Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane

July 28, 2021 4 comments

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane (1989) French title: L’homme qui a perdu son nom. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane is focused on Joe Sterling, an untethered young man who needs to find his way back to his identity. This explains why the French title is L’homme qui a perdu son nom, or The man who lost his name.

Joe Sterling comes from a family who owns a ranch in Deadrock, Montana. His father inherited it but made a career at the local bank before his promotion as bank manager in Minneapolis. He moved his family there and became another man. Joe’s father never sold the ranch. He leased it to his rival and neighbor, Mr Overstreet, who wants nothing more than to buy it because its plot of land is inserted into his property. Of course, Sterling refuses, out of pride. The rivalry is kept alive.

When Sterling senior dies, the ranch goes to his sister Lureen, who is supposed to keep it safe for Joe’s future. The understanding is that she owns the property deed but the moral contract says that Joe’s the actual owner and is entitled to the rent’s money.

Joe used to spend his summers working at the ranch under the supervision of Overstreet’s foreman. He also went out with Ellen, Overstreet’s daughter and got beaten up by a local boy, Billy Kelton. These summers are part of his identity, moments of happiness and rightness. It’s also in the abandoned house of a forgotten rich man from the silver rush that he experiences his first deep encounter with painting.

Joe loved Montana and the ranch but didn’t see himself operating it. He chose an entirely different path: he went to Art School at Yale, became a successful painter in New York and lost his mojo.

He moved to Key West, met Astrid and lived off the rent from the ranch and from his commercial drawings. Indeed, after dropping his career as a painter, he started to work for his university friend Ivan who sells electronic devices and is always in need of explanatory drawings for the instruction manuals.

At some point, Lureen stops sending the rent money, Ivan comes with a drawing order for a ridiculous and useless Miss X machine and Astrid sounds unsufferable. Joe leaves Key West and drives to Montana, to take over the ranch and hopefully find his identity.

Joe doesn’t fit anywhere. He starts raising cattle on the ranch but, even if he doesn’t make any fatal mistake, he knows that full-time ranching isn’t his calling. He doesn’t paint anymore. He doesn’t know if he still loves Astrid or not. He’s in an uncomfortable zone where every area of his life itches.

He fumbles through life and needs the time in Montana to reconnect with his aunt Lureen, his uncle Smitty and the local community. He explores his family’s history and the dynamics between the three siblings: his father, his aunt and his uncle Smitty. His father was a bit estranged and feared by his siblings. Uncle Smitty never recovered from the war and is a little swindler who takes advantage of his sister Lureen. She covers for him, out of love. Joe finds out that his father was not popular in Deadrock, especially after the bank forclosed several local ranches.

Joe realizes that he doesn’t really belong to the Deadrock community. There’s a striking scene where Joe is at a funeral and makes a speech about the deceased only to realize that he was talking about another man with the same name.

Keep the Change was published in 1989 and in a way, reflects the atmosphere of the 1980s.

Joe doesn’t really want to conform to society’s expectations. He doesn’t want to be a white middle-class man with the white picket fence, the two kids and a job. He rejects the Miss X project because deep down, he’s against all these devices that the industry shoves down our throats. He’s at odds with the yuppie atmosphere of the 1980s. He doesn’t want to be a blind consumer.

He also doesn’t understand the need to own land. It’s an urge he doesn’t feel and that makes him at odds with the Montana mentality. There are beautiful passages where Joe rides his horse on the ranch, he contemplates the beauty of the land surrounding him and he doesn’t feel any pride for owning it. Its beauty is enough to satisfy him.

Greed is not in Joe’s bones. The book title is Keep the Change, and in my mind, I hear Joe saying it as he checks out of the American society and doesn’t bother to gather his change before turning its back to it.

For a change, my edition includes a very interesting foreword by the translator, Brice Matthieussent. He’s also the translator of Jim Harrison’s books. Since McGuane and Harrison were excellent friends, wrote to each other once a week and did fishing trips together, it’s interesting to see that they had the same French translator.

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa – crime fiction in Bogota

July 24, 2021 6 comments

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa (1997) French title: Perdre est une question de méthode. Translated into French by Anne-Marie Meunier.

J’ai perdu. J’ai toujours perdu. Ça ne m’irrite pas, ça ne m’inquiète pas. Perdre n’est qu’une question de méthode : Luis SepulvedaI lost. I’ve always lost. It doesn’t irritate me, it doesn’t bother me. Losing is only a question of method: Luis Sepulveda.

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer who used to work as a journalist for RFI (Radio France International), which might explain why his books found a publisher in France but are not available in English.

Set in Bogota, Losing Is a Question of Method is a crime fiction novel. Victor Silanpa is a journalist at El Observador. When the book opens, the body of a crucified and drowned man is found by Lake Sisga. The police call Silanpa, he’s used to working with them and writing articles about crimes. Silanpa and the police captain Aristophanes Moya have a win-win working relationship. Silanpa unofficially helps with investigations in exchange for a good story for his newspaper.

At first, nobody knows who the dead man is. Silanpa is at the morgue when different families with a missing person come to see if the body is their relative’s. Comes Estupiñan. He thinks that the body is his brother’s but he’s not totally sure because they were estranged and had only recently rekindled their relationship.

Silanpa and Estupiñan associate to investigate the case and they will end up in the middle of an affair of corruption and business. We are reminded that we’re in Bogota when Estupiñan ensures that the case has nothing to do with the Narcos or the FARC before getting involved in the investigation.

The town council member Esquilache had his last campaign financed by a real estate corporation Grande Capitale. In return for their support, he promised they’d get their hands on the land by Lake Sisga to build a tourist resort. Esquilache also double-crossed them with the real estate company owned by Vargas Vicuña. Between them is Banagan, a lawyer who lives beyond his means, gambles, and has the debt that comes with this addiction. He’s all too willing to bend over backward to accommodate Estupiñan.

People fight over a piece of land and in the mix is a naturist club that owns a plot of land right in the middle of what would be the resort. The naturists want to stay where they are. The real estate moguls want their resort, and they all have the same problem: the title deed for these precious 400 hectares is missing. The last known owner was Pereira Antunez, a local businessman who was also a member of this naturist club. Who inherited of this plot of land?

Losing Is a Question of Method is an entertaining read. The crime plot is well put together, and the suspense kept me reading. Silanpa is an attaching character. There’s nothing in it for him if he solves the case, except a good story for the paper, and that’s why they back him up. Silanpa suffers from chronic hemorrhoids, he’s in the middle of a nasty breakup with his girlfriend Mónica but doesn’t hesitate to hook up with a bar escort, all this while carrying his melancholy.

I’ve seldom read a crime fiction book where the police are so useless. We know nothing of their investigation and only hear about Moya when he reads his speeches to his dieting group. He’s overweight, eats too much and needs lose a few kilos. Given how easily our two amateur sleuths manage to find clues and piece things together, the police seem even more incompetent.

I enjoyed Gamboa’s style. He has a great sense of humor…

– Au-dessus de la tête de ces bandits pend l’épée de Démosthène.
– Démosthène ? dit Silanpa. Vous voulez dire Damoclès ?
– C’est la même chose, chef. A notre époque, tout le monde est armé.
– Over these gangsters’ heads hangs Demosthenes’s sword.
– Demosthenes? Says Silanpa. You mean Damocles?
– It’s all the same, boss. Nowadays, everybody is armed.

And peppers his pages with little thoughts and comments.

La réalité lui devenait si exagérément hostile qu’il ne pouvait pas ne pas vouloir l’altérer. Mais cela n’a servi à rien, se dit-il en pensant à son Underwood. La réalité est la seule chose qu’on ne peut jamais semer. Elle vous rattrape toujours.Reality had become so excessively hostile to him that he could not not want to alter it. But it didn’t matter, he mused, thinking about his Underwood. Reality is the only thing one can never shake off. It always catches up on you.

He definitely won me over when one of his characters confesses that he loves comics, especially Mafalda.

The plot moves forward at a good pace and was suspenseful. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the town, the meetings in bars to catch up on the case since it was written pre-cell phones. I followed the story between Silanpa and Mónica and ended up thinking I’d like to see Silanpa in another book.

Unfortunately, Gamboa hasn’t been translated into English. This book is available in French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Apparently, we Latin languages stick together. 😊

This is a contribution to Stu’s Spanish Lit Month.

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein – a delight for all Proust lovers

July 18, 2021 23 comments

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein (2012) French title: La bibliothèque de Marcel Proust.

It isn’t enough that he names or quotes the great writers of the past: he has absorbed them; they are an integral part of his being, to the point of participating in its creation. As such their works will survive, not in the immutable way great monuments endure, but constantly rediscovered and reinterpreted thanks to Proust’s unexpected, playful, and intensely personal take on different masterpieces. One of the great joys of reading La Recherche is to disentangle the rich and diverse contributions of the past.

Marcel Proust was born in July 10th, 1871. We are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth and Open Press has published a new edition of Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library. It has new illustrations by Andreas Gurewich.

In a slim volume (129 pages), Anka Muhlstein explores Proust and literature. On one side, there’s Proust as a reader and on the other side, there’s literature in In Search of Lost Time, or as French fans call it, La Recherche.

I had a lot of fun going through Proust’s first bookish loves and discovering which foreign writers he admired. We know from La Recherche that Racine, Balzac, Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon were among his favorite writers. When you’ve read Proust and seen his style, it’s hard to believe that Proust as a reader enjoyed books with lots of action, like Capitaine Fracasse or novels by Alexandre Dumas.

I knew he was fascinated and influenced by John Ruskin. He translated his work into French, without knowing the English language. His mother, who was fluent in English, helped him and he learned how to read English on the go. He could read but he couldn’t speak. How incredible is that? I didn’t know that he was influenced by Dickens, Hardy and Eliot and loved Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Proust was a great reader and the characters in his books are avid readers too. They all read but the Narrator sort them out between good and bad readers. In this chapter, Muhlstein picks characters in La Recherche and shows who’s a good reader in Proust’s opinion and who is not. Some are even an opportunity for Proust to convey his ideas about reading and literary criticism.

Mme de Villeparisis’s opinions about writers are a spoof of the theories of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and comportment was indispensable for assessing the value of his work. This theory was so abhorrent to Proust that he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing passionately that it represented the negation of all that a true writer is about. According to Proust, an artist does not express his inner self—the self that is never exposed in everyday life and is the only self that matters—in conversation, or even in letters. To look at the artist’s life in order to judge the work is absurd.

Unbeknown to be, I’ve always had the same opinion as Proust. How cool is that?

The chapter about the Baron de Charlus as a reader was enlightening too. He’s the homosexual character in La Recherche and an excellent reader. He bonds with the Narrator’s grand-mother over Madame de Sévigné. She sees in him a good, erudite and sensitive reader. In this chapter, Muhlstein demonstrates how much Balzac is embedded in Proust’s text. I discovered that Proust’s favorite works by Balzac are Girl With the Golden Eyes, a lesbian story, A Passion in the Desert, a strange love for panther, Lost Illusions, with Vautrin in love with Lucien de Rubempré and Sarrasine. I didn’t remember that Balzac had homosexual characters.

illustration by Andreas Gurewich

Another discovery for me was about Racine’s innovative ways with the French language. For me, Corneille and Racine are boring 17th century playwrights stuck in alexandrines. This chapter was truly eye-opening and the explanations about Proust’s fascination for Phèdre were very interesting.

The chapter on the Goncourt brothers was useful as their Journal was a source of information about the French literary world of their time. Proust won the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

A book about Proust and literature had to include a chapter about Bergotte, the great writer in La Recherche. It’s modeled after Anatole France, a very famous writer of the time that nobody reads anymore although Proust was convinced that France/Bergotte would reach immortality. Bergotte did as a character thanks to his author.

Proust has created a prodigiously interwoven universe,the form and complexity of which do not reveal themselves easily; but fortunately, it is a universe within which are to be found planets—the worlds of the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Narrator’s family, for example—inhabited by a diverse population of characters in turn moving, entertaining, hilarious, and cruel, to which readers are readily attracted. The same may be said of the complex world of literature that Proust himself inhabited.

As always with Proust, I’m amazed at how much I remember of the characters in La Recherche. They stayed with me and when Anka Muhlstein evokes a character or a scene, I know whom or what she’s referring to. I loved her short book about Proust and literature because it is accessible to common readers like me. You don’t need a PhD in literature to read it and it’s an enjoyable and instructive journey into Proust’s library.

Many thanks to Other Press for sending me a free copy of this affectionate book about La Recherche.

I’ve read it at the same time I went to Paris and visited the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet. They have made a whole room about Proust, since they have his bed in their collection. I wish they had redone the corked walls as well, to help us understand the atmosphere in which he wrote.

PS: Tamara at Thyme for tea organizes Paris in July again and that’s an opportunity for me to contribute to her event.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart – a Texan family saga

July 18, 2021 2 comments

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) French title: Le sillage de l’oubli. Translated by Marc Amfreville.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is set in the fictional town of Dalton, in Lavaca County, Texas.

The Skala family settled there when the first Czech immigrants of the family arrived from Europe. This area is full of Czech families. The plot covers three periods of time: 1895, 1910 and 1924. Each year is a turning point in the saga of the Skala family.

The book opens on a dramatic scene. We’re in 1895 and Klara Skala dies in child-birth. Karel, the baby, survives his mother and Vaclav, the father will never be the same.

The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that land became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.

Vaclav and Klara had already three boys, Stanislas, Thomas and Eduard when she died giving birth to Karel. The four boys have a very hard childhood with their father who is only interested in acquiring land, farming and breeding race horses. These horses are his passion. The boys do the heavy work in the fields, including pulling the plow that the race horses are too precious to pull. They grow up without affection.

In 1910, Guillermo Villasenõr arrives from Mexico with a lot of money and three daughters to marry. He knows about the Skala boys and intends to settle in the Lavaca County and marry his daughters to these farm boys.

The girls get their first glimpses of their future husbands, what they see, instead of blond-haired and handsome Czech farm boys, like they’ve been told by their father to expect, are weathered young men straining against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, their necks cocked sharply to one side or the other, their faces sunburned despite their hats and pealing and snaked with raised veins near the temples, their boots sliding atop the earth they’re sweating to unearth. The four of them work harnessed two abreast in front of their father, who’s walking in their work, one foot to each furrow spitting stained juice between his front teeth and periodically cracking a whip to keep the boys focused and the rows straight.

With this kind of living conditions would you blame the boys to be willing to do anything to escape their father’s literal and figurative yoke? They know Villasenõr’s arrival is a ticket out of their father’s power. They grab that ticket, even if it’ll tear their family apart.

Fast forward in 1924. Karel is married to Sophie, it’s December and she’s about to give birth to their third baby. She wanted to go to church, even if it’s far and risky with her pregnancy. She’ll break her waters during the church service and, contrary to Klara, will get a midwife’s help in time. Meanwhile, Karel waits and drinks. He hires two teenagers to go and take care of the farm while he stays in town with Sophie. The boys also have to deliver the moonshine beer he makes, discretion needed since it’s the prohibition area. The boys will not follow orders and take ill-advised initiatives. This will trigger another dramatic event for the Skala family.

The Wake of Forgiveness goes back and forth in time, between 1910 and 1924. It covers thirty years in the life of this Texan family. Life is hard and we follow Karel’s point of view, the boy whose birth triggered the family’s unhappiness. Although he never says it aloud, it is clear that he carries the weight of depriving his brothers of a mother and his father of his wife. He doesn’t know how to make up for that and he sure doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He’s a hard man but, despite his harsh upbringing, he’s a better father than his own, playing tenderly with his daughters.

I’ve read The Wake of Forgiveness in an excellent translation by Marc Amfreville. Machart’s style is beautiful and haunting. Nature and men are one, each has power over the other. As you can see in the two previous quotes, Machart compares humans to the land and shows how the land impacts humans. Human emotions find their counterpart in the mesmerizing descriptions of the landscape. The land and the climate shape the humans who settles there, imprinting their mark on people’s tempers. With subtle brush strokes, Machart takes us to Lavaca County, among these farmers who live a hard life and with this family who needs to find their way to happiness through forgiveness and redemption.

A very powerful book and another great find by Gallmeister.

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara – the appalling Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918

July 11, 2021 14 comments

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (2014) Not available in French.

I’ve had A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara on the shelf since 2018, when I bought it at Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. I decided to read it for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week organised from July 5th to July 11th. Given my timeline, we’re still on July 11th when I write this, so I’m still on time.

I’ve heard of Marie Munkara on Lisa’s blog and read her autobiography Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea. She’s one of the Stolen Generation people and she explains how she came back to her biological family.

A Most Peculiar Act is a satirical novel set in the Northern Territory in 1942. Each chapter starts with an excerpt of the Aboriginal Ordinances Act that date back to 1918. Basically, the Aborigines have no civil rights

We are in a remote place in the bush. The Aborigines live in two places, The Camp where families are gathered and The Pound, a place “enclosed with a high fence to keep the coloured females under eighteen in and everyone else out.”

They can’t live outside of The Camp, the young women must go the The Pound and they’re not allowed to welcome who they want at The Camp. They are all listed on the Register of Wards of State. The girls are placed as domestics in white families. Whitish babies are taken away from their mothers.

White civil servants operate The Camp and The Pound. The staff is composed of an Administrator, a Chief Protector of Aboriginals, four patrol officers and a Superintendent of The Pound. The wives also play an important part in the system. This little clique runs the Aboriginals’ lives according to the power bestowed upon them by the Aboriginal Ordinances Act and according to their incompetence, their prejudice and their meanness. They are all unworthy of their power.

We follow the fate of Sugar, a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal and of Ralphie, a patrol officer.

When the book opens, Sugar is pregnant and at the end of her pregnancy. She fails to hide in the bush when Ralphie and Desmond, the two patrol officers, come to the Camp. She’s sent to the hospital against her will. She wanted to deliver her baby in the bush, among her people. We soon learn that she had an affair with Ralphie and when she delivers twins, the whitest of the two is taken away and given to a white family.

Meanwhile, we see the absurdity of the interactions between the white management. The new Chief Protector of the Aboriginals, nicknamed Horrid Hump, is a teetotaller and a man with ambitions that far outweighed his capabilities. He fires Ralphie for drinking too much, condemning him to poverty. He hires Drew Hepplewaite to replace him. She’s mean-spirited and racist. She’ll go beyond her duty to make the Aboriginals’ lives miserable. She’ll also wreak havoc among the whites, destroying the carefully constructed balance between the people.

Each chapter is more absurd than the other and Marie Munkara uses her novella to point out the cruelty and the stupidity of the system. The Chief Protector of Aboriginals doesn’t protect them from anything and the assimilation policy ends up in changing people’s names or stealing their children. That’s why Aboriginal characters are named Rawhide, Horseshoe, Fuel Drum, Donkey Face or Pickhandle.

While Marie Munkara succeeds in showing the appalling system of these ordinances, I would have liked to learn more about the Aboriginal characters of the book. Also, for a French reader, the pidgin English spoken by the Aboriginal characters was difficult to read and to understand. It wasn’t a smooth read for this reader and it got in the way of fully enjoying the book. I might have missed some references too.

Out of the two Munkaras I’ve read, I’d recommend her autobiography before reading A Most Peculiar Act.

See Lisa’s review here.

Quais du Polar 2021 – Day #2

July 7, 2021 6 comments

So, we’re Wednesday and until now, I didn’t have the time or energy to write about my second day at Quais du Polar on Sunday.

I had booked a seat at a Literary Cruise on the Saône River and the speaker was Florence Aubenas. She’s a famous French international reporter and a war reporter. She works at Le Monde. She was abducted in Iraq in 2005 and was kept prisoner during five months. She’s also well-known for going undercover as a cleaning lady in 2009. She wanted to live the life of underpaid blue-collar workers who work insecure jobs and report about it. It became a bestseller, Le Quai de Ouistreham and it has been made into a film by Emmanuel Carrère.

the cruise boat

I was curious to hear her talk about her experience and about her last book, L’inconnu de la poste. She writes about an actual murder case that happened in Montréal-La-Cluse, in the Jura region. It’s a village of 3500 souls where the postmistress was murdered when she was on duty. Florence Aubenas was sent there to cover the story, got hooked up with the mystery around it and went there on and off during several years. She relates this story in her book.

It was a delightful hour as she’s fascinating to listen to. She’s very friendly, close to the public and we all listened with rapt attention. The setting was great too because we got a cruise on the river out of it and I think it was a great idea to organize a conference in such a neat setting.

After that, I had planned to visit the bookstores set up in tents on the bank of the Rhône River with a friend but the weather was not cooperating at all. We gave up and stayed put in a restaurant.

In the afternoon, we went to Noir in Lyon, a panel of writers who wrote crime fiction books set in Lyon. There was Coline Gatel for her second book set during La Belle Epoque, Gwenaël Bulteau for his novel set in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood during the Dreyfus Affair, Loulou Dedola, a BD author and François Médéline for two books, L’ange rouge and La sacrifiée du Vercors, set during WWII. This panel was a bit too messy for my tastes but I got to discover local writers.

Noir à Lyon

I manage to spend some time at open bookstore, chatted a little with Dominique Sylvain and upon her recommendation, bought the fourth volume of her Lola & Ingrid series.

This festival was the first one I went to in this COVID times. They managed to reorganize it in the season (usually it’s the last weekend of March) and to relocate it in several places in the city. There was a lot less visitors than usual, probably because you had to book conferences in advance, because the weather was terrible and only a few international writers managed to come. But it felt good to go to a real book festival and hopefully, things will get back to normal in March 2022.

Many thanks to the staff and volunteers who gave their time and energy to celebrate crime fiction in Lyon.

Quais du Polar 2021 – Day One

July 3, 2021 20 comments

For newcomers to my blog, Quais du Polar is a crime fiction festival set up in Lyon, France.

In 2020, the festival was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, it was scheduled early in April but was postponed to July 2nd to 4th. Since we still have some restrictions, the organization was changed to avoid large gathering in closed spaces.

The former big bookstore set up in the Chamber of Commerce…

The giant bookstore in 2019

has been replaced by an outdoor book market along the banks of the Rhône river and you have to book a ticket online to attend a conference.

The conferences are still organized at the City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce but new places have been added to the mix. Tomorrow, I’m going on a literary cruise on the Saône river.

I had two reservations for today and I have two for tomorrow. I’m happy with the two events I attended.

This morning, I went to the Paradis Noirs panel. (Black Paradise) The authors were David Vann (USA), Susanna Crossman (UK and France. I wish my English were as good as her French), Patrice Guirao (France) and Piergiorgio Pulixi (Italy).

These four writers have written a crime fiction novel set up in a paradisiac place, namely Sardinia, Tahiti, Komodo Island in Indonesia and an island in Brittany. The journalist asked relevant questions, monitored the speaking time properly and ideas bounced between the writers, showing the similarities between the books. The authors had enough time to share their ideas and obviously enjoyed interacting with each other. I was intrigued by their books:

  • Komodo by David Vann,
  • Les Disparus de Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao
  • L’île sombre by Susanna Crossman
  • L’île des âmes by Piergiorgio Pulixi

I love reading crime fiction in exotic settings, I’m afraid the TBR increased by three books after this panel.

Quais du Polar is about crime fiction but the local authorities involved with crime solving partner with the festival to share how things are done in real life. It helps that Lyon is the city where CSI was developed (with professor Lacassagne, see my billet about Les suppliciées du Rhône by Céline Gatel), where Interpol is located and is the third largest criminal court in France.

Once I visited the school for commissaires de police and saw how they teach the students how to work on a crime scene. Sometimes, a police station is open to the public and the officers share their quotidian.

This year, I went to a conference about cold cases at the court. The speakers were a public prosecutor, Jacques Dallest and two lawyers specialized in solving cold cases, Maître Seban and Maître Corinne Herrmann. The discussion was about cold cases and how the French justice doesn’t handle them well-enough. They shared anecdotes, explained why the judicial system is not as efficient as it should be and how to improve it. They say that they manage to reopen cases when families or journalists come to see them with something new. There’s also the possibility to reexamine clues with new forensic methods.

It was fascinating to be in the room where the hearings are done and listen to them talk about their work.

If you’re curious about Quais du Polar, check out their website here. You can also see the conferences in replay.

Down by the River Side by Richard Wright

June 30, 2021 12 comments

The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright. (1961 / 1938) French titles: L’homme qui a vu l’inondation (translated by Jacqueline Bernard et Claude-Edmonde Magny) and Là-bas, près de la rivière (translated by Boris Vian)

Folio has a collection of short books of around 100 pages sold at the unique price of 2€. They usually put together one to three short stories from a writer and for me, it’s a way to discover a new author without reading a full novel or read something short. (obviously).

The one entitled L’homme qui a vu l’inondation by Richard Wright was published in 2007, after the Katrina hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. It includes two short stories, The Man Who Saw the Flood, written in 1961 and more importantly, Down by the River Side, written in 1938. It has a foreword by Julia Wright, the author’s daughter.

Both stories are about floods by the Mississippi river. The Man Who Saw the Flood relates the aftermath of a terrible inundation. A family of black peasants come back to their house, only to find it destroyed, full of mud and with their tools broken and seed rotten. They are hungry and the father and husband has no other choice than go and work for a white employer. It feels like going back to slavery, in an economic way.

Down by the River Side was written in 1938 and is based on the 1927 flood. It opens on a terrible scene: a man is at his house, his wife is in labor and the delivery is difficult. He’s there with a midwife, his mother-in-law and his other child. The water level is increasing at high speed and he regrets to have stayed there when he had a chance to leave. He has sent out Bob to get a boat and his only goal now is to take his wife to the Red Cross hospital in town. This man could be anybody and Wright named him Mann, only to drive the point home, I suppose.

Bob comes back but has stolen a boat from a white man, which is a terrible offense in that part of the country. Mann decides to take the risk and use it anyway. If he doesn’t, they drown in their house.

Wright describes the flood with an implacable accuracy. (He was 19 when the 1927 flood occurred): the dark water, the powerful current and the unrecognizable landscape. It’s hard to know where to row to as almost everything is under water.

Of course, Mann don’t get away with using a white man’s stolen boat, even if it’s a life-and-death situation. The whites show no compassion for his wife. No brotherhood or empathy stems from these extreme circumstances: the whites remain on their side and the black remain niggers to them. No seeing past the color of the skin, even in this devastating flood. The whites are evacuated and the black men are requisitioned to patch the dam with sandbags in last and futile attempt to protect the town from the furious rising waters.

Julia Wright can’t help but making a parallel between this story and the terrible Katrina hurricane and the poor management of its aftermath by the authorities. Let’s be honest, if such a disaster with such a death toll and so many mistakes in the crisis management had happened on a plant, its director would have been trialed and condemned for not ensuring their workers’ safety. The politicians got away with it, no matter how high the number of casualties…

On a lighter note, you’ll see at the beginning of my billet that Down by the River Side has been translated by Boris Vian, writer and jazzman extraordinaire. When I read the title in English, I immediately hear in my mind the eponymous jazz song, a terrible contrast to the scene of desolation brought by the flood. I imagine it’s all silence too, except for the noise of the rushing waters and the relentless rain, a total opposite to its upbeat jazz namesake. This effect is totally lost in translation. The French title, accurately translated from the English, Là-bas près de la rivière, triggers nothing but soothing walks in a calm and chirpy corner in the countryside. The vibe is more “A River Runs Through It” than “murderous brown waters”. Language…

This is 20 Books of Summer #5.

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi – a fresco of Egyptian emigration

June 23, 2021 6 comments

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi (2009) French title: L’Arche de Noé Translated from the Arabic by Soheir Fahmi in collaboration with Sarah Siligaris.

Noah’s Ark by Khabel Al Khamissi is a twelve-chapter book with eleven intertwined stories. Each chapter is about one character, their story and why they decided to emigrate from Egypt. The last chapter is where we meet the narrator, the lady who collected all these stories and explains why all these people hopped on the Noah’s Ark of emigration and how they did it.

The different protagonists choose different countries as their new home: the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Kuwait, Dubai or Iraq. They all have different reasons to leave Egypt behind and I suppose that Khaled Al Khamissi wanted us to have a global picture of the issue.

There’s Ahmad Ezzedine who can’t find a decent paying job after studying law. He decides to emigrate to the USA through chatting up an American woman. The aim is to get her to marry him, obtain his green card and stay. This schemed obliged him to break up with his girlfriend Hagar, and he broke both their hearts in the process.

Hagar emigrates to the USA when her father marries her off to Ayman who owns a restaurant in New Jersey and is back in Egypt for a couple of weeks to shop for a wife. He falls for Hagar and her parents are all too willing to ship her off to America.

We don’t know how Abd el-Latif Awad reached New Jersey but he’s employed by other Egyptians as a cook, a chauffeur, a singer and a handyman. A man of all trades, he’s exploited by other Egyptians and that’s also a sad side of emigration. He doesn’t fit well where he is.

We meet Farid al-Mongui who left to study abroad, another way to get your first visa to the West.

Mortada Al-Baroudi is a teacher in a London university and had to leave Cairo because he was threatened by the government. His philosophy classes don’t refer to the Coran enough. He was as clean as a whistle, so they couldn’t imprison him for something he’d done. He had to emigrate.

Yassine Al-Baroudi was desperate enough to attempt to reach Europe through Lybia. He tries the Mediterranean sea route and almost died in a shipwreck.

Névine Adly never thought she’d have to leave her country but she and her family are Christians. Her daughter fell in love with a Muslim and there’s no hope for this kind of relationship in contemporary Egypt. It’s getting harder to be a Christian woman in Cairo, especially to walk down the streets without a hijab. They now fear for their lives and move to Canada.

Talaat Zohni emigrated to the USA years ago and missed Egypt too much. So he decided to move to Kuwait after living in New York City. Living abroad isn’t that easy.

Hassouna Sabri is from the Nubian minority in Egypt, near the Aswan dam. It’s a very touristic region and lots of people live off tourism. Hassouna relates how Nubians are treated as second zone citizen and how hopeless they feel. Another way to emigrate? Have a love story with a tourist and win a Western passport through marriage.

Then we hear the point of view of a smuggler, Mabrouk Al-Menafi. He explains that he always accompanies the migrants on their trip and that he picks routes through planes and roads. No sea and shipwrecks for him. He details the different techniques and states that he doesn’t feel guilty as he makes sure that his clients arrive safely. He also hammers hard truths: Egypt needs the money sent back home by the diaspora and European countries turn a blind eye to a certain level of illegal immigration because they need the extra arms.

And finally, Sanaa Mahrane emigrates trough the world’s oldest profession and reaches Germany via Georgia through a prostitution network.

Noah’s Ark explains all the reasons why the characters take a huge leap of faith and leave their home behind. The author doesn’t sugarcoat reality: it’s hard to leave everything behind, it’s hard to live in a strange place and it’s hard to adapt to Western culture. All would rather stay in their country if they had a future, if their government made the right decisions for the economy, if all the political and administrative cogs were not gripped by corruption, if there were more freedom of speech and less weight of Islamic ruling.

All the characters are linked but I didn’t try to map out all the relationships. I went with the flow. The narration is very Scheherazade, slipping from one story to the other, from one character to the other until we have studied the Aubusson Tapestry of a group of Egyptian emigrants.

We see a sample of a global population who, educated to not, rich or not, cannot see a future in their home country. It’s explosive. Khaled Al-Khamissi wrote Noah’s Ark in 2009, two years before the Egyptian Revolution that started by huge demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

In libri veritas.

The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

The Signal by Ron Carlson (2019) French title: Le signal. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right?” We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”

Somehow air came to his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his handand closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”

He’d been there ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times. We’ll do this every year. They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew.

In The Signal, Ron Carlson writes the story of a last hiking and fishing trip between Mack and Vonnie. We’re in Wyoming, in the Wind Rivers Mountain area.

Mack and Vonnie met when they were teenagers. Mack’s father had a ranch and turned it into a dude ranch during ten weeks each summer to bring in additional income and keep the ranch afloat. Vonnie came as a guest with her parent and fell in love with the West. Enough to come back to the area.

As mentioned in the opening quote, Mack and Vonnie had been married eight years when Mack spiraled down into a hole of alcohol and bad decisions. One of them was driving illegal merchandise, including drugs, through Wyoming. He finally got caught, ended up in jail and lost Vonnie in the process.

They are now taking a closure trip to Clarke Lake and the book opens with Mack waiting for Vonnie to show up at their meeting point at the beginning of the trail.

What Vonnie doesn’t know is that Mack also agreed to do a job for Charley Yarnell, a shady entrepreneur. Mack needs the money to keep his family’s ranch. All he has to do is to find a beacon that fell from an airplane. Yarnell gave him a military Blackberry that should detect the beacon as soon as it is within a mile range of it. It sounds simple enough and a way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Signal is divided in six days, one per hiking day. Carlson takes us to the Wind River Mountain trails, lakes and wilderness. Vonnie and Mack take a hike down memory lane, trying to make peace and put an end to their relationship. Vonnie has moved on and lives with Kent now and Mack needs to accept it, even he still loves her.

Their trip takes a bad turn when they encounter aggressive poachers and when Mack’s beacon search proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected.

The book starts as a love autopsy, a cathartic hike to mourn their couple and turns into a suspenseful story as Mack’s side mission collides with their trip.

Mack’s introspection brings him to analyze his past. He was born on a ranch, loved it but was never a rancher. He’s not good with fire arms, not good with cattle and is not cut out to manage a ranch. However, he can’t imagine live anywhere else than on his childhood ranch. He tried to make a living in IT but he was never really successful. His life took a dive when his father died as he lost his human compass and became untethered. His grief engulfed him and he lost his sense of direction.

Ron Carlson’s writing is sumptuous and I wish I had more quotes to share but I read it in translation. Carlson weaves the landscape into Mack and Vonnie’s story. This is their anniversary hike and this outdoor trip is part of their relationship. Nature is what brought them together and now they expect it to heal their wounds to be able to move on. The descriptions of the wilderness and how Mack and Vonnie connect to it and through it are truly excellent.

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister, with a marvelous translation by Sophie Aslanides.

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier – Highway to guitar heaven and hell

June 16, 2021 8 comments

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier. (2016) Not available in English.

I bought Vintage by Grégoire Hervier at the crime fiction bookstore Un Petit Noir but it’s between crime fiction and literary fiction.

Thomas Dupré works in a classic guitar store and workshop in Paris when his boss sends him to Boleskine House in Scotland to deliver an expensive guitar to a rich collector. Lord Winsley has an impressive collection of classic electric guitars and bought Boleskine House because it used to belong to Jimmy Page.

Lord Winsley owns two protypes of the mythic Gibson guitars Flying V and Explorer. He says that the protype of the Gibson Moderne guitar was stolen from his collection and he wants Thomas to find it and bring it back.

