his fascination for the Guermantes, his passion for art (literature, painting, opera, music, theatre and architecture.) He has valid points about the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator.

And then come thoughts about memory, remembrance and our thought process. He gives his perception of how memories are triggered by sensations.

Proust is an impressive review of Proust’s masterpiece and it’s a tribute to Beckett’s intelligence as much as an ode to Proust. It’s an excellent companion book for any reader of La Recherche, as we have nicknamed In Search of Lost Time in French.

Proust reads and Beckett reads Proust. I missed the actual day of the centenary of Proust’s death but still decided to bake madeleines to celebrate this anniversary.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown – pleasant and educational

November 13, 2022 5 comments

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (2014) French title: L’envol du moineau. Translated by Cindy Colin Kapen.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown came with my Kube subscription and became our October Book Club read.

It’s historical fiction based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711). She was born in England and emigrated to Salem in 1650 before her father settled down in Lancester, Massachusetts. In 1656, she married Reverend Joseph Rowlandson and they had four children.

In 1676, during King Philip’s War, she was captured by Native Americans in a raid led by Monoco, a Nashaway sachem. She was ransomed a few months later and came back to live with her husband. She wrote about her captivity in 1682 (A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson) We are a few years after the setting of The Scarlett Letter and a few years before the Salem witch trials.

The characters of Flight of the Sparrow are all historical figures and the facts of the book are actual. The people’s inner thoughts come from the author’s imagination.

In her much-appreciated afterword, Amy Belding Brown explains what historical sources she relied on and where she took some liberty. She concentrated on Mary and around her some facts that actually happened but to other people. I can understand that choice and I appreciate that it’s disclosed.

Flight of the Sparrow gives the reader a good vision of life in the Massachusetts colony in the 17th century and I felt the same than after finishing The Scarlet Letter: relieved I wasn’t born in that time and in this rigorist religious context. But then, when you’ve been raised and born in this culture, you don’t know anything else, so…

Amy Belding Brown decided to draw Mary as an early feminist. When the book opens, she’s quietly defying her husband’s authority by helping out Bess, a woman who had a child out of wedlock with Silvanus, a black slave she fell in love with. The story is true but is Mary’s open support plausible in 1676 Puritan Massachusetts?

Then she’s taken by the Nipmuc tribe and follows them in their whereabouts during the hard winter of 1676. This part of the novel was interesting as I enjoyed the descriptions of the Nipmuc way-of-life. I choose to believe that the information is accurate, as I know that Mary Rowlandson wrote about it in her memoir.

Amy Belding Brown describes the slow awareness of a woman who doesn’t want to play second fiddle to her husband, who has doubts about her faith, who internally challenges the Puritan way of thinking. She experienced another culture during her captivity where the women’s place was quite different from what she knew. I can imagine that she didn’t come unscathed of her captivity but did she really go as far as reassessing her whole beliefs? Or was she more relieved to go back to the life she’d always known?

The author also imagines a love story between Mary and Wowaus, also known as James Printer. They were contemporaries, he had been raised by an Englishman and had gone to school. As a translator, he was instrumental during the negotiations between Native Americans and England that led to Mary Rowlandson’s liberation. The relationship between Mary and James seemed a bit farfetched but I can imagine that they were civil to each other.

There’s a thread about romance, marriage and what to expect of a partner all along the book and I wonder if it isn’t a bit anachronistic. People’s vision of love and marriage sounded different from ours but maybe Amy Belding Brown’s choice is alright. What do we really know about what happened between people behind closed doors? What do we know about all the undocumented thoughts of people who were caged into society’s propriety and censored themselves or simply didn’t leave a trace?

Still, that romance thread seemed unnecessary to me as Mary Rowlandson’s story is fascinating enough. No need to spice it up with romance.

I enjoyed Flight of the Sparrow for its historical content. I didn’t know anything about King Philip’s war and almost nothing about early settler’s life in New England. Literary wise, it’s a solid narrative, well-constructed but not as literary as I would have liked. I’m getting more and more demanding on that side, so don’t mind me. It’s worth reading for the time travel to colonial and Puritan Massachusetts.

Did you read Flight of the Sparrow? If yes, how much did you like it?

Contemporary and opposite essays : The Painter of Modern Life by Baudelaire and Walking by Thoreau

November 6, 2022 11 comments

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire (1863) Original French title: Le peintre de la vie moderne.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (1862) French title: De la marche. Translated by Thierry Gillyboeuf.

I’m still doing The Non-Fiction Reader Challenge and I had picked books from the TBR for it.

Among my choices were The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire and Walking by Henry David Thoreau. I had randomly decided to read them in September and October and actually did them within the same week.

Without this timing, I don’t think I would have noticed that these two essays were published at the same time (1862 and 1863) or how opposite they are. I enjoyed both as they each speak to a different part of me. I read Baudelaire, excited about my next visit to Paris and its museums and I started Walking on a picnic break while hiking in the Estérel mountains.

