Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami

January 26, 2022 8 comments

Novelist as a Vocation by Murakami Haruki (2015) French title: Profession romancier. Translated by Hélène Morita.

In Novelist as a Vocation, published in 2015, Haruki Murakami writes about his experience as a novelist. The book is composed of eleven chapters, the first six had been previously published in Monkey Business and the five others are new. In French, it is translated as Profession romancier, but I don’t think there’s an English translation of this collection of essays.

I used the title Novelist as a Vocation because it is included in my French copy of the book, under the original title in Japanese, shokugyõ toshite no shōsetsuka.

But Novelist as a Vocation isn’t the same as Profession romancier, which means Novelist as a profession. Between vocation and profession, in my opinion, stands the line between artist and craftsman. The Japanese title means Occupation: Novelist (Thanks Marina Sofia!), closer to the French title. Back to the book.

Murakami evokes several aspects of his life as a writer. How anybody can decide to write a book. How he had an epiphany at a baseball game –hence the cover of the book, I imagine—and how he decided to write a novel. His first success when he was thirty. He talks about literary prizes and says he doesn’t care he never won the Akutagawa prize. He’s still a hugely successful writer.

After these generalities, he dissects his writing life and his vision of talent. For him, being “original”, “new” will only be validated with time. Will a book become a classic? Is it really a revolution in literature the way the Beatles were a revolution in music? Time will tell if the public includes a novel in their modern classic pantheon or forgets it.

He gives recommendation to aspiring writers and describes his disciplined life. Write 400 signs per day. First draft. Re-read and correct. Second draft. Start again the process. His wife is his first reader and critic. He says he gives his best to each book and thus has no regret. He couldn’t have written them better at the time he wrote them. Sounds like a smart way to look at things.

His days are made of early rising, writing five to six hours and running for an hour. He insists on the importance of being fit to be a long-lasting writer. Your body must be an ally and not get in the way of your writing.

He gives us a glimpse at his school years and how he was bored in school. Books were his anchor and his solace.

The pages about his writing and the evolution of his style made me think that a reader should read his books in their order of publication. Each one was a step towards the writer he is now. He explains how, at the beginning of his writing career, he was unable to give names to his characters. He comes back to the first time he thought he could pull off a third person narrative.

He talks about his readers and the imaginary bond he feels between his words and the people who read them and receive them. However, he recommends to write for oneself and not for readers. A sign of success? For him, he’s happy when his books are read by people of different generations.

He also comes back to his moving to the USA, the reasons why he left Japan and his early successes in America. He had a plan to conquer the American market, one that included a good agent, a good translator and a willing publisher.

He’s very humble all the time, as if he weren’t that talented or as if the idea of writing came late and out of the blue.*

But between the lines you can sketch out a personality who stands out and doesn’t conform. He was born in 1949, it must have been hard not to conform in Japan, when he was young. He acknowledges that he didn’t follow standards, go to university, start a job in an office and get married. He got married first, opened a jazz bar with his wife and then got his degree. Then he started to write.

We guess that he’s someone who is an individual, who needs to do what he wants and live according to his own tune. Not a rebel or someone dangerous, more someone closer to the Western vision of individuality than to the Japanese culture of being one in a crowd. He is different and original compared to other Japanese men of his time.

He has a unique personality, backed up by a strong work ethic and a will to be successful, despite his apparent protests. This influences his books and that’s probably why they sound original. He doesn’t feel special but he is and so are his books.

I am not a die-hard Murakami fan. I loved South of the Border, West of the Sun and Kafka on the Shore (pre-blog). I wasn’t too fond of Norwegian Wood and couldn’t finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Incidentally, my billet titles are all related to music: Teen without spirit for Norwegian Wood, She moves him in mysterious ways for South of the Border, West of the Sun and lastly The wind-up bird never sang to me for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. (obviously)

After reading Profession romancier, I feel like trying another of his books and thanks to Marina’s post about Sputnik Sweetheart, I picked this one as my next Murakami.

This contributes to two blogging events, Japanese Lit Challenge 15 hosted by Meredith and Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by Shellyrae.

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner – déjà vu and too clichéd for my taste.

January 22, 2022 14 comments

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner (2013) French title: Famille parfaite.

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner was our Book Club choice for January. It’s a thriller set in Boston and in New Hampshire.

Justin has been married to Libby for eighteen years and they have a fifteen-year-old daughter, Ashlyn. In appearance, they look like a perfect family. Justin is an entrepreneur and took over his father’s construction company and developed it. Libby works from home and creates jewels. She mostly has the role of a trophy wife, entertaining Justin’s clients and employees, being the main care giver to Ashlyn.

Justin and Libby’s marriage exploded six months ago, when Libby discovered that Justin cheated on her with a twenty-something travel agent from his office.

And now, they get kidnapped in their Bostonian brownstone. The Boston police arrive on the scene but the FBI takes over as soon as Justin’s jacket is found in New Hampshire. The local sheriff, Wyatt assists the Feds. Tessa Leoni, a former state trooper has been hired by Denbe Construction as a private investigator and is on the case too.

We’re in a classic thriller where on the one hand, we follow the investigation team and on the other hand, we follow what happens to the Denbes through Libby’s thoughts and point of view.

The plot is fast paced, I read it as you watch an action movie. It’s entertainment. But…it’s a weak book.

Half way through the book, I guessed the ending which is the kiss of death for a crime fiction book.

If the reader finds out so early in the story, who did it and why, it means that the plot is too thin and not woven properly. I don’t feel like a clever reader, I only think that the writer is not up to par.

The other weakness is the string of thriller clichés: the rich husband who cheats on his wife, the wife who has no real professional life but sells the jewels she makes, the crumbling façade of a perfect marriage, the kidnapping, Tessa Leoni and her traumatic past and the attraction brewing between her and Wyatt.

Other easy plot devices arrive later in the game but they would be spoilers, so…The only cliché that is missing is the classic conflicts between FBI, local police and PI. They get along rather well.

I’ll spare you the banal thoughts about marriage, love, pain and guilt that Libby inflicts on the reader as part of her thought process.

All this would have been insufferable in lit fiction but when it’s crime fiction, we seem more forgiving as a we’re only looking for a good time.

Then, it got me thinking about common tropes in fiction and I wondered how some American authors would fare if they were French. Indeed, writing in a French context would mean:

1 – Free social security. So, characters with crippling health bills are out of the question,

2 – Community property as the most common matrimonial regime meaning that property owned by one spouse before marriage, and gifts and inheritances received during marriage, are treated as that spouse’s separate property in the event of divorce. All other property acquired during the marriage is treated as community property and is subject to division between the spouses in the event of divorce. (Wikipedia) No prenup-driven plots or one-spouse-loses-all plots when divorce is involved.

3 – By law, one cannot totally disinherit their children or give all of their money to one heir. The part that one can freely dispense of depends on the composition of the legal heirs. Say you have two children, you’re free to do whatever you want with one third of your money. The rest goes automatically to your children. It limits the power of inheritance driven plots, no?

Back to the book.

My billet may sound a bit harsh as the book has a solid 4.07 stars on Goodreads. That’s my opinion. I like my crime fiction more literary and more original but I understand why other readers enjoyed Touch and Go.

Stay tuned and discover soon a wonderful Italian crime fiction book that mixes a good plot, original police characters and a great dose of information about Sardinia’s culture.  

What do you think? Have you read this book?

PS: A word about the covers. The American one is OK. The French ones are just awful. The person who chose the picture of Wisteria Lane has not read the book as the Denbe’s brownstone is almost a character of the book. And the other one with the young girl behind the wire netting, I don’t see how it relates to the book.

