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Literary escapade: Book haul in Bécherel, the book village

July 29, 2020 12 comments

In my last billet about Bécherel, the book village in Brittany, I promised another billet about the books I got there. Of course, I had to refrain myself or I would have brought back LOTS of books. Lucky me, we drove to Brittany and there’s plenty of space in the car to bring books back home.

In the bookstore Le Donjon, I discovered a whole shelf of crime fiction by Breton writers and set in Brittany. See for yourself:

Bécherel_brittany

Apart from a lost book by Tony Hillerman, all of these are published by Breton publishers. I’ve never heard of these writers, I don’t think I’ve seen their name on the Quais du Polar List. I had to get some, right?

I browsed throught the pages, eliminated those whose style didn’t suit me and picked up Dernier concert à Vannes by Hervé Huguen (Last concert in Vannes) and Colin-maillard à Ouessant by Françoise Le Mer (Hide and Seek in Ouessant)

Bécherel_Polar_Breton

Both are the first installment of a series, one with Commissaire Baron and the other with Le Fur and Le Gwen, two inspectors from Brest. I asked the libraire about Breton school of crime fiction and he told me that he’d only found out about it. He’s read a few and he told me that they allow you to travel to places you’ve never been before. We’ll see how I’ll like them.

Then I stumbled upon a big shelf of old Série Noire books by Gallimard. This is the collection that introduced Noir and hardboiled to French readers. They also have classic crime, with Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh, for example. Simenon was published in Série Noire too. It’s very famous and still going on, still with yellow covers.

I found a copy of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Le grand sommeil) and of Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (Je t’attends au tournant)

Bécherel_Série_Noire

This copy of The Big Sleep was published in 1948 and it’s a translation by Boris Vian. This French version of Hell Hath No Fury is translated by Bruno Martin and dates back to 1955.

I can’t wait to compare the translations to the originals. Early Série Noire books are notorious for formated translations and faith to the original was not a cardinal value. Gallmeister and Rivages have started to re-translate some Noir and hardboiled classics to make up for these botched up translations.

I got more crime fiction with All She Was Worth by Miyabe Miyuki and The Garden of Hell by Nick Wilgus. Both are published by Picquier, a publisher specialized in Asian fiction. Now I know what I’ll read for Japanese lit month and I’m intrigued by the character Father Ananda in the Nick Wilgus.

Bécherel_Picquier

Then I got two books by writers I’m fond of, Philippe Besson (Lie With Me) and Dominique Sylvain, a crime fiction writers whose books should be more translated into English.

Bécherel_Comfort

Then I found an old paperback edition of The Confusion of Young Törless by Robert Musil (All set for German Lit Month!) and Faillir être flingué by Céline Minard, a Western written by a French woman writer that won the Prix du livre Inter in 2014. I’m curious. This one is not available in English but has been translated into German and Italian.

Bécherel_Musil_Minard

I also browsed through shelves looking for the bear paw that signals a Gallmeister book. I didn’t find any except Dancing Bear by James Crumley, translated by Jacques Mailhos and The Signal by Ron Carlson, translated by Sophie Aslanides. I’m sure I’ll love these books, translated by two excellent translators.

Bécherel_Gallmeister

I don’t know why I couldn’t find more Gallmeister books. Perhaps the publishing house is too young to have many books landing in second hand bookstores. Perhaps the books are too gorgeous to be given away. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Well, this is it! I’m happy with my book haul and its diversity. Have you read any of these books?

Our next Literary Escapade will be about Chateaubriand, born and bred in Brittany. Meanwhile, I need to catch up with book review billets as I have a backlog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Literary escapade: Bécherel, a book village in Brittany

July 28, 2020 35 comments

There are several book villages in France and one of them is Bécherel, in Brittany. What’s a book village? It’s a village whose main activity consists in bookstores. Yes, you heard me: a whole village with second hand bookshops. When I discovered there was one near our accomodation in Brittany, I had to visit. Of course. How could I resist?

I arrived early and the village was quite deserted and the bookstores closed.

56_Becherel

I had a walk around the village and took pictures of the various bookshops there:

Bécherel_Bookstores

As you can see, the whole village is made of houses in old stones, everything is beautifully kept.

I spent a lot of time in the bookstore Le Donjon. It’s like a chocolate factory for book lovers. Books everywhere, several floors, odd decorations and stuff lying around. This is the top floor, with the crime fiction paperbacks and children books.

62_Becherel_Librairie_Donjon

This is another floor with its off-the-wall decoration:

65_Becherel_Librairie_Donjon

and another floor. Every nook and cranny is filled with books and objects.

67_Becherel_Librairie_Donjon

and last but not least…

68_Becherel_Librairie_Donjon

This was my favorite shop. I was alone in the store and I asked whether they had a lot of clients. The libraire said that they don’t get too many people at the same time but there’s a constant flow of visitors. I could explore the shelves to my heart’s content and I’ll tell you what books I bought in another billet.

Here are pictures of other bookstores:

Bécherel_Bookstores2

One of the rooms in the bookstore Abraxa was striking:

77_Becherel_Librairie_Abraxa

Look at this flamingo sitting on a wall whose red bricks are made of books. Yes, we need more education.

Here’s another picture of the village. Isn’t it lovely?

Bécherel

It made me think of cozy crime fiction, of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, minus the freezing winters. I can imagine a Miss Marple or a Miss Silver looking for a murderer among supposedly non-violent villagers.

I could have spent a lot more time (and a lot more money ! 🙂 ) exploring all the village’s bookstores. I did come home with a pile of books that almost offsets all the efforts I did to reduce the TBR. Oh well.

Stay tuned to find out about my book haul!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Literary Escapade: an evening with Gallmeister at Au Bonheur des Ogres

March 7, 2020 26 comments

I suppose that every usual reader of this blog knows that I’m huge fan of the publisher Gallmeister. Last month, the bookstore Au Bonheur des Ogres organized a meeting with one of Gallmeister’s representatives, Thibault. The aim was to talk about this publisher’s story and editorial line.

Before telling you all about this fascinating insight of a publisher’s workings, let’s talk a little bit about Au Bonheur des Ogres. (The Ogres’ Paradise, if I translate into English the French play-on-words on Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise). It’d be a strange name for a bookshop if it weren’t the title of the first installment of the Malaussène series by Daniel Pennac. Read Guy’s review here and rush for this series if you’re in need of good entertainment. In Lyon, Au Bonheur des Ogres is a cozy bookstore operated by an enthusiastic libraire (*), Antony, who welcomed us after hours to discuss Gallmeister’s literature.

Thibault started the evening with a warm thank you to Au Bonheur des Ogres and a statement about the unique book ecosystem that we have in France. It survives under the shield of the Lang Law, something I’ve mentioned before and that is the fixed price for books. The price of a book is set by its publisher and only 5% discounts are allowed. You’re not tempted to browse through books in a bookstore, go out empty-handed and buy your book online. It won’t be cheaper. So, you buy it right away and this helps maintaining a dense network of independent bookstores in the country. This network is not always doing well, but they’re still there.

In France, ebook sales don’t take off and Amazon only represents 4% of Gallmeister’s turnover. We, readers have the power: we are the ones who decide through our buying habits where we’d rather purchase our books and we can keep the big bad American wolf at bay. Our libraires participate to the diversity of the French book ecosystem: they ensure that a large diversity of books reach their shelves and are available to meet their readers. They are a link between indie publishers and readers.

Therefore, Gallmeister’s policy has been to bet on independent bookstores and libraires.

Oliver Gallmeister founded his eponymous publishing house in 2005. Maybe I should say home instead of house, because it seems to be a good home for books, writers and literature. OG is an avid reader of Nature writing and stories featuring trappers, cowboys, and nature as an essential part of the narration and the plot. He’s able to read American literature in the original. Sadly, some of these marvelous books weren’t translated into French and that where the adventure began. A publishing house centered around American literature about nature, people living in the wilderness for a while, of people living in small towns and rural areas. Gallmeister publishes what OG loves to read and reflects his passions. He loves fly-fishing and Thibault told us with a kind humor that they publish a book per year that features fly-fishing. The employees call it “The Trout” and it comes out every November. Now you understand why I keep stumbling upon books about fly-fishing or where fly-fishing is involved! It’s even become a family inside joke.

