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20 Books of Summer #2: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski – Take a walk on a wild timeline

June 27, 2020 6 comments

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (2010) French title: Date limite. Translated by Sophie Aslanides

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski was our Book Club choice for June. I’ve read enough Swierczynskis now to be –almost—able to write his name without mixing the letters up or putting too many Ys. I’ve read The Blonde and the Charlie Hardie series, Fun and GamesHell and Gone and Point and Shoot.

All books mix Noir, thriller and SF with a huge dose of humor. Imagine the cocktail. I love it. For French readers, Swierczynski’s translator is Sophie Aslanides and it’s published by Rivages Noir. That’s enough for crime fiction lovers to pick the book, IMO.

So, what happens in Expiration Date?

We’re in Philadelphia. When the book opens, it’s present time. Journalist Mickey Wade has just been fired by his newspaper. Since he earned just enough to survive with his wages as a journalist, he’s now flat broke. He’s moving from his upscale neighborhood to a bad one, Frankford. That’s where he grew up and where he’s going to stay rent-free in his grandfather’s apartment while he’s at the hospital.

First night in the building, there’s a bodega downstairs but not a lot of neighbors. His friend Meghan helps him moving in and when she’s gone, Mickey feels tired, lonely, a bit desperate and headachy. He looks around Grand Pop Henry’s apartment and is intrigued by all the boxes he sees. But now is not the time to go through Pop’s stuff. He hunts down pills to fight his headache, finds what he thinks is Tylenol, pops two in his mouth, washes them out with some water and is thrown back to Frankford on February 22, 1972, his date of birth.

And I can’t tell you more about the plot without truly spoiling it. It sounds like Back to the Future but it’s by Swierczynski, so there must be murders, an investigation and bad guys. The plot is gripping and takes you for such a spin that sometimes you don’t know where you are or when. That’s the entertaining side of the book.

The more serious side is that, through these journeys into the past, Swierczynski takes us to Frankford street and shows us how it was a working-class neighborhood in the 1920s, moved to a middle-class one in the 1970s when Mickey was a kid to a run-down neighborhood. It’s now dangerous and the territory of gangs and drug dealers. The decline of industrial jobs in the US happened. It is the same implacable scenario that Roth describes for his hometown Newark. There is always some social commentary in good crime fiction.

A word about the American edition. Swierczynski writes for Marvel Comics and this one is published by Minautor Books. It includes black-and-white illustrations like in old fashioned books. It gives them a wonderful vintage feel.

Do I need to add that this is a great holiday read?

PS : A big thank you for this book to Guy, from His Futile Preoccupations.

Book Club 2020-2021 : The List

June 23, 2020 31 comments

It’s that time of year again! Our Book Club runs from August to July, and we have chosen our list for 2020-2021.

*Drum roll* Here’s our pick for our next reading year.

August

La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio (2004) This one is not available in English. It’s a science-fiction book about a group of people who live in a strange world with violent winds. I can’t fathom what it talks about from the blurb. Let’s hope I’ll like it, it’s 736 pages long. Definitely something to read during the holidays.

September

West of Rome by John Fante. (1985) It includes the two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. I love John Fante, I’ve read several of his books and enjoy his mad sense of humor.

October

Kabukicho by Dominique Sylvain (2016) On top of writing crime fiction novels, Dominique Sylvain is a translator from the Japanese into French. I’m looking forward to reading one of her polars with a Japanese setting.

November

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar (1980) The Algerian writer Assia Djebar wrote this collection of short stories to show women’s lives in Algiers, 20 years after the War of Independence.

December

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) Its French title is La guerre des salamandres. This is another science-fiction title and the French blurbs says it’s as good as 1984, but with the added bonus of a great sense of humor. I’m sold.

January

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd (1995) The blurb says it’s about a young primate researcher who makes a shocking discovery about men and apes, set in Africa during a civil war. I think I’ve read his books The New Confessions but I’m not sure. Have you read it?

February

Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir by Dominique Bona. (2002) It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. It’s not available in English but it has been translated into German. I think it’s going to be interesting to read about her life among the other impressionist painters. Bona has also written a biography of Romain Gary and I remember I liked her style.

March

Ravage by René Barjavel (1943. English title: Ashes, Ashes) Barjavel is the first writer of science-fiction I’ve ever read. All the readers I know have read La nuit des temps when they were teenagers. Most of us have cried rivers when we read it and this is a book I won’t reread because I want to keep my memories of it intact. Ravage is another type of story: we’re in 2052 in Paris and a huge electricity shortage brings chaos in the city.

April

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (2004) Its French title is La tristesse des éléphants. I’ve never read Jodi Picoult and don’t know what to expect. Has anyone read it?

May

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) Its French title is Le sillage de l’oubli. Set in Texas in 1895, a man loses his wife in childbirth. He raises his children in an austere way and concentrates on horses and bets he makes with neighbors.

June

Noah’s Ark (L’arche de Noé) by Khaled Khamissi. (2009) It’s is an Egyptian book and it’s not available in English. It’s the story of a young Egyptian who emigrates to New York.

July

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2012) It’s published by Gallmeister under the French title Les douze tribus d’Hattie.

And that’s all, Folks! Three SF books, one biography, one collection of short stories and books from France, the USA, Egypt, Algeria, Czech Republic and UK.

What do you think about our selection?

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ – the pressure of traditions on young couples

June 20, 2020 13 comments

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017) French title: Reste avec moi. Translated by Josette Chicheportiche.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a Nigerian writer and her novel Stay With Me was our Book Club choice for May. (Yes, I’m late with writing this billet. I never seem to be able to write billets in the same order as I read books)

Yejide and Akin are still in university when they meet and fall in love. They get married quickly and are happy together. Unfortunately, four years after their wedding, Yejide isn’t pregnant yet. The young couple wouldn’t worry about it if Akin’s mother didn’t put pressure on them. As her eldest son, he must have children to keep his family’s lineage alive. Yejide sees all the specialists and medicine men she can, but to no avail. Life goes on until her mother-in-law brings to her house Akin’s second wife.

Stay With Me goes back and forth between the present (2008) and the past (the 1980s) where everything began. Yejide’s first reaction is intense jealousy towards Fumni, Akin’s second wife. She feels betrayed by her husband, by her mother-in-law. She’s against polygamy and never wanted to be an Iya, a first wife.

Yejide has lost her mother when she was little. Her father was close to her but she had to live with his other wives and their children and she never found her place in the household. She thought she had found a new family with Akin’s family and her mother-in-law’s behavior is hard to accept.

Things don’t go where you think they’re headed, with a cohabitation between the two wives and all the drama around it. I can’t tell you how the story develops without spoilers, so let’s keep it that way: it’s dark and unorthodox.

Stay With Me shows an educated young couple with a Western type of relationship who is powerless to resist the pressure put by family and tradition. Yejide owns her hairdressing salon and Akin works in a bank. They live in a rather big city. They are happy the way they are but they don’t dare to go against tradition. Fighting Akin’s mother’s wishes is rude and impossible to do.

I discovered a culture I knew nothing about. Akin’s younger brother, Dotun is married and has children but it’s not enough to appease their mother. Her first born must be a father, at any cost. There’s also strong beliefs in devils, various superstitions that weigh on people’s lives.

Stay With Me is narrated by Yejide but also by Akin, and it was interesting to see events from his side. We see the pressure put on their shoulders. Of course, when a couple doesn’t have children, the assumption is that the woman’s fertility is the cause of the absence of pregnancy. Akin’s mother can’t imagine that her son could be responsible for it.

Stay With Me also mentions politics in Nigeria in the 1980s. There was a military coup in 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida. It doesn’t impact Yejide’s and Akin’s lives more than any other Nigerian of the time. They are not involved in politics and it doesn’t interfere in their attempts to have children. I didn’t see the point of including these political events in the novel.

I thought that Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s book was poignant and that it is an important plea for more individual freedom in her country. We’re in 2020, the story takes place in the 1980s, I don’t know how mores have changed in almost 40 years but surely things have moved on.

I enjoyed traveling to Nigeria, reading about the food, the customs, life in Yejide’s salon and the time it takes to braid women’s hair. I liked Stay With Me well-enough but something’s missing and it prevented me from loving it. It’s still worth reading, though.

In French, Stay With Me is published by Charleston, a publisher I’d never heard of. After a bit of research, they publish romance, which might explain why I never came across them. The French translation is by Josette Chicheportiche who has just published a new translation of Gone With the Wind. It’s a chunkster, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle such a long book. So if you’ve read it and loved it, I need some encouragements here. 😊

For the anecdote, there’s a “battle” between Gallmeister, the publisher of the new translation and Folio, who republished its old translation. If Folio’s translation of Gone With the Wind is like their translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or A Rage In Harlem, I’m definitely team Gallmeister and I’ll be reading Chicheportiche’s translation.

Literary Escapade: Sète, France

June 18, 2020 33 comments

Sète is a city on the Mediterranean Sea, in France.

It is where Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was born and where he is buried. I’ve never read anything by him. I know him by name, he was very famous in his time, a contemporary of Proust. I browsed through his books in a bookstore in Sète but nothing seemed to be my cup of tea, except a book of maxims. We visited the marine cemetery where he is buried and here’s his tombstone:

Nice view, eh?

For me, poetry and Sète don’t mean Paul Valéry but Georges Brassens, who was born and buried there too. If Bob Dylan can be a Nobel of Literature laureate, Georges Brassens (1921-1981) could have been a contender too.

Brassens was a French poet and songwriter. An anarchist, his texts are cheeky and extremely well written. According to his Wikipedia page, his songs have been translated into twenty languages, Japanese and Esperanto included. For Australian readers, there is tribute album entitled Mountain Men chante Georges Brassens.

He’s a master of the French language, mixing old words and argot, playing on words and making our language sing. I was raised listening to his unorthodox songs, like The Gorilla, Bad Reputation or The Trumpet of Fame. He was a bit of an anarchist and certainly a free spirit. The song Mourir pour des idées (To Die for the Sake of Ideas) is a song against fanatism of any kind. The chorus says, “To die for the sake of ideas, ok, but let’s die slowly”, in other words, let’s not put ourselves at risk and be blind followers of extremists who exhort us to fight until death but stay safely behind the scenes.

I love his beautiful song about friendship, Les Copains d’abord (Friends First), and our Book Club, Les Copines d’abord, is named after it. Brassens was a faithful friend, he kept in touch with his childhood friends his whole life.

His repertoire also includes more tender songs like, Lovers Sitting on Public Benches. In the Non-Proposal (La non-demande en mariage), he explains to his long-term partner Joha Heiman (“Püppchen”) that he doesn’t want to tie her to him through marriage. He doesn’t want the quotidian to spoil their love and he says he doesn’t need a housewife or a servant but just a lover. They’ll stay fiancés forever.

Supplique pour être enterré à la plage de Sète is a plea to be buried on the beach in Sète, to spend his death on holiday. It makes you want to visit the city and see its beach with your own eyes.

Brassens also sang poems by Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, François Villon or Paul Fort. To me, Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage was a song by Brassens before it was verses by Joachim du Bellay.

We visited the Georges Brassens museum, with masks and all. It’s a lovely museum that tells Brassens’s life and puts it in perspective with what was going on in France at the time.

Brassens is buried in Sète, in the other cemetery, along with his life partner Joha Heiman. His fans have put reminders of his songs on his grave.

Non-French readers, did you know about him?

I’ll leave you with a last picture of Sète, the fishermen quarter. (Sorry guys, no trout fishing, guys, as trout live in rivers, not in the sea)

20 Books of Summer #1 : Lisbon Poets

June 13, 2020 15 comments

Lisbon Poets. French title: Poètes de Lisbonne. Translated from the Portuguese by Elodie Dupeau.

This is the first billet of my 20 Books of Summer challenge, one of the ghosts of trips past. I bought the poetry collection Lisbon Poets during a trip to Lisbon. Obviously.

It’s a lovely bilingual edition of poems by Luís de Camões, Cesário Verde, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Florbela Espanca and Fernando Pessoa. The same book exists in English, Italian, German and other languages.

The French translation is new, there’s a foreword by Anne-Marie Quint, professor at the Sorbonne. Original drawings by André Carrilho illustrate the book and all this attention to details makes of this edition a nice book to have in hands.

Now I’m not a great reader of poetry and imagine the challenge to write a billet in English about poems you’ve read in a Portuguese/French bilingual edition. I’ll be brief.

Poet seems to be a dangerous profession in Portugal if you look at these poets’ untimely death. Except for Luís de Camões who lived 56 years in the 16th century, they all died young. Cesário Verde was 31 when he died in 1886, Mário de Sá-Carneiro was 26 when he committed suicide in 1916, Florbela Espanca was 36 when she killed herself in 1930 and at 47, Fernando Pessoa was an old man compared to the others when he died in 1935.

Bilingual editions of poetry are great, at least for western languages. I wouldn’t get anything out of a Japanese/French book but for Latin languages, it’s wonderful. Portuguese is a funny language for me as a French: when I read it, I recognize a lot of words but when I hear it, I don’t understand anything. Since I read the poems, having the original beside the French translation was a treat and useful.

I wasn’t so keen on Cesário Verde and Mário de Sá-Carneiro. I found Verde a bit whiny and I disliked Feminina by Mário de Sá-Carneiro because I found it mysoginistic.

My favorite poems were by Luís de Camões, Florbela Espanca and some by Fernando Pessoa. I loved Alma minha gentil, que tepartite by Camões, a beautiful poem about his grief after his lover died. I enjoyed the sensuality in Florbela Espanca’s poems, her assertiveness as a woman. In A uma rapariga (To A Young Girl), she urges girls to live their life, to be bold and go for what they want. Fernando Pessoa’s poems are beautiful. I loved O livro de Cesário Verde, his others full of thoughts about life.

I’m aware that my comments are trite but think again of my challenge here. Even in French, I would struggle to have anything clever to say about poems, so in this context, it’s even worse. I’ll stop then and urge you to get this little gem if you ever go to Portugal. It seems like a good introduction for Portuguese poetry.

A Mirrors Greens in Spring by Selina Sen – New Delhi in the 1980s

June 10, 2020 19 comments

A Mirror Greens in Spring by Selina Sen (2007) French title: Après la mousson. Translated by Dominique Goy-Blanquet.

A Mirror Greens in Spring is an Indian book by Selina Sen. Set in New Delhi in the early 1980s, it focuses on the lives of two sisters, Chandrayee “Chhobi” and Sonali. We are in a Bengali household where the two young women live with their widowed mother and their grand-parents.

The grandfather is very nostalgic of his youth. He had to leave his hometown after the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s from Bangladesh and he chose to stay in India but he never truly healed and still feel in exile.

Chhobi is 25 and Sonali is 19. The two sisters have very different personalities, due to a different education. When Chhobi was a young girl, their father died and she stayed in a Catholic boarding school when Sonali went back to New Delhi with their mother.

Chhobi is more studious and loves history. She works for a magazine in Delhi and writes pieces about various historical places of the city. She wants to have a PhD in Indian history. She’s the serious one, taking care of her sister and behaving responsibly. As she’s already 25, their intrusive neighbour, Mrs Chatterjee, wonders why she doesn’t have any prospect of marriage yet. But Chhobi enjoys being single and doesn’t seem eager to get married. She’s intelligent, grounded and her good sense brings a good support to her family. Her boss, Rosemary, encourages her to follow her dreams and not give up for family reasons.

Sonali is the frivolous one. She’s gorgeous, spoilt and self-centred. Her only interests in life are clothes, jewels and parties. She’s naïve and since she’s so pretty, her grandmother, the real master of the house, hopes for a rich marriage. So, when Sonali sneaks out of the house to meet her wealthy boyfriend Sonny, her mother and grandmother turn a blind eye. The inevitable happens: Sonny’s family has already chosen someone else for their son…

The first part of the book is pretty standard. Two girls with opposite characters, a cautious one and a reckless one. I thought that the plot was a classic déjà-vu and I almost stopped reading. The second part moved past the jilted poor girl part of the plot and became more suspenseful and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it.

Overall, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring but I thought there were too many descriptions of places, flowers, dishes, saris and of the weather. It felt written for an international public who doesn’t live in India. The descriptions happened at odd moments, as if a tourist guide jack-in-the-box popped up to give details and it broke my reading flow. It did make me want to learn how to cook Bengali cuisine though, everything sounded delicious!

India is a complex country for foreigners and I didn’t get the Bengali vs Panjabi comments from the characters. Sonali got on my nerves because I have little patience for spoilt princesses. I rooted for Chhobi and hoped she wouldn’t sacrifice her dreams to take care of her vapid sister and support her family.

Selina Sen takes us to a cultured household who struggles to make ends meet. We see three generations of women and the toll that widowhood puts on the girls’ mother. The book is set at the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and I wonder why the author chose this time and place for her novel written in 2007. Politics has little to do with the story but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement appears in the plot. Selina Sen mentions the historical wounds that people still carry with them, the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, terrorism in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring for the sense of displacement, for taking me away from my home and drop me into another country, into another culture.

Literary escapade in Lyon – Le petit noir, a crime fiction independant bookstore and café.

June 7, 2020 35 comments

Now that we’re free to go as we please again, it’s time to resume Literary Escapades, even if it’s just a trip to a new bookstore.

During the lockdown, I bought vouchers to support local stores and I screened down all the bookshops listed there. That’s how I came across Un petit noir, a bookstore/café dedicated to crime fiction. It’s set in the Croix-Rousse quarter, Montée de la Grande-Côte, a zone classified World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The name of the bookstore is a play-on-word. In French, un petit noir is an espresso. And you all know what Noir means when it comes to crime fiction. Jean-Pierre Barrel, the owner, is undoubtedly a crime fiction afficionado and he really loves the good stuff. No mainstream crime fiction there. Librairie. Café. Polar. That’s his motto. According to his website, he enjoys his crime fiction laced with black humor and underlying analysis of our societies. That sounds a lot like me.

The librairie is split in three parts. One part with bookshelves, one part for the coffee counter and one room in the back to sit, sip and read and to hold literary events, around crime fiction, of course. With Jean-Pierre Barrel’s permission, I took a few photos of the librairie.

Hardbacks and BDs,

Paperbacks, sorted by region.

The shelves with used books by a coffee nook:

The coffee counter and the cash register:

I came out with four books, three from writers I’d never heard of.

I purchased a second Benjamin Whitmer, Cry Father. I had enjoyed Pike and wanted to read something else by him.

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier. It’s a debut novel, a crime fiction road a trip around the world with rock’n’roll as a background. It’s not available in English but it’s been translated into German and published by Diogenes.

Petits crimes contre les humanités by Pierre Christin, a polar set in a university where professors in literature and arts receive anonymous hateful emails. Who is behind it? The author writes scenarios for BDs and collaborated with Tardi or Bilal; it’s published by Métailié, it should be good.

L’envol du faucon vert by Amid Lartane, a crime fiction set in Algeria in the black 1990s. Crime mixed with politics, sounds interesting. It’s published by Métailié too and it’s rare to find Algerian crime fiction.

After Un petit noir, I went to another bookstore to find the mainstream crime fiction I needed for a gift and got myself Money Shot by Christa Faust. I enjoyed her Choke Hold, the follow-up of Money Shot and I wanted to read it.

Final book haul for the day:

I had a lovely afternoon, walking around the city again, browsing through books and discovering a new bookstore. Since there are around 50 bookstores in Lyon, I still have room for other Literary Escapades.

Have you been visiting your favorite bookstores recently?

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