Thoreau and Baudelaire were contemporaries but, according to their bios, couldn’t be more different. A nature lover vs a city-dweller. An American for whom civilization meant England vs a Frenchman. A man who lived in a cabin in the woods vs a dandy.

The Painter of Modern Life is a collection of essays about Baudelaire’s vision of art and Beauty.

He sees Beauty in art and here, he writes specifically about painting. He was an art critic, went to painting Salons and was deeply involved in the contemporary art world.

Baudelaire rejects the official art, what we call in French l’art pompier. Baudelaire argues that contemporary paintings shouldn’t picture Ancient Rome or Greece sceneries like Ingres but real life. He’s anti-Ingres and his Illness of Antiochus. Classic story, Ancient temple and clothes, you see the drift.

He says that what we consider classics now was contemporary art in their time, with their architecture and fashion. These works of arts stayed with us through the centuries because their contemporary side was only half of the artwork. The other half was that universal quality that makes us relate to them now. We see their fashion as historical information and their universal side speaks to us. Their beauty lies in a perfect combination of the two:

La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable.Modernity is made of transitory, of fleetingness and contingency; it’s half of art whose other half is eternity and permanence.

The actual painter of modern life of the title is Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire loved because his art captured the present. He painted what he saw, Paris and its life but also the Crimea War battlefields. Baudelaire uses Guys’ art to write an ode to modernity which consists in urban life, fashion, frivolity, artifice and make up.

Talk about someone totally opposite to a Thoreau who went to live in a cabin in the woods. Can you imagine Baudelaire in Walden? Not really, eh?

In Walking, Thoreau explains how walking is essential to his well-being. If I understood him properly, he tries to keep alive a link between us as part of the natural world and Nature.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Cheeky me immediately thought he wasn’t living in the Louisiana bayou rife with alligators or in the Great Dismal Swamp and its moccasin snakes.

He thinks we forget to turn to Nature as a source of beauty.

While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to Nature. In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals. How little appreciation of the beauty of the land- scape there is among us!

He wants us to retain our freedom of being, our untamed side and not to yield immediately to human laws. Walking is a way to ground oneself, to think freely, a moment to just be, leave other worldly occupations at rest. Being in communion with Nature is a way to reach a certain state of mind that opens people to their surroundings, to learning new things and simply be curious.

Thoreau sees the source of beauty in Nature while Baudelaire sees it in city life.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire explains that we should find beauty in our quotidian and to me, he opens the door to the Impressionist movement. He implies that it is noble to paint ballerinas and guinguettes.

And they will paint cities, their streets, their theatres, their parks and their people. I see paintings by Caillebotte as witnesses of life in the 19th century but I also see the permanence of human condition and that’s a bond between the people on the paintings and me. They reached Baudelaire’s goal to paint their modern life and create universal beauty.

But the Impressionists will also paint a lot outside. They’ll picture gardens in the country, people walking in fields, the light on the sea, the boating and all kind of outdoors activities.

Thoreau died in 1862. He might have enjoyed Monet’s research on light in Impression, soleil levant, in the Nymphéa series or on the Rouen Cathedral series as they capture beauty in the quotidian and in nature. There’s a quest here to paint the quiet beauty of a sunset on the Seine, on the Mediterranean or on the Channel.

I see in Thoreau’s walks a quiet time to refuel on one’s own, something he needed. It’s a way to collect one’s thoughts and be “in the moment”. And Baudelaire seems to praise all activities that will distract one from their thoughts. Thoreau enjoyed being with himself while Baudelaire’s to use modern life to run away from himself. I wonder where a conversation between the two would have taken them.

I think neither disposition is sustainable for the mainstream. Thoreau could afford to walk four hours a day to clear his head and think because he had no family obligations. He only had to earn his keep. Baudelaire could afford his whirlwind and dissolute Parisian life for the same reason.

But the rest of us, we have people who depend on us and jobs to keep. And we refuel as best we can and try to lift our heads from the daily grind and catch a sunset here and there. We steal moments to contemplate beauty in museums and during occasional hikes and live vicariously through Nature Writing books.

And now, with all the attempts at destroying beautiful paintings in the name of Nature, I’ll get Civil Disobedience and read from the source.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

November 1, 2022 11 comments

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) French title: Underground Railroad. Translated by Serge Chauvin

The Underground Railroad is my second Colson Whitehead, after the impressive Nickel Boys (2019) and I have Harlem Shuffle (2021) on the shelf for our Book Club.

The Underground Railroad is a historical novel set in pre-Civil War America. Cora, a sixteen-year-old enslaved girl flees from the plantation of her master in Georgia. Along with Caesar, another enslaved man, they reach a meeting point of the Underground Railroad that will lead her first to South Carolina and then to Indiana, via North Carolina and Tennessee.

We see the risks, the difficulties, the money owners put into finding the fugitives. Cora never feels safe, wherever she is. She has a hard time taking down the mental stronghold that her masters built in her head. She was raised on a land of fear, in a place where you didn’t know when you woke up if you’d be still alive and healthy at night. The success rate of actually leaving the plantation and starting over in a free state was extremely low.

The people who help with the Underground Railroad put their lives in danger too. Helping out enslaved people may have you killed. More progressive States had also hidden agendas. There’s no safe haven without a major change in white people’s mentality.

I read it while I was in South Carolina and visiting houses and plantations where enslaved people worked and were kept as well as the Old Slave Mart Museum. I know that everything that Colson Whitehead describes is accurate (unfortunately) and his book is very educational.

It’s written in a straightforward manner and gives the reader a glimpse of what being enslaved meant. I say “a glimpse” because we can’t pretend that we fully understand in our bodies and in our souls what bein enslaved entailed. It’s a good book for history classes and book clubs because it raises a lot of questions and fuels healthy discussion about slavery and its aftermath. It’s useful and we need this kind of books, like we need them on the Holocaust to spread information about what happened, put it at a human-sized scale and keep educating people. Over and over again.

As far as literature is concerned, I found that The Underground Railroad was a bit lacking. It doesn’t compare with a novel by Toni Morrison or with The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, but it’s not an issue because I have the feeling that Colson Whitehead’s goal was not literature but education.

I think that Handful in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was livelier than Cora. I was horrified by everything that Cora had to live through, her status as a sub-human and the way she was hunted like an animal. I was shocked by the atmosphere of hatred against black people and the ones who helped them and the idea of “great replacement” that starting seeping into white people’s way of thinking. This violence wasn’t as striking in The Invention of Wings, perhaps because the focus of the book was on Sarah Grimké.

It’s worth reading because it’s like watching a documentary with Cora as the main character. Just don’t expect a literary breakthrough in the style. It’s good, it’s efficient and it does the job. In these times of fake news and people re-arranging history and events for their own benefit and conscience of mind, The Underground Railroad is a necessary book, accessible to teenagers. The consequences of slavery in the USA still have an impact on the country nowadays and this book is a bridge to explain where it all began.

Incidentally, we were travelling back to Europe and happened to drive near Halifax, North Carolina. This city is officially tagged as a participant in the Underground Railroad. We stopped and paid a visit this old colonial town and its historical landmarks. It has a trail that leads to the spot of the Underground Railroad with explanations along the path.

They also had two books by Colson Whitehead in their Little Free Library on the street of the historic city center. We need all the help we can get to spread history and facts.

Literary Potpourri

A blog on books and other things literary

Adventures in reading, running and working from home

Liz Dexter muses on freelancing, reading, and running ...

Book Jotter

Reviews, news, features and all things books for passionate readers

A Simpler Way

A Simpler Way to Finance

Buried In Print

Cover myself with words

Bookish Beck

Read to live and live to read

Grab the Lapels

Widening the Margins Since 2013

Gallimaufry Book Studio

"It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent--lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It's as simple as that." -- Tove Jansson

Aux magiciens ès Lettres

Pour tout savoir des petits et grands secrets de la littérature

BookerTalk

Adventures in reading

The Pine-Scented Chronicles

Learn. Live. Love.

Contains Multitudes

A reading journal

Thoughts on Papyrus

Exploration of Literature, Cultures & Knowledge

His Futile Preoccupations .....

On a Swiftly Tilting Planet

Sylvie's World is a Library

Reading all you can is a way of life

JacquiWine's Journal

Mostly books, with a little wine writing on the side

An IC Engineer

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Pechorin's Journal

A literary blog

Somali Bookaholic

Discovering myself and the world through reading and writing

Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

Supporting and promoting books by Australian women

Lizzy's Literary Life (Volume One)

Celebrating the pleasures of a 21st century bookworm

The Australian Legend

Australian Literature. The Independent Woman. The Lone Hand

Messenger's Booker (and more)

Australian poetry interviews, fiction I'm reading right now, with a dash of experimental writing thrown in

A Bag Full Of Stories

A Blog about Books and All Their Friends

By Hook Or By Book

Book Reviews, News, and Other Stuff

madame bibi lophile recommends

Reading: it's personal

The Untranslated

A blog about literature not yet available in English

Intermittencies of the Mind

Tales of Toxic Masculinity

Reading Matters

Book reviews of mainly modern & contemporary fiction

roughghosts

words, images and musings on life, literature and creative self expression

heavenali

Book reviews by someone who loves books ...

Dolce Bellezza

~for the love of literature

Cleopatra Loves Books

One reader's view

light up my mind

Diffuser * Partager * Remettre en cause * Progresser * Grandir

South of Paris books

Reviews of books read in French,English or even German

1streading's Blog

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Tredynas Days

A Literary Blog by Simon Lavery

Ripple Effects

Serenity is golden... But sometimes a few ripples are needed as proof of life.

Ms. Wordopolis Reads

Eclectic reader fond of crime novels

Time's Flow Stemmed

Wild reading . . .

A Little Blog of Books

Book reviews and other literary-related musings

BookManiac.fr

Lectures épicuriennes

Tony's Reading List

Too lazy to be a writer - Too egotistical to be quiet

Whispering Gums

Books, reading and more ... with an Australian focus ... written on Ngunnawal Country

findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing...

%d bloggers like this: