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The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie – #1929Club

October 28, 2022 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 21 comments

I really really have a hard time keeping up with billets and blogging at the moment, so I’ll catch up on different books I’ve read and write mini-billets about them. Everything is fine, I’m just terribly busy.

I’ve been reading American literature again or books related to America. All were good, I’ve been lucky with my reading choices. They all deserve a full billet but I’m too knackered to tackle six billets at the moment.

The first one is a French book, set in Ellis Island, Those Who Leave by Jeanne Benameur 2019. (Original French title: Ceux qui partent.) We’re in 1910, in Ellis Island, New York.

Emilia Scarpa and her father Donato, Esther Agakian and Gabor are all candidatures to emigrate to America. Emilia and Donato are Italian and she wants to be free and be a painter. Esther is survivor of the Armenian genocide. Gabor is a Rom and is fleeing the pogroms. All aspire to start a new life, either to leave traumatic events back in Europe or to open to opportunities they wouldn’t have in their native country.

Andrew Jónsson, an American photograph also spends a lot of time at Ellis Island, recording the arrivals of new immigrants. His father emigrated from Iceland with his grand-mother when he was a child and Andrew chases his own history through the newcomers.

All the characters meet at Ellis Island and their lives intertwine for a while. Jeanne Benameur muses about leaving, about new beginnings. Can you start over or as the song says, “You don’t rebuild your life, you only go on”? What do “roots” mean? How to you survive a genocide? How are you linked to your lineage?

Jeanne Benameur has a lovely and poetic style. Her tone is smooth, contemplative and tries to convey the characters inner thoughts.

It was a good read but sometimes I felt she could have said the same in less pages.

Then I was in New York again with The Fire, Next Time by James Baldwin (1963). This non-fiction book is composed of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James and an essay about being black in America.

The letter was very moving, one James giving advice to his namesake nephew. Words of wisdom and self-confidence.

As always, Baldwin is spot on, direct and unflinching. He’s intelligent, nuanced and never lets himself fall into the pitfall of simplification.

He explores the idea of violence and various schools of thought about the future of the black community in America. He’s not convinced by any extremist thinking.

There is no hatred in his words but a challenge issued to white people: the condition of black people will change only if they’re willing to acknowledge that they need to change.

Then I moved to Kansas, around the same time as The Fire, Next Time, with In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) I read it in French (De sang froid) in the 1966 translation by Raymond Girard.

This translation needs to be updated, that’s for sure. It was done in a time where we were a lot less Americanized and the translation reflects this with comments about obvious American things or weird spelling. (“base-ball”, really?) I was intimidated by In Cold Blood and thought it would be best to read it in French but I think I could have read it in English.

Anyway. I’m not sure it’s necessary to remind you that In Cold Blood is about a true crime affair. The Clutter family, a well-loved family in the village of Holcomb, Kansas was savagely murdered without any reason. Capote reconstructs the crime, showing the murderers before and after their crime, including their time in jail and switching of point of view to picture the family and the KBI inspectors who work on the case.

It was a memorable time for many people and Capote’s various angles shows the trail of devastation and life-changing moment that such a crime entails for a broad cast of people.

I enjoyed it a lot more than expected and it was easy to read. The chapters cover the different moment of this terrible crime, with a bit of suspense. The writing is vivid, like a reportage and it’s well worth reading.

After Capote, I changed of scenery but remained with law representatives. I went to North Carolina, where Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (2014) is set. It was my first novel by Ron Rash, as I had only read a collection of short stories before, Burning Bright.

In this novel, Les is 52, sheriff in a county in North Carolina. He’ll retire in three weeks, handing over his job to Jarvis Crowe. He has a burgeoning relationship with Becky, a park ranger. They both carry a heavy personal baggage.

Les has to handle two cases that represent the spectrum of country sheriff duties: on the one hand, he has to deal with Gerald who trespasses on his neighbor’s property and on the other hand he has a very precise intervention to close a meth lab, as drug is a major issue in this State.

Above the Waterfall is representative of books set in small towns America.

Like Longmire, the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Les has to take into account the local history, the relationship between the parties and look the other way sometimes to preserve peace. They all have to live together anyway. Btw, this reminds me that I also read Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson but I won’t write a billet about it as it’s not my favorite Longmire story. It felt like a long race in the cold, in the falling snow of the Rocky Mountains.

