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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.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie – Disappointing

September 22, 2019 12 comments

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (2013) French title: Sidney Chambers et l’ombre de la mort. Translated by Patrice Repusseau.

I have a rule for Book Around the Corner: write a billet about every book I read, even if I don’t finish it. I have a rather long backlog of billets and I see that I only have three months left to catch up before 2020 starts. Phew! Combine the rule and the backlog and you’ll have a quick-and-dirty billet about Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, a crime fiction book I couldn’t finish.

I’d never heard of Runcie but it is published by Babel Noir, a good reference for crime fiction and the cover called to me. It’s the first volume of the Grantchester mysteries, featuring the vicar Sidney Chambers. He plays amateur detective and feeds his friend inspector Georgie Keating with information. I see that there’s a TV series made out of it.

How can I say this? I was looking for a so-British cozy crime mystery, something that smelled of old spinsters, gossips and church ladies. Sidney Chambers is a thirty-two-year of vicar who has been appointed to the town of Grantchester. Runcie draws the setting, introduces us to his main character. At Stephen Staunton’s funeral, a woman approaches Chambers to speak with him privately. She was Staunton’s mistress and she doesn’t believe that he committed suicide. She asks the vicar to dig around, since he can go where the police are not welcome.

I started to get into the story, thought the plot was developing and suddenly, wham, bam, thank you reader, mystery is solved and now we’re off to a New Year’s Eve dinner party where jewelry is stolen. I thought “What?! That’s it?”

I tried to read further but I couldn’t find any interest in the plot or in the characters’ company. I thought that they were caricatures. I disliked the weepy hostess of the dinner party. Why did she have to be a blubbering mess because something happened in her house?

Long story short, I abandoned it and I was disappointed because I expected a light and entertaining read. Has anyone read this series or watched it TV version? Did I read it at the wrong time or was I not the only one unconvinced by Sidney Chambers?

PS: Don’t you think that the title sounds like Harry Potter?

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot – About the Paris Commune of 1871

December 30, 2018 25 comments

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot (2015) Original French title: Une plaie ouverte.

*Sigh* A missed opportunity, that’s what An Open Wound is. Patrick Pécherot supposedly wrote historical crime fiction here. The setting is Paris, back and forth between the Paris Commune of 1871 and 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia sums up about the Paris Commune:

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. The Franco-Prussian War had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the collapse of the Second French Empire, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Because Paris was under siege for four months, the Third Republic moved its capital to Tours. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, Paris was primarily defended during this time by the often politicised and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. Paris surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871, and in February Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.

On 18 March, soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The Commune governed Paris for two months, until it was suppressed by the regular French Army during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The pretext of the plot is that Dana, a participant in the Commune of Paris has been sentenced to death in absentia for a murder on the Haxo street during the Paris Commune. In 1905, Dana is still missing and no one knows where he is or if he’s still alive. Rumors say he might be in America.

Dana was part of a group of activists during the Paris Commune, a group of historical figures (Courbet, Verlaine, Louise Michel, Vallès) and fictional characters like Marceau, the man who wonders what has become of Dana.

So far, so good. Good blurb, excellent idea for a book. Its execution was a death sentence for this reader. There are so many things that went wrong for me that I abandoned it, despite a genuine interest in reading about the Paris Commune.

The layout of the book:

Different typos to help the reader know where they are: normal for relating the Paris Commune in 1871, italic for the quest in 1905 and normal with another font to write about the murder. Tedious. I wonder how it turns out in audio book. I hate this device: the writing should be good enough to make the reader understand they’re back in time or moving forward or changing of point of view. It’s a lazy way to overcome the difficulty of changing of time, place and narrator.

Losing the plot line

The investigation to discover what has become of Dana should be our main thread except that we have a hard time figuring out it’s supposed to be the plot line. Thank God for the blurb. It’s not a real and methodical investigation so, right after I finally got it was the purpose of the book, I lost sight of it.

Missing key elements on the historical events. 

The Paris Commune events are told in short paragraphs with their date, to give the reader a chronology of the movement and its fall. Fine. But, as a reader who knows next to nothing about the Paris Commune (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I didn’t understand how it happened, who were Communards, the ones fighting against the Thiers government. Thank God for Wikipedia.

Mixing historical characters with fictional ones. 

Except for the obvious ones, I couldn’t figure out who were real participants and who were literary characters. I don’t know how much Verlaine was involved in the Paris Commune or if it’s true that his wife was one of Louise Michel’s pupil. I suppose it’s true.

The style

The last straw that broke my reader’s back was the style. At times some sort of lyrical prose overflowing with words and at other times, half sentences, almost bullet points. Add to the mix, embedded verses by Verlaine when a paragraph features the poet, like here:

Il faudrait questionner Courbet, savoir ce qu’il peint d’un modèle. Ou Verlaine. Son rêve étrange et pénétrant n’est jamais tout à fait le même ni tout à fait un autre.

Patrick Pécherot, Une plaie ouverte, p141

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,

Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.

Paul Verlaine, Mon rêve familier.

And the language is uneven, moving from one register to the other, often using argot from I don’t know what time. 1871?

I tried to soldier on but I was at the end of my rope page 166, out of 318. I say I gave it a good shot. Like the one Dana gave to Amédée Floquin, the man he murdered? I guess I’ll never know whether he actually killed him or if he’s still alive in 1905. The style is really what made be abandon the book, it grated too much. I was still learning things about the Paris Commune (with Wikipedia on the side) but the style was too unbearable for me to finish the book.

That’s a pity. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I’m too demanding, I don’t know. An Open Wound won a literary prize for crime fiction, Le Prix Transfuge of the best Polar. I fail to see how this book is a polar at all but I’m not proficient in putting books in literary boxes.

The good thing about aborted read is that I got to browse through the list of books that are based upon the Paris Commune. I need to read La Débâcle by Zola, at least I know the style will be outstanding. There are poems by Victor Hugo, L’Année terrible. There’s L’Insurgé by Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin, that was also made into a BD by Jacques Tardi. And Tardi is a reference in the BD world.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

February 3, 2018 11 comments

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009) French title: Un autre monde. Translated by Martine Aubert.

A quick post about my abandoning The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I think I gave it a read shot, I waited until page 215 to let it go. It’s 664 pages long and I couldn’t see myself reading the four hundred and something pages left.

I’m disappointed because I usually enjoy Kingsolver’s books.

This one is the story/journals of Harrison William Shepherd, son of a Mexican mother and an American father. When the book opens, his mother has just left her American husband to follow her Mexican lover to his property on Isla Pixol, Mexico. We’re in 1929 and Harry is 14.

The style is a mix of chapters told by an omniscient narrator, some are made of Harry’s journals sandwiched between chapters by his translator. We understand that Harry is dead, that he became a famous writer, that his translator gathered his journals to make this book.

After a few Mexican years, Harry is sent back to his father in America. Now feeling in a parental mood, he enrolls Harry in a private military school in Washinfton DC. We get to read Harry’s journal: normal boy stuff and news from the outside with riots due to the Great Depression. W’ere in 1930/1931, during the Hoover presidency.

Then it’s back to Mexico with his flighty mother who’s always looking for a man to support her. Harry is hired as a member of Diego Rivera’s domesticity. Trostsky is hidden at the Rivera’s house…and that’s where I dropped out of the story.

I couldn’t find interest in Harry’s life or in the real-life events the book mentions. The only things that interested me were the mentions about Mexican cuisine and the dishes Harry learns to cook. That’s pretty thin and not enough to trudge to the end page.

I was determined to read it all since it’s our Book Club choice for January but really, I was looking at my TBR with longing, eager to pick something else and that’s the sure sign that it’s time to give up and move on. Life is short, there’s never enough reading time. I can’t afford to waste it.

I am now in company of Dave Robicheaux, the gritty New Orleans cop imagined by James Lee Burke. A treat.

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 41 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

All That Is by James Salter. Much ado about nothing

July 2, 2016 22 comments

All That Is by James Salter (2013) French title: Et rien d’autre. Translated by Marc Amfreville

This blog is my reading journal and I’m committed to write about the books I loved but also the ones I abandoned. So, here’s another negative billet that I’ll keep short because I have a backlog of billets about books I actually loved. And my blogging time is limited…

I had some expectations about All That Is by James Salter, given the fuss around this book. I guess that from a literary point of view, the title is really apt.

To be honest, the blurb is appealing. We’re at the end of WWII and Philip Bowman, a young man has come back from the war in the Pacific. He goes to Harvard and ends up working for a publisher in New York. The novel is about his life. Simple enough. The blurb of the French edition says:

This beautiful novel is like a testimony of a generation of writers, last witnesses, without their knowing, of a world promised to disappear. Because art is the only place where opposites live side by side without destroying each other, it ties in a single gesture the lust for life of youth and the melancholy of maturity, frantic eroticism and need of sooth, the quest for fame and the acute awareness of its insignificance.

Salter_rien_d'autreSounds good, no? How disappointed I was. I found Bowman’s story lacking of depth. The novel sits on the middle of a bridge between the shore of State of the Nation literature and State of the Self literature. I waited for an analysis of the American society of that time. I waited for a description of Bowman’s thoughts and feelings. I tried until page 129 out of 364. The novel feels scattered. Each time I start to get attached to a character, the focus shifts on someone else and I think, “Hey, I want to know what happens next!” There’s no description of the publishing world beyond brushes that left me thirsty for more. During these 129 pages, I was waiting for substance and depth: get into the mind of the character or write us a fresco of New York in the 50s. It wasn’t coming.

Then I stumbled upon Lisa’s review of All That Is on Goodreads and discovered that she hated it for the same reasons I couldn’t engage with it. Her review is worth reading. So I saved myself a few hours of reading and abandoned it. So, thanks, Lisa.

To me That Is All.

PS: That cover! *exasperated eye-roll*

The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson

June 12, 2016 6 comments

The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson. (2006) French title: La confrérie des mutilés. Translated by Françoise Smith.

Evenson_confrérieI have a lot of billets to catch up with, so I’ll be very quick with The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson because I couldn’t finish it. It sounded promising, really. I wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. Kline is a PI who lost his hand in a mission that didn’t end well. He’s hired by a secret society to investigate a murder in their community. This brotherhood is only composed of mutilated men. The more mutilated you are, the higher you climb in the hierarchy. And brothers only have access to brothers who are on the same level of mutilation –which is in contradiction with the term of brother, according to me, but I’m not the writer here.

Since access to information requires a certain rank in the secret society, how far will Kline go to investigate this murder? Will he accept additional mutilations?

The blurb was soft and theoretical. The book is not. I cringed when I read how Kline lost his hand but I’ve read worse. However, I couldn’t stomach the brotherhood. I recoiled from the concept of mutilating yourself voluntarily. I couldn’t read more about these people who are in awe of men who cut toes or fingers to score points. I couldn’t read more discussions about whether cutting a toe counted as one mutilation point or if toes should be counted as a whole to get a point. I disliked mutilation parties to celebrate someone’s new mutilation.

Really, I couldn’t go further with this, despite Télérama’s glowing review. It’s too gore for me.

So, if anyone’s read this one till the end, I’m interested in their opinion on this er…unusual novel.

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq

June 4, 2016 30 comments

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq (1945) Original French title : Un beau ténébreux. English translation by Christopher Moncreiff.

gracq_beau_ténébreuxA Dark Stranger is set during the summer 19.. in Kérantec, a fictional seaside resort in Britanny. A group of idle young people are staying at the hotel Les Vagues. They go to the beach, swim, walk, play tennis, chess and read. The novel is mostly a diary written by Gérard who has an unconventional point of view. He spends time with this group but he doesn’t really belong with them. He has firsthand material to retell what’s going on and still has the outsider’s point of view.

The group is classically composed of Jacques, a happy-go-lucky man. He’s uncomplicated, loves sports and is a bit in awe with Christel. She’s the queen bee that all men gravitate around. Even Gérard is intrigued by her. There’s a married couple, Irène and Henri. They are the go-between to organize outings. Bored, Gérard is about to leave when Grégory, another member of the gang, announces that one of his childhood friend is about to arrive. Curiosity pushes Gérard to stay and meet with Allan and Dolorès, the new couple in the hotel.

Allan rapidly becomes the center of attention. He’s the dark stranger of the title. He seems to have it all, athletic, cultured, attractive. And yet, Gérard lets us understand that something is off in Allan’s behaviour.

That’s where I stopped to read. I was page 99 out of 255 and I couldn’t stand to read one more page of this. I took a lot of irritated notes while reading. How the group sounded a bit like a teen movie with the popular and the others. How it seemed a poor remembrance of Balbec with the tortured narrator trying to get in the pants of the pretty and elusive girl. How the picnic on the ruins in the Brittany countryside reminded me of the epic picnic in Emma by Jane Austen only without the wit. I wasn’t interested in this group at all.

See the teen movie vibe:

En quelques jours Allan était devenu le dieu de la bande “straight”. Within a few days, Allan had become the new god of the in crowd.

Gracq_pushkinStraight is the name of the group of young people staying at the hotel and led by Jacques. Until Allan’s arrival, that is. The name is mentioned right at the beginning of the novel and I kept wondering what it meant in the pre-AIDS & Gay Pride era when us French started to learn about the other meaning of straight. The mystery was solved later. Christopher Moncreiff, the latest English translator of A Dark Stranger, chose to translate it as “in crowd”, which comforts my impression of high school drama.

In the end, what made the book unbearable to me was the style. It’s bombastic, full of complicated words for no reason at all. I noted that I was page 21 and he had already called upon the manes of Poe, Balzac and Rimbaud. The pages seemed crowded, all of a sudden. I don’t like this kind of name dropping. I’m under the impression that the author is not sure enough of his craft, that he needs offerings to the literary gods for their genius to coat his literature with a rain of glitter.

Then, there is the extensive use of words in italic and piece of sentences starting with “–“. It hurts the eye. I found myself scanning the page before reading to check how many of them there were. If it wasn’t obvious to the writer, what was the publisher thinking? Isn’t it part of their job to edit books to avoid things like this? Page 96, there are NINE “–“ and THREE words in italic. Again, it leaves me with the feeling of a writer unsure of himself. A writer doesn’t need to emphasize words like this all the time. Either it’s the right word and no italic is needed or he ought to pick another word. And Gracq could have done it, his vocabulary is as wide as a dictionary.

Granted, Graq’s descriptions of Britanny are marvelous and poetic. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the rest. There are the oneiric parts, the walks and picnic at night that didn’t appeal to me at all. It reminded me of Le grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, a book I really don’t like despite its literary merits.

Gracq wrote this during WWII and he was a war prisoner in Silesia. I suppose that he wanted to write something as far as his quotidian as possible. After all, Romain Gary wrote Education Europénne, set in the heart of the cold Polish winter when he was roasting in the Middle East. He needed the idea of the snow to escape his reality.

Of course, since I didn’t finish the book, I can’t give a fully informed opinion about the plot. Someone’s going to die, that’s for sure, we know it from the preamble. To read a better informed and more enthusiastic review, see here.

To make a long story short, it’s probably a great piece of literature but it’s not my cup of tea at all. Sometimes it’s a question of a bad timing. Here, the book is just not for me.

I’m dying to hear about someone else’s opinion on this one. So don’t hesitate to comment.

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

December 29, 2015 10 comments

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz. (2014)

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz is our Book Club choice for December and I’m not going to waste a lot of time reviewing it. That’s how irritated I am with this book I abandoned at page 67.

First, there’s this ridiculous font of characters that reminded me of a giggling teenage girl who puts little hearts on her is. Look!

Moriarty_police

Then there’s the flatness of the style and the easy literary devices: addressing to the reader to go back in time and introduce the plot or describe the characters or make useless detours to add fake life to the prose. I started to roll my eyes from the first page after I recovered from the silly font. The narrator is American, a detective from the famous Pinkerton Agency.

As I sit at my Remington Number Two improved model typewriter (an American invention, of course) et begin this great labour, I know that I am likely to fall short of the standards of accuracy and entertainment that he maintained to the end.

Well, that inspires me. The first part of the sentence seems labored, as an American would spell it and autobiographical for the actual writer. He fell short of fiction greatness and accuracy is an accounting standard, which might be crucial if the point of the book is to earn money. You think I go a bit too far? You need another round of it:

My appearance? Well, it’s never easy for any man to describe himself but I will be honest and say that I could not call myself handsome. My hair was black, my eyes an indifferent shade of brown. I was slender and though only in my forties, I was already too put-upon by the challenges life had thrown my way. I was unmarried and sometimes I worried that it showed in my wardrobe, which was perhaps a little too well worn.

See? Am I mistaken when I say he doesn’t sound like a New Yorker? And compared to Craig Johnson, Horowitz writes like a toddler.

I was still willing to suffer through the banal prose for a good piece of entertainment. But then it got worse when the British inspector from Scotland Yard came into the story. The deciphering of the secret code included in a letter made me groan of frustration. Like we say in French, I threw the sponge away. (I gave up) I’m too old to read a mix of Da Vinci Code and The Famous Five. I’m too busy to waste good reading time on such a book.

So, bye bye Moriarty! Hello Petros Markaris! I’m taking the French leave and going to Athens for Liquidation à la grecque.

If you want to read an gentler review of Moriarty, go to Caroline’s review.

 

Danish disappointment

August 7, 2015 16 comments

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.

 

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes.

June 18, 2015 13 comments

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. 2015 (Not available in English)

Despentes_vernonIWhat a disappointment! I was looking forward to reading Virginie Despentes’s new novel after enjoying Apocalypse Bébé and Teen Spirit.

Vernon Subutex is the name of the main character, a former record dealer whose professional life was destroyed by digital music. We’re all aware of what happened to the music industry with the development of internet, P2P and music in mp3 files instead of CDs. So Vernon’s store sunk and he sunk with it. His financial situation worsens and when his friend Alex dies, he doesn’t have anyone anymore to help him with his rent and he’s evicted from his apartment. Alex is not a guy-next-door kind of friend, he’s a rock star. And Vernon has tapes where Alex talked about himself. Surely, such precious material is worth money?

That brought me to page 120 out of 393, of the first volume. (The second one was released this month and there’s a third one scheduled for later). Although Despentes is still punchy in her style, I couldn’t care less about the story. I heard her talk about her novel at the Fête du Livre de Bron and I expected something more about society’s shortcomings. She explained our society is uncompromising for the weak and Vernon’s situation spiraled out of control. I expected to sympathise with Vernon.

Instead, I thought Vernon was a bit of a Peter Pan. He never wanted to grow up and he now resents ageing even if he doesn’t complain about it.

Passé quarante ans, tout le monde ressemble à une ville bombardée. After forty, everybody looks like a town after a bombing.

He’s more in a mood of “where the hell did those years go?” He failed to acknowledge his professional world was changing, he failed to branch out when it was time. Perhaps it was such a strong wave that the whole music industry didn’t see it coming. His friends or so call friends are all the artistic/media world (rock stars, rock journalist, screenwriter or working on TV) I wasn’t interested at all in their angst. I could imagine a sordid plot was about to explode about Alex’s recordings and that it would be ugly and expose society’s greediness. But I didn’t feel like reading more about that.

So after seeing the book lying around for a while and never feeling like picking it up, I decided to stop reading it. It’s not a bad book at all. I still enjoyed Despentes’s style and she hasn’t lost her edge

Pedro s’appelait Pierre, mais il prenait tant de cocaïne qu’il avait hérité d’un prénom sud-américain. Pedro’s real name was Pierre but he sniffed so much cocaine that he inherited of a South-American name.

However, sometime, I could hear the English under her French, which is really odd. I noticed this sentence Emilie est devenue balistique sur la propreté. (Emilie went ballistic on hygiene) and later I spotted a Marque mes mots (mark my words) In both cases, it means absolutely nothing in French if you’re not aware of the English expressions. I truly love the English language but when you write in French, you don’t sabotage the beauty of the language by literally translating English expressions into French. It bothers me.

So, in a nutshell, I think she’s as talented as ever but that her Vernon Sullivan never engaged me. Her novel should have left me with a head full of rock music. Instead, it left me with a song by Renaud, P’tite Conne. In this song, Renaud describes the funeral of a young woman who died of an overdose and who came from social circles where drugs were accepted. See part of the lyrics:

Tu fréquentais un monded’imbéciles mondains

Où cette poudre immonde

se consomme au matin,

 

Où le fric autorise

à se croire à l’abri

Et de la cour d’assises

et de notre mépris

 

Que ton triste univers

nous inspirait, malins

en sirotant nos bières

ou en fumant nos joints…

You belonged to a worldOf stupid socialites

Where this disgusting powder

Is consumed in the early morning,

 

Where money allows you

To feel protected

From the Crown Court

And from the contempt

 

That your sad little world

Inspired us, smartasses

While we sipped our beers

Or smoked our pot…

Vernon Sullivan seemed a part of this sad delusional world and I left him there.

This was my second read of my #TBR20 project.

 

 

 

The Ravishing of Britney Spears by Jean Rolin.

January 9, 2015 20 comments

Le ravissement de Britney Spears by Jean Rolin 2011 Not translated into English.

After this week’s awful events in Paris, I’m not comfortable with writing about The Ravishing of Britney Spears and you’ll understand why soon. But this was the billet I intended to write this week and that’s what I’ll do. Doing otherwise would give more power to murderers and that’s not acceptable.

Rolin_BritneyYou can’t imagine the buzz there’s been around Le ravissement de Britney Spears by Jean Rolin when it was released. All the critics were raving about it. The plot seemed like a good idea: a French spy is sent in Los Angeles to investigate threats of Islamic terrorist attacks against Britney Spears. As an iconic pop star, the terrorists allegedly think killing her would have a great impact on masses. So far so good. That’s why I was interested in reading the book. And I also knew that Jean Rolin had lived in Los Angeles for a while, so I expected a real feel of the city.

The problem is that our spy doesn’t have a driving license. And he’s on a mission in sprawling L.A. where there are less metro lines than in Lyon. So he’s wandering around the city in public buses. And he describes his journeys in a very detailed way. And all these passages sound like I’m learning by heart the L.A. map of buses. And I’M BORED TO DEATH. At page 121, my head was still full of questions. When will the story really start? Will he give up the mindless descriptions of travelling by bus? No, he won’t? After one look at the TBR, I stopped reading it.

I could have liked this novel. It is about Los Angeles and, from the descriptions, the writer had a good feel of the city. All his traveling by bus makes him visit places he would have ignored if he had been driving. He shows another side of the city than the one we usually see on TV. I could also have liked to read about his arguments explaining why attempting to Britney Spears’s life could fulfill a political goal for terrorists. There are also descriptions about paparazzi’s M.O. and trash press and it could have been interesting.

This book didn’t work for me because in my opinion, it didn’t pick the right side where literary genres are concerned. With a carless spy on a mission in LA and whose main contact info’s name is Fuck, you need to be mighty good to turn it into a serious novel. These two elements tip the scale in favor of crazy or state-of-the-nation satire. I would have loved to see what Kotzwinkle or Carlos Salem would have done with such a pitch. Or Max Barry, who would have turned it into a dystopian novel. It has everything to become a crazy high paced novel with intelligent thoughts. Jean Rolin decided to tip the scale on the side of serious. Slow pace enhanced by long sentences, serious descriptions of L.A., serious thoughts about Britney Spears and serious snoring on my side.

Too bad. I know someone else who had the same experience as me with the book. (Summed up in a sentence “much ado about nothing”) but the ratings are rather good on Goodreads. So perhaps I read it at a bad moment. Or more likely I have a tendency to prefer more off-the-wall books and it felt like a missed opportunity.

Or the all the fun was after page 121.

Stout born

December 3, 2014 17 comments

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. 1939 French title: Swim-Two-Birds.

OBrienMea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I’m late for November’s Book Club billet. I have abandoned the book so I don’t have any excuse for the late entry, except that work got in the way. I have to say it was a general abandonment, nobody managed to finish the book this month. It was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. I bought my copy at the bookshop in the Dublin Writers Museum. The quote by Dylan Thomas on the back caught my eyes This is just the book to give to your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl. I thought it sounded fun. I wish I had seen that Flann O’Brien had been knighted as “real writer” by James Joyce. It would have tipped me off.

So what’s it about? Er…I don’t exactly know. There’s some guy who’s attending Dublin’s University. He lives with his uncle and loves staying in his room until the air is stale. He likes to drink beer in pubs (well, he’s a Dubliner, right?) He writes unclassifiable stories that are related in the book. The reader, me in this instance, is totally disoriented. I have the novel in English, it’s full of parody of Irish things I know nothing about and I felt I was drowning in an ocean of words perfumed with Irish stout.

