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Best of 2019 in my reading corner

December 30, 2019 43 comments

It’s time to look back on 2019 and my reading year. I’ve been running after time all year long and I tried to catch up with billets before year end but I failed. I still have four books to write about: Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty and Mrs Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. And I didn’t write about the wonderful evening I spent at the bookstore L’Astragale in Lyon. Craig Johnson was invited to talk about his Longmire series and his new French release. His French translator Sophie Aslanides was present to translate his answers to the libraire’s questions and chat with the readers.

I’m not going to do statistics and pies (Btw, where you, Anglo-Saxons, see pies, we, French, see camemberts) I leave the math, the stats and the KPIs to my professional life. I will only tell you that I read 66 books and half of them came from the TBR. Since I bought more than 33 books in 2019, the TBR is not decreasing…I still need to work on that in 2020.

As you might know, I tend to invent new award categories every year, according to the mood I’m in. So, which book are the best summary of my reading year?

Best Least Commented Billet

More and more of my billets end up with one or two commenters, which rarely occurred in the previous years. I truly understand why nobody had anything to say about Figurec by Fabrice Caro, it’s a French book, rather confidential and not translated into English. I was more disappointed that almost nobody cared about A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique or The Good Lord Bird by James McBride because they are truly excellent books.

 

Best Gallmeister Book

Regular readers of my blog know that I have a fondness for the publisher Gallmeister. They are specialized in American literature with two favorite branches, crime fiction and Nature writing. They will show you America in small towns and with characters that are outsiders to mainstream America. My favorite Gallmeister book was My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent.

It’s a controversial book, one that stirs opposite feelings and start endless discussions but I loved it. The main character, Turtle, is hard to love but I truly rooted for her. I wanted her to be out of her father’s abusive spell.

Best Fly-fishing Book

Binging on Gallmeister books has a side effect: you end up reading a lot of books talking about fishing. I’ve read three books by William G Tapply featuring a fishing guide/sleuth character, Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach, Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb and The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty. I know a lot more than I should about fly-fishing.

The best one was the series by William G Tapply: Bitch Creek, Gray Ghost and Dark Tiger. I have fond memories of the main character, Stoney Calhoun, his dog Ralph, his lover Kate and his mysterious past. The series will remain unfinished because Tapply died before he could finish it.

Best Non-Book post

This year I decided to mention my Non-Book billet that you enjoyed the most. I’m always surprised by the response you give to Literary Escapades post or Theatre billets. Your favorite Literary Escapade was Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann – dedicated to Marcel Proust and your favorite Theatre Post was The Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen, a theatre version of Cohen’s novella. You might want to read the book, it’s a funny and poignant homage from a son to his late mother.

 

Best Weirdest Book Ever

Our Book Club read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I don’t know what to make of that book. I couldn’t read it in English because the setting was so weird that I didn’t know if my misunderstanding came from the book or from gaping holes in my knowledge of the English language. I read it in translation and it grossed me out. All the characters were freaks and none of them was loveable. The whole story was crazy and I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

 

Best Blind Date Book.

I bought The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John because I had enjoyed Women in Black. When I started it, I didn’t expect to love it so much. Nicola comes home and her companion tells her point blank that she needs to move out. I read it in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down, I wanted to see how Nicola would survive her breakup.

It turns out it was much more than Nicola’s struggles.

 

Best State of the Nation

I’ve read several books with a political or social context. It would be easy to say that American Pastoral by Philip Roth was the best one but everyone knows it. So, I’ll choose If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. Brilliant, easier to read that Roth and an implacable statement about the American society. Baldwin’s prose is impecable and he took me to Harlem with him. The film version is excellent too, even if they changed the ending. How do they dare change the ending of a book when they make it into a film?

Best Francophone Book

I’ve read books written in French but from different countries: Québec, Belgium, Switzerland and Togo. A lot of them were very good but more than half of them have not been translated into English.  I decided to stick to one that will make it into English soon.

Be ready to read the 2018 Goncourt Prize Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu. Its literary prize guarantees a quick translation and I imagine it will be published in English withing a year or so.

Best Translation Tragedy

A Translation Tragedy Book is a wonderful book written in French but not available in English. This year it was The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki. It’s composed of five slim volumes that give you a picture of a family’s story seen from different angles. Each book brings a brick to the story and unveils new details.

Aki Shimazaki a Japanese writer who emigrated to Québec and writes in French.

 

Best #TBR20 book

As I said before, I managed to read 33 books from my TBR, one out of two and that was my goal. I had purchased Burning Bright by Ron Rash at Quais du Polar and finally got to it this year.

It’s a collection of short stories, all set in the Appalachians at different periods of time. They are all different and beautifully written.

 

 

Best Book Club Read

My Best Book Club Read of the year is Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I loved everything about it: the setting in post-war London, the characters and their eccentricities and its veiled feminism. What fun I had with Mildred the spinster!

 

 

Best Try-Again Book.

This year I tried to read again two books I had previously abandoned.

I still can’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz but I loved The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich this time. I was absorbed in this story set in the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse. Father Damian was a striking character.

Sometimes, you need to try again.

If I’m not mistaken, that makes twelve books. 2019 was a good reading year, probably because I get better at picking books I’ll like. I had fun sharing my thoughts about the books I read. Thanks for following my literary journey and all the comments and likes are truly appreciated as they are a sign that you’re willing to spend some of your precious free time reading my billets.

The show will go on in 2020! Or as we say in French: La fête continue.

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Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

December 28, 2019 9 comments

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (2014) French title: Funny Girl. Translated by Christine Barbaste

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby opens on a pageant contest in Blackpool, UK. We are in the early 60s and Barbara Parker becomes Miss Blackpool. She ended up in this competition after her aunt suggested it. As soon as Barbara realizes that being Miss Blackpool means a whole year of service as a ribbon cutter to the city of Blackpool, she steps out and refuses her title.

Barbara is a fan of I Love Lucy and she wants to be like Lucille Ball, to make people laugh. She leaves Blackpool to go to London and becomes Sophie Straw. Her agent helps her find auditions even if he thinks she has better chances as a model than as an actress.

One of her auditions takes her to the BBC where the director Dennis Maxwell-Bishop is looking for an actress for a new TV show. The screenwriters are the duo Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner who were successful with a previous radio show. Clive Richardson will play the male character of this new venture, a sitcom about a couple and their domestic life. Tony and Bill struggle with the scenario, they cannot make the characters sound genuine.

Sophie arrives for the audition and boldly challenges them. She has charisma, a mix of innocence and ambition. She’s a natural comic. Her personality and suggestions are inspiring to Bill and Tony. The four of them make a great team, their working together boosts their creativity.

The adventure of the TV series Barbara (and Jim) can start.

Funny Girl is centered around Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill’s lives. Clive is present too, but not as much as the others.

Tony and Bill are both homosexual. They met after they were caught by the police as it was still a criminal offense at the time.  Tony chooses security, marries June and lives a middle-class life. Bill remains true to himself and is involved with the London gay scene.

Dennis is married to Edith, who works for a publisher. She’s at ease with the literary world and her friends have no respect for Dennis’s job. It creates frictions in their couple.

Barbara/Sophie loves her job and her life. Hornby created a lively character, class-conscious and hardworking. Success doesn’t change her. Sure, she can afford a different lifestyle but she never becomes snotty. She’s a very loveable character who learns to navigate in her new environment.

We follow the seasons of Barbara (and Jim) and they give rhythm to the characters’ lives. Nick Hornby ambitions to bring back London in the 60s, the change in the British society and how it is reflected in TV shows. It’s a quick and entertaining read about a turning point in the country: more personal freedom, first commercial TV, end of criminalization of homosexuality, music…It’s also the clash between “classic culture” and “pop culture”, with intellectual looking down on TV producers and even more on comedy shows. Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill belong to the pioneers of television series, a genre that is currently thriving.

I imagine that if you’re British and old enough to have known that time, it must be a wonderful trip down memory lane. For me, it was a fun read but nothing more.

Joyeux Noël from France and 13 à table!

December 25, 2019 15 comments

I know that Christmas is not celebrated everywhere and by everyone. If this is an important holiday for you, I hope you’re having a good time with your beloved ones. If it’s a day like any other, I still send you greetings for this special day.

I’m not religious but this is a day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and it’s a day for sharing. Religious or not, if you live in a Western country, you have Christmas traditions. Besides the Advent calendar, the obvious Christmas tree and decorations, we bake cookies.  A lot of cookies. My daughter’s best friend asked, seeing all the boxes “But why did you make so many cookies?” We answered simultaneously “Because we’re going to give them away!” That’s the tradition and that’s the Christmas spirit.

The Christmas ghost also visited the publisher Pocket in 2014, the year they started their collection 13 à table!, a collection of short stories donated by various French writers. Riad Satouf drew the cover and it’s published by Pocket. Everyone in the book chain contributes, from the writing to the distribution. The profit of the sales goes to a charity, Les Restaurants du Coeur. They provide food for families in need and they desperately need more money each year. Each book means four meals. In five years, these books have provided for over four million meals. The show must go on, so if you’re in France, please spend 5 euros on this book.

I’ll end this short billet by wishing you again a Merry Christmas with friends, family and books. Wait, aren’t books imaginary friends too? Isn’t it what this book lover Christmas card seems to say?

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Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb – Mystery in the countryside, US mode

December 22, 2019 4 comments

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb (2014) French title: Meurtres à Willow Pond. Translated by Laurent Bury

I swear that when I purchased Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb, I was drawn to it because of its classic British crime vibe in an American setting. Indeed, it is set in a country lodge in Maine, a sort of US equivalent of the country house in England. A murder occurs and the murderer is among the family and guests. See what I mean with the “classic British crime vibe”? The fact that the lodge is specialized in fishing trips with two family members as renown fishing guides is incidental and has nothing to do with reading William G. Tapply or John Gierach. That said, Ned Crabb put as much care and craft in the plot and in the characters as Gierach in making his flies.

