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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa – unusual coming-of-age novel

May 24, 2021 17 comments

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (1977) French title: La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Translated by Albert Bensoussan.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa is based on the author’s youth. We’re in Lima in the 1950s. Mario is 18, he’s at university, studying law to pacify his parents. He wants to be a writer and he works at Radio Panamericana, writing news bulletins with his colleague Pascual. Meanwhile, he tries his hand at writing short stories and imagines moving to an attic in Paris to pursue his literary dreams.

Two newcomers disrupt his routine of studying, working, writing and hanging out with his friends. First, Radio Panamericana hires Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian scriptwriter and star of soap operas. Second, his aunt by marriage’s sister, Aunt Julia, moves to Lima after she divorced her Bolivian husband.

Pedro Camacho is a talented but manic scriptwriter and he soon befriends Mario, confiding in him and sharing his writing tips. Pedro quicky becomes the new star of Radio Panamericana, bringing in more and more listeners with his crazy plots. With the listeners comes the money from advertising and the radio has found their goose that lays the golden eggs.

Mario and Aunt Julia didn’t know each other before she arrived and soon begin a secret affair. She’s fourteen years older than him. Since they belong to a tight-knit extended family where gossip travels fast, their greatest fear is to get caught by a family member. Mario’s friends and cousin Nancy know about their relationship and cover for them. Mario and Julia have no place for real intimacy since they both live with their relatives. They spend time together at the cinema, at the radio or wandering in the streets.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a coming-of-age novel where we see Mario falling in love and taking charge of his future. Older Mario looks back on his younger self with humor and tenderness. The Lima of his youth comes to life with him, his friend Javier and his colleagues at Radio Panamericana. We also relive the golden age of radio, with its numerous soap operas that will move to TV when this new media is widespread.

The main difference with a “usual” coming-of-age novel is that chapters alternate between Mario’s life and Pedro’s soap operas. At the beginn

ing, I thought that the stories were Mario’s short stories but I realized it was Pedro’s. As months go by, Pedro is more and more absorbed by his stories and works longer and longer hours to keep all his balls in the air. He jungles between several soap operas and his workload is threatening his health. To be honest, I thought that the chapters with the soap opera stories were a bit too long and I struggled to keep reading and pay attention. I was more invested in Mario’s life.

Two side comments about Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

The first one is about the title. The original Spanish title is La tía Julia y el escribidor. In English, it the straightforward Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. In French, it is La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Two things caught my attention in the French title. First, why la tante Julia and not just Tante Julia? Tante Julia sounds better but by choosing this, you link aunt and Julia and it becomes a sort of new first name and thus her identity. You can’t detach the family title from the first name and I can’t help thinking it makes the relationship sound more incestuous than la tante Julia. Mario and Julia are not blood related at all and he didn’t know her growing up, so la tante Julia works better in this context. I don’t know how the aunt Julia sounds to native English speakers. Is it really weird?

Then there’s the word scribouillard, which doesn’t mean scriptwriter –that would be scénariste—and is slightly derogatory as are words with the ard suffix in French. (like chauffard). Scribouillard means penpusher. The scriptwriter can only be Pedro Camacho but the penpusher can be Mario, aspiring writer and Pedro, writer of cheap soap operas. It’s not the same.

So, which translation is the right one?

Time to go back to the original Spanish title. I don’t speak Spanish so I went to my usual online dictionary to see the actual translation of escribidor. No official translation, just references to La tante Julia et le scribouillard. I kid you not. Escribidor doesn’t exist in Spanish. It means that Llosa made this word up and I bet that, after spending years in Paris, it is his Spanish translation of scribouillard. What do you think?

My second side comment is about the various covers of this book.

The Dutch one is close to the French one I displayed at the beginning of my billet. The German one seems to come out of a French or Italian film of the 1960s and has nothing to do with the novel. The Polish one implies that Aunt Julia is a loose lady.

The English cover with the lady and the city makes me think of a WWII novel. The Swedish one goes with the Polish cover. Imagine the disappointment of German, Polish and Swedish readers who based their purchase on the cover, thinking they’d be reading a torrid love affair, and ending up with tame kisses on street corners and wild soap operas. The Penguin cover is good: we see Mario or Pedro, their typewriter and the radio. There’s no emphasis on the Julia/Mario relationship.

