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A Summer With Proust – “Reading is a friendship”

January 31, 2021 23 comments

A Summer With Proust by Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. (2014) Not available in English. Original French title: Un été avec Proust.

La lecture est une amitié.

(Reading is a friendship)

Marcel Proust

In 2013, to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Un amour de Swann by Marcel Proust (Swann’s Way, in English translation), France Inter broadcasted a series of moments entitled A summer with Proust.

Several Proust specialists talked about a side of A la Recherche du temps perdu. (In Search of Lost Time) In French, this masterpiece’s pet name is La Recherche. The panel was composed of Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. They are teachers, philosophers, writers, essayists, film-makers or historians, all Proust lovers.

Each of them has a section in the book and writes about Proust or something in La Recherche. The topics are various: Time, characters, love, imagination, places, Proust and philosophers and arts. All chapters are structured the same way: a quote, a short introduction, an essay and a longer quote to illustrate the essay. They make Proust easy and the burin of their love for Proust chips away the ivory tower where this monument of literature has been locked into. They demystify Proust, the author of a literary cathedral.

This team of writers knows La Recherche in and out and addresses all readers with maestro. I imagine that the newcomer will want to start reading Proust after this appetizer. The Proust reader will experience a mise en abyme, living the madeleine episode while reading about reading Proust.

I opened this billet with a quote by Proust stating that La lecture est une amitié and this is exactly how I feel about literature in general and Proust in particular. Like the writers of A Summer With Proust, I have a long and standing friendship with La Recherche. Of course, I’m far from being as literate as they are about Proust but reading A Summer With Proust is like receiving a letter full of news from old friends who would live on another continent.

I discovered Proust when I was in high school. I read it slowly, La Recherche is not a book you devour and it required a lot of attention. This slow rhythm mixed with the presence of characters coming in and out of the pages all along the volumes is such that the characters and events stay with you. I started to read it again as an adult. (See my Reading Proust page) and I got reacquainted with a world I had not forgotten.

Like all readers I have experienced this: I read a book I enjoy immensely and a few months later, I don’t really remember it, its plot or its characters. For my memory and my senses, some books are like the rain of a summer storm. I get drenched, I get dry and I move on. Lots of rain and pleasure at the time I read, but most of the flow is flushed from my memory. Storms don’t help with groundwater, moderate rains do.

La Recherche is not a storm, it’s a long, persistent and warm drizzle. It reached my bones, penetrated my memory the first time I read it and settled in me. I developed a familiarity with the characters of La Recherche and I can only compare it to crime fiction series, with their recurring character. When you open a new volume of the series, you’re on familiar grounds, happy to spend some more time with the lead character. When I started A Summer With Proust, I re-connected to Proust’s world immediately, like you do when you meet up with good friends, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time. The reconnection is instantaneous. 

In La Recherche, Proust is the master of all masters. He wrote a book about the power of imagination, about memory and its effect on us. Through the power of his memories, his literary skills and his intelligence, he wrote a masterpiece that dissects the workings of memories and sensorial experiences on our beings and at the same time imprints himself and his lost world in our souls and memories. His experience helps us understand our experience.

Proust left us keys to enter into our memories, analyze our feelings and enjoy little moments in life. For he is also the writer who dissects small moments, sees the beauty in them and tells us that beauty is within our reach if we pay enough attention.

In other words, it’s good to be friends with La Recherche, a book that gives its friendship freely to readers who seek for it.

Fuck America. Bronsky’s Confession by Edgar Hilsenrath – Bandini on steroids

January 30, 2021 11 comments

Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath (1980) French title: Fuck America. Translated by Jörg Stickan.

Last time I visited a bookstore, I thought I’d browse through the German literature shelf and see if I could find a book that wasn’t about WWII and wasn’t too depressing. Sometimes it seems that only those make it into French translation. Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath caught my eye for its bold title and its colorful cover.

The book opens on a prologue: letters exchanged between Nathan Bronsky and the American consul in Germany. After Kristallnacht, Nathan Bronsky, a Jew who lives in Halle an der Saale, wants to emigrate to the USA with his family. The consul answers that it will take several years.

Then we’re in New York in 1953. Jakob Bronsky, Nathan’s son has been in America for a year. He lives in a boarding house and spends his nights at the emigrant cafeteria on Broadway and 86th. It’s open all night long, coffee is cheap and Bronsky stays there to write his great novel, The Wanker.

We follow Bronsky in his daily life, where he alternates odd jobs to save enough money to live off this cash for a while and write other chapters. He describes all his tricks to take the bus without paying and to make his money last longer. He steals a bit of coffee and some eggs in the communal kitchen at the boarding house. He eats in restaurants and leaves without paying, escaping through the bathroom windows.

Bronsky lives in a poor neighborhood, full of emigrants, prostitutes and bums. He associates with street smart emigrants or bums and follow them in small scheme to swindle money while on their jobs. Small tricks, not too risky, not too illegal. Just poor guys who turn the tables on those who try to exploit them.

Bronsky is not a good emigrant. He writes in German and has no intention of ever writing in English. He doesn’t feel at ease in the American society. He doesn’t want to become an American because he doesn’t buy the American dream. He doesn’t want to work hard and become rich. He doesn’t subscribe to consumer society, to the need to show off, to earn more to buy more.

Then the book turns into a confession and we learn what happened to the Bronsky family between 1939 and 1952 and how he arrived in America. I understand that Jakob Bronsky’s life is based on Hilsenrath’s. And that part is not so funny.

Bronsky is a Jewish Bandini merged with a sober Bukowski and a Portnoy born in 1926 Germany. He’s offensive. The dialogues are crude, absurd and hilarious. He’s obsessed with sex, obsessed with writing. He has a wicked sense of humor and he points out the foibles and prejudices of the American way of life. The passages when he does odd jobs are funny and vivid. Jakob is not a bad guy. He does what he can to survive and write his novel, trying to expurge from his sytem the burden of his war memories. He’s a survivor of the Holocaust and we tend to forget it because of the dark humor instilled in the book.

So, OK, I didn’t manage to read a German book that doesn’t talk about WWII but I sure want to read more by Hilsenrath.

Mister Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie – Québec City in the 1980s and Lady Oscar

January 24, 2021 11 comments

Mr Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie (2010) Original French Canadian title: La petite et le vieux.

J’étais parvenue à me convaincre que j’étais un garçon et je tenais à ce qu’on m’appelle Joe. J’aurais aimé Oscar, comme mon personnage de dessins animés préféré mais, à l’époque, Oscar était le squelette des classes de biologie et un nouveau type de balai révolutionnaire. Alors je me contentais de Joe, même si sa syllabe en cul-de poule sonnait comme une banale exclamation. Quand on évitait de penser aux Dalton, ça pouvait faire sérieux.

I had managed to convince myself that I was a boy and I wanted people to call me Joe. I would have preferred Oscar, like my favorite anime character, but at the time, Oscar was the name of skeletons in biology classes and a new type of revolutionary broom. I settled with Joe, even if its pouting syllable sounded like an ordinary exclamation. If you didn’t think about the Daltons, Joe could be a serious name. (my translation)

This is Hélène speaking. She’s the heroine of La petite et le vieux by Marie-Renée Lavoie. Hélène is an adult now and she remembers her life when she was eight-year-old. We’re in a working-class neighbourhood in Québec City, in the 1980s. Hélène is obsessed with Lady Oscar, the Japanese anime set in France just before the French Revolution.

I’m not sure English-speaking readers know about Lady Oscar anime. It is based on the manga The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda. According to Wikipedia, the anime was broadcasted in Québec and in France in 1986 and I remember seeing it on the French TV. In this series, Lady Oscar is a woman, educated as a boy by a father who was tired of having only daughters. Her military education helps her join the royal guard and, dressed as a man, she becomes Oscar who protects the young Marie-Antoinette. With her best friend André, they live all kinds of dangerous adventures.

So, our heroine Hélène wants to be like Lady Oscar. She wishes she were a boy and when in difficulty, she always wonders “What would Lady Oscar do?”

Hélène lives with her parents and her sisters Margot and Catherine. She’s in a loving home but her parents struggle financially. It’s hard to make ends meet. Her father is a middle-school teacher, a job he doesn’t do by choice and it weighs on him. Hélène decides to help her parents and gets odd jobs like distributing newspapers or serving drinks at bingo afternoons.

Then Mr Roger moves into her neighbourhood. He’s Hélène’s polar opposite. He’s old, grumpy and always talking about his upcoming death. He drinks too much. He’s lonely and at odds with his family. And yet, they strike an odd friendship and become daily companions.

Through Hélène’s eyes, we see the life of her neighborhood and the Québec society of the time. It’s the life of a child who accidentally discovers how poor one of her classmates is and who talks about her school life. She’s hardworking, running around the neighborhood before dawn with her newspapers. She thinks she’s on her own but we understand that some adults watch her.

Hélène describes her family life, her father’s struggles with his job, her mother’s planed meals and all kinds of everyday life’s events. She sees the world through Lady Oscar lenses and keeps her innocence because she’s too young to know much about the world. And yet, event after event, she gets a greater picture of the world around her and we understand that her home life is not as easy as she thinks it is. I wonder how much of Lavoie is in Hélène as she was born in 1974 and grew up in the Limoilou neighborhood in Québec city.

The quote at the beginning of the novel comes from The Kites, by Romain Gary: « Rien ne vaut la peine d’être vécu qui n’est pas d’abord une œuvre d’imagination ou alors la mer de serait plus que de l’eau salée… ». (“Nothing is worth living that is not first a work of imagination, otherwise the sea would only be salted water…”)

Hélène’s imagination works around Lady Oscar and her adventures. The anime seeps into her life, enticing her to see things through her own glasses and to be brave, to take chances. Hélène comes to life thanks to a lively and poetic prose and her unique view of the world. Although the Gary quote comes from The Kites, La petite et le vieux compares better to La vie devant soi and the relationship between young Momo and old Madame Rosa.

I don’t know how Wayne Grady translated French Canadian into English. As always, I enjoyed the specific expressions and Marie-Renée Lavoie’s style is sensitive and imaginative.

It also reminded me of Michel Tremblay and the Mont-Royal series set in Montreal in the 1940s for its child characters, its working-class neighborhood and the darkness under the apparent lightness of the children’s views of the world.

La petite et le vieux is a lovely novel. It’s not a postcard picture of Hélène’s childhood but a realistic one. It’s a Doisneau vision of a neighborhood, with Hélène catching the beauty where it is and bringing joy with her irony and positive thinking.

A great read if you’re looking for a book that will take you somewhere else and won’t wear you out with its grimness.

PS: I prefer the Québec cover to the English one. What about you? 

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark – an intelligent comedy about a community doomed to disappear.

January 20, 2021 35 comments

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark (1959) Not available in French (sadly)

This week is Bill’s AWW Gen 3, which means Australian Women Writers from Generation 3 and their books published between 1919 and 1960. See Bill’s explanations here

Since I don’t know much about Australian literature, Bill kindly made me a list of books that met the GEN 3 criteria. After checking out which ones were available on the kindle, I settled on Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark.

Great choice, if you want to know.

Eleanor Dark introduces us to the inhabitants of Lantana Lane, set in Dillillibill, a rural area of Queensland, the tropical part of Australia. They have small farms and mostly grow pineapples on their land that is not occupied by the sprawling lantana weed.

In this district it may be said with little exaggeration that if you are not looking at pineapples, you are looking at lantana.

You know what pineapples look like and this is lantana, a thick bush of weed:

Dark calls her characters the Anachronisms because they like farming and their small farms are against the flow of progress. Farming isn’t a well-esteemed profession.

We are not affluent people in the Lane. As primary producers we are, of course, frequently described by our legislators as The Backbone of the Nation, but we do not feel that this title, honourable as it is, really helps us much.

This hasn’t changed much over the last decades, has it? They work a lot and their income is uncertain and low. As Dark cheekily points out the three sections of the community which always keep on working whatever happens (namely, farmers, artists and housewives), are liable to get trampled on. Note the little feminist pique and the spotlight on housewives.

Only a few of farmers were actually born in Lantana Lane, several came from the city to live their dream of farming. We get to meet everyone, the adults, the children, the dogs, the utes and another weird vehicle named Kelly and finally Nelson, the communal kookaburra.

Each chapter is a vignette that either describes a family and their history, a special episode in their lives or a specificity of this part of Queensland. And what characters they are!

Cunning Uncle Cuth manages to stay with his nephew Joe without taking on a workload. Herbie Bassett let his contemplative nature loose after his wife died for there is no need to work for the material world when you can unclutter your life and enjoy gazing at nature. Gwinny Bell is a force of nature, a master at organization and obviously a superior intelligence. As the omniscient narrator points out, her skills are wasted in Lantana Lane.

I loved Aunt Isabelle, the older Parisian aunt of the Griffiths, who arrives unannounced, eager to live the pioneer life. Our communal aunt is an active, vivacious and extremely voluble lady of sixty-eight., says the Narrator, in the chapter Our New Australian. I loved her silly but kind behaviour. Her speech is laced with French mistakes in her English and French expressions (All accurate, btw. I seize the opportunity to tell my kind English speaking readers that the endearment mon petit chou refers to a little cream puff and not a little cabbage.) The most noticeable clue of her assimilation as a true Australian is that she will cry gladly: “Eh bien, we shall have a nice cupper, isn’t it?” Tea addict.

I laughed at loud when I read the chapter entitled Sweet and Low, about young Tony Griffith, his fife and his parents’ outhouse. I followed Tim and Biddy’s endeavours to grow things on their land and slowly take into account their neighbour’s agricultural recommendations.

The Dog of my Aunt is about Lantana Lane’s barmy characters, Aunt Isabelle’s arrival and her friendship with Ken Mulliner and I felt I was reading a written version of a Loony Tunes episode. Eleanor Dark has such a funny and vivid description of Aunt Isabelle’s travels to Dillillibill, her arrival at top speed on a Kelly driven by a wild Ken Mulliner that you can’t help chuckling.

Between the chapters about the people, Eleanor Dark inserted chapters about the place. There’s one about lantana and pineapples, one about the climate and cyclones, one about the serpents and one about the kookaburras and Nelson in particular. I wonder where the chapter about spiders went.

We understand that this tightknit community is in danger. The authorities are taking measurements to built a deviation, a bitumen road that will put them on the map. Pesticides invade agriculture, the trend is to create big farms. Eleanor Dark has her doubts about all these new methods and wonders what they will do to nature.

But this is a labour-saving age, and chipping is now almost obsolete. The reason is, of course, that Science has come to the rescue with a spray. The immediate and visible effect of this upon the weeds is devastating, though what its ultimate, and less conspicuous effects upon all sort of other things may prove to be, we must leave to learned research workers of the future.

Well, unfortunately, now, we know.

Eleanor Dark has a great sense of humour and Lantana Lane is a comedy. She mixes irony and humorous observations. She has knack for comedy of situation. She writes in a lively prose, a playful tone, shows an incredible sense of place and a wonderful tendency to poke fun at her characters. She points out their little flaws with affection and pictures how the community adapts and accepts everyone’s eccentricities. But behind the comedy, the reader knows that this way-of-living is condemned.

As usual, reading classic Australian lit is educational, vocabulary-wise. I had to research lantana, paw-paw, Bopple-Nut, pullet (although, being French and given the context, I’d guessed it was the old English for poulet) and all kinds of other funny ringing ones (flibbertigibbet, humdinger, flapdoodle…)

Visiting Lantana Lane was a great trip to Queensland, a journey I highly recommend for Dark’s succulent prose. For another take at Lantana Lane, read Lisa’s review here.

Note for French readers: Sorry, but it’s not available in French.

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

January 17, 2021 8 comments

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (2015) French title: Les étoiles s’éteignent à l’aube. Translated by Christine Raguet.

A couple of months back, I gifted myself with a Kube subscription. I described my reading tastes, chose an independent libraire (of course, I selected Charlotte, whose bookstore is named La vie devant soiLife Before Us) to pick me a monthly read. I love book blind dates.

Medecine Walk by Richard Wagamese was the first book I received through this monthly subscription and Charlotte was spot on. Wagamese (1955-2017) is a Canadian indigenous writer, from the Ojibwe nation.

Medecine Walk takes us to British Columbia, the cold part of the state. Franklin (Frank) Starlight is sixteen. He doesn’t know who his mother is and his contacts with his father have been scarce and disastrous. Eldon is an alcoholic who works to pay his booze and otherwise lives in squalor.

Frank was raised on a small farm by The Old Man. He doesn’t know how he’s connected to him but this man took him in and raised him as his son. Franklin is a quiet boy, hardworking and attuned to the majestic nature around him. He loves solitary travels in the woods and knows how to survive in the wilderness. He never made friends in school, was called Injun too many times and dropped out of school as soon as he could.

He’s quite content with his life when his father Eldon asks him to come and visit him. Frank goes reluctantly and learns that his father is dying. Alcohol got the better of him and now he wants to go and die like a warrior, sitting facing east. He has a spot in mind and wants Frank to take him there.

This cathartic journey will be an opportunity for Eldon to reveal his past to his son, give him some clues about where he comes from and who The Old Man is. For Frank, this difficult walk with his suffering father is his chance to reconnect to his past, to patch up the foundations of his soul that were fractured by his unknown origins and be stronger for the future.

When I pick up pieces of Eldon’s story to build a timeline in my head, I come to the conclusion that Frank was born around 1960, so, about the same as Wagamese. Frank doesn’t know much about his biological parents, and that’s a big issue. Eldon doesn’t talk much and The Old Man always thought it wasn’t his story to tell, leaving a young boy wondering about his mother, instinctively looking for her around him. Eldon starts talking when he doesn’t have a choice, when taking his memories with him in the grave would end up erasing his presence on Earth. After all, after we’re gone, we only survive in others’ memories.

Eldon’s story is sad but Frank holds his own and doesn’t accept his father’s circumstances as valid excuses. At least, not readily. He can’t help thinking that you always have a choice and that Eldon took the easy route, leaving his son in someone else’s care and using his addiction as an excuse not to step up. Of course, things are always more complicated than that but Frank is only sixteen.

The truth is Eldon himself doesn’t know much about his lineage. His surname is Starlight and he doesn’t know where it comes from. He feels not uprooted but “unrooted”. To be uprooted would mean he had roots in the first place but although he knew his parents, he doesn’t know much about Ojibwe traditions. He’s in a strange limbo, the whites see him as an Indian and he doesn’t belong to an Ojibwe community. It’s hard to build a strong backbone in these conditions. Although Eldon didn’t go to a boarding school for Indigenous people, I couldn’t help thinking that his not knowing about his family’s history was the direct consequence of the Canadian indigenous people policies.

As a reader, I was happy that Frank got the clues about his past when he was young enough to patch up his inner holes. He has a chance to mend himself and move on. I liked that he listened to his father but that he was smart enough to keep his critical mind. I closed the book thinking he’s be alright.

Medicine Walk is a good reading companion to The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert and Eldon’s life reminded me of stories by Annie Proulx.

Highly recommended. Thank you, Charlotte!

The Score by Richard Stark – the Parker series

January 16, 2021 14 comments

The Score by Richard Stark (1964) French title: En coupe réglée. Translated by M. Elfvik.

I don’t remember why I downloaded The Score by Richard Stark since I didn’t know him at all. I was grateful for the foreword by John Banville in this edition as it puts the book and its character in their context. Richard Stark is Donald Westlake’s penname. He didn’t want too many Westlakes published at the same time, so he decided to take a nom de plume for this series.

Like Lawrence Block in a previous billet, you’ve got to admire these prolific writers who write so much and have so many good stories in their heads that they need several pennames for the market to keep up with them.

The Score is the fifth instalment of the Parker Series and the main character, Parker, is a criminal who steals money for a living. In The Score, he’s been hired by Edgards to organize the heist of a whole mining town, Copper Canyon, North Dakota. The idea is to rob the payroll from the plant, break all the bank safes and break into the jewerly store.

At first, Parker thinks it’s madness. When he works out the details and finds the right men, he starts thinking it’s feasible. One thing he doesn’t know: this operation seems to be a personal matter for Edgards and Parker wonders if it’ll interfere with the success of the job.

The Score is split in three parts: preparation, operation and aftermath. Twelve men are necessary to secure the town, steal the money efficiently and buy time to escape, stay put for a while and split. I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t put all this intelligence and attention to details into legal activities.

Parker is a born leader. His physique inspire respect from the men:

He was a big man, broad and flat, with the look of a brutal athlete. He had long arms, ending in big flat hands gnarled with veins. His face—it was his second, done by a plastic surgeon—looked strong and self-contained.

You sure don’t want to mess up with someone like that but in operation, he’s smooth, levelheaded and tries to avoid useless violence.

Grofield liked to watch Parker work. See him before a job, or after, you’d think he was just a silent heavy, quick-tempered and mean, about as subtle as a gorilla. But on a job, dealing with any people that might be in the way, he was all psychology. Terrify them first. Terrify them in such a way that they’ll freeze. Not so they’ll make noise, or run, or jump you, or anything like that, just so they’ll freeze. Then talk to them, calm and gentle. Get their first names, and use the first names. When a man uses your first name, calmly and without sarcasm, he’s accepting your individuality, your worthiness to live. The use of your first name implies that this man really doesn’t want to harm you. The fright to freeze them, and then the reassurance to keep them frozen. And it worked almost every time.

Parker is a professional who wants to keep earning money in perfectly executed heists. He doesn’t do sloppy because he wants to stay out of prison and if he gets caught, he doesn’t want to be charged with manslaughter. So keep the violence to a minimum, don’t do any useless damages and focus on getting the money.

Stark (Westlake) is a fine author with a cinematographic writing. The Score reads itself as you watch a good crime film from the 1950s or 1960s. For a French, it’s a Gabin or Belmondo kind of movie.

Stark excels at building the tension. The preparation of the operation is detailed enough to be plausible and he transported me with the characters when they studied the town’s map in an abandoned wharehouse, when Parker went to purchase the weapons they’d need for the heist. I learnt about the underground financing of such criminal operations.

For the record, the men decide to take the risk and rob the town for an expected loot of $20 000 per person. As a comparison, the purchase of all the weapons (machine guns, tommies, rifles and handguns), the several cars and the trucks needed for the operation cost $4000. So, $20 000 is a lot of money in 1964.