I’ve struggled with 50 pages and then I gave up. I asked for help, got some and was told to basically enjoy the funny ride. The problem I couldn’t because it was too complicated to follow. I’ve read 50 pages and I have 13 quotes, most of them marked down as “funny”. Examples:

It was only a few months before composing the foregoing that I had my first experience of intoxicating beverage and their strange intestinal chemistry.

Or

To convert stout into water, I said, there is simple process. Even a child can do it, though I would not stand for giving stout to children. Is it not a pity that the art of man has not attained the secret of converting water into stout?

I enjoyed the booze induced parts of the pages I’ve read and the descriptions of the narrator’s life in Dublin. Apart from this, it is hard for me to describe O’Brien’s work. It’s totally wacked and yet innovative. It’s unsettling especially since it’s populated (in the 50 pages I’ve read, at least) with legendary heroes of Ireland, fictional Mr Furriskey created by the fictional narrator of the book, Irish version of cowboys… It made me dizzy in a Laughing-Cow sort of way: the Laughing-Cow has earrings, in which there’s a Laughing Cow that has earrings that have a Laughing Cown that…etc. And that’s where you forget where you came from. All this in a language rather difficult for me, as a non-native. It’s a literary scrap-book of the narrator’s thoughts and excerpts of his writing.

I do enjoy crazy books but this one was too much for me. Perhaps it should be read under the influence of stout, to be attuned to the character. Alas, I don’t drink stout. Or perhaps I should have read it in French? Anyway, don’t dismiss this book because of this billet. The problem is clearly on my Book Club’s side.

Lackey is lacking

October 31, 2014 10 comments

Phoenix & Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. 2004. The Elemental Masters, volume 4. 

Lackey_ElementalI decided to read this as participation to Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. It intrigued me, I wanted to try something out of my usual box and I hoped to discover a series my daughter might like.

Phoenix and Ashes is set in England during WWI. It is loosely based upon the Cinderella fairy tale with Eleanor in the role of Cinderella, a nasty stepmother named Alison and two stepsisters trying to catch Reggie, the local most eligible bachelor, the modern version of Prince Charming. Add magic to the mix since Phoenix & Ashes is the fourth volume of the Elemental Masters series. “Elemental masters” means that as in Harry Potter, wizards live among humans and there are four kinds of wizards, each mastering one element (Earth, Fire, Air and Water) Alison is an Earth wizard, Eleanor is just discovering she’s a Fire master and Reggie is an Air one which explains why he is a pilot in the burgeoning air force. Alison keeps Eleanor attached to scrubbing the kitchen and the house via a spell. She wants one of her daughters to marry Reggie and she plots a way to get them acquainted. Poor Reggie is in bad shape as he was wounded during an air battle; his airplane fell down and he was kept in a bunker while critters from an Earth Elemental master tortured him. He no longer thinks himself as an Air Elemental master. That’s the setting.

I’m afraid the summary I just made of the book reflects the fact that I abandoned it after reading 30% of it. The idea in itself is interesting and could be good plot material. After all, it led me into starting the book. The execution was not up to my expectations. OK, it’s true I’m not a fan of fantasy, you may think I’m prejudiced against the genre. I did read Harry Potter with pleasure though, most of the pleasure coming from all the details JK Rowling put into the story and that make the wizards’ world consistent and plausible. She invented funny details like speaking painting. In Phoenix & Ashes, I felt a miserable attempt at mimicking JK Rowling. The style is rather poor but the few YA books I’ve read were disappointing as far as style was concerned. – One exception, JMG Le Clézio, that must be why he won the Nobel prize of literature. To be honest, I didn’t expect a masterpiece.

However, I expected a page turner, a light read for a train journey I had planned and I thought the plot was dragging and dragging and dragging. Mercedes Lackey managed the unfortunate combination of developing the plot too slowly while at the same time not giving enough quirky details about the wizard world she created. I wasn’t in a hurry to know about the plot and I couldn’t enter her imaginary world because its depiction was too blurry. In the end, the book is tasteless and while I was in the right mood and place to enjoy an entertaining novel, I had to abandon it. Frustrating. What is beyond me is how she managed to write and sell 10 volumes of this Elemental Masters series.

I’ve written this review before reading Caroline’s and you can discover her take here. No magic there, basic science: the same causes produce the same effects.

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