Taqawan by Eric Plamondon – 1981 on the Mi’gmaq reservation in Gaspesia

January 19, 2022 15 comments

Taqawan by Eric Plamondon (2017). Not available in English.

Au Québec, on a tous du sang indien. Si ce n’est pas dans les veines, c’est sur les mains.In Québec, we all have Indian blood. If it’s not in our veins, it’s on our hands.

Eric Plamondon is a Québecois writer but I don’t think that his book is translated into English. I will never understand why Canadian books are not available in the two official languages of the country. I received his novella Taqawan through my Kube subscription.

Taqawan takes the reader back to the month of June 1981, to the Indian reservation La Restigouche in the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec. The indigenous nation living on this reservation are the Micmac, or Mi’gmaq.

When the book opens, Océane, a Mi’gmaq teenager is on her way back to the reservation at the end on her school day. She goes to an English-speaking school in New Brunswick. She’s on the school bus when it is stopped on the Van Horne bridge that separates Québec from New Brunswick.

Understanding that the police are blocking the entry to the reservation, she slips out of the bus and despite the danger climbs down from the bridge to the ground to go home.

What follows that night is a violent police intervention related to the “salmon war” between the white Québec authorities and the Mi’gmaq nation. The Québec government has set new rules to issue fishing permits for salmon and these rules are unfathomable for a Native Canadian. They don’t want to abide by them because they simply don’t understand them. 300 policemen of the Sécurité of Québec are sent on the reservation to confiscate the fishermen’s nets.

In the middle of the mayhem where the police force abuse of their power, beat several Mi’gmaqs, arrest them without cause, three policemen rape Océane in the woods and left her there to her own devices. Yves, a former ranger who lives in a cabin in the woods finds her, brings her home and seeks for help. Beyond the basic human reaction to help someone in distress, Yves holds a grudge against the local authorities. He quit his job as a ranger because he didn’t approve of the treatment of the Mi’gmaqs and he didn’t want to lend a hand to the police, as required by his hierarchy.

Yves knows William, a Mi’gmaq who also lives in the woods. Together and with the help of Caroline, Yves’s former lover, they will help and protect Océane, putting their own safety at risk.

In the thread of Océane’s story, Plamondon inserts vignettes from the past and from the present politics. The images of the past go back to the importance of salmon for the Mi’gmaqs, to the help the Mi’gmaqs provided to the European first settlers. They wouldn’t have survived without their help. There are passages about fishing and Mi’gmaq culture and these short chapters give a historical context to the book and remind the white Québécois what they owe to native peoples.

The other set of vignettes comes back to the political context of the time and how the fight between Québec and the federal government ricocheted and impacted the daily life of the Mi’gmaq community. The issue of the salmon fishing rights is a pawn in the war between René Lévesque at the head Québec and the Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. We’re just the year after the 1980 referendum for the independence of Québec, lost by the partisans of Québec sovereignty.

Plamondon draws a severe picture of the Québec government, of the racism and violence of the Sécurité of Québec (we’re far, far away from Inspector Gamache’s gentleness) and of the treatment of indigenous nations in Canada. I understood that William, the oldest Indian character, has been in one of those despicable residential schools. But remember, the book is set in 1981.

Percé, Gaspésie.

On a lighter note, as usual when reading Québec literature, I had fun tracking down the funny words and expressions. I still don’t understand why we don’t use the same gender for some words between France and Québec. Why say son jeep (masculine, Québec) and not sa jeep (feminine, France), since the word car (voiture) is feminine. Maybe it’s because Québécois say char for voiture and char is masculine? Same for job. Why say une job and not un job since all the French words for job are masculine? (un travail, un emploi, un métier.)

I also love hearing the English under their French and chuckled when I saw Heille, man, a Gallicized version of Hey, man. The most endearing is when both French and Québécois use an English word in their French and France gets it wrong. Québécois use the appropriate English word choke for the device used to start a car when the French say un starter!

I need to read more Québec litterature, it’s often really enjoyable. It’s a pity that Taqawan isn’t translated into English and it goes in the Translation Tragedy category. It’s available in German, if that helps. Another good score for Kube!

PS: Remember my billet about The Grey Ghost Murders by Keith McCafferty where I discovered the existence of antique fishing flies? Well, Plamondon says that the oldest drawing of fly-fishing dates back to Ancient Egypt, fourteen centuries BC. I should start a “fun facts about fishing” category.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig – a belated billet

January 15, 2022 20 comments

Magellan by Stefan Zweig (1938) French title: Magellan. Translated by Alzir Hella.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig was our November Book Club read. I’m very late again with my billet, I know. As the title of the book implies, it is a biography of Magellan, written by a literary author.

I’m not going to write a detailed summary of the book or Magellan’s life, there’s Wikipedia for that and, as much as I respect Zweig as a writer, he’s not a historian.

In his introduction, Zweig says that he was travelling comfortably to America on a passenger ship when he got to thinking about Vasco de Gama, Magellan and all their fellow explorers and their grueling traveling conditions. He decided to write a book about Magellan and started to research that time in the ship’s library. Imagine that these ships had libraries so well stocked that he could read several books about the Age of Discovery. Now I understand why one would want to quit flying and travel on a passenger ship instead! It’s an opportunity for binge reading. (For the anecdote, I have a four-week break in February and when I said to my husband that I was going to have a book orgy, he deadpanned “Isn’t that what you’re doing already?” Ahem…)

The book opens with a quick summary about the spice trade and its importance at the time. It explains how the Portuguese became a great nation of explorers and what was at stake. It gives an overview of the importance of Prince Henry the Navigator and King João II (1481-1495) and King Manuel I (1495-1521), the one who ordered the building of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, if you’ve ever been to Lisbon.

Magellan (1480-1521) was born in Portugal, as a nobleman. His real Portuguese name is Ferñao de Magalhães. He was always a sailor, went to the West Indies in 1505-1512. He and his cosmologue friend Faleiro were convinced that there was a way to the Spice Islands by sailing west from Europe. Carlos I, future Charles the Fifth, financed the trip after King Manuel refused to do it. Magellan and his men left Spain on September 10, 1519 with five ships and 285 men. They came back on September 6th, 1521 with one ship, 18 men and without Magellan who died in the Philippine Islands. One of them was Antonio Pigafetta, the scholar who wrote a journal about the trip, a great source of information. We owe him a lot.

Zweig relates Magellan’s life and travels, explaining the political intricacies, the financing of the project, the fiddly preparation, the conflicts between the captains of the fleet and all the dangers these sailors had to face.

As you know, Magellan and his crew discovered the Strait of Magellan, in southern Chile. It’s a dangerous route, not really a practical one but one of the few natural passages between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The 18 men who came back did the first circumnavigation of the world and proved that the Earth is not flat.

I found some facts astonishing. Imagine that the Pope approved of the split of the world between Spain and Portugal after drawing an imaginary line: new territories west of the line belong to Spain and east of the line to Portugal. Hence Spain’s motivation to sponsor Magellan’s trip from West to East. I’m always floored by the arrogance of the Catholic Church and the kings of the time. I know I shouldn’t judge the past with today’s eyes but I can’t help my reaction.

Imagine that the stations along the African coasts from the Good Hope Cape to Europe all belonged to the Portuguese. Magellan’s last ship didn’t take the risk to moor there or stop for food and water. The crew was afraid to be imprisoned as they were sailing under Spanish pavilion and as this expedition fueled the competition between Spain and Portugal. (If I understood properly) So they’d rather risk dying of thirst and hunger than have a pit stop at one of those stations. Borders weren’t a joke at the time!

