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I need a fix, cause I’m going down

September 24, 2012 25 comments

I Remember my Grandpa by Truman Capote (1943) French Title: L’été indien

The overcoat by Nikolaï Gogol (1842)  French title: Le manteau.

I know, the title of this post will probably get me weird hits on the blog. I didn’t coin the sentence, the Beatles did. It has, in a way, nothing to do with I Remember my Grandpa and in another way everything to do with it. As expected, September is busy. Children are back to school and there are millions of tiny things to organize. Each year you swear you’ll be better prepared the next time and each year you end up running urgent errands at the last minute to buy the precise pencil required by the math teacher. You need to register to football, music classes and other side activities. To top it off, August is a dead month at work in France and when September hits, life resumes and everybody rushes into unsolved issues; your email box explodes and your agenda overflows with meeting requests. Add busy weekends to this weekly flow and your reading life shrinks to an unbearable size.

And that’s what happened to me. I couldn’t concentrate on Proust at night, couldn’t read the Tabucchi book I wanted to start and couldn’t read Anna Edes along with Max as I intended to. It became unbearable. I needed a fix of literature, like some must consume their own drug. But I’m still confused at how much I need to read, at how I feel smothered if I don’t have that quality time with the words of others. I went to the library and borrowed audio books to take advantage of the one-and-a-half hour I spend in the car every day.

That led me to Truman Capote’s short story I Remember my Grandpa. Johnny is seven and he’s living in a remote farm in Virginia with his parents and his grand-parents. His father runs the farm and barely makes ends meet. The farm is so isolated that Johnny can’t go to school. The fragile economical balance of the farm and the fact that its location deprives Johnny from any solid education pushes his father to move out. Johnny discovers they will move the next week to another city, that his father has found a job on another farm, that someone else will rent and run his childhood farm and that they will leave his grandparents behind. This new development saddens the grandpa and he tells Johnny a “secret” before the boy leaves.

Jean-Claude Rey tells the story, he doesn’t read it. His voice is warm, changes of pace and takes the innocent tone of a young boy who sees the events at his own level, understanding more than the adults think he does and less at the same time. We never quite know what children grasp from their surroundings or from the relationships and feelings around them. I’m convinced they build a theory of their own to cope with situations and don’t necessarily ask questions when they feel they have a satisfactory explanation, be it of their own making. Besides this, the short story also shows the difficulty to live upon isolated farms before WWII – I’d say it’s set in the 1930s, since Johnny’s dad has an automobile. Johnny’s father seems to be the villain here since he separates his son from his childhood home and cuts his wife and son from her family. And yet, he’s the one who has enough courage to make that decision, enough love to want a better life for his son and enough intelligence to realize that a good education helps climbing the social ladder. It’s a short and catchy read. I wonder why the French title is L’été indien. True, they leave the farm in the autumn but it’s under a snow storm, not exactly the mild and pleasant weather the idea of Indian summer conjures up.

The busy weekends continue and this weekend we were at the realm of wild capitalism aimed at children, ie Waitingland Disneyland Paris. Believe me, my parental duty now done, I never want to set a foot there in my life again. The organization is lacking, the prices are outrageous and the food is so bad that McDonald’s suddenly seems like a gourmet restaurant. But I get carried away. Thank God for the kindle, I started to read The Overcoat by Gogol when I was in waiting lines. The grotesque tone of the short story suited the situation. Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is a civil servant in Saint Petersburg. He works in an office as a devoted copyist. The man lives poorly, hardly takes care of himself, is always mocked by colleagues but he loves his job and copying. Seen from outside, his life is miserable and copying is the only thing he does but Akaky Akakievich is content. His wages are low and he can’t afford many fantasies, every coin is needed. So when his tailor refuses to mend his overcoat, saying the fabric is thin beyond repair, he’s desperate. Where is he going to find the money to buy a new overcoat? The cold is biting and he endeavours to spare all the money he can to find the way to pay for his overcoat. This adds a new goal in his life and it changes his attitude and… I won’t tell you what happens. It’s great Gogol, in the same trend as The Nose.  He makes fun of the army of civil servants working in St Petersburg and always has a funny word to describe situations. He shows how a goal can change a man, help him stand for himself. He also insists on how the wealthy and powerful tend to trample on poor people, treating them as cows sweep off flies with their tails. The ending is as funny as a fable by La Fontaine. That helped.

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down

My hometown, my homeland, my people

September 20, 2012 14 comments

True Believers by Joseph O’Connor 1991. French title: Les Bons Chrétiens

True Believers is a collection of thirteen short stories published by Joseph O’Connor in different newspapers and magazines. I’ve been lazy and read the French translation instead of the original; it was probably for the best since I suspect the original is full of slang. So I have no quote, unfortunately. The French translation sounds good, I think, although the translators and I don’t have the same basis of cultural references or are simply not the same age. As a consequence, there is no footnote when Pasty O’Hara is mentioned but they felt the urge to explain who Bono is. Anyway. The stories are short and it would be boring to read a long billet going through them one by one. I’d rather give you an overview of the collection.

Put it in a nutshell, this book is like an old album by Bruce Springsteen, full of stories from the working class, from everyday life. It has the same atmosphere, the same flavor. It’s a tribute to the Irish people, describing them with their joys, their failures, their flaws. It’s refreshing that not a story takes place in upper classes. They are named Johnny, Mary, Joseph, Eddie, Jimmy or Fred. They are small people who try to cope with their lives as best they can. Taxi drivers, salespersons, priests, unemployed young men. You’ll encounter people who try to make their dreams come true and some who immigrate to London to find a job. You’ll have a look at good or bad marriages, broken relationships, women cheating on their husbands, men or women leaving their partners. You’ll hear kids describe events with their unusual look at the adults’ world. You’ll meet priests who doubt and old women who don’t and rely on holy water. You’ll peep in an activist’s life and his hopeless love for a British soldier. You’ll see how hard it is to leave secretly Ireland to have an abortion on your own in London. You’ll hear about the relationship between Irish and English people, the clichés from both sides, the misunderstandings. You’ll realise how difficult it is to keep friendships alive when one is in another country, when an OH enters the picture or when some issues are left unsolved.

It’s also about Ireland just before the economic boom, before what Tana French describes in Broken Harbor.  Reading both books is an interesting take at Ireland. These short stories are written by a man who sees his fellow citizen as they are and encapsulates the atmosphere of his time. He observes and he lets us see, never judging, always kind but not blind. And he’s got a great sense of humour. I’m not saying O’Connor is as good as Joyce but there’s something of Dubliners here. I don’t think it was a conscious project since the stories were initially published separately but putting them together like this makes a picture of Dublin anyway and leaves the impression of an author who’s deeply attached to his city and very human.

Highly recommended.

PS: The cover is a pub, obviously. I have to say that in France, when there’s a pub, it’s often called Irish Pub and celebrates St Patrick’s Day. Don’t ask me why. And when you google “aller dans un pub à Lyon”, you find one named James Joyce Pub

Ghost towns, broken souls and fragile minds and the myth of the perfect family

September 16, 2012 23 comments

Broken Harbor by Tana French

In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.

I discovered Broken Harbor when Guy reviewed it. As I was going to Ireland a couple of weeks later, a crime fiction book set in the outskirts of Dublin was perfect timing.

The plot is quite simple: the Spain family lives in Brianstown, beside the sea and not far from Dublin. They bought a house in a new estate in an area that used to be known as Broken Habor. When detective Mike Kennedy and his rookie colleague Richie Curren are called at their house, it’s because Patrick Spain, his two children Emma and Jack are dead. His wife Jenny survived the massacre and is in the hospital. The Spains used to be the perfect family: Pat and Jenny are high-school sweethearts and still very much in love. They are excellent parents, doing everything by the book. Jenny takes pride in polishing her house and being a perfect housewife. Pat made good money before the crisis but then he lost his job. The murder occurred a few months after he was made redundant and their situation was starting to be desperate.

For me, the interest of the book is outside the whodunit aspect although I did want to know who killed the Spains. I enjoyed reading about the process of the case. Tana French really manages to show the reader that a case like this involves a lot of specialists, an army of uniforms— as Mike calls the policemen— to perform background researches. It’s a lot of teamwork, a great deal of organisation not to ruin evidence or overlook a possibility. She also describes well the dynamics among the cops at the police station.

Mike is a likeable narrator, very human in his weaknesses. The progress of the case is intertwined with memories of his childhood and his marriage, explanations about his life and how he came to view the world as he does.

It was a bad week to have to trust in either luck or humanity, but if I’m backed into that corner, I’ll go with luck every time.

He plays by the rules, likes to be methodological in his approach. He doesn’t want emotion involved. He likes procedures and sees them as a way to keep organized, as a safety net against mistakes. He wants to rely on his brain and only his brain. In his job —and his job means a lot to him—, and in his life, he doesn’t want to take risks. For example, he doesn’t want children even if his sister Dina says he’d be a good father:

‘I think I probably would. But probably’s not good enough. Because if we’re both wrong and I turned out to be a terrible father, what then? There would be absolutely nothing I could do. Once you find out, it’s too late: the kids are there, you can’t send them back. All you can do is keep on fucking them up, day after day, and watch while these perfect babies turn into wrecks in front of your eyes. I can’t do it, Dina. Either I’m not stupid enough or I’m not brave enough, but I can’t take that risk.’

Mike is a loner and at the station, he’s used to training young detectives. He doesn’t have a long time partner at work. The relationship he develops with Richie is fascinating and new to him. Richie comes from the working class suburbs of Dublin; he has an accent, dresses with cheap t-shirts and disregards ties. Mike’s work goes from explaining the proceedings of a case to teaching him how to dress to be taken seriously. Progressively, their relationship grows from teacher to student to equal detectives working side by side on a case. I thought it was something different from what I’d read before.

Mike doesn’t do personal relationships at work and so no one knows how complicated his private life might be. He’s a divorcé and he and his sister Gerri take care of their younger sister Dina when she has one of her crisis. Dina is mentally ill whatever that covers and doctors never diagnosed precisely her symptoms. For Mike and Dina, it just means that when she has a crisis, she requires 24/24 care. She can’t stay alone and needs to be minded like a child. And when it’s Mike’s turn to watch her, he needs to take paid leave and stay home. So when Dina has a crisis during the Spain case, it doesn’t help him work with a clear head. Dina becomes a thorn in his foot and it leads him into thinking about her health condition and its consequences for him and Gerri.

Mike’s internal turmoil is also mixed with considerations about Ireland, the economical development the country experienced thanks to incentive tax rules and the violent crash they had to face in the recent years. One of Pat’s friends says:

Work had dried up. It was the start of the crash – no one was saying it, not then, you were a traitor to the country if you noticed it, but I knew. Freelancers like me, we were the first ones that felt it.

The interviews of the Spains’ relatives and friends are the opportunity to talk about the atmosphere in the country during these years. Making money seemed a national sport and Tana French describes people changing into snobs; for me it’s something I associate with the 1980s, that materialistic quest for money and a bourgeois way of life. Here it’s like everybody wanted a piece of the cake —And indeed, why not?

The estate in Broken Harbor is unfinished; the crisis prevented the promoters from selling all the houses, they went bankrupt. So it’s a chilling area, with abandoned or half-finished houses and no shops or schools. It’s rather far from Dublin. According to Mike who knew the area as a child, the place wasn’t cheerful back then either. When I was in Ireland, I walked by such a neighbourhood in Waterville, in the ring of Kerry. I was reading Broken Harbor when we saw it and I took pictures for the upcoming billet. It gave us an eerie feeling, the area was closed to visitors. We felt uncomfortable close to these houses. It helped me picture Brianstown. I’m under the impression there are a few places like this in Ireland as one character says:

‘I read in the paper they’re talking about bulldozing these places, the ghost estates. Just smash them down to the ground, walk away and pretend it never happened.’

Besides the plot, the interesting relationship between Mike and Richie, the thoughts about mental illness and its consequences for the family of the sick person, the information about the current economic crisis in Ireland, this novel was also educational for my language. Of course, there’s the slang, I’ve learnt new words like bollix or gobsmacked including Irish words like eejit (I have no idea of how I should pronounce that). I’m amazed at the number of expressions available in the English language to say that someone turned crazy. And last but not least, there were the tremendous zoological moments where stoats, Pine martens, mustelids, weasels, minks, wolverines, gloutons are mentioned. I knew what a weasel was but only applied to a person; first time I know the slang word but not the original meaning. Otherwise, I needed several dictionaries as some aren’t in the kindle dictionary I have. It slowed my reading but I still enjoyed the book.

Now aren’t you curious about this book? I hope you are willing to meet Mike, to discover who killed the Spains and to understand why such a fauna was involved in this story.

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

September 11, 2012 28 comments

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan 2010 Not available in French.

I heard about Fall Girl on Lisa’s blog a while ago and I’m always grateful when someone discovers good quality light and entertaining books. I like to have some on the shelves whenever I want distraction. And didn’t I need distraction after reading Bord de Mer by Véronique Olmi!  Frequent readers of this blog will notice that I’m terribly late to write this billet as I’ve read the book back in mid-August. In a way it’s an interesting situation since it’s a light book and it shows how much of the book stayed with me.

Della is a member of a family of con artists. The whole family is in the conning business. Her father, her brothers, her uncle, aunt and cousins all work together as a team. When the book opens, she’s all dressed up to her new assignment. This time, billionaire Daniel Metcalf is her prey; his foundation grants money to scientist to carrying on researches. He doesn’t mind investing is crazy projects. So Della now needs to look and sound like skilled scientist to persuade him to give her money to prove there still are Tasmanian tigers in Australia and more precisely in the Wilsons Promontory National Park near Melbourne. She decided this scheme after reading an article about him and his remembrance of seeing a Tasmanian tiger as a child. The problem is that Tasmanian tigers are thought extinct since the 20thC…

Daniel asks to meet her at her office at the university she’s supposed to teach at. She can’t refuse and the organization of the fake office is a funny read. After that, Daniel asks to participate to the researches in the park. The whole escapade is organized in haste and starts quite well but Della thinks something is off, that Daniel looks suspicious. She wonders if he’s lying to her. And the reader wonders who’s conning who.

It’s an entertaining book, seeing all the details of the schemes and the lengths Della and her family are willing to go to get money is really funny. Della’s family put a lot of work into it, much more than they would if they earned money with a regular job. Their whole life is shadowy, made of flights, erasing traces not to be caught. Della never went to school to be as little noticeable as possible. They live in a closed circle, only trusting another family. They sort of live in a parallel world just for the thrill of the cases, the supposedly freedom linked to that bohemian situation.

But Della is at a turning point: does she want to keep on doing this “job” as it is the only occupation she knows? Doesn’t she long for a “normal” life? What used to be glamorous doesn’t seem that much fun these days and the money isn’t flowing into the house. With new technologies, it becomes more and more difficult to set up people as it is easier for them to check references and stories. We follow how her job goes on and also share her doubts about her life.

It seems to me that Toni Jordan had a lot of fun writing this story and describing this strange family living in a house in Cumberland Street which is full of hides, gadgets and secret way-outs. It’s a house which enchants children (Aren’t all children attracted to secret passages?) but doesn’t appeal that much to grown-ups who see it under the cold light of adulthood. The passages only mean that the inhabitants of the house need a quick way to escape and avoid prision. She also researched con artists before writing this book. It’s a life I can’t understand as I’m too honest and lazy to see the draw. For me, telling the truth remains the easiest way, at least you don’t have to keep track of all you’ve invented to remain consistent. (Like Seymour in Elliot Allagash, by the way). It’s fun to read in a book though.