But let’s leave Wyoming behind and go back to Rash’s novel set in the Appalachians, where he lives.

His books are cousins to David Joy’s or Chris Offutt’s books. Should we call them the Appalachians School? They are in the same vein and as a reader, I think they give an accurate picture of their land. Rash is less violent than Joy and he’s also a poet. I know from attending his interview at Quais du Polar, that he reads his books aloud to ensure they ring well. Above the Waterfall has a very poetic side and I’m not sure I caught all the beauty of his descriptions of wilderness.

It was a story full of grey areas where what is right isn’t always legal and vice-versa. Life isn’t black and white and like with Baldwin, I appreciate that Rash doesn’t over simplify issues but turns his writing spotlight in different corners of this Appalachian county, near the Shenandoah National Park. He lets us see different point of views.

I still have another book by Rash on the shelf, Serena and I’m looking forward to it as I really think that Ron Rash is a talented writer.

Then I flew to Argentina and you may wonder how Thursday Nights Widows by Claudia Piñeiro (2005) belongs with a billet about America. Well, it does because it is set in a country, a gated community at 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires. This huge compound is modeled after its American counterparts and it’s a sort of Argentinean Wisteria Lane. Rich businessmen have their house there, they live in close quarters and their wives, who don’t work, have very few opportunities to spend time in real Argentina.

Everything is about status, not making waves and getting along with everyone. Buy a the end on the 1990s and early 2000s, a devastating economic crisis shatters Argentina and these couples’ carefully balanced life is at threat. Unemployment spreads at Covid speed. The husbands try to keep face, the wives are oblivious and everyone has dirty secrets that stay hidden (or not) behind closed doors.

Piñeiro excels at describing this microsociety and its unspoken rules. Their carefully assembled houses of cards is fragile and drama looms. We know from the start that a tragedy occurred and the author takes us to the genesis of it, coming back to recent events or to older ones with anecdotes that pinpoints the characters’ tempers.

I have read it in a French translation by Romain Magras. It is entitled Les Veuves du jeudi and I recommend it.

At my personal bingo of literary events, I ticket several boxes with these books. All but the Jeanne Benameur count for my 20 Books Of Summer Challenge. (Books 5 to 9) Thursday Nights Widow counts for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month hosted by Stu.

Have you read any of these six books? What did you think about them?

Three crime fiction books set in Africa

April 9, 2022 10 comments

Adieu Oran by Ahmed Tiab (2019) (Adieu Oran)

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti (2017) (La traque de la musaraigne)

The Head Chopper Case by  Moussa Konaké. (2015) (L’affaire des coupeurs de tête.)

I’ve always loved to explore other countries through crime fiction. These books usually take you out of the bourgeois society and show you the dark side of a place, the one you won’t find in a tourist guide. I’m also more and more interested in reading Francophone literature, to see how French sounds in other countries. I’m not talking about Belgium or Switzerland here, their French is really close to the one from France, itt is more about French from Québec or Africa.

It wasn’t deliberate but I ended up reading three crime fiction books set in Africa in three weeks. All come from former French colonies, which explains why they are written in French.

Ahmed Tiab is an Algerian writer born in 1965. He lives in the South of France since 1990. Florent Couao-Zotti was born in Benin in 1965. He’s a writer and a journalist. Moussa Konaté (1951-2013) was a writer from Mali. These three books have first been released by independent publishers, Les Editions de l’Aube for Ahmed Tiab, Les Editions Les éditions Métailié for Moussa Konaté and Jigal Polar for Florent Couao-Zotti.

Now, the books!

Adieu Oran, as the title suggests, is set in Oran, a big city on the Mediterranean, west from Algiers. It features Tiab’s recurring character, the commissaire Kémal Fadil.

Adieu Oran is hard to sum up because the plot isn’t really straightforward. We have Chinese workers murdered in Oran and human trafficking. Fadil’s girlfriend Fatou is an emigrant from Niger and she works as a nurse for a non-profit organization in Oran. Along with other migrants, she’s kidnapped and sent to the South of Algeria to be sent back to her country.

I thought that the plot was a bit messy and we were following the murder of the Chinese and then left this case a bit behind to run after Fatou who was kidnapped. Note that, like in Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook, the crime involves Chinese businessmen who run business out of their country, import their own workers, work according to their own ways and have their ambassy meddling in the investigation, bypassing the local police.