Zweig pictures Magellan as a hard-working and stubborn man who overcame all kind of difficulties to prove his theory. I can’t fathom the courage these sailors had to leave everything behind and risk their life to go and face the great unknown. It’s hard for us to imagine as there aren’t many unexplored places these days. Except other planets. The value of one’s life wasn’t as important as today, I suppose. See Magellan’s family. He died during his trip, facing all kind of dangers. Meanwhile, his wife and son died at home, doing nothing special. Untimely deaths were common, maybe they didn’t rate the risk taken by these sailors as high as we do now, with our modern eyes.

Magellan is an easy read as Zweig is a smooth writer. It has the right level of details for a reader who is not a history buff: you learn things but don’t feel too lost in details you don’t understand because you lack of historical background. I don’t know how accurate it is but I think that the major facts are right and these are the only ones I’ll remember anyway.  

2022 Reading projects

January 9, 2022 42 comments

Now that you know all about my favorite reads for 2021, let’s have a look at my reading projects for 2022. They include the inevitable “Kill the TBR” part, probably only to allow myself to buy more books and end up with the same number of unread books come December 31st. Oh well. One of the great pleasure of life is visiting bookshops. I’ll never spend a whole year without buying a single book.

My 2022 reading year will include the books I’ll read along with my Book Club and with my sister-in-law.

That’s already 15 books, out of the 75 read every year.

2022 will see two major centenaries for French literature. It is the centenary of Proust’s death and the fourth centenary of Molière’s birth.

I’ll have a Proust Centenary event. I want to finally finish my reread of In Search of Lost Time. I also have several works by Prousts or Proust related books on the shelf. Time to read them! The Proust Centenary reading list is:

  • Albertine disparue by Marcel Proust
  • Le temps retrouvé by Marcel Proust
  • Proust by Samuel Beckett
  • Days of Reading by Marcel Proust
  • The Mysterious Correspondant. New Stories by Marcel Proust
  • Le mensuel retrouvé by Marcel Proust

I hope to be able to visit the Proust exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. I’d love to visit Aunt Léonie’s house in Illiers-Combray but it’s like a six-hour drive to go there.

I’ll probably do something about Molière’s centenary too. I will see Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in May, it’s in my theatre subscription for 2022. I’m tempted to reread Le Misanthrope. We’ll see how things go on that front. I have already published several billets about Molière’s plays as he’s my favorite playwright.

I will also participate to various reading challenges and blogging events because I enjoy the book blogging community and also because it’s a good way to tackle the TBR. I try to pick books from the TBR for these events and to kill several birds with one stone.

So far, I’ve spotted several events.

The first one is the year-long Nonfiction Reader Challenge, a good way to decrease the Nonfiction TBR. There are twelve categories but I can’t really find one book per category, so I choose de Nonfiction Grazer status, meaning I can read whatever nonfiction book I want. Here’s my list, which overlaps with Book Club and Proust Centenary lists.

My daughter is spending a year in UofSC and I hope we’ll be able to visit the area next summer. I’ve chosen several books to read from the Appalachians and the Carolinas.

  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  • Country Dark by Chris Offutt
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  • Serena by Ron Rash
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Have already been announced : Japanese Literature Challenge, Larry McMurtry 2022 for which I want to read Lonesome Dove, and the 1954 Club. (I have The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty on the shelf)

All this makes 30-35 books, all from the TBR, Yay! For the rest, we’ll where my mood takes me and how life goes. I only want to have fun, learn new things, do some armchair travels and spend time with books.

What are your reading projects for 2022?

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Let’s have a quick look at my 2021 year with books.

January 8, 2022 47 comments

I can’t believe we’re already in 2022. At work, I’m starting to see contracts that ends in 2030 and the first one struck me as being a mistake but after recounting the years, I thought, “Oh right, we’re that close to 2030 after all”. Before I share my 2022 reading projects with you, let’s have a look at my 2021 reading year.

I read 76 books, two less than in 2020 but the end of December has been busy, my concentration was shot and I couldn’t read anything. For a lot of bloggers, 76 books is what they read in three months, but for me it’s a good score.

I’ve read your posts full of stats about countries, writers’ gender, translated books, non-fiction vs fiction, numbers of pages read and all that and I admire you for checking out all these numbers. I work with numbers all day long and I keep them at bay from my reading. So, no stats like this from me, I’m afraid.

Here, I’m happy to live without numbers and only go with totally subjective opinions about books I read. So, here we go, with categories of my own.

Best Least Commented Billet

I looked into my billets in search of the least commented ones. Some of my favorite books of the year are in this category, sadly. Something happened to The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart, it fell into a pit and nobody cared about this Texan family saga. It is an amazing book, though. Rugged characters, beautiful writing and a story that takes you away to Texas for a while. I haven’t read Lonesome Dove yet, but I figure it’s the same kind of book.

Best Gallmeister Book

Frequent flyers of this blog know that 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.

Among the eleven books that I read this year from their catalogue, my favorite on is Betty by Tiffany McDaniel. It’s a bestseller in France, readers, libraires and literary critics loved it. I was a bit reluctant to read it, as often with books with a lot of hype. (Still haven’t read Elena Ferrante for that same reason). It was a Book Club choice and I’m very happy the group pushed me to read it.

It’s based on the true story of Tiffany McDaniel’s mother growing up poor and part-Cherokee in Ohio in the 1950s. It is a beautiful homage to McDaniel’s grandfather too, written in a style that hooks you up. Violence and pain are part of the family story but it’s not a bleak book. Highly recommended.

There will be more Gallmeister books in 2022, starting with Italian crime fiction as they’ve branched out and started to publish non-American books.

Best Most Relaxing Book

This category is for comfort and fun books. I loved Miss Mole by E.H. Young . It was a wonderful study of character, an easy read with excellent insight. A total comfort book. Thanks for the recommendation, Ali.

I also had a blast with Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gishler. It’s like reading an action movie set in the near future and it was sheer fun. I owe this one to Guy.

But the book that combined comfort and fun was The Grey Ghost Murders by Keith McCafferty. It’s all-in-one for me: crime fiction, Nature Writing, fun and exotic.

Best Non-Book Post

Since 2019, I have a best-of category for my billets that are not a book review. This year, the most read and commented ones were about lists of books, my 20 Books of Summer List and my Book Club 2021-2022 List. That’s us, avid readers, we all love book lists, reading recommendations and book piles.

Sign of the times, there has been no Literary Escapade billet in 2021. I hope to resume these outings in 2022.

Best Read With-Sister-in-Law

I’m now in my third year of readalong with my sister-in-law. (Hi S!) It’s been a year with literary fiction and crime fiction. We couldn’t finish Elmore Leonard’s Western Stories. It’s well-written and all but we got tired of formulaic cowboy stories.

The most striking book we’ve read it The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The characters are fictional but it’s based on the real place, the Dozier School in Florida. It was a reform school operated by the State of Florida and as you imagine, it was not a Care Bears kind of place. Reading it made me so angry on behalf of all the boys that were destroyed in that school and by the very people who were supposed to take care of them.

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 fifteen books that are not translated into English and nine that are not translated into French.

Among the nine books not available in French, three are from Australia and New Zealand, three are from America and three from UK. I think that Death on Demand by Paul Thomas would find its public in France as we are fans of crime fiction and his Maori maverick police officer would be a hit. Thank you, Kim, for organizing your Southern Cross Crime event as it led me to Death on Demand.