I think that the best cover is the Spanish one with the lady and her half-radio face. It’s a good summary of the book: it’s in the right decade, it’s not lewd, it shows Julia and the radio as they are both important in Mario’s formative years. Which one do you prefer?

PS: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Miraflores neighborhood in Lima. It is also the setting of A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique, published in 1972 and also set in the 1950s. It’s a book I highly recommend too.

Miss Mole by E.H. Young – wonderful character study

May 16, 2021 28 comments

Miss Mole by E.H Young (1930) Not available in French.

I think I owe Miss Mole by E.H. Young to Ali, from Heavenli or Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal when I asked for a comfort read during our third lockdown.

We’re in 1930, in Radstowe, not far from London. Miss Hannah Mole is an impoverished spinster who works as a governess. She has no family left, except her cousin Lilia, aka the almighty Mrs Spenser-Smith, the town’s rich patroness. Lilia doesn’t want anyone to know that Hannah and she are related.

When the book opens, Miss Mole has just quit from her position as a companion to a Mrs Widdows because she couldn’t stand her any longer. She doesn’t have any plan yet but when she stumbles upon Lilia at a tea shop, she informs her of her current predicament.

Lilia recommends Hannah to Mr Corder, the pastor of the Beresford Road Chapel. He’s a widower with two daughters, Ethel and Ruth. His son Howard is at Oxford. His nephew Wilfrid lives with them as he attends medical school. Lilia kills two birds in one stone with this recommendation. On the one hand, she ensures that Hannah is settled in a new home, which means she won’t have to invite her to hers if she doesn’t find another job. On the other hand, she appoints a housekeeper of her own in the Corder household, which puts Mr Corder out of reach of the single ladies of the parish who would insert themselves into his life through housekeeping duties. Ah, the single ladies vultures preying upon single clergymen. It’s almost a literary genre in itself.

Hannah has a lovely personality. She’s resilient and refuels on her own. She tries to be hopeful and positive all the time. She doesn’t complain and seeks for the best in people and in any situation she’s in. She rejoices in the little things and she si grateful to Fortune who, in making her a servant, had remembered to give her freedom and happiness in herself.

Hannah also has a bright and mischievous mind, a misplaced sense of humour that isn’t always compatible with her position. It’s her strength as a person but her weakness as a professional. She knows it when she arrives at the Corders’, assesses the people and the atmosphere and sets herself to improve Ruth and Ethel’s lives.

Hannah took a penitential pleasure in controlling herself. If she asserted her personality before she had established herself firmly, even Lilia’s patronage would not save her. She had to persuade Robert Corder that she was useful before she let him suspect her of a mind quicker than his own, and she behaved discreetly, for she had her compact with Mrs. Corder to keep, she had her own powers to prove, and, though she would have laughed at the idea, she had the zeal of a reformer under her thin crust of cynicism. She wanted to fatten Ruth and see an occasional look of happiness on her face, to ease Ethel’s restlessness and get some sort of beauty into the house. She could not change the ugly furniture – and there Mrs. Corder had badly failed – but friendliness and humour and gaiety cost no money; they were, in fact, in the penniless Hannah’s pocket, waiting for these difficult people to take them, and Hannah bided their time and her own.

Hannah is kind, understanding. She’s never judgmental and that makes her trustworthy. She soon gets an ally in the house, as Wilfrid quickly sees through her and acknowledges her wit through little signs. Hannah has plenty of social skills and she uses them to steer Mr Corder into smoother interactions with his children and get close to Ruth and Ethel. Being a housekeeper is high-level diplomacy, especially when you want to bring happiness into a house and reconcile its occupants.

E.H. Young shows how hard it is to be a housekeeper. Hannah doesn’t have a home of her own, she has to conceal her personality, her feelings and compose with everyone’s need. She’s almost forty and she dreads old age. Hannah can only rely on herself. She takes care of everybody but who takes care of her? She has moments when she doesn’t manage to sugar-coat her life and her loneliness smacks her in the face.

Without actually making that confession, her mind went on to imagine what a real love might have been. But such loves do not come in the way of the Miss Moles of this world, and now she was nearly forty. And thinking thus, she allowed the threatening wave of her loneliness, avoided for so long, to sweep over her, and she stood still in the street, helpless while it engulfed her. It fell back, leaving her battered, but on her feet, and longing for a hand to help her upward before she could be swamped again, but she longed in vain and it was a weary woman who walked up Beresford Road and found no comfort in the ruby glow of Mr. Samson’s window curtains. She assumed her usual look of competence as soon as she entered the house. Employers do not expect their servants to have visible emotions, and professional pride straightened her back when she went into the dining-room.

There’s no room for self-pity in her world.

Young describes very well the uncertain fate of unmarried gentle women of that time. Hannah lives in the same social constraints as Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Her acquired gentility implies that she behaves according to the codes of the middle class she now belongs to. She often thinks she’d have been happier, had she remained on a farm in the country where she was raised. Now she lives in town, under the watchful eyes of the neighbours, among people who go to church every Sunday, take abnormal interest in the parish’s events and gossip a lot. Respectability and propriety make the bars of a golden cage.

Miss Mole is an excellent novel and Hannah is a very loveable character. I enjoyed her spirit and loved that Young didn’t write a rosy and implausible book. There’s hope, of course and we follow with interest all the events at the Corders’. We get to know Hannah, her past and what made her who she is. We share her inner life and are privy to her thoughts, a treat in itself. We meet people in Radstowe, good, bad, eccentric, fun or stuck-up characters. I wonder if Barbara Pym was inspired by E.H. Young because Radstowe, its church and its people sound a lot like Jane and Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle.

Highly recommended.

Ali’s review is here and Jacqui’s is here.

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino

May 13, 2021 12 comments

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino (1996) French title: J’ai tout entendu. Translated by Jean-Luc Defromont.

Another Kube pick for me: What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino. I’d never heard of it but I understand it was made into a successful Hallmark movie in 1997. I’m glad my book cover doesn’t display the film poster since I’d rather have original illustrations.

Back to the book.

Ten-years old Sammy Ayers is left behind at the Greyhound station in Barrington, Georgia. His mother is gone, he’s all alone and the station manager, Jenkins lets him sleep on a cot in a small room at the station. When it is clear that no one is going to claim this boy, Jenkins keeps him and in exchange for room and board, Sammy cleans the place. Between Lucille, the owner of the station’s diner and Jenkins, Sammy grows up in Barrington and becomes a local figure. Upon his arrival, out of self-protection, Sammy pretended that he couldn’t hear or speak. This is how he learns the whole town’s secrets.

As the narrator of the story, he relates his life and the event that took place twenty years ago, in 1966. He’s not 55-60 years old.

The town’s royalty are the Tynans. Alford Tynan was a legendary lawyer. His son Tolliver is a weasel who had an epiphany and became a preacher. In passing, Gearino makes cutting remarks on Southern preachers, their lack of mandatory education and sometimes lack of morals. Tolliver is all that. He’s respected because he has enough glibness to lead a lot of people to baptism. He hides his conniving crooked dealings and his greed under a Christian mask.

The town’s trash are the Thackers. Archibald is the patriarch of his extended family. He’s ambitious but knows how to play the race game in the South. He goes in to refuse collection and hides his business savvy under the cover of the black dummy. Play the stupid black man, use a white stooge as the front of your business and the whites will leave you alone.

Sammy hears everything and puts things together too. He has a grudge against Tolliver who bullied him in class. He knows who he is under his mask of respectability. He tells us about his revenge, his search for his mother and Jenkins’s history.

It was an enjoyable story full of the guilty pleasure you feel when a character gets the better on people who tolerate him and look down on him. I had a very nice time in Sammy’s company and the novel is built as a well-oiled machinery with good storytelling.

According to the comments I read on Goodreads, the movie stripped the book of all its edges to make it a very moral and wholesome story. I can’t tell you since I haven’t watched it but with the Hallmark tag, I suppose it’s true. Well, I prefer stories with complex characters.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Déjà Vu

May 12, 2021 10 comments

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017) French title: Le chant des revenants. Translated by Charles Recoursé.

This is a book I received in my monthly Kube subscription.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward takes us to a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. It’s owned by an African-American family. JoJo, 13 and his sister Kayla, 3, live with their maternal grandparents Mam and Pop. Their mother Leonie is a drug-addict and motherhood is only a second thought for her. Leonie married a white man, Michael, who is currently in prison. Michael’s parents are racist and never accepted Leonie as a daughter-in-law. They have never seen their grandchildren.

Mam is dying of cancer and Pop tries to hold everything together. JoJo has reached this pivotal age between childhood and adolescence when children appraise their parents and his parents’ value is down to zero. He even calls them by their first names. He understands he needs to grow up quickly. He does his best to help Pop, to take care of Kayla who relies on him and spend time with Mam.

After three years at Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitenciary, Michael is released on parole and Leonie decides to take her kids to a road trip accross the State to bring their father home.

Jesmyn Ward dives into this family’s past: their golden son Given was murdered at 18 by Michael’s cousin, Pop did time at Parchman too and Mam is a healer. Given’s death was masked as a hunting accident. Given visits Leonie when she’s high, both a soothing and a frightening figure in her life.

I know this book has won a lot of awards, that critics brought up comparisons to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner but honestly, I wasn’t blown away. I had a feeling of déjà vu that made me sigh with disappointment and weariness.

The structure of the book uses the several voices device. Like in Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult or Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan, narrators switch from one chapter to the other. It sounds more like fashion for contemporary fiction than an artistic choice and it made me long for a good old omniscient narrator.

The supranatural elements of the story didn’t agree with me either. The ghost of Given and the one of Richie, a young boy from Pop’s past, insinuate themselves in the livings’ lives. Both deaths have been masked into something else and the two boys don’t rest in peace. And it’s not new, I’m not fond of books with ghosts and haunted people.

The theme of the book itself isn’t really original. Maybe I’m just tired of Black/Indian/Aborigine children raised by worthless or absentee parents and who have to fend for themselves. There’s Blood by Tony Birch and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and now Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Each of these book is good in itself but reading the three within a year proved to be too much to me.

If you’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, I’ll be glad to discuss it with you in the comments.

For another vision of this novel, have a look at Buried In Print’s review.

20 Books of Summer Episode ’21: I’m in!

May 8, 2021 48 comments

It’s that time of year again! We’re planning for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer. The aim is to read 20 books from June 1st to August 31st. For most of you, it’s no big deal. It’s going to be a challenge for me, especially after starting a new job a month ago. But I’ll still try and, in any case, I had fun making my list, with a constraint: pick books that are already on the TBR.

Last year I did several categories, i.e. Book Club Choices, Read-the-West-With-Sister-In-Law, Ghosts of Trips Past, Ghost of the Missed Trip, Ghost of the Upcoming Trip to France. This year, I’ve decided upon categories as well.

*Drum roll*

THE LIST

Book Club choices.

This category remains as I’m still reading a book per month with my Book Club girlfriends. We’ve already picked:

  • L’Arche de Noé by Khaled Al Khamissi (Egypt) –– Not available in English
  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie By Ayana Matthis (USA)

There’s another book TBD since at the moment, I don’t know what our choice for August will be.

With-Sister-In-Law Readalong choices

I’m on a monthly readalong with my sister-in-law too and our summer books are:

  • Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane (USA)
  • The Lonely Witness by William Boyle (USA)
  • Money Shot by Christa Faust (USA)

Upcoming bookish events

If these events are organized as usual, I plan on reading a book for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week in June, two for Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month.

  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Australia)
  • Ballad of Dogs’ Beach by José Cardoso Pires (Portugal)
  • Perdre est une question de méthode by Santiago Gamboa (Colombia) – Not available in English. The title means Losing Is a Question of Methodology and it intrigued me when I saw it in a bookstore.

Cut the Kube TBR

Kube is my monthly blind date with a book chosen by a libraire. So far so good, they sent books I would have bought myself and I’d heard of only one of the books they sent my way. I haven’t read two of them:

  • The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury (USA) It’s a Gallmeister book, I should be OK.
  • Rosa Candida by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir (Iceland) I’m curious about this one, published by Zulma, an excellent publisher.

Of course, I’ll get new ones in June, July and August.

Old TBR members

Some books have been on the TBR for a looong time. I thought it was high time to read…

  • Terre des affranchis by Liliana Lazar (France/Romania) – Not available in English. Liliana Lazar was born in Romania, emigrated in France and writes in French.
  • Sundborn ou les jours de lumière by Philippe Delerm (France) – Not available in English. Delerm’s book is about the community of Scandinavian painters who lived in Grez-sur-Loing in France.

Cheating with the 2€ Folio collection

The 2€ Folio collection is made of short books (around 100 pages), often short stories by well-known writers and it’s a good way to sample a writer’s style and see if it’s worth trying a longer work. These three will help me reach the 20 books count.

  • Nouvelles de l’au-delà by Ji Yun (China) – Tales From the Otherworld (18th C)
  • The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright (1961 & 1938), from the collection of short stories Eight Men (1961) and Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) It was published in this collection after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans.
  • On Monday Last Week and The Shivering by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Crime fest

On top of Boyle and Faust, already mentioned in my readalong picks, I love to read crime books while I’m on holiday or at home by the pool. I may switch some books later, after Quais du Polar, the crime festival in Lyon, scheduled for the first weekend of July. But at the moment, my choices are:

  • Colin-Maillard à Ouessant by Françoise Le Mer (France) – Not available in English. Set in Brittany, it will be a great reminder of last year’s holidays in this beautiful region.
  • Vintage by Grégoire Hervier (France) – Not available in English. This is a rock-blues thriller that should take me on a road trip to Scotland, Paris, Sydney and The Blues Highway, a trip I’ll definitely make as soon as my children are 21 and allowed in bars.
  • Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett, USA, 2019.

Kindle Books to read while Mr Emma is driving.

I get car sick if I read a paper book but I don’t have this problem with Kindle books! 😊 So, I’ve added two books from the Kindle TBR for the long drives to our vacation spots.

  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (USA)
  • Call Mr Fortune by H.C Bailey (UK)

And that’s it. 19 books, plus the unknown Book Club choice for August. 20 opportunities to cut into the TBR. The good news is that I’m still interested in reading the books that are on the TBR, even if some have been there for a long time.

What about you? Will you take part in 20 Books of Summer too? Have you read any book on my list?

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult – Good reading time

May 1, 2021 14 comments

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (2014) French title: La tristesse des éléphants. Translated by Pierre Girard

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult was our Book Club read for April. It’s a tricky book to review because the risk of spoilers is very high and any hint at the key clue of the book could totally ruin the book for other readers.

So, I’ll go with a light summary of the plot. Jenna Metcalf is 13, she lives in New Hampshire with her grandmother. Jenna’s parents used to run a sanctuary for elephants and Alice’s researches were about grief among elephants. Her father Thomas has been in a psychiatric ward for ten years, since Jenna’s mother Alice disappeared during a fateful night. An elephant caretaker was killed by an elephant, Alice was wounded and she disappeared from the hospital. No one has heard of her since.

Jenna has Alice’s notebooks and she hopes that they hold clues that will help her find her mother. She can’t imagine that her mother left her behind. Her first investigations are online, tracking missing persons and looking for information about her mother and that night’s event. At some point, she decides that she needs help.

She hires Serenity Jones, a medium, in the hope to find out if her mother is dead or alive. Serenity is a gifted medium but she lost all credibility after a public mistake. She used to help the police find missing persons, dead or alive. But she became cocky, used her talents for money and fame and lost her touch. She reluctantly accepts to help Jenna.

Jenna also hires Virgil Stanhope, the cop who was on her mother’s case. He left the police force and now works as a PI, tracking unfaithful spouses. Jenna hopes that he will reopen the investigation and help her.

This unlikely trio teams up to look for Alice. That’s the basic plot. Now my opinion about the book.

The point of view alternates between Jenna, Serenity, Alice and Virgil. Jenna’s, Serenity’s and Virgil’s voices make the story move forward. They relate the current investigation and come back to their personal history, their mistakes and how they arrived at the point where they all met. Alice talks about her research, about the elephants, her life in Africa and her marriage to Thomas.

I enjoyed reading Leaving Time, I was looking forward to the next chapter and had an excellent reading time. The book was suspenseful, well-written and well-constructed. Maybe too well.

It’s flawless like a well-oiled machine, like a Hollywood blockbuster. I thought while I was reading, “I bet she has a degree in literature and studied creative writing.” Bingo, according to Wikipedia. You can feel it when you read. The characters are designed to have issues, our improbable trio of amateur sleuths have the conflicts you expect. Each character of the drama that happened ten years ago has a secret past and personal wounds. It’s as good as a TV series, and I say that without any contempt.

I was absorbed and interested in Alice’s research about elephants. I was invested in the story, I was in New Hampshire with the characters and forgot where I was for a while. The ending threw me off.

Jodi Picoult will never be a genius of literature but it’s OK. She writes well and holds her reader’s attention. Sometimes we don’t need more, because entertainment and escapism are a precious commodity in today’s world.

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