The first Gallmeister books were The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a story about fun and crazy eco-terrorists in Utah, and Indian Creek by Pete Fromm. I’ve never read Pete Fromm but Thibault told us that he writes about nature beautifully but truthfully. It’s not always a welcoming place for mankind and he doesn’t romanticize his experience of living in the woods. I now have his A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do on the shelf.

Gallmeister’s first bestseller was Sukkwan Island by David Vann, a novella included in Legend of a Suicide. Interesting fact, a bestseller means selling 80 000 copies of a novel. They sold 300 000 copies of Sukkwan Island. David Vann is better known in France than in his own country.

This novella was a turning point in Gallmeister’s young life. US agents started to contact OG directly to push new books. (Fun fact: in France, anyone can send a manuscript to publishers, there’s no need for an agent but in the US, you can’t.) And Gallmeister sometimes publishes books in French that haven’t even been published in America.

One of OG’s goal is that his writers are able to live of their writing. He also pushes their American agents to keep fighting and find them a US publisher when they argue that the book was already a success in France.

French people are HUGE readers of American literature and literature in translation in general. Gallmeister has found an editorial line that appeals to the French public. For example, Gabriel Tallent has sold more copies of My Absolute Darling in one year in France than in three years in the US. (Last time I saw it in a bookstore, it had a banner that said 400 000 copies) I wonder how it is in other European countries.

Thibault explained that right from the start, Gallmeister decided to rely on indie bookstores to promote their books and it made the difference, it’s part of the DNA of the house and a reason for their success. And of course, they need readers to keep buying books in these bookshops.

I think that they publish a kind of literature that fascinates the French readers and a type of books that has no French equivalent. It makes us travel, it’s far from our everyday life and doesn’t linger on first world problems of the upper classes. Their books tell stories about hardworking misfits, loners and blue-collar people. They question the American dream and show a lesser known side of America.

Thibault was here to talk about literature, share his passion for his job and tell us about the book industry and the innerworkings of Gallmeister. He failed to mention that part of Gallmeister’s success is also their innovative and killer marketing. It’s respectful of literature and readers. The books have original covers, all in the same style because there’s one illustrator. No pictures of faceless people. No aggressive colors. No cheesy or girlish stuff for female writers. The books are classy and distinctive. Here are bookmarks and a stylish catalogue of their paperback collection, Totem.

I have read or bought 34 of their 161 paperbacks, 21%. The catalogue gives a short bio of the authors and a blurb of their books. The last pages say all about the Gallmeister spirit. It’s a resume of the Totem collection with random facts like: which translation took the longest time, which one is the most beer-soaked book and the list of the most encountered animals. I loved the humor in the mention: “we didn’t list all the fish, for the lack of space”

They pay attention to the whole book chain: the printers, the illustrators, the authors and of course, the translators. The translations are impeccable, the American vibe is there and yet, it’s perfect French. New translations are crucial for Noir as their first translation was sometimes sketchy when they were published in Série Noire. This is why Gallmeister has started to re-translate all of Ross McDonald’s books.

The choice of books shows flawless literary tastes, whether the book speaks to you or not and their books are centered around five themes now: Wilderness, Cities through Noir fiction only, Intimate stories, the place of America in the world and a common theme: Noir is the Ariadne’s thread, different in each book but always present in the background.

The next big release is a new translation of Gone With the Wind, not a book I would have picked but I might after Thibault shared some passages. In 2021, they’ll expand to new countries, Italy, UK and Germany.

You know I lack of objectivity when it comes to this publisher but I truly had a lovely evening. It’s nice to hear about what’s behind the scene and how a small publishing house operates. Many thanks to Au Bonheur des Ogres for hosting this event. For me, it was a breath of fresh air after a day in the office, a wonderful way to leave my office-related worries behind and focus on reading and sharing the love for books with likeminded people. Of course, I brought two books home.

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(*) A libraire is a booklover who recommends books to other readers in a bookstore and eventually sells them. In English: a bookseller.

Literary Escapade: Turin, Italy

February 23, 2020 27 comments

I missed my weekly post last Sunday because I was visiting Turin. It’s a great city to visit, great food, beautiful building, exceptional Egyptian museum and impressive cinema museum. However, this is a literary blog, so I’ll focus on the literary elements of my stay. I haven’t read Italian books for the occasion (book buying ban, remember?) but I will. According to my tourist guide, I should look for:

  • The House on the Hill by Cesare Pavese (La maison sur la colline) I’ve never read Pavese, it could be a good start.
  • Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (Les Mots de la tribu) This one’s about a Jewish family in Turin from 1920 to 1950. (Btw, Primo Levi was from Turin too)
  • The Watcher by Italo Calvino (La Journée d’un scrutateur) I’ve read books by Calvino, pre-blog but not this one.
  • The Two Cities by Mario Soldati (Les Deux Villes) I don’t think that Soldati’s books have been translated into English. I’ve already read The Ophans’ Father and I remember I liked it.
  • Scent of a Woman by Giovanni Arpino (Les Ténèbres et le Miel) I’ve already read A Lost Soul by Arpino and I enjoyed his style.
  • The Sunday Woman by Fruttero and Lucentini (La Femme du Dimanche) This one is crime fiction, I’ll look for it at the giant bookstore set up for Quais du Polar.
  • The Tattooed Colleague by Margherita Oggero. (La Collègue tatouée), not available in English. This one is more recent (2002), I’m tempted to read about today’s city.

Apart from the last one, all these books date back to the 20th century. If anyone knows a book set in contemporary Turin, please leave a recommendation in the comments.

Since I can’t read in Italian, I didn’t buy any books during my trip but I still had look at bookshops. There’s the international one, Luxembourg. I’ve seen other independent bookstores in the city.

On the via Pô, there are bouquinistes, like in Paris.

Sorry for the French word but according to the dictionary, the English way of saying bouquiniste is secondhand bookseller. I’m sorry guys, but you really need to find affectionate words for bookish stuff. The word bouquiniste is not as cold as secondhand bookseller, which is a matter-of-fact way to describe the activity. In French, bouquiniste implies that a libraire (not a retailer, but a booklover who happens to sell books) is trading secondhand books with love.

Everything was in Italian, so there was no need to spend time browsing through the books. It’s only frustrating to find a book you’d like to read, just not in Italian. Since I couldn’t buy book, I came home with bookish stuff, too bad captions were in English. For once, Italian would have been better.

Last but not least, I visited the Royal Library. (Reale Biblioteca)

Impressive room full of books in glass cases. I glanced at the covers: old books in Italian, French, English and German. There were mostly books about geography, history, politics, science but also statistics. See the number of books that were at my eyelevel: can you imagine that I manage to drop my eyes on French books about fishing?!!!!

It’s starting to feel like it follows me wherever I go. 😊 But no, still not ready to buy a fishing pole.

In case there wasn’t enough things to love already with the food, ice creams, coffees, art and whatnots, Turin people seem to have a thing for my beloved Mafalda. A bookstore was selling Mafalda tote bags and of course, I brought one home.

How could I resist, right? Then I saw a dress with Mafalda patterns and greeting cards.

I tell you, Mafalda rocks!

I had a wonderful time in Italy, and this was only the book part. Next Literary Escapade will be about the publisher Gallmeister. And while I go gallivanting in Italy, my pile of TBW grows and I haven’t read or commented on bookish blogs.

I’ve been on a theatre binge

January 19, 2020 10 comments

It’s time to have a little chat about theatre as I’ve been on a theatre binge lately. I’ve seen four plays in a month.

The first one was Vie de Joseph Roulin by Pierre Michon, directed and played by Thierry Jolivet.