Nine of the fifteen books not available in English are French books, the others are from Italy, Colombia, Morocco, Japan, Egypt and Québec.

Noah’s Ark by Khaled al Khamissi is the book I’d want to see translated into English. The intertwined stories of the characters show the various reasons why people want to emigrate and how well it works for them.

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

I guess it’d be Convenience Store Woman by Sakaya Murata. The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at the SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend, doesn’t wish to marry and loves her job. She doesn’t conform to the Japanese society norms. This novella is an easy read and shows an interesting side of Japan. Thanks Vishy for pointing this one to me!

Best Book Club Read

Our Book Club year was a success but the one book I want to show off is Entre deux mondes by Olivier Norek. It’s hard but not bleak and it will force you to see what happens to migrants on our shores and especially in Calais, in the North of France, across the UK. I wish that all the candidates to the French presidential election and the current British Home Secretary read it if they’re openminded enough to see the human beings behind their speeches and actions on emigration.

Best Non-Fiction

I loved the time I spent with Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Mulhstein.

It’s a slim book in which Anka explores Proust’s relationship with books, literature and writers. It’s a delightful book that will appeal to all readers, whether they’ve read Proust of not.

Best Random Discovery

By Random Discovery, I mean a book I read after leaping from another book. That’s exactly what happened with The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage. I read a book by her husband, Thomas Savage, realized that he was married to a writer and decided to try her books too.

The Last Night at the Ritz is told by an unreliable but likeable narrator and it goes back to a life of friendship between two women and their different paths in life.

Best Bleak Book

In 2021, I seemed to have the knack for picking bleak books, as I mentioned it in my billet B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober. The bleakest book of my reading year was Les larmes sur la terre by Sandrine Collette.

In a dystopian future, Moe lands in a breaker’s yeard with her baby, gets a used car for housing and discovers that poor people are parked here with no real hope of ever going out. I’ve rarely read a book that dark and that hopeless. It has wonderful literary qualities in its style and the story is totally new. But wow, it’s taxing for the reader.

Best Spooky Book

Nothing prepared me for The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury. The main character is Tracy, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in Alaska.

Her mother died the year before and their family fell apart after that. Her father and mother were mushers but now he doesn’t want to race anymore. And Tracy has a strange need to spend time in the wilderness, a need she shared with her mother. She has a special connection to wild life, one you’ll get to know if you read this book.

That’s all folks! 2021 has been an excellent reading year for me and I’m sure 2022 will be too. What was your favorite book in 2021? Say the first that comes to mind when you think “What did I read in 2021?”

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Happy New Year 2022!

January 1, 2022 35 comments

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you spent New Year’s Eve in good company and that you had a wonderful evening.

I wish you all and your loved ones a good health, a chance to go and see your relatives who live abroad, a peaceful professional life, an opportunity to make your dreams and projects come true.

I am thankful for all the healthcare professionals who bear with Covid-19, keep on nursing us and who have to take the brunt of the epidemic every single working day. I hope this year will be easier on them.

Let’s hope that this year will grow into an amazing transition year to a better future.

I wish us all an excellent reading year and I’ll come back later with my best-of-the-year list and 2022 reading projects. Meanwhile, here are the bookish gifts I got for Christmas. Look at my cool Mafalda tote bag and the cutest library socks ever!

I got myself a subscription to Quais du Polar, and along with it, the book Les jardins d’Eden by Pierre Pelot. I’m ready to read Nemesis by Philip Roth and see his take on a pandemic situation.

Many thanks to the book blogging community for sharing and exchanging about literature, libraries, book shelves, TBRs, book recommandations, for organizing challenges and events that bring us together. We make our lives better with civilized discussions about the immense pleasure that books and literature bring into our quotidian.

I’m looking forward to spending this new reading year with you.

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Joyeux Noël and A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry.

December 24, 2021 21 comments

A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry (2021) Not available in French.

So, we’re back on the Covid merry-go-round, playing a game of Omicron Says. In other words, it’s Christmas with Covid Season 2.

New restrictions are blooming all over Europe like toxic mushrooms infecting our Christmas again. In France, we are exempted of too many restrictions for now, except the usual health pass, the hydroalcoholic gel fiesta and the mask wearing. They are starting to feel as the new normal. We’re in a frenzy of PCR testing for family reunions and we’ll try to enjoy ourselves despite the omicron cloud over our heads.

With all the bad news piling up, I was looking for something sweet after reading Betty by Tiffany MacDaniel. I turned to Anne Perry’s last Christmas story, A Christmas Legacy and it did the job.

In this one, we’re with with Gracie, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt’s former maid. She has now left their service to get married. She has three children and is happy with her new life. A few days before Christmas, Millie, a girl Gracie has taken under her wing and who works as a housemaid in a Londoner townhouse, comes to her house and says she feels insecure at her employer’s house, Gracie replaces her for a couple of days to investigate what’s going on in this mansion.

This is a book you read under a plaid with tea, Christmas cookies and papillotes. It’s nothing to write home about but a nice and relaxing read. Exactly what I needed.

I hope you and your family are safe and well and that you were able to spend Christmas with the people you love. If you’re locked down because of this damned virus, I hope you planned a wonderful self-party and celebrated the holiday anyway. We, avid readers, are lucky bastards: our main enjoyment is Covid-compliant. We should count our blessings, and that’s definitely one.

Give me some news in the comment section if you wish and Joyeux Noël!

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Highly recommended

December 19, 2021 17 comments

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (2020) French title: Betty. Translated by François Happe.

No matter how beautiful the pasture, it is the freedom to choose that makes the difference between a life lived and a life had.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is our Book Club choice for December and the proof that one should never write their best-of-the-year post before the year is truly ended. What a book.

Betty Carpenter was born in 1954 in a dry claw-foot bathtub in Arkansas. She’s the sixth child of a family of eight children. Her parents were a mixed couple, her father Landon was Cherokee and her mother Alka was white.

Betty is our narrator and she tells us her family’s story from 1909, her father’s birth to 1973, the year he died. Her parents were dirt poor and after a few years of moving around, they settled in an abandoned house lent by a friend in Breathed, Ohio. It was Leland’s hometown. They lived off the land, off the medicine Landon could concoct and off odd jobs. They were dirt-poor.

The first part of the book covers the 1908-1961 years. It’s shorter because Betty doesn’t have her own memories of these years but it’s an important part to root the family tree in its history. Landon’s Cherokee roots mean that he comes from a culture with a matriarchal tradition and a history of violence as his elders hid in the wilderness to avoid deportation to Oklahoma. Alka comes from a Bible abiding family with a history of domestic violence and no respect for women.

Alka and Landon have eight children: Leland, Fraya, Yarrow, Waconda, Flossie, Betty, Trustin and Lint. Yarrow and Waconda died before they were two. Betty’s story is centered around her and her sisters Fraya and Flossie. They father told her:

“In different native tribes, the Three Sisters represent the three most important crops. Maize, beans, and squash. The crops grow together as sisters. The oldest is maize. She grows the tallest, supportin’ the vines of her younger sisters. The middle sister is beans. She gives nitrogen and nutrition to the soil, which allows her sisters to grow resilient and strong. The youngest is squash. She is the protector of her sisters. She stretches her leaves to shade the ground and fight off weeds. It is squash’s vines which tie the Three Sisters together in a bond that is the strongest of all. This was how I knew I’d have three daughters, even after Waconda died. Fraya’s the corn. Flossie is the beans. And you, Betty, are squash. You must protect your sisters as squash protects the corn and beans.”