It’s supposed to be worth 10 million euros and he promises 10% as a reward. Thomas sees it as means to pay the bills while he tries to become a professional guitarist.

Thomas embarks on a trip that will take him to Sydney, New York and Chicago but mostly on the US Route 61. Memphis, Nashville, the mythic Crossroads at Clarksdale, Greenwood. In search of the Gibson Moderne, he will discover a forgotten (and fictionnal) blues and rock artist, Li Grand Zombi Robertson. He was an outcast and experimented new techniques of recording music and was ahead of his time.

Vintage is an ode to classic rock and blues music, the one that inspired the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and so many artists. It brings us to roots of the blues and what we owe to black music of the Deep South.

There are a lot of explanations about classic guitars, their sound and the musicians who played them. Grégoire Hervier is passionate about music and he conveys his love for rock music to the reader. Even if I don’t play the guitar, I was really interested in the history of these mythic instruments and the music attached to them. I even did a playlist of all the songs and artists mentioned in the book.

It was an enjoyable road trip for this reader. OK, he was preaching to the choir since I have in mind to travel along the US Route 61 one day, when I won’t travel with kids under 21 who can’t get into bars and listen to live music.

PS: This is my second 20 Books of Summer read. This one was on the list. 😊

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

June 12, 2021 34 comments

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017) French title: Eleanor Oliphant va très bien. Translated by Aline Azoulay-Pacvoň

With June starts my 20 Books of Summer challenge and what do I do? Read a book that is not on the list. Oh well, Cathy said we could switch some books.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman came in my Kube box for June. It sounded like an easy read and what I needed when I collapse on the couch after a challenging day at work. It fit the easy bill, no worries about that. For the rest… See by yourself.

Eleanor Oliphant is a young woman who lives in self isolation and like a robot. Go to work from Monday to Friday, have a weekly chat with mother, spend the weekend alone, drink some vodka, read books, do housework, rinse, repeat. She’s an introvert, avoids contact with people and doesn’t interact with her colleagues. When she does, she tends to speak her mind and disregard social conventions.

Two things happen at the same time and derail her life from her routine.

She wins concert tickets in a raffle in the office and asks her colleague Billy to go with her. They go and she develops an instant crush on Johnny Lomond, the lead singer of the local band who was playing that night. Eleanor is now convinced he’s her HEA and that she needs to metamorphose into a “normal” woman to be ready when he’ll notice her and obviously fall for her.

Then her computer breaks down and Raymond, the new IT guy in the office, comes to fix it. That day, she stumbles upon Raymond after work, they are walking together on the street when an old man collapses on the pavement. They rescue him and this leads them into a tentative friendship.

Eleanor is weighed down by a personal tragedy that is slowly unveiled as the story progresses. She’s opening up to life and other people, driven by her crush and pushed by Raymond who tricks her into attending social events.

I guess it’s supposed to be a feel-good novel about how much we need other people in our lives, how loneliness is not a life sentence if we make efforts and how we bloom under other humans’ love and friendship. You know, a book full of pearls of wisdom.

Actually, I thought it was a whole necklace of pearls of clichés.

The characters’ jobs cliché: Socially inapt Eleanor is an accountant and awkward Raymond is IT support staff. As a CFO, in the name of the different teams of accountants I managed along the years, I resent the stupid cliché of the mousy female accountant who loves numbers more than people because they are safe. And not all IT people are nerds who spend time at their mom’s and dress poorly.

The socially inapt character. Eleanor aims to be like Grace in Addition by Toni Jordan or like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion She doesn’t know how to behave in pubs, at concerts, at weddings… She has no filter… Her colleagues think she’s weird…

The terrible secret. Eleanor has survived a personal drama that shaped up her whole life. She’s a survivor and built her coping mechanisms. Now is time to stop coping, go to the shrink and start living.

The lives-under-a-rock cliché. Eleanor lives in downtown Glasgow, goes to work every day in public transports, shops at Tesco and reads a newspaper daily. And yet she sounds like she’s been dropped from the planet Mars. She’s clueless about almost everything. How is that possible? We are surrounded by information, even when you don’t care about something, you know about it if it’s popular enough. Think of football. You can’t help knowing the names of players or of the national team coach.

The makeover cliché. To conquer her rock singer, Eleanor reads women magazines, goes to the hairdresser and has her long hair cut, gets her nails done and goes to the beautician for a waxing.

The you-don’t-see-what-under-you-nose cliché. Actually, Eleanor’s colleagues really like her, Raymond wants to be more than a friend and she’s more loveable than she thinks.

You get the drift.

I finished it because I was tired, it didn’t require a lot of brain power and it was pleasant enough. I understand why readers find it uplifting but I thought it was clichéed and implausible. Usually, I’m rather an easy audience for light romance books once in a while. But they need better characterization and style than that.

For positive reviews, read Kim’s here and Claire’s here.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – it will knock the wind out of you

June 6, 2021 22 comments

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. (2019) French title: The Nickel Boys.

Boys arrived banged up in different ways before they got to Nickel and picked up more dents and damage during their term. Often graver missteps and more fierce institutions waited. Nickel boys were fucked before, during, and after their time at the school, if one were to characterize the general trajectory.

The Nickel Boys by Colson whitehead is based on the real story of the Florida School for Boys aka the Dozier School.

According to Wikipedia, it was a reform school operated by the state of Florida in the panhandle town of Marianna from January 1, 1900, to June 30, 2011. A second campus was opened in the town of Okeechobee in 1955. For a time, it was the largest juvenile reform institution in the United States. […] Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

I knew I wasn’t going to read a pleasant story. Whitehead opens his book with the present time, when forensic archeologists from the University of South Florida search for body remains in unofficial graves around the campus.

Then it moves back in time to tell us the story of Elwood Curtis who was sent to Nickel in the 1960s. Elwood was a black boy from Tallahassee. He was quiet, a good student, a hard worker and he had won a scholarship to college. He was on his way to college when he hitchhiked and was picked up by a man driving a stolen car. A policeman arrested them and Elwood was sent to Nickel.

Back home, Elwood was a fervent admirer of Martin Luther King, he had a record of one of his speeches and he was deeply moved and shaped by King’s ideas. The most important ones to him were to have and keep a sense of self-respect and also to commit to non-violence for things to change.

Elwood was ill-prepared for Nickel where there are no rules but arbitrary ones. He stepped up to help a smaller boy who was molested by older ones. It was a set up and he was sent to The White House, the place where boys were beaten up.

We are in the 1960s, Florida is still under the Jim Crow Laws and segregation is in place. At Nickel, the white and black boys live in separate buildings. They have a different name for the White House.

The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.

Elwood had to stay in the infirmary for a couple of weeks after the beating. From what I read on Wikipedia, Whitehead didn’t invent anything, it was like this. The beatings could be so violent that the boys had their underwear embedded in their skin.

Elwood was never the same after that.

