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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.

Not a cinch, a Pynch

July 30, 2014 28 comments

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. (1966) French title: Vente à la criée du lot 49.

Pynchon_Lot_49I have all the symptoms of the book-to-be-abandoned illness. What are they? You glance at the book and you think about watching TV. You see the book on the table and you think about the next one you’ll read. You open the book and you don’t remember what you’ve read before. Normal, because you left days between now and the last time you opened it. You can’t remember the characters’ names or who is who. You look at the number of pages to read before you reach the next chapter and until the end. You sigh a lot. All this happened to me with The Crying of Lot 49.

In other words, Pynchon and I weren’t on reading terms. I never managed to enter into the plot, I was constantly distracted by details such as the names of the characters (Oedipa Maas, Mike Fallopian…), losing sight of the plot’s thread (I needed an Ariadne, not an Oedipa). I really tried to be interested in the mystery of the book but I couldn’t. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and run.

Sorry to disappoint Pynchon’s fans, but I couldn’t make it. This writer was on the daunting list and on the daunting list it stays. Please leave comments and tell me what you thought about The Crying of Lot 49 if you have read it. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about Kosztolányi.

Time After Time by Molly Keane

June 29, 2014 15 comments

Time After Time by Molly Keane 1983 French title: La revenante.

Keane_TimeTime After Time is our Book Club choice for June. I’m sorry to report I couldn’t finish it, I stopped at 36%, the kindle says. I never managed to enter into the book’s universe.

It is set in Ireland, in the decrepit aristocratic mansion Durraghglass where the four Swift siblings live together. They are over sixty year old and kindly hate one another. Jasper is the only man of the group. An accident in his childhood left him one-eyed and he loves cooking and gardening. April, the only one who was married once, is almost deaf; her main hobby is buying pretty clothes and taking care of her beauty. May has a hand with only two digits and is the President of the Flower Arranger’s Guild. June –Baby— is slow and loves farming. The four of them worship their deceased mother. For example, Jasper still wears the hat she picked for him years ago and the sisters quote her words like the Gospels. Saint Mummy, pray for us.

They all have clear but different memories of the cousin Leda who was a half-Jewish Austrian. She had stayed with them during a summer and they all assume she died during WWII. A Jew married to a Jew, what else could have happened? But Leda arrives unexpectedly on their doorstep…

This is where I stopped reading. There was a feeling of déjà vu that bothered me. Molly Keane has a lovely and humorous style but the outline of the characters and the plot sounded more like a literature exercise than real creation. Four siblings, each with a disability, raised in grandeur and now impoverished. The three sisters have month names, the mother’s ghost is hovering over their lives. They each have a pet, the sisters have dogs and Jasper has a cat. Each sibling has their little quirk. And you can feel that cousin Leda’s return is going to set things in motion, dig out dark secrets and shatter the fragile modus vivendi of the Swift siblings. So she’s the deus ex-machina, as my literature textbook calls it.

This is why I couldn’t finish it. I thought the characters, setting and plot were artificial. It reminds me of theatre play rules, unity of time, place and action. I felt like Molly Keane was trying to comply with literature rules for a school assignment more than expressing herself. Four disabilities were too much for my liking and the names put me off. Seriously: April, May and June? The accumulation of quirky irritated me and I saw an accumulation of details and characters that didn’t mesh well.

I’m now curious to know what the other Book Club participants thought about it. For another review, discover Guy’s thoughts here. He was delighted by the book.

PS: I can’t reconcile the cover of the book with anything I’ve encountered in the 36% I’ve read. The explanation must come later.

 

Zadie in Metroland

September 12, 2013 44 comments

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012.

Let’s say it right away, I couldn’t finish that one. I tried, asked Twitter followers to cheer me up and convince me to finish it. Thanks everyone for the replies and the links to reviews. I soldiered on and lost the war. I still wonder what went wrong with that book or more precisely, why the fact I couldn’t stand Leah, one of the main female characters and that I couldn’t picture her French thirty-something husband named Michel was enough to make me abandon the book.

Since it’s hard to summarise a book you haven’t finished, here is the blurb from Amazon:

Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Fox, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.

Smith_NWSure, the style and the description of the city are marvellous. I could see that even if I didn’t even finish the first part of the novel. Zadie Smith’s style is brilliant and vibrant, really. No doubt about this. She captures very well the fleeting sensations one has when walking in a city. She describes the environment in an impressionist way which felt close to reality. Her pace changes, she plays with the layout, inserts a chapter 37 after the seventeenth and has a rather hectic prose at times. It didn’t bother me at all. It could have been a put-off but it wasn’t. I’m sure I missed a lot of subtleties that only a Londoner can see.

It seemed clever in its assessment of city life and it’s erudite in an off-hand manner, which I like in a book. I heard Michel de Montaigne in the text, like here Laurels. And you rest on them, you don’t sit on them. You sit on your arse. It reminded me of this quote by Montaigne Sur le plus beau trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul ! (Even on the nicest throne in the world, one still sits on their ass !) I’m sure there were other references like this in the novel.

Unfortunately, I’m a reader who cares about characters and plot. In the first section, we meet Leah and her husband Michel. Leah is white and Michel is French and black. That’s important. They’re both in their mid-thirties and we’re in Leah’s head. And that’s an annoying head to be in. I didn’t like Leah at all. She reminded me of Bruno in Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. The style is totally different but these characters have something in common. They go nowhere with their lives, whine, have the blues of the unsatisfied white adult and make shocking decisions. Boring. I’m still trying to figure out why Leah put me off a book I found extremely well-written and captivating in its picture of the urban world. I have trouble putting words on my emotions about her. Usually, I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a book, or I wouldn’t read crime fiction. I even liked books where I found the characters infuriating, like Maggie in Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

So why Leah? Actually, I stopped reading after she got her third abortion and this one without telling her husband who desperately wants a child and thinks they have fertility problems. She got on my nerves. I’m all for doing whatever you want with your body but being 35, with a stable job in a country with NHS and not being able to take proper contraception three times irritated me. I thought she was plain stupid, selfish and dishonest with her husband in a way which is, in my book, as bad as cheating on him. I didn’t want to be in her head any more. I know it’s judgemental but I couldn’t help it. I realise I abandoned a book before because I couldn’t stand the main character. It was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and the poor Toru Okada has things in common with Leah. Thirty, married, childless, bored and spineless. That’s for Leah.

And then there’s Michel. Who’s French, has an accent and makes grammar mistakes familiar to a French speaker. (Of course, your skin is white, it’s different, it’s more easy, you’ve had opportunities I didn’t have.). I have troubles with a Michel who’s 35. You see, in France – and I double-checked on the INSEE web site – a Michel is born before 1960. Think of actors, writers and singers like Michel Piccoli, Michel Blanc, Michel Houllebecq, Michel Butor, Michel Berger, Michel Jonasz. Smith’s Michel is thirty-five and I couldn’t picture that, no matter how hard I tried. He’s of Algerian and Guadeloupian origin, OK but still. It’s odd. I asked around, for my generation, Michel is an avuncular name. Maybe Michel is named after Houellebecq and Montaigne. Who knows? For the same reasons, I also had trouble imagining a thirty-ish Jean-Paul in Jennifer Government by Max Barry. Please Anglophone writers, pay attention to the names of your French characters, as some names are like time stamps.

Imagine this. I’m reading, I find Leah annoying and I couldn’t picture a Michel without a pot belly and wrinkles. Hmm. When I thought about watching TV instead of picking NW, I knew it was time to let it go and start another book. My loss, I know.

Anyway, for readers who’d want to know more, here are serious reviews about NW:

Alan’s excellent review at Words of Mercury

David’s at Follow the Thread

Guy’s at His Futile Preoccupations

Lisa’s at ANZ Lit Lovers

Naomi’s at The writes of women

Why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

June 20, 2013 43 comments

That Deadman Dance  by Kim Scott. 2010. Not available in French.

Scott_DeadmanLisa from ANZ Lit Lovers gave me That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott as my Humbook gift last Christmas. It took me a while to start it and it took me a while to acknowledge defeat and abandon it. I so didn’t want to quit reading it but I had to, this is too great a book to be understood and enjoyed half way through the lenses of non-native English speaker. I need a French translation with a foreword and explanatory footnotes and it’s not available in French.

That Deadman Dance relates the foundation of settlements in Australia and the relationships between the first white people coming there and the natives, the Noongar. I know absolutely nothing about the history of Aborigines and lots of things were totally lost to me. I did go to an exhibition of Aborigine art in Paris after Lisa gave this novel to me, to prepare for the book but I didn’t learn much that day. French museums have a knack for lacking of educational signs in exhibitions. Either you’re in and you already know something about what you’re seeing or you get out almost clueless. Once I’ve been to one called Contemporary art told to children. We brought the children there, mind you, all the pieces were a contemporary version of a previous and famous art work. It was explained alright, but do you think they had put a picture of the painting or sculpture it referred to? Of course not. We spent the whole visit looking for the missing pictures on our smartphones and showing them to the children on a tiny screen. But back to Scott and my difficulties.

I can read what you may consider difficult books (like Henry James) because the vocabulary is rather easy, at least for a Frenchwoman. Lots of your big words look like French words anyway. Reading a book about Australia with lots of descriptions of the landscape and a narrative leaping from one voice to another is another thing. Here’s a quote, just to hum to you the music of Scott’s voice:

They followed a path, rocky and scattered with fine pebbles that at one point wound through dense, low vegetation but mostly led them easily through what, Chaine said, seemed a gnarled and spiky forest. Leaves were like needles, or small saws. Candlestick-shaped flowers blossomed, or were dry and wooden. Tiny flowers clung to trees by thin tendrils, and wound their way through shrubbery, along clefts in rock. Bark hung in long strips. Flowering spears thrust upward from the centre of shimmering fountains of green which, on closer inspection, bristled with spikes.

Evocative, isn’t it? Kim Scott writes beautifully and the story in itself interested me. (You can read more about it here, under Lisa’s pen). I stopped reading it because I was sabotaging a marvellous piece of literature and I didn’t like that a bit. Other books by Scott are available in French, I’ll try one of them and perhaps, once I know more, once my English is better, I’ll return to this one. Right now, I’m frustrated not to be able to enjoy That Deadman Dance. Thank you Lisa for bringing this writer to my attention. And thank you to Actes Sud for translating some of his former books in French. This publisher is a gem.

Remarkably boring

April 26, 2012 21 comments

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. 2009. French title: Prodigieuses créatures.

Remarkable Creatures is this month read for our book club Les Copines d’abord and it is also a readalong for other bloggers interested in reading this novel. I’m afraid this review is going to be a breach in the book blogging etiquette: I abandoned the book of my own readalong. Of course, I feel guilty and at the beginning I wanted to stick with it and endure it until the end for the sake of that readalong. But I had to acknowledge that I started to shy away from the book and I’d rather not read at all than read it. That was the final blow, I stopped exactly at page 111 and the book has 415 pages.

In appearance, Remarkable Creatures has several ingredients of a book I should like. It is set in Lyme Regis, England, a place I visited last year and it’s always nice to read a book when you know the setting. It happens in the King George era, like Austen’s novels. It is the story of a friendship between two women who have a very unladylike passion for fossils. It tells the real story of Mary Anning, a paleontologist and her struggle to reach recognition in a men’s world and in a world where science was for upper classes. Feminism, history, 19thC England, all these are good tags for me.

Now, why didn’t I like it? I have a French edition, so my English has nothing to do with it. I guess it’s all Ms Chevalier’s fault. I was bored with the fossils. Fossils, fossils and more fossils. So many fossils names and no scientific explanation; I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn something nor was my curiosity picked enough to research the names on the internet. And the style! It took Ms Chevalier twenty pages to describe how they detached a crocodile fossil from the cliff and all in a dull style. I didn’t get attached to the characters, which is the basis for that kind of book to work. It could have been a thorough description of the life in a quaint little English town, but no. In the 111 first pages, there is no hint of social analysis, no hope for psychological insight in the characters’ inner minds. Eveything is a flat tale in alternate voices as the two women take turn to relate the events.

I’m quite alone is this assessment of Remarkable Creatures. It has a 4.5 stars rating on Amazon and 4 stars on GoodReads. So don’t be put off by this review, the problem probably comes from me.

As an aside, here are other reviews from French bloggers:

De ma Plume à vos Oreilles and Miss Alfie at Miss Alfie, Croqueuse de livres

After the Book Club meeting.

Well, I feel less alone. They finished it but also found the style flat, without any flavour. Although the themes were appealing (religion, feminism, the beginnings of a science), the story wasn’t interesting. For example, none of us remembered the characters’ names, which is a really bad sign. They didn’t learn anything about fossils, even after 400 and some pages. When I asked them to relate the story, it was difficult since the plot was rather thin.

I know, I know, this was not really chivalrous towards Ms Chevalier but is it my fault if the book is tasteless?

Not the best read of the book club so far. I’m looking forward to reading the reviews of the other participants to this readalong.

War of the Worlds : without me

September 24, 2011 22 comments

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells 1898.

Title of the book one: The Coming of the Martians. It was such a put off that I took the book several times in hand before turning that first page. Without Max’s previous comment that War of the Worlds was a way to criticize British colonialism, I would have put the book back on the shelf.

So I started it and really, the first chapter was promising, I could see the metaphor with European colonialists. But then, no sorry, metaphor or not, the story of Tripods and Heat-Rays (I know, it’s for rifles) didn’t make it. I flipped through the table of contents: 150 pages of war before the description of life under the Martian rule, which seemed more interesting to me.

Too much for me. I hesitated (I could try to read past page 69, couldn’t I?) then saw my TBR shelves and thought about using that reading time for something that would really appeal to me. Un livre qui me ferait plaisir.

This is why I abandoned War of the Worlds, a book victim of my limited reading time. I’m sure it’s a great novel but not for me, not at this moment.

Madman Bovary by Claro: read Flaubert instead

September 9, 2011 11 comments

Madman Bovary by Claro. 2008.

When I entered a book store and asked for Madman Bovary, the clerk looked down on me and replied “You mean Madame Bovary” and it wasn’t even a question. She didn’t say “of course” but I heard it. So my voice was slightly irritated when I confirmed that I really wanted Madman Bovary by Claro, published by Babel.

It’s the story of a man who’s been dumped by his lover Estée. He decides to stay in bed and drown his sorrow in re-reading Madame Bovary. The blurb was intriguing, I wondered what he did with that pitch.

Then I lost myself in a sort of incoherent stream of consciousness in a style full of affectation. I hate sentences as “Naturellement virgule par nonchalence virgule il en vint à se délier de toutes les résolutions qu’il s’était faites.”. (“Naturally comma out of nonchalance comma then again he came to free himself of all the resolutions he had taken”.) I wonder why it’s not written full stop at the end. Claro should read Jean-Bernard Pouy to learn how to play with the language without sounding pedantic. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you want to twist grammar and vocabulary.

I didn’t survive past page 47, too mad for me. I left the guy where he was, thinking I should re-read Flaubert instead.

I expected a chef, I got a short-order cook

July 6, 2011 21 comments

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. 2007. 454 pages. French title: Le Club des policiers Yiddish. Translated into French by Isabelle Delord-Philippe.  

Ingredients:

Two policemen with very different characters. One must have the usual characteristics of a crime fiction investigator, policeman or PI. He’s been crashing for ages in a dump hotel room since his tumultuous divorce. He drinks heavily but still has a sharp mind when it comes to solving crimes. If possible, add family issues, like an obnoxious father who committed suicide and an uncle who has muddy relationships with the law. The other policeman must be his opposite, happily married, with children, the kind of guy who smells of cereals and baby lotion but can still play the tough guy when needed. It is recommended to add an identity problem, such as a mixed blood origin between an Indian man and a Jewish woman.

A setting. Choose an improbable place no one knows in a rough environment. Try to be original, like Sitka in Alaska. If the book is a success like Twilight, the city might even benefit from tourist tours. If you want, you can mix reality with fake history. It is called alternate history. You imagine what would have happened if an historical decision had been made another way. It’s a good thing as, in case of Jewish policemen, it might even relate you to Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, which is a good reference. And it could attract SF readers in addition to crime fiction readers.

A murder. It has to be mysterious. Try to mix personal drama, like a stiff obsessed by chess game like the policeman’s deceased father. If the murder reaches the policeman personally, it will give him a reason and the energy to overcome difficulties, fear and pressure to solve the mystery at any cost. The corpse must belong to an odd guy. A fake identity will spice things up as the policemen will have to research his ID before starting to look for his murderer.

Side characters: Think of several funny or frightening or controversial side characters.

Spices: Whatever you want as long as it tastes better. Try to be original, like using loads of Yiddish words so that your characters’ speeches sound more genuine or having the policeman’s ex-wife become his boss.

After you have gathered the ingredients.

Set the computer on Word. Grease a 450 pages book tin. Cream the two policemen together until they have a real connection. Stop when the dough creates phrases as

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Lansman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.