Tiab delivers a scathing portrait of Algeria with corrupted and inept politicians. Nothing runs well and the population’s needs are never met, the country paralyzed by former military men whose resume is reduced to having fought against the French for the country’s independence. This act of glory is enough to maintain them in power and hush up any criticism.

Tiab also shows how the Islamists have set roots in the country, importing their vision of Islam from the Middle East. He sums up Algeria that way, in a pessimistic statement:

Lorsque que la génération qui a fait la guerre sera éteinte, le pays entrera alors dans le XXIème siècle avec ses rejetons imprégnés d’une idéologie directement inspirée du Moyen Age. Bonjour la modernité !When the generation who has fought in the war will be dead, the country will enter into the 21st century with an offspring permeated with an ideology directly inspired by the Middle Ages. Hello modernity!

(By the way, this use of “it’s the Middle Ages” is a very European-centered point of view because at the time, in some aspects, the Arabs were more modern that the Europeans.)

Adieu Oran also takes you to into the city’s streets where the past French colonization is still palpable with the streets’ names. Even the high school where Fadil went kept its French name. Coming from a country where the 1789 revolutionaries even changed the calendar, I’m surprised that the Algerians didn’t change the street names or the name of places right after the independence to erase all traces of the French occupation and show that they regained control on their land. For example, there’s still a Michelet market.

I discovered the issue of migrants in Algeria. I wonder why I was so surprised. How dumb of me: did I think that they arrived to the shores of the Mediterranean by magic? Of course, they had to cross other African countries to end up there and Algeria is one of them. We usually hear about Morocco because it’s close to the Spanish border or Tunisia, because of its border with Libya and its proximity to the Sicilian coasts. It never occurred to me that Algeria was a destination too.

Tiab describes the discrimination against migrants and the racism of the local population against black people, migrants or not. Some characters use the derogatory term of nigrou. He also comes back to the complicated relationship between France and Algeria since the independence, through two characters, a French colon who fought with the Algerians for their independence and remained in Algeria and a mysterious women hidden behind a veil, born from the rape of her mother by a French soldier.

Adieu Oran broaches too many topics at the same time to keep the story in a straight line and it is a book I found more interesting for its context and its characters than for its plot.

The two other books I read were more plot driven.

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti is the story of a chase and a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book opens in a strip-club and jazz club in Porto-Novo, Benin. A Frenchman, Stéphane Néguirec has left his Brittany to settle in Porto-Novo. He’s about to leave the club with one of the dancers when she’s kidnapped on the street and he’s assaulted. His path will also cross Déborah’s, who is on the run. Stéphane accepts to hide her but they are soon attacked by criminals.

Déborah’s real name is Pamela and she left the neighboring Ghana after she participated to a hold-up that turned into a triple murder. She left with the money.

Her former partner in life and in crime, Ansah Ossey, aka Jesus Light, is the other survivor of the hold-up and he’s quite enraged that she left him and took the money. He’s after her too and we follow him on his road trip from Ghana to Benin to track her down. The novel is a double track race across Benin, Stéphane and Déborah on one hand and Jesus Light on the other hand. The reader discovers the country through the characters’ eyes.

Along the way, Stéphane, as a French, is seen as bait money by the Islamist rebels. They want to kidnap him to get a ransom and finance their war. The Islamist threat is present in this novel too, as it is in Tiab’s.

The plot was a bit confusing at times but I enjoyed the ride. Couao-Zotti has a wonderful voice, a French language that mixes the codes of Noir fiction and French from Africa.

The Head Chopper Case by Moussa Konaté is the lightest of the three books.

Set in Mali, It features Konaté’s recurring character, the commissaire Habib. The story is set in the city of Kita where several bodies of beheaded hobos are found. The local commissaire, Dembélé, is dumbfounded and doesn’t quite know where to start the investigation. They have the bodies but not their heads which complicates the identification of the victims.

A local pious man receives a out-of-the-world message about Kita being sin city and needing to atone for its sins. The souls of the ancestors are also seen up the mountain and the population, Dembélé included, is tempted to believe in an otherworldly intervention.

Commissaire Habib is more into earthly criminals and is sent from Bamako to his hometown to solve this case.

The Head Chopper Case pictures a Mali torn between traditions and modernity. Kita seems like a religious town, where the imam plays an important role, the one the Catholic church used to have in France too. Konaté describes Kita and its culture and how he and his second in command Sosso have to adapt their investigation methods to the local ways. According to the person they want to interrogate, they choose the straight police line or make a detour through polite conversation to make the person talk and not clam up in front of a policeman.

Konaté’s characters make frequent jokes about their ethnic origins. Kita is mostly of the Malinké ethnic group. The policemen Sosso and Dialo are Fulani. They throw goodhearted digs at each other but I couldn’t help wondering how this banter would turn out if the population was thoroughly manipulated by extremists.

The Head Chopper Case was written in 2015 and since then the civil war has blown up in Mali and violence seems out of control. Sadly.

So, what about these three books? I had a nice time with the three of them, they were armchair traveling. They took me to countries I’ve never been to and enriched my vision of the world.

Unfortunately, none of them are translated into English.

The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin : highly recommended

March 20, 2022 27 comments

The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin (1899) French title: L’Eveil.

“One of these days,” she said, “I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think—try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it.”

The main course of The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin is the novella The Awakening. Mrs Edna Pontellier is the speaker of the quote opening this billet.

We meet her at Grand Isle, where she’s spending the summer with other people from New Orleans. She’s there with her maid and her two children, her husband Léonce staying in town during the week and commuting to Grand Isle during the weekends. New Orleans’ Hamptons, so to speak.

Edna isn’t happy as a wife and a mother, not that Léonce is a bad husband. She just finds no fulfillment in taking care of the children or being a doting wife.

Léonce is a man of his time and has the common expectations towards his wife. He’s courteous and thinks he treats her well but in his mind, she’s like an employee whose performance doesn’t quite meet with her job description.

He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth was it? He himself had his hands full with his brokerage business. He could not be in two places at once; making a living for his family on the street, and staying at home to see that no harm befell them.

Edna, as a wife, is also a mandatory fixture of a successful man’s life, like a mansion or a carriage:

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage.

He needs to show off his children, his wife, his well-kept house and she needs to have her visiting day to entertain the network of his business circle’s wives. Sometimes, she’s more like a glorified servant than a partner. Like here, where he complains that she doesn’t listen to him…

He thought it very discouraging that his wife, who was the sole object of his existence, evinced so little interest in things which concerned him, and valued so little his conversation.

…but this conversation occurred at night, when he woke her up after being out! He wanted to talk about his day! It’s like calling the maid in the middle of the night to have some tea or run a bath.

That summer at Grand Isle, Edna became the center of Robert’s attentions. He’s a young flirt, the son of the inn keeper. He’s known to attach himself every summer to a woman, especially to interesting married women, and everyone knows that it is a meaningless summer thing. The ladies and Robert know the rules.

But Edna, and that’s important in the story, is not a native from Louisiana and she’s not a Creole. She doesn’t know the rules and doesn’t have the same background. She was already dissatisfied with her life reduced to maternal and conjugal duties before coming to Grand Isle and Kate Chopin sums it up nicely:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Robert opens a window she had closed when she got married. Her awakening is her self as a woman, a sleeping beauty who wakes up and wants her place in Edna’s life. And suddenly, Robert leaves Grand Isle to go to Mexico on business. The reader understands that he got a little too attached to Edna. She goes back to New Orleans but she can’t fold back into her previous Mrs Pontellier box. Like toothpaste, once out, you cannot get back in.

So, she starts neglecting her wife duties: housekeeping is approximative, she stops doing her Thursdays, she doesn’t visit other wives. She takes on painting again even if she has no illusion of her gift as an artist. She knows she doesn’t have a real talent for it but she applies to it seriously. She enjoys working hard.

Mr Pontellier is worried about his wife’s mental health but chooses not to intervene. He has an important business deal to conduct in New York and is away from New Orleans for several months. The children stay in the country with their grandparents. Edna is suddenly totally freed from her daily duties.

She spends time with Mademoiselle Reisz, a pianist who was a guest at Grand Isle that summer too. She chose to remain single and enjoys her freedom. She has news from Robert and these letters help Edna understand that she loves him and that the feeling is mutual.

We see Edna taking back her freedom of movement and of thinking, getting her own money on the race field, moving out of her mansion to a smaller house that she pays herself.

How will this unfold when Mr Pontallier comes back?

I imagine that some have compared Edna to Emma Bovary. There are some similarities, since they are both bored by marital duties and motherhood. They don’t have bad husbands, just ones that aren’t what they need.