PS: Lisa also interviewed Toni Jordan and you can read her post here.

My edition is a UK one and the cover is appalling, again. The flowery wall-paper behind the picture of that girl is ugly.

Two short stories by Akira Yoshimura

September 3, 2012 29 comments

Shojo Kakei (1959) and Ishi no Bisho (1962). French titles: La jeune fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le sourire des pierres.

I just read two short stories by Akira Yoshimura; they are published together as both have death as a theme but I’ll review them separately.

Shojo Kakei is a stunning story. The French title means The Young Girl Tortured on a Shelf. Mieko is 16 and she just died. Her soul hovers over her corpse and relates her impressions. She’s going to be our narrator.

A partir du moment où ma respiration s’est arrêtée, j’ai soudain été enveloppée d’air pur, comme si la brume épaisse qui flottait alentour venait de se dissiper pour un temps.Je me sentais aussi fraîche que si l’on venait de me baigner dans une eau limpide et pure. From the moment I stopped breathing, I felt suddenly enveloped in pure air, as if the thick fog surrounding me had just vanished.I felt as fresh as if I had just bathed in clear and pure water.(My translation)

She sees two men coming to her parents’ poor lodgings and giving her mother an envelope full of money. Her mother has sold her corpse to the local hospital where it will be used by students or for scientific experiment. Mieko describes what happens to her corpse, the journey to the hospital and how they dispose of her body. Meanwhile Mieko unfolds her life and lets us know who she was and how she was led to that untimely death.

Honestly, it was painful to read. I needed to block out the gory images Yoshimura conjured up in my mind when Mieko relates how hospital employees cut her body or treat it with chemical products. It would have been unbearable otherwise. That meant opening my mind to harmless descriptions of the streets and the settings and shutting it in a moment when it became too gory. I wonder if a Western writer could have written such a story. It’s so chilling and it shows a totally different approach to death than in Western countries (which I knew, but still)

Yoshimura writes beautifully. In the first pages, Mieko describes death as an access to extra sensitivity. She hears, feels, smells, sees better, grasping details in her surroundings that were imperceptible to her when she was alive. It’s an interesting way of imagining death.

In the second story, Ishi no Bisho, death is also a major theme. The French title means The smile of stones. Eichi lives in Tôkyô near a cemetery. When he was a child, he befriended with Sone and they used to play among the tombstones. Then Sone vanished and they never met again until Eichi stumbles upon him at the university. Sone asks Eichi to travel with him to the Island of Sado where he has a job for the two of them. Sone steals statues in historical cemeteries and sells them to antique dealers.

Death is everywhere in this story. It’s a link between Eichi and Sone as they were together when they discovered the corpse of a woman who had hung herself in the cemetery when they were children. Sone makes a living out of death, selling these statues. Sone is also fascinated by death in an unhealthy manner: he tends to persuade his girl-friends to commit suicide with him. Death is also present in Eichi’s unnamed sister. She was married but her in-laws sent her back home after they discovered she was infertile. Eichi’s sister sews clothes for an orphanage, spending her time and energy to help children whose parents are dead. On a more symbolical level, her womb is dead too, she’ll never bear a child. It’s the death of her dreams as a mother and it kills any chance to remarry.

After reading these two short stories, I have to admit that I struggle with Japanese literature mostly because I don’t know much about the customs of this country. I should read a non-fiction book, but that’s not my forte. I’m a bit angry at the publisher, actually. I enjoy books published by Actes Sud, they always select excellent writers. I just wish they added more to the book than just the text and scarce notes from the translator. I longed to read a foreword or footnotes with explanation about the vision of death in the Japanese society. It would have helped. I’m now thinking about trying Japanese literature in English provided that the English editions are more educational. Otherwise, I have the feeling I’ll never improve my level of reading in Japanese literature.

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