Warm the events and side characters in a pan and add to the mixture. Mix well to a stiff consistency. Put into the tin and write until the 450 pages are done. Let it cool down and sell it to a publisher.  

A couple of years later.

By then it lays on a display table in a French bookstore where a reader named Emma buys it. She takes it home, put it on the TBR shelf and after a while decides to have it for her next reading fest. She chews a few chapters and quickly needs a break in the form of a British short story. She resumes reading her dish and after a couple of chapters, wants a sip of Lermontov. Then after 164 bites of the Jewish policemen recipe, she decides she can’t stomach it, pushes her plate away, gets up and fetches a Fred Vargas as a dessert.  

For a serious review of Michael Chabon’s book, read Wikipedia.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

October 1, 2010 4 comments

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of twelve short stories published in 1892. I have read the five first ones and was so disappointed that I decided to stop reading it. I’m not abandoning it since I have it on my kindle and intend to read the other short stories at lost moments. It is a perfect distraction for a doctor or dentist waiting room, as it doesn’t require a lot of attention – I know, this isn’t the least positive. I’m not going to describe the plot of the different stories, it would be tedious and pointless.

Why such a disappointment? The first problem is in the pattern of the texts. Arthur Conan Doyle loses a lot of time in describing Watson’s fascination for Sherlock Holmes’ deducting skills and gives us useless contextual details about the cases. In other words, the introduction is too long compared to the length of the stories. That bothered me. I read this and I’m thinking “get to the point, please!”. Crime short stories should have a brief introduction, start the plot as soon as possible, develop it with striking synthetic sentences and bring smoothly the solution of the mystery.

 I was dissatisfied with the abrupt end of the first story A Scandal in Bohemia. The introduction led me to imagining a longer story and all of a sudden, it ends. Sherlock Holmes loses against Irene Adler and doesn’t fight back. But at least, this one gives hints on Holmes’ temper and mad observation skills. 

The worse occurred when I guessed what had happened in the third story, A Case of Identity. That really irritated me. When I read whodunit crime fiction, I want to be carried away, led in wrong directions and be astonished by the denouement. It ruins my pleasure if I figure it out before the last pages. I want Sherlock Holmes to be cleverer than me, or it’s no fun at all.

These are the reasons why I stopped reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, not so adventurous, by the way. The free kindle edition I downloaded doesn’t recognise the “£” sign and the accents in French words used by the author.  So you get a curious “�4’”instead of the “£” or “é”. I didn’t have difficulties to guess the correct words but it hurt the eyes a little.

I had read The Hound of the Baskervilles a long time ago and I remember I liked it. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was more gifted for novels than for short stories, which are a tricky genre. Though I found the stories a little thin and dull, I intend to find a French version because I know at least two children who may like reading this.

The Wind-Up Bird never sang to me.

August 7, 2010 11 comments

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, by Haruki Murakami.

 Opening a new book is like opening the door to a new country. Sometimes you fall into that country right from the first page and sometimes you need to walk down a several-pages hall to reach the country. And sometimes you think Daedalus designed the hall and you never reach the promised land. That’s what happened to me with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

The main protagonist of the book is Toru Okada. He’s thirty years old, married six years to Kumiko and unemployed after he quit his job as an assistant in a law firm. He is at home and plays the househusband (I know the word doesn’t exist, what are Anglophone feminists doing?)

He is bored. His life changes as he answers an enigmatic phone call from an unknown woman who seems to know him well. Several new persons enter his life, each of them quite weird. His first-person narrative is interrupted by these people telling their story. A Sheerazade sort of effect. 

 I guess the purpose of the novel was to develop Taru Okada’s character and bring him somewhere. He’s questioning his life but as he’s as swift as a mollusc, I didn’t like him. I don’t have to like the hero to like a book, however, the hero must at least have some consistency. Taru Okada seems so empty! Maybe that’s where Murakami wanted to go. Maybe he needed an empty character to be the recipient of other people’s stories. 

I will never know. 

Unfortunately, I never entered into this book. I thought it well written but so insipid that I stopped reading it at page 275, after the beginning of the second part. I had 600 pages left to read and that was too much. I was taking it reluctantly, I had to read a few pages back to remember where I was before going on and I couldn’t remember the name of the hero. All bad signs that yell “stop reading”.  

