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Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

May 31, 2020 12 comments

Still Waters (2008) and Closed Circles (2009) by Viveca Sten. French titles: La Reine de la Baltique and Du sang sur la Baltique. Translated from the Swedish by Laura A Wideburg (Still Waters) and by Rémi Cassaigne (Du sang sur la Baltique)

I’d heard of the Swedish writer Viveca Sten from a colleague and she was on the Quais du Polar writers’ panel for this year’s aborted edition. I think it’s the first time I’ve read two crime fiction books in a row from the same series since I had my Agatha Christie binge in 5ème (7th Grade in the US system)

It’s also the first time I read one in English translation (Still Waters) and one in French (Closed Circles). More of that later.

Still Waters and Closed Circles are the two first books of the Sandhamn series by Viveca Sten. Set on the Sandhamn island in the Stockholm archipelago, they feature Inspector Thomas Andreasson and his friend Nora Linde. Thomas works at the Nacka police and Nora is a legal advisor in a bank. Both work in Stockholm and have spent their summers in the islands near Stockholm since they were children. Nora uses her legal knowledge to help Thomas in his investigations. Unofficially, of course.

Sandhamn has become a famous vacation spot in Sweden and, from what I gathered in the books, it’s like The Hamptons in the US or Deauville in France. Nora inherited her house from her grandmother, otherwise she couldn’t afford to buy one. Thomas has a summer house on Harö, a nearby island. The two books are set in July, in the peak season for holidaying in Sweden.

In Still Waters, a body is found on the beach during the summer holidays. Thomas soon finds out it’s Krister Berggren, a middle-aged man from Stockholm who works for the state-run alcohol shops, Systembolaget. He has no obvious link to Sandhamn, what happened?

In Closed Circles, a famous regatta organized by the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) is about to start when a participant is shot. The victim, Oscar Juliander is the deputy president of the RSYC and a well-known bankruptcy lawyer in Stockholm. Thomas was already on the scene since he was among the public who wanted to watch the race. He will lead the investigation. Nora is also in Sandhamn for the holidays, with her husband and children.

These two books are part of a series and a key success factor of a series is to hook up the reader on the characters’ private lives. We’re in the realm of all modern crime fiction series, away from Poirot and Maigret who don’t seem to have a life outside of crime investigating. It worked with me since I engaged in Thomas and Nora’s lives and picked up Closed Circles right after reading Still Waters.

Thomas is a Swedish cliché: six foot four, well built, his shoulders broad from years of handball training. He looked just like the archetypal policeman, big and reassuring, with blond hair and blue eyes. He’s divorced and his marriage to Pernilla fell apart after their infant died from SIDS. After almost drowning in sorrow, he’s now slowly resurfacing. After several crime fiction books with alcoholic PIs and detectives, Thomas was a welcome reprieve.

Nora is married to Henrik, a doctor, and they have two sons, Adam and Simon. In her late thirties, Nora starts to think she doesn’t get that much out of her marriage. Henrik spends his holiday on his boat and participates in regattas while she’s left behind with the children. Then Nora’s employer asks whether she’d be interested in becoming the head of their legal department in Malmö. It’s a promotion but one that requires a move. Will Henrik accept to uproot the family for her career?

I wasn’t thrilled by Still Waters, I thought that the writing was a bit clumsy at times (Nora placed the chicken dish on the table and put on the latest Norah Jones CD, her namesake apart from the h.) and I had guessed who the murderer was, which is not a good sign. When I read crime fiction, I let the writer carry me to the ending. I don’t try to pick up clues and outsmart the detective to find out who did it. So, if I guess the ending without trying to find it, in my eyes, the book is flawed. The cliffhanger about Nora’s life pushed me to read the second book, also thinking that the first book of the series isn’t always the best one. Unfortunately, the same thing happened with Closed Circles: I guessed the two main clues of the plot and that’s a definite no-go for me. Plus, the characters’ lives took a turn that didn’t interest me anymore.

So, no more Viveca Sten for me, unless I want something easy to read. That said, reading two books from the same series, one in English and one in French was an interesting experience.

I had the English rhythm of Sten’s writing well in mind when I started the second book in French. It didn’t have the same vibe and it took me a few chapters to get used to the French translation. The English one felt neutral and smooth, the French one felt a bit contrived and inaccurate. The translator overdid it when he translated the scenes at the Nacka precinct, lowering the level of language of the police team, as if they needed to sound more NYPD Blues to sound true.

In the English version of Still Waters, the police chief is introduced like this: The old man was the head of criminal investigation in Nacka, Detective Chief Inspector Göran Persson.

Then, he’s called Persson in the rest of the book. In my head, he was close to retirement and a bit quick-tempered. In the French translation, he’s called le Vieux. (The Oldman) I was really surprised and downloaded an extract of the English translation of Closed Circles. Chapter 5, we’re at the precinct:

Göran Persson, the head of the criminal unit of the Nacka police, couldn’t keep his anger under control.

Göran, chef de l’unité criminelle à la police de Nacka, surnommé le Vieux, ne parvenait pas à contenir sa colère.

Where does the “surnommé le Vieux”, (“nicknamed the Oldman”) comes from? And then, he becomes le Vieux in the book. A few lines later, about Carina:

Carina Persson, the chief’s daughter sat beside them. For the past two years, she’d worked as their administrative assistant while trying to get into the police academy. She’d finally been admitted this fall. A côté d’eux était assise Carina Persson, la fille du Vieux, qui travaillait depuis deux ans au commissariat comme assistante administrative, tout en préparant le concours de l’école de police. Elle allait enfin le passer à l’automne.  

The “chief’s daughter” becomes the “Oldman’s daughter”. In French, le Vieux is more derogatory than Oldman in English. You never know what was the publisher’s order regarding the translation, they may have asked for this and the translator had to comply. We’ll live with this.

But inaccuracy has nothing to do with the publisher’s requests. In the quote before, “She’s finally been admitted this fall” becomes in French “She’ll take the exam in the fall”, which is not the same at all and it happens to be an important detail in the story.

And then there was the victim’s profession. Oscar was a bankruptcy lawyer. I have no clue how it is said in Swedish but I’m sure that Viveca Sten, being a lawyer herself, used the right term. In French, the proper term in administateur judiciaire, not un administrateur de faillite like in the translation. A little research would have prevented that.

I usualIy don’t read English translations of books. Why should I make my life more difficult and read in English when I could read in French a translation made for a French reader? But I had the opportunity to get Still Waters for a cheap price on my e-reader and went for it. Reading Closed Circles in French right after Still Waters in English was eye-opening.

The writer doesn’t sound the same way in the two translations and the French one, on top of its translation flaws, sounds a bit old-fashioned. The publisher’s probably partly responsible for it, if you look at the translation of the titles. La Reine de la Baltique (The Queen of the Baltic Sea) and Du sang sur la Baltique (Blood on the Baltic) sound a lot more sensational than Still Waters and Closed Circles, which are, according to Google translate, the right translations from the Swedish.

What can I say? Readers, the publisher matters. Le Livre de Poche is not Rivages, Actes Sud or Gallmeister as far as translations are concerned. I wish they’d paid more attention to it or spent more money on it. In my opinion, they have no excuse as this book was meant to sell well: it’s crime fiction, a hugely successful genre in France, it’s Nordic crime, a bestselling sub-genre and Sten was already a success abroad. What was the financial risk on this one? We, readers, deserve a better translation than that. Maybe Gallmeister changed me into a spoiled princess, sensitive to every little pea in my crime fiction translations.

Meanwhile, if I ever read another Viveca Sten, I’ll get it in English.

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

May 24, 2020 22 comments

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967) French title: La pêche à la truite en Amérique.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

How can I describe Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan? It’s all about trout fishing and yet not at all. It’s a novella made of a series of vignettes coming from a camping trip in Idaho that Brautigan took with his wife and daughter in the summer 1961. The book was published in 1967 and became a bestseller.

It’s a literary gem that mixes glimpses of the life of the Beat Generation in San Francisco, an homage to an America that the 1960s will leave behind, a playful but effective way to show how our civilization based on mass consumption tamed nature and took over, inserting itself in our minds and in remote areas. Anecdotes reveal a bit of Brautigan’s childhood. He was dirt poor and fishing and hunting had truly been a means to put food on the table.

Trout Fishing in America is not openly about ecology but it is a quirky love note to nature and a roundabout way to show its destruction due to men. This passage made me think of companies and officials who claim that they will protect nature while during business but in fact won’t:

He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and blue jays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes. He wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night.

Our consumer world pervades everywhere, camping in our minds and filtering even our impression of nature. Brautigan says it with this fishing trip in a remote creek, he uses a comparison to telephone booths, bringing the industrial world into the wild because his brain is saturated with it:

The creek was made narrow by little green trees that grew too close together. The creek was like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out. Sometimes when I went fishing in there, I felt just like a telephone repairman, even though I did not look like one. I was only a kid covered with fishing tackle, but in some strange way by going in there and catching a few trout, I kept the telephones in service. I was an asset to society.

He seems to tell us that our mind is colonized to the point that he fails to find any other comparison that one to our city world. He also feels the need to justify his fishing trip as useful to society, a maintenance service of some sort. A man must be rightfully employed.

A story is about a discussion at a campsite with an old doctor:

He told me that he would give up the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America. “I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off six thousand dollars worth of bad debts,” he said. I was going to say that a sick person should never under any conditions be a bad debt, but I decided to forget it.

America, universal healthcare was never in your blood, was it?

As the vignettes go on, Trout Fishing in America becomes a concept, marketing invading the pages like weed. Sometimes it becomes a pattern, a playful game, like Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau. Unexpected literary references pop up at the corner of a sentence or of a paragraph. It’s always irreverent, a way to tell us that we should treat books and writers casually, like old friends.

“The dishes can wait,” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.

Ironic references to iconic writers, books or films appear in the text.

Later on, probably, a different voice will be dubbed in. It will be a noble and eloquent voice denouncing man’s inhumanity to man in no uncertain terms. “Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour.”

But most of all, Trout Fishing in America is fun. It’s a book full of comic lines, play-on-words and odd but stunning comparisons. Poor cutthroat trout are associated to Jack the Ripper…

I’ve always liked cutthroat trout. They put up a good fight, running against the bottom and then broad jumping. Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper.

… now the visual of Stanley…

When we reached Stanley, the streets were white and dry like a collision at a high rate of speed between a cemetery and a truck loaded with sacks of flour.

I can imagine the old lady of this vignette, cooking in her old house.

She cooked on a woodstove and heated the place during the winter with a huge wood furnace that she manned like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.

Brautigan’s observations are poetic and full of unexpected imagery but when he writes about everyday life, he adopts a simple prosaic Hemingwayan tone:

We went over to a restaurant and I had a hamburger and my woman had a cheeseburger and the baby ran in circles like a bat at the World’s Fair.

Trout Fishing in America is an extraordinary piece of literature, in every sense of the word extraordinary. It’s short but it took me three weeks to read it, to sip it, to enjoy each vignette and wait for the right reading time to fully enjoy it. It is about nature, our destruction of it, a disappearing way-of-life, the final taking-over of consumer society, a direct access to Brautigan’s life, an ode to the Beat Generation, a playful relationship to art and literature. It showcases a brilliant, poetic unusual mind.

And most of all, his quest of America ends up with this statement:

We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.

Highly recommended.

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet – San Francisco Noir

May 23, 2020 6 comments

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (2013) French title: Petit traité de la fauche. Translated by Catherine Richard-Mas

Klinger didn’t waste a moment. His door, being the one that had impacted the light pole, was jammed. So, as they’d been robbing liquor stores with the top down, since they couldn’t figure out how to get it up, he tried to step up and out of the stolen sports car with dignity. But the remnants of the airbag entangled his legs, and he and his dignity spilled headlong into the street.

And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Klinger, the main protagonist of Snitch World by Jim Nisbet. He’s a middle-aged thug, a weird concept because people should grow out of being a thug.

He and his accomplice Chainbang have just robbed a liquor store. They are in a car accident in the middle of the street, the police, the firemen and the paramedics are on their way. Klinger takes his share and ditches Chainbang, disappearing into the night while his partner is getting arrested. That’s Klinger for you.

He loves to drink and steals to pay for his booze and spend nights in cheap hotels, in North Beach, San Francisco. Nisbet takes us to this city, which seems to have turned its back to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s to fully embrace the tech era. Klinger is old school, he doesn’t even own a mobile phone. Walking down the SF streets, he gets reacquainted with Frankie, a pick-pocketing artist who was just released from prison.

Living in the tech world is Phillip Wong, a genius in programming and designing phone apps. He’s been working night and day for a start-up founded by Marcie, a girl he has a crush on. After working himself into exhaustion, he finally understood that Marcie took advantage of him and he decided to hop off the train.

Klinger and Wong’s worlds collide when Klinger and Frankie pick Phillip as their mark and accost him on the street. Klinger distracts him, Frankie visits his pockets. Problem: Phillip fights back and both he and Frankie are unconscious on the pavement when Klinger scurries for cover.

The next morning, Klinger reads in the paper about the aggression and that one man is dead and the other is in the hospital. Who is dead and who is alive? He gets his answer quickly when Marcie knocks on his hotel door. She has geolocated Phillip’s phone and she wants it bad as it is the key to his latest IT developments.

Klinger can’t say no to Marcie’s money and embarks in a fatal journey.

This is Noir territory. San Francisco is used as an atmospheric background and rain pours down on Klinger, the same kind of rain Chandler describes in Los Angeles. Nisbet takes us on the rainy streets of San Francisco, from Tenderloin to North Beach. We visit shabby bars and decrepit hotels that could not survive COVID-19 health code regulations.

Nisbet has a great sense of humor, he makes fun of this new world we’re in, with phone owning our lives and all the various apps we use. Klinger is out of his depth in this tech-dominated world.

Professional robbers don’t pick coat pockets anymore, Nisbet tells us. Marcie and her kind pick at other people’s brain and pocket the money. But since it’s technology, it’s socially acceptable.

As his name suggests it: Klinger clings to his old ways and to life. He’s always been a drifter and his main goals are to avoid jail and to get enough money for booze, food and a dry place to sleep. He’s not a very pleasant character, probably because he’s lazy, selfish and has no loyalty. I guess we can sympathize with a criminal who lives by his own moral code, provided that he has a code and abides by it.

I was invested in the story and wondered how it would end. I enjoyed Nisbet’s style and the barbs against the tech world that transformed San Francisco into one of the most expensive cities of the USA.