A tall order for Betty, who becomes the custodian of the family stories. Her mother tells her about her personal tragedy. She witnesses Fraya’s horrible fate and the two sisters share Fraya’s secret. She knows about Flossie’s dirty secrets too. A resilient child, Betty understands that women and men don’t have the same opportunities in life.

I realized then that pants and skirts, like gender itself, were not seen as equal in our society. To wear pants was to be dressed for power. But to wear a skirt was to be dressed to wash the dishes.

Betty is an ode to generation of women who had to live through discrimination due to their race, their gender or their social status. And sometimes the three at the same time, like Betty who was ostracized and bullied in school because of her Cherokee physique, her poverty and her gender. Telling Alka’s, Fraya’s and Flossie’s tragic lives is a way to keep them alive and tell the world that their lives mattered. The three of them were captive of a man around them, their father, their brother or their husband. Alka explains to Betty:

“My mother used to have figurines,” Mom said as she lifted her chin as high as it would go as she added another layer of lotion to her neck and collarbone. “All of the female figurines you could take apart because they were boxes or bowls. They all held somethin’. In their skirts, in their bodies, they all held somethin’. None of the male figurines held anything. They were solid. You couldn’t put anything in and you couldn’t take anything out. I suppose if you think about it long enough, you’ll see why this is like real life.”

Alka, like Hattie in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, due to her own issue, isn’t equipped to mother so many children. As often in this case, the oldest daughter steps up and helps. But contrary to Hattie’s children, Alka’s children had their father. He’s the glue of the family. The one who heals with plants, teaches through gardening and relies on nature to help his children see the beauty around them instead of focusing on their misery. He loves his children and he mothers their bodies and their souls. He has stories about everything to turn a magic and poetic camera on the harsh reality of their lives.

I realized then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, we needed to believe them as well. To believe in unripe stars and eagles able to do extraordinary things. What it boiled down to was a frenzied hope that there was more to life than the reality around us. Only then could we claim a destiny we did not feel cursed to.

And the admirable outcome is that she’s able to say: Through his stories, I waltzed across the sun without burning my feet.

He’s a deeply caring man, one who is invested in his children’s life and education, who has no expectations of them, except to become what they want. Sons or daughters, it doesn’t matter. Intelligent, troubled, impaired or shallow, he loves them equally and is the real glue of the family.

Betty is emotional, tragic, violent, poetic, lyric, resilient and empowering.

Betty is actually Tiffany McDaniel’s mother and the author writes a beautiful ode to her lineage of strong women and an even more beautiful one to her grandfather, a man she never knew but was unusual in his generation for thinking that his daughters could be more than wives and mothers.

Betty is as much a tribute to Landon Carperter as the story of the Carpenter women. Betty says:

“Growin’ up,” I said, “I felt like I had sheets of paper stuck to my skin. Written on these sheets were words I’d been called. Pow-wow Polly, Tomahawk Kid, Pocahontas, half-breed, Injun Squaw. I began to define myself and my existence by everything I was told I was, which was that I was nothing. Because of this, the road of my life narrowed into a path of darkness until the path itself flooded and became a swamp I struggled to walk through.

“I would have spent my whole life walkin’ this swamp had it not been for my father. It was Dad who planted trees along the edge of the swamp. In the trees’ branches, he hung light for me to see through the darkness. Every word he spoke to me grew fruit in between this light. Fruit which ripened into sponges. When these sponges fell from the branches into the swamp, they drank in the water until I was standin’ in only the mud that was left. When I looked down, I saw my feet for the first time in years. Holdin’ my feet were hands, their fingers curled up around my soles. These hands were familiar to me. Garden dirt under the fingernails. How could I not know they were the hands of my father?

“When I took a step forward, the hands took it with me. I realized then that the whole time I thought I’d been walking alone, my father had been with me. Supportin’ me. Steadyin’ me. Protectin’ me, best he could. I knew I had to be strong enough to stand on my own two feet. I had to step out of my father’s hands and pull myself up out of the mud. I thought I would be scared to walk the rest of my life without him, but I know I’ll never really be without him because each step I take, I see his handprints in the footprints I leave behind.”

Isn’t this what parenthood is all about? Steadying feet and hanging lanterns along the path to adulthood?

Highly recommended.

PS : The original cover of the book (kept for the French edition too) is based on an Afghan crocheted by Betty. The UK paperback edition features a picture of Betty as a child. More pictures here, on Tiffany McDaniel’s website.

Paintings, theatre, music and books.

December 12, 2021 29 comments

As the pandemic once again rears its ugly head, I feel like the last few weeks of activities have been on borrowed time. I’ve been to a wonderful museum-thon in Paris with my girlfriends. We managed to pack four exhibitions and a theatre play in a two-day stay in the capital. How I love Paris. There’s no other city like Paris, except maybe Rome.

Our first visit was to my favorite museum, the Musée Jacquemart-André. It is boulevard Haussmann, where Proust used to live and where the great department stores always make me think of Ladies’ Paradise by Zola.

At the moment, the museum hosts an incredible exhibition, Botticelli, artist and designer. I’m not a great art connoisseur but I’ve never stared at a painting in awe as much as I have in front of The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. No printed or screen reproduction can give justice to the colors that leap out of the canvas, the fineness of the fabrics or the details in the hair and jewels. Look at his Portrait of young woman, (La Belle Simonetta in French.) *sighs with happiness*

We had lunch at the museum’s café which makes you think that Robert de Saint-Loup might stride into the room at any time for a chat with Marcel.

Different museum, different painter and a leap across the centuries: a major Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Centre Pompidou.

I always find this museum rather cold with its modern architecture and it has the worst waiting line management I’ve ever seen. The exhibition was worth the hassle though as they displayed paintings from all of O’Keeffe’s career. I’ve been to her museum in Santa Fe, so her work wasn’t new to me. We all know about her colorful and flower paintings and her later New Mexico period. I thought about books by Hillerman, Doss and Kingsolver.

Taos Pueblo by Georgia O’Keeffe.

I also enjoyed her New York paintings. They reminded me of Manhattan Transfer by Dos Passos and I wanted to hop on a plane and to go New York.

East River from the Sheldon Hotel by Georgia O’Keeffe.

The day after, we visited the Fondation Louis Vuitton that currently hosts an exhibition about the Morozov collection. It’s like the Barnes collection, for Russia. It is the first time that that this impressive collection of Impressionist art travels abroad. The Morozov brothers, born around the same time as Marcel Proust, bought paintings from all the major artists of the time. I discovered several Russian painters I’d never heard of and was grateful to know, like Valentin Serov who painted this portrait of Morozov.

Ivan Morozov by Valentin Serov

He’s leaning towards us, as if he were going to speak to us. I’d never heard of Aleksandr Golovin, Konstantin Korovin, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Natalia Goncharova or Ilya Mashkov and it was a marvelous discovery.

We went out of the museum, stars in our eyes. What do we owe to these art afficionados who collected paintings and sometimes helped painters survive! I am grateful for the Morozov, Vollard, Barnes or Shchukin of this world. And also to the Jacquemart-André who left their town house and their art collection to be a museum.

Our trip to the Musée d’Orsay brought us to another art collection, this time by Paul Signac. This is him, on his boat, painted by Théo Van Rysselberghe.

En mer, portrait de Paul Signac by Théo Van Rysselberghe

Signac owned up to 400 paintings, thanks to his family’s money and through exchanges. His collection favors Impressionism, Fauvism and Divisionism.

Between the Morozov and the Signac collection, I came across several painting of my favorite area of the French Riviera, the Estérel massif and the Maures massif. It brought me back to holidaying there, hiking in the hills with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, the scent of warm pine needles and other aromatic plants mixed with the iodine from the sea, the heat of the sun and the sound of cicadas.

Les roches rouges de l’Estérel by Louis Valtat

Although we had been on our feet all day, our evening was at the Théâtre Hébertot to see The Importance of Being Earnes by Oscar Wilde. The Théâtre Hébertot is one of the old theatres of Paris. It dates back to 1838 and was named the Théâtre des Batignolles at the time.

Maybe Lucien de Rubempré and Oscar Wilde went there, and Balzac and Hugo. There’s always a kind of magic to see plays in old theatres, as if the generations of spectators and actors had left their imprint on the walls and in the air.

The play was directed by Arnaud Denis, Evelyne Buyle and Olivier Sitruk.

I had read the play and knew we couldn’t go wrong with Wilde and no matter how many kilometers we in our feet, we wouldn’t fall asleep in the theatre. Happy to report I was right.

Everything was perfect: the text, of course, served by a vivid production and an excellent set of actors. Their acting did justice to Wilde’s sense of humor. He’s quick at repartee and the actors’ tone and acting enhanced the text beautifully. It’s French vaudeville laced with Irish sense of humor and the mix is explosive. I wonder if Wilde thought about The Game of Love and Chance by Marivaux when he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. There are similarities in the devices used in the two plays: quiproquos, change of identity and the question of honesty between lovers.

We laughed, we felt energized and had an amazing time.

Literature was also on my mind when I went the concert of Stephan Eicher, a Swiss German singer who was very famous in the early 1990s.

His album Engelberg, sang in English, French and German, was a huge success in France in 1991. This was the tour that partly celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of this album and like most of the audience in the theatre, I bought when it went out.

I loved this album and the songs in French written by Philippe Djian who is probably my favorite living French writer. He started to be famous in the 1980s with novels like 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), Echine and Maudit Manège. The songs Déjeuner en paix and Pas d’ami (comme toi) are representative of the atmosphere of Djian’s books at the time.

I was in my teenage years and Djian’s books were something new. First book with a gay couple in a book whose focus was not homosexuality. They happened to be gay, that’s all. First book with a man and woman as best friends. A lot of references to American literature, happening at the time 10:18 started to publish a lot of American writers in paperbacks, thanks to their director Jean-Claude Zylberstein. On top of this, this friendship between Eicher and Djian, some sort of modern Montaigne and La Boétie. They are still friends and Djian wrote the lyrics of Eicher’s latest album in 2019.

This concert was a trip down to memory lane, a sunny path surrounded by good music, lots of reading and bonding with my Mom over Eicher and Djian. My love for American literature started there, with a French writer who worships Carver and a publisher who brought Jim Harrison and many others to French readers. Maybe it’s time for a reread of Echine or Maudit Manège.

I hope that vaccines continue to do their jobs to give a bit of respite and leave us a rather free access to culture because we really need all the beauty we can get in this world, be it brought by artists born 500 years ago or by contemporary ones. Happy Sunday everyone!

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss – a trip to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation

December 5, 2021 8 comments

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss. (1995) French title: Le canyon des ombres. Translated by Danièle et Pierre Bondil.

James D. Doss (1939-2012) is the author of the crime fiction series set in the Southern Ute Indian Reservation (Colorado) and featuring the Ute detective Charlie Moon. The Shaman Laughs is the second book of the series.

It all begins when Big Ouray, Gorman Sweetwater’s bull, is found dead in the Cañon del Espiritu. The bull was mutilated and it is a great loss for its owner as it is a valuable breeder. Gorman had insurance for his bull, a policy he subscribed through a local and Ute insurance broker, Arlo Nighbird.

Arlo is not the most well-loved Ute in the community. He cheats on his wife, Emily. He’s a sexual predator. He’s a shrewd and dishonest business man who doesn’t want to pay Gorman for the loss of Big Ouray. He’s working on a project with the Federal government to bury nuclear waste in the Cañon del Espiritu, which means that Gorman won’t be able to let his herd graze there and that Daisy Perika, the last shaman of the community will have to move out of her trailer set at the mouth of the canyon. The man is a nuisance to the community.

So, when Arlo is found dead with the same mutilation as Big Ouray the bull, nobody grieves him too much. But the tribal police, led by Charlie Moon and Scott Paris, flanked by a rookie FBI agent James E. Hoover have to investigate the murder.

The Shaman Laughs owns its title as there is a great sense of humor in this book. Charlie Moon plays tricks to Hoover, not openly lying to him but leaving out important information that bring comical effects. Like not correcting him when he assumes that Big Ouray is a human. Charlie Moon and his people enjoy playing pranks to Matukach (white) people, mostly using their own prejudice and clichés about Indians against them.

We go into Charlie and Scott’s love lives. Charlie’s unexpressed feeling will stay buried with the girl’s death. His grief is private, full of what will not be. Scott doesn’t quite know where things will go with his girlfriend Anne, now that she has taken a job in Washington D.C. and he’s still in Colorado.

Humor and diving into the characters’ personal lives is not new and happens a lot in modern crime fiction books, to get the readers attached to the characters and alleviate de tension.

The additional kick of this series, one that Tony Hillerman started in the 1970s with its Navajo Tribal police mystery novels, is the Native American setting and the description of the Ute beliefs and traditions. You’ll find the same in Craig Johnson’s books as he always makes room for Cheyenne customs. The common point between these Western series is also the role of law enforcement in small rural communities. They are sheriffs (Walt Longmire), Tribal Police (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Charlie Moon) or Game Warden (Joe Pickett) and they have to compose with being the law in a small community where everyone knows everyone, a community they are a part of. What they do on duty impacts their off-duty life as they live among the people they work for.

The Shaman Laughs emphasizes on nature and its connection with animal and human lives. The landscape descriptions are stunning, vibrant and captivating. Several times, the point of view switches to an animal’s like a mouse or a rabbit. It connects the reader to the land in a different way.

A lot of spirituality comes off the land and the story relies on dreams, visions and intuition. It leaves imprints on people and impact their actions but it doesn’t sound artificial. It seems to be embeded in the place. Even Scott the white man feels it. Daisy goes into trances, seeks for answers in her dreams and leaves offering to the pitukupf, a sort of Leprechaun who lives in the Cañon del Espiritu. Christianism is part of the mix and Doss pictures how the Ute incorporate Christian faith and Ute spirituality. He also shows that the Ute customs are dying with the elder and that they need to be protected.

Black Mesa Landscape New Mexico, Out Back of Marie’s II,1930 by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Doss’s talent lies in his ability to mix all these ingredients into a story that makes you travel into this Indian community, far from your home and daily life, looking forward to knowing who killed Big Ouray and Arlo.

Incidentally and thanks to Goodreads, I discovered that November was Native American Heritage Month in the US.

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury – Born to be wild

November 28, 2021 13 comments

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury (2018) French title Sauvage. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Jamey Bradbury was born in 1979 in the Midwest and Alaska has been her home for fifteen years. The Wild Inside is her debut novel.

Tracy is seventeen years old and lives in Alaska with her younger brother Scott and her father Bill. Her mom died about a year ago and the three of them had to adjust and go on with their lives as best as they can. Bill is a musher, he used to compete in the Iditarod race and his wife was his partner in this. She helped preparing and training the dogs. Everything fell apart when she died. Bill had to find other ways to support his family, to raise his children alone and to cope with his grief.