I’m disappointed, as I liked Kafka on the Shore. Maybe I’ll try another Murakami another time and I’ll try to find bloggers’ reviews before choosing it. 

Now, I’m reading The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler and after a three-paragraphs threshold, he swallowed in his world. Promising.

Not everyone can be Alexandre Dumas.

July 25, 2010 3 comments

Quo vadis ? By Henryk Sienkiewicz. Translated by Ely Halpérine-Kaminski.

 I don’t plan what I read, I leap from idea to idea, like the real Frog I am. This time I jumped from Fred Vargas and her triumvirate of Julio-Claudian emperors to Ovid and then to Quo Vadis? and fell head over feet…of boredom and exasperation.  

Quo Vadis? was published in 1896 and tells the love story between a Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius and a Lygian hostage, Lygia. He’s the typical Roman aristocrat and she’s a Christian. It takes place in 44, under the rule of Nero. Historical characters are included in the novel, such as Nero and several persons of his court, Petronius, St Paul, St Peter. The latters are in Rome to spread Christianity. Sienkiewiscz did a lot of research to write this book, reading Ancient writers (Suetone, Tacitus…) and visiting Rome to better know the geography of the city.

 In fact, I did not finish reading it. I dropped it after the fire in Rome, started or not by Nero. I thought that it was a little too black and white for me. Real life is full of grey tones, and Sienkiewiscz forgot that. The Christians are all good. The Romans are depraved and cruel. Nero is crazy. Vinicius becomes Mr Allgood after being touched by Christian grace. Predictable. Boring. Propaganda for the Catholic Church.

The plot is obvious and its pattern seems to come directly from my literature manual. The descriptions of Roman banquets or of Nero going to Antium include so many details that it prevents the reader from capturing the whole scenery. And let’s not speak about the scenes of religious ecstasy when St Peter preaches.

I cannot believe that this novel got Sienkiewicz the Nobel Prize in 1905. While reading, I was thinking that not everybody can be Alexandre Dumas and I was wondering what he would have done with such a pitch.

Then I read the foreword included in my book – I usually read forewords after reading the novel because I do not want to be influenced by the thoughts exposed in the preface or have my pleasure ruined by spoilers.

That was interesting.

First, it explained the genesis Quo Vadis? and I learnt that Sienkiewicz wrote it in reaction to Zola’s literature. He thought it too depressing, too rooted in reality and too far from religion. He hated it. I’m sorry but I cannot like someone who despises Zola. Sienkiewicz thought literature should only be distracting, and I do not agree with that.

Second, I learned that French writers accused Sienkiewicz of plagiarism. Actually Alexandre Dumas had written a novel on the same subject (Acté) and Chateaubriand too. (Les Martyrs). So had several English writers. Not a very original idea, in fact.

Third, I was intrigued by the ups and downs that eventually lead to the French translation. Some passages were cut in the first translation. The one I have dates back to 1901 and includes the entire book.

To conclude, if you want to know the story, watching one of film versions will probably suffice. If you are curious about Ancient Rome, try Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, it wonderfully succeeds in both telling a good story and bringing to life the Roman’s way of life.  

My own alternative hypothesis : don’t read it

June 17, 2010 7 comments

A friend, whose opinion I value, lent me La Part de l’autre (The Alternative Hypothesis), by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt saying it was a good book. It is about what would have happened if Hitler had been admitted in Vienne Art School in 1908 instead of failing to get in.

I was reluctant to read it because of the subject. I had already read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, which has a similar plot and I doubted Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt could do better. Moreover, I kind of get tired of stories taking place during WWII.

 I started it anyway.

 The book is constructed with parallel stories: Hitler’s story (the real one) and Adolf H’s story, the one in which Hitler becomes an art student. Chapters alternate from one story to the other. The style is tolerable, obviously not a breakthrough in literature.

 I decided to quit reading it when young Adolf H faints at school any time he needs to draw a naked woman and when his physician, Dr Bloch (!!), takes him an appointment with Dr Freud. That was too much.

 I reminded me why I seldom read French present-day writers: they are often a disappointment. Either the subject is centred on their own petty dramas (The “Me, Myself and I” writers) or it’s so dreary or depressing you think they want to create a suicide wave among their readers.

 As far as The Alternative Hypothesis is concerned, it is definitely a book to avoid, to my point of view.

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