I’ve never read Pierre Michon but I know he’s a praised French writer. When I picked this play, I thought it would be the opportunity to discover a new author. The theme of the book is interesting: Joseph Roulin is the postman in Arles who befriended Van Gogh. (His portray is now at the Boston Art Museum) Michon explores the friendship between the two men, who were drinking companions at the local café. Roulin was not an educated man and knew nothing about art. Van Gogh was his friend and a painter, a poor one. He didn’t know he was living next to a genius and the text questions who gets to decide that an artist is good or not and when. That’s the idea and it’s a fascinating topic to explore.

Unfortunately, Michon’s text is too bombastic for my taste. It could have been a vivid succession of scenes from the postman’s life and its interaction with the artist and his art. Jolivet chose to tell the text on a monotonous tone, like  rap music without the rhythm. Behind him, pictures of Van Gogh’s painting were projected on the wall.

Photo by Geoffrey Chantelot

It was supposed to be hypnotic, I guess it worked since I kept dozing off and so did my neighbor in the theatre. Such a waste of a good idea. The text and the direction were a lethal combo for me, I disliked both.

Fortunately, the second one was Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï by Fabcaro, directed by Paul Moulin and it was a blast.

How do you make a BD* into a theatre play? Paul Moulin did it marvelously. Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï is a man hunt in a dystopian world. A BD author, Fabcaro’s doppleganger, forgot his loyalty card at the supermarket. Before security takes him away, he runs away and becomes the most wanted man in France. Everything about this man hunt is absurd and huge fun. (For more details, see my previous billet here.)

Paul Moulin used a very efficient trick to transpose the BD into a play: it becomes the recording of a radio show. The actors are behind lecterns, with headsets and play the different roles as if they were recording it for the radio. On the side of the stage, actors do the sounds effects, again, as if they were recording.

It is an excellent way to transpose the atmosphere of the BD and it is hilarious. It lasts 50 minutes and the public had huge grins when they came out of the theatre. It was a wonderful moment and highly recommended to anyone and especially to teenagers, as it is a way to show them that theatre plays are not always stuffy Corneille affairs.

The next play I went to was Le Porteur d’Histoire written and directed by Alexis Michalik.

The title means The History Carrier and it was tagged as literary treasury hunt. How could I resist? It’s a contemporary play that won two Molière awards in 2014. The play opens on Martin Martin getting lost on his way to his father’s funeral. They were estranged and he never visited his father’s new house in the French Ardennes. When he takes care of his father’s belongings, he finds a mysterious notebook and an extraordinary quest will take him across continents and History.

It’s a wonderful text inspired by Alexandre Dumas and his compelling stories. I can’t tell much about the plot because it would spoil the story and the biggest charm of the play is to let yourself be taken away by the storytelling. It’s like a fairytale where some djinn takes you on a magic carpet to travel the world and live fascinating adventures. The text is an homage to the 19th century novels that were published in newspapers as feuilletons, with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter to push the reader to by the next newspaper. And it works.

The direction is a tour de force. The spectator is thrown in different places, in different times and follows the story with eagerness, wondering where it will take them to. It lasts more than one hour and a half and I was captivated from the beginning to the end. This is another the kind of play to take teenagers to, to give them the theatre bug.

The next play scheduled in my theatre subscription was Lewis versus Alice, adapted from Lewis Carroll by Macha Makeïeff. The play is a succession of scenes that alternate between key passages from Lewis Carroll’s works and moments of the writer’s life. Macha Makeïeff showed us how Carroll transposed some of his life’s traumatic experiences into literature. The show went back and forth between his literary world and his life, including his sad years at Rubgy, his questionable attachment to Alice Liddell and his work as a teacher. The play showed Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man hidden behind his penname Lewis Carroll.

Lewis versus Alice is tagged as musical show but it’s not a musical. The cast of actors were French and English speaking natives, all speaking in both languages. Some passages were in English, repeated into French. There were songs and acrobatics. Among the cast was Rosemary Standley, the singer of Moriarty who sang two of their songs. The text used some excerpts from Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. The staging was clever, taking us from Alice’s wonderland to England in the 19th century.

Photo by Pascal Victor

It was delightful and brightly played and well-served by excellent actors/dancers/singers/acrobats. It’s a joyful show, a wonderful homage to Carroll’s imaginary world and an attempt to better understand how this man ended up telling these stories.

What’s next? Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. I expect it to be good as I’ve heard about the book and Eribon’s take on it. (It’s available in English under Returning to Reims.) I’m looking forward to it.

And guess what! There’s a new theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary and directed by Stéphane Freiss! I’d love to see it but it’s in Paris…

PS: Glossary for new Book Around the Corner’s readers: BD is a French acronym for Bande Dessinée. It is a generic word which covers comics and graphic novels.

About reading, a quote by Margaret Atwood

January 3, 2020 12 comments

In A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing published in the magazine America, Margaret Atwood writes:

A book is a voice in your ear; the message is –while you are reading it –for you alone. Reading a book is surely the most intimate experience we can have of the inside of another human being’s mind. Writer, book, and reader –in this triangle, the book is the messenger. And all three are part of one act of creation, as the composer, the player of the symphony, and the listener are all participants in it. The reader is the musician of the book.

As for the writer, his or her part is done when the book goes out into the world; it is the book that will then live or die, and what happens to the writer is at that point immaterial, from the point of view of the book.

I agree with her about the intimacy of reading. Besides going to places I’ll never see in real life, being in someone else’s mind is the most fascinating experience of reading. Sometimes it’s a terrifying place to be, sometimes it’s comforting in a ah-you-too? kind of way and sometimes it’s eye-opening.

Her last paragraph about the writer’s role after the book is published? It probably explains why I rarely read interviews of writers about their books, especially when they are on tour to promote their new one.

Literary escapade: Holiday bookish snippets

August 18, 2019 26 comments

I’m back home from a three weeks holiday break and as usual, I’ve collected random bookish pictures and facts.

Park and Read, this parking meter seems to say…

Books left for grabs, by the beach

Beautiful library in Casa Museu Freitas. (Sorry for the poor quality of the pictures, I’m not a professional photographer and I don’t get to visit places when the light is at its best for photos.)

A corner to read by the fire, a corner to play games and shelves of books…I’d prefer a décor in lighter tones since I’m not fond of the red-dark-wood-man-cave vibe but I’d love to have such a spacious read-and-chill room.  

Of course, I tend to visit bookstores. Here’s one that looks more like a book cave than anything else:

Books are piled everywhere. They are filed in a computer system but only the owner seems to be able to locate a specific book. The reader walks slowly in the aisles, tries not to bump into anything in fear of starting an uncontrollable domino effect. This place is fascinating.

While wandering in another bookshop, I stumbled upon a school edition of No et moi by Delphine de Vigan. This novella is on the school syllabus for middle school and look at the format of the book: it screams ‘I’m homework!’ and not ‘Please read me, it’ll be fun’.

It’s a disaster. The cover mentions a dossier and exercises. The actual story only begins after 22 pages of explanations that are, in my opinion, part of the teacher’s job as a middleman between the text and the students. And then, on each page, you have numbers to locate specific sentences in class and dissect them. Where’s the pleasure of reading in that?

Let’s face it, there’s little chance that a middle school student will have fun reading Le Cid by Corneille. The odds of instilling undying love for books with Le Cid are close to zero. These odds improve with books like No et moi, stories that teenagers who don’t read might enjoy. And this edition, it’s like going to a blind date with Literature and she has not removed her green face mask, her curlers and she’s wearing her tattered bathrobe. It kills the mood. It’s like watching a movie with the description of all the special effects in the subtitles. It’s distracting, you’re so blinded by the mechanics that you forget to enjoy yourself.

I think that we have our priorities in the wrong order. In times where books are in competition with videogames, TV shows and social networks, the first aim in school should be to give the kids the reading bug. The rest will come with it. The reading bug is a lifelong thing, a great companion for life.

Another bookstore in Lisbon.

Don’t ask me why it’s written in French on the walls. Inside, the space is gorgeous with its old wooden shelves.

Another bookstore, and I found funny tote bags for my friends. Here are two of them:

I walked a street covered with portraits and pictures made with recycled cans. Here’s Fernando Pessoa

Google translate says that the caption means “it’s all worth it when the soul is not small”. And I have to end this post with a Mafalda picture, from the same street.

The caption seems to say “This is the rubber to erase ideologies”. Very Mafalda, if I may say. If a Portuguese native speaker sees this, please feel free to elaborate about the captions and correct the automatic translation.

An article of the FT Weekend caught my attention in a hotel. It said Kerouac, but cleaner? A journalist decided to check out what road trips could be with an electric car and did one between San Francisco and Reno, Nevada. Let’s say it’s not as romantic as On the Road. It reminded me of On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, his debut novel in which he shows that road trips à la Kerouac on British highways are what American coffee is to espressos.

I had a lot of books with me on the first leg of my holidays…

some I brought with me to read, some because I needed to catch up on billets, some aren’t my TBR, and some I bought during my stay. On the second leg, I intended to read American Pastoral but I didn’t have enough quality reading time for that. Partie remise! 🙂

That’s all, Folks! I hope you’re having a great summer.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 3: Criminology and translations

March 31, 2019 7 comments

For my last day at Quais du Polar, I decided to attend to two events, one entitled “CSI in the 19thC: when literature looks into the birth of crimilogy” and one which was actually a translation battle.

I started with the one about criminology, a conversation between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle. We were in the Jacquard room of the Palais de la Bourse. Coline Gatel wrote Les suppliciées du Rhône, a crime fiction book set in Lyon at the end of the 19th century. Fabrice Cotelle is a commissaire, and the staff chief of the SCPTS (Service Central de la Police Technique et Scientifique), the French CSI. The real police forces are involved in Quais du Polar, as a way to make their work better known and I found it marvelous that they are willing to take part in the festival.

Lyon has a long tradition around solving crime. In the 19th century, Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) was a famous criminologist and specialist of forensic medicine. Edmond Locard (1877-1966) is another forensic scientist who formulated the basic principle of forensic science. Meanwhile, in Paris, Alphonse Bertillon made huge progress in indentification. He’s the inventor of the mug shot. Nowadays, the headquarters of Interpol are in Lyon and the national school for police captains is near Lyon. It is open to the public during Quais du Polar. I visited it once, and it was fascinating. There’s a fake apartment where students learn how to retrieve clues from a crime scene and an interesting museum about criminology. Moreover, the police stations of the 1st and 4th arrondissements were open to the public during the weekend. The public could meet and chat with authors who are also detectives or police officers.

The meeting between Coline Gatel and Fabrice Cotelle was absolutely fascinating. She has written a book with Lacassagne as a character and she brings back to life the beginnings of forensic science. The turning of the 20thC was a critical period for crime investigation as several sciences made progress at the same time: medicine, photography, psychology and psychiatry.

Mr Cotelle had read Mrs Gatel’s book and could easily interact with her, explaining what he discovered in her book and going back to the history of criminology. He told us what methods invented back in those days are still used today. He shared about the changes, mostly DNA exploitation and digital traces. Of course, we know that we live traces with our phones and credit cards. But did you know that the computer in your car records when and how many times a door was opened? So, if you say that you were alone in your car and that your connected car recorded that the passenger door was opened, you’ll have some explaining to do. (I’d be a suspect: I always open the passenger door to put my bag on the passenger side because I don’t want to twist my back by doing it from the driver’s side!)

The challenge is also to turn some state-of-the-art technique only used in special cases into readymade and efficient processes that can be used on the field, on a daily basis to help policemen and gendarmes solve everyday criminality.

I loved this exchange so much that I decided to buy Les suppliciées du Rhône, just to discover who Alexandre Lacassagne was. Lyon was a hotspot for science in those years and I’m looking forward to knowing more about my adoptive hometown. I also liked that Fabrice Cotelle didn’t look down on crime fiction writers, pointing out inconsistencies. I also appreciated that he took the time to read Les suppliciées du Rhône to have an enlightened discussion with its writer. He was respectful and engaging, just as his neighbour was.

I’m glad that the festival managed to involve the police in the conferences and the events of the festival. It’s a rare opportunity to hear them talk about their job.

In the afternoon, I decided to attend the translation battle around an English text. We were again in the Jacquard room.

 

It was a short story by Jamey Bradbury, an American writer born in the Midwest and now living in Alaska. (She’s published by Gallmeister, there’s a good chance that her book is good) Two translators worked on a French translation of her story. They presented their translation to the attendance and another translator acted as an anchorman and asked questions about their choices and the differences between the two texts. Jamey Bradbury was there too and she could give her opinion about the option taken in the translation of this or that word. The art of translation fascinates me. The translators explained their choices and basically had the same issues with this translation. Words like to hum, to poke, to squint, to waggle one’s eyebrows, to scavenge; to pee…have no direct equivalent in French and are a hurdle. Just like something and whatever.

I loved attending this exchange and I envy their job. I think that bringing foreign books to local readers who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise is a fantastic job. It brings us a world of literature we’d never know.

That’s all for this year, folks! It’s been a great three days and I’m looking forward to the next edition.

Book haul for the day:

 

Quais du Polar Day 2: James Sallis, Michael Connelly, Ron Rash and others

March 31, 2019 10 comments

You will probably never guess it from my billets about Quais du Polar but this year, the focus is on Nordic crime fiction. Lots of writers from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark are invited to the festival. Since I’m not a great reader of Nordic fiction I chose to attend other events.

Sorry if anyone expected billets about Nordic fiction. 🙂 You can always listen to the conferences on replay here. But let me share with you my second day at Quais du Polar.

My first panel featured Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Ingrid Astier and Monica Kristensen. The theme was Great landscapes and Noir fiction. It echoes to the conference I recently attended about Nature Writing. We were in the room Tony Garnier at the Palais de la Bourse.

Ron Rash writes novels set in the Appalaches and nature is an important part of his protagonists’ way of life. Colin Niel writes crime fiction novels set in French Guyana. You can find my billets about his books here and here. He used to work there as a environment engineer and contributed to the creation of a national park.

Ingrid Astier wrote a surf novel set in Tahiti, French Polynesia. She spent a few months there, to understand the land and talk to the natives of the area. Her book focuses on a special and very dangerous wave that surfers want to ride in Tahiti.

Monica Kristensen is a scientist, a climatologist and the first woman to have led an expedition to the South Pole. She writes crime fiction novels set in the North Pole in Norway.

What I enjoyed about the panel was the good interactions between the writers or how they bounced on each other’s ideas. They listened to each other and even if each of them told stories related to their books and their specific natural environment, they managed to find common points between the issues described. One of the issues is how to combine human activities that ensure that the populations living there can work and make a decent living and protect the environment. Tourism is not always a good solution. They pointed out how our relationship with nature is different according to who we are. Colin Niel said that hiking in the Amazonian forest with soldiers is not the same as hiking there with natives.

They seem to have a common goal with their books: give a voice to the local populations, make their voices heard. And you should have heard Monica Kristensen talking about polar bears! I would have loved to hear her trade bear stories with Craig Johnson.

A very interesting moment with these four authors.

The second event I chose was a mix between jazz and literature. It was set in the Opera of Lyon and James Sallis and Michael Connelly talked about jazz and their literature. Here’s a picture of the premises, for you to have a feel of the jazz club atmosphere.

A quartet played songs between bits of conversation between the two guests, artfully guided by a journalist. It was a wonderful moment, good music and also a great conversation between two writers who truthfully enjoy jazz.

Sallis is actually a specialist and he has written books about jazz music. They made the link between jazz and their work, how it influences their style. Sallis made interesting comments about the music we had just listened to and the process of writing. He pointed out the lead of the song and its patterns and how the quartet improvised from it and came back to the lead and pattern. He said that writing a book was a bit like that. The writer has a lead, he pokes around this idea, plays with it and comes back to it. They have pattern in their writing. He said that music helps him get in the right zone for writing, in the state of mind that will engender his literature. Fascinating stuff.

The third event was a panel with Ron Rash, James Sallis and Chris Offutt about the “Great American Noir novel”, at the Chapelle de la Trinité. Gorgeous place, isn’t it?

They connected well, interacting cleverly, answering the questions of the journalist. They seemed happy to be there, discussing their working habits. Rash and Offutt both write books set in the Appalaches, where they come from. They evoked the nature there and the culture of the inhabitants. Both say that they keep writing about the same place, hoping that if they dig far enough, they’ll reach the universal and be relevant to readers coming from different backgrounds. Sallis has moved a lot in his life and he said that writing about a place was a way for him to absorb the place, to understand it and get to know it deeply.

The three of them have a close relationship with nature and want to stress on the importance of the natural environment on the men who are settled there. Nature influences people’s way of life and their culture, whether they are conscious about that or not. It was a lively conversation with writers who were willing to share, to give us clues about their writing.

I had a lovely time listening to these great writers. I’ve never read Chris Offutt but since he’s published by Gallmeister, I’m sure I’ll like him.

What I love about Quais du Polar is that the writers are not on an obvious promotion tour. Of course, they may be invited to talk about their last book and they sell and sign books. But they are also invited to discuss themes that are in line with their work but not always direct promotion. It avoids readymade comments about their book to questions journalists ask over and over again. They have to play another partition, they have a chance to chat with likeminded writers and that makes it more enjoyable to the public.

Book haul of the day:

A whodunnit in the Proust world written by an academic specialized in Proust. It was wrapped in a nice tote bag designed by the publisher Viviane Hamy. I’m sure cat lovers who will read this post will appreciate it.

Day 3 will be about criminology and about translations.

Quais du Polar 2019 – Day 1: Brian de Palma, Michael Connelly and a good book haul

March 30, 2019 5 comments

The 15th edition of Lyon’s crime fiction festival started on March 29th, 2019. It is a large festival dedicated to crime, with a giant book store, numerous conferences, investigation games in the city, several escape games and films at the Institut Lumière, the museum of cinema. (The cinema was invented in Lyon, where the first film ever was made.) It is set in different historical buildings in the city center, giving the attendants the opportunity to see places that are usually closed to tourists.

It lasts three days and I plan to take advantage of the three days.

First, I attended interview of Brian de Palma and Susan Lehman who wrote a crime fiction novel together, Are Snake Necessary? That’s the translation of the French version of the book, Les serpents sont-ils nécessaires? I don’t know the actual English title because the book is published in France but not in the USA. This means that, although it was originally written in English, it has not found its publisher in the US. Amazing. To be honest, this interview was disappointing. The journalist had obviously prepared her questions and knew de Palma’s filmography well but he kept deflating questions with jokes, never really answering anything. Susan Lehman tried to compensate for his lack of response but it was not enough to make of this meeting an engaging conversation.

Then I went to the cinema to see the preview of a documentary about Michael Connelly and Los Angeles. Olivier Marchal, a French former cop and crime fiction filmmaker flew to Los Angeles to visit the city, the places mentioned in Connelly’s books and to meet with the real-life cop who inspired Harry Bosch. I have never read anything by Connelly but the documentary was excellent, showing Connelly and Marchal driving around Los Angeles. Connelly talked about Harry Bosch, his work and his love for LA. Olivier Marchal is a great fan of Connelly’s and he was like a kid in a candy store who has met their favorite star. It gave a special atmosphere to the documentary as his enthusiasm and awe are visible. It will be on the French television soon. Connelly was in the movie theatre, discovering the film at the same time as us and he spoke to the public a little bit. He seemed quite approachable for such a successful writer.

After this good time at the cinema, I went to the bookstore at the Palais de la Bourse (The Chamber of Commerce) and wandered among the various stands, all belonging to independent bookstores.

Of course, my wallet didn’t come out of this unscathed but I had a lot of pleasure buying books, discussing with passionate libraires and other readers. Here’s my book haul:

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer. I’ve never heard of him, it was an impulse purchase based on the cover and the name of the publisher. Usually what Métailié publishes is excellent, so I trust them on this one.

I also chose to buy Serena by Ron Rash in English because I knew from his previous visit to Quais du Polar that he reads his book aloud to himself when he writes. He started writing with poetry and moved to novels and short fiction later. He likes to check the sound of his prose. Since I had no trouble reading his Burning Bright collection of short stories, I thought I’d get this one in the original.

For the first time, James Sallis is at Quais du Polar. I’ve never read anything by him, except Drive. I’m curious about Moth (Papillon de nuit in French) and the New Orleans setting appeals to me. I’m curious to compare his New Orleans to the one pictured by James Lee Burke.

Reading Michael Connelly seemed obvious after watching the documentary. It made me curious about Harry Bosch, so I decided to start at the beginning and read the first of the series, The Black Echo.

I enjoyed Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette and I had the chance to tell her how good her book is. She signed my copy of Les larmes noires sur la terre and I’m looking forward to reading it, even if I already know it will be bleak.

Tony Cavanaugh is described as the Australian Michael Connelly, so we’ll see how I like his book. He was very friendly with his public and stunned to learn that the young couple in front of him had come from Lille (700km away) just to attend a book festival. Yes, we French love our crime fiction.

It was a good day to take time at the bookstore and chat with writers. I’m glad I could tell Bogdan Teodorescu how much I loved Spada. (Still no English translation in sight, apparently, no publisher wants it.)

My program of Day 2 is a panel with Ron Rash, Colin Niel, Monica Kristensen and Ingrid Astier about landscapes and Noir. Then a jazz and literature hour with James Sallis and Michael Connelly. Then a panel entitled Eternal flame, the great American Noir novel, featuring James Sallis, Ron Rash and Chris Offutt.

If you want to see the whole program of the festival, you can visit their website. All the talks, interviews and shows are available on replay here.

Fête du Livre de Bron – Bron literary festival.

March 10, 2019 18 comments

It’s currently the Fête du Livre de Bron, a festival for contemporary literatures, one of the numerous literary festivals in France. This year’s theme is La vie sauvage. (Wild Life in English). Friday morning, I attended two conferences, one by Oliver Gallmeister, the founder of Gallmeister publishing house and one by Pierre Schoentes, professor at the Gand university in Belgium.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love books published by Gallmeister. They are specialized in American literature with two strong preferences, Nature Writing and Noir fiction. All books show a certain side of America and in their way, question the American way of life. Their books are right in the theme of the festival.

Oliver Gallmeister was interviewed by Thierry Guichard and the interaction between the two was lively. It was interesting to hear the point of view of a publisher. He runs an independent publishing house and his only compass is that he publishes books that he loves. Old ones with new translations or new ones. He comes from the countryside and says that nature has always been part of his life.

Gallmeister publishes Edward Abbey, Pete Fromm, David Vann, Jean Hegland, Gabriel Tallent but also Ross McDonald, Craig Johnson or Thoreau. They publish writers whose books could not be transposed anywhere else. Books that are intrinsically American.

He talked about nature in America, the way it is part of the American psyche and in their daily life, something we can’t understand in Europe where wilderness is when a garden in unkempt. In the books Gallmeister publishes, nature is an important part of the plot. It’s almost a character or at least something so present that it influences the character’s way of life.

I’m not going to paraphrase everything he said about Nature Writing but I’d like to share what he said about publishing.

80% of the books they publish come to them through literary agents. Gallmeister starts to be well-known in America for publishing a certain type of American literature. They receive around 500 books per year and publish 20. Some of these books are not even published in English because no American publisher wants them. For me, it’s quite puzzling to read a book in translation that has not even been published in its own language. It’s the case of Evasion by Benjamin Whitmer.

Oliver Gallmeister said that France is a little paradise for some of the writers they publish. France still has a unique dense and active literary ecosystem made of libraries, independent bookstores, festivals and partly relayed in the school system. When they first come to France, their writers are amazed by the crowds they meet and it’s something I’ve witnessed at Quais du Polar. Writers are sitting at their table to sign their books and they’re pleasantly surprised by the queue of people, patiently waiting their turn to have their book signed and a quick word with its writer. There are a lot of people attending literature festivals, them being free probably helps too.