Recommended.

Sisters by Ada Cambridge – a bleak and cynical vision of marriage

May 20, 2020 14 comments

Sisters by Ada Cambridge (1904) Not available in French.

After reading The Three Miss Kings and A Humble Enterprise, I was ready for another feel-good novel by Ada Cambridge and randomly picked Sisters in my omnibus edition of Cambridge’s work. Forget about feel-good and fluffy novels, this one is bitter when the others are optimistic.

The book opens on sailor Guthrie Carey, who is on leave and taking his young wife Lily and their baby to their new house. They have to sail there and Lily dies during the crossing. He leaves the baby with a temporary nanny and comes back several months later to find a more stable home for his son. He doesn’t want to get married again, which rules out an easy way to find a new mother to his son.

This is when he gets acquainted with the Urquharts and the Pennycuicks, families who have been friends for a long time and live on neighbouring stations. Strong ties bind the two families and through the Urquhart, Guthrie and the reader meet with the four Pennycuick sisters.

The oldest, Deborah, is beautiful, in her twenties and everyone expects her to marry the local aristocracy, Mr Claud Dalzell. Deborah is lively, slightly self-centred and has a high opinion of her rank in the community. She’s the queen of her little world, boys and men are at her feet. Claud Dalzell, her godfather who’s old enough to be her father, Jim Urquhart and even Carey: all fall for her.

The second sister, Mary, is too plain to get married. She turns her affection on other people’s babies and takes care of the household.

The third sister, Rose, is pretty but not as beautiful as Deborah. Frances, the youngest, is still a child when the book opens but she promises to be even lovelier than Deborah.

Sisters tells the fate of the four sisters while Guthrie Carey appears on and off in the book, like a deus ex machina that throws their lives off balance and makes them go on a spin.

Ada Cambridge weaves a story with the underlying idea that love and marriage are not compatible. Love doesn’t survive the quotidian and people you love shouldn’t be the ones you marry since you should want different qualities in a spouse than in a lover. And also, loves remains beautiful when it stays an idea and doesn’t turn into a real relationship.

In Sisters, Ada Cambridge also shows that pride, prejudices and class conscience make people miserable. Deborah is only the daughter of a rich landowner. She’s the aristocracy in her neck of the woods. She’s very attached to her status and would never marry below her rank or what she believes her rank is. She behaves as if she were a princess.

Cambridge points out that, even in on a station where these people started from scratch, they managed to recreate a hierarchy, like in the old world. In Deborah’s eyes, trade is degrading and none of the Pennycuick sisters should marry a tradesman.

As the oldest daughter, she’s in charge of her sisters when her father dies and she’s not fit for it. Her pride will not allow her to make the sacrifices they should do.

She should have managed better with the resources at her disposal than to bring herself to such a pass, and that so soon; either Mary or Rose would certainly have done so in her place. But Nature had not made her or Frances—whose rapacities had been one cause of the financial breakdown—for the role of domestic economists; they had been dowered with their lovely faces for other purposes.

She was supposed to marry a rich man, and that’s all the preparation she had to face life.

In Sisters, men are all flawed. The pastor is a moocher, a greedy man and his temper is not fit for religious duties. Mr Pennycuick is weak, like Mr Bennet. Mr Thornycroft, Deborah’s godfather, lusts after her “ever since she was a kiddie” Eew! Claud Dalzell is a cad. Guthrie Carey falls in and out of love easily and doesn’t want to get married again. The only two decent men are the ones who work to make a living, Jim Urquhart who manages the station and Paul Breen, a draper who will marry one of the sisters, against her family’s will.

I won’t tell much about the plot, to avoid spoilers but the sisters’ lives are dictated by their marital choices. And Cambridge’s conclusion is that:

He did not know what a highly favoured mortal he really was, in that his beautiful love-story was never to be spoiled by a happy ending.

Wow.

I still wonder what she wanted to prove in her novel and why it’s so bitter compared to the others. She was a pastor’s wife and she spent her life in various parishes. Is Sisters the bleak offspring of her observations of married life?

Did she want to point out that men make women’s lives more difficult and that their hard work never has the recognition it deserves?

Mrs Urquhart and Mrs Pennycuick, plain, brave, working women of the rough old times, wives of high-born husbands, incapable of companioning them as they companioned each other, had been great friends. On them had devolved the drudgery of the pioneer home-making without its romance; they had had, year in, year out, the task of ‘shepherding’ two headstrong and unthrifty men, who neither owned their help nor thanked them for it—the inglorious life-work of so many obscure women—and had strengthened each other’s hands and hearts that had had so little other support.

Sisters has a feminist vibe but I found Deborah insufferable. Mary’s lack of confidence was her Achille’s heel. Rose was the most sensible one and Frances, frivolous and vain deserved her fate.

For this reader, it’s always interesting to catch glimpses of everyday life in the 19thC. If you tend to forget you’re reading an Australian book, Cambridge reminds you of it with scorching hot Februaries and by comparing something to an opossum.

Brona has read it too and her review is here.

This is another contribution to Australian Women Writer Challenge

AWW_2020

20 Books of Summer – 20 Books Around the Corner

May 17, 2020 35 comments

Cathy at 746 Books launches her yearly challenge of 20 Books of Summer. The title is self-explanatory: Read 20 books in June, July and August.

Twenty books in three months is a lot for me. I usually manage to read a book per week but I’m willing to try this year since I’m working remotely until the end of August and will save the time and fatigue of commuting to work. I might make it. Now to the fun part: book picking!

I’m already committed to reading with my Book Club and to a Read The West readalong with my sister-in-law. That’s five books. How to choose the fifteen others?

Thanks to a pesky virus, my trip to Montana and Wyoming is cancelled and I’m still grieving this missed opportunity. (Rich white girl problem, I know) So I decided that 20 Books of Summer would be a celebration of the ghosts of trips past, the ghost of the missed trip and the ghost of the upcoming trip to France. I’ll read books related to these summers. If I know where I bought the book, I’ll mention it, as a friendly hello to independent bookstores who have to survive the tempest of this worldwide lockdown.

*Drum roll*

Here are my twenty choices

Book Club choices.

  1. Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski
  2. Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Read-the-West-With-Sister-In-Law choices

  1. Montana: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke
  2. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
  3. Montana: Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo

Ghost of Trips Past

  1. Québec: Therese, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (Québec City)
  2. Sicily: Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia
  3. Spain: Nada by Carmen Laforêt
  4. Australia: Blood by Tony Birch (Readings, Melbourne)
  5. Portugal: Lisbon’s Poets (Bertrand, Lisbon)
  6. UK: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (London)
  7. Denmark: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (Copenhagen)
  8. Hungary: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (Budapest)
  9. USA: Wait Until Spring, Bandini (City Light Bookstore, San Francisco)

Ghost of the Missed Trip

  1. Wyoming: An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg
  2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
  3. Wyoming: The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson
  4. Montana: A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How To Do by Pete Fromm

Ghost of Upcoming Trip to France

  1. Who You Think I Am by Camille Laurens

And, last but not least, a bridge between the three Ghost Trips, between France and the USA

  1. Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, a letter to James Baldwin.

I’m happy with my list: a mix of lit fiction, short-stories, poetry, non-fiction and crime. Some in English, some in French.

I’m not sure I’ll have time to read all these books but I had a lot of fun making up the list. It’s also a good way to push myself to read more from my TBR. I know I’ll buy new books anyway, we need to support our independent bookstores, and I’ve decided to reallocate to book buying all the toll money saved up with homeworking. A perfectly good excuse to indulge in a book buying spree.

Will you participate to Cathy’s challenge too?

Categories: Challenges Tags: ,

The Wrong Case by James Crumley – Classy noir

May 15, 2020 6 comments

The Wrong Case by James Crumley (1975). French title: Fausse piste. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

There’s no accounting for laws. Or the changes wrought by men and time. For nearly eight years the only way to get a divorce in our state was to have your spouse convicted of felony or caught in an act of adultery. Nor even physical abuse or insanity counted. And in the ten years since I resigned as a county deputy, I had made a good living off those antiquated divorce laws. Then the state legislature, in a flurry of activity at the close of a special session, put me out of business by civilizing those divorce laws. Now we have dissolutions of marriage by reason of irreconcilable differences. Supporters and opponents were both shocked by the unexpected action of the lawmakers, but not as shocked as I was. I spent the next two days sulking in my office, drinking and enjoying the view, considering the prospects for my suddenly very dim future. The view looked considerably better than my prospects.

My office is on the fourth floor if the Milodragovitch Building. I inherited the building from my grandfather, but most of the profits go to a management corporation, my first ex-wife, and the estate of my second ex-wife. I’m left with cheap rent and a great view. At least on those days when the east wind doesn’t inflict the pulp mill upon is or when an inversion layer doesn’t cap the Meriwether Valley like a plug in a sulfurous well, I have a great view.

This is the beginning of The Wrong Case by James Crumley, the first book featuring the PI Milo Dragovitch. We’re in Meriwether, a fictional small town in Montana, not a quaint one surrounded by ranches and trout-fishing streams but a by-product of the mining industry gone awry. We’re in the 1970s and Milo is waiting for his 35th birthday to get his hands on his trust fund. He used to work for the local police station but resigned and settled as a PI. Between the end of the adultery business and his ex-wives, money is tight.

His days are spent between the office and the local bar where he has an unofficial office in the back. His friends are Simon, who drinks with diligence and towards a slow suicide and Dick, a local teacher with whom he plays handball. Ex-Wife #1 is now married to Jamison, the Meriwether chief of police. Milo and Jamison despise each other and that makes any work relationship between the two awkward.

Milo’s life is about to get more complicated when Helen Duffy struts into his office. She’s that kind of femme fatale, the poisonous beauty that reels PIs into taking on cases they know they should stay away from. The Wrong Case is exactly that.

Milo knows that digging into the disappearance of Helen’s brother Raymond will do him no good. It quickly appears that Raymond is involved with the local crime scene. It doesn’t help that Milo lusts after Helen who has a passionate liaison with a married Dick, the friend I mentioned before.

Milo will follow the Raymond lead and it takes him to a wife abandoned when her husband discovered his homosexuality, the local mafia, the town drug trafficking and all kind of dangerous businesses that confirm that he should have stayed put.

We are in classic noir territory here and James Crumley builds a believable Meriwether, kicking the bucolic Montana image to the curb. There are drugs, criminality and misery like everywhere else. Milo is an interesting character with his ex-marriages, his loyal friendship to Simon and Dick and his imperfect father role to his children.

Crumley’s style belongs to literary crime fiction. I’m currently reading a Viveca Sten, and that’s subject-verb-complement crime fiction. Crumley is classy and poetic. Milo is a no-future kind of guy, he trudges through life, one day at a time, carrying his baggage of his father’s untimely death, his failure as a husband and a father. And yet, despite his frequent visits to the bar and his prayers to the gods of drunkenness, I liked him a lot more than Jack Taylor.

Recommended to fans of classic noir fiction. Another book published by Gallmeister.

Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius – six lives and game over for me

May 11, 2020 22 comments

Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (119) French title: Vie des douze Césars. Translated from the Latin by Henri Ailloud. Original title: De vita duodecim Caesarum libri.

During my (still ongoing) operation Tackle the TBR, I came across Life of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. I don’t remember when I bought it but I suppose it didn’t sound so daunting after my delightful experience with Ars Amatoria by Ovid.

Let’s say that this experience wasn’t as conclusive and to be honest, I stopped reading after Nero’s life. I read a translation that dates back to 1931/1932 and I don’t know whether it was intended for students or readers.

I remember studying passages of De rerum natura by Lucretius and being happy that the French translation was as close to the text as possible, to track down how the translation was done. However, it was unreadable for a reader with no academic purpose. Maybe this translation falls into the second category as it was a strenuous and frustrating read.

It was tiring for very practical reasons. I have a paperback copy and it’s written in very small print. I’m at the uncomfortable stage where small prints are hard to read and my eyesight is still too good for reading glasses. It was frustrating because I was reading and not remembering what I was reading, so I only have vague memories about what I read and only retained some anecdotes.

As the title of the book suggests it, Suetonius writes the bio of the twelve emperors from Julius Ceasar (1st C BC) to Domitian (1st C AD). Contrary to our usual bios, he doesn’t write chronologically but by theme. He writes about their accomplishments in the military, the kind of ruler they were, what they built, how they managed money and treated their people.

Then he explores their family and mores. Gossip Suetonius doesn’t gloss over the horrors: pedophilia, torture, overspending, whims, murders, incest, you name it, they’ve done it. And he describes their physical appearance and their health, gory details and all.

Life of the Twelve Caesars is certainly a terrific resource for historians but it was too difficult for the common reader that I am. I lacked the cultural references and the historical knowledge necessary to fully appreciate it. And the names! Even more confusing than in Russian novel.

Sure, I discovered that Caligula exhibited public diversions in Sicily, Grecian games at Syracuse, and Attic plays at Lyons in Gaul besides a contest for pre-eminence in the Grecian and Roman eloquence; in which we are told that such as were baffled bestowed rewards upon the best performers, and were obliged to compose speeches in their praise: but that those who performed the worst, were forced to blot out what they had written with a sponge or their tongue, unless they preferred to be beaten with a rod, or plunged over head and ears into the nearest river.

That’s a way to say that failure was not a option. I wonder why there’s an s at the end of Lyon and I suppose that the river was the Saône since it is the closest to the Roman part of the city.

When reading about Nero and his artistic endeavours, I thought that in today’s world, he would have been a reality TV star since above all things, he most eagerly coveted popularity, being the rival of every man who obtained the applause of the people for any thing he did. At least Nero had a decent haircut.

I smiled when I saw that Caligula’s prefect of the pretorian guard was named Macro, who became Macron in the French translation.

I didn’t know that emperors could decide to change the alphabet as Claudius did.

He besides invented three new letters, and added them to the former alphabet, as highly necessary. He published a book to recommend them while he was yet only a private person; but on his elevation to imperial power he had little difficulty in introducing them into common use; and these letters are still extant in a variety of books, registers, and inscriptions upon buildings.

Apparently, Rome was a moveable feast and caesars could also change the calendar, as Augustus did:

He restored the calendar, which had been corrected by Julius Caesar, but through negligence was again fallen into confusion, to its former regularity; and upon that occasion, called the month Sextilis, by his own name, August, rather than September, in which he was born; because in it he had obtained his first consulship, and all his most considerable victories.

 Sure, why not change the name of a month? To think that we still have that name, now!

I could go on and on with various anecdotes like this which I found in my notes and not in my memory. Sadly.

I think that Life of the Twelve Caesars is good for scholars but not so much for the common reader. We, common readers, need a middleman to dive into this. If you’re interested in Ancient Rome at the turning point between republic and empire, I highly recommend the Steven Saylor series. It’s written as crime fiction and it’s brilliant. It describes the politics, the mores and the workings of the political apparel of that time.

PS: The translation I used comes from Project Gutenberg.

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass – Poetic, peaceful and militant

May 8, 2020 8 comments

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass (1996 & epilogue: 2007) French title: Le livre de Yaak. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni.

It is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church — this last one percent of the West – but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God – the scent, feel, sight, taste, and sound of God – forever fresh upon it.

I continue my literary journey in Montana and through nature writing as the hope of visiting Montana and Wyoming this summer vanishes like snow in the sun. My next stop is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, brought to French readers by Gallmeister.

Rick Bass has lived in the Yaak valley in Montana for twenty years before moving to Missoula. He wrote The Book of Yaak in 1996 and added its epilogue in 2007. It is an ode and a plea for the protection of these 471 000 acres of wilderness threatened by the timber industry. In this valley, less than two hundred humans cohabit with black bears, grizzlies, deers, wolves and coyotes.

Rick Bass tells us how he and his wife fell in love with the place. He takes us hiking in these old woods, describing the trees, the flowers, the river and the animals. He has a different approach to nature than Thomas McGuane in An Outside Chance.

With McGuane, hiking and hunting were sports. With Rick Bass, it’s a spiritual experience, a way to find peace, to experience the invisible link between humans and nature. It feels closer to Amerindian customs, more instinctive. His writing conveys his genuine love for this valley. It has become his happy place. He writes beautiful passages about art and nature and their connection. Living in this valley grounds him and fuels his artistic endeavors. He’s in communion with the nature around him. I’ve never read his fiction but I will.

I loved The Book of Yaak and I’m puzzled. I’m still trying to pinpoint why I love nature writing so much and what I find in these books.

I’m a very urban non-outdoorsy person. I don’t long to hike in the rain to reach the right fishing spot. I hated it when my parents took us blackberry gathering when I was a kid, mostly because I was bored to death and would have rather been at home with my books. I love the theatre, museums and sitting in coffee shops with a novel or my billets notebook. I love walking in historical districts of cities and admire old buildings, traditional shops and watch passersby. I can’t seem to do anything with my hands except hold a book and cook a little. For the rest, I’m pretty useless. My lack of sense of direction is legendary among my family, friends and colleagues. How would I survive in these nature writers’ tough environment?

However, the older I get, I more I want to spend my holidays in large spaces. I need to refuel. The more work experience I get in the corporate world, the more I envy the Rick Basses of this world who were brave enough to retrieve themselves from the grind. I’m not saying their life is easier or lazy, because it certainly isn’t. I’m saying they managed to cut the ball-and-chain of middle-class expectations and what-ifs that I have at my ankles. Mostly they were not afraid. Of missing out on the little comforts of everyday life, like central-heating, electricity and hot water. Of raising kids in a remote place. Of getting sick and being far from hospitals. Of not having enough money when they are old. Of living without a security net.

The Book of Yaak is also a plea, a way to raise awareness and seek for the reader’s help. Rick Bass is an ecology activist and he’s been relentless to have the Congress pass a bill to protect his beloved valley from the timber industry. He’s a moderate and doesn’t want to stop any woodcutting in the area, he just wants it to be local based and respectful of the fragile ecosystem of the valley. Saving the Yaak valley is a way to save humanity, a way to show ourselves that we can still turn our backs to our profit-oriented ways.

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We’re an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man’s caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

I guess I love nature writing for that and maybe it’s always been in me. After all, I loved Jim Harrison instantly when I was a young adult and Gary advocates the same ideas in The Roots of Heaven. In the end, the way we treat nature is an indication of how we treat humans.

Highly recommended.

Bless the beasts and children by Glendon Swarthout – “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”, they said

May 3, 2020 32 comments

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout (1970) French title: Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes. Translated by Gisèle Bernier.

One of the great pleasures of book blogging is doing readalongs. Reading is a solitary affair but there is something very satisfying in reading a book along with someone else and have the opportunity to discuss it with another reader who has all the details fresh in mind. Vishy and I decided to read along Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout and Vishy’s review is here.

Six teenagers, aged twelve to fifteen share a cabin at Box Canyon Boys Camp, Arizona. The oldest is John Cotton, from Cleveland. He lives with his mother, who’s already gone through three marriages and three divorces. Lawrence Teft III comes from NY and is testing is father’s patience as he doesn’t want to follow the designated path: go to Exeter and Dartmouth. Samuel Shecker, son of a Jewish comic who has a show in Las Vegas finds solace in food and in his father’s jokes. Gerald Goodenow suffers from school phobia and his stepfather decided it was high time he grew up. The Lally brothers come from Illinois and are raised by absentee parents who are not over their honeymoon phase and never added the parenting role in their couple.

The boys camp sounds like boot camp for teenagers or a school for alpha males. There are six cabins, five named after Native American tribes and the last one is named the Bedwetters. There is a competition between the cabins, with challenges, trophies, rules and a good dose of public humiliation for those who lose. Five trophies are animals (manly animals like a mountain lion) and the last one is a chamber pot. All the challenges are sports ones, of course. Weakness is not allowed at Box Canyon Boys Camp and our six protagonists, with their psychological issues and non-athletic physique are the Bedwetters. It makes them weak in the eyes of the other kids and the camp’s counselors. They are the misfits of this camp, all sent there by parents who wanted to get rid of them for the summer and teach them how to become men. More about that part later.

At some point, John Cotton had enough and decided to turn his roommates into a real tight-knit team. When the book opens, they are back in their cabin after a traumatic day. We don’t know what they witnessed but it was bad enough for them to leave the camp at night and go on a secret mission. We follow them as they take their horses to go to the nearest town, steal a car and go to the location where they witnessed something terrible. They are determined and will conquer their fears to achieve what they set up to do. I will discuss their mission later on, with a spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what they are up to.

Before that, I would like to point out an important aspect of this coming-of-age novella: what white America considers as “being a man”. When John Cotton decides to boost his roommates, how does he win his leadership? He smokes, he has a weapon, drinks a bit of whisky and imposes last names to address to each other. For this teenager, this is what a real man looks like. There is no room for feelings, weakness or compassion. His mission to dry out tears, fears and need for love in his teammates. This is also the message conveyed by their fathers or father figures: to become a man, you need to survive and conquer at Box Canyon Boys Camp.

The philosophy there is based on the Darwinism applied to humans: put up some competitive events to speed up natural selection. Allow the strongest boys to humiliate the weakest ones. They are not asked to help them to catch up, no, they are enticed to rejoice in their success and look down on others. There is no room for intellectual brightness, a man is someone who excels at physical activities. Intellectuals are not real men either.

The more I read American literature, the more I think that part of the white population of America has an issue with the definition of masculinity. The model of masculinity is the cowboy: a tough, silent type, who grits his teeth in adversity, defends himself with a gun and shows no emotion.

I am sure there were (are?) Box Canyon Boys Camps, just as there are dude ranches for adults. After all, the camp’s slogan is “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”. The rules of the camp in Bless the Beasts and Children left me speechless. I have never heard of such camps in France, even in the fifties. What kind of education is that? They also reminded me a passage of Balakian’s memoir, when he compares his Armenian father’s parenting to the one of his WASP friends.

He makes the same comments as Roth when he tells about his childhood in the Jewish community in Newark. Their fathers didn’t have the same definition of “being a man”. They didn’t objectify women the same way or talk about them like connoisseurs of fresh meat, as Gary used to say. True, it was in the 1950s or the 1940s and Swarthout’s book came out in 1970. But Rick Bass mentions the same cowboy reference in his Book of Yaak published in 1996. (Upcoming billet). It is an issue that Gary questions in 1965 in The Ski Bum (in French, Adieu Gary Cooper). Sometimes I wonder if this long-lasting admiration for the cowboy model didn’t bring Trump to power. Bass and Gary think it has a negative impact on the way politics is done, because acting strong is acting like a cowboy and not negotiating or protecting the weak.

But I digress. Time to come up with the part with spoilers. You may wonder now what the beasts are and why there are bison on the covers. The children gave themselves the assignment to free a group of buffalo from a reserve in Arizona. Why? Because the day before, on their way back from hiking in Petrified Forest, they stopped by this bison reservation and stumbled upon the day of bison hunting, organized to monitor the population of buffalos. Hunters won tickets at a lottery and were allowed to shoot at close range on cornered animals. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) called it hunting. The children in Swarthout’s novella named it slaughtering and overcame their fears to stop it.

Bless the Beasts and Children is famous for being a book about animal rights. Swarthout shows the cruelty of men who enjoy killing for pleasure. He was well-informed and the cruel hunts he describes really took place. After his book went out and was made into a film, the AGFD had to change the rules of buffalo hunting.

And Swarthout seems to ask us: what’s better? The cowboy masculinity of these buffalo hunters or the children’s weakness and compassion for the beasts?

Highly recommended. Of course, published by Gallmeister in a revised translation.

PS: A question and a comment about the book titles, in English and in French.

Question about the English title: Why is it Bless the Beasts and Children and not Bless the Beasts and the Children? Why only one the?

Comment about the French title: In my opinion, it is not Bénis soient les bêtes et les enfants because in this case, bête is heard as someone stupid and not beast whereas Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes immediately conveys the idea that bêtes are animals.

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