Luckily, he befriended Turner who was street smart and had good instincts to navigate the system and land them into a less exposed job than working in the fields. They became part of Jaimie’s crew and they did deliveries in town, mostly of goods stolen from Nickel. Some food donated by the State never reached the boys. They also did repairs, painting jobs for influent people in town. It was a system. This corruption isn’t mentioned on Wikipedia, so I can’t tell if it stems from the writer’s imagination or not. It sounds plausible, though. The leading figures in town knew everything, they were part of a system and it was the law of silence. They stuck together against the authorities. I can’t help thinking that the State of Florida chose to turn a blind eye.

Segregation was in full force, with its injustice and its sheer stupidity. See for yourself:

Their leader was a quiet-natured boy named Jaimie, who had the spindly, undernourished frame common to Nickel students. He bounced around Nickel a lot—his mother was Mexican, so they didn’t know what to do with him. On his arrival, he was put in with the white kids, but his first day working in the lime fields he got so dark that Spencer had him reassigned to the colored half. Jaimie spent a month in Cleveland, but then Director Hardee toured one day, took a look at that light face among the dark faces, and had him sent back to the white camp. Spencer bided his time and tossed him back a few weeks later. “I go back and forth,” Jaimie said as he raked up pine needles into a mound. He had the screwed-down smile of the rickety-toothed. “One day they’ll make up their minds, I suppose.”

I remember reading something similar in The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé. Black people having a light skin and being obliged to live in the white neighborhoods where they knew no one.

For Elwood, Turner and all the boys who had to live there, it was even harder if you were black. You can see in Nickel Boys the –alas—usual mechanisms of camps and abuse. When the boys arrive, they think there are rules:

Right now, all of you are Grubs. We have four ranks of behavior here—start as a Grub, work your way up to Explorer, then Pioneer, and finally, Ace. Earn merits for acting right, and you move on up the ladder. You work on achieving the highest rank of Ace and then you graduate and go home to your families.”

(It reminded me of the camp system in Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout It wasn’t a legal reformatory camp but the spirit was the same. It lets me think that it was the mindset of the time and that common people found normal to reform boys in such a way.)

But Elwood soon realized that the rules are a joke. The wardens do as they please and the boys live in constant fear. The rules change all the time and without any warning. You never know if you’re going to breach some unknown rule or if something you’re used to doing hasn’t suddenly become forbidden. And since punishment can lead you to the White House…

For Elwood, this system is his undoing. He wants to believe that he has a chance to go out if he behaves properly, he needs to hope that things will improve if he follows the rules. His character was shaped by King’s speeches and he tries to practice what King preaches. He thinks that self-respect is important for his dignity and that quiet but persistent mind resistance will undermine the Nickel institution. Elwood believes in King’s speeches about respect, about loving your enemy to make a difference. But hardship and abuse shake up his faith in King:

Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

A tall order, indeed. Turner is different, let optimistic, more realistic and cynic.

You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.

Turner is right. It’s easy to hide behind a “system” or to say it was “like that back in the day”. I was shocked and horrified by the abuse against the boys in Nickel. But I knew I was going to read something horrible about this school and I braced for it. I expected what I read. What took me by surprised and knocked the wind out of me is an anecdote from Elwood’s high school days at Lincoln High:

On the first day of the school year, the students of Lincoln High School received their new secondhand textbooks from the white high school across the way. Knowing where the textbooks were headed, the white students left inscriptions for the next owners: Choke Nigger! You Smell. Eat Shit. September was a tutorial of the latest epithets of Tallahassee’s white youth, which, like hemlines and haircuts, varied year to year. It was humiliating to open a biology book, turn to the page on the digestive system, and be confronted with Drop Dead NIGGER, but as the school year went on, the students of Lincoln High School stopped noticing the curses and impolite suggestions. How to get through the day of every indignity capsized you in a ditch? One learned to focus ones’ attention.

The secondhand textbooks thing is shocking enough in itself. But these insults stem from deep-bone hatred. There are gratuitous. The system allows to treat black students as second zone citizen but it is people who write insults in textbooks, not the system. I thought about the Black Lives Matter movement and all we hear about racism in the USA and said to myself “They’re never going to move from this if it was so ingrained and if they don’t do a federal sort of Truth and Reconciliation commission and put everything in the open.”

The Nickel Boys is an excellent book. It’s short, it packs a lot of information, the characters are engaging and it’s thought-provoking. No wonder why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

PS: Serendipity. I’m writing this billet and just heard about a similar story in Canada with the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa – unusual coming-of-age novel

May 24, 2021 17 comments

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (1977) French title: La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Translated by Albert Bensoussan.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa is based on the author’s youth. We’re in Lima in the 1950s. Mario is 18, he’s at university, studying law to pacify his parents. He wants to be a writer and he works at Radio Panamericana, writing news bulletins with his colleague Pascual. Meanwhile, he tries his hand at writing short stories and imagines moving to an attic in Paris to pursue his literary dreams.

Two newcomers disrupt his routine of studying, working, writing and hanging out with his friends. First, Radio Panamericana hires Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian scriptwriter and star of soap operas. Second, his aunt by marriage’s sister, Aunt Julia, moves to Lima after she divorced her Bolivian husband.

Pedro Camacho is a talented but manic scriptwriter and he soon befriends Mario, confiding in him and sharing his writing tips. Pedro quicky becomes the new star of Radio Panamericana, bringing in more and more listeners with his crazy plots. With the listeners comes the money from advertising and the radio has found their goose that lays the golden eggs.

Mario and Aunt Julia didn’t know each other before she arrived and soon begin a secret affair. She’s fourteen years older than him. Since they belong to a tight-knit extended family where gossip travels fast, their greatest fear is to get caught by a family member. Mario’s friends and cousin Nancy know about their relationship and cover for them. Mario and Julia have no place for real intimacy since they both live with their relatives. They spend time together at the cinema, at the radio or wandering in the streets.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a coming-of-age novel where we see Mario falling in love and taking charge of his future. Older Mario looks back on his younger self with humor and tenderness. The Lima of his youth comes to life with him, his friend Javier and his colleagues at Radio Panamericana. We also relive the golden age of radio, with its numerous soap operas that will move to TV when this new media is widespread.

The main difference with a “usual” coming-of-age novel is that chapters alternate between Mario’s life and Pedro’s soap operas. At the beginn

ing, I thought that the stories were Mario’s short stories but I realized it was Pedro’s. As months go by, Pedro is more and more absorbed by his stories and works longer and longer hours to keep all his balls in the air. He jungles between several soap operas and his workload is threatening his health. To be honest, I thought that the chapters with the soap opera stories were a bit too long and I struggled to keep reading and pay attention. I was more invested in Mario’s life.

Two side comments about Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

The first one is about the title. The original Spanish title is La tía Julia y el escribidor. In English, it the straightforward Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. In French, it is La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Two things caught my attention in the French title. First, why la tante Julia and not just Tante Julia? Tante Julia sounds better but by choosing this, you link aunt and Julia and it becomes a sort of new first name and thus her identity. You can’t detach the family title from the first name and I can’t help thinking it makes the relationship sound more incestuous than la tante Julia. Mario and Julia are not blood related at all and he didn’t know her growing up, so la tante Julia works better in this context. I don’t know how the aunt Julia sounds to native English speakers. Is it really weird?