Can you imagine that? Some of Gallmeister’s writers are so successful in France that it helps them being published in their home country or live off their books. Some keep on writing thanks to the French public and their book buying. (Now I have an excuse to splurge at Quais du Polar…)

I’ve already mentioned that Gallmeister’s traductions are outstanding. They work with a steady team of translators and their watchword is to disappear. The translator shall not be visible and they have each translation controlled by a team to ensure that the translation reflects the author’s text. There is no room for the translator’s voice or interpretations. Their efforts are visible in their translations. I speak English well enough to hear the American under the French, but it’s still written in a French that a French would speak. And yet, it reflects the American way of speaking and Frenglish with literal translation of expressions doesn’t have its place here, which is excellent because it’s irritating. It sounds odd to readers who don’t speak English and they leap to the face of the English-speaking reader. Honestly, it made me want to be part of their team who checks on translations.

I loved this interview because I truly share Oliver Gallmeister’s passion for American literature and also his non-academic relationship with literature. He doesn’t lose the most important part of why we read: pleasure. I managed to muster the courage to talk to him at the end of the conference and ask if they’d branch out to Australian literature and suggested a book that seems right in their publishing policy: The Hands by Stephen Orr.

Last info: Gallmeister will have a stand at the London Bookfair on March 15th.

The second interview was in total contrast with the first one and soon became a snooze fest. Pierre Schoentjes is certainly a very competent academic. He has written an essay about “nature writing” in French literature, which explains why he was Oliver Gallmeister’s counterpart. His first sentence included a word of literary theory that I didn’t know. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the talk. His speech was not totally accessible to non-academics. Sadly, he reminded me why I never wanted to go to university and study literature.

To sum it up: there’s no real nature writing in French literature for different reasons. There’s a genre called “régionalisme”, about peasant stories and it’s not considered as noble as literary fiction and it’s a put off. Europe doesn’t have wilderness anymore. Post WWII intellectuals were mostly urban writers and were more interested in the working class than in nature. It seems that books about nature were a political statement, either to contrast with the brutality of war (Giono) or to promote ecology.

The two interviews really illustrate my perception of American vs French literature. American writers (at least the ones I read) tell stories and nature or wilderness can be part of their story. French writers often fail to avoid the pitfall of introspection and intellectualization of things even when it’s not needed. One example: The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari. An American writer published by Gallmeister would have written a story about the two friends taking over a café in Corsica. All the stuff about Saint Augustine would never have been there.

I don’t want a novelist to show off how erudite they are, it’s boring and in a way, it says, “I only write for like-minded people”. I see literature as a way to escape, a way to see the world and broaden my horizons. Why should I need a degree in literature to read novels?

So yes, I’m going to be a very good customer to Gallmeister. The icing on the cake? The book covers are gorgeous.

On Saturday, I attended the interview of Fabrice Caro, a BD (comic books) writer and novelist. It was a very funny interview by one of his passionate reader, Maya Michalon. We went through his work as he shared anecdotes about his life, his creation process and his interactions with the public.

I bought his BD Zaï, zaï, zaï, zaï, the story of the absurd manhunt that starts in a supermarket when a consumer forgot his loyalty card. He had no papers. I haven’t read it yet but from the excerpts I’ve heard yesterday, it’s totally hilarious in an off-beat sense of humor. The idea behind the loyalty card is to show what could happen to someone who doesn’t have an ID card.

I’d also like to read his novel, Le discours and his other autobiographical BDs entitled Le Steak haché de Damoclès, Like a Steak Machine and Steak It Easy. He can’t tell you why all the titles have steak in them, except for the pleasure of a good word.

There were a lot of other conferences that seemed fascinating but alas, one is always caught put by pesky things called work and chores.

Bookish news in my small world

January 26, 2019 20 comments

Over the last few weeks, I have gathered miscellaneous bookish things I wanted to share with you. They caught my attention during my daily life activities and stayed with me.

Literary events

Angouleme BD festival

This weekend is the Festival de Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême. It’s the 46th edition of this festival dedicated to BD, a French acronym that covers comics, graphic novels, manga… The Grand Prix of the Angoulême festival has been awarded to Rumiko Takahashi, the Japanese author of mangas. Did you know that France is the second market in the world for mangas? (After Japan, of course) 18 million of mangas were sold in France in 2017 and it represents 38% of the BD sales in France. We are unique in the Western world for this and it started with my generation. We watched manga cartoons on TV and we were hooked.

 Fête du Livre de Bron – a festival for contemporary literature.

It’s organized from March 6th to 10th, 2019. Oliver Gallmeister will give a lecture, Nature Writing, une tradition anglo-saxonne. I hope I can attend this as I’m curious to hear this wonderful publisher of American literature.

Quais du Polar – March 29th – March 31st.

I have my subscription to Quais du Polar! Nordic Crime will be celebrate during the 15th edition of this cime fiction festival. I received my badge, my two free books and now I need to browse through the writers that will be invited and see if I have one of their book on the shelf already.

Translations

Good news! Il reste la poussière by Sandrine Collette is now translated into English. It’s published by Europa Editions and it’s entitled Nothing But Dust. See Claire’s review here.

Other great news, La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will be available in English in September. It will be The Godmother, in a Coppola sense, not the Disney one. It will be published by Old Street Publishing.

I also stumbled upon a German translation of Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I hope it’ll make it into English one of these days.

Economy and Literature.

When literature takes interest in economy and vice versa.

I’ve started to read the number 79 of the magazine L’Economie politique as it is about literature and economy and how the two interacts. Some articles are more difficult than others, I’m not done yet. I didn’t know that Robinson Crusoe was used in economy theories. I enjoyed the article about writers and the literature and book market. I’m looking forward to reading the one about economy and Zola.

I’m not going to post a billet about it. Sometimes I struggle to understand the content in French, so writing a summary of it in English is insuperable.

When the French tax law for 2019 favors independent bookstores.

When browsing through the tax changes voted last December, I stumbled upon an article about new tax exemptions for independent bookstores. Chain stores are not in the scope of this law and I’m happy our deputies voted texts to protect our network of independent bookstores.

 

America – A French magazine

America is a magazine founded by François Busnel and Eric Fottorino. It started when Trump was elected as president and it is meant to last the four years of his presidency. Each magazine has a theme to make us discover America. François Busnel is best known in France as the presenter of the weekly literary live TV show La Grande Librairie. It’s a famous TV program in France, one that managed to gather 841 000 viewers on December 11, 2018 and keeps getting high ratings for that kind of show.

America includes long interviews of writers, reportages by French and American writers, a chronology of events in Trump’s America, beautiful illustrations and pictures. It’s a gorgeous magazine, the right mix of long articles and news in brief, of contemporary writers and older ones, of literature, cinema and TV.

This quarter’s number is about race in America, it opens with a poem by Maya Angelou and includes a long interview by Russel Banks, a text by James Baldwin and other reportages and interviews.

Silence, on lit!

Quiet! We’re reading, that’s the meaning of Silence! On lit. It’s a charity devoted to developing reading in schools. The idea is simple: everyday students read at the same time during 15 minutes. The middle schools (collèges) have arranged their schedule around this new reading time. Any reading material is allowed: books, magazines, BDs…Anything. The whole school gets quiet during 15 minutes as all the students in all the classrooms are reading what they chose to read. The repetition helps improving at reading. It’s a real success where it’s implemented. New readers emerged and for the others, it’s a quiet time to settle down after other activities and be ready to learn something else after.

It’s a charity, and of course, they need money to buy more books for school libraries because they need a bigger stock of books if all the students read at the same time and want to borrow something from the library. I like their idea a lot, because 15 minutes is not long and I think that their small steps approach is interesting and takes reading down from its pedestal of intellectual activity.

Libraries Without Borders

Libraries Without Borders is a French charity whose aim is to help alphabetization and promote access to culture and education through libraries. They work locally in 30 countries.

In France, they were recently involved in La nuit de la lecture. (Reading night). Libraries Without Borders gave book bags to a group of migrant children. French children from Alsace prepared personalized book bags for each child, as a welcome to France and the French language gift. For my Australian readers, have a look at what they do for Aboriginal communities. (Here)

Why this billet? you might ask

I know there are tons of initiatives to foster reading, to improve literacy or to build bridges between communities. There are also tons of book festivals everywhere in France. All the events, actions and news I shared are just drops in this ocean of literary-oriented activities. But they were the drops that brightened the world news I heard every day.