The main difference between the two is that Kate Chopin is not a misogynistic male. So, Edna is not a stupid woman who falls for the first man who pays attention to her. Chopin shows that not all women have fun changing diapers, taking care of running noses and organizing diners and she doesn’t judge Edna for that.

Edna is not uncaring, she loves her children but her life as a wife and a mother is not enough. Edna is not frivolous or impractical. She doesn’t behave as foolishly as Emma Bovary or overspend on fashion and trinkets. She wants to be herself, to be free and to exist as a separate entity from her husband and children.

I believe that the ending is not one that a male author of the time would have written and it is closer to Virginia Wolf than to Gustave Flaubert. The Awakening was published in 1899, before The House of Mirth (1905) or The Custom of the Country (1913). It is a feminist work by a writer who probably had common points with Edna and I thought it was very modern for her time.

A word about the short stories included in the book, which are:

  • Beyond the Bayou
  • Ma’ame Pélagie
  • Desiree’s Baby
  • A Respectable Woman
  • The Kiss
  • A Pair of Silk Stockings
  • The Locket
  • A Reflection

They are little gems, stolen pictures of Louisiana in the 1890s, with the scars of the Civil War and the race question. Their main characters are women who struggle with their life, who have desires they can’t fulfill and who survive as best they can.

As a French reader, I have to comment on Chopin’s style. She was a Creole and her writing is peppered with French words and sentences. See here: We’ve got to observe les convenances if we ever expect to get on and keep up with the procession. How does it sound to you, English-speaking natives? There’s the word “convenances” in the middle of the sentence and the whole phrase sounds French to me.

I have the same impression with this one: She made no ineffectual efforts to conduct her household en bonne menagere. It’s not the first time I read a book set in Louisiana and there’s a familiarity in the language and sometimes in the way of thinking: Mr. Pontellier did not attend these soirees musicales. He considered them bourgeois, and found more diversion at the club. It could come out of a book by Maupassant, no?

All the French words, expressions and sentences are not translated into English in footnotes. English-speaking readers, how do you fare with that?

It may sound futile but I was irritated that the publisher didn’t bother to write French properly: no accent on chérie, grammar mistakes due to missing accents (a instead of à), no cedilla on garçon. Is that so complicated to check out the right spelling?

I owe the discovery of The Awakening to Vishy and read his post here. Many thanks, Vishy, I loved it and I think it’s an important milestone in the 19thC literature. Highly recommended.

The Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito – Italia Reading Challenge

February 8, 2022 15 comments

A Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito (2019) French title: Un jour viendra. Translated from the Italian by Laura Brignon.

In A Day Will Come, Giulia Caminito takes us to Serra de’ Conti, a village in the Marche region in Italy. Nicola and Lupo are the two surviving sons of the poor baker of the village, Luigi Ceresa. They have two sisters, Nella, who becomes a nun and Adelaide, who dies in young age. The boys are close in age and Nicola is under Lupo’s protection because he’s too fragile and afraid of everything. Together with a pet wolf, they are a close-knit unit to face the world. Their parents are absentees at best, violent sometimes.

Lupo will do Nicola’s chores to allow him to learn how to read and get an education. Nicola loves to read and write and becomes the erudite of the duo. Lupo is more into action and he finds a good outlet for his energy in the Anarchist groups that spread their ideas in the country. The peasants were mostly sharecroppers, for the convent and for other landowners. This system was very inegalitarian and the peasants were open to Anarchism that promised to erase it.

Their village of Serra de’ Conti has a convent with Clarisse sisters. Their abbess is Sister Clara, a woman who became a nun after she was kidnaped in Sudan, her native country. The convent plays a steady role in the villagers’ lives, with work, shelter, help. And music. Sister Clara plays beautifully and the villagers can hear her play. The boys’ sister, Nella is there, against her will. She got pregnant out of wedlock and her father put her in the convent and took the baby.

Through Nicola and Lupo’s story, Giulia Caminito dives into the history of this corner of Italy and shows how politics and decisions made at national level drizzle and affect people’s lives even in remote villages.

The boys were born in the early 1890s, only twenty years after the independence of Italy, won over the Austrians. It also meant that the young State has to incorporate papal territories in the new country. The fate of the convent in Serra de’Conti reflects this evolution: the church land and properties are taken over. The Anarchist movements were strong, leading to the Red Week in Ancona (CHECk), the nearest city to Serra de’ Conti.

