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Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein – a delight for all Proust lovers

July 18, 2021 23 comments

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein (2012) French title: La bibliothèque de Marcel Proust.

It isn’t enough that he names or quotes the great writers of the past: he has absorbed them; they are an integral part of his being, to the point of participating in its creation. As such their works will survive, not in the immutable way great monuments endure, but constantly rediscovered and reinterpreted thanks to Proust’s unexpected, playful, and intensely personal take on different masterpieces. One of the great joys of reading La Recherche is to disentangle the rich and diverse contributions of the past.

Marcel Proust was born in July 10th, 1871. We are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth and Open Press has published a new edition of Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library. It has new illustrations by Andreas Gurewich.

In a slim volume (129 pages), Anka Muhlstein explores Proust and literature. On one side, there’s Proust as a reader and on the other side, there’s literature in In Search of Lost Time, or as French fans call it, La Recherche.

I had a lot of fun going through Proust’s first bookish loves and discovering which foreign writers he admired. We know from La Recherche that Racine, Balzac, Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon were among his favorite writers. When you’ve read Proust and seen his style, it’s hard to believe that Proust as a reader enjoyed books with lots of action, like Capitaine Fracasse or novels by Alexandre Dumas.

I knew he was fascinated and influenced by John Ruskin. He translated his work into French, without knowing the English language. His mother, who was fluent in English, helped him and he learned how to read English on the go. He could read but he couldn’t speak. How incredible is that? I didn’t know that he was influenced by Dickens, Hardy and Eliot and loved Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Proust was a great reader and the characters in his books are avid readers too. They all read but the Narrator sort them out between good and bad readers. In this chapter, Muhlstein picks characters in La Recherche and shows who’s a good reader in Proust’s opinion and who is not. Some are even an opportunity for Proust to convey his ideas about reading and literary criticism.

Mme de Villeparisis’s opinions about writers are a spoof of the theories of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and comportment was indispensable for assessing the value of his work. This theory was so abhorrent to Proust that he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing passionately that it represented the negation of all that a true writer is about. According to Proust, an artist does not express his inner self—the self that is never exposed in everyday life and is the only self that matters—in conversation, or even in letters. To look at the artist’s life in order to judge the work is absurd.

Unbeknown to be, I’ve always had the same opinion as Proust. How cool is that?

The chapter about the Baron de Charlus as a reader was enlightening too. He’s the homosexual character in La Recherche and an excellent reader. He bonds with the Narrator’s grand-mother over Madame de Sévigné. She sees in him a good, erudite and sensitive reader. In this chapter, Muhlstein demonstrates how much Balzac is embedded in Proust’s text. I discovered that Proust’s favorite works by Balzac are Girl With the Golden Eyes, a lesbian story, A Passion in the Desert, a strange love for panther, Lost Illusions, with Vautrin in love with Lucien de Rubempré and Sarrasine. I didn’t remember that Balzac had homosexual characters.

illustration by Andreas Gurewich

Another discovery for me was about Racine’s innovative ways with the French language. For me, Corneille and Racine are boring 17th century playwrights stuck in alexandrines. This chapter was truly eye-opening and the explanations about Proust’s fascination for Phèdre were very interesting.

The chapter on the Goncourt brothers was useful as their Journal was a source of information about the French literary world of their time. Proust won the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

A book about Proust and literature had to include a chapter about Bergotte, the great writer in La Recherche. It’s modeled after Anatole France, a very famous writer of the time that nobody reads anymore although Proust was convinced that France/Bergotte would reach immortality. Bergotte did as a character thanks to his author.

Proust has created a prodigiously interwoven universe,the form and complexity of which do not reveal themselves easily; but fortunately, it is a universe within which are to be found planets—the worlds of the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Narrator’s family, for example—inhabited by a diverse population of characters in turn moving, entertaining, hilarious, and cruel, to which readers are readily attracted. The same may be said of the complex world of literature that Proust himself inhabited.

As always with Proust, I’m amazed at how much I remember of the characters in La Recherche. They stayed with me and when Anka Muhlstein evokes a character or a scene, I know whom or what she’s referring to. I loved her short book about Proust and literature because it is accessible to common readers like me. You don’t need a PhD in literature to read it and it’s an enjoyable and instructive journey into Proust’s library.

Many thanks to Other Press for sending me a free copy of this affectionate book about La Recherche.

I’ve read it at the same time I went to Paris and visited the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet. They have made a whole room about Proust, since they have his bed in their collection. I wish they had redone the corked walls as well, to help us understand the atmosphere in which he wrote.

PS: Tamara at Thyme for tea organizes Paris in July again and that’s an opportunity for me to contribute to her event.

Quais du Polar 2021 – Day One

July 3, 2021 20 comments

For newcomers to my blog, Quais du Polar is a crime fiction festival set up in Lyon, France.

In 2020, the festival was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, it was scheduled early in April but was postponed to July 2nd to 4th. Since we still have some restrictions, the organization was changed to avoid large gathering in closed spaces.

The former big bookstore set up in the Chamber of Commerce…

The giant bookstore in 2019

has been replaced by an outdoor book market along the banks of the Rhône river and you have to book a ticket online to attend a conference.

The conferences are still organized at the City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce but new places have been added to the mix. Tomorrow, I’m going on a literary cruise on the Saône river.

I had two reservations for today and I have two for tomorrow. I’m happy with the two events I attended.

This morning, I went to the Paradis Noirs panel. (Black Paradise) The authors were David Vann (USA), Susanna Crossman (UK and France. I wish my English were as good as her French), Patrice Guirao (France) and Piergiorgio Pulixi (Italy).

These four writers have written a crime fiction novel set up in a paradisiac place, namely Sardinia, Tahiti, Komodo Island in Indonesia and an island in Brittany. The journalist asked relevant questions, monitored the speaking time properly and ideas bounced between the writers, showing the similarities between the books. The authors had enough time to share their ideas and obviously enjoyed interacting with each other. I was intrigued by their books:

  • Komodo by David Vann,
  • Les Disparus de Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao
  • L’île sombre by Susanna Crossman
  • L’île des âmes by Piergiorgio Pulixi

I love reading crime fiction in exotic settings, I’m afraid the TBR increased by three books after this panel.

Quais du Polar is about crime fiction but the local authorities involved with crime solving partner with the festival to share how things are done in real life. It helps that Lyon is the city where CSI was developed (with professor Lacassagne, see my billet about Les suppliciées du Rhône by Céline Gatel), where Interpol is located and is the third largest criminal court in France.

Once I visited the school for commissaires de police and saw how they teach the students how to work on a crime scene. Sometimes, a police station is open to the public and the officers share their quotidian.

This year, I went to a conference about cold cases at the court. The speakers were a public prosecutor, Jacques Dallest and two lawyers specialized in solving cold cases, Maître Seban and Maître Corinne Herrmann. The discussion was about cold cases and how the French justice doesn’t handle them well-enough. They shared anecdotes, explained why the judicial system is not as efficient as it should be and how to improve it. They say that they manage to reopen cases when families or journalists come to see them with something new. There’s also the possibility to reexamine clues with new forensic methods.

It was fascinating to be in the room where the hearings are done and listen to them talk about their work.

If you’re curious about Quais du Polar, check out their website here. You can also see the conferences in replay.

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?

The #1936Club starts tomorrow – some reading suggestions

April 11, 2021 26 comments

Tomorrow starts the #1936 Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It lasts a week, from April 12th to April 18th.

I’m in with two books, Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie with clever Hercule Poirot and Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell with stupid Gordon. I should be able to post my billets about these two books in the upcoming week.

Incidentally, I’ve read two other books published in 1936 in the last four months.

In December, our Book Club had chosen War With the Newts by Karel Čapek, a stunning dystopian fiction. It’s an odd book, a strange patchwork of narration, board minutes, newspaper articles and other sources. It takes us to a fictional world where a population of working newts colonizes the world. It’s a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfalls of wild capitalism. If you haven’t read it, the #1936 Club might be the perfect time to do it.

In March, for Southern Cross Crime Month hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, I read Death in Ecstasy by Nagaio Marsh, a clever and entertaining investigation by Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his journalist friend Nigel Bathgate. It’s a perfect read to spend an evening with a book and forget about the world. Readers of classic crime will have a great time with it.

I also would like to draw your attention to Return to Coolami by Eleanor Dark. According to its blurb, it is an emotional novel that explores the psychological impact of four people thrown closely together during the course of a (…) two-day motor car trip from Sydney, across the Blue Mountains to the country property, Coolami. I heard of it in January, when Bill at The Australian Legend hosted his Australian Women Writer Generation 3 Week. I haven’t read it yet (I might read it in the summer when Lisa organizes her Eleanor Dark Week) but I’ve read her Lantana Lane and really enjoyed her writing.

I realize that this billet reveals one thing: how dynamic is our corner of the bookish bloggosphere. Events are numerous, varied and remain a wonderful and friendly opportunity to discover new books or eventually read ones lying on the TBR. Many thanks to all the bloggers who take the time to host such events.

Happy #1936 Club!

Two abandoned books, a bookstore and mimosa trees

February 27, 2021 21 comments

I’ve been traveling the two last weekends and didn’t post anything. Before my billet about The Cut by Anthony Cartwright, a quick post about two books I couldn’t finish, a visit to a bookstore and a sunny picture of mimosa trees.

The first book I couldn’t finish is Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads.

In the heart of a civil war-torn African nation, primate researcher Hope Clearwater made a shocking discovery about apes and man. Young, alone, and far from her family in Britain, Hope Clearwater contemplates the extraordinary events that left her washed up like driftwood on Brazzaville Beach. It is here, on the distant, lonely outskirts of Africa, where she must come to terms with the perplexing and troubling circumstances of her recent past. For Hope is a survivor of the devastating cruelities of apes and humans alike. And to move forward, she must first grasp some hard and elusive truths: about marriage and madness, about the greed and savagery of charlatan science . . . and about what compels seemingly benign creatures to kill for pleasure alone.

I couldn’t make myself care about Hope, her failed marriage to mathematician John Clearwater and her research about apes. I persevered until page 77 and opted out. I know it was a successful book when it was published but it wasn’t for me and I don’t think it’s a question of timing.

The second book I abandoned is Arsène Lupin in the Secret of Sarek by Maurice Leblanc. After the series Lupin went out (and no, I haven’t watched it yet) I picked the Arsène Lupin episode I had on the shelf, determined to read it and have fun. How disappointing!

Imagine a woman, Véronique d’Hergemont, who was kidnapped as a young woman, married to a cruel Count Vronski. She had a son with him and lost him.

Imagine an island in Brittany, called the “island of the thirty coffins”. A legend says that thirty people will die, among which four women on a cross. Véronique d’Hergemont arrives there to find the son she lost fourteen years ago and finds her face as one of the four crucified women.

I couldn’t get into the story and I found the premises quite farfetched. It felt like reading an episode of Scooby Doo, without the humor. I’m not into ghost stories, stuff about superstition and supernatural. And Leblanc’s style was a real disappointment. I thought it was flat. I lasted until page 82 and since I wasn’t into the story, I moved on to another book.

Feel free to tell me whether you liked either Brazzaville Beach or Arsène Lupin in the Secret of Sarek. I expected better from both.

Last weekend I was in Paris and let me tell you, Paris without its museums and its cafés and restaurants is not the same. It feels empty. I walked around in the Latin Quarter and stumbled upon San Francisco  Books and Co, a bookstore that sells used books in English. Sorry the picture is askew, I didn’t want to take the car parked in front of the entrance.

Isn’t that ironic that you have City Light Bookstore in San Francisco and San Franscico Books Co in the City of Lights? Anyway, the libraire in San Francisco Books Co was British, couldn’t or wouldn’t utter a word in French when I said Bonjour and was listening to the BBC. The store is small but packed with books in English from the floor to the ceiling. I got Card on the Table by Agatha Christie for the #1936Club and found a copy of Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym.

I hope all is fine with you in your corner of the world. I leave you with a picture of mimosa in bloom in the South of France.  Sending a friendly hello to Australian readers: I learnt these trees were brought to the South of France from Australia by James Cook.

A Summer With Proust – “Reading is a friendship”

January 31, 2021 24 comments

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

La lecture est une amitié.

(Reading is a friendship)

Marcel Proust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 20, 2021 37 comments

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

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

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

Great choice, if you want to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, unfortunately, now, we know.

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

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

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

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

Best of Book Around the Corner for 2020

January 2, 2021 25 comments

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

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

Best Least Commented Billet

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

Best Gallmeister Book

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

Best Fishing Book

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

Best Non-Book Post

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

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

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

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

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

Best Translation Tragedy

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

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

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

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

Best Book Club Read

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

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

Best Non-Fiction

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

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

Best Sugar-Without-Cellulite Book

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

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

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

And what about 2021?

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

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

Australian Women Writers 2020: Challenge completed!

December 27, 2020 16 comments

In 2020 I signed up for the Australian Women Writers (AWW) challenge. The rules are simple: read as many books as possible by Australian Women Writers and link your review to the AWW page.

There are four levels in this challenge:

  • Stella: read four, review at least three
  • Miles: read six, review at least four
  • Franklin: read ten, review at least six.
  • Create your own challenge: nominate your goal

I reached the Miles level this year. I read six books by Australian Women Writers and wrote a billet for each. Here are the books I read, sorted according to their year of publishing:

1865: Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence. I loved this book with its Austenian plot, its feminist and progressist vibe. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jane and Alice Melville are looking for respectable work and a living wage. Although well qualified – they have been given a ‘boy’s education’ by their uncle Mr Hogarth – neither can find a suitable position. They are disinherited by their uncle who believes that this will make them into independent women. But a knowledge of accountancy, minerology and agricultural chemistry counts for nothing in a woman (even a woman like Jane Melville) in nineteenth century Scotland.
Driven to desperation in their struggle to support themselves, eventually they look to Australia for new opportunities. But life in the new world has its own problems.

1896: A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge. I imagine that Ada Cambridge had read Mr Hogarth’s Will as it also has a feminist side. A Humble Enterprise is the tale of daughters who open a teashop in Melbourne after their father dies abruptly, leaving them without an income. It’s like The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy. (1888)

1904: Sisters by Ada Cambridge. Sisters is a very bleak and cynical vision of marriage and it’s hard to imagine that it was written by the same author as A Humble Enterprise.

1910: An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence. After reading Mr Hogarth’s Will, I wanted to know more about its author and started CH Spence’s Autobiography. Also some passages are a bit long and obscure for non-Australians or for the modern reader, it was a fascinating read about an exceptional woman. Recommended to remember that not all the pioneers were men.

1960: The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower. Only the excellence of Harrower’s writing pushed me to finish The Catherine Wheel. It’s the story of a toxic relationship that slowly tortures and destroy a young woman, Clemency James.

2016: Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan. I needed an entertaining read and Toni Jordan wrote an excellent Australian vaudeville. I had a lot of fun reading Our Tiny, Useless Hearts and I found the fun I was looking for.

When I look at my selection of books, if we put aside CH Spencer’s Autobiography, all books are about marriage, relationships and the fact that women often draw the short straw in the marriage game. Even the 19th century novels are quite feminist, showing women in positions where they have their lives in their hands and try to be independant. All these books are worth reading, for different reasons but if I have to pick one, it’ll be Mr Hogarth’s Will. 

Many thanks to the team in charge of AWW. I don’t know yet if I’ll participate in 2021 but I might. If you want to hop on the AWW train, check out the 2021 subscription page.

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan – Australian vaudeville

December 22, 2020 13 comments

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan (2016) Not available in French.

Yesterday was quite stressful: I was waiting for my daughter to fly back from Singapore via London after her semester at her school’s campus there. She was on the Singapore-London redeye when one after the other, European countries closed their border with the UK due to this new COVID stain. Her journey from London to our home has been an adventure and of course, her luggage is missing. But in the end, all went well and thank God for technology, I was following her trip step by step.

But I needed a good distraction. I started to work on my best-of-the-year list and eventually decided that I needed a sugar-without-cellulite book to keep my mind off things. I killed two birds in one stone when I downloaded Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan. It was the perfect distraction for the day and I reached the Stella stage of my 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Brilliant.

When the book opens, Caroline and Henry just had a fight. They’re married and have two daughters, Mercedes and Paris. (I wonder how they would have named their boys. Aston and Rome?) Caroline discovered that Henry’s cheating on her with Martha, their daughter Mercedes’s grade three teacher. Henry is trying to explain to his daughters why he’s leaving with the teacher. Janice, Caroline’s sister is at their place, ready to take over and watch her nieces for the weekend and this is the scene she witnesses at her arrival:

When I get to Caroline and Henry’s bedroom at the end of the corridor, I’m faced with a scene of devastation. Henry’s suits are spread out over the unmade bed like a two-dimensional gay orgy: here a Paul Smith, there a Henry Bucks, everywhere a Zegna. The trouser-half of each and every one of them is missing its crotch and Caroline, chip off the old block, is peering over them with her reading glasses on the end of her nose and the good scissors in her hand. She’s still in her nightie, freshly foiled hair loose and a silk kimono draped over her shoulders. She looks forlornly at her symbolic castration and sighs, just like Mum did all those years ago. ‘What a waste,’ she says, as she shakes her head. ‘Maybe not super-helpful at this point, Caroline darling,’ I say. She shrugs. ‘These trousers failed in their primary duty, which is to contain the penis. They have only themselves to blame.’

Henry is actually leaving Caroline for Martha. He’s taking her to Noosa for the weekend. When Caroline realized where Henry takes Martha, she chases after them. She’s quite miffed that the mistress is going to Noosa when the wife went to Dromana. I checked what it meant in Australian standards and here’s my American translation: for his lover, Henry planned a trip to the Keys, Florida when he took his wife to a coastal town in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, the neighbours Lesley and Craig stop by, wondering what’s happening. They’ve heard the fight between Caroline and Henry and their nosiness got the better of them, they needed to meddle.

Janice is the self-conscious micro-biologist sister, she divorced Alec two years before and although she dumped him, she hasn’t recovered yet. After Caroline and Henry left, she settles with the girls and decides to sleep in her sister’s room to be near them. She’s quite surprised to find a naked Craig in the bed with her when she wakes up. Apparently, Caroline has secrets too.

Next morning, new discovery. Alec arrives on her doorstep for his planned visit to the girls. Janice didn’t know he was still in touch with Caroline and Henry.

And the show goes on, with a fast-paced plot with witty dialogues. There are laughing-out-loud dialogues, like the one when the adults talk about sex using a gardening analogy to protect the little ears that are sitting in the room. I enjoyed Jordan’s piques:

Honestly Caroline, let it go. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ ‘That’s garbage,’ she says. ‘What doesn’t kill you joins forces with all the other things that don’t kill you. Then they all gang up together to kill you.’

I agree with Caroline. I dislike this “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” saying because I’m not sure it’s true. And it guilts people into thinking that if a tragedy makes them weak, they are wrong and should overcome it and feel stronger.

Janice is overwhelmed by all the people going in and out of the house and she struggles to avoid encounters between two wrong persons. She’s a peacemaker at heart and would like Caroline and Henry to patch things up for their daughters’ sake. And of course, things never go as she’d like and she has to be quick on her feet and adapt.

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is an Australian vaudeville and it could be a theatre play with doors banging, husbands and lovers hiding behind doors or under the bed, misunderstandings, secrets, allusions and grand scenes. I would love to see this on stage.

You need to be in the right mood to enjoy this kind of book. And I was in the right frame of mind. I had a lot of fun reading it, it didn’t require a lot of brainpower but kept my mind busy and more importantly, it kept worry at bay. Mission accomplished, Toni Jordan!

Other reviews by Lisa and Guy.

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker – not my cup of tea.

December 12, 2020 12 comments

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker (2016) French title: Tout n’est pas perdu. Translated by Fabrice Pointeau

This is a short billet about All Is Not Forgotten, a thriller by Wendy Walker. I’m not a great fan of thrillers and I got Walker’s book with one of my Quais du Polar subscriptions. So, not a book I would have bought myself and after abandoning it at page 110, the only satisfaction I get from the experience is that I’m getting better at spotting books that aren’t for me.

In All Is Not Forgotten, Jenny, fifteen, is raped in the park behind the house where she was attending a party. Her parents get called to the hospital and agree to let the doctors give her a treatment that will make her forget this terrible night. The mother, Charlotte, wants to erase that night and is focused on moving on. The father, Tom, is not totally on board with this drug because Jenny’s missing memories will go against the police’s chances to find her aggressor. Charlotte wins and Jenny’s agression disapears from her consciousness but not from her mind and she’s not getting better.

Several things bothered me in this book and eventually led me to put it aside. Like Guy says in his review of A Helping Hand by Celia Dale, I prefer crime books where the killer is an ordinary person who crosses the line and becomes a murderer. I’m not too fond of serial killers and I can’t help thinking that building a plot around a teenager who gets violently raped in the woods lacks a bit of imagination.

I also found that the family was caricatural. They live in Fairview, a rich small town in Connecticut. Charlotte doesn’t work, keeps a strong hand on her husband and cherishes her membership to the local country club. She never has a hair out of her tight chignon and wears spotless clothes and make up. Well, you know the type. And her status is town is important to her, which puts pressure on her husband Tom. She’s a cold bitch, he’s an emotional carpet. Cliché.

The narrator of the book is Alan Forrester, a psychiatrist who sees Jenny after her suicide attempt. I guess he was going to take us through the story and its denouement after poking at Jenny’s mind and looking into her parents’ past hurts.

It’s not a bad book per se, it just confirms that I’d rather read Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith than this kind of stories.

Has anyone read it?

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower – toxic relationship at its finest

December 5, 2020 23 comments

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower (1960) Not available in French. 

“I felt as if something was killing me. The pressure of his personality.”

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower is set in London in the 1950s. Clemency James, 25, is from Sydney and is in London to study for the bar by correspondence. (Why couldn’t she stay in Australia if she were to study by correspondence anyway is a mystery to me) She has a room in a boarding house, where she shares a bathroom and a kitchen with other tenants. Her room is her safe harbor, her place to study, work and teach. Indeed, her life is split between studying, giving French lessons, tending to her domestic duties and meeting with her friends until Christian Roland and his so-called wife Olive move into the boarding house.

They’re an odd couple, Olive is a lot older than Christian and she left her husband to follow him to a strange life in London. Christian is handsome, tortured and uses twisted ways to take people over. He’s full of unrealistic dreams like becoming a star actor at the Comédie Française in Paris when he’s not French and doesn’t even speak the language fluently. But he’s certain that he’s entitled to a higher standard of living and that being poor is totally unfair to him.

At the beginning, Clemency isn’t particularly interested in befriending them but Christian and Olive worm themselves into her life. Christian manipulates her into giving him free French lessons. Olive is especially friendly and diffident. Clemency is more and more drawn to Christian in spite of her and he pursues her relentlessly. Olive is consumed by jealousy –according to Chrisitian—and the reader never knows whether she’ll surrender or turn violent or whether it’s all in Christian’s imagination because he wants to live in a world where women fight over him.

The whole novel is told by Clemency and it is the slow destruction of a young lady who thought herself strong enough to get close to Christian’s flame without burning her wings and fails spectacularly.

It’s the tale of a neurotic relationship based on a fight between two minds. Clemency’s mind is determined not to be conquered and it acts as a red flag to Christian’s mind, pushing him to use every trick that his sick mind makes up to win her over. It’s not the assault of a lover consumed by love. It’s the assault of a deranged and narcistic man who wants to conquer and bask into Clemency’s surrender.

I looked it up, “the Catherine Wheel or breaking wheel is an instrument of tortuous execution originally associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria”. This is exactly what Christian –funny name for a character who uses a mental instrument of torture compared to one used to execute Christians— is doing to Clemency. He’s killing her free will, her independence of mind. He tries to cut her from her friends. He embarks her in his journey towards self-destruction and madness. He lies, he cheats, he drinks, he believes in the wildest and most unrealistic schemes, like the one about Paris.

All in fair in love and war? For Clemency, all is unfair in this story but she’s not necessarily a likeable character. She seems untethered, detached from everything and living like a fish out of the water. I wanted to shake her up and seeing her so passive, even at the beginning, before she got drunk on Christian, got on my nerves.

Reading this was a mini Catherine wheel to me. I abandoned the book twice before eventually finishing it. I started to write my billet about why I had given up on it and realized that I’d already invested enough time in it and I needed to read it entirely to write this billet.

I didn’t like to read about Clemency’s destruction even if I wasn’t invested in the characters. I have no patience for tortured relationships (hence my profound dislike of Wuthering Heights) but here, I couldn’t help thinking that I was witnessing the appropriation of one’s mind by another person, that it happens in real life and that the writer was describing a frightening mechanism.

We’ve all known people whose behavior changed drastically after they started seeing or befriending someone new. We’ve seen people giving their money, losing their good sense over someone or acting against their best interest. This is what Harrower’s book is about. The mechanism of the relationship between Clemency and Christian is applied to a love relationship in this novel. It could also be between friends or family members.

Harrower’s tour de force lies in the minutia of her description. Christian’s manipulation is gradual, and described with such an accuracy that made me want to put the book down and stop reading. To breathe. And exhale my frustration because Clemency was too passive and Christian so ridiculous in his dreams that I couldn’t care less about his childish but destructive machinations.

The pun is easy, but it’s been a harrowing book for this reader. I’ll recommend it for its excellent style, the quality of its execution but you need to be in the mood for twisted relationships before immersing yourself in such a difficult tale.

I very highly recommend Guy’s excellent review of The Catherine Wheel.

This is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer challenge.

Saturday news: gloom and doom but saved by books

October 31, 2020 22 comments

It’s been a while since my last Saturday News billet but I felt I needed one today to reflect on October and try to imagine what November will look like. We’re October 31st and we woke up here to what we call un temps de Toussaint, in other words All Saints’ Day weather. It’s misty, grey, rather cold and depressing, a bit like October.

The month started with bad news. Quino, the creator of the wonderful Mafalda had died.

Photo by Daniel Garcia. AFP

She’s my alias and you can read why I picked her here. It made the news everywhere in France. What can I say, we love witty cartoonists.

Things started to look up on October 3rd, when I went back to the theatre for the first time since this bloody pandemic started. I’ve seen Saint-Félix. Enquête sur un hameau français, written and directed by Elise Chatauret.

Built like a journalistic investigation, we see four city people invading a little village in the French countryside and ask question about a drama. A young woman settled there and started to breed goats. She died a mysterious death and our four investigators want to find out what happened. The text is between tale and journalism. They interview the villagers and we witness small town gossip but also the end of a kind of rural life. Young people have left, the village was dying and this newcomer came and started a new farm. The production was lovely, served the text well and the actors brought this village to life.

Being in the theatre again was great but the atmosphere was subdued. We were not allowed to linger in the bright lighted hall and socialize. It was silent, as we headed to our seats with our masks on and went out in a single file, respecting safety distances. Better than nothing, that’s what I thought.

That was positively cheerful compared to what was yet to come.

Usually, I don’t comment the news here but this time, I need to. On October 16th, Samuel Paty was beheaded for teaching about the freedom of speech. He was a history teacher, he was doing his job, teaching the official syllabus from the French state. Nothing, and I mean it, nothing can justify this assassination. There’s no middle ground on this, no “he should have known better” or “these cartoons are offensive to some people, let’s not show them”. Sorry but no, a thousand times no. The same way women shouldn’t stop wearing short dresses to avoid being raped, we shall not tone down our right to mock, criticize and point out the extremists of this world. We already have a law that restricts the freedom of speech and condemns racism, antisemitism and speeches that advocate hatred and violence. That’s it.

We have fought over a century to earn the right to live in a secular republic, a democracy with freedom of speech and we won’t back down. Caricaturists, chansonniers and humorists are part of our tradition, one that goes back to the 18th century at least. And I’m not sure non-French people realize how deeply rooted in our culture secularism is. In the Third Republic, the one that established once for all freedom of speech and secularism, teachers were the armed arms of the said republic. Assassinating a teacher is stabbing the republic in the heart. So, in the name of our freedom of speech and against fanatics who want to impose their way of thinking…

More about this history when I write my billet about the fascinating book Voices for freedom. Militant writers in the 19th century by Michel Winock.

The month ended with other assassinations of Catholic worshippers in a church in Nice and with the news of a second lockdown until December 1st. Depressing. The doctors already say that Christmas is compromised and the perspective of not seeing my parents for Christmas is dreadful but worst things could happen, right? So, we’re settling for a month of homeworking with our son still going to high school. He joked about it, saying he’ll go out to work when we stay home like children. Daughter is enjoying herself as she’s doing a semester abroad.

With the new lockdown, the French literary world is in motion to protect independent bookstores from bankruptcy. There’s a debate about the question “Are bookstores indispensable businesses?”. Readers rushed to stores on Thursday and some booksellers reported that they sold as many books as on the last Saturday before Christmas. The jury of the Goncourt Prize decided to delay the announcement of the 2020 winner until independent bookstores are open again. Lobbying worked and bookstores are allowed to sell through click-and-collect and due to unfair competition, Fnacs and supermarkets have to close their book sections. Let’s hope that it will not boost Amazon’s sales. We are determined to maintain our lovely network of independent libraires.

Staying home means more reading time and luckily, November is rife with bookish events. I hope to participate to several of them.

German Lit Month is hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, AusReading Month, by Brona, Novella in November, by Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746Books. And there’s also Non-Fiction November.

I’ve gathered my books for the month, my pile is made of my Book Club pick, my Read The West readalong and others from the TBR that fit into November bookish events.

Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement by Assia Djebar is our Book Club read and The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert is my Read the West book. Then I have The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower for AusReading Month. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper is Australian non-fiction. For German Lit Month, I’ve picked from the shelves The Confusion of Young Törless by Robert Musil and a novella by Thomas Bernhard, Concrete. I’m not sure I’ll have time to read them all but it’s good to have goals, right?

Regular reader of Book Around the Corner know that I’m a fan of Duane Swierczynski. I follow him on Twitter and last year, he sadly lost his teenage daughter Evie to cancer. He’s organizing Evie’s Holiday Book Drive, a book donation to the Children’s Hospital in LA. It’s from October 23 to December 4. There are details about how to donate on the poster and on this web site, The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation. Duane Swierczynski tweets at @swierczy.

In the middle of all this, I stumbled upon an article by Nancy Huston in the Translittérature magazine, issue by the French association of literary translators. She wrote about the English version of Romain Gary’s books. (She’s a fan too) He supervised the ‘translations’ of his books, wrote some directly in English and then did a French version of them. I realized that I never investigated who translated Gary’s books in English and I went online to get as many English versions of his books as I could find. I already had White Dog, The Ski Bum and the recently published The Kites. Now I also have Lady L, The Enchanters, King Solomon, Europa and The Talent Scout.

December 2nd will be the fortieth anniversary of Gary’ death and I’m up to something…

While I was writing all this, the sun came out and our gloomy morning turned into a sunny afternoon. I hope it’ll translate into this month of November.

What about you? How is it going on in your world’s corner?

20 Books of Summer, it’s a wrap! And I’ve made it! :-)

August 31, 2020 18 comments

Congratulations to me, I completed the 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’ve read 21 books from June 1st to August 31st. OK, I abandoned two of them but only after reading at least 120 pages of each. Out of the 21 books read, 17 come from the TBR, so that’s good.

I didn’t have time to write a billet about the 21 books, I’m only at billet 14 but I did seven Literary Escapades billets from June to August. I guess it makes up for the missing “book review” billets. Since September is going to be very busy at work and slow on reading, I’ll catch up and 20 Books of Summer will turn into 20 Books of Indian Summer. Is that OK with you? 😊

In my billet introducing the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I explained that I’d read books for my book club, books I’m reading along with my sister-in-law, books that represent the Ghosts of Trips Past, the Ghost of the Missed Trip –I was supposed to visit Wyoming, Montana and Colorado this summer—and the Ghost of the Backup Trip to Brittany, France.

So, here’s a wrap-up of my last reading months.

My first readalong was our Book Club’s choices.

 1 – Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski.

 2 – Snow by Orhan Pamuk

 3 – La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio

While I had a lot of fun taking a walk on the wild timeline of Expiration Date –I think I could read anything by Duane Swierszynski— I couldn’t finish Snow or La Horde du Contrevent, the two books I abandoned. They are well-written and well-constructed books but they didn’t work for me.

My second readalong was Read-the-West-With-Sister-In-Law. We had picked three excellent books.

4 – The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke. If you’ve never read anything by Burke, just add him to your TBR.

5 – Cathedral by Raymond Carver. Beautifully written short stories.

6 – Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo. The billet is yet to come but I’m so sorry that Richard Hugo didn’t have time to write other crime fiction books. How could he die on us before writing other books? I hope he’s trout fishing with WG Tapply in the great rivers in the sky.

I enjoyed all the books from the Ghost of Trips Past

7 – Québec: Therese, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay. The billet is upcoming and I loved visiting with Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone in Montreal in the 1940s. The language is a delight and Tremblay doesn’t write a classic childhood book.

8 – Sicily: Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia. A chilling parody that unveils the absurdity of Italian politics and the deep roots of dishonesty in public life.

9 – Spain: Nada by Carmen Laforêt. I read it along with Vishy for Spanish Lit Month and we both found it stunning. Laforêt was so young to write such a powerful and novel. Barcelona in the 1940s is trying to recover from the Civil War and it left wounds.

10 – Australia: Blood by Tony Birch. I read it for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week. Two children stick together to have a better life and escape from their absentee mother’s claws.

11 – Portugal: Lisbon’s Poets. This was my first introduction to Portuguese poetry and a nice souvenir to bring back from a lovely trip to Portugal.

12 – UK: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. Berlin in the early 1930s and how the Nazis take over the city and its inhabitants’ lives.

13 – Denmark: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg. Honestly, I still can’t make up my ind about this one. I found it charming and irritating, refreshing and fake, funny and profound.

14 – Hungary: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy. The billet is yet to come. A true Krúdy book that I read in English because there’s no French translation. In true Krúdy fashion, it’s funny and melancholic with a scatterbrained womanizer.

15 – USA: Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante. Another upcoming billet. I’ve read several Fante (and will read another soon) and I loved them all. This one belongs to the Bandini Quartet and reuniting with Arturo was as delightful as ever.

There’s the Ghost of the Missed Trip and its two books, although Death and the Good Life qualifies for this as well.

16 –The Overstory by Richard Powers. This is a book tree, powerful but a bit cold. Powers was on a mission and it’s a clever book, I thought I lacked passion for the characters.

17 – The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson. I read it during a long car drive and I was happy to go back to Wyoming and see Sheriff Longmire again. Upcoming billet about a great Beach & Public Transport book.

Ghost of the Backup Trip to Brittany, France. For this, I switched books and ended up reading books set in Brittany:

18 – Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen. I discovered a Breton publisher of crime fiction novels. I bought two and read this one. The billet will come in September and it was a decent polar.

19 – Fisherman of Iceland by Pierre Loti. A surprise and accompanied by a great literary escapade in Ploubazlanec, or how to mix literature, books and tourism.

And, last but not least, a bridge between the three Ghost Trips, between France and the USA and both in line with the news.

20 – Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, written in 2007 for the 20th anniversary of Baldwin’s death. Upcoming billet.

21 – Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira. It was very educational and I would recommend it to French readers.

On the list and not read:

  • Who You Think I Am by Camille Laurens
  • An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg.
  • A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How To Do by Pete Fromm

I’ll catch up on those because I still intend to read them. I’m looking forward to the Fromm, I keep hearing that he’s an outstanding novelist.

Many thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing this fun event. I’ll do it again if you’re up for it next year.

And what about you? Did you take part to 20 Books of Summer challenge? If yes, please leave a link to your wrap-up post in the comments. I’ll enjoy reading what you’ve been up to.

Categories: Challenges Tags:

20 Books of Summer #8 and #9 : two books I couldn’t finish

August 3, 2020 25 comments

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) French title: Neige. Translated by François Pérouse. // La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (2006) Not available in English.

I can’t say I got along with our two last Book Club reads, Snow by Orhan Pamuk and La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (Not available in English and a literal translation would be The Shutter Troopers) In both cases, I read around 120-150 pages before giving up, I think I’ve given them a fair chance.

Let’s start with Snow. The character Ka –sounds like he’s coming of a Dino Buzzati novel—arrives in the provincial town of Kars, in Turkey. It’s winter and snowing. He’s back in his country after living in Germany for a decade. He’s a published poet and he’s sent to Kars as a reporter to investigate the suspicious suicides of young girls in the area. It’s also where his former university classmate Ipek lives. He had a vague crush on her back then and now he thinks she could be marriage material.

I know that Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize of Literature and that Snow is a well-acclaimed novel. I just didn’t get along with it. I thought that the constant religious discussions were too long and boring and I found the relationship between Ka and Ipek implausible.

It’s the kind of book I should have liked and I’m sure it tells lots of interesting things about Turkey but I was really struggling. I asked the other Book Club members how they were doing with it and the one answer I got was that the last 200 pages were a little boring. Since the first 100 pages were already plenty boring to me, I made the decision to stop reading it. I couldn’t push through the 500 pages left. I was just bored.

It’s obviously a good book, just not one for me. Or perhaps I read it at the wrong time.

 

Now The Shutter Troopers. It’s SF, so really out of my comfort zone and I was apprehensive to tackle these 730 pages of hardcore SF, not even dystopian fiction. Think of Dune.

The first chapter threw me off. Humans are in a life-threatening wind tempest in a décor of rammed earth houses and Australian bush. The author is from Lyon and rammed earth houses are typical from the Dauphiné region, between Lyon and Grenoble. Since the landscape was made of red earth, spinifex, eucalypti and oaks, I thought about Australia. Images of my in-laws’ village clashed in my head with images of Uluru.

The structure of the book is unusual. The chapters go from XIX to I. The main characters are described in a glossary at the end of the book, something I’ve just discovered. The characters speak one after each other and are represented by Greek symbols. You never know who’s speaking unless you click on the symbol (ebook) or refer to the characters bookmark (paper book). The POV changes several times per chapter.

I have the ebook version and I hated clicking on the symbol because it broke my reading flow, so I stopped checking. (It would have been the same with the paperback anyway) I didn’t always know who was speaking and I spent the few chapters I read trying to understand what I was reading. French speaking readers will understand what I mean with this quote: “Les chrones les plus petits ont le volume d’un gorce. Les plus gros pourraient tenir dans la doline.”

I asked about La Horde du Contrevent to French readers on Twitter and got the same answers. It takes half of the book to really get into it; you have to read it in few sittings to really manage to enter into the book’s world and you need the book bookmark to follow who’s speaking but after 350 pages, it’s getting better. I also asked what it was about and the most accurate description was that it’s about a sort of rugby team who travels the Earth to find out where the wind comes from. It’s a spiritual quest.

The thing is, I don’t have the luxury to read 730 pages in one or two sittings, even on holiday. It got on my nerves not to be able to understand whose POV I was reading, even if the characters have distinct voices. I believe I would have recognized them in the end. But there are 23 troopers. How long would it have taken me to spot each character through their voice? Russian novels are piece of cake after that, believe me. Each trooper has a role in the team and it’s hard to assimilate as well since these roles are totally imaginary.

Call me conservative but I don’t think I should refer to a bookmark for the names of the characters when I’m reading. All this irritated me, got in the way of my immersion in Damasio’s world. And, honestly, it’s a pity. He’s insanely creative. His descriptions are precise, poetic and visual. He imagined a coherent world with rules and inhabitants and I’m sure that for some readers, it’s a wonderful journey. But Damasio is too verbose for my tastes. I put the book down for a few days, thinking I’d get back to it. I tried to resume reading and I was put-off by the style. I wasn’t interested in knowing what would become of them and I wasn’t intrigued enough to push through the discomfort of feeling totally disoriented.

La Horde du Contrevent won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2006, the Goncourt of SF. It’s rated 4.46 stars on Goodreads. My vision of it is only mine and says nothing about the quality of the book just that it wasn’t a good match for this reader.

This blog is not about reviewing books, it’s my reading journey, I share the good and the bad experiences.

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