Stark/Westlake writes a good story, avoids useless violence and gory details and instills a bit of humor here and there. Here’s one of the men lecturing Grofield because he doesn’t pay income taxes while every criminal knows you need to find a creative way of justifying the origin of your money on your income tax return and pay taxes like a good law-abiding citizen.

“You’re a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you’ll never even be indicted. But if you don’t pay your income tax, Grofield, you will go to jail.”

Right. Good advice. After all, Al Capone fell for tax fraud.

Another quote, from the scene where Parker buys the weapons for the job:

Machine guns,” said the blind man. “They’re expensive, machine guns.” “I know,” said Parker. “And hard to come by.” “I know.” “The government tries to keep tabs on them. It’s tough to find one without a history.” “I need three. And three rifles. And eight handguns.” “Rifles, handguns,” said the blind man. “No problem. Machine guns, that’s a problem.”

Ah the good old days, when it was difficult to get machine guns in the USA. This is 1964. Just a reminder that government control on weapons existed at some point. See, it is possible.

The Score and the Parker series have been made into a BD (graphic novel). The French version of the BD is translated by Tonino Benaquista and should be good entertainment and the translation is recent. According to the cover, the drawings by Darwyn Cooke look gorgeous.

As an novel, The Score was published by Série Noire and translated by M. Elfvik. It’s currently out-of-print and since there’s no recent translation, I wouldn’t be too confident about the quality of the 1960s one. Other books of the series have been republished by Rivages Noir and may have been retranslated.

This is a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. It’ll keep you entertained and there’s no gratuitous violence. I’m curious about Parker and how Stark/Westlake developed his character.

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert – tragedy strikes in Washington state

January 12, 2021 11 comments

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert (2014) French title: L’heure de plomb. Translated by François Happe.

For Matt Lawson, the hero of Bruce Holbert’s novel, this hour of Lead mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s poem happens in November 1918. He’s at school with his twin brother Luke and they have to go home during an intense snow storm. They leave school but soon realize they will not make it home and decide to go back to school until the weather improves. Their school mistress Linda Jefferson spots them and brings them home but despite her best effort, it’s too late for Luke. He dies of hypothermia.

At home, at their farm, their father Ed leaves the comfort of the house to go and look for them. He gets lost in the blizzard and doesn’t come back; his wife Helen won’t even find his body.

Matt is fourteen when this tragedy strikes. His father and his brother are dead, his mother is walled up in her grief and he’s the only man to run the farm. Luke was the bright and sociable twin. Matt is the quiet and slower one.

Now he lives in a silent household. Neither Helen or him know how to verbalize their grief and talk about their emotions. Stocked emotions erupts in fits of violence and Matt’s love finds an outlet in his dog and his horse.

Matt starts working hard on the farm, lives besides his mother and on Sundays, he drives the carriage around, looking for his father’s body. This is how he meets and falls in love with Wendy. He doesn’t have the social codes for courting her. His ways are unusual, weird even. He frightens her and she rejects him, his second tragedy.

The Hour of Lead is Matt’s story, the life of a man who lives in a remote part in the east of Washington state. We come across other people from the area, as they come in and out of Matt’s life: Wendy and her family, Linda Jefferson and her son Lucky, the Jarms family.

It is a story of the West with people branded by the climate and the wilderness around them. They don’t say much, they act. Matt is weaned of human love when Luke and his father die. He never recovers emotionally and doesn’t know how to express his feelings. Things are not better in the Jarms household.

We are among people who yearn for love and don’t know how to share it, to show it or keep it. In this novel, women are hard, cold and don’t spread a lot of love. Matt’s mother has no interest in her son. Linda’s ways with Lucky are possessive and unhealthy. Wendy has a hard time connecting with her children.

We also witness the taming of the wilderness around them. A barrage domesticates the river. Roads are built and distances are covered more easily. The third generation, Wendy’s children seem more adjusted as if the taming of the nature also put a lid on their wildest instincts.

The Hour of Lead is a compelling story. Matt is a tough man who lost his twin at fourteen, lost himself in the process, became a hard worker to keep his sanity. He loves deeply and is devoted to the people he loves. Holbert could have changed Matt into a drunk but he drew a character who doesn’t drink much since his drug of choice for escapism is sheer physical exhaustion through brutal manual labor.

Matt’s journey in life is one of redemption, a slow walk towards inner peace with a constant care to protect others from his demons. It’s a very atmospheric novel that shows in the background how tough the life was in this part of the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister.

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block – libraire and gentleman burglar

January 10, 2021 15 comments

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block. (2013) French title: Le voleur qui comptait les cuillères. Translated by Mona de Pracontal.

This is an impulse purchase from my last visit to a bookstore before Christmas. I’d never heard of Lawrence Block but the cover of the book winked at me and who doesn’t want to read a crime fiction book whose main character is a libraire/gentleman burglar?

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a bookseller in Manhattan. His life is split between running the shop, having lunches and drinks with his best friend Carolyn and breaking and entering into buildings at night upon clients’ stealing orders. In The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, a Mr Smith wants him to sneak an original copy of Fitzgerald’s short-story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button out the Galtonbrook Museum. Then Mr Smith wants a spoon with a portrait of Button Gwinnett who signed the United States Declaration of Independence for the state of Georgia. So, our Mr Smith is obsessed with buttons…

Meanwhile, Mrs Ostermaier is found dead in her brownstone. It looks like a burglar was disturbed by Mrs Ostermaier coming back early from her opera night. Ray, a police officer from the NYPD pays a visit to Bernie. He knows about his illegal occupations although Bernie swears that he has retired from burglaries. Ray takes Bernie to the crime scene to have a reformed burglar’s opinion. Bernie thinks that the theft is a smoke screen and that Mrs Ostermaier was murdered before the place was turned upside down to make it look like breaking and entering.

Block mixes two plot threads, the one about Mr Smith and his button collection and the one about Mrs Ostermeir’s death. Bernie and his sidekick Carolyn act as unofficial NYPD investigators. Lots of things are illegal and unorthodox in the story. Bernie gathers evidence with his burglar skills, looks closer into Mr Smith and Block dares to write a grand finale à la Poirot.

This is a gourmet and light crime fiction book. The dialogues are witty and laced with bookish and historical references or explanations. Bernie is erudite and he shares freely with the reader. The minor characters are well-drawn, even Bernie’s cat, Raffles. When she’s not involved in Bernie’s shenanigans Carolyn works at Poodle Factory and their friendship is a highlight of the book, with their daily drinks at the Bum Rap, their sleepover nights and confidences about their respective love lives. The clients of the bookstore add to the fun and New York itself is a presence in the novel.

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons is the 11th book of the Rhodenbarr series. Block is a prolific writer, with four different series: Matt Scudder, PI in New York, Bernie Rhodenbarr, libraire extraordinaire, Evan Tanner, secret agent and Keller, hitman. He has written under several pennames in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly books without recurring characters.

I enjoyed The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons and I recommend this series as lighthearted crime fiction, one of those books you read for entertainment, to cleanse your palate after a tough read or spend a few hours in oblivion, away from the news. I’d like to read more books by Lawrence Block but there are so many of them that a little help picking the good ones is welcome.

PS : The pink cover is the original edition. What was the publisher thinking? Self-sabotaging the book to have a tax write-off?

Best of Book Around the Corner for 2020

January 2, 2021 25 comments

After wishing us the best for 2021, let’s have a look at my 2020 reading year. I’ve read more books than the previous years (78) and that’s all the statistics I’ll give. Numbers and statistics are for my day job. Here, I’m happy to live without numbers and only go with totally subjective opinions about books I read.

So, here we go, with categories of my own.

Best Least Commented Billet

I looked into my billets in search of the least commented ones. Some of my favorite books of the year are in this category, sadly. This is a friendly reminder, I think that Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo is really worth reading. Richard Hugo was a poet and a fan for Noir fiction. This is his only novel and his first attempt at writing crime fiction. His being a poet brings a melodic feeling to his prose and he proves that crime fiction can be excellent literature. It doesn’t help that my favorite one is out-of-print in English, but for French readers, it’s a 10/18 book.

Best Gallmeister Book

Frequent flyers of this blog know that I’m fan of books published by Gallmeister. Among the eight books that I read this year from their catalogue, my favorite is A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm. It is the sad but hopeful story of Taz who loses his wife in childbirth and the slow rebuilding of his life after this trauma. It’s written with simplicity and truthfulness and it’s a masterpiece. Simple things are never easy to achieve and when a style seems “simple”, it usually means that the writer is a great author.

Best Fishing Book

Readings lots of books published by Gallmeister and Nature Writing books implies that a lot of them involve fishing at some point and often in Montana or Wyoming. It’s become a joke in the family and with readers. (Right, Bill?) This year, my favorite fishing book is…French! Ha! It’s Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti, about the fishermen from Brittany who went fishing near the coasts of Iceland. I also did a Literary Escapade in the village where Loti stayed and made friends with local fishermen.

Best Non-Book Post

Last year I started a best-of category for my billets that are not a book review. This year, the most read and commented was my Blog Anniversary: 10 years of book blogging post. Thank you again for reading my clumsy endeavors at commenting literature. In 2020, blogging has more and ever been a window to the world.

You also seem to enjoy my Literary Escapade series and your favorite one was about Turin, right before the first lockdowns in Europe. Let’s hope I’ll do some more in the coming months!

Best Read-West-With-Sister-in-Law

I’m now in my second row of “Read West With Sister-In-Law”, readalong. Thanks, S! It’s a lot of fun to pick books together and talk about them whenever we see each other.

We’ve read a lot of great books in our readalong. I could mention The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, Bless the Beasts and the Children by Glendon Swarthout or Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. Since I have to make a choice, I pick The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke. It is the redemption story of an ex-convict who wants to be a better man, a story laced with violence, booze and blues, set in the landscapes of Louisiana and Montana. It dives into the psyche of America and its history. All this wrapped in a flawless style, courtesy of James Lee Burke. Stunning.

Best Translation Tragedy

A Translation Tragedy is a book available in English but sadly not in French or vice versa. This year I’ve read eight books that are not translated into English and seven that are not translated into French. I wish that more books by Dominique Sylvain were translated into English, and especially Les Infidèles. Knock, knock, Corylus Books! I heard that the rights of her books have not been sold for English translation. Just saying.

Most of the untranslated English books I read were Australian books by CH Spence, Ada Cambridge and Elizabeth Harrower. There is a niche in publishing for Australian Women Writers. Any candidate?

Best Book-I-Want-To-Buy-To-All-My-Friends

No hesitation, it’s Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Each time I read something by James Baldwin, I’m bowled over. He was so intelligent. His ability to lay matters in an articulate way, to be militant without being pushy or disrespectful of others is outstanding. He never shies away from sensitive topics. He’s the master of grey areas, of nuanced thinking without falling into the pitfall of angelism or extremism. We need more writers like him in our world.

Best Book Club Read

Our Book Club year has been full of good books but IMO, no great one stands out. My favorite one is Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian, his memoir about his family and the Armenian genocide. The beginning is about his childhood and his growing up in his Armenian-American family, how it was different from others around him, and how he stumbled upon the story of the Armenian genocide by the Turks and how it’s been swept under an oriental carpet. Very moving and informative at the same time. Highly recommended.

I loved that our Book Club tour took us to France, Algeria, Nigeria, England, America, Armenia, Jordan, Greece and Turkey.

Best Non-Fiction

I’ve read eight Non-Fiction book this year, more than in previous years. While the Winock about Militant Writers in the 19thC and their fight for the freedom of speech was absolutely fascinating, I’d rather recommend to everyone The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass.

It’s a poetic, soothing and militant memoir about living in the Yaak Valley in Montana. Rush for it, Bass’s luminous prose will take your mind off mutant viruses, stifling lockdowns and lonely evenings. You’ll vicariously breathe fresh air with him.

Best Sugar-Without-Cellulite Book

In these COVID-branded times, I was in dire need of comfort reads, the ones I call Sugar Without Cellulite. Thanks to Jacqui, I had a lot of fun with Patricia Brent, Spinster by HG Jenkins. In case you need another fix of sugary read, I also recommend the Austanian A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge and Mr Hogarth’s Will by CH Spence and the crazy funny Mrs Fletcher by Tom Perrotta.

2020 was an excellent reading year, a varied diet of fiction and non-fiction, of different countries and different styles. I did a series of Literary Escapades and will do more of those in the coming year.

I took part in several blogging events such as Australian Women Writers Challenge, Indigenous Literature Week, Japanese Literature Challenge, the #1920 Club, the #1956 Club, 20 Books of Summer and Novella in November.

And what about 2021?

I’ve got Book Club reads, Read-The-West-With-Sister-In-Law Season 2 and my monthly Kube subscription to a book blind date. I’ve reorganized my TBR and like every new year, my resolution is to read more from the TBR and decrease the pile. It seems as likely as riding a unicorn, but one never stops dreaming, right?

What’s your favorite 2020 read and what are your plans for 2021?

Happy New Year 2021

January 1, 2021 19 comments

Bye bye, 2020!

Lots of things happened in 2020 and on top of everything, Quino, the creator of Mafalda died. It’s only fair that I express my thoughts for 2021 through his cartoons and look, I found one that is particularly spot on!

I hope all is well with you and again, I wish you a Happy New Year! 

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