This is the background story of Tracy. High school is not her cup of tea. She loves nothing more than hunting and racing with her dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. She sets traps in the forest to catch animals. She stays outdoor for hours, with her sleigh and her dogs. It is vital for her. She’s restless if she can’t hike in the forest everyday. She competes in the Junior Iditarod and she’s passionate about her sport.

Like her mother, Tracy has a special way to connect with animals and the wilderness around her. She relies on instinct, on a unique way to plug her brain to the nature around her, to be attuned to it the way animals are.

Tracy struggles with this new life. She misses her mother and even more since she was the only one who knew and understood Tracy’s gift. She doesn’t like her father’s choices: she wants to compete again, to train the dogs but they can’t afford to hire staff to take over her mother’s workload. Bill doesn’t want her to spend so much time in the wilderness hunting with the dogs. Whatever. Tracy will wait for him to sleep like a log to go out at night.

Tracy’s life changes when a man attacks her in the forest and she wakes up with blood on her. She’s certain that she has fatally injured him. Actually, Tom Hatch, her victim came to their house and her father took him to the ER. She knows he has survived but does he know that she kept his backpack with all his money? Will he come back for her? This possibility is constantly on her mind, fear impairing her thought process.

A short while later, a young man arrives at their property. Jesse saw the ad that Bill put up to rent a cabin on their land, in order to make a bit of money. Jesse proposes to trade work against rent and utilities. He soon makes himself indispensable to Bill and is a game changer in the family’s dynamics.

The Wild Inside is part thriller, part horror, part coming-of-age novel, a risky mix that Jamey Bradbury pulls off with the ease of an experienced writer. We wonder if Tracy is really in danger or if she’s so stressed about Tom Hatch that she makes up problems where there aren’t. I won’t say anything about the horror element as it would spoil the novel for a new reader. It was disturbing and unsettling, I didn’t know what to do with what I was reading. Jamey Bradbury kept me on my toes.

And along with the thriller/horror side, she manages to explore the quest of identity of the characters. Bill is trying to build a new life without his wife. Scott doesn’t find a comfortable place between his sister and his father as he doesn’t share their love for the outdoors. Tracy struggles to understand who she is, how to handle her gift. Her attraction to Jesse leads to an unsuspected surprise. Who is he? Where does he really come from and what brought him to Alaska?

The décor of the book is the incredible beauty of Alaska. I know that writers don’t have to write about something they know to picture it properly. However, I think that life in extreme conditions like Alaska or Wyoming winters are best described by writers who actually live there. They have a sense of the place, a knowledge of the climate and the wilderness that runs in their blood and seeps on the page. Jamey Bradbury makes you armchair travel to Alaska with Tracy and her dogs.

The Wild Inside came with my Kube subscription and I’ve never read anything like it. I had to put it down because I felt spooked by what I was reading. I was so unsettled at times that I almost abandoned it but I couldn’t. I had to know how things would end. One of my friends read it too and had the same reading experience. Unease, compulsion to finish and awe. What a book!

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

The blogging event Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca has a perfect timing, I was in the mood to read several novellas in a row. One has been on the shelf for almost a decade (Yikes!), two arrived recently with my Kube subscription and one was an impulse purchase during my last trip to a bookstore. So, here I am with four novellas set in four different countries and in different decades.

The Origin of the World by Pierre Michon (1996) Original French title: La Grande Beune

We’re in 1961, in the French countryside of Dordogne, the region of the Lascaux caves. The narrator is 20 and he has just been appointed as primary school teacher in the village of Castelnau. It’s his first time as a teacher. He takes lodgings at Hélène’s and discovers the life of the village. Soon, he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Yvonne, the village’s tobacconist and the mother of one of his pupils, Bernard.

Michon describes the narrator’s sex drive as he walks in the country, as he visits caves with paintings, as he obsesses over Yvonne but still has sex with his girlfriend Mado.

The English translation is entitled The Origin of the World, probably as a reference to the caves, their rock painting and the beginning of humanity and to femineity, like Courbet’s painting. The French title, La Grande Beune, is the name of the river near the village.

Pierre Michon is considered as a great writer by critics. He’s not my kind of writer, I don’t connect well with his prose. I can’t explain why, there’s something in the rhythm that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the first time I read a book by him, I only saw a play version of his book, Vie de Joseph Roulin. Roulin was the postman in Arles, the one who was friend with Van Gogh. I expected a lively biopic, it was one of the most boring plays I’ve ever seen.

After my stay in Dordogne, I traveled to Sicily, in a poor neighborhood of Palermo.

Borgo Vecchio by Giosuè Calaciura (2017) Translated from the Italian by Lise Chapuis.

Calaciura takes us among the little world of the Borgo Vecchio neighborhood. Mimmo and Cristofaro are best friends and Mimmo has a crush on Celeste.

The three children don’t have an easy life. Mimmo’s home life is OK but he’s worried about Cristofaro whose father is a mean drunkard and beats him badly every evening. Celeste spends a lot of time on the balcony of her apartment: her mother Carmela is the local hooker and she works from home. Her daughter stays on the balcony, to avoid her mother’s clients and witness her dealing with men. Cristofaro and Mimmo find solace in nurturing Nanà, a horse that Mimmo’s father acquired to run races and make money on bets.

The neighborhood’s other legend is Totò, the master of the thief squad, a quick worker who gets away with everything because he’s fast, agile and knows the neighborhood’s every nook and crannies. The police can’t compete with that and the fact that the inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio protect their own.

Calaciura’s prose is poetic, almost like a fairy tale. It tempers the horror of the characters’ lives but doesn’t sugarcoat it. It breathes life into Borgo Vecchio and we imagine the alleys, the noise coming from the harbor, the life of the community, the importance of the Catholic church.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a mix of acceptance, —Carmela belongs to the community and is not really ostracized—and cowardice –nobody intervenes to save Cristoforo and his mother from their abusive father and husband.

We get to know the neighborhood and the tension builds up, leading to an inevitable drama. The reader feels a lot of empathy for these children. What chance do they have to do better than their parents?

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) French title: La fille de la supérette. Translated from the Japanese by Mathilde Tamae-Bouhon

With Sayaka Murata’s book, I discovered the word kombini, a work that comes from the English convenient store (supérette in French)

The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at a SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend and, according to her voice, she seems to be on the spectrum.

Her life is made of working hard, following her routine and learning social cues from her coworkers. Anything to sounds and behave like a normal woman, whatever that means. All is well until a new employee, Shihara, joins the team. He has his own issues with Japan’s expectation of him.

Convenience Store Woman is a lovely novella about a woman who struggles to fit in a society that likes nothing more than conformity. She stands out because she’s single and is not looking for a husband and because she’s happy with what is considered as a temporary job for students. Shihara disrupts her life and makes her question herself.

This theme about fitting in reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan, with less romance and more sass. I liked Keiko and I’m glad got to spend time with her. The author has a good angle on the pressure for conformity of the Japanese society.

Then I virtually flew to Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to…

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner (1937) French title: Une journée d’automne. Translated from the American by Françoise Torchiana.

Alec Stuart and his wife Margaret are wealthy farmers. Their life changes when Elspeth, Margaret’s younger sister, comes to live with them, freshly emigrated from Scotland.

Elspeth is 18, full of life. She marvels about the farm, looks at everything with enthusiasm and with a fresh eye. She instills energy and joy in Alec and Margaret’s settled life. She’s also awakening to desire. She and Alec become close, until an unhealthy love triangle arises from their staying in close quarters.

Love, betrayal and tragedy are round the corner of the barn.

Wallace Stegner is a marvelous writer. His characters are well-drawn, revealing their complexity, their innocence or their flows. The countryside of Iowa leaps from the pages, with its sounds, its smells and its landscapes. According to the afterword written by Stegner’s wife, this novella is based on the true story of her aunts, which makes the story even more poignant.

This was my second Stegner, after Crossing to Safety, which I recommend as highly as Remembering Laughter. Imagine that Stegner taught literature and had among his students Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. What a record!

As mentioned at the beginning, this is another contribution to the excellent even Novellas in November. Thanks ladies for organizing it! Reading novellas is fun.

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard – beautiful grumpy rant

November 14, 2021 40 comments

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard (1982) French title: Béton. Translated from the German by Gilberte Lambrichs.

Challenge of the day: write something intelligible about Concrete by Thomas Bernhard. To tell a long story short, it’s a beautiful grumpy rant.

Rudolf is ageing and ill. He has sarcoidosis, a disease that attacks his lungs and prevents him from exercising. He’s now a recluse in his property, in the village of Peiskam. He doesn’t see anyone but his housekeeper Frau Kienesberger and his hated sister Elisabeth.

When the novella opens, his sister has just left Peiskam after she arrived announced and overstayed her welcome. Rudolf is relieved that she’s gone and that he’s now be able to work on his biography of Mendelsohn Bartholdy.

Rudolf is a musicologist and has been gathering material to write this for ten years. But Rudolf is unable to start writing because he wants the conditions to be perfect and perfection is not part of this world. So…

He’s angry with himself and with the world. He blames his sister’s presence that lingers in the house. He paces through the house grumbling about everything. He’s depressed and undecided. He’s restless as he goes round in circles in his house and in his head. He needs a way out.

The result is a 158 pages long verbal diarrhea. He rants about everything. His country and its useless politicians, the Austrian people, Vienna, the Catholic Church, the press and its incompetent and complacent journalists. His sister and her business sense, her friends and the Viennese high society she belongs to. Everyone is on the same boat of mediocrity and corruption.

As his flow of consciousness fills the pages, we discover that this unreliable narrator can’t help being honest with himself. He acknowledges that he abhors his country but used to love living in Vienna. He misses the city life that his health doesn’t allow him to live any longer.

He knows his sister loves him and she came because she cares for him. Her tough love is what he needed to get out of his funk and start thinking about travelling to Majorca and feel better. She came after he asked her to, not as an imposition. She knows how to steer him out his head, out of his house and towards a better place. Majorca it will be.

Concrete is a dense text with no paragraph, no chapters, no dialogue. We’re plugged to Rudolf’s thought process. It could be annoying but it’s not. It’s surprisingly easy to read. I couldn’t help liking the cantankerous old coot in the end because at some point, he dropped all pretenses and owned up to his flaws and inconsistencies.

Je me suis persuadé que je n’avais besoin de personne, je m’en persuade aujourd’hui. Je n’avais besoin de personne, donc je n’avais personne. Mais nous avons naturellement besoin de quelqu’un, sinon nous devenons inéluctablement tel que je suis devenu : pénible, insupportable, malade, impossible au sens le plus fort du terme.I persuaded myself that I didn’t need anyone and I’m still persuading myself so. I didn’t need anyone, therefore I had no one. But by nature, we all need someone, otherwise we inevitably become as I became: tiresome, insufferable, sick, impossible at the strongest meaning of it. My translation from the French.

His honesty warmed me to him. For example, he calls his housekeeper die Kienesberger, not Frau Kienesberger. He doesn’t want to need her but he does. She’s his only link to the outside world.

This brings me to the French translation. Die Kienesberger is translated as la Kienesberger even if we don’t use articles before proper nouns in French, except in Alsace-Moselle sometimes. I’ve seen in the English excerpt of the book that she has become Frau Kienesberger in the English translation.

My German is very poor but I remember enough to notice the unusual amount of Naturellement in sentences. We’d rather say évidemment, but I’ve obseved that in translations from the German, évidemment becomes naturellement, to mirror the German natürlich, I suppose. My guess is that the French translation keeps as close as possible to the German verbal flow of Rudolf’s rant.

And his rant is funny, in spite of him. He’s so unreasonable that he made me chuckle and shake my head in disbelief like you do when a child throws a tantrum.

I really recommend Concrete to other readers, you’ll become amused riders of Rudolf’s storm in a glass of water.

This is my contribution to German Lit Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy and to Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca.

More Thomas Bernhard at Book Around the Corner : the play Elisabeth II. Another funny rant.

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly – excellent page turner

November 11, 2021 10 comments

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly (1993) French title: La glace noire.

The Black Ice is the second volume of Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I knew about him but had never read him before he came to Lyon at the Quais du Polar festival. I’ve read The Black Echo and like it well-enough to read another one.

When The Black Ice opens, it’s Christmas Day. Bosch is at home and he’s on call when he intercepts a message about a body found in a hotel room near Hollywood. He goes on the scene and discovers that it’s probably the corpse of another cop, Cal Moore. Bosch should be on the case since he was on call but his hierarchy puts him aside. He pushes his way through the doors and sees the room with the body. The death will be ruled as a suicide but details on the scene don’t add up in Bosch’s mind.

Cal Moore was a LAPD narcotics officer and the rumor says that he had crossed over. A couple of weeks before his death, Moore had a meeting with Bosch, inquiring about Internal Affairs ways. His wife has supposedly sent an anonymous letter to denounce him and they had started an investigation.

Bosch’s bosses send him to announce the bad news to Moore’s ex-wife and Bosch finds himself oddly attracted to her.

Then, Pound, the chief of Bosch’s unit, asks him to take on some cases from his colleague Porter. He’s an alcoholic who doesn’t have the best success rate in solving cases and Pound wants to improve the squad’s rate by the end of the year. As it happens, one of those cases is related to Moore.

A couple of days later, Moore’s colleagues of the narcotics squad hand Bosch a file that they found in their patrol car and that Moore wanted Bosch to have if something happened to him.

Between knowing Moore personally, feeling indebted to his ex-wife, getting Moore’s file, knowing that it wasn’t a suicide but a murder and getting a related case, it’s hard for Bosch to do anything else but lead a little maverick investigation on the side, using Porter’s cases as an excuse.

This will lead him to investigate the trafficking of Black Ice, a new drug that is spreading like a bad disease in Los Angeles. He will dig into Moore’s past to figure out whether he was a cross over or not. His investigation will chafe against police protocol, put him at risk and confront him to corruption in LA but in Mexico as well.

Like The Black Echo, The Black Ice is perfectly executed. The reader holds their breath from the beginning until the end, immersed into LA, the cop world and the case. We dive into Bosch’s personal life and his past, just enough to keep us interested in the man and his love for jazz music.

The writing is simple but efficient and the whole book is really atmospheric. We’re in LA with Bosch and we see the neighborhoods, the bars and the alleys. Connelly knows the city by heart and it shows through his writing. The whole book is like a film. Since it was published in 1993, it’s pre-cell phones and it’s a different world for policemen who chase after pay phones, receive messages at their hotels and can be conveniently out of reach when they want to.

Connelly finds the right balance between the case, the city, the business at the LAPD and the case. I maintain what I said about The Black Echo: this series is a great source of reliable entertaining literature, the kind of books you take on a long train journey because you’re sure you won’t get bored and time will fly.

More about Bosch’s world: check out the Bosch playlist on Spotify!

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