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A glimpse in the world of poor workers in America

December 29, 2013 33 comments

A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison. 2002. French title: Tribulations d’un précaire.

In the last ten years, I’ve had forty-two jobs in six states. I’ve quit thirty of them, been fired from nine, and as for the other three, the line was a little blurry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, you just know it wouldn’t be right for you to show up anymore.

I have become, without realizing it, an itinerant worker, a modern-day Tom Joad. There are differences, though. If you asked Tom Joad what he did for a living, he would say, “I’m a farmworker.” Me, I have no idea. The other difference is that Tom Joad didn’t blow $40,000 getting an English degree.

And the more I travel and look around for work, the more I realize that I am not alone. There are thousands of itinerant workers out there, many of them wearing business suits, many doing construction, many waiting tables or cooking in your favorite restaurants. They are the people who were laid off from companies that promised them a lifetime of security and then changed their minds, the people who walked out of commencement with a $40,000 fly swatter in their hands and got rejected from twenty interviews in a row, then gave up. They’re the people who thought, I’ll just take this temporary assignment/bartending job/parking lot attendant position/pizza delivery boy job until something better comes up, but something better never does, and life becomes a daily chore of dragging yourself into work and waiting for a paycheck, which you can barely use to survice. Then you listen in fear for the sound of a cracking in your knee, which means a $5,000 medical bill, or a grinding in your car’s engine, which means a $2,000 mechanic’s bill, and you know then that it’s all over, you lose. New car loans, health insurance, and mortgages are out of the question. Wives and children are unimaginable. It’s surviving, but surviving sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama. It’s scrapping by.

Levison_FrenchI know it’s a long quote but it’s the perfect introduction to Ian Levison’s Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I picked this book on a whim in my favorite bookstore. They know what they put on the shelves and it’s even recommended by Le Monde and La Tribune. It is a terrifying journey into the working conditions in contemporary America. The language of the quote gives away the century the book was written in otherwise, you could think it was an excerpt from The Odd Women by Gissing. It reminded me of Mr Bullivant who would like a wife but doesn’t earn enough money to settle down. The big difference now is that women can work as well, at least if there is appropriate and affordable day care for children.

This is a memoir where Levison relates his experiences as a worker. He has a degree in English but can’t find a job in his field. He describes his job applications, and the various experiences he has in small jobs in different states.

The longest section of the book is dedicated to his experience in Alaska where he works on ships and with fish. Due to its harsh climate and its appalling Sarah, I can’t say Alaska was on my list of the 1001 places to see before I die. After reading about Levison’s working conditions there, it’s almost an act of rebellion to avoid the place. If I ever want to try on extreme cold living conditions, I’ll stick to Quebec where they even speak French with a lovely accent and charming words. Levison is first hired on a ship to prepare crabs to be exported to Japan. They work in shifts of 16 hours, sleep in bunk in a room with at least 10cm of water on the floor and are basically wet all the time. It’s cold and wet, so it’s not the same conditions as in California but it still reminded me of Bandini’s time in the can factory in The Road to Los Angeles. Fante also did odd jobs and I’m sure that Bandini’s experience stems from his own. It’s depressing to write that Levison’s working conditions bring me back to novels from the late 19th century and pre-WWII 20th century.

All along the book, details about the lack of laws to protect workers shocked me. I knew that regulations are less strict than in France, I hear enough of foreigners complaining about French working laws. I never thought it was that different. I suppose there’s a big difference between people working in large corporations and people working in shops and small companies. The problem lays in what the law imposes as minimum rights. You don’t live well in France with the minimum wages and the one million of persons who applied to the Restaurants du Coeur (charity like Salvation Army) won’t deny it. Young people have trouble finding a steady job. At work we’ve had several maternity leaves in a row and we repeatedly hired the same young woman as a replacement. We were happy to have her again each time because she wasgood but we were sorry for her that she was still on the job market. But still, there are minimum rules and of course, free health care and financial help for rent.

levison_EnglishI don’t want to play down Levison’s suffering but I also have mixed feelings about this book. Part of me is outraged by the working conditions Iain Levison encountered in his various jobs and I agree with him that this is more surviving than living. Part of me is also irritated by his behavior. I have nothing about not accepting the rules of the society we live in. I totally respect alternative ways of living as long as people don’t complain that the outside world doesn’t adjust to their vision of life. Yes you have to accept corporate crap when you work for a company. Granted, there seem to be more corporate crap in the US than in France. By corporate crap I mean things like the employee of the month, the smiling obligation or whichever upbeat behavior is covered by client satisfaction or management concepts.

And what job did he expect when he started his English degree? If you don’t want to be a teacher or work in the academic world (where the number of positions is limited), what can you do? Be a PA? Find a job where the company will invest on training you? Sorry if what I write seems a bit provocative, but there are so many graduates out there with a degree that leads to no concrete jobs. I see some at work. When you start a university degree, don’t you need to be a bit practical? If I had picked the subjects I enjoyed most in high-school, I’d be a history or English graduate now. And then what? I can’t be a teacher, I don’t have the patience. How could I apply to jobs that require specific technical skills beside writing without spelling and grammar mistakes?

Our working world is far from perfect and there is no excuse for what Iain Levison describes: impossible cadences for truck drivers, total disrespect for the safety of workers and no control of companies that employ workers in difficult conditions. Levison isn’t afraid to work hard as his various experiences show it. It’s really good that he stood up and talked for the army of poor workers who have no voice. It’s 10 years later now and I hope things turned out well for him, beside his writing career. The book is written in a journalistic tone with a wry sense of humor, it’s easy to read and enlightening.

PS: I have a question. Somewhere in the book, Levison mentions that the working week starts on Sundays. I had already seen on American calendars that the week starts on Sundays instead of Mondays like in here. My question is why? According to the Bible, God made the world in six days and had a rest on the seventh day. I suppose it explains why the last day of the week is Sunday for us. Why is it different in America?

My favourite books for 2013

December 27, 2013 25 comments

Hello everyone,

Lyon_FourviereThat’s it, 2013 has flown by and we’re almost at the end of December. It’s time for me to look back on my reading year and share with you what I thought were the best books I’ve read. This year I’ve read more crime fiction than the previous ones so I’ve picked 10 titles of literary fiction and 5 titles of crime fiction. I’ve read approximately 50 books, which isn’t a lot for a book blogger. My reading time is limited and sometimes, when I read in English, I’m very slow. It’s been a good year with few abandoned books and few disappointments. So what’s the verdict and which are the best of 2013?

LITERARY FICTION

Extreme mid-life crisis and artistic calling.

The Moon and Six Pence by William Somerset Maugham is an amazing tale about an artist that leaves everything behind to follow his passion. Strickland is based upon Paul Gauguin. I love Maugham for his style and his way to entwine deep reflections with the narrative, all this wrapped in a wry sense of humour.

Love x-rayed

In Notre Cœur, Guy Maupassant makes the autopsy of a love story. It’s beautiful, sad and lucid at the same time. Madame de Burne shies away from commitment. She loves her independence. André Mariolle was a happy bachelor before he is caught in her net. Soon he wants more. Can she even give him more?

I is somebody else.

In A Virtual Love, Andrew Blackman explores the issues of our internet world. When IT guy Jeff Brennan impersonates the famous blogger Jeff Brennan to seduce a girl, his life takes another dimension. He weaves a web of lies around him and fragments his personality. Who is he? How do social networks and internet life impact our flesh-and-blood life?  

Down and out in Kristiana, Norway.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun overwhelmed me. This novel is based upon Hamsun’s experience as a starving writer. The book shows in a crude way what poverty and starvation can do to one’s humanity.

Long is the road.

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev is the crazy road trip from Mexico to New York of a grieving and failed photographer. A poignant tale about broken dreams and relationships. A funny look on grassroots America.

Love and marriage don’t go together like horse and carriage

With The Odd Women, George Gissing manages to write both a militant book for the rights of women and a sensitive novel about relationships. I thought it was very modern for its time.

Contempt by Alberto Moravia

Upcoming billet. Superb. 

Zola’s take on stock exchanges.

In L’Argent, Emile Zola depicts the stock-exchange crisis at the end of the Second Empire. It follows La Curée as we find Saccard again. It just shows that we haven’t invented anything in this century when it comes to manipulating the stock market.

Netta was a fish but she had George in her net and wouldn’t let him off the hook.

Set in London in 1939 and more precisely in Earl’s Court, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton describes the obsessive, consuming and destructive passion that George Harvey Bone has for the attractive Netta Longdon

You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

Death in Beirut is about the student movements in Lebanon in 1968. Written in 1972, it captures beautifully the struggle of a generation for the liberalisation of mores and changes in their country. It shows how their efforts were doomed to failure in a country set in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

CRIME FICTION

Swimming without getting wet

I hope that Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem makes it into English. This crazy book is set in a nudist camp where a hit-man in a middle of his mid-life crisis is sent on a mission that mixes his real life with his illegal occupations. Hilarious and gripping.

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window” – Raymond Chandler.

The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski could be the twin book of the above mentioned Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem. I can’t imagine what kind of wacked tale these two could write if they joined their efforts. Swierczynski is definitely a find and I have his Fun and Game for 2014.

“Why in hell did the past have to catch up with him now?”

Build my Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes is a classic Noir tale. Red lives an orderly life when his muddy past catches up with him. I’d like to watch the film version, now.

Manchette pushes all the right buttons.

Le petit bleu de la côte ouest by Jean-Patrick Manchette. You want to discover French crime fiction ? Try this one, you won’t be disappointed.

Incidences by Philippe Djian

Djian is not a crime fiction writer but I think that Incidences is more crime than literary fiction.

That’s all folks. I enjoyed sharing these books with you.

Have you read any of those? I hope some of them appealed to you and if by any chance I helped you discover new writers this year, then I’m happy for it. For me fellow bloggers are an important source of inspiration to find new books. Almost all the books on this list came to me through other bloggers. So thanks Guy, Max, Nino and Vishy.

Joyeux Noël and Happy Humbook!

December 25, 2013 22 comments

Hello everyone !

Mafalda_ChristmasI wish you all a Merry Christmas, or as we say here, Joyeux Noël. I hope you’re having a nice day with your families or if you’re far away from them, that you are among good friends. I still wonder about Christmas in places where it’s warm or even hot at that time of year. I can’t imagine spending Christmas by a swimming pool. Christmas is such an important time for children and memories of them stay with you and shape your idea of what a Christmas should be. For me Christmas goes with hot beverages, fires, cold, snow sometimes, mandarins, chocolate and short days. We have a tradition here in Lyon: the papillottes. It’s a chocolate wrapped in a shiny paper in which there is a message. Now, it’s a quote from a famous writer; lots of aphorisms by Oscar Wilde, JB Shaw, Jules Renard or Alphonse Allais. But it originally started at the end of the 18th Century when a young chocolate-maker in love with the girl living in his building but on an upper floor started to send her chocolates wrapped in billets doux. Lucky girl: chocolates and love letters all in one.

From a blogging point of view, Christmas is also the day when willing copinautes exchange Humbook gifts. This year, we were five: Brian from Babbling Books, Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers, Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog plus Guy and I.

So here are the books Guy and I picked for Brian, Lisa and Stu.

For Lisa:

La première gorge de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules by Philippe Delerm. It exists in English but we thought you could try it in French in its Kindle version. It’s not fiction. It was a great success when it was published in France a few years ago. It’s a collection of short texts about the small pleasures of life. (The title means, The first sip of beer and other tiny pleasures) It reminds us that if we pay attention, we have lots of happy moments in our everyday life. It reflects the notion of pleasure that we have in French, a notion I have trouble translating into English.

For Stu:

All yours by Claudia Piñeiro. We wanted to find a book in translation, so here is an Argentinean book. Since you had enjoyed her Thursday Night Widows, we imagined you’d like this one too. I haven’t read it but Guy has and his review is here.

For Brian

The Plague by Albert Camus. No need to present Albert Camus. I’m looking forward to reading your review of it.

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. In this historical novel, Hugo brings to life the upheaval of the Chouans in Vendée in 1793.

We hope we’ve made good choices and will be reading your reviews of your Humbook gifts in 2014. I’m curious to discover what Lisa picked for Stu and vice versa.

Gary_White_DogGuy, you expected a Romain Gary last year, you’ll have one this year. 2014 will be the centenary of Gary’s birth. I have chosen White Dog. On paper, it has lots of ingredients that should interest you. It’s in California and in Paris, in 1968. It involves Gary’s life with Jean Seberg. It’s about a dog which needs to be reformed. It describes the political movements of the time from the inside through Seberg’s involvement with the Black Panthers. Cherry on the Christmas pudding: It has been made in to a film.

The other book I’ve picked for you is Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti. It’s a political crime fiction book set in the area I grew up in. I really hope I’ve made good choices.

I just have to wish you a happy reading and I leave you with a picture of a Christmas chimney.


cheminee

You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

December 22, 2013 30 comments

Dans les meules de Beyrouth by Toufic Youssef Aouad. 1972. In English: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

Preamble:

Apparently the transcription of Arabic names is totally different between French and English. Compared to this, the difference between Tolstoy and Tolstoï is piece of cake. Without this blog, Arabic Literature (In English) I wouldn’t have found the English version of this novel. I have read Dans les meules de Beyrouth in French, so I’ll use the French spelling of names in this billet. It will probably differ in English if you decided to read it.

aouad_meulesThis is a pre-Christmas Humbook. When I met in Nino in Lyon a few weeks ago, he gave me his favourite Lebanese book Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. We all have clichés about foreign countries. For me Lebanon means Kahlil Gibran, fine food, business as in the journalistic expression “L’homme d’affaires libanais” and Francophone cultured elites. But it also brings back childhood memories of the pictures of three French hostages in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. They stayed there three long years and every night, the news on television opened with their photos and the countdown of their captivity. In colloquial French, “C’était Beyrouth” is used to describe chaos, a place of destruction. I’d rather think about the first clichés, literature and cuisine. So, what about Dans les meules de Beyrouth?

We’re in 1968-1969. Tamima Nassour is around 17 when the book opens. She lives in a small village named Mehdiyyé. She has an older brother Jaber who is studying law in Beirut. Her father Tamer has been in Guinea for almost twenty years. He built a business there and sends money home to support his family. Her mother Amné is a traditional Arab wife, like you see in books by Naguib Mahfouz. She stays at home, prays God, accepts everything that life throws at her without complaining and worships her husband and son. Tamima is in high school and she struggles to find the money to pay for the tuition of her senior year. She’s a brilliant student and unlike her mother, she’s aware of Jaber’s flaws. She knows he’s debauched, violent and would rather starve his mother and sister than renounce to pleasures for himself. When she visits Jaber in Beirut to ask for the tuition money, she makes two life-changing acquaintances. She meets with Ramzi Raad, an influential journalist and poet. She admires him for his relentless attacks against the government and his fight for individual freedom. She also stumbles upon Hani, a Maronite Christian activist in the student movement.

The book revolves around Tamima. She becomes Ramzi’s lover and falls in love with Hani. Once in university, she joins the student political movements. Hani relies on her as a correspondent in her uni and she becomes a key figure of this movement and she’s quite good at organising it. She’s intelligent and rather moderate. The novel is written from Tamima’s point of view and she doesn’t see herself as valuable as she is. She tends to minimise her actions and thoughts. However, for this reader, she’s a brilliant young woman whose gender hampers her advancement in life. Her capacities can’t blossom fully in this context.

Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad portrays his country through his two heroes. Hani fights against religious prejudices when the government sends a Muslim as a primary school teacher in his Maronite village. The villagers don’t accept him as a teacher and Hani will organise his first political fights to defend this teacher. Hani is more moderate than Tamima. He deeply believes in changing things from the inside. Tamima is less afraid of a violent revolution. Perhaps it comes from their difference of background. Hani’s a man and comes from the most influential community in Lebanon, if I understood properly. Tamima is a young Muslim woman whose brother believes he has a right to slit her throat if she doesn’t behave decently. She has more to gain in a revolution and less to lose.

Aouad_EnglishTawfiq Yusuf Awwad was born in 1911, so he was already 60 when he wrote this book. He became a diplomat after the independence of Lebanon and he was posted in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Dans les meules de Beyrouth is a novel written by an experienced man. He’s experienced with life as he’s already 60 and experienced in politics through his career as a diplomat. He wrote this novel in 1972, shortly after the events and three years before the civil war began. His insight is amazing. He perfectly describes the explosive mix between the youth’s cravings for freedom and the political context.

Students push for changes in their country just as other students in the world did at this time. 1968 was an explosive year for student protests. Lebanon became totally independent in 1946, so it’s quite young in 1968. It’s a multi-confessional country and the power is split between Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunnite Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The students question the direction their country is headed to and there’s a ground swell among them to abolish the multi-confessional system. For example, a newspaper ordered a poll about mixed marriages between Muslims and Maronites and about civil marriages because it’s a key issue. Tamima wants sexual freedom for women but she comes from a culture where it is “tradition” to slaughter a woman who has a lover. This side of the problem is enough to create quite a stir in the country especially given the very different cultural backgrounds of the population. It’s always difficult to fight against traditions on issues touching marriages and women rights. It takes time and a lot of explaining. In France, the right to abortion was voted in 1973 and it was an ugly fight. And France is a mono-cultural country. Imagine here with populations with so different customs about such intimate and everyday life issues. It’s difficult to reach a consensus about these topics in a peaceful time and quite impossible in troubled political times.

For these were troubled political times. We’re after the Six-Days War between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the South of Lebanon has a border with Israel. Add to the mix the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was created in 1964. The Arab-Israeli conflict weighs a heavy weight upon Lebanon. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad shows how the international political issues interfere with the student movement. External agents infiltrate the political meetings and radicalise part of the public. He depicts the slow but inevitable slide from moderate and democratic claims to more political demands. He had foreseen the violence that would shake the country a few years later.

In addition to these fascinating elements about Lebanon, Dans les meules de Beyrouth is extremely well-written. The style is descriptive, almost journalistic when Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad relates about political meetings and students fights. It’s poetic when it comes to the descriptions of landscapes and feelings. It reminded me of the lyricism you can find in Mahfouz’s prose. (“Elle aurait voulu lui sauter au cou et cueillir d’un baiser le sourire de ses yeux”.) It has this I-don’t-know-what I associate with literature translated from the Arab and Arab culture. It’s familiar although I have only read Naguib Mahfouz and Khalil Gibran, I think. I don’t know why it’s more familiar than, say, Japanese literature.

I hope I didn’t write anything inaccurate about the political and cultural context. It’s a fascinating read that makes you touch a sensitive atmosphere with your fingertips. I’ve often wondered about people’s lives in long-lasting conflicts. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. You can’t put your life on hold for so long. How do you live, go to school, fall in love, marry, raise children, work with such a risk of impending doom? How do you think about the future? How do you have fun on a day-to-day basis with such a threat? In other words, how does life go on?

This is going to be on my best books list for this year. Thanks Nino, I wouldn’t have read it without you. I once wrote a post about how much you can know about someone through their reading. I think you can know a great deal. My blog led you into thinking that I would enjoy this and I did. So yes, the books we love give away part of who we are.

Stormy riders or when I read my first western

December 17, 2013 14 comments

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. 1912. Not translated into French.

An’ I’d like you to see jest how hard an’ cruel this border life is. It’s bloody. You’d think churches an’ churchmen would make it better. They make it worse. You give names to things—bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism, duty, faith, glory. You dream—or you’re driven mad. I’m a man, an’ I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves, ranchers, rustlers, riders. An’ we have—what you’ve lived through these last months. It can’t be helped. But it can’t last always. An’ remember his—some day the border’ll be better, cleaner, for the ways of ten like Lassiter!”

Grey_Zane_RidersI have to confess that all I know about westerns are clichés. When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV at night and I missed the opportunity to see the most famous ones. As an adult, I have trouble watching films on DVDs and on TV. I tend to fall asleep or be distracted. I find it difficult to be absorbed in a movie seen on a television screen. For me, cinema means going out to see a film in a dark room among strangers and if you pick the right films, you might even avoid the pop-corn munchers. This explains why I have seen so little old movies and thus have not caught up with all the westerns I should have seen at my respectable age. But back to the book.

Riders of the Purple Sage opens with a typical western scene. We’re in 1871 at the border of Utah. A young Gentile* man, Bern Venters is about to get whipped in the sage for befriending Jane Withersteen, a Mormon young woman. Tull, the Minister of the Mormon Church in Cottonwoods wants to whip and exile Venters and intends to marry Jane. She’s the richest person of the village; she owns a ranch, herds and the only source of water. She’s a catch. Jane refuses Tull and Venters is in a desperate situation when Lassiter shows up and drives Tull and his men away. This dramatic scene is the start of everything. Lassiter, a well-known gun-man arrived at Cottonwoods to understand what happened to Milly Fern. His interfering in Jane and Venter’s business will break the peace. Tull now craves for revenge and will do everything in his power to ruin Jane, morally and financially. The neighbourhood is also hunted by rustlers led by Oldridge accompanied by his Masked Rider. They steal cattle and nobody knows where the animals are led. When Jane’s red herd disappears, Venters heads for Deception Pass, where the herds vanish, decided to avoid Tull and discover where Oldridge and his riders hide. His encounter with Oldridge’s men is violent and he almost kills the Masked Rider, only to discover that he’s a she, Bess.

The novel follows two story strands, one with Jane and Lassiter in Cottonwoods and another one with Venters and Bess in the sage. Their paths cross, they help each other as they’re on the same side. The four main characters have to go through their personal journey and the events unravel before our eyes. The four of them are tortured souls, for different reasons. The four of them will have their epiphany.

Jane Withersteen is a very pious woman. She was raised a Mormon, she has a deep faith and she respects her bishop and her minister. When she refuses Tull, here’s what she’s told:

Marry Tull. It’s your duty as a Mormon. You’ll feel no rapture as his wife—but think of Heaven! Mormon women don’t marry for what they expect on earth. Take up the cross, Jane.

Isn’t that cheerful and awfully tempting? The American version of “Close your eyes and think of England”. I found Zane Grey extremely hard on the Mormon community in Cottonwoods. They are Christian zealots who preach a message they don’t practice. Women are oppressed and churchmen take advantage of their spiritual power to keep a hold on the population. Gentiles are discriminated. Jane is brainwashed and doesn’t see them as men with flaws but as churchmen, better men than others, by definition. The events force her to acknowledge the truth and Lassiter will be the messenger.

Lassiter is also a broken soul. He’s driven by his quest: what has become of Milly Ern? It makes him relentless and lonely. He has everything of the ragged hero hiding a heart of gold. Jane will force him to reconsider his lifestyle and his goals in life.

Venters the Gentile was a pariah and his encounter with Bess will change him. He will find his true self in the wilderness and the passages of his exploration of the canyons and the valleys are simply beautiful. They echo his stormy inner mind and he becomes one with his surroundings:

When he gained the cover of cedars he paused to rest and look, and it was then he saw how the trees sprang from holes in the bare rock. Ages of rain had run down the slope, circling, eddying in depressions, wearing deep round holes. There had been dry seasons, accumulations of dust, wind-blown seeds, and cedars rose wonderfully out of solid rock. But these were not beautiful cedars. They were gnarled, twisted into weird contortions, as if growth were torture, dead at the tops, shrunken, gray, and old. Theirs had been a bitter fight, and Venters felt a strange sympathy for them. This country was hard on trees—and men.

Venters discovers a secluded valley that be baptises Surprise Valley. Its description is like a time machine, bringing back Venters and Bess to Paradise before the fall. Grey pictures striking landscapes inhabited with lively fauna:

Out of his cave he saw the exquisitely fine foliage of the silver spruces crossing a round space of blue morning sky; and in this lacy leafage fluttered a number of gray birds with black and white stripes and long tails. They were mocking-birds, and they were singing as if they wanted to burst their throats.

I wanted to go there and see everything with my own eyes. He has a gift for cinematographic descriptions. There’s a superb scene where Venters chases after another rider. It’s gripping, the ride described so precisely I imagined I was on horseback with Venters. He also knows how to build tension, like here when Venters is in a critical situation:

Perceptions flashed upon him, the faint, cold touch of the breeze, a cold, silvery tinkle of flowing water, a cold sun shining out of a cold sky, song of birds and laugh of children, coldly distant. Cold and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and tighter stretched the skin over his face; colder and harder grew the polished butts of his guns; colder and steadier became his hands as he wiped the clammy sweat from his face or reached low to his gun-sheaths.

Can’t you imagine him? This book also came with a mental soundtrack. I know I should have been hearing music by Ennio Morricone when I was reading but all I could think about was the haunting Riders on the Storm by The Doors. Add to the mix that I had reached the page of Red River Valley in my piano textbook and there was no room left for classic western soundtrack. I was all with riders and cowboys. Sorry.

Considering the time this book stayed in the Currently Reading box, you’d think it’s 800 pages long instead of 300ish. It took me ages to go through the descriptions of the landscapes, of the rides and of Vender walking in the canyons. I had trouble with the vocabulary related to herds and had to pause to imagine the men riding in the different paths. I paused to polish mental pictures of the scenes I was reading. I had also to deal with the spoken language with sentences like this “An’ they jest froze up—thet dark set look thet makes them strange an’ different to me.” or this “Wal, hev it your way, Bern. I hope you’re right. Nat’rully I’ve been some sore on Lassiter fer gittin’ soft. But I ain’t denyin’ his nerve, or whatever’s great in him thet sort of paralyzes people. I had to tell the words in my head to figure out what they meant and imagine the accent. Since I have a terrible French accent when I speak English, I’m not sure I really figured out how these men were speaking. However, I will always marvel at the elasticity of the English language. You can’t really do that in French; it’s hard to transcribe accents.

Although it demanded a tremendous amount of concentration to me, I highly recommend Riders of the Purple Sage. It has all the qualities of a great book. It’s gripping, well-written and well-constructed. I need to thank Max for recommending this novel to me. So thanks, Max, that was a treat and I didn’t know Zane Grey. I looked him up on Wikipedia, though. He was the first writer to become rich thanks to his books. His novels are currently out of print in French and that’s a shame. I suppose westerns aren’t fashionable anymore.

* All along the novel, Gentile will be used to define non-Mormon characters. Don’t ask me why. Lack of a better word?

Vengeances by Philippe Djian

December 9, 2013 14 comments

Vengeances by Philippe Djian 2011. Not translated into English (yet)

Qu’avais-je à perdre? Me restait-il quoi que ce soit que je ne puisse remettre en jeu, qui vaille vraiment le coup, qui fasse réfléchir? Que préserver ? Que sauver, que garder ? La réponse était simple. What did I have to lose? Had I anything left that I could throw in the game, that was worth fighting for or that made me think twice? What to salvage, to keep? The answer was simple.

 This billet has a twin brother at Books I love and others I get stuck with. Indeed, I had this Djian on the shelf, waiting for my attention and it was available at Beirut’s book fair. So Nino and I have been reading Vengeances along.  And luck was on our side since we had the opportunity to meet and discuss it face to face. That’s the magical confederacy of book lovers. But back to the book.

Djian_vengeancesMarc is forty five, a sculptor of contemporary works. He’s supposed to live with Elizabeth but she’s currently MIO. He doesn’t know where she is and if she’ll come home. Marc’s son Alexandre committed suicide about a year ago. Then Marc’s life went astray and it drove Elizabeth away. Marc has two close friends, Anne and Michel. They’ve known each other since their youth and their lives have been intertwined since. They belonged to the same tiny ultra-left group, Marc used to be Anne’s boyfriend and Michel is Marc’s artistic agent. They are tied by emotional and financial bonds.

One day, Marc is in the metro, going home, when he rescues a young woman who vomits violently in front of him. She’s totally wasted. He takes pity on her and brings her home. She’s Gloria and she says she’s Alexandre’s girlfriend. On impulse, Marc asks her to move in with him. Gloria’s arrival will shatter what little stability remained in his life.

Gloria knew who Marc was and makes her nest among the triangle of friends and brings poison in this small circle. They had reached a balance and she spoils it. The interactions between the characters are quite interesting. Gloria flirts with Michel and awakens in him what we call in French le démon de midi (Literally, the noon devil, in other word and according to the dictionary, lust affecting a man in mid-life. Yes, we have an expression to say that in French). Anne is frustrated because Michel doesn’t pay attention to her anymore and she wouldn’t mind rekindling her former passion with Marc. Marc considers Gloria as his daughter-in-law; she’s definitely off-limit for him. His art is affected by his mourning and he doesn’t create anything good, which means Michel will soon lack of sculptures to sell. Anne and Michel don’t like Gloria; they feel the danger she represents and let’s be honest, Gloria doesn’t make a lot of effort to be agreeable. She’s impolite and venomous. She clearly takes advantage of Marc’s pain. He feels guilty about his son. They were estranged and he can’t forgive himself for not knowing him better, not noticing that things were that bad for him. So he’s always happy to gobble any piece of information she’ll throw at him. He’s that needy. Does she tell the truth? Who is she really? Marc doesn’t care to know; he’s desperate.

mainThe narrative shifts from Marc’s first person point of view to an omniscient narrator. The changes come quite often and are marked by a milestone “hand” like the one at the beginning of this paragraph. I have read more than a dozen of Djian’s novels and it’s not the first time his character is named Marc. There’s a Marc in Incidences, in the Doggy Bag series, in Assassins and certainly in others. It’s a pattern, the signature of the artist and a way to say to the readers that names don’t mean anything. Marc could be anyone, even a Philippe.

marc_philippeI find the writer is popping in his own page rather amusing, not that it’s never been done before. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s habit to appear in his films. As always, I enjoyed Djian’s sense of humour, especially when he mocks himself:

ChlorophylleLike Incidences and Impardonnables, Vengeances is a dark story. The characters aren’t likeable and a feeling of dread and doom weighs upon the book. I expected that kind of ending but I thought it fell abruptly on me. This book could have been polished a little bit. In my opinion, the characters’ ages don’t match with their life experiences. Marc and Michel are too young to have taken part in these political clandestine fights. They should have been around twenty in 1975, which means being born in 1955 or 1960 at the latest. In this case, you can’t be 45 in 2010. And the novel is set in our time. In my opinion, the ending was botched up, I felt the novel had reached the expected number of pages or that the deadline to send it to the publisher had come. Too bad.

There are recurring things in life. Every year brings a new film by Woody Allen and a new novel by Djian. I love both artists but some of their works are better than others. For me, Vengeances is not Djian at his best. Incidences and Impardonnables are better books. Even if Djian has forever turned his back to the sunny novels of his beginnings, I still recommend Echine and Maudit manège to anyone who would like to read him.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. Raymond Chandler

December 5, 2013 21 comments

The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski 2006 French title: The Blonde

Just thinking about The Blonde brings a smile on my face. Funny, gripping, crazy, daring, witty are the adjectives that come to mind. It’s full of references to classic noir films and fiction and I’m sure I missed most of the references. The title of the post is the opening quote of the book, putting your reading journey under the protection of the master of literary Noir crime fiction.

Swierczynski_BlondeJack Eisley is sitting at a bar in the Philadelphia Airport. Tomorrow, he has a meeting with his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her lawyer and soon-to-be-next-husband. Jack dreads the meeting and he’s happy to chat innocently with a pretty blonde at the bar. Everything seems alright until she tells him that she put something in his drink and that he’ll die in a few hours. Meanwhile, Mike Kowalski, profession: secret agent for a weird agency, is doing a side job for himself. He’s currently slowly and methodically eliminating all the people responsible for the death of his beloved Katie. He’s about to pull the trigger and score one more enemy when his special phone rings and his contact asks him to go and get the head of a Pr Manchette (*nudge, nudge*) who died in the morning. Kowalski’s employers want to analyse Pr Manchette’s head. In addition, he needs to get a woman called Kelly White who was last seen at the Philadelphia Airport. Back to Jack, who’s now at his hotel room, sick as a dog at the exact time the blonde had predicted he would be as a result of the poisining. He starts believing she did spice his drink with a lethal weapon. He rushes back to the airport to find her and put his hand on the antidote.

As it is, both Kowalski and Jack are after the same woman, Kelly White. They embark in a fast paced trip across Philadelphia at night and the reader takes a seat aboard an UFO of a book. Jack soon finds out that Kelly White has a virus which doesn’t bear privacy, loneliness or solitude. If she’s farther than three meters from another human, she dies within 3 minutes. Isn’t that idea fantastic? It provides countless possibilities of comical scenes in a novel. Imagine living a daily life with this when the others around you don’t know it. You’re constantly invading other people’s space, you can’t pee on your own and you act suspiciously promiscuous. The horror.

The intrigue is made of this incredible scenario of futurist science whipped with international terrorism. This icing on the cake is the personal Vengeance carried on by Kowalski. All this works extremely well. Duane Swierczynski manages to write a coherent and yet totally wacked story. Mike could have a penguin as a teammate and the reader would accept is a fact. He’s that good! The ending is surrealist and yet totally logical. The style is full of catchy dialogues, urgent descriptions and striking imagery. Here are Jack and the blonde during their first encounter:

Blonde

You’re looking for something unwinding and well-written? A book to take you away during a journey on a train? The Blonde is for you. What about me? I loved this book and I already have Fun and Games waiting for me. As often, I owe the discovery of this writer to Guy’s impeccable tastes in literature. Thanks again, Guy.

PS: For readers who can read Spanish or French, I recommend Carlos Salem. He’s Swierczynski’s European evil brother.

Christmas? Bah! Humbook they say : THE COME BACK

December 1, 2013 19 comments

Bah! Humbook, they say

 

Humbook

Hello dear copinautes!

December has arrived and Guy and I would like to invite you to another edition of the Humbook Christmas Gift event.  The idea is to virtually give another blogger two books as a Christmas present. It’s a way to exchange gifts in our virtual and international literary salon. So, let’s review the rules together.

  • Choose the copinaute you will give books to,
  • Leave a comment saying you’re in and giving the name of your copinaute,
  • On December 25th, publish a post in which you reveal to your copinaute the two books you have selected for them.
  • In 2014, each copinaute reads the books and reviews them.

In addition, Guy and I will choose one book for each participant and reveal our virtual books on Christmas Day as well.

For practical reasons, each participant shall purchase the books they receive and not the books they give. This is to avoid sending books abroad, experiencing delays in delivery or whatever other problem. This means that you need to pay attention to a few things when you pick a humbook for a copinaute: check out that it’s available in their language at a reasonable price.

FAQ, in French, Foire Aux Questions

What’s a copinaute ?

Copinaute is made of the word copain/copine (friend) and internaute (Internet surfer) Copinautes are friends who know each other through the Internet. Don’t look for it in the dictionary; it’s not in there…yet. I find this word lovely and very appropriate to our friendly little book blogging community.

What if the copinaute has already read the book before?

That’s a risk and part of the game. It happens when you offer books to bookworms! Good news: the book hasn’t been purchased yet. So, you just pick another one.

What if I don’t feel like reading the book I was given?

It can happen. But we don’t always like the books we pick for ourselves, so give your copinaute the benefit of the doubt. It may be a good surprise and a way to step out of your comfort zone. I’m sure your copinaute will avoid vampire stories if they know you’re not into fantasy.

I’m not at home for Christmas, how am I supposed to post a billet that day?

If your blog is on WP, you can write it earlier and schedule it for Christmas. I suppose the same option exists on other blog platforms.

How long does the copinaute have to read the books?

You have all 2014 to read them. No pressure of any kind, reading is a pleasure, not a duty.

If you have any other question, just ask in the comment section or on Twitter (@Bookaround). All the questions are welcome. Check on Guy’s blog for more information.

I do hope you are tempted to join us. I’m looking forward to hearing from you in the comment section.

Cheers!

Emma

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