My 2018 reading year in twelve books

January 6, 2019 36 comments

In 2018, I read or started a total of 55 books, not a lot compared to other bloggers. It’s stable from one year to the other, I guess that one book per week is all I can manage. I abandoned five of them either because I didn’t like them or because they were too difficult to read. It was a good reading year, but not outstanding.

After showing you some of my 2018 bookish moments and wrapping up my year of reading Australia, allow me to share my twelve favorite reads of the year.

Best atmospheric crime fiction: The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

I loved being in New Orleans with Dave Robicheaux and I want to go to Louisiana now.

Best companion book: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Kamel Daoud retells the story from Camus’s famous classic The Stranger from the Algerian perspective and gives a thought-provoking vision of colonization and post-colonial Algeria. A punch-in-the-gut book, important to read along the original.

Best political crime fiction: Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu

I hope, I really hope that Spada will be translated into English because it shows the underbelly of political communication and how the exploitation of a crime in the media transform politicians into pyromaniacs who set the country on fire.

Best oxymoron book: The Anarchist Banker by Fernando Pessoa

A banker’s speech that will convince you that indeed, no one is more anarchist than this bourgeois banker. Incredible. Funny as hell.

Best coming-of-age novel: The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

I’m not sure it’s really a coming-of-age novella, since I’m not good at putting books in neat literary boxes. The Poor Man’s Son gives a good vision of life in poor Algerian villages during the French colonization. It’s based on the writer’s own experience.

Best almost-feminist book: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The sad story of two sisters, one who follows the expected path of marriage and motherhood and the other who tries to break free of this yoke.

Best African-French book: Small Country by Gaël Faye

Gaël Faye relates his own story as a child in Burundi when the civil war starts in Burundi and during the genocide in Rwanda. Poignant.

Best crazy serious book: The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis

How a doctor who wants to cure madness turns a city into a madhouse inside and outside his psychatric ward. Voltaire would have loved this. It’ll make you laugh and think.

Best Australian literary fiction: I, For Isobel by Amy Witting

Also a coming-of-age story, I guess. Isobel is trying to find her independance and shake off her childhood to become her own person. It’s a well-drawn story of a young girl who loves to read in a family who doesn’t value books and tries to smother her personality.

Best I-want-to-give-it-to-all-my-friends book: The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

I loved The Tin Flute for the accurate and loving depiction of working-class neighborhoods in Montreal during WWII. It’s really a shame that there is no recent English translation of it. English speaking Canadians are missing out on an excellent book.

Best end-of-my-world book: The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Poor Trotta lives through the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and cannot recover from it. Neither could Roth. Don’t read it as historical fiction to learn historical facts but more to see what history does to a man.

Best book to raise awareness about a sensitive topic: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss

Very brave indigenous Australians share with us their personal experience of growing up Aboriginal in Australia. They come from the whole country, from various backgrounds and are of all ages. It helps the reader understand what racist barbs and ingrained prejudices do to the people who receive them right in their faces. Powerful.

I’ve already talked about my project to read American literature in 2019 in my Happy New Year billet. I will read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia in May. Join us if you want to.

For the rest, I hope to read more Australian lit and books from the TBR. I really need to read more from it than I buy books otherwise I’ll end up in the same position as this year: the TBR is as high as the end of the year as it was at the beginning. Only its composition has changed… Oh well, there are worst things in life!

To live without reading is dangerous. You’d have to believe what people tell you.

My year of reading Australia

January 3, 2019 34 comments

Before disclosing my best of 2018, I’d like to come back to my year of reading Australian Literature. End of 2017, I wrote a billet asking for recommendations and came out with an incredible list of suggestions. I read or tried to read a total of 19 books, which is a good score for me since I read 55 books in 2018, including the twelve of my book club.

I decided to participate to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and read or tried to read nine books by female authors, so I qualify for the Miles level (6 books read) and almost reached the Franklin level (10 books read).

In January, I got into the Australian Women Writes Gen 1 Week, organized by Bill at The Australian Legend. That month, I also read my first indigenous book along with Lisa.

It was True Country by Kim Scott. I had read about Aboriginal literature on Lisa’s blog but it was the first time I dived into a book where a group of white teachers and educators started their job at a mission in the Northern Territory. The cultural shock was incredible. The main character, Billy is a métis and his appointment at the Catholic mission is also his come back to country.

I continued by journey through Aboriginal culture and issues in June when I signed up for Indigenous Literature Week organized by Lisa, at ANZ Lit Lovers. I read Of Ashes and Rivers That Flows to The Sea by Marie Munkara, the poignant true story of a woman who is an unfortunate member of the Stolen Generations, a term to call the Aboriginals who were taken away from their families to be raised by white parents or state-run or religious institutions.

I ended my journey around Aboriginal issues with Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss. It’s an excellent collection of texts by Aboriginal Australians who describe what it meant to grow up Aboriginal. In their own way, each writer shows the reader what racism means and how it undermines someone’s self-esteem. They also express how their Aboriginal roots enrich their lives.

Anita Heiss is the editor of this powerful collection but she’s also an author. I read one of her chick lit books, Not Meeting Mr Right. She calls it choc lit, for chocolate literature and she uses the chick lit cannons to show that her Aboriginal protagonist lives like any young woman of her age. And sure, her character Alice is as obnoxious as other chick lit characters in her search of the perfect partner!

Contrary to Alice, Don, the main character of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion has a scientific approach to the quest of the perfect spouse. Simsion’s light book could be tagged as chick lit but since Done is not a chick and since the writer is a man, it’s considered as romance. I liked The Rosie Project better than Not Meeting Mr Right mostly because I got attached to Don’s matter-of-fact view of life when I found Alice irritating. Don was funny.

I also read an Australian classic from the 19thC, The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge. It’s the story of three young women who leave their house in the country when their parents die and decide to settle in Melbourne. Set during the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, it was a good way to read about the city at the end of the 19thC. I was happy to visit the Carlton gardens and see the pavilion of the exhibition. The Three Miss Kings sounds like early works by Thomas Hardy.

I read two other classics. I had to read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin who founded the most prestigious Australian literature prize. It’s the story of a young girl living in the country with poor parents. She wants a brilliant career as a writer when all that society expects of her is to have a brilliant career as a wife and a mother. It was a great book to discover Australia in the 19thC and life in stations. There are fascinating descriptions of the life of the farmers and early settlers.

Then I decided to read another classic, For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke. It relates the story of an English convict in Port Macquarie. I wanted to read about Australia as a penal colony and it was a good way to see how the penal colonies were organised. It was difficult to read because of the old-fashioned English style and because of its gothic elements which are not my cup of tea at all.

The other book I read about early settlers is Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. Set in Queensland, it’s about a village of early settlers, their adaptation to Australian climate and their difficult cohabitation with the local Aboriginal nation. It opens with a white man who had been stranded in the area, had lived a few years with the Aboriginals and was now coming back to live with the European settlers. The major question for the villagers is “Is he still white? after all these years living like a native?”

The question of classifying people according to the whiteness of their skin seems to plague the Australian psyche. From the start, it was a way to screen people between civilised (white) and not civilised (black) It brought the horrors of the Stolen Generation and a lot of heartache to the writers of Anita Heiss’s collection.

I tried to read The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It’s the story of a man who is convicted to deportation for theft. It relates his life after he arrived in the penal colony in Sydney and how he settled there with his family. I couldn’t finish it because it was too slow and boring for my taste and also because it was too “clean”, as if she was trying to gentrify the convicts.

A good way to learn about the colonisation of Australia was to read the graphic novel Terra Australis by the French authors LF Bollée and Philippe Nicloux. It explains the political aspects, the journey of the First Fleet and the founding of the penal colony in Sydney.

I explored another aspect of Australia and its literature, the outback myth or bush stories. With Down Under, the American writer Bill Bryson wrote about his road trip in Australia. I had a lot of fun reading his adventures and descriptions of the land, the customs and his observations of Australian way-of-life. It’s interesting to see the country through the eyes of a foreigner because what puzzles him might puzzle me too.

