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The Firemaker by Peter May

September 23, 2016 20 comments

The Firemaker by Peter May (1999) French title : Meurtres à Pékin. Translated by Ariane Bataille.

MayThe Firemaker our Book Club read for August, so yes, I might be a little late with the billet. It’s going to be a quick one as well because I have a rather long list of upcoming billets and frankly, The Firemaker is not a book that pushes me to write a long, deep or even gushing billet. It’s honest Beach and Public Transport reading but nothing more.

It’s the first instalment of Peter May’s series in China. Dr Margaret Campbell is a medical examiner in Chicago and she arrives in Beijing to give lectures about her job to Chinese students. Li Yan has just been promoted as Deputy Section Chief in the Beijing police department. He accidentally meets Margaret on his way to his job interview and they start on the wrong footing.

The same day, three bodies are found dead in three different places of the city. The only common point between the three is a cigarette butt near the corpses.

Follows an investigation to discover who’s guilty of these murders. Margaret and Li are obliged to work together. She makes mistake after mistake in her interactions with Chinese people. Margaret and Li are madly attracted to each other but cannot really act on it. They get scientific results of sample analysis in record time, the cells don’t even have the time to multiply that they already have the report. Such performance sounds rather unrealistic.

It’s basically an American NCIS based in Beijing. It’s an easy read and I read it till the end but it’s rather stereotyped. The scientist imposed to the cop as a partner. A pair forced to work together that ends up falling in lust and then in love. Pointing out cultural differences. An American woman who doesn’t take time to read anything about the country she’s going to and offends everyone with her ignorance. A woman who flew to China to avoid her painful past. A man whose family has been hurt by the Cultural Revolution. Cardboard descriptions of Beijing. Some cultural nail polish to spice it up. And poof, 500 pages.

All in all, nothing to write home about. It could have been a lot better because the synopsis is a truly great idea. The problem is that it lacks finesse in characterization but it’s still a decent Beach & Public Transport book.

There’s a recent review in French by Bookmaniac here

Sex, jazz and literature or when Bukowski meets Baldwin

September 18, 2016 33 comments

How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière (1985) Original French title: Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Cette chambre est bien le Q.G. de tout ce que cette ville compte de marginales ; cette mafia urbaine qui a trouvé d’instinct son île au 3670 de la rue Saint-Denis, au carré Saint-Louis, Montréal, Québec, Canada, Amérique, Terre. CHEZ MOI. This room is really the HQ of every marginal girl of this city, this urban mafia who instinctively found their island at 3670, Saint-Denis Street, Saint-Louis quarter, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, America, Earth. MY HOME.

LaferrièreWhy did I wait so long to read Dany Laferrière? My trip to Québec prompted me to try his books and I decided to start by the beginning, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. It is translated into English under How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. A provocative title that sure caught my eyes.

The narrator is a struggling writer who lives in a crappy room in the Carré Saint-Louis neighbourhood of Montreal. It is based on Laferrière’s own experience of his first years in Montreal after he emigrated from Haïti in the 1980s. His roommate Bouba is a couch potato/philosopher. Both have girls coming in and out of the apartment and have a very active sex life. Both are black.

The narrator relates his daily life and his interactions with various white female sex partners. Most of them are students and come from Outremont, a bourgeois part of the city. They’re sort of slumming it with him. And the narrator, who doesn’t treat them really well, makes blunt observations about the relationships between a black man and a white young woman. He’s half-amused, half-offended by the huge lies he manages to feed them about his African origins. They swallow every stupid description about customs, clothes and everyday life.

