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Archive for January, 2015

Coffee and arsenic

January 29, 2015 23 comments

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino (2008) French title: Un café maison.

I don’t remember where I’ve discovered Keigo Higashino although I’m sure it’s through a book blog. Anyway. This is my contribution to Tony’s January in Japan and guess what, there’s an article about Higashino just here.

Higashino_caféSalvation of a Saint is a crime fiction novel set in Tokyo. It opens on a repudiation scene between Ayane and her husband Yoshitaka. They’ve been married for a year and since Avaye isn’t pregnant yet, Yoshitaka is leaving her. He had told her beforehand that he would leave her if a baby wasn’t on its way during the first year of their marriage. I guess it’s a new way to envision the proverbial biological clock. Now he’s found someone else, and that someone else is already pregnant. The chapter ends with Ayane thinking “I love you very deeply. What you just told me broke my heart. Now I want you to die too.”

This happens just before they expect guests for diner. Classy guy, this Yoshitaka. They invited the Mashibas and Hiromi Wakayama, Ayane’s employee. This diner is a subtle form of torture for Ayane since the Mashibas recently had a baby.

The morning after diner, Ayane leaves Tokyo for a few days to visit her family in Sapporo. This trip wasn’t scheduled but it’s understandable given the circumstances. Yoshitaka stays behind, sees his mistress and she’ll be the one to find him dead in his apartment. He was poisoned by arsenic-laced coffee.

The police arrive on the scene and the inspector Kusanagi is in charge of the investigation. He’s drawn to Ayane and in the eye of his young colleague Kaoru Utsumi, he’s too quick to write her off from the list of suspects. She thinks he’s blinded by his attraction to Ayane. To keep the investigation on track, she seeks the help of a scientist, Yukawa. He has already helped the police before and he’s friend with Kusagani. Kaoru wants to figure out how the arsenic arrived in Yoshitaka’s coffee and if Ayane could have poisoned her husband at distance.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot. Salvation of a Saint is well-crafted. I wanted to know if and how Ayane had killed her husband. The police dig into Yoshitaka’s life and past relationships attempting to get to know the victim. The picture is not pretty. He looks down on women. They’re either a means to sexual fun or a living oven for baking his future babies. It’s hard to feel sorry for the guy’s death, especially when you’re a woman. In this book, Higashino doesn’t give a good image of the Japanese society when it comes to women. Here they are wombs or obedient wives. Kaoru has a hard time working with Kusanagi who tends to dismiss her suggestions and analysis. It’s hard to be female in this police department.

The plot has several twists and turns and the relationships between the characters are muddy sometimes. Yoshitaka is certainly not a saint but Ayane seemed quite creepy to me as well. Her reactions to events are off. She never reacts the way the reader expects and she appears to be cold. She’s not really likeable either. I also rejoiced in Yukawa’s participation to the investigation. It brought fresh air and a bit of craziness in the novel. The dynamics in the investigation team was interesting to follow just as it was fun to read about his scientific experiments to find out if and how Ayane could have scheduled the poisoning.

Salvation of a Saint is a classic crime fiction novel with strong plot and intriguing characters. I liked it a lot and had a great time reading it. The English title must reflect the original since I’ve seen the same one in other languages. I can understand why the French title is different: Le salut d’un saint isn’t a good title from a marketing point of view. It’s confusing since salut means hello and salvation. And I suspect that such a title with religious connotation would be a put off for French readers except if it’s on a book by a pulp fiction writer or by San Antonio.

Great reading time.

Proust therapy

January 25, 2015 20 comments

GallienneRecently I had one of those days off where you pack do many things to do that you wish you had been in the office instead. At the end of the day, I felt stressed out and frazzled by the pace of the day. I needed something to calm me down, especially since I was going to the theatre that night and wanted to enjoy myself.

That’s where the book/CD of Ca peut pas faire de mal came to my rescue. Ca peut pas faire de mal (It can’t hurt) is a radio show on France Inter where Guillaume Gallienne reads excerpts of books and discusses a writer. It is a marvelous show and marketing people made a CD/book out of it. Lucky me, I got one for Christmas and it’s about Proust, Hugo and Madame de Lafayette.

I put the CD in the car and I forgot the stress of my day. Proust read by Gallienne makes you truly understand where all the fuss about Proust comes from. The passages recorded belong to different volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu and I remembered these scenes. This is Proust’s magic: hundreds of pages of literature and the characters stay with you, scenes are tattooed in your memory and emotions are lasting. Cocteau said about Proust:

Il y a des oeuvres courtes qui paraissent longues; la longueur de Proust me paraît courte. There are short works that seem long; Proust’s length seems short to me.

I share that feeling but I’ll say that some volumes are easier than others.

In his introduction to the show, Gallienne recalls:

Marcel Proust, I discovered him through my grand-mother. She told me “Proust, he’s one of the most irresistible things in the world” I said “Is he?” She said “Proust is hilarious” Ah! I expected anything but this definition and later on, Jean-Yves Tadié, Proust biographer told me “Oh! Discovering Proust thanks to your grand-mother, it’s a very good start.” So let’s laugh with Marcel!

He then starts reading several excerpts showing how Proust practices the whole rainbow of funny from sunny comedy to black humour and through irony, piques and erudite puns. One excerpt relates how the Baron the Charlus walks his bourgeois lover Morel through the intricacies of the aristocratic hierarchy. Hilarious. Another one brings to life Madame Verdurin and her clique. Proust describes her facial expressions, her verbal tics and her behaviour among her beloved followers. Gallienne reads the descriptions, plays the dialogues and turns a written portrait into a flesh and blood person.

There’s also the masterful scene in Le Côté de Guermantes when the duke and duchess de Guermantes reveal their true self. They’re self-centred to the point of rudeness and insensitivity. Within a few pages, with a simple situation and banal dialogues, the reader understands that not even family and friends dying would prevent the Guermantes to attend a party. They’re appalling, as I mentioned in this billet. Other passages are about Françoise (the servant), Marcel’s beloved grand-mother and homosexuality. The last one is a letter from the front written by the Narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup. Gallienne says it prefigures Céline. He may be right.

In short passages, the CD gives you a taste of A la recherche du temps perdu. Gallienne reads with gourmandise. That’s a French word I have a hard time translating into English. Like plaisir. If I look up gourmandise in the dictionary, I come up with greed and gluttony which are negative words. They’re flaws or sins. True, in French gourmandise means gluttony as well. But not only. In a more figurative sense, it also means appetite in the most positive way. It goes with innocent pleasure, like in my son’s sentence En avant le plaisir! I never know how to express this in English.

So Gallienne reads Proust with gourmandise in a tone that suggests he’s having a treat, relishing in the turn of sentences, the delicious and old-fashioned subjonctif passé. He reads like a kid eats sweets, with abandonment and gusto. Words roll around his tongue, like he’s savouring a fancy meal or tasting a great wine. If you want to discover Proust, if you’re curious about how Proust sounds in French, then you need to hear Gallienne read these passages. You’ll want to read or reread Proust.

After this, Proust fest, I was calm. All the irritating moments of my day had faded away. I was available and ready to see The Village Bike by Penelope Skinner. That was my Proust therapy. The world would be a quieter place with more literature therapies. Perhaps it’s too ambitious but at least it benefited Penelope Skinner: I was ready to leave my day behind and enter the world she had created for us.

My literary notebook

January 22, 2015 23 comments

R_notebookMy son (almost 11) is currently on a Writing Challenge at school. The teacher gives the children the starting point of a story and they have to write a story consistent with it and as fast as they can. They have to write ten pieces. I knew about Reading Challenges (The pupils have to read books and answer questions about the story) but not about Writing Challenges to develop writing skills. I tell you this, literature classes weren’t that funny when I was in primary school. It sure beats the usual Please tell what you did during the holidays. He’s been so proud of his ten stories that I decided to give him a little of internet fame by publishing his favourite one on Book Around The Corner.

The idea was Pierre wonders if he’s not crazy. He just put his apple down for a moment to redo his shoe lace and when he’s finished, he only has an apple core. What happened?

Here’s my son’s follow up:

 

La journée est ensoleillée. J’en profite pour faire un tour au parc. Je me prévois, après avoir demandé à ma maman si je pouvais y aller, une pomme, au cas où j’ai faim. Je mets mes chaussures et j’y vais. En avant le plaisir ! Ah, enfin le voilà ! Le parc ! Je cours vers lui. Que j’aime cette sensation d’air frais. Ou plutôt chaud, c’est l’été tout de même ! J’entre enfin dans cet espace vert. Je fais un tour puis je m’assois sur un banc. Je sors mon fruit de mon sac, le prends et croque dedans plusieurs fois plus je finis par continuer mon tour en mangeant mon goûter. Soudain je m’arrête, mon lacet est défait ; Je pose mon sac par terre, puis ma pomme (sur mon sac, un peu de propreté, quand même) et je fais mon lacet. Mais au moment de me relever, je vois qu’elle n’est plus là, enfin, pour ce qu’il en reste, pour moi, elle n’est plus là. Je regarde autour de moi pour trouver qui aurait pu commettre un délit de la sorte ! A part deux enfants de cinq ans surveillés par leur mère, personne. Bizarre, mon champ de vision est vide. Je cherche des indices, des traces du voleur mais en vain. Je n’ai plus de pomme et rien à faire. Je rentre chez moi. Mais en arrivant, je découvre le coupable. Oooh, il m’a suivi ! Pris en filature ! Je n’en reviens pas quand je vois mon chien avec des morceaux de pomme entre les dents.

 Now the English translation.

It is a sunny day. I want to go to the park. After asking my mom if I could go, I take an apple with me in case I get hungry. I put on my shoes and here I go. To pleasure! Ah, here’s it is! The park! I run towards. How I love this feeling of fresh air! Or hot air, it’s summer, after all. I eventually enter this green space. I walk around and sit on a bench. I pull my fruit out of my bag and bite into it several times and I start walking again while eating my snack. I stop suddenly, my shoe lace is undone. I put my bag on the floor and then my apple (on my bag, a bit of hygiene, after all) et I redo my shoe lace. When I stand up, I see that my apple is missing or for what is left of it, it’s as if it were missing. I look around to find out who could have committed such a felony! Apart from two five-year olds watched by their mother, nobody. Strange, my field of vision is empty. I look for clues, traces of the thief but to no avail. I have no apple and nothing to do. I go home. But when I get there, I discover the culprit. Ooh, he followed me! Tailed me! I can’t believe it when I see my dog with apple bits between his teeth.

‘That’s all, folks!’ , says the proud mother.

Please note that he managed to put in a sentence so French I can’t translate it well into English: “En avant le plaisir!”

PS: the picture is the cover of his literary notebook.

How you tell the story by Yasmina Reza

January 17, 2015 30 comments

Comment vous racontez la partie (written and directed) by Yasmina Reza. Not available in English. (yet)

It’s been a while since my last billet about theatre. I’ve seen a play version of Novecento by Alessandro Barrico with André Dussolier and it was marvelous. I’m still not convinced that Barrico is such an extraordinary writer as critics let us think but Dussolier on stage is a delight. The play holds together more by the obvious pleasure Dussolier experiences on stage than by the depth of the text. The fact that he was acompagnied by a jazz pianist didn’t hurt either. I’ve also seen Les aiguilles et l’opium (Needles and Opium) by Robert Lepage, a play that features a brokenhearted man from Quebec, staying in Paris to record a radio show about Miles Davis’s time in the City of Lights in 1949. It also displays Cocteau’s impressions about New York at the same time. I’ve rarely seen such a creative and poetic stage direction. Everything was perfect from the music, the lights, the decors bringing us from Paris in 1949 to Paris in 1989. If you ever have a chance to see these plays, go for it.

That brings me to the last one I’ve seen, Comment vous racontez la partie by Yasmina Reza. (How You Tell the Story.) I want to write about this one because it deals with literature, readers, journalists and authors.

Nathalie Oppenheim is a famous writer who won the Germaine Beaumont prize. Her last novel, Le pays des lassitudes (The country of wearinesses) has just been released. She accepted an invitation to participate to the literary Saturdays of the small provincial town of Vilan-en-Volène. She is welcomed by Roland, the manager of the médiathèque (multimedia library) and the meeting will take place at the community centre. Nathalie will be interviewed by Rosanna Ertel-Keval, a famous literary journalist who grew up in Vilan-en-Volène. As always in such circumstances, the mayor of the town attends the meeting and the inevitable subsequent cocktail party.

This is a funny and serious play because the characters are subtly drawn. Nathalie is comparable to many writers you see in salons, signing books and loathing it. Not that they don’t want to meet their public or that they don’t respect them. It’s just that it’s out of their comfort zone. Rosanna is the perfect polished Parisian literary journalist. The actress, Christèle Tual, played the smooth interviewer at perfection. She tries to ask deep and articulate questions while casually name-dropping to remind Nathalie that she’s friendly with major great authors. She speaks with that unctuous tone that literary journalists use on France Inter when they talk with writers. Roland is the perfect literary nerd you meet in mediathèques everywhere. He’s extremely literate, totally overwhelmed with meeting a dream writer and also well anchored in the community, creating bridges between books and people in his town.

Everything in the setting and in the characters rings true. The name of the small town sounds like a country town in Normandy. Germaine Beaumont was a writer and member of the jury of the Prix Femina. Nathalie’s book The country of wearinesses, sounds like a French contemporary novel. (Right in the never-forget-you’re-going-to-die category). Roland and the major look like and sound like characters you meet in small towns. The major is so proud of his community centre; he fought for it for three years to get it financed. Yasmina Reza could make fun of provincial life. She does – we laugh a lot, thanks to the text and an amazing direction – but we laugh with benevolence. In a sense, it is also a tribute to all the Rolands in France who do ground work to bring literature to people.

The serious part of the play is about the relationship of a writer with their books. Nathalie is not comfortable with reading out loud passages of her novel or discussing it. The more Rosanna tries to pull out commentaries about such or such paragraph, the more she dodges the questions and tries to derail her and talk about something else. Nathalie’s idea is that her book should stand by itself, that even if she put something of herself in it, the public shouldn’t imagine that she’s the character of the book. She doesn’t want to overanalyze her work. She’s caught between the need to promote her novel and her deep belief that she shouldn’t be discussing her book. She doesn’t want to desiccate her feelings or what she meant by this or that sentence. She refuses to compare the men of her novel to the men of her life, to assume that her character’s vision of men is hers.

Nathalie doesn’t want to overshadow her work. She’s private, she doesn’t want that her interview about her novel becomes a public shrink session about her issues under the (false) pretense of analyzing the hidden meaning of her work. Rosanna finishes her interview with a reference to Philip Roth. For me it’s not a coincidence. Exit Ghost deals with that question: what becomes of a literary work when its author is not there anymore to rectify wrong interpretations or to correct inaccurate biographies? What happens if the writer’s life appears more interesting than his work? What happens to a literary work if a scandal hits its author’s life?

Rosanna is only doing her job, in appearance. The problem lays in the particularity of being a literary journalist. The material you’re interviewing people about is not their political program for their next campaign or their strategy to develop their company or simply talking about their field of expertise. Literary journalists interview authors about works that come from their imagination. It’s their brain’s child. This is why some of Rosanna’s questions are nosy even if she doesn’t mean to pry. I felt sorry for the poor Nathalie squirming on her chair, trying to pick non-committal answers while not giving away too much. Otherwise, it fuels Rosanna’s questioning as she’s like a dog with a bone once she’s onto something.

The actors were on chairs on the stage, facing us, as if we were the public of Vilan-en-Volène. We were watching the play and participating to the show as the extras playing the attendance. We are also participating in this masquerade, in general, by reading interviews of authors and listening or watching literary shows. What’s our responsibility in this circus?

It’s a brilliant play that helps us readers live for a while in a writer’s shoes. It combines fun and serious and that’s for me the seal of a fantastic playwright.

The Ravishing of Britney Spears by Jean Rolin.

January 9, 2015 20 comments

Le ravissement de Britney Spears by Jean Rolin 2011 Not translated into English.

After this week’s awful events in Paris, I’m not comfortable with writing about The Ravishing of Britney Spears and you’ll understand why soon. But this was the billet I intended to write this week and that’s what I’ll do. Doing otherwise would give more power to murderers and that’s not acceptable.

Rolin_BritneyYou can’t imagine the buzz there’s been around Le ravissement de Britney Spears by Jean Rolin when it was released. All the critics were raving about it. The plot seemed like a good idea: a French spy is sent in Los Angeles to investigate threats of Islamic terrorist attacks against Britney Spears. As an iconic pop star, the terrorists allegedly think killing her would have a great impact on masses. So far so good. That’s why I was interested in reading the book. And I also knew that Jean Rolin had lived in Los Angeles for a while, so I expected a real feel of the city.

The problem is that our spy doesn’t have a driving license. And he’s on a mission in sprawling L.A. where there are less metro lines than in Lyon. So he’s wandering around the city in public buses. And he describes his journeys in a very detailed way. And all these passages sound like I’m learning by heart the L.A. map of buses. And I’M BORED TO DEATH. At page 121, my head was still full of questions. When will the story really start? Will he give up the mindless descriptions of travelling by bus? No, he won’t? After one look at the TBR, I stopped reading it.

I could have liked this novel. It is about Los Angeles and, from the descriptions, the writer had a good feel of the city. All his traveling by bus makes him visit places he would have ignored if he had been driving. He shows another side of the city than the one we usually see on TV. I could also have liked to read about his arguments explaining why attempting to Britney Spears’s life could fulfill a political goal for terrorists. There are also descriptions about paparazzi’s M.O. and trash press and it could have been interesting.

This book didn’t work for me because in my opinion, it didn’t pick the right side where literary genres are concerned. With a carless spy on a mission in LA and whose main contact info’s name is Fuck, you need to be mighty good to turn it into a serious novel. These two elements tip the scale in favor of crazy or state-of-the-nation satire. I would have loved to see what Kotzwinkle or Carlos Salem would have done with such a pitch. Or Max Barry, who would have turned it into a dystopian novel. It has everything to become a crazy high paced novel with intelligent thoughts. Jean Rolin decided to tip the scale on the side of serious. Slow pace enhanced by long sentences, serious descriptions of L.A., serious thoughts about Britney Spears and serious snoring on my side.

Too bad. I know someone else who had the same experience as me with the book. (Summed up in a sentence “much ado about nothing”) but the ratings are rather good on Goodreads. So perhaps I read it at a bad moment. Or more likely I have a tendency to prefer more off-the-wall books and it felt like a missed opportunity.

Or the all the fun was after page 121.

Je suis Charlie

January 7, 2015 31 comments

This blog is only about books. But it’s also a place where I’m free to talk about books. And I cherish my liberty of speech. So today, after the vile killing at Charlie Hebdo’s, I want to share with you a poem by Paul Eluard, Liberté. Every time a journalist is killed on duty, a part of our liberty dies with them. Eluard wrote this during WWII, while fighting against evil and I feel like that’s what we’re doing now.

Sur mes cahiers d’écolier
Sur mon pupitre et les arbres
Sur le sable sur la neige
J’écris ton nom

Sur toutes les pages lues
Sur toutes les pages blanches
Pierre sang papier ou cendre
J’écris ton nom

Sur les images dorées
Sur les armes des guerriers
Sur la couronne des rois
J’écris ton nom

Sur la jungle et le désert
Sur les nids sur les genêts
Sur l’écho de mon enfance
J’écris ton nom

Sur les merveilles des nuits
Sur le pain blanc des journées
Sur les saisons fiancées
J’écris ton nom

Sur tous mes chiffons d’azur
Sur l’étang soleil moisi
Sur le lac lune vivante
J’écris ton nom

Sur les champs sur l’horizon
Sur les ailes des oiseaux
Et sur le moulin des ombres
J’écris ton nom

Sur chaque bouffée d’aurore
Sur la mer sur les bateaux
Sur la montagne démente
J’écris ton nom