I also loved reading The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook as it was in the same vein. Cook knew the outback well and all his stories involved a dangerous animal of some sort.

No wonder that the outback is a dream setting for crime fiction like Wake in Fright by the same Kenneth Cook. I’m not sure you’d want to visit Bundanyabba after spending time there with John Grant, the main character of this horrifying story.

The bush also inspired Jane Harper for her crime fiction novel Force of NatureA group of women are on a company seminar that consists of sending a group of male employees and a group of female employees in the bush with an itinerary to follow and see which group arrives first at destination. Both groups come back but the women’s group misses one participant. Is she still alive or did she die en route?

I enjoyed Force of Nature so much that I also read Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry. I thought it was even better and didn’t notice anything amiss until Bill read it and pointed out all the inconsistencies in the country life described in the novel. Oh well, it was a good reading time anyway and non-Australians won’t notice. The small-town atmosphere of The Dry was well drawn and totally plausible. The rest didn’t seem farfetched, seen from this hemisphere.

As far as literary fiction goes, it wasn’t a very good year. I read a book by an Australian writer but set in Brighton, UK. It was The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. He sure has a twisted sense of humour and his unreliable character Bunny Munro had funny quirks until I realised that these quirks led to crime. Laughing-at-loud idiosyncrasies turned into black humour, like a sunny day ends with a storm.

Fortunately, I loved I, For Isobel by Amy Witting and I’m interested in reading its sequel. I didn’t read any Tim Winton, mostly because his books are chunksters and because none of the blurbs filled me with enough enthusiasm to embark in so many pages.

I’ve heard a lot of good about Gerald Murnane but I don’t think he’s a writer for me. I’ve looked into Patrick White but Voss is also huge. I am tempted by Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and a book by Richard Flanagan. I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey but its Australianness lost me along the way. As I said in my billet, its references were too far away from my home to be understandable. It’s something I had experienced before, when I read The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay a few years ago. I spent quite some time googling animals…

I never thought that Australianness would be an issue but it was. I’m happy I read True Country in French because the footnotes of the translator were a lifeline. Not knowing the geography of Australia, its fauna and flora (besides the obvious kangaroos and koalas), the history of the colonisation and basic info about Aborigines made my reading difficult. This is why I had to abandon That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott when I first tried to read it. I think I’m better equipped to read it now.

I didn’t expect 19thC Australian English to be challenging but it was. Marcus Clarke was particularly hard to read and his vocabulary sounded ancient compared to the British literature of the time. Miles Franklin was easier to read but I faced the issue of Australianness and I needed some time to adjust.

This explains why I didn’t read more books, I was slow reading them. It has been a fantastic journey, one that certainly enriched my trip to Australia last summer.

Last but not least, I did a Literary Escapade billet about Australia and it was one of most liked billets of 2018. You seem to enjoy the Literary Escapade series.

West McDonnel National Park

What now?

I still have Australian books on the TBR. I will join Bill’s AWW Gen II Week and I intend to read the first book of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henri Mandel Richardson, if I can finish Dead Souls soon enough. Otherwise, my Australian TBR includes books I brought back from Melbourne and books I didn’t have time to read. As I know you’re curious about it, here’s the list:

  • Barbed Wires and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss (Indigenous lit)
  • Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Spenser
  • The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper (nonfiction)
  • The Catherine Wheel by Elisabeth Harrower
  • Five Bells by Gail Jones,
  • The Essence of Things by Madeleine St John
  • A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (Indigenous lit)
  • Lexicon by Max Barry (SF)
  • Dirt Music by Tim Winton (my mom lent me a French translation)
  • Blood by Tony Birch (Indigenous lit)

I could sign up for another AWW Challenge, level Stella. (Four books) or Miles (Six books). After all, I have seven books by women on my Australian TBR. If my timing is good, I can participate in another Indigenous Lit Week.

As you see, I have a lot to look forward to and you’ll probably hear about Australian lit again on this blog.

PS: Let’s get things straight: Miles Franklin and Henri Mandel Richardson are women. Kim Scott is a man.

2018 in bookish moments

December 23, 2018 23 comments

I can’t believe that 2018 is almost over. It’s like a blur and I ran after time on a daily basis. I only posted one Literary Escapade billet, the one about Australia but I snapped bookish pictures all year long, when I attended festivals or simply when books and literature popped up in unexpected places. I’ll do my Best Reads of the Year billet later but first I wanted to take you through my literary snapshots of 2018.

In March, I attended the Fête du Livre de Bron where I had the opportunity to hear the captivating François-Henri Désérable.

Then it was Quais du Polar, a festival that regular readers of this blog have heard of before. It’s always a pleasure to wander in the giant bookshop and attend various panels. The next edition of the festival will be from March 29th to March 31st, 2019 and you can check out the authors who will be there here. If any of you happens to be in Lyon for the festival and want to meet, just send me an email.

In April, I was on the French Riviera and came across these Bancs de la liberté. (Benches of Liberty)

The caption on the bench says:

The Benches of Liberty are at your disposal, bringing together texts, words and pages which allow you to discover authors both from here and elsewhere. All the citizen of the world, on all continents, can freely share moments in time and the emotion of literature.

The bench I saw was in France, but there are some in Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Let me know if you’ve encountered any of them. They are dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who said in Courrier Sud (1929), La seule vérité est peut-être la paix des livres. (« The only truth is probably the peace coming from books »)

During these holidays, I also came across this lovely trunk where readers can leave books for others to pick.

In May, I visited this incredible bookstore with books everywhere, ceiling included.

I spent a weekend in Paris and I visited the Montparnasse Cemetery. I wanted to write a Literary Escapade billet about it but time ran away from me. I visited as many writers’ tombstones as I could. As you can see, the tomb of Alexandre Dumas fils is as dramatic as La Dame aux camélias and Theophile Gautier’s tomb is as pompous as his style.

The tombstones of Stendhal and the Goncourt brothers were a lot simpler.

I also spent some time in bookshops, like in the Librairie Gallimard in Paris with its stairwell full of pictures of writers

Special displays caught my attention, a typical French one with all the “coup de coeur”, the little notes that libraires put on books to recommend them, one with a fantastic display about Philip Roth after he died and one special about books and boxing.

In November, I wanted to write a billet about the drama around literary prizes in France. We have Literary Prizes Week like some other countries have Fashion Week. The Goncourt Prize went to Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu. And for once, I want to read it. Several juries wanted to grant their prize to Le lambeau by Philippe Lançon. He was wounded during the Charlie Hebdo attack and this book relates his life after this traumatic event. The Femina Jury went first and jury of the Renaudot Prize was a bit pissed off because it was also their choice. They had to pick another book and went for Le Sillon by Valérie Manteau.

Now, Christmas is approaching fast and for the first time this year, I was told not to buy books to a relative because she has everything on her e-reader. As we all know, reading in general and books in particular are in competition with lots of other activities or hobbies these days. It’s common to say that people read less. And yet, books must convey a cozy feeling or something positive if I refer to cafés and shop windows. Just look at the pictures I took at the mall.

Apparently, cafés find that book decors attract clients, both in Moscow and in Lyon. I can understand the marketing rationale behind it, as cafés are associated with reading and authors often go to cafés to write. I didn’t see the marketing rationale between books and sneakers, though.

There are two ways of taking this trend to have books as a décor. The optimist will argue that after seeing books everywhere, some non-readers will pick a book one day and discover the joys of reading. The pessimist will compare these book décors to elevator music and see how uneducated people like me associate classical music to elevators and waiting rooms. So while I’m cautiously optimistic about these bookish décors, I still enjoy them.

I’ll end this with a quote by Jules Renard, one that encompasses well how compulsive readers like me feel about books and literature.

Quand je pense à tous les livres qu’il me reste à lire, j’ai la certitude d’être encore heureux. When I think of all the books I still have to read, I am sure there are happy moments ahead of me.

PS : I still have four billets to write. I hope I’ll have time to wrap them up before December 31st.

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