ET DIRE QU’ON ENVOIE CES FILLES DANS UNE INSTITUTIONS SERIEUSE (McGILL) POUR APPRENDRE LA CLARTE, L’ANALYSE ET LE DOUTE SCIENTIFIQUE. ELLES SONT TELLEMENT INFECTEES PAR LA PROPAGANDE JUDEO-CHRETIENNE QUE DES QU’ELLES PARLENT A UN NEGRE, ELLES SE METTENT A PENSER EN PRIMITIVES. POUR ELLES, UN NEGRE EST TROP NAIF POUR MENTIR. C’EST PAS LEUR FAUTE, IL Y A EU, AUPARAVANT, LA BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, LE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC. (*) TO THINK THAT THESE GIRLS ARE SENT TO A SERIOUS ACADEMIC INSTITUTION (McGILL) TO LEARN CLARITY, ANALYSIS AND SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM. THEY ARE SO MUCH INFECTED BY JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PROPAGANDA THAT AS SOON AS THEY TALK TO A NEGRO, THEY START THINKING AS PRIMITIVES. FOR THEM, A NEGRO IS TOO NAÏVE TO LIE. IT AIN’T THEIR FAULT, BEFORE, THERE WERE THE BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, THE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC.

They don’t question him out of ignorance but also to prove how tolerant and open-minded they can be. Blunt thoughts about how the whites see black people are spread in the book. It’s not the purpose of the novel but it’s part of the narrator’s experience as an immigrant in Montreal. This is the Baldwin side.

The Bukowski side is more in the way of life, the drinking, the sex, the dubious way he treats women. It reminded me of Post Office. Bouba and the narrator pick up girls who are like star-struck but neither of the men is really interested in them. They give them nicknames like Miz Literature or Miz Suicide according to their interests and background. One of them is lovely and seems attached to the narrator but he doesn’t really care about her. He’s on his personal journey as a struggling writer who suffers for his art in a poor hotel room like Hemingway or Bukowski. What saves him is his sense of humor. Sure, he wants to be a writer and while he wants to walk into the path of glorious writers, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Another link between Laferrière, Bukowski and Baldwin is certainly their voracious love for literature and their lust for life. A powerful energy pours out of their books. The narrator is a would-be writer, he reads all the time and books are in his blood.

Longue file d’attente au bureau de poste. On est serrés comme des sardines. J’avise une sardine, juste devant moi. Elle lit un bouquin. Je suis une sardine maniaque de bouquins. Dès que je vois quelqu’un en train de lire un livre, il faut que je sache quel est le titre, si elle aime ça et de quoi ça parle. Long queue at the post office. We’re packed like sardines. I see a sardine just before me. She’s reading a book. I’m a sardine obsessed with books. As soon as I see someone reading a book, I have to know the title, if she likes it and what it is about.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? I bet he also reads information on food packaging at the breakfast table, various instructions here and there because he’s a compulsive reader. As Guy would say, there are worse addictions. This is a most pleasant part of the book. The narrator shares thoughts about literature and shows how his reading is embedded in his everyday life. He has an intimate and casual relationship with writers, worship made of familiarity.

Faut lire Hemingway debout, Basho en marchant, Proust dans un bain, Cervantès à l’hôpital, Simenon dans le train (Canadian Pacific), Dante au paradis, Dosto en enfer, Miller dans un bar enfumé avec hot dogs, frites et coke…Je lisais Mishima avec une bouteille de vin bon marché au pied du lit, complètement épuisé, et une fille à côté, sous la douche. You must read Hemingway standing, Basho, walking, Proust, in a bath, Cervantes, in the hospital, Simenon, on a train (Canadian Pacific), Dante, in heaven, Dosto, in hell, Miller in a smoky bar with hot dogs, fries and coke…I was reading Mishima with a cheap bottle of wine by my bed, totally worn out, with a girl nearby, in the shower.

Laferrière has the humor and the bluntness of a John Fante. He’s a black man from Haiti who ended up in Montreal, lived in Florida and has been a member of the Académie Française since 2013. He’s the second black man elected in this institution, the first writer from Haiti and the first from Québec. A long way since Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Powerful stuff. Highly recommended.

(*) NB: The capital letters are in the original text and I did the translations myself.

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Back to Literature, la rentrée littéraire 2016

September 10, 2016 43 comments

560-romans-pour-la-rentree-litteraire-2016In French, Back to School is Rentrée Scolaire. In France, and a bit in Québec too, it is accompanied by Back to Literature, the Rentrée littéraire. It’s as if we readers had to go back to serious reading after gallivanting around the futile paths of Beach & Public Transport books during the summer. Now publishers and literary critic whistle the end of summer break and herd back their reading flock to more serious reading. 560 novels are released for the 2016 Rentrée littéraire. All published now to be on time for the literary prizes granted later in Autumn.

I tend to stay away from all this literary fuss. Which one to choose? How do you wrap your head around this avalanche of new books? There are too many and it becomes a cacophony of literary reviews. As a reader, it makes me dizzy. Some books are everywhere. Strangely, the more I hear about a book, the less I want to read it. More often, original reviews will catch my attention or I’ll hear writers’ interviews and I get frustrated because I want to read their new book and I know I don’t have time to read everything I’d want to. It’s like putting a great meal in front of a gourmet who’s on a diet. Torture. So I usually let time sort things out and see which books survive the hype. And by then, they’re available in paperback which is better for my wallet.

This year, I tried something different, I went to an independent bookstore, L’Esprit Livre, and asked the libraire a single question: “Among all the books of the Rentrée littéraire, which one would you recommend?” This is how I came to Le garçon by Marcus Malte. A book I’d never heard of by a new-to-me writer. It’s the perfect blind date set up by a true literature lover. You’ll hear about this unusual novel later when I finish it.

I wonder how writers feel about this whole Rentrée littéraire shebang. Sure it’s a time to talk about literature and the literary scene. It brings a lot of attention to books and one can never complain about too much attention to literature. But isn’t it harder for a book or a new novelist to be noticed? Or do they benefit from the signings and all events organized at this time of year? Doesn’t it increase the pressure? I wish I could ask this question –among others—to Marcus Malte. He will be at L’Esprit Livre on October 8th and unfortunately, I’m out of town this day. I would have loved to meet him. He also wrote polars and won the Quais du Polar award in 2008, so I’m also intrigued by his other books.

PS: For newcomers at Book Around The Corner, a Beach & Public Transport book is a book that can be read in a noisy environment. Good Beach & Public Transport books are precious. Entertaining, light and well-written requires a gifted writer.

Last but not least, let’s go through a bit of French book-related vocabulary since I use French words for notions that don’t have an exact equivalent in English.

A polar is a crime fiction book, usually on the dark side. Agatha Christie didn’t write polars, Chandler did.

The English translation of libraire is bookseller. But in French, a libraire is more than a bookseller, he/she’s a book whisperer. It’s someone who’ll share their coup de coeur with you, will recommend you books according to your tastes and will help you discover new writers.

Coup de Coeur: You’ll see them in French bookstores, books have tags coup de coeur du libraire. In English it would become the book whisperer’s crush. It’s usually accompanied by a little word of the libraire who read the book. In a few words, it will tell you why they loved it.

Sad to be back in the office after the holidays? Have a good laugh with Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

September 4, 2016 15 comments

Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. (2006) Not available in French. Translation tragedy. 

When I woke up that Sunday after getting fired Marlene was dead. I was in a salty bed and two detectives were staring down at me. Three hours later I was jerking off in a police station bathroom. It was not the resurrection I’d been hoping for.

Neilan_ApathyIsn’t that a promising setting? Meet Shane a professional drifter who moves around a lot, shies away from responsibilities and roots. He tries to fly under the radar but this time he failed. He’s in custody because a woman, Marlene, is dead and he’s the police’s favorite suspect. He starts recalling the flow of events that brought him there and we’re introduced to a menagerie of characters: Doug, the dentist who faints on his patients while they’re on his chair. Marlene, his deaf assistant who loves karaoke. Gwen who likes rough sex with her boyfriends. The janitor’s wife who needs sex services. The janitor, who needs his wife to be serviced.

And Shane finds himself mixed in their lives. He’s Doug’s patient and befriends Marlene on his frequent trips to the dentist. A former college rugby player, Gwen picks him as a boyfriend and he lets himself be tackled in her rounds of TLC.

“Oh my god, Shane!” she said, and hit me with an open field tackle of a hug that lifted me off my stool and cracked two of my ribs. I saw her coming at the last second and braced myself. Otherwise I would’ve been paralyzed for life.

Since he can’t pay his full rent, the janitor in his apartment complex asks him into shag his wife every Tuesday. Shane doesn’t enjoy it but he complies, gets his a discount on his rent and comments with a deadpan sense of humor.

Still, after a few Tuesdays, just from sheer repetition, the sex had marginally improved. We were still dead fish being swung by an off duty clown, but we weren’t just any kind of fish. And even if we weren’t two majestic salmon, glistening in the sun as we leaped up a waterfall into the mouth of a huge fucking grizzly bear, we were at least tuna. Someone, somewhere would be glad to catch and eat us.

Under Gwen’s recommendation, Shane starts as a temp among the support staff in the insurance company she works for, Panopticon Insurance. Now have you noticed? If a character must have a boring job, they’re either an accountant or work for an insurance company. Imagine what a writer would do with an accountant working for an insurer. Perhaps nothing because their character would be in a boredom-induced coma. Or it would be the ultimate modernist novel. Stream of unconsciousness. Zzzzzzz.

Anyway, back to Shane and his temp job at Panopticon because that’s the funniest part of the novel. His job is to alphabetize contracts but soon he specializes in what we call in French “vertical filing” ie, putting things straight into the trash. So our Shane has a lot of time on his hands and he divides it between making miniature gallows with paper clips and perfecting the art of sleeping in the restrooms.

It was early on, before I knew the physiology of sleeping on a toilet bowl and its effects, and what I needed to do to counteract them: how long to hold on to the quadriplegic bars before trying to walk on my own, how to maximize my momentum without tripping over my dead legs, how to use my lack of balance to my advantage, which I never really figured out. It was all a matter of timing and rhythm, like tap dancing. In those first few days I knew how to shuffle ball step, but I was wearing the wrong shoes.

He makes cutting remarks on Panopticon, the cubicles, the team’s manager Andrew, his colleagues and makes fun of corporate life in general and management techniques in particular.

The boss’s name was Andrew, but he didn’t like the term boss. He referred to himself as the team facilitator.

It is absolutely hilarious, especially when Andrew organizes a “cube warming” party when their department gets a brand new cubicle or when Shane describes Inspiration Alley, the row between the cubicles. It’s covered with inspirational quotes from great leaders to uplift team spirit. As Shane says

If Tolstoy were alive today and working as a temp at Panopticon Insurance, he’d say that all insurance companies are the same, then throw himself through an eighteenth-story window and plunge to his death in a hail of glass and shattered dignity. I worked on the eighteenth floor, but the windows were too thick.

Shane’s professional wanker. Apathy is his way-of-life, an art-of-life, even. It’s his driving force and nothing can sway him. He’s completely whacked and he’s one of these characters totally oblivious that something’s seriously wrong with them. But you get to know his brand of crazy around a comment here and there.

He looked at me the way my mom did the time she caught me officiating the wedding of Mr. Potato Head and He-Man. I had just said, “You may kiss the bride,” and when I looked up she was standing in the doorway. I was fourteen years old, and I was not wearing any pants.

He’s fucked-up and can’t help stealing saltshakers wherever he goes:

I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this.

(Btw, if you ever want to get rid of a French guest: serve them beef jerky with root beer and Jello as a dessert. They’ll run away quickly.)

Being in Shane’s head is fun. He might be totally immature and crazy but he makes spot on observations about humans. I chuckled, laughed out loud at his outrageous comments. The scenes in Doug’s office are hilarious. The corporate part put me in stitches. The story comes together in the end, the reader gets the whole picture and sees how fate framed Shane.

I loved everything in Apathy and Other Small Victories. The crazy plot. The amazing characters. Neilan’s punchy style and impeccable sense of humor. It’s going to be on my best-of-the-year list, I’m sure.

I read this thanks to Guy, who picked it after Max Barry mentioned it as a fantastic read. Check out Guy’s review here. Highly recommended in case of depressing weather, hard times at work, dire need of a good laugh.

 

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