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The Summer of Katya by Trevanian – Thriller in the Basque country

August 25, 2019 15 comments

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian (1983) French title: L’été de Katya. Translated by Emmanuèle de Lesseps.

But despite the physical and emotional parallels between today and that distant summer, I find it difficult to express my memories lucidly. The problem is not in the remembering; it is in the recording; for a while I recall each note clearly, they play a false melody when I string them together. And it is not only the intervening years that distort the sounds and images; it is the fact that the events occurred on the other side of the Great War, beyond the gulf of experience and pain that separate two centuries, two cultures. Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre. The things we did and said, our motives and methods, had different implications from those they now have; therefore, it is possible for a description of those things to be completely accurate without being at all truthful.

When the narrator of The Summer of Katya by Trevanian says this, we are in August 1938. Dr Jean-Marc Montjean is 45 as he recalls his summer of 1914, just before the Great War started.

In 1914, he’s 21 and he’s back in the French Basque country after studying medicine in Paris. Dr Gros took him in as assistant to his clinic where he specializes in the “discomforts” associated with menopause. Jean-Marc is skeptical about the clinic’s patients, doesn’t hide it from Dr Gros but he took him in anyway.

Jean-Marc meets the Treville when Katya comes into the village to fetch a doctor because her brother Paul hurt his shoulder. They are twins and look very much alike. They live with their father in a remote rented house. Their father is buried in books, a history buff who only comes out of his office from time to time.

Jean-Marc is soon fascinated by Katya and strikes an odd friendship with Paul. The young man seems to play a game of push-and-pull with him, sometimes letting him in as a friend and sometimes roughly pushing him away. Katya is the same, apparently torn between going further with him and rejecting him for reasons he has yet to discover. Jean-Marc is on a constant roller-coaster of emotions with these two. Paul and Katya have warned him off: their father must not think there is any kind of love relationship between Katya and Jean-Marc. Why?

A feeling of unease rapidly invades the reader’s mind. Why are the Treville in Salies-Les-Bains? What are they hiding from? What scandal pushed them to flee from Paris? Why did Katya decided to change her name from Hortense to Katya? They share a heavy burden, but what is it?

Paul keeps telling Jean-Marc that he must not fall in love with Katya but you can’t avoid falling in love. The atmosphere thickens and the reader knows from the start that there will be no happy ending, we just wait for the drama to unfold before our eyes.

Besides the story between the protagonists and the thriller side of the book, The Summer of Katya is a fine piece of literature. Trevanian has lived in the French Basque country for a while and you can feel it in the descriptions of Salies-les-Bains, of the countryside and the village feast the Treville and Jean-Marc attend. As you heard it in the quote before, his language has a melancholic musicality. Jean-Marc never married after that summer, the one of Katya, the last one of his youth, before History hit him with the Great War and he had to recover from the aftermath of Katya. It was the end of a civilization and the end of his world.

I had never read any book by Trevanian before this one. I understand that The Summer of Katya is different from his other novels and that his most famous one is Shibumi. Has anyone read him before?

Literary escapade: Holiday bookish snippets

August 18, 2019 26 comments

I’m back home from a three weeks holiday break and as usual, I’ve collected random bookish pictures and facts.

Park and Read, this parking meter seems to say…

Books left for grabs, by the beach

Beautiful library in Casa Museu Freitas. (Sorry for the poor quality of the pictures, I’m not a professional photographer and I don’t get to visit places when the light is at its best for photos.)

A corner to read by the fire, a corner to play games and shelves of books…I’d prefer a décor in lighter tones since I’m not fond of the red-dark-wood-man-cave vibe but I’d love to have such a spacious read-and-chill room.  

Of course, I tend to visit bookstores. Here’s one that looks more like a book cave than anything else:

Books are piled everywhere. They are filed in a computer system but only the owner seems to be able to locate a specific book. The reader walks slowly in the aisles, tries not to bump into anything in fear of starting an uncontrollable domino effect. This place is fascinating.

While wandering in another bookshop, I stumbled upon a school edition of No et moi by Delphine de Vigan. This novella is on the school syllabus for middle school and look at the format of the book: it screams ‘I’m homework!’ and not ‘Please read me, it’ll be fun’.

It’s a disaster. The cover mentions a dossier and exercises. The actual story only begins after 22 pages of explanations that are, in my opinion, part of the teacher’s job as a middleman between the text and the students. And then, on each page, you have numbers to locate specific sentences in class and dissect them. Where’s the pleasure of reading in that?

Let’s face it, there’s little chance that a middle school student will have fun reading Le Cid by Corneille. The odds of instilling undying love for books with Le Cid are close to zero. These odds improve with books like No et moi, stories that teenagers who don’t read might enjoy. And this edition, it’s like going to a blind date with Literature and she has not removed her green face mask, her curlers and she’s wearing her tattered bathrobe. It kills the mood. It’s like watching a movie with the description of all the special effects in the subtitles. It’s distracting, you’re so blinded by the mechanics that you forget to enjoy yourself.

I think that we have our priorities in the wrong order. In times where books are in competition with videogames, TV shows and social networks, the first aim in school should be to give the kids the reading bug. The rest will come with it. The reading bug is a lifelong thing, a great companion for life.

Another bookstore in Lisbon.

Don’t ask me why it’s written in French on the walls. Inside, the space is gorgeous with its old wooden shelves.

Another bookstore, and I found funny tote bags for my friends. Here are two of them:

I walked a street covered with portraits and pictures made with recycled cans. Here’s Fernando Pessoa

Google translate says that the caption means “it’s all worth it when the soul is not small”. And I have to end this post with a Mafalda picture, from the same street.

The caption seems to say “This is the rubber to erase ideologies”. Very Mafalda, if I may say. If a Portuguese native speaker sees this, please feel free to elaborate about the captions and correct the automatic translation.

An article of the FT Weekend caught my attention in a hotel. It said Kerouac, but cleaner? A journalist decided to check out what road trips could be with an electric car and did one between San Francisco and Reno, Nevada. Let’s say it’s not as romantic as On the Road. It reminded me of On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, his debut novel in which he shows that road trips à la Kerouac on British highways are what American coffee is to espressos.

I had a lot of books with me on the first leg of my holidays…

some I brought with me to read, some because I needed to catch up on billets, some aren’t my TBR, and some I bought during my stay. On the second leg, I intended to read American Pastoral but I didn’t have enough quality reading time for that. Partie remise! 🙂

That’s all, Folks! I hope you’re having a great summer.

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning

August 7, 2019 17 comments

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (2001) French title: Dernier rapport sur les miracles à Little No Horse. Translated by Isabelle Reinharez.

Things you need to know about Louise Erdrich before you read this billet. This is from her Goodreads bio: “Karen Louise Erdrich is an American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books. Her father is German American and mother is half Ojibwe and half French American. She is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa). She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant Native writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.”

This is my second attempt at reading The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. Somehow, last time I knew it was just a question of bad timing because I really loved this piece of literature.

When the book opens, we’re in 1996 and Father Damian is around a hundred years old. He’s been on the Ojibwe reservation since 1912. He’s been sending letters to the Pope this whole time and now, they’re sending an emissary to investigate the life of Sister Leopolda. Her potential sainthood is at stake and Father Damian knows the truth about her.

We soon discover Father Damian’s personal story. He’s actually a woman. He was born as Agnes DeWitt, became Sister Cecilia when she joined a convent. She had to leave her religious community because she liked playing the piano too much and had a sensual relationship with Chopin’s pieces and her beloved instrument. This was not tolerable for her convent. Released from her vows, she lives on a farm with a German farmer, Bernd Vogel. They fall in love and though they don’t marry, they still have an intense and loving relationship.

Fate strikes, Bernd dies, Agnes is wounded and torrential rains devastate the farm and take away her piano. She survives and happens to take on the identity of Father Damian Modeste who died en route to the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.

Agnes becomes Father Damian. The Last Report on the Miracles on Little No Horse goes back and forth in time. It’s split between a few moments in 1996, when Father Jude investigates Sister Leopolda and makes Damian’s acquaintance, and between tales of the people on the reservation.

The story is not linear, it goes in circles or it’s told by theme: one clan at a time, the interactions between people on the reservation, Father Damian’s personal journey with his faith and his adaptation to the life on the reservation. He befriends Nanapush, a traditional Ojibwe that he never managed to convert to Catholicism.

Father Damian loves the Ojibwe people, they become his people. As soon as Agnes knows where she’s headed, she starts learning the Ojibwe language. She’ll never stop. Father Damian will be a good priest, present during harsh time, understanding, open and always lending a friendly ear.

This is a stunning novel that rings true and it reminded me of Aboriginal literature. It’s the story of a people who has to accept the presence of white men who kill them with foreign illnesses, send them overseas to participate to wars they don’t feel a part of, who try to keep their culture and who live on the edge of two worlds. Even if it’s not a manifesto, the reader reads between the lines and clearly see the struggles, the poverty, the abuse of power and the greed of the white settlers. It is said without animosity but it is said.

We see the lives of human beings who are inhabited passions that they have to live through or try to tame. We follow Agnes/Damian’s doubts, his troubles with her/his double identity and her/his strong faith. Agnes/Damian is a wonderful character who experiences passions in her being, through earthly lovers, through her fusional relationship with music. Father Damian is acutely attuned to the people around him, he catches their vibes, absorbs them and finds the best way to interact with them and take care of them. There is no condemnation in his bones because Agnes knows that Father Damian is her creation, her way to do good. She’s flawed and can’t afford to be too preachy.

Louise Erdrich takes us to Little No Horse, this poor reservation in North Dakota, where part of the Ojibwe Nation still lives today. She said that Little No Horse is not the Turtle Mountain Reservation but it inspired it. She shows us the Ojibwe culture through light and lyrical touches. She doesn’t sugarcoat their hard life or makes them all angels or victims of the white colonization. Story after story, little point after little point, she draws a picture of life at Little No Horse. Time is not a straight line and she allows her narration to go in circles, not following a timeline but associations of ideas.

I understood that this is what Aborigines call “yarning” and I like that term. Every strand of story weaved with the other strands ends up creating a vivid tapestry of life. I read Little Not Horse in French translation. The cover of the French edition is brilliant. It’s a painting by Maynard Dixon who mostly painted the South-West of America, including Indians. This painting is the perfect cover for Erdrich’s book. It shows someone hidden in a cape, someone who conceals their identity and looks like a nun. The naked character embodies the sensuality of Erdrich’s prose and reminds us that love in all its forms is celebrated in this novel. The naked lady is followed by this other character who also looks like death, desolation and despair. It’s the constant fear that Father Damian feels: if someone sees him naked, they’ll know he’s a woman in disguise.

This is an absolutely stunning book. I hold my breath until the end because I knew Father Damian had a secret to tell. I enjoyed reading the stories of the Little No Horse community. I was interested in Agnes/Damian’s struggles as a person and as a believer. Thanks to her luminous prose, Louise Erdrich manages to stay on a thin rope, avoiding sermons and intolerance.

Highly recommended.

Sue, at Whispering Gums recently reviewed The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich here. Some characters come from the same community as the ones in Little No Horse. They seem to be their descendants.

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun – Not everyone can be Agatha Christie

August 4, 2019 4 comments

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun (1994) Original French title: Meurtre chez Tante Léonie

If you’ve ever read Proust, you know all about Aunt Léonie, Combray, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way. Murder chez Proust by Estelle Monbrun is set in Illiers, the village that inspired Combray and where Proust’s aunt used to live. My recent visit to the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann prompted me to pick up this cozy crime novel.

When the book opens, the Proust Association is about to welcome Proust aficionados in Illiers for a tourism & literature stay. Unfortunately, Emilienne, the cleaning lady in charge of Aunt Léonie’s house finds Mrs Bertrand-Verdon, the president of the Proust Association, murdered. As we get acquainted with the VIPs of the conference, we realize that each of them has a good reason to dislike Mrs Bertrand-Verdon.

Her secretary, Gisèle Dambert, is writing her PhD thesis about Proust. She inherited of a treasure, Proust’s famous 1905 notebooks that his governess Céleste Albaret had to destroy. Gisèle had informed Mrs Bertrand-Verdon of this important discovery and now regrets it.

Professor Verdaillon, Gisèle’s PhD supervisor is about to publish a complete edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What would be the value of this edition is the 1905 notebooks were to reappear? M. Desforges works for the publisher who will market this edition. He used to be Mrs Bertrand-Verdon’s lover and his credibility has faded away recently. He can’t afford this edition to be a failure. M. de Chareilles was about to marry Mrs Bertrand-Verdon. He’s a traditional nobleman and it’s not certain that he knows all about his fiancée’s background. Professor Rainsford is an American academics who has been in contact with Mrs Bertrand-Verdon too. He seems to have things to hide as well.

All the important people of this literary microcosm have something to hide or a good reason to fear or dislike the victim. She was quite manipulative and had the upper hand on their future. So who did it? Commissaire Jean-Pierre Foucheroux and Inspector Leila Djemani are in charge of the investigation.

Estelle Monbrun is the penname of Elyane Dezon-Jones, a teacher of contemporary French literature in the USA. (Barnard College and Washington University in St Louis) She’s a specialist of Proust and Marguerite Yourcenar. Murder chez Proust will be nice for Proust nuts. It’s full of literary nudges about In Search of Lost Time and Proust’s biography. It’s fun to track them in the text.

Estelle Monbrun also knows how to write and how to describe the quiet French countryside. Her book sounds timeless. If you put aside the Proustian details, the village and the villagers reminded me of St Mary Mead. The best characters are the police, with a commissaire who limps after an accident and mourns his wife and a female inspector of North African origins who has a lot to prove to herself.

BUT. I’m sure you were waiting for the but. Even if Estelle Monbrun ticks all the right boxes to write an Agatha-Christie branded whodunnit, it doesn’t work. It’s bland like a poorly executed imitation.

This is where you see that crime fiction is a noble genre too. You may know how to write, how to assemble plausible details and use a believable setting for a cozy crime, it’s not enough. You need talent to create a story with interesting police characters, with characters that feel like flesh-and-blood people and with actions that are believable.

Back to Michael Connelly and how I thought that The Black Echo was perfectly executed. Connelly has the craft to do that, and even if he’s not a literary writer the way Chandler is, he has a huge talent as a storyteller. Here, the ingredients are there on paper but Estelle Monbrun didn’t manage to cook a good story. Storytelling is a talent per se and excellent crime fiction is an art as difficult to handle as more literary genres.

Black Run by Antonio Manzini – crime fiction in the Italian Alps

August 2, 2019 10 comments

Black Run by Antonio Manzini (2013) French title: Piste noire. Translated from the Italian by Samuel Sfez

Rocco Schiavone had an entirely personal hierarchy up and down which he ranked the pains in the ass that life senselessly inflicted on him every day. The scale actually started at 6, which covered anything that had to do with keeping house: grocery shopping, plumbers, paying rent. The number 7 included malls, banks, medical clinics, and doctors in general, with a special bonus for dentists, and concluded with work diners or family diners, though all his living relatives, thank God, were down south in Rome. An 8 on the hierarchy began, first and foremost, with public speaking, followed by any and all bureaucratic procedures required for his job, going to the theatre, and reporting to chiefs of police or investigating magistrates. At number 9 came tobacco shops that weren’t open when he needed a pack of cigarettes, cafés that didn’t carry Algida ice cream bars, running in anyone who wanted to talk and talk endlessly, and especially stakeouts with police officers who needed a bath.

Topping the hierarchy, the worst and the most dreaded, was a rating of 10. The top, the worst, the mother of all pains in the ass: the investigation he wasn’t expecting.

Translated by Antony Shugaar

Black Run by Antonio Manzini is an Italian crime fiction novel set in the Italian Alps, near the French border, in the Valle d’Aosta. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone is the one who has the scale to rank up pains in the ass in life. This quote describes his grumpy self. He’s been sent from Rome to this valley against his will and he likes nothing there. The weather, the people, his staff, the atmosphere, everything rubs him the wrong way.

Black Run starts with a dead body found on a ski slope. Amadeo Gunelli drives a snowcat and prepares runs for the upcoming ski weekend at the Champoluc ski resort when he collides and drives over a corpse. Needless to say, the body is hard to recognize after that.

Schiavone is woken up in the middle of the night to drive up in the mountain and go to the crime scene. That’s were we learn about his rating of life’s pains in the ass and his methods to lead crime investigations.

I will not write about the plot itself, it’s a straightforward police investigation with financial and love interests intermingled in a close-knit community. The case was OK but I was only looking for entertainment when I bought this book.

My problem was that I totally disliked Schiavone. He’s obnoxious. He’s unhappy to have to go to the mountains and cares more about style than practicalities. That’s why he walks around in Clarke shoes in a ski resort: he wouldn’t want to be caught wearing ugly snow boots. He truly despises his team and treats them like they are morons.

He’s callous with women, objectifying them, flirting with everything that has a skirt and that he finds relatively attractive. He always appraises their worth according to their looks. This macho attitude could be tolerable from a writer born a century ago but not from a contemporary writer.

And, he’s also a corrupt cop, having illegal activities on the side. He had his own personal drama when he was still in Rome but I didn’t like him enough to care.

I know that you don’t have to like the characters of a book to enjoy it. But it’s different with crime fiction series. You need to like the main character enough to want to stick with him or her and follow him or her in her other investigations. Here, I didn’t like Schiavone and I won’t be reading any other book from this series.

Has anyone read a book with Schiavone too? If yes, what did you think about it?

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