The book opens on Alicia and Six Godwin, retired university teachers, who live on their compound on Winsokkett Pond. They love books and fishing and live for them. They are the happiest with a book in their hands on their porch or on the water with their fishing rod. They have a good marriage, with a warm complicity and the reader likes them immediately.

They are related to Iphigeny Seldon, “Gene” who owns and runs Cedar Lodge, a famous upscale fishing lodge on Willow Pond. Gene is over seventy, she runs everything in a military way. She’s loud, insensitive and relishes in the power she has as the master of Cedar Lodge. She’s a spinster and after her brother and sister-in-law’s accidental death, she took over Cedar Lodge and operates it with her nephews and niece.

Brad Seldon is her oldest nephew. He’s 48, an alcoholic, a celebrated fishing guide whose reputation makes guests book their vacation at Cedar Lodge. He’s married to Renée, who is ten years younger than him. Their marriage has been dead for a while but Renée doesn’t want a divorce if she can’t get a nice settlement, one that Brad can’t afford without his inheritance. And Gene holds the purse strings, if Gene-the-tomboy ever had a purse.

Merill Beauchamp is Brad’s sister. She’s 45, addicted to cocaine and is the other fishing guide asset of Cedar Lodge. She’s married to Huntley Beauchamp, a crook. Their marriage is a sham, they both want out but, guess what, Beauchamp won’t let go without a nice settlement. Now Merrill is involved with Bruno Gabreau, a French fellow fishing guide and she really wants a divorce but she can’t have it unless she puts her hands on her inheritance.

Kipper is the third Seldon sibling. He works in managing Cedar Lodge and he’s the only one who has a decent relationship with Gene. He’s 40, gay and has a relationship with Cedar Lodge’s cook, a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Lemaire. His lover is tired of living out in the woods in Maine and wants to open a restaurant in New York. Kipper is all for it but he needs his inheritance to fund the restaurant.

Beauchamp is Cedar Lodge’s financial advisor and he embezzled money. He’s afraid that Gene will find out. He took measures against it, mostly to have people temper with the books and hide the missing money. But now he’s not sure that he didn’t put himself in the hands of gangsters and brought them to Cedar Lodge.

They all hate Gene. They all need money. They all contemplate murder. And now Gene organized a family weekend to tell them that she changed her will. They all converge to Cedar Lodge for this family reunion. So, when Gene dies during a thunder night at the lodge, there are plenty of suspects.

Lightning Strikes merges Nature Writing with Crime Fiction, the two wrapped in a light touch of humor. There are beautiful descriptions of the nature around the lodge and the Godwins’ compound. In that respect, it’s very similar to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Lightning Strikes has the same slow-life tempo as any Nature Writing book, despite all the twists and turns of the story.

The well-oiled mechanism of the classic whodunnit is there too. We are both on familiar and unfamiliar grounds. The minor characters are excellent too: the old playboy who wants to marry Gene as a retirement plan, the pseudo-British guests, Tory and Nelson, a couple of tourists who aren’t at the lodge only to fish trout. The sheriff team is not used to dealing with murders like this. Sheriff Doucette (which, for a French, equals to reading Sheriff Sweetie) is not sure about what to do and Crabb opens a window to the team’s dynamics. These interactions are delightful too. And the Godwins play the sheriff’s assistants and love it.

It’s not a highly memorable book but, like Weekend at Thrackley, it’s entertaining.

It’s a Gallmeister book, and as always, the translator is excellent. I loved how he transcribed the American way of saying Beauchamp, because I never would have guessed it was Bi-tcheum.

 

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar – and before, their mothers

December 18, 2019 7 comments

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar (1981) Original French title: Fatima ou les Algériennes au square.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au Square by Leïla Sebbar is not available in English and it’s a shame. Set in La Courneuve in end of the 1970s, this novella describes the lives of immigrants from North Africa in the suburbs around Paris.

Fatima and her husband belong to the first generation of immigrants from Algeria. They came for work and they intend to go back to the country. Meanwhile, the children grow up in France, go to school and are on the bridge between two worlds. They want to be as French as the others but at home, they are summoned to be Algerian, Muslim and to remind themselves that their country is Algeria.

Dalila is the oldest daughter and she loves sitting by her mother on the bench at the square near their apartment building. The women meet at the square and share news about friends and relatives. From one afternoon to the other, it’s like a feuilleton for Dalila. Sometimes she dares to ask about someone in particular. The Algerian ladies stick together and never really learn French. They often come from poor villages and are illiterate. These meetings at the square are their network and support system.

In her novella, Leïla Sebbar perfectly describes the life of this first generation of immigrants. They struggle with the language and their children learn it quicker than them. Their mastering the language reverses a bit the power in the family. The parents cannot talk to teachers properly. The children can read administrative documents and are propelled in the adults’ world because they have to help their families. For the parents, everything is different and they had to adapt to a new country, with different customs. Leïla Sebbar also describes very well the condescension of the French and their racism.

The author is very thoughtful and delicate in her descriptions of their lives. She doesn’t hide the clash of cultures, the violence in the couples and the strict control that fathers and brothers have on the girls of the family. Dalila would like to be like other French teenagers but fashionable clothes and make-up do not agree with her father. He can be vocal and violent about it and the responsibility falls down on her mother.

She captures very well the atmosphere of the time and she reminded me a lot of things from my own childhood. She tells the fights between communities and neighborhoods. She shows that these girls are studious in class and see school as a key to a better future. It’s a path to independence, if their parents don’t marry them too young. The boys are the kings of the house and they take power because they are male and are more at ease in France than their fathers. We see a culture where men have all the power and don’t hesitate to use it.

We also see families torn apart by immigration: the parents’ only dream is to go back to Algeria and the children’s only dream is to settle in France and be like the others in school. The parents have not yet understood that they would not go back because their children and grandchildren would stay in France and because, whether they fight against it or not, they slowly lose contact with their former lives in Algeria.

Fatima is the generation before the one featured in Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au square was published in 1981. Native French and Algerian immigrants live under the false impression that the Algerians’ presence in France is temporary, just to earn money before going back to Algeria. Both sides acknowledge too late that, contrary to what they thought, these immigrants were in France to stay. It might explain the loose ends in the assimilation process.

Fatima was written was before the foundation of the association SOS Racism (1984) and the marches against racism towards . I was too young to march but in school, a lot of us wore the pin Touche pas à mon pote (Don’t touch my friend) It was the time of awareness: these families where here to stay; their children went to school with the children of their age and France was their country. Leïla Sebbar perceived that and Fatima and Dalila are the representative of two generations and she shows a turning point for the immigrant communities.

Fatima made me understand how much they hoped that their stay would be temporary, in what frame of mind Fatima and her husband were. As a child, it never crossed my mind that Mohammed in my class could move “back” to Algeria. Unfortunately, the assimilation didn’t go as well as it should have. When you have curly brown hair in France, some people still feel entitled to ask you of what origin you are, as if you weren’t French.

It is a pity that this brilliant novella has not been translated into English. I think that it has a British follow-up in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This quote in Ali’s book could come from Sebbar’s novella.

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

The Christmas Song Book Tag

December 15, 2019 15 comments

I’ve heard about the Christmas Song Book Tag on Carl’s blog, The Pine-Scented ChroniclesThis book tag was launched by Stephanie, who blogs at Adventures of a Bibliophile. I thought it was a fun book tag and I started to think about my own answers as I was reading Carl’s post. So here they are!

You’re a mean one Mr. Grinch – Name a villainous character you couldn’t help but love.

Mr King, in Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao. Mr King is a hitman, I can’t say I’m fond of people who kill other people for a living but I really liked Mr King and his quirks.

All I Want for Christmas is You – Which book do you most hope to see under your Christmas tree.

I’d love to get the Pléiade edition of Romain Gary’s works but it’s really expensive. It’ll remain a Christmas wish.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – Name a character that overcomes major obstacles and learns to believe in themselves.

Nicola, in The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John. Her companion tells her it’s over and she needs to move out. Heart bruised and battered, she moves on, step by step and learns to be herself again.

As far as non-fiction is concerned, I’d like to point out Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea by Marie Munkara. She belongs to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children taken away from their families and she tells her journey back to her people.

Santa Clause is coming to town –

a) Which character do you think would be on top of the naughty list?

Fred and George, from the Harry Potter series.

b) Which character do you think would be at the top of the nice list?

Miss Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. She’s really nice and the reader is really happy about her coming out of her shell. It’s a great holiday read.

Frosty the Snowman – Which book just melts your heart.

Life Before Us by Romain Gary. It’s the story of an Arab child who’s taken care of by a Jewish old lady. It’s set in Paris, in a popular neighborhood. It’s full of humor and tolerance.

Feliz Navidad – Choose a book that takes place in a country other than your own.

How can I pick only one book that takes place in another country? I read a lot of them. I’ll recommend Skylark by Dezso Kosztolányi. It’ll take you to Hungary before WWI.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Which holiday themed book do you use to spread the Christmas joy.

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford. I’m not sure it spreads the Christmas joy in a literal sense but it’s fun and seasonal.

Sleigh Ride – Which fictional character would you choose to spend the holidays with (doesn’t have to be a love interest).

I would love to spend the holidays with Walt Longmire, the sheriff of the Absaroka county in Craig Johnson’s crime fiction series. If he’s not available, then I want to spend time with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the character in Louise Penny’s crime fiction series.

Baby it’s Cold Outside – Which book that you didn’t like would you sacrifice to a fire to warm yourself up in the cold.

I’m strongly against burning books but placed in a situation where I’d have to choose between die of hypothermia and burn books, I hope there would still be a phone book lying around or a dictionary. Then I’d hope to have Fifty Shades of Grey and stuff like that on a nearby shelf.

That’s all, folk! I hope you had fun reading my Christmas Song Book Tag. Since I’d love to read yours, I hope it’ll inspire you to post about it too. 😊

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Figurec by Fabrice Caro – Appearances are deceitful

December 15, 2019 4 comments

Figurec by Fabrice Caro (2006) Not available in English

Figurec is Fabrice Caro’s debut novel. His first love is BD (comics) with an offbeat sense of humor. He has a knack for picturing our world, our quirks and inconsistencies. You’ve heard about him twice this year on this blog, first when I blogged about his BD Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and then when I wrote about his latest novel, Le discoursFigurec is a first bridge between his BD and novels, Le discours is more accomplished.

Now the book and how can you sum up a book like Figurec?

The first chapter is an “Act 1, Scene 1” of a theatre play. The second chapter is a man attending a funeral and who thinks:

L’enterrement de Pierre Giroud m’a énormément déçu, c’était une cérémonie sans réelle émotion. D’accord, il y avait du monde, bien plus qu’à celui d’Antoine Mendez, mais tout cela manquait de rythme, de conviction. Même la fille de Pierre Giroud –du moins celle que je supposais être la fille de Pierre Giroud—n’était pas très en verve. Elle hésitait en permanence entre une pudique retenue et des sanglots bruyants de qualité très médiocre. Le résultat était assez caricatural, sans nuances. Pierre Giroud’s funeral was a stark disappointment. It was a ceremony devoid of real emotion. OK, there were a lot of people, a lot more than at Antoine Mendez’s funeral but this one lacked rhythm and conviction. Even Pierre Giroud’s daughter –or at least the one I assumed was Pierre Giroud’s daughter –wasn’t in brilliant form. She was always between modest self-restraint and loud sobs of poor quality. The result was caricatural, without proper nuance.

He watches the funeral as if he were watching and commenting a theatre play or a soccer game.

After this funeral, the narrator goes to diner at his friends Julien and Claire’s place. We learn that he dines with them five times a week but they don’t seem to mind. He likes them but still thinks he’s mooching off them and at the same time bringing entertainment in their otherwise dull marriage. For fun, Julien collects original 45s that were #1 at the Top 50 French chart in the 1980s and his enthusiasm about his latest find is puzzling, but who are we to judge someone else’s passions?

Our narrator also goes to diner at his parents’, a diner that his successful younger brother and lovely girlfriend attend too. His parents worry about him because he won’t settle down and doesn’t seem to grow up. He feels like a failure compared to his brother.

Our narrator is a would-be playwright and the “Act Something / Scene Something” inserted in the novel remind us his attempts at writing his play and his true goal in life.

After the first few pages, the reader feels that they’re spending time with a weird narrator, a sort of loser who attends funeral for fun, takes advantage of his friends, makes his parents believe he’s a writer-to-be when he just bums around. At this stage we think we’re just with a pathetic and nutty character.

Things get strange when a man approaches him at a funeral and asks him whether he belongs to Figurec too. That’s where the off-the-wall story takes you to a parallel world of false pretense where you don’t know who is who and what to think. All this is wrapped up in Caro’s unique brand of humor and talent for alternate universes.

A fun and disconcerting book. Next week I’ll see the theatre version of Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and I can’t wait to see how the director translated this BD to the stage.

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent – The Famous Five in the corporate world

December 10, 2019 9 comments

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent. (2018) French title: Le Club des Cinq part en séminaire. Translated and adapted by Anne-Laure Estèves.

I belong to a generation who fell in love with crime fiction by reading The Famous Five (in French, Le Club des Cinq), Nancy Drew (in French, Alice), Fantômette, a French series with a female super-hero, The Secret Seven (in French, Le Clan des Sept) and Les Six Compagnons, a French series set in Lyon. I remember devouring these books and requesting frequent trips to the library.

These are wonderful reading memories, books that led me to Agatha Christie and many other crime fiction writers.

So, when I saw Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, just before going to one of those myself, I couldn’t resist the impulse to discover how the Famous Five would deal with modern management techniques. It’s a small vintage publication that plays well on the nostalgia felt by readers like me. They replicated the original feel of the covers, the illustrations inside. The translation technique is the same as well: everything is adapted to the French setting, the theme song, the metro and train rides, the food. That’s what translators used to do and sometimes not only for children literature.

Our five friends Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timothy (respectively in French, François, Claude, Mick, Annie and Dagobert) work for the same firm –well, not Timmy, obviously—and are going on a strategy away day. They go to Normandy, in a remote farm and are welcome by consultants who are going to manage the various activities of the day. We found there all the common team building techniques that everyone working in the corporate world at a management position has experienced. The relaxation consultant, the blind-you-teammate-and-make-them-reach-point-A-to-point-B-without-bumping-into-objects, the post-its moments to note down ideas, the personality tests whose result will help you know who you are and help you communicate efficiently with colleagues and team members and the inevitable race in the woods to bring flags home.

All of it is described quickly and accurately as we see our childhood fictional friends navigate the corporate sea. It’s not the book of the year but it’s a nice journey-into-the past experience laced with a healthy dose of self-mockery. It reminds you that management techniques are useful but one needs to keep their critical mind and use them wisely.

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – Splendid

December 8, 2019 17 comments

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934) Not available in French.

I downloaded Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville after reading Guy’s review and what a delight!

We’re in 1934. Jim Henderson is in his thirties, single, unemployed and lives in a boarding house. One day he receives a letter from the mysterious Edwin Carson, a wealthy collector of precious stones. Carson invites Henderson to a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim is a bit weary of this invitation that comes out of thin air but is not in a position to refuse a weekend of free food and accomodation. Then he realises that his good friend The Honorable Freddie Usher is also invited and they decide to carpool to Thrackley.

As they arrive to the gloomy house, they are welcomed by a creepy butler, Jacobson. Their unease increases when they understand that all the guests are rich and own jewels. All but Jim Henderson. He wonders why he was invited and he starts thinking that Carson has an ulterior motive: gathering this party is not just about enjoying each other’s company.

The weekend unfolds and after various peripeties, the mystery is solved and Jim learns about his past.

The summary is a classic murder book of the time. It has the same recipe as a book by Patricia Wentworth. The major difference is Melville’s sense of humour. I was hooked from the first pages by the lightness of his tone, the affectionate way he makes fun of his characters. The description of Henderson’s life at the boarding house was catchy and I couldn’t put the book down. Here are a few excerpts of Melville’s delightful prose:

The alarm clock at Mr. Henderson’s left ear gave a slight warning twitch and then went off with all its customary punctuality and power. It had not cost a great deal of money (to be exact, three shillings and eleven pence), but for all that it had a good bullying ring which could be calculated to waken most of Mrs. Bertram’s lodgers. Not, however, Mr. Henderson.

___

“Damn!” said Catherine Lady Stone, a member of the Council of the Society for the Purification of the English Language.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book but also a wonderful Gloomy-Winter-Day book that you associate with reading on a couch by the fireplace. It’s British classic crime in all its glory and it can’t get more British than that:

She suddenly shot from her chair and said loudly: “I can’t stand it another minute!” the effect was much the same as if a lorry-load of milk-cans had collided with a double-decker bus in the middle of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre

December 7, 2019 4 comments

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre. (2014) Original French title: Pas pleurer

This is my second mini-billet to vanquish the TBW –To Be Written— pile. I think there is a reason why Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre stayed so long on my TBW. I don’t quite know how to write a billet about it and I kept procrastinating. Before diving into the book, one has to wonder how the French title that means No Crying or Don’t Cry became Cry, Mother Spain. The answer to that question is in Simon’s review of the book, here.

Lydie Salvayre is French but her parents were Spanish immigrants. In Pas pleurer, she comes back to her mother’s youth and how the Civil War in Spain changed her life forever. Her mother is named Montserrat Monclus Arjona, “Montse”, and she came from a small village in Spain. She and her brother José went to Barcelona in 1936, to help the Anarchist movement. An adventure and some bitter disappointments later, they are back to their village. This short time in Barcelona changed Montse’ life forever. In comparison to the liveliness and modernity of Barcelona, their village seems frozen in the Middle Ages with its rigid social hierarchy. Peasants remain dirt poor and under the rule of rich families. These immutable social rules remind me of what Mouloud Feraoun describes in The Poor Man’s Son. The 1936 Anarchist movement in Barcelona meant to take down these walls made of smothering traditions and free the country of rigid social conventions and religious constraints.

Lydie Salvayre shows how the hope of a revolution, of a new world with more social justice reached even small villages. Through Montse’s story, we see how Franco’s followers took over and the divides that this conflict created in communities. We see the personal fate of a young woman who embraced life in Barcelona and had to live with the repercussions of her actions. We see how women are often the first victims of conflicts and of society’s rules. We also understand how powerful the resistance to change can be, how inexperienced the young revolutionaries were. People’s fear of change always works in favor of the ones who preach immobilism.

In parallel to her mother’s story, Lydie Salvayre shares her reading of Les grands cimetières sous la lune, the non-fiction book in which Georges Bernanos relates the horror of the Spanish Civil War in Mallorca and how the Catholic Church was complicit of massacres. He was living there when it happened and had a front seat to it. I tried to read Bernanos almost three years ago but I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t like his tone, I didn’t know the people he was pointing at and it was more a pamphlet than calm-and-collected non-fiction. I missed the subtexts. I wished Bernanos had been more like Orwell.

Cry, Mother Spain is a poignant homage of a woman to her mother. Lydie Salvayre transcribes her mother’s creative French, the outcome of learning the language when she left Spain. She’s sometimes crude, sometimes funny as she mixes words. It’s the love of a daughter who gives her mother’s life a chance at eternity through literature. Cry, Mother Spain won the Goncourt prize in 2014 and it put the 1936 Civil War under mediatic lights.

I really recommend Simon’s review, which is a lot more thorough than mine and makes excellent justice to the book.

Betty by Georges Simenon – the victim is not always who you think

December 6, 2019 18 comments

Betty by Georges Simenon (1961) Original French title: Betty.

Betty belongs to Simenon’s romans durs. The book opens with a woman, alone in a bar, Le Trou. (What you’d call Hole in the Wall) She’s adrift and visibly hiding from something or someone. She’s in shock after something terrible happened to her. She’s rescued by a woman, Laure Lavancher, who takes her back to her hotel and nurses her.

Slowly, we discover what happened to this woman. Her name is Betty, she’s recently divorced. Her husband found out that she was cheating on him. He comes from a bourgeois family and the reaction is immediate: he divorces her for cause and she knows she will be cut off from her daughters’ lives.

At first, Betty seems like an Emma Bovary. A woman trapped in a marriage she didn’t really want but accepted because what else was there to be for her? And her husband Guy was nice enough. We see a woman not ready to give up her identity as a woman to become exclusively a wife and a mother. In a way, while I commiserated with Guy –no one wants to be cheated on – I also thought that poor Betty’s life was dull and that she wasn’t made to find contentment in cooking, cleaning and mothering. I felt empathy for her because I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mother, I’d be frustrated too.

But as the story progresses, we see Betty interact with the new people she met in that café, the night we got acquainted with her. And her dark side slowly shows up. I didn’t feel so much compassion then as she moved from the position of victim to that of a predator.

She’s like a black spider, someone who crawls on other people’s backs, discreetly reaches their neck and bites. She took Guy in her poisonous net and her modus operandi remains the same with Laure, the woman who nurses her back to health.

Unsurprisingly, Betty was made into a film by Claude Chabrol. Marie Trintignant is Betty, Stéphane Audran is Laure, and Yves Lambrecht is Guy. I didn’t know that when I read it but imagined it as a film with Béatrice Dalle or Chiara Mastroianni as Betty.

Recommended to crime fiction lovers.

Categories: 20th Century

End-of-the-year billets rush and November Literary Prizes in France

December 5, 2019 15 comments

We’re already the 5th of December and the end of the year is looming over us. Christmas lights are installed in cities, Lyon gets dolled up for the Fête des Lumières (The Festival of Lights)

and I still have a few books without a billet. I need to be honest with myself, I won’t be able to write proper billets about these six books on top of the ones I’ll be reading in December. So, I’ll write a series of quick posts to give you the gist of them and my thoughts. Don’t expect polished English or deep analyses, quick-and-dirty will have to do. The series of short billets should be about:

  • Betty by Simenon,
  • Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville
  • Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb
  • Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre
  • Figurec by Fabrice Caro
  • Fatima ou les Algériennes au square by Leïla Sebbar

November is also the month of the most prestigious literary prizes in France. So, here are the winners for 2019. I haven’t read any of them because I can’t read books within libraries’ deadlines and I only buy paperbacks. So, here’s a sample of the prizes:

  • Prix Goncourt: Tous les hommes n’habitent pas le monde de la même façon by Jean-Paul Dubois. He’s a readable writer, I’ll probably get it next year.
  • Prix Goncourt des Lycéens : This is the Goncourt elected by high school students. I have a soft spot for prizes given by young readers. They have a fresh eye. They awarded the prize to Les Choses humaines by Karine Tuil, where the son of a well-known couple is accused of rape. The book shows how this shatters their lives.
  • Prix Femina: Par les routes by Sylvain Prudhomme.
  • Prix Interallié : Les Choses humaines by Karine Tuil. Yes, she won TWO prizes.
  • Prix Médicis : La Tentation by Luc Lang.
  • Prix Renaudot : La panthèse des neiges by Sylvain Tesson.

All seem accessible to mainstream readers and I like this idea. So, keep your eyes open they’ll probably make it into English translation.

Meanwhile, I’ll be writing vignettes about the books I read but never had time to write a billet about.

Categories: Personal Posts Tags:

Theatre: The Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht and The Crucible by Arthur Miller

December 1, 2019 11 comments

November was German Lit Month and a total miss for me. I still couldn’t read Berlin Alexanderplatz and didn’t have time to read anything else. But! I finished this month on an excellent note. I saw the play Life of Galileo by Bertold Brecht.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins, a majestic theatre in Lyon. This Life of Galileo (1938) was directed by Claudia Stavisky and Galileo was played by the great actor Philippe Torreton.

Brecht relates Galileo’s life from the moment he figures out that the Earth rotates around the sun and subsequently destroys Aristotle’s vision of the cosmos. The play shows a Galileo who unknowingly works on the foundation of modern physics by putting emphasis on experimenting and demonstrating concepts. We know what happened, the Catholic Church felt threatened. Religions in general work on the basis of certainty and “absolute thinking”. They know the truth, which automatically means that what they say can’t be challenged and those who don’t think the way they do are in the wrong. And here we have a man who preaches doubt as a way of thinking: challenge everything you take for granted, you might be surprised. It can’t go well for him. Religions also hold their sacred texts as the truth and sometimes take them literally. How to reconcile the Bible with science? That’s another question.

Brecht’s point is also that the Catholic Church is an instrument in the hands of princes and kings to keep the people under their yoke. Don’t worry if your life is miserable, you’ll go to heaven and eternal life is way longer than this earthly one, so why bother. If the Church has to acknowledge that the Aristotelian vision of the world was a mistake, then it means that what they taught was wrong. It will undermine their power on the little people’s minds.

Galileo also believed in the democratization of knowledge. He wrote books in Italian instead of Latin because he wanted them to be accessible. That was another thorn in the Church’s side. (Remember that the mass was in Latin until 1962.)

The holy trinity of theatre was met for Life of Galileo. First we have a brilliant text by Brecht, easy to follow and engrossing. Then we have Claudia Stavisky’s wonderful direction. She managed –again—to give a contemporary vibe to a text and inject liveliness in something that could have been a dry argument. (Read here how she turned a play by Corneille into a fun rom com without betraying the original text). And last but not least, we have Torreton’s exceptional acting skills. I’ve seen him several time on stage, like in I Take My Father on My Shoulders by Fabrice Melchiot or in Cyrano de Bergerac and I’m always in awe. He’s on stage as if he were in his living room. His speech seems effortless and for the public, it’s magic. We’re catapulted into the story because he sounds real, not staged.

For the anecdote, I noted two small anachronisms in the text: once a character mentions “cm3”, when the metric system came with the French Revolution and another time, a character says “Versailles” to refer or France but Louis XIV moved permanently in Versailles in 1682 and Galileo died in 1642.

So, if you’re in France and you see La vie de Galilée in your theatre, hurry up and buy tickets for this play, it even has subtitles in English. As far as German Lit Month is concerned, maybe I should stick to reading plays, I enjoy Brecht and Bernhard.

Earlier in the theatre season, I also saw The Crucible by Arthur Miller, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. (In French, it’s translated as Les Sorcières de Salem). Miller wrote this play in 1953 as an allegory of McCarthyism. While I disliked the hysterical parts when the witches behave as if they were possessed, the process leading to the wrongful condemnation of twenty innocent people was implacable.

The play shows what happens when people are impervious to objective reasoning. It explores how quickly a community becomes suspicious and falls under the spell of people who are affirmative, who shout louder than the others and stir up our basest instincts.

It also pictures well how greed comes into the equation and how the witch hunt becomes an opportunity to put one’s hands on someone’s property. The play dissects the fight between Reason and Religious Belief. Here, Religion presses the buttons of intellectual laziness: nothing needs to be challenged and the scriptures are always right. Plus, you have to believe first and think after. The Crucible shows how difficult it is for sensible thinking to engage swords with objective reasoning. The mechanics of the trial is unstoppable and until the end, the spectator of the 21st century expects that the truth wins, that such a blatant mistake cannot be hold as the truth. But of course, that’s not what happened.

These two plays echo with our times. Social networks are an open agora where everyone’s opinion has the same weight. Opinions are the great influencers of our century. How long will real journalists and honest scientists have voices strong enough to be heard over the mayhem of unruly tweets and intellectual dishonesty? Seen from my European corner, the battle seems lost in the US. Sandwiched between an opinionated trash TV, a president who spouts nonsenses on a daily basis and loud fundamentalist Christians, is there room left for rational thinking? If Galileo came to visit the 21st century, wouldn’t he be distraught to see creationism taught in some schools?

But Europe is not out the woods either. These are hot topics here too. The fact that theatre directors pick these plays proves that it is a preoccupation. J’accuse, the film about the Dreyfus Affair made 0.8 million of entries in two weeks. (4th in the French box office) It is the breathtaking relation of the Dreyfus trial and the long way to his rehabilitation. It sure doesn’t show France into a favorable light, something Proust describes thoroughly under the apparent lightness of society life. Zola and Voltaire are pillars of our national Pantheon because they fought for someone trialed and condemned, not fort their acts but due to the biased functioning of the courts. Dreyfus for Zola, Calas for Voltaire. J’accuse coming out in 2019 is not a coincidence. We see extremists raise their ugly heads again and it is a cold reminder of what happens when they worm themselves into the workings of administrations.

It all comes down to safeguarding the concepts of the Age of Enlightenment.

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