Sur la mousse des nuages
Sur les sueurs de l’orage
Sur la pluie épaisse et fade
J’écris ton nom

Sur les formes scintillantes
Sur les cloches des couleurs
Sur la vérité physique
J’écris ton nom

Sur les sentiers éveillés
Sur les routes déployées
Sur les places qui débordent
J’écris ton nom

Sur la lampe qui s’allume
Sur la lampe qui s’éteint
Sur mes maisons réunies
J’écris ton nom

Sur le fruit coupé en deux
Du miroir et de ma chambre
Sur mon lit coquille vide
J’écris ton nom

Sur mon chien gourmand et tendre
Sur ses oreilles dressées
Sur sa patte maladroite
J’écris ton nom

Sur le tremplin de ma porte
Sur les objets familiers
Sur le flot du feu béni
J’écris ton nom

Sur toute chair accordée
Sur le front de mes amis
Sur chaque main qui se tend
J’écris ton nom

Sur la vitre des surprises
Sur les lèvres attentives
Bien au-dessus du silence
J’écris ton nom

Sur mes refuges détruits
Sur mes phares écroulés
Sur les murs de mon ennui
J’écris ton nom

Sur l’absence sans désir
Sur la solitude nue
Sur les marches de la mort
J’écris ton nom

Sur la santé revenue
Sur le risque disparu
Sur l’espoir sans souvenir
J’écris ton nom

Et par le pouvoir d’un mot
Je recommence ma vie
Je suis né pour te connaître
Pour te nommer

Liberté.

On my school text books
On my desk and on the trees
On the sand, on the snow
I write your name

On all the pages I have read
On all the white sheets
Stone blood paper or ashes
I write your name

On golden images
On the weapons of warriors
On the crown of kings
I write your name

On the jungle and on the desert
On the nests on the brooms
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name

On the marvels of the nights
On the white bread of the days
On the engaged seasons
I write your name

On all my azure chiffons
On the sunlit mildewed swamps
On the lake, living moon
I write your name

On the fields of the horizon
On the wings of birds
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name.

On every whiff of dawn
On the sea and on boats
On the demented mountain
I write your name

On the foam of clouds
On the sweat of storms
On the fat and faded rain
I write your name

On the scintillating forms
On the bells of colours
On the physical truth
I write your name

On the awakened paths
On the open roads
On the overflowing plazas
I write your name

On the lamp which is lit
On the lamp which is switched down
On my united houses
I write your name

On the fruit cut in half
From my mirror and from my bedroom
On my bed, empty shell
I write your name

On my loving and greedy dog
On his pricked-up ears
On his clumsy paw
I write your name

On the latch of my door
On familiar objects
On the flow of blessed fire
I write your name

On any tuned up chair
On the forehead of my friends
On any holding hand
I write your name

On the glass of surprises
On attentive lips
Far above silence
I write your name

On my destroyed shelters
On my crumbled lighthouses
On the walls of my boredom
I write your name

On the absence without desire
On my raw solitude
On the steps to death
I write your name

On the returning health
On the disappeared risk
On hope without remembrance
I write your name

And by the power of a word
My life starts again
I am born to know you
To name you

Liberty.

And today, Liberty’s name is Charlie

je_suis_charlie

PS: The translation is mine, sorry, I’m no poet.

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Bonne année 2015

January 1, 2015 45 comments

Hello,

I don’t know what time it is for you now, if it’s still 2014 or if you’re well into the first day of 2015 already. For us, the New Year has just started and…

Je vous souhaite une bonne et heureuse année 2015.

I wish you a Happy New Year. I wish you health, success and joy. And books, of course. Lots of amazing books of all kinds.

I don’t have precise reading plans for this coming year except the ones for my Book Club, Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion with Jacqui in April. You’ll probably hear about Hungarian, Italian and Austrian literature. I want to read more by Thomas Hardy and I’m on a mission to reduce the TBR to a reasonable size.

Well, I guess I have plans, after all. And I’d love to hear from yours.

I hope we’ll spend an amazing reading year together.

Cheers!

Emma

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