The Great War is another shock and I discovered battles between the Italian and the Austrian troops. I know more about the battles set in France than about the ones abroad. They were just as abominable.

The Great War washed away the Anarchist movements and the brothers’ illusions. The Spanish influenza was another tide over the Great War one. The country landed in the 1920s and Mussolini took over.

I see Nicola and Lupo as a modern and peasant version of Romulus and Remus. One is word and the other is action. They are the people who are the foundation of the new Italy. They are inseparable and they have a wolf pet who protects them and Lupo, whose name means wolf, is Nicola’s protector.

In a note at the end of the book, the author explains that her grand-mother came from this village of Serra de’Conti. The characters of this novel are based on real people. Her great-grand-father, Nicola Ugolini, was one of the Anarchists of the Marche region and Giulia Caminito dug into the archives of the movement, its roots and its actions. The participants really believed they would lead to happy changes for the people. Sister Clara really existed under the name of Zeinab Alif who, in real life, became Sister Maria Giuseppina Benvenuti.

Gallmeister, the publisher, included a note about the historical landmarks that are spread into the novel. It was very useful but I think that this note would be better as a foreword as it contains no spoilers but gives useful pointers to understand the historical references of the book.

Like Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, A Day Will Come is based on the author’s family story. There’s no way to know what’s true and what isn’t and honestly, I don’t care. I enjoyed Caminito’s book for its unusual characters, for the light it sheds on a specific moment in the history of the Marche and for the poetry of her writing.

Translation Tragedy, sadly. This is another contribution to Diana’s Italia Reading Challenge.

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

The blogging event Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca has a perfect timing, I was in the mood to read several novellas in a row. One has been on the shelf for almost a decade (Yikes!), two arrived recently with my Kube subscription and one was an impulse purchase during my last trip to a bookstore. So, here I am with four novellas set in four different countries and in different decades.

The Origin of the World by Pierre Michon (1996) Original French title: La Grande Beune

We’re in 1961, in the French countryside of Dordogne, the region of the Lascaux caves. The narrator is 20 and he has just been appointed as primary school teacher in the village of Castelnau. It’s his first time as a teacher. He takes lodgings at Hélène’s and discovers the life of the village. Soon, he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Yvonne, the village’s tobacconist and the mother of one of his pupils, Bernard.

Michon describes the narrator’s sex drive as he walks in the country, as he visits caves with paintings, as he obsesses over Yvonne but still has sex with his girlfriend Mado.

The English translation is entitled The Origin of the World, probably as a reference to the caves, their rock painting and the beginning of humanity and to femineity, like Courbet’s painting. The French title, La Grande Beune, is the name of the river near the village.

Pierre Michon is considered as a great writer by critics. He’s not my kind of writer, I don’t connect well with his prose. I can’t explain why, there’s something in the rhythm that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the first time I read a book by him, I only saw a play version of his book, Vie de Joseph Roulin. Roulin was the postman in Arles, the one who was friend with Van Gogh. I expected a lively biopic, it was one of the most boring plays I’ve ever seen.

After my stay in Dordogne, I traveled to Sicily, in a poor neighborhood of Palermo.

Borgo Vecchio by Giosuè Calaciura (2017) Translated from the Italian by Lise Chapuis.

Calaciura takes us among the little world of the Borgo Vecchio neighborhood. Mimmo and Cristofaro are best friends and Mimmo has a crush on Celeste.

The three children don’t have an easy life. Mimmo’s home life is OK but he’s worried about Cristofaro whose father is a mean drunkard and beats him badly every evening. Celeste spends a lot of time on the balcony of her apartment: her mother Carmela is the local hooker and she works from home. Her daughter stays on the balcony, to avoid her mother’s clients and witness her dealing with men. Cristofaro and Mimmo find solace in nurturing Nanà, a horse that Mimmo’s father acquired to run races and make money on bets.

The neighborhood’s other legend is Totò, the master of the thief squad, a quick worker who gets away with everything because he’s fast, agile and knows the neighborhood’s every nook and crannies. The police can’t compete with that and the fact that the inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio protect their own.

Calaciura’s prose is poetic, almost like a fairy tale. It tempers the horror of the characters’ lives but doesn’t sugarcoat it. It breathes life into Borgo Vecchio and we imagine the alleys, the noise coming from the harbor, