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Proust reads and reading Proust

November 20, 2022 13 comments

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (1905) Original French title: Sur la lecture. Suivi de Journées de lecture.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (1931) French title: Proust. Translated by Edith Fournier.

Proust died on November 18th, 1922. The centenary of his death has been celebrated here with books, TV specials, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, exhibitions and so on. I meant to publish this billet on November 18th but life got in the way.

Days of Reading is a short essay by Proust, where he muses over the pleasure and the experience of reading.

As often, Proust shows his talent for a catching incipit.

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all:the days we spent with a favorite book. Translation by John Sturrock.

In the subsequent pages, he remembers the glorious hours he spent with books as a child. He wanted to be left alone with his books and not do anything else. I can relate to that.

His thoughts about finishing a book, the fact that we leave the characters on the last page to never “see” them again is relatable too. Who has never reached the end of a book thinking “That’s all? What will become of them now?”. He muses over our relationship with books, our connection to writers and how they lead us to beauty and intelligence. La lecture est une amitié, he says. And yes, reading is a friendship with books, authors and imaginary worlds.

While Proust talks about his love for reading in Days of Reading, Beckett writes about his response to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Beckett wrote Proust, his essay about In Search of Lost Time, in 1931, when he was only 25. Time Regained had only been published four years before in 1927. Beckett was an earlier adopter of Proust and it says something about his ability to understand modern literature and spot a breakthrough in literature, even if Proust wasn’t taken so seriously at the time.

Proust is not an academic essay, it’s the brilliant review of a book through the eyes a passionate reader. Beckett shares his experience with reading Proust and displays a deep knowledge of Proust’s work.

He gives very detailed and precise examples – he quotes from memory, a nightmare for the French translator of his essay because she needed to find the actual quotes in French…He shows a profound understanding of what Proust intended to do with his work and he was ahead of his time.

Beckett goes through all of Proust’s favourite themes: the force of habit, the importance of a setting, his fascination for the Guermantes, his passion for art (literature, painting, opera, music, theatre and architecture.) He has valid points about the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator.

And then come thoughts about memory, remembrance and our thought process. He gives his perception of how memories are triggered by sensations.

Proust is an impressive review of Proust’s masterpiece and it’s a tribute to Beckett’s intelligence as much as an ode to Proust. It’s an excellent companion book for any reader of La Recherche, as we have nicknamed In Search of Lost Time in French.

Proust reads and Beckett reads Proust. I missed the actual day of the centenary of Proust’s death but still decided to bake madeleines to celebrate this anniversary.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown – pleasant and educational

November 13, 2022 5 comments

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (2014) French title: L’envol du moineau. Translated by Cindy Colin Kapen.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown came with my Kube subscription and became our October Book Club read.

It’s historical fiction based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711). She was born in England and emigrated to Salem in 1650 before her father settled down in Lancester, Massachusetts. In 1656, she married Reverend Joseph Rowlandson and they had four children.

In 1676, during King Philip’s War, she was captured by Native Americans in a raid led by Monoco, a Nashaway sachem. She was ransomed a few months later and came back to live with her husband. She wrote about her captivity in 1682 (A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson) We are a few years after the setting of The Scarlett Letter and a few years before the Salem witch trials.

The characters of Flight of the Sparrow are all historical figures and the facts of the book are actual. The people’s inner thoughts come from the author’s imagination.

In her much-appreciated afterword, Amy Belding Brown explains what historical sources she relied on and where she took some liberty. She concentrated on Mary and around her some facts that actually happened but to other people. I can understand that choice and I appreciate that it’s disclosed.

Flight of the Sparrow gives the reader a good vision of life in the Massachusetts colony in the 17th century and I felt the same than after finishing The Scarlet Letter: relieved I wasn’t born in that time and in this rigorist religious context. But then, when you’ve been raised and born in this culture, you don’t know anything else, so…

Amy Belding Brown decided to draw Mary as an early feminist. When the book opens, she’s quietly defying her husband’s authority by helping out Bess, a woman who had a child out of wedlock with Silvanus, a black slave she fell in love with. The story is true but is Mary’s open support plausible in 1676 Puritan Massachusetts?

Then she’s taken by the Nipmuc tribe and follows them in their whereabouts during the hard winter of 1676. This part of the novel was interesting as I enjoyed the descriptions of the Nipmuc way-of-life. I choose to believe that the information is accurate, as I know that Mary Rowlandson wrote about it in her memoir.

Amy Belding Brown describes the slow awareness of a woman who doesn’t want to play second fiddle to her husband, who has doubts about her faith, who internally challenges the Puritan way of thinking. She experienced another culture during her captivity where the women’s place was quite different from what she knew. I can imagine that she didn’t come unscathed of her captivity but did she really go as far as reassessing her whole beliefs? Or was she more relieved to go back to the life she’d always known?

The author also imagines a love story between Mary and Wowaus, also known as James Printer. They were contemporaries, he had been raised by an Englishman and had gone to school. As a translator, he was instrumental during the negotiations between Native Americans and England that led to Mary Rowlandson’s liberation. The relationship between Mary and James seemed a bit farfetched but I can imagine that they were civil to each other.

There’s a thread about romance, marriage and what to expect of a partner all along the book and I wonder if it isn’t a bit anachronistic. People’s vision of love and marriage sounded different from ours but maybe Amy Belding Brown’s choice is alright. What do we really know about what happened between people behind closed doors? What do we know about all the undocumented thoughts of people who were caged into society’s propriety and censored themselves or simply didn’t leave a trace?

Still, that romance thread seemed unnecessary to me as Mary Rowlandson’s story is fascinating enough. No need to spice it up with romance.

I enjoyed Flight of the Sparrow for its historical content. I didn’t know anything about King Philip’s war and almost nothing about early settler’s life in New England. Literary wise, it’s a solid narrative, well-constructed but not as literary as I would have liked. I’m getting more and more demanding on that side, so don’t mind me. It’s worth reading for the time travel to colonial and Puritan Massachusetts.

Did you read Flight of the Sparrow? If yes, how much did you like it?

Contemporary and opposite essays : The Painter of Modern Life by Baudelaire and Walking by Thoreau

November 6, 2022 11 comments

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire (1863) Original French title: Le peintre de la vie moderne.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (1862) French title: De la marche. Translated by Thierry Gillyboeuf.

I’m still doing The Non-Fiction Reader Challenge and I had picked books from the TBR for it.

Among my choices were The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire and Walking by Henry David Thoreau. I had randomly decided to read them in September and October and actually did them within the same week.

Without this timing, I don’t think I would have noticed that these two essays were published at the same time (1862 and 1863) or how opposite they are. I enjoyed both as they each speak to a different part of me. I read Baudelaire, excited about my next visit to Paris and its museums and I started Walking on a picnic break while hiking in the Estérel mountains.

Thoreau and Baudelaire were contemporaries but, according to their bios, couldn’t be more different. A nature lover vs a city-dweller. An American for whom civilization meant England vs a Frenchman. A man who lived in a cabin in the woods vs a dandy.

The Painter of Modern Life is a collection of essays about Baudelaire’s vision of art and Beauty.

He sees Beauty in art and here, he writes specifically about painting. He was an art critic, went to painting Salons and was deeply involved in the contemporary art world.

Baudelaire rejects the official art, what we call in French l’art pompier. Baudelaire argues that contemporary paintings shouldn’t picture Ancient Rome or Greece sceneries like Ingres but real life. He’s anti-Ingres and his Illness of Antiochus. Classic story, Ancient temple and clothes, you see the drift.

He says that what we consider classics now was contemporary art in their time, with their architecture and fashion. These works of arts stayed with us through the centuries because their contemporary side was only half of the artwork. The other half was that universal quality that makes us relate to them now. We see their fashion as historical information and their universal side speaks to us. Their beauty lies in a perfect combination of the two:

La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable.Modernity is made of transitory, of fleetingness and contingency; it’s half of art whose other half is eternity and permanence.

The actual painter of modern life of the title is Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire loved because his art captured the present. He painted what he saw, Paris and its life but also the Crimea War battlefields. Baudelaire uses Guys’ art to write an ode to modernity which consists in urban life, fashion, frivolity, artifice and make up.

Talk about someone totally opposite to a Thoreau who went to live in a cabin in the woods. Can you imagine Baudelaire in Walden? Not really, eh?

In Walking, Thoreau explains how walking is essential to his well-being. If I understood him properly, he tries to keep alive a link between us as part of the natural world and Nature.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Cheeky me immediately thought he wasn’t living in the Louisiana bayou rife with alligators or in the Great Dismal Swamp and its moccasin snakes.

He thinks we forget to turn to Nature as a source of beauty.

While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to Nature. In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals. How little appreciation of the beauty of the land- scape there is among us!

He wants us to retain our freedom of being, our untamed side and not to yield immediately to human laws. Walking is a way to ground oneself, to think freely, a moment to just be, leave other worldly occupations at rest. Being in communion with Nature is a way to reach a certain state of mind that opens people to their surroundings, to learning new things and simply be curious.

Thoreau sees the source of beauty in Nature while Baudelaire sees it in city life.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire explains that we should find beauty in our quotidian and to me, he opens the door to the Impressionist movement. He implies that it is noble to paint ballerinas and guinguettes.

And they will paint cities, their streets, their theatres, their parks and their people. I see paintings by Caillebotte as witnesses of life in the 19th century but I also see the permanence of human condition and that’s a bond between the people on the paintings and me. They reached Baudelaire’s goal to paint their modern life and create universal beauty.

But the Impressionists will also paint a lot outside. They’ll picture gardens in the country, people walking in fields, the light on the sea, the boating and all kind of outdoors activities.

Thoreau died in 1862. He might have enjoyed Monet’s research on light in Impression, soleil levant, in the Nymphéa series or on the Rouen Cathedral series as they capture beauty in the quotidian and in nature. There’s a quest here to paint the quiet beauty of a sunset on the Seine, on the Mediterranean or on the Channel.

I see in Thoreau’s walks a quiet time to refuel on one’s own, something he needed. It’s a way to collect one’s thoughts and be “in the moment”. And Baudelaire seems to praise all activities that will distract one from their thoughts. Thoreau enjoyed being with himself while Baudelaire’s to use modern life to run away from himself. I wonder where a conversation between the two would have taken them.

I think neither disposition is sustainable for the mainstream. Thoreau could afford to walk four hours a day to clear his head and think because he had no family obligations. He only had to earn his keep. Baudelaire could afford his whirlwind and dissolute Parisian life for the same reason.

But the rest of us, we have people who depend on us and jobs to keep. And we refuel as best we can and try to lift our heads from the daily grind and catch a sunset here and there. We steal moments to contemplate beauty in museums and during occasional hikes and live vicariously through Nature Writing books.

And now, with all the attempts at destroying beautiful paintings in the name of Nature, I’ll get Civil Disobedience and read from the source.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

November 1, 2022 11 comments

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) French title: Underground Railroad. Translated by Serge Chauvin

The Underground Railroad is my second Colson Whitehead, after the impressive Nickel Boys (2019) and I have Harlem Shuffle (2021) on the shelf for our Book Club.

The Underground Railroad is a historical novel set in pre-Civil War America. Cora, a sixteen-year-old enslaved girl flees from the plantation of her master in Georgia. Along with Caesar, another enslaved man, they reach a meeting point of the Underground Railroad that will lead her first to South Carolina and then to Indiana, via North Carolina and Tennessee.

We see the risks, the difficulties, the money owners put into finding the fugitives. Cora never feels safe, wherever she is. She has a hard time taking down the mental stronghold that her masters built in her head. She was raised on a land of fear, in a place where you didn’t know when you woke up if you’d be still alive and healthy at night. The success rate of actually leaving the plantation and starting over in a free state was extremely low.

The people who help with the Underground Railroad put their lives in danger too. Helping out enslaved people may have you killed. More progressive States had also hidden agendas. There’s no safe haven without a major change in white people’s mentality.

I read it while I was in South Carolina and visiting houses and plantations where enslaved people worked and were kept as well as the Old Slave Mart Museum. I know that everything that Colson Whitehead describes is accurate (unfortunately) and his book is very educational.

It’s written in a straightforward manner and gives the reader a glimpse of what being enslaved meant. I say “a glimpse” because we can’t pretend that we fully understand in our bodies and in our souls what bein enslaved entailed. It’s a good book for history classes and book clubs because it raises a lot of questions and fuels healthy discussion about slavery and its aftermath. It’s useful and we need this kind of books, like we need them on the Holocaust to spread information about what happened, put it at a human-sized scale and keep educating people. Over and over again.

As far as literature is concerned, I found that The Underground Railroad was a bit lacking. It doesn’t compare with a novel by Toni Morrison or with The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, but it’s not an issue because I have the feeling that Colson Whitehead’s goal was not literature but education.

I think that Handful in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was livelier than Cora. I was horrified by everything that Cora had to live through, her status as a sub-human and the way she was hunted like an animal. I was shocked by the atmosphere of hatred against black people and the ones who helped them and the idea of “great replacement” that starting seeping into white people’s way of thinking. This violence wasn’t as striking in The Invention of Wings, perhaps because the focus of the book was on Sarah Grimké.

It’s worth reading because it’s like watching a documentary with Cora as the main character. Just don’t expect a literary breakthrough in the style. It’s good, it’s efficient and it does the job. In these times of fake news and people re-arranging history and events for their own benefit and conscience of mind, The Underground Railroad is a necessary book, accessible to teenagers. The consequences of slavery in the USA still have an impact on the country nowadays and this book is a bridge to explain where it all began.

Incidentally, we were travelling back to Europe and happened to drive near Halifax, North Carolina. This city is officially tagged as a participant in the Underground Railroad. We stopped and paid a visit this old colonial town and its historical landmarks. It has a trail that leads to the spot of the Underground Railroad with explanations along the path.

They also had two books by Colson Whitehead in their Little Free Library on the street of the historic city center. We need all the help we can get to spread history and facts.

Bookstores, publishers and readers – everlasting love

October 31, 2022 14 comments

We, book lovers, are a different species.

We love to read, we love to read about reading, we love to read about people who run bookstores, we love to discover other people’s reading lists, we love to discuss our TBRs and self-imposed book-buying bans, we love to read about publishers, we love to talk about books, we love pictures of bookshelves, we love a good debate about the best way to organize the said bookshelves, we love visiting writers’ houses and we love to read about people going to bookstores.

Let’s own it: to non-readers, we’re weird.

Since I’m a proud card holder of the Weird Club, I had to read Our Riches by Kaouther Adimi – 2017. (Original French title: Nos richesses.)

Kaouther Adimi was born in Algeria in 1986 and she now lives in Paris. Her book Nos richesses has been translated into English under two different titles, Our Riches and A Bookshop in Algiers.

In 1936, Edmond Charlot, a French young man born in Algeria founded the bookshop Les Vraies richesses in downtown Algiers. Kaouther Adimi imagines that in 2017, Ryan, a young man gets an internship in Algiers that consists in tidying this old bookshop to turn it into a sandwich shop. That side of the story wasn’t very interesting: Ryan doesn’t read when he arrives and, no epiphany there, he still doesn’t read when his internship is over.

The most fascinating part of the book is the tribute to Edmond Charlot. This man was an incredible book lover, fostering talents and writers. He knew Albert Camus in Algiers and was his first publisher. He knew Mouloud Feraoun and Jean Giono. He published Albert Cossery and Emmanuel Roblès. He wanted to promote poets and authors from the Mediterranean. He had an incredible career as a libraire and as a publisher.

He was also a resistant, a promoter of literature and books for all, lending the books of his shop to his poorest clients. He published Le silence de la mer by Vercors during the war and L’armée des ombres by Joseph Kessel.

During WWII, he relocated in Paris, becoming a renowned publisher. He was inventive in the publishing industry but he was not a good enough businessman. He struggled with money, with paper procurement and never had enough working capital to weather all his business ups and downs. He went back to Algiers but had to move after Algeria became independent.

We owe him a lot. I’d never heard of him and I’m glad that Kaouther Adimi chose to write about him. It is important to know about men like him, who wanted people to be able to read, who wanted to spread the words of others, who believed in the power of books.

A healthy reminder. Read Lisa’s excellent review here.

The same Weird Club card played a new trick on me and I couldn’t resist buying Eloge des librairies (A Tribute to Bookshops) by Maël Renouard (2022) when I saw it on a display table in a bookstore in Montchat, Lyon.

I could totally relate to his first paragraph:

D’un grand nombre de mes livres, je peux dire, bien des années après, dans quelle librairie je me les suis procurés, et je m’en souviens comme je me souviens de la ville où je me trouvais, du jardin public ou du café où j’allais en lire les premières pages. For a lot of my books, I can tell, even years later, in which bookshop I bought them, and I remember that just as I remember in which city I was, or in which public park or café I went to read their first pages.

I will remember where I bought his book and that I read it in one sitting, during a lazy afternoon on the beach in an incredibly warm October month.

Maël Renouard is about my age and this tribute takes us with him in different cities and different countries, sharing with us his bookshops and book memories.

He mentions San Francisco Book and Co in Paris and this is where I bought Cards on a Table by Agatha Christie for the #1936 Club. It was the only shop open in Paris on this Sunday morning. It was February 2021, we were under COVID rules and we had just driven our daughter to her school in the Paris suburbs. It was eerie, to be in Paris in such circumstance, with empty streets, no noise, no cafés and consequently no toilets.

I’m a reader of fiction, I didn’t go to university to study literature or any “soft science”. I have no culture of academics, nights in libraries or doing research. I don’t know the names of respected historians, linguists, literary critics or sociologists unless they are in mainstream media. So, he lost me when he talks about fantastic discoveries in second-hand bookshops, books for his studies and research. I have no clue how rare or precious these old editions are.

I felt a bit left out and would have wanted to hear more about literature but he still makes me want to visit the bookstores he writes about, especially the ones in Paris and London. Bookstores are the beginning of the relationship with the books we buy there.

I could relate to the passages about holidays, taking a big pile of books, knowing you wouldn’t have time to read them all but needing to have a wide choice on hand, and eventually reading a book you bought on impulse in a local bookstore. I managed to tame this (a bit) with a Kindle, only to end up taking with me a pile of already-read books to catch up with billets…Unless I have restricted luggage due to flights or train travels, I always load a bag of books when I go on holiday.

Eloge des librairies is a lovely book for book lovers and even if Maël Renouard and I don’t read the same kind of books, we still share an infinite love for wandering into bookshops and making a permanent link between a book and the place where we bought it.

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns – drama in the Appalachians

October 30, 2022 2 comments

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns (2020) French title: Les femmes n’ont pas d’histoire. Translated by Héloïse Esquié.

I received Shiner by Amy Jo Burns through my Kube subscription. It was serendipity to get a book set in the Appalachians just before my trip there. I read it during the summer and well, real life got in the way of blogging. (All for good reasons, though. Nothing to complain about.)

It’s a hard book to describe, for its bewildering setting, the story it tells about people who seem to live like their grand-parents and according to old-fashioned and self-made rules. So, to help you figure out Shiner‘s atmosphere, let’s hear Wren introduce her story:

Making good moonshine isn’t that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman. She knows that legends and liquor are best spun from the back of a pickup truck after nightfall, just as she knows to tell a story slowly, the way whiskey drips through a sieve. Moonshine earned its name from spending its life concealed in the dark, and no one understands that fate more than I do.

Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way—dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-backed Bibles. But that’s not the real story. Here’s what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia’s highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants. Here’s what hides behind my beauty line: My father wasn’t just one of these men. He was the best.

[…] “It’s a true story,” I begin, roosting in the back of an old truck. “I swear it.”

Then I tell them that these woods can turn eerie or romantic, depending on the company you keep.

[…] The story of the snake handler’s daughter began when I’d just turned fifteen. I knew little then of the outside world my father kept from me. Ours is an oral civilization, I used to hear him say, and it’s dying. He blamed coal, he blamed heroin. He never blamed himself. He thought he had the only tales worth telling, and he never understood what my mother had run from all her life because she’d been born a woman—

The truth turns sour if it idles too long in our mouths. Stories, like bottles of shine, are meant to be given away.

This is a long excerpt of the first chapter of Shiner and it sums it up beautifully.

We’re in West Virginia, in the mountains and the nearest village is Trap. Three families live scattered in the woods. The Birds, Ivy and her family and the Sherrods.

The Bird family is composed of Ruby, Briar and their daughter Wren. She’s the narrator in this introduction and Briar is the snake- handler, gift that supposedly gives him a direct access to God. Ivy is Ruby’s best friend; she’s married to Ricky and then have four children. The Sherrods are moonshiners and the son Flynn was in school with Ruby, Ivy and Briar.

Briar is a preacher and his prestige comes from his surviving to a lightning and handling snakes. He keeps his wife and daughter captive in their cabin in the woods, away from civilization. Ivy stays close to her best friend that she swore to never leave behind. She’s the only visitor to this uncomfortable cabin and Wren follows school syllabi from Ivy’s son who is her age.

When Briar performs a miracle on Ivy, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead Wren to liberate herself from her father and discover all her family secrets.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about this book. It’s well executed and beautifully written. But it’s another bleak story about a domineering and religious man who imposes on his wife and daughter to live off the grid, according to his own rules.

I have trouble with these books because I can never relate to this religious frenzy. I want to slap these men who imprison their families into narrow lives and don’t practice what they preach. I want to shout at their wives to take their kids and leave and stop being so gullible or down on their knees with admiration for their impostors of husbands.

Not very empathetic, I know. I had the same problem with Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson or with the ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

I have a feeling of incredulity with these books. In a way they seem realistic enough not to require a suspension of belief and at the same time the families they describe seem so disconnected from mainstream life that they appear to be unrealistic. And here I am with very ambivalent feelings about Shiner, a remarkable novel I didn’t connect to as much as I would have expected.

Shiner is the story of modern Appalachia, and yes, there’s everything Ron Rash, Chris Offutt or David Joy talk about: a dying culture, a terrible problem with opioids and heroin, poverty after the mines closed, sickness after tap water was poisoned and the utter beauty of the woods. So, I have to consider that people like Ruby, Briar, Wren, Ivy and her family and the moonshiner Flynn are true-to-life characters.

And in that case, it makes me sad and angry towards several States and their politicians who accept that their constituents live like this. Has anyone read this? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – Thanks, Bénédicte!

October 29, 2022 20 comments

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2010) French title: Sur les ossements des morts. Translated by Margot Carlier.

The other day, Arti left a lovely comment on my post about Time Regained, thanking me for my Proust billets because they prodded him into finishing In Search of Lost Time. I could deliver the same message to Bénédicte, from Passage à L’Est, for prodding me into doing her Olga Tokarczuk Lecture Commune (French for readalong).

I was worried about finding another Herta Müller in Tokarczuk and I’m happy to report that I was wrong and that I loved Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

The narrator is Janina, an old spinster that people see as eccentric and dismiss as a nutcase. She’s sick, suffers from several chronic diseases but still walks around in the woods that surround her house on an isolated Polish plateau near the Czech border. She’s quite resourceful, considering her age and her condition. Stronger than she seems, even.

She’s rebellious, an animal lover who is outraged when animals are poorly treated. She hates hunting and poaching with fierceness. She reports crimes against animals to the police, writes letters which are promptly dismissed as coming from a crazy old lady. At the police station, they indulge her rants out of politeness but in their eyes, Janina has two major flaws: she’s old and she’s female.

She only has two neighbors who live all year long on the plateau and she nicknamed them Oddball and Big Foot. While Oddball is neat, Big Foot is dirty, untidy and a poacher. So, when Oddball wakes her up at night because he found Big Foot dead in his house, she’s not happy to go out and tidy thing up before the police comes.

That’s the first death. Others will follow, leading to police investigations.

It’s an odd and fascinating novel. It strays from the plot along with Janina’s thought process and yet remains on track as far as the murder investigations are concerned. Our narrator enrolls Dizzy and Oddball in investigating these deaths.

Meanwhile, we learn about Janina, her quirks and her life. I loved spending time with Janina as she’s so funny. She’s unconventional, always thinking out of the box, exercising her critical mind, describing her village, her country and the evolution of mores.

Janina doesn’t like her name and thus thinks nobody has the name they should have – hence the nicknames she gives to everyone around her. She’s obsessed with horoscopes and peppers her narration with bits like this one:

“He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde—that produces reserve.”

It went all over my head but I suppose that if someone tells you this with enough conviction, you’ll either believe them or think they’re crazy. Janina is convinced that all things in the world are arranged under a grand scheme that can be deciphered through astrology.

She goes to the village from time to time, especially to teach English to pupils at the elementary school. Her lessons are …err…unconventional. She kept in touch with a former student, Dizzy, who comes to see her once a week to chat and work on his translation of William Drake’s poems.

The teaching is one of her sources of income, the other one is watching the summer houses on the plateau during winter. She’s like a concierge. People know her. As long as you don’t hurt animals, she’ll welcome you into her house and share what she has with you. She draws people to her, making up a new family.

Janina is an unreliable narrator because she sees life through her own unusual lenses. She believes that animals are taking revenge and that the Deer killed Big Foot to punish him for hunting and poaching.

On top of the mysterious deaths, the everyday life of the village and the construction of an odd family around Janina, Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a philosophical novel. Janina muses over the meaning of life and the essence of the human condition. Her reflections about our need to classify things and actions two categories, “useful” or “useless” are spot on. Who decided who and what fits in each category and why useful is considered better as useless? Fascinating question.

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is full of random questioning that challenge our way of thinking, all done through Janina’s offhanded comments and vision of the world. It’s deep without weighing on the reader. It’s not a lesson but you still make a pause on the page and think a little bit.

It also has a fairytale vibe due to the woods, the hunters, the deer and the mysterious deaths. It brings back Grimm and Perrault, something I’m not usually fond of. But here, Tokarczuk manages to mesh these dreamlike elements with reality. She does it masterfully.

I’ll end this billet with a word about translations.

I’ve read this novel in French and downloaded the kindle sample of the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It helped me find out what the nicknames were in English. Grand Pied became Big Foot, which I could have guessed but I have no clue how Matoga turned into Oddball.

I also noticed from the sample, that the English translation often has words in capital letters, something that isn’t included in the French translation. See:

A ce moment précis, la personne au téléphone se mit à débiter un tel flot de paroles que Matoga écarta le portable de son oreille en lui jetant un œil dégoûté. Puis nous avons appelé la police.Then the Person at the other end started gabbling at length, so Oddball held the phone away from his ear, casting it a look of distaste. Then we called the Police.

See how person and police have capital letters in the English translation and not in the French one? I wonder how it is in the original.

And have you seen the variety of covers?

I think that the Dutch one is very creepy. The French one conveys the dreamlike elements but totally neglects the fun of Janina’s mind. The English one is puzzling. The Polish one would be better with a deer on it as this animal is central in the book.

I love the Portuguese cover. It would have drawn be to the book if I’d seen it in a bookstore. It’s intriguing.

For other reviews, see Jacqui’s, Ali’s and Marina’s.

I had a wonderful time with Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and it will probably make my best-of-the-year list.

Which Olga Tokarczuk should I read next?

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie – #1929Club

October 28, 2022 4 comments

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie (1929) French title: Les Sept cadrans.

I enjoy reading books for Karen and Simon’s club.

This time, we’re reading books published in 1929. I would have liked to reread Les enfants terribles by Cocteau or Colline by Jean Giono but I needed something light and fun and settled for The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie. Entertainment is guaranteed with her books and this one is no exception.

It’s the second book featuring Superintendent Battle, Lady Eileen Brent (“Bundle”) and Bill Eversleigh. It’s a classic whodunnit by Agatha Christie.

The starting point of the story is that Lord and Lady Coote have rented Chimneys from Lord Catherham, Bundle’s father. They have guests for the weekend, a group of young people who either went to school together or work together in the Foreign Office.

One of them, Gerry Wade, is found dead one morning. Suicide, accident or murder?

Superintendent Battle is inclined to think it was murder. The young men present at Chimneys this dreadful weekend want to investigate Gerry’s murder and Bundle intends to help them as it happened in her house. I won’t reveal too much about the plot, just enough to say that it’s well-constructed and plays with the reader’s imagination. It involves espionage, secret societies and industrial patterns.

Superintendent Battle only appears in four books by Agatha Christie and I wish she had used him more often. He’s got this avuncular and quiet authority that makes him endearing. He was also in Cards on a Table that I read for the #1936Club.

Contrary to books featuring Poirot, women have great roles in The Seven Dials Mystery.

I love Bundle. She’s a fun heroin, a bundle of joy, energy, courage and sense. The young men seem rather lazy and slow, a contrast to Bundle’s energetic actions. (“She did not fancy that Gerry Wade had been overburdened in an intellectual capacity”)

Bundle lost her mother when she was little and lives with her father, Lord Caterham, who is described as a rather frivolous and stupid man. She has free reign to run the house and her relationship with her father as well as their conversations reminded me of Emma Woodhouse’s ones with her own father. See for yourself, here’s one of Lord Caterham’s tirades, speaking of Lord Coote:

‘One of those large men,’ said Lord Caterham, shuddering slightly, ‘with a red square face and iron – grey hair. Powerful, you know. What they call a forceful personality. The kind of man you’d get if a steam – roller were turned into a human being.’
‘Rather tiring?’ suggested Bundle sympathetically.
‘Frightfully tiring, full of all the most depressing virtues like sobriety and punctuality. I don’t know which are the worst, powerful personalities or earnest politicians. I do so prefer the cheerful inefficient.’

And yet, Lady Coote, older and more traditional, with her quiet stubbornness gets her successful and imposing husband to do what she wants. She seems meek but she has a great force of character or her husband would walk over her. Loraine Wade, the victim’s sister, is no fragile flower either, never hesitating even in dangerous times.

These female characters seem to be in line with the 1920s women who want more than what their mothers had. Bundle drives the family car, doesn’t have a chaperone and has male friends. Bill is one of them and he admires her intelligence a great deal. We’ve entered into modern times.

Besides the crime plot, Agatha Christie has a lot of humour, like here, in another dialogue between Bundle and her father.

‘Well,’ said Bundle. ‘Great Aunt Louisa died in your bed. I wonder you don’t see her spook hovering over you.’
‘I do sometimes,’ said Lord Caterham, shuddering. ‘Especially after lobster.’

Can you hear him say that with a posh accent and a perfectly serious face? I can’t help laughing, just imagining the scene. I didn’t remember that Agatha Christie was so funny. Perhaps it was toned down in the old translations I read.

As you might have guessed, I had a great time reading The Seven Dials Mystery. It was perfect escapism.

Many thanks to Simon and Karen who host the #1929Club and prodded me into revisiting Agatha Christie in English, for almost all the ones I’ve read were in a French translation.

In dire need of escapism…

October 22, 2022 26 comments

I don’t know how it is for you, but every time I switch on the radio, it’s all gloom and doom. Add to the mix a string of exhausting days at work and I’m in the right mood for book escapism.

I tried to read A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable (2014), based on an extraordinary but true story.

In 2010, Marc Ottari, a Parisian art expert was appointed to appraise the content of an apartment. Set in the heart of Paris, it had been unopened for 70 years. They discovered a portrait by the Belle Epoque portraitist Giovanni Boldini along with a collection of expensive furniture and decorations. It was the apartment of Marthe de Florian (1864-1939), a famous demi-mondaine of the Third Republic.

The novel features April Vogt, an American art expert sent to Paris to help out her colleagues from the French office in charge of registering all the furniture and decorations of the above-mentioned apartment. She gets interested in Marthe and investigates further.

The blurb had me salivating. The execution? Not so much. I thought that April was an irritating character with her marital angst and her swooning for French men. Gable dabbles a book full of all the Parisian clichés an American reader might expect. It didn’t warm me to April as a character or to the author.

April finds Marthe de Florian’s diary and the chapters alternate between April in Paris and Marthe’s voice coming from her journal. A well-known but efficient plot device. The problem is that Marthe doesn’t speak like a 19th century woman, in my opinion. That’s the form. And then, there’s the substance.

CREDIT “AFP/MARC OTTAVI”

According to her Wikipedia page –probably based upon Gable’s novel— Marthe de Florian was involved with several French politicians of the Third Republic and with Robert de Montesquiou.

In the afterword by Marc Ottavi, the actual art expert who went into the apartment mentions that they found letters by prominent politicians of the Third Republic but nothing by Robert de Montesquiou.

To be honest, I thought that her affair with Montesquiou was strange. I know of him because he was a friend and mentor of Proust’s and allegedly the inspiration for the Baron de Charlus.

I don’t think that Marthe de Florian and her politicians ran into the same circles as Montesquiou, even if Boldini painted him too. And both Montesquiou and his doppelganger Charlus were gay.

Monstesquiou’s Wikipedia page confirms my impression. He ran into aristocratic social circles (and not Republican ones like Marthe de Florian) and his only love interest mentioned is a man, Gabriel Yturri. They met in 1885 and were together until Yturri’s death in 1905. They are buried in the same grave.

I’ve looked into other articles about Marthe de Florian and while they mention the politicians, they never hint at any relationship with Robert de Montesquiou. One of those is here.

So, a torrid affair between Montesquiou and Marthe de Florian? I don’t buy it. I’d love to hear about Michelle Gable’s source since none of them are listed in her book.

In the end, between April’s weak voice, Marthe’s too modern one, her weird hatred for Jeanne Hugo and the historical inconsistencies, I stopped reading. I felt I was cheated of a good story because the discovery of Marthe de Florian’s apartment is a bloody perfect pitch for a novel.

I was still in dire need of escapism when I stumbled upon Emi’s message on Twitter (@dappled_days) about The Lark by E. Nesbit. She wanted other book recommendations like this one and I figured it would help me out too. Other book lovers responded with recommendations and I listed them for future reference.

  • The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  • The Lark by E. Nesbit
  • Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession
  • Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam
  • O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker
  • Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson
  • Susan Settles down by Molly Clavering
  • Miss Carter and the Ifrit by Susan Alice Kerby
  • Much Dithering by Dorothy Lambert
  • The Marble Staircase by Elizabeth Fair
  • Shepherdess of Sheep by Noel Streatfeild
  • Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp
  • High Rising by Angela Thirkell
  • The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
  • Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
  • The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  • The Haunted bookshop by Christopher Morley
  • A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
  • The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine
  • The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange
  • The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy Days
  • Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • At Sea by Laurie Graham
  • Patricia Brent, Spinster by H.G. Jenkins
  • Miss Mole by E.H. Young
  • Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  • Penny Plain by O. Douglas
  • Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom
  • The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy
  • Miss MacKenzie by Anthony Trollope
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence
  • A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge
  • The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge

More suggestions published by Dean Street Press.

British Library Crime Classics supplies another kind of escapism and that’s the one I turned to when I read The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie for the upcoming #1929Club.

If you have information about Marthe de Florian, please let me know, I’m curious. Other recommendations for book escapism are welcome.

Time Regained by Marcel Proust – a conclusion and a beginning.

October 9, 2022 19 comments

Time Regained by Marcel Proust (1927) Original French title: Le Temps retrouvé.

Time Regained is the last volume of In Search of Lost Time and it was published five years after Proust’s death. We’re lucky that Proust’s brother had them published.

I’ve now finished rereading In Search of Lost Time. It took me several years because I wandered away, lost time and yet always found my way back to it. I never forgot where I left the Narrator and resumed reading as if I had stopped the day before. Proust’s prose and narration is a drizzle, it pervades into your brain and your soul. It goes deep and stays with you on a long-term basis.

I first read Time Regained in my last year of high school. My memories of reading it were of a brilliant conclusion to In Search of Lost Time, the book where everything starts and ends in a coherent way, a volume that made the whole journey worth all the reading time I devoted to Proust.

My memories were accurate, if it even makes sense to apply this adjective to memories after all Proust has written about their fleetingness and inaccuracy. I have twenty-five pages of quotes from Time Regained, all worthy of attention. I’m not qualified to write an essay about Proust, an imperfect summary is all I can hope for.

This last volume has three parts all equally fascinating and for different reasons.

The first part is about Paris during WWI and how things were for Parisians and Proust’s circle. The Narrator is back to Paris after two years in the country, in a nursing home. From a historical standpoint, this part is very interesting. He pictures the political context of the time and the attitude of the various characters of his novel towards the Germans and how they express or broadcast their patriotism. The war time has rearranged the cards in his friends and acquaintances’s position in the world. He unveils what the characters are up to during these difficult times. Who became a journalist. Who is on the front. Who is an army deserter. What women do and what salons have become. Who works for the government. What happened to Combray, Méséglise and a little bridge on the Vivonne river. Who is a spy. How Françoise lives through this.

But people are people and life goes on. Thanks to Charlus, Jupien runs a brothel for homosexuals, which provides for the Baron’s enjoyment of sadomasochism and the Narrator witnesses it all. (Proust used to go to this kind of brothels himself, he even got arrested in one once).

After the Narrator updates us on what happened to several of the characters, he goes to a matinée hosted by the Princesse de Guermantes, the new one, since the prince has remarried.

When he arrives at their mansion, he stumbles upon a paved stone and Venice is brought back to his memory with the same force as Combray with the madeleine. He enters the mansion and has to stay in the library until the musicians whon are currently playing have finished their piece. Then he’s be allowed into the salon. This time in the Guermantes library is a revelation. Several details trigger his memory and his brain and his literary mission downs on him. His artistic pursuit is not a pipedream after all. He now knows what he will write, how he will write it. He’s on a mission.

This second part is a breathtaking explanation of how Proust conceived In Search of Lost Time. He explains his vision of art and what was the starting point of the work we’ve been reading. The conception of his artwork is laid out here, in the book itself, in a brilliant mise en abime. We read about the aim and the blueprints of his literary cathedral. And right there, in this library, he can’t wait to start writing it. Unsurprisingly, his epiphany has something to do with the perception of Time.

But before shutting himself up to write, in a hurry to ensure he has enough time to finish it before he dies, he has to attend the party. And this party is the ultimate place to meet all kind of people from the past. Some are only there through the remembrance of guests as they are dead. Most of the guests have suffered from the assault of Time. They are grey, old, senile, forgetful. The social order is askew or even upside down. And the Narrator observes them with his acute perception, seeing through them and pointing out the changes and the ridicules.

An era is dying. Time has taken his toll and the Narrator is going to bring them back, not in a realistic way but through is perception of them. He will take us from the beginning of the Third Republic to WWI and describe a milieu and an era. There will be political, social and mored matters. There will be no judgment, no question of sin and morality. He will dig into himself and analyze others to show the mechanisms of love, jealousy, grief, habits, imagination and oblivion.

It’ll be a lie. It’ll be non-linear and impressionistic. It’ll be human. It’ll be a masterpiece.

Henri Gervex (1852-1929). “Une soirée au Pré-Catelan”, 1909. (A l’extérieur, Anna Gould et Hélie de Talleyrand-Perigord. A l’intérieur, 1ère baie, à droite : Marquis de Dion. Baie au centre : Liane de Pougy. Baie à gauche : Santos-Dumont). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

A season at the theatre : 2021/2022

October 2, 2022 18 comments

I had planned to write this billet in June and well, life happened, I didn’t have time for it.

Now that the new theatre season starts, I still want to have a wrap-up billet about the 2021/2022 one. I have a subscription at one of the theatres in Lyon. I’ve seen the plays I’ve picked when I booked my subscription and a few others in Paris.

Théâtre des Célestins. (from grainsdesel.com)

Theatre is still a living art in France, even if theatres struggle to find their public again after the COVID crisis. I don’t know exactly how many theatres there are in the Lyon metropolis (1.7 million inhabitants) but it’s more than forty, according to the Yellow Pages. A lot of theatres receive public funding to keep culture affordable. In France, included in Paris, you can see a play for 30-35 euros, just to give you an idea. After this “fun facts” interlude, the plays!

September: Skylight by David Hare, translated by Dominique Hollier and directed by Claudia Stavisky

The season opened by Skylight by David Hare, a British playwright. Kyra lives in a poor neighborhood in London. She’s a teacher at a local school and barely makes ends meet. Her former lover, a rich self-made man comes to visit her. Their love wasn’t enough to keep them together when their definitions of a purposeful and well-lived life differ so much.

A very powerful direction with exceptional actors. My billet is here.

September: The Island of Slaves by Marivaux, directed by Didier Long

This is a classic play written by Pierre de Marivaux in 1725. After a shipwreck, noblemen and their servants arrive on an island where masters and servants switch their places, so that masters experience how it feels to be a servant.

This play is often on the syllabus of French classes in middle-school. My billet is here.

October: The Earth Rebels by Guillaume Clayssen, Sara Llorca and Omar Youssef Souleimane, directed by Sara Llorca.

It’s a contemporary play, the child of a meeting between Sara Llorca and the Syrian poet Omar Youssef Souleimane. I don’t remember much about this play as I didn’t like it. Sorry. It’s bound to happen when you have a subscription.

October: Love written and directed by Alexander Zaldin.

This play was broadcasted in English and we weren’t light on our feet when we left the theatre. It’s set in a British shelter run by the social services. People have private rooms but share the kitchen.

They are waiting for permanent council flats and are ill, old or unemployed. A very poignant play about poor people who don’t have a voice and are sometimes accused of being responsible for their poverty. Bleak but necessary. Billet available here.

November: Heaven in Nantes written and directed by Christophe Honoré.

You may know Christophe Honoré as a film director. Le ciel de Nantes is his first play and it’s based on his family’s life. I loved it.

The text is powerful and the direction original. The setting was an old movie theatre where Christophe (Honoré), now a filmmaker, reunites his family to talk about their past. The grandfather was a drunkard and violence tainted the relationships of his children and made his wife’s life a living hell. The family’s hard story unfolds under our eyes. It’s fun, sad, violent and unique and universal as it makes references to France in the last decades.

All the actors were excellent and rang true. The public was immersed in their life stories, singular and at the same time common with French people of Christophe’s age.

To readers who live in France: if this play comes to your theatre, go and see it.

November: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, directed by Arnaud Denis and translated by Pierre Arcan.

It was a wonderful time at the theatre. Wilde’s play is funny in itself but the direction and the actors were perfect. This is a play for theatre newbies. It’s got rhythm, great costumes, excellent acting and simply makes you happy. My billet is available here. It’s is on at the Théâtre Hébertot in Paris.

December: Fracasse based upon the novel by Théophile Gautier and directed by J-C Hembert.

Le Capitaine Fracasse is a novel I never finished because I found Gautier’s prose heavy. Even Proust says it in Days of Reading.

Made into a play, Le Capitaine Fracasse comes alive and sheds the complicated words nobody uses anymore to keep the fun of the plot. We had a wonderful time and it’s also one to see with teenagers.

December: I Have Doubts by François Morel

François Morel is a French actor and columnist who write thoughtful and poetic billets. Here, he made a show out of texts by the late humorist Raymond Devos.

Devos had the knack to write timeless and poetic sketches where he plays on words and points out daily absurdities. It’s delightful but not easy to say and François Morel is up to the challenge.

February: Gulliver’s Travels based upon Swift, directed Christian Hecq and Valérie Lesort

This was such a pleasure to watch.

I have never read the original by Swift but this adaptation into a play was playful and imaginative. The play was centered around the travel to Lilliput. The Lilliputians were played by actors who had their hands playing their feet.

Look at the costumes! We exited the theatre with a big grin on our faces and the urge to recommend this play to everyone. Another great play for children and teenager to show them that plays are not boring. We have to pass our love of theatre to the younger generation.

March: Eve of Retirement by Thomas Bernhard

A horrifying play by Thomas Berhnard about an ex(?)-Nazi officer who bullies his sisters and enjoys celebrating Himmler’s birthday. A terrifying moment based on the true story of man who concealed his past in the SS and spent a quiet life somewhere in Germany. We got out of the theatre feeling terrible and I wrote a billet about this play here.

April: An I and Silence by Naomi Wallace, translated by Dominique Hollier and directed by René Loyon.

I expected better out of this play. We’re in the USA in the 1950s, Jamie and Dee meet in prison. Jamie is white and Deet is black. They decide to stick together when they go out. The play is about their attempt at living a “normal” life after imprisonment and the difficulties they meet due to their social and/or the color of their skin.

Something was off in this play, even if the text was good. It wasn’t my favorite one.

April: I Live Here written and directed by Jean-Michel Ribes.

Jean-Michel Ribes is an excellent playwright. I Live Here features an apartment complex and twelve characters, including the famous French concierge. They meet briefly as they go in and out of the building. It’s not a brand-new concept but it still makes a great play.

April : The Wild Imaginings of a Man Suddenly Touched by Grace by Edouard Baer, directed by Edouard Baer and Isabelle Nanty.

The original French title of this play is Les élucubrations d’un homme touché par la grâce. Edouard Baer is a man of many talents.

In this play, he was alone on stage, playing an actor who escaped from the show he was supposed to do. And he talks about anything and everything, taking the public with him in the meanders of his mind. He ends up quoting his favorite writers and since Romain Gary is among them, I was conquered.

A lovely, erudite-but-not-too-much, poetic and fun evening.

May: The Bourgeois Gentleman by Molière, directed by Jérôme Deschamps

No need to introduce Molière or his Bourgeois Gentleman.

I’d already seen this play but not in its original form. It’s a comédie-ballet, a play intermingled with music, dance and singing. Lully composed the music and Pierre Beauchamp did the choreography.

This time, for the fourth centenary of Molière’s birth, the show was as imagined by Molière. An orchestra was there to play Lully’s music and dancers did the ballet interludes.

Jérôme Deschamps did a wonderful version of this comedy with quirky costumes. Excellent actors served Molière’s prose and it was a pleasure to see this comedy again.

June: Berlin, Berlin by Patrick Hautdecoeur and Gérald Sibleyras, directed by José Paul

Back to Paris and off to see a play which won a Molière, the Goncourt of theatre plays. Berlin, Berlin is set in East Berlin in the late 1980s.

Emma and Ludwig want to go and live in West Germany. They’ve heard that there are tunnels in the basement of a building in East Berlin. An old lady living there is in need of a nurse. Emma is hired to take care of her and soon discovers that the lady’s son is a high rank Stasi officer…It’s a wonderful comedy with lots of twists and turns and quiproquos. Very funny.

All in all, I had an excellent season and I hope the 2022/2023 one will be just as good. Stay tuned!

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – a masterpiece

September 25, 2022 8 comments

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. (1985) French title: Lonesome Dove. Translated by Richard Crevier.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is Gallmeister #7 and #8, one of the first books that this newly founded publisher chose when they started their literary adventure. I understand why Oliver Gallmeister picked Lonesome Dove, it’s a page turner, an excellent western that brings modernity to the genre.

We’re in the late 1870s. Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers, run the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium since they left the army. They are settled in Lonesome Dove, a small town in the Republic of Texas, near the Rio Grande, by the Mexican border.

They live on their property with Pea Eye, Deets, the young Newt and Bolivar. Deets and Pea Eye come from their ranger days, Deets used to be their scout and Pea Eye is a faithful companion. Newt is only seventeen, the orphaned son of Maggie, a prostitute in Lonesome Dove. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, all think that Newt is Call’s son.

They have settled on a routine. Steal horses and cattle across the Rio Grande and sell them in Texas. Captain Call cannot stay still and make Deets, Pea Eye and Newt work as ranch hands. When the book opens, he’s dead on digging a new well on the property. Needless to say, the job is harassing under the Texan summer sun. The men admire Captain Call so much that they’d do whatever he wants.

Gus is the jolly man of the group: he talks his head off all the time, spends his days sipping whisky and visiting the local saloon. His contribution to the chores is limited to cooking biscuits for breakfast. He’s a charmer. He’s also better educated than the others and keeps an interest in papers.

Call is a born leader, in a stern and steady way. Gus is his opposite and it’s easy to see how the two men balance each other and made a good pair in the army. They are loyal to each other and loyalty is precious in these unruly days.

None of them is ready to say it aloud but they are a little bored. Call itches to be on the move and do something. Gus is still thinking about Clara, “the one who got away” and left to settle in Nebraska with her husband.

Arrives Jake Spoon, another man from their ranger days. He’s flaky and a gambler. He’s running away from sheriff July Johnson from Fort Smith after he accidentally killed a man in this town.

Jake Spoon explains that he’s been to Montana and that it is heaven on Earth and an incredible place to start a cattle ranch. Captain Call didn’t need more that this nudge to decide it’s a great idea and he starts planning their departure.

The whole book is about their trip to Montana. They get the cattle, recruit cowboys, prepare their trip. During their preparation, Jake seduces the beautiful Lorena, a local prostitute who wants to go to San Francisco. They are all more or less in love with her and Jake takes her with them.

Up till now, everything I wrote is the setting of a classic western but Lonesome Dove is more than that. It’s made of unforgettable characters who all have their intimate fault lines.

Gus is bigger than life with his sensitive approach and his boldness. He cares about others, doesn’t shy away from his feelings and is very nurturing with Newt and Lorena for example. He’s the life of the group, the one who cheers them up, talks with people who are fragile and deflects conflicts. Captain Call’s natural leadership would be harsh if Gus weren’t there to smooth things over.

In Lonesome Dove, men and women aren’t cast as usual in westerns.

McMurtry pictures multi-dimensional cowboys. They are tough on the outside, living and riding in difficult conditions. They kill people if needed and without any qualms. At the same time, they are tender-hearted, vulnerable and weak.

Dish Bogget is hopelessly in love with Lorena. Gus still longs for Clara and wishes he had married her. Call is torn over Newt and his fatherhood. Jake is a coward. Another cowboy is terrified by water and is afraid to drown. Newt often cries on his horse. Sheriff July Johnson is afraid of his shadow and a poor shot. His deputy Roscoe is a riding catastrophe when he’s on a horse and doesn’t know how to live in the wilderness.

McMurtry also describes a time where women are objects of desire and never their own person. They are prostitutes to satisfy the men’s sexual needs. They are wives to be a homemaker and free workforce. They are informal properties to steal. They live a hard life and have to steel themselves against men.

In Lonesome Dove, the women are the tough ones. They are practical, strong and don’t hesitate to make hard decisions. They need to survive.

Lorena has been pushed around by men all her life and sees Jake as a means to go to San Francisco. Clara is the one who made the tough decision to marry a reliable but dull man and who proves to be resilient and intelligent.

Another woman propositions Roscoe and asks him to marry her. Her husband is dead and she needs a man to build her farm and for sex.

Lonesome Dove pictures an attaching set of characters, it’s hard not to like Gus, Call, Newt and the others. They’re enough to keep the reader’s interest but on top of that, McMurtry has an exceptional sense of place.

He shows us how tough it was to ride from Texas to Montana. We see all the dangers, snakes, thunderstorms, heat and rivers to cross. The cook is a genius and manages to feed everyone. The cowboys manage to drive the cattle from Texas to Montana, something like 1700 miles with a herd of cows. Their bull is almost a character in the book. They lose men on the way. They are attacked by bandits and Indians. They are in the last years of total wilderness.

McMurtry also shows the end of an era. Gus and Captain Call were legendary Texas rangers. Older people still remember them and they have their picture in saloons. But a new generation is taking over. One who is building towns, doing business and has lived in a rather pacified country. The Indian wars are over in most places. The bison have been decimated by greedy hunters. Pioneers arrive everywhere to colonize the land and set up farms. The land where Gus and Call used to ride freely is becoming private property.

The time of frontiersmen has come to an end. Gus and Call have become men of the past. Their way of life is dying. Lonesome Dove is a page turner that shows how a country turns a new leaf in history.

Very, very, highly recommended.

PS: This is also my contribution to Liz Dexter’s event, Larry McMurtry 2022.

Book Club 2022-2023 : The List

September 18, 2022 24 comments

I’m a little late with my usual Book Club list but, here we go!

Our reading year starts in September with The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (UK, 1990)

This is the first volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, the story of an English family from 1937 to the 1950s. It’s our September read and I’ve finished it now and won’t write a full billet about it. I know it is a beloved series but I was very disappointed and terribly bored.

I expected something between Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson and ended up in a plain soap opera full of clichés.

An eccentric couple as patriarch and matriarch of the family. A woman who left her career to marry and ends up stuck with a womanizer. A closeted lesbian spinster. A would-be painter, a widower remarried to a beautiful but vapid young woman who doesn’t like her step-children. An affectionate couple who can’t seem to speak to each other. A sister married to a scoundrel and struggling with money, until a dear old aunt dies. An ugly and poor governess. An army of children with the expected dreams and angst: being an actress, fleeing from home, fighting with each other…And servants as side characters.

All this in a style I found very plain. Tedious and lifeless descriptions of the countryside, the different homes or the cook’s culinary wonders. I expected a bit of humor and found none. I couldn’t find any interest in the characters’ fate and struggled to finish The Light Years. Needless to say, I won’t be reading the next one.

I couldn’t immerse myself in Downtown Abbey either, that should have clued me in. At this time, I don’t know if the other members of our Book Club enjoyed it more than me. I’m looking forward to hear their take.

Since several bloggers I respect and share literary interests with really loved this series, I wonder what I missed. A British cultural background?

October will bring another historical novel with Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (USA, 2014)

Like The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Flight of the Sparrow is based upon the real life of a woman who feels stifled by the restricted status of women in her time and who starts questioning the vision of the world she was born in.

Set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1676, Flight of the Sparrow is based upon the real life of Mary Rowlandson who lives in a Puritan community and is captured by Indians. Sharing the Indians’ quotidian, she’ll discover another way of living, another kind of civilization.

I’m looking forward to it.

November will be totally different with Animal Souls by Jose Rodrigues Dos Santos (Portugal, 2020).

It is the eleventh volume of a crime fiction series featuring a recurring character, Tomás Noronha. I’ve never heard of this writer, specialized in scientific crime fiction and who bases his books on true scientific research.

Animal Souls explores the topic of the intelligence and the consciousness of animals as Tomás Noronha investigates a murder at the Oceanarium in Lisbon.

It sounds fascinating. December will take us to India with Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. (2011)

Set in Mumbai, it’s the story of a man who refuses to leave his apartment and sell to a property developer. On principle.

I like him already.

I hope to learn a bit more about India through this book even if it’s already eleven years old and many things have happened since.

January will bring us back to Europe and in the 19th century with The Waltz of the Trees and the Sky by Jean-Michel Guenassia (2016).

I don’t think it’s been translated into English and the original French title of the book is La valse des arbres et du ciel.

The beautfiful cover is spot on as this book relates the last days of Van Gogh’s life with the Gachet family in Auvers-sur-Oise. It’s based upon the latest research on Van Gogh’s life and his work.

February will see us back in the 21st century with Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov. (Ukraine)

Lots of reviews of this book have blossomed on our literary blogosphere since the war in Ukraine started.

I’m looking forward to understanding better the background of the war in Ukraine through Kurkov’s eyes.

I still have his other book, The Chameleon, on the shelf.

In March, we’ll go to Atlanta and read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

According to the blurb, it sounds like the little brother of If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

A young couple with a promising future is set apart when the husband is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

How will their couple survive this?

Then it’s back to France and crime fiction in April.

We’ll read Boccanera by Michèle Pedinielli, a crime fiction book set in Nice. Boccanera is a woman PI who will investigate a murder in the gay community. She sounds like a great character, a maverick in a men’s world.

On the cover it says : “If Montale and Corbucci had a daughter, she’d look like Boccanera.”

Doesn’t it sound great?

We’ll fly back to America in May, to New-York and his Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. (2021)

According to the blurb, it is a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.

It sounds more playful than the very serious Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys.

Let’s go to Harlem in the 1960s!

June will have a totally different vibe with L’Autre by Andrée Chedid (2005).

I don’t think that this one is translated into English. Andrée Chedid is a poetess and a novelist. In this novella, an old man sees someone at the window of a hotel just before an earthquake. He’ll do his best to steer the rescue teams towards this stranger and save him.

And July will be a reread, Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. No description needed. I’m curious to read it as an adult.

That’s all for the coming year. I’m happy with our choices, it’s a good mix of historical, crime and literary fiction. Did you read any of them and did you like them?

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – fascinating

September 11, 2022 10 comments

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014) French title: L’invention des ailes.

Different roads converging into one led me to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

My mom had raved upon her other book, The Secret Life of Bees, which pushed me to blindly download The Invention of Wings when it was on sale on the Kindle store, not knowing what it was about but willing to try her as a writer. Then, The Invention of Wings was on display in historic houses gift shops in Savannah and Charleston and I looked it up only to find out I already had it with me, on my Kindle. I’m like the girl scout of reading, always ready!

Sue Monk Kidd is a white writer from Charleston, South Carolina. I think it’s important to know that. The Invention of Wings is based upon the life of Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873), who was the daughter of a rich planter, attorney and judge in South Carolina. Her family belonged to the local aristocracy. She moved up North, became a Quaker, an abolitionist and the mother of the women’s suffrage movement. Yes, all that in one person. According to Wikipedia, growing up, Sarah Grimké was close to her enslaved servant Hetty and Sue Monk Kidd chose to write her novel with two voices, Sarah’s and Hetty’s.

We follow the lives of these two women from 1803 to 1838. Sarah was twelve when Hetty (Handful, according to the name her mother gave her) was gifted to her as her birthday gift. The author takes us through the struggles of Sarah’s life, how she was denied higher education because she was a woman, how she loathed slavery and how she found in Quaker faith a way to abolitionist and women activism. Sarah’s life is documented and I’m not going to write her biography when there’s a full Wikipedia page about her.

Sue Monk Kidd pictures a Sarah who is obviously very intelligent and who had to break a lot of barriers to be able to reach her potential, promote her ideas and be true to herself. Her life is awe-inspiring for all the courage she had to carry on and be a pioneer in not only one but two controversial fields: abolitionism and feminism.

How she became a feminist is easy to understand. She was denied the education and profession she craved for because she was female. Just thinking of all the wasted talents and repressed lives this entailed makes my head spin. I’ll never understand how humanity thought (and still thinks) that the world is a better place when you discard the brainpower of half of the population because they are female.

I admire Sarah for leading the way to feminism but what impresses me the most is her early fight for abolitionism.

Sarah was twelve when she started rebelling against the condition of enslaved people through Bible classes. She secretly taught Hetty how to read. (In South Carolina, it was unlawful to teach an enslaved person how to read since 1740.)

And I wonder: How, at only twelve, did she get the idea that slavery was wrong? It was 1804 in Charleston, South Carolina, in a family of planters.

This system was all she knew. How intelligent, intuitive and clear-headed she must have been to be able to step aside and think out of the box! She was so young, living such a sheltered and privileged life and yet she recognized her equals in black people and did not accept her society’s rules and vision of the world. I admire people who have this built-in foresight and who are able to see and think beyond their cultural background. It’s a special brand of intelligence.

When Sarah’s life is documented, Hetty’s isn’t. Sue Monk Kidd decided to show the resistance of enslaved people through Hetty and her mother Charlotte.

There’s mental resistance, remembering Africa and keeping a free space in their mind. There are little acts of rebellion and sabotages in the house and sneaking out of the house to have some free time. There’s active rebellion through church and political movements.

When Hetty speaks, Sue Mon Kidd has the opportunity to describe her work, her fears and all the rules that are applicable to enslaved people. Badges and authorizations to go out of the house. Controls on the streets. The working house as a punishment. Their worth written down as furniture in inventory ledgers. Their fate when their master dies and wills are read. Crushed dreams and a lack of future. Living in fear because their lives were not theirs to live.

Through Hetty’s voice, we discover the quotidian of an enslaved house servant. She lived with the Grimkés all her life with her mother Charlotte. I believe that the lay out of the Grimké house is based upon the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston that I visited this summer. It was fresh in my mind when I read The Invention of Wings and I could picture Hetty and Charlotte’s whereabouts.

Rhett-Aiken House, Charleston, South Carolina.
Rhett-Aiken House. Stables and upstairs, enslaved people’s quarters.
And what I see as Charlotte and Hetty’s tree.
Rhett-Aiken House. Kitchen house and enslaved people’s quarters. Another view of the tree.

The Invention of Wings is fascinating and educational. It is useful and its success is an opportunity to broadcast anti-racist causes and feminist causes. And sadly, we still need that kind of books to make people touch these important concepts with their fingertips. Fiction has the power to strike the reader’s empathy and characters embody cold concepts. Readers can relate to Sarah and Hetty and the horror of Hetty’s life becomes real and not a disembodied history chapter in a textbook.

Sue Monk Kidd’s book is useful, informative and well-executed. But it took me a while to really dive into it and feel invested in Sarah and Hetty’s lives. I started reading it without knowing that Sarah Grimké was a real person. She even seemed unrealistic to me at the beginning! The outline of book’s purpose was obvious and well, I wasn’t fully on board until Sarah left Charleston. But that’s not a big enough flaw to deter you from reading it if you haven’t.

A good companion book to this one is The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, based upon another abolitionist’s life, John Brown. The narration more unconventional and inspired and it’s written by a black author.

The Invention of Wings is a great book, a mix between biography and fiction. I appreciated the author’s afterword where she explains where and why she took some liberties with historical facts. It’s an excellent read but since it’s a novel with a clear educational purpose, it lacks this artistic flame that comes with mind-blowing literary fiction.

20 Books of Summer: how did that go?

September 4, 2022 12 comments

Before diving into September, running into Fall and ending up doing Christmas shopping thinking that time flies and that 2022 is almost over, let’s have a look at my 20 Books of Summer challenge. It’s hosted by Cathy and I shared my selection here. I wasn’t sure I could read 20 books this summer but I did it!

I took some liberties with the original list and the books read that weren’t on the list are in bold. I haven’t had time to write billets about all the books I read but I’m on it! Hopefully, I’ll catch up in September.

I’m happy with my summer reads as I had a good mix of crime fiction, literary fiction and non-fiction. I managed to read a few books related to my trip in the USA, which I love to do when visiting places.

Summer with crime fiction:

Trip related books:

  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachians)
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Southern Region)
  • Shiner by Amy Jo Burns (Appalachians)
  • The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (South Carolina)

Other books

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (USA)
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (USA) This one counts for two and I loved it.
  • Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro (Argentina)
  • Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (Canada)
  • The Fire, Next Time by James Baldwin (USA)
  • La véritable histoire de l’Ouest américain by Jacques Portes. (France) The most interesting thing I learnt in this one is that the film Stagecoach directed by John Ford is based on Boule de suif, a short story by Maupassant. (Translated as Dumpling or Butterball or Ball of Fat or Ball of Lard) It has also an excellent map of Native American tribes.
  • A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi (Algeria)

Books on the list that I didn’t read:

  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Louisiana)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (North Carolina)
  • Serena by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (USA)
  • Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (France)
  • Proust by Samuel Beckett (Ireland)
  • Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (France)
  • The Miracles of Life by Stefan Zweig (Austria)

I need to change of scenery and I’m not ready to read other books set in the Appalachians or the Deep South right now. I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as they deserve it.

The upcoming billets about my 20 Books of Summer are…

I’m happy I signed up for the 20 Books of Summer challenge and I’m ready to do it again next year! Many thanks to Cathy for organizing this event.

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