Then there’s the word scribouillard, which doesn’t mean scriptwriter –that would be scénariste—and is slightly derogatory as are words with the ard suffix in French. (like chauffard). Scribouillard means penpusher. The scriptwriter can only be Pedro Camacho but the penpusher can be Mario, aspiring writer and Pedro, writer of cheap soap operas. It’s not the same.

So, which translation is the right one?

Time to go back to the original Spanish title. I don’t speak Spanish so I went to my usual online dictionary to see the actual translation of escribidor. No official translation, just references to La tante Julia et le scribouillard. I kid you not. Escribidor doesn’t exist in Spanish. It means that Llosa made this word up and I bet that, after spending years in Paris, it is his Spanish translation of scribouillard. What do you think?

My second side comment is about the various covers of this book.

The Dutch one is close to the French one I displayed at the beginning of my billet. The German one seems to come out of a French or Italian film of the 1960s and has nothing to do with the novel. The Polish one implies that Aunt Julia is a loose lady.

The English cover with the lady and the city makes me think of a WWII novel. The Swedish one goes with the Polish cover. Imagine the disappointment of German, Polish and Swedish readers who based their purchase on the cover, thinking they’d be reading a torrid love affair, and ending up with tame kisses on street corners and wild soap operas. The Penguin cover is good: we see Mario or Pedro, their typewriter and the radio. There’s no emphasis on the Julia/Mario relationship.

I think that the best cover is the Spanish one with the lady and her half-radio face. It’s a good summary of the book: it’s in the right decade, it’s not lewd, it shows Julia and the radio as they are both important in Mario’s formative years. Which one do you prefer?

PS: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Miraflores neighborhood in Lima. It is also the setting of A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique, published in 1972 and also set in the 1950s. It’s a book I highly recommend too.

Miss Mole by E.H. Young – wonderful character study

May 16, 2021 28 comments

Miss Mole by E.H Young (1930) Not available in French.

I think I owe Miss Mole by E.H. Young to Ali, from Heavenli or Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal when I asked for a comfort read during our third lockdown.

We’re in 1930, in Radstowe, not far from London. Miss Hannah Mole is an impoverished spinster who works as a governess. She has no family left, except her cousin Lilia, aka the almighty Mrs Spenser-Smith, the town’s rich patroness. Lilia doesn’t want anyone to know that Hannah and she are related.

When the book opens, Miss Mole has just quit from her position as a companion to a Mrs Widdows because she couldn’t stand her any longer. She doesn’t have any plan yet but when she stumbles upon Lilia at a tea shop, she informs her of her current predicament.

Lilia recommends Hannah to Mr Corder, the pastor of the Beresford Road Chapel. He’s a widower with two daughters, Ethel and Ruth. His son Howard is at Oxford. His nephew Wilfrid lives with them as he attends medical school. Lilia kills two birds in one stone with this recommendation. On the one hand, she ensures that Hannah is settled in a new home, which means she won’t have to invite her to hers if she doesn’t find another job. On the other hand, she appoints a housekeeper of her own in the Corder household, which puts Mr Corder out of reach of the single ladies of the parish who would insert themselves into his life through housekeeping duties. Ah, the single ladies vultures preying upon single clergymen. It’s almost a literary genre in itself.

Hannah has a lovely personality. She’s resilient and refuels on her own. She tries to be hopeful and positive all the time. She doesn’t complain and seeks for the best in people and in any situation she’s in. She rejoices in the little things and she si grateful to Fortune who, in making her a servant, had remembered to give her freedom and happiness in herself.

Hannah also has a bright and mischievous mind, a misplaced sense of humour that isn’t always compatible with her position. It’s her strength as a person but her weakness as a professional. She knows it when she arrives at the Corders’, assesses the people and the atmosphere and sets herself to improve Ruth and Ethel’s lives.

Hannah took a penitential pleasure in controlling herself. If she asserted her personality before she had established herself firmly, even Lilia’s patronage would not save her. She had to persuade Robert Corder that she was useful before she let him suspect her of a mind quicker than his own, and she behaved discreetly, for she had her compact with Mrs. Corder to keep, she had her own powers to prove, and, though she would have laughed at the idea, she had the zeal of a reformer under her thin crust of cynicism. She wanted to fatten Ruth and see an occasional look of happiness on her face, to ease Ethel’s restlessness and get some sort of beauty into the house. She could not change the ugly furniture – and there Mrs. Corder had badly failed – but friendliness and humour and gaiety cost no money; they were, in fact, in the penniless Hannah’s pocket, waiting for these difficult people to take them, and Hannah bided their time and her own.

Hannah is kind, understanding. She’s never judgmental and that makes her trustworthy. She soon gets an ally in the house, as Wilfrid quickly sees through her and acknowledges her wit through little signs. Hannah has plenty of social skills and she uses them to steer Mr Corder into smoother interactions with his children and get close to Ruth and Ethel. Being a housekeeper is high-level diplomacy, especially when you want to bring happiness into a house and reconcile its occupants.

E.H. Young shows how hard it is to be a housekeeper. Hannah doesn’t have a home of her own, she has to conceal her personality, her feelings and compose with everyone’s need. She’s almost forty and she dreads old age. Hannah can only rely on herself. She takes care of everybody but who takes care of her? She has moments when she doesn’t manage to sugar-coat her life and her loneliness smacks her in the face.

Without actually making that confession, her mind went on to imagine what a real love might have been. But such loves do not come in the way of the Miss Moles of this world, and now she was nearly forty. And thinking thus, she allowed the threatening wave of her loneliness, avoided for so long, to sweep over her, and she stood still in the street, helpless while it engulfed her. It fell back, leaving her battered, but on her feet, and longing for a hand to help her upward before she could be swamped again, but she longed in vain and it was a weary woman who walked up Beresford Road and found no comfort in the ruby glow of Mr. Samson’s window curtains. She assumed her usual look of competence as soon as she entered the house. Employers do not expect their servants to have visible emotions, and professional pride straightened her back when she went into the dining-room.

There’s no room for self-pity in her world.

Young describes very well the uncertain fate of unmarried gentle women of that time. Hannah lives in the same social constraints as Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Her acquired gentility implies that she behaves according to the codes of the middle class she now belongs to. She often thinks she’d have been happier, had she remained on a farm in the country where she was raised. Now she lives in town, under the watchful eyes of the neighbours, among people who go to church every Sunday, take abnormal interest in the parish’s events and gossip a lot. Respectability and propriety make the bars of a golden cage.

Miss Mole is an excellent novel and Hannah is a very loveable character. I enjoyed her spirit and loved that Young didn’t write a rosy and implausible book. There’s hope, of course and we follow with interest all the events at the Corders’. We get to know Hannah, her past and what made her who she is. We share her inner life and are privy to her thoughts, a treat in itself. We meet people in Radstowe, good, bad, eccentric, fun or stuck-up characters. I wonder if Barbara Pym was inspired by E.H. Young because Radstowe, its church and its people sound a lot like Jane and Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle.

Highly recommended.

Ali’s review is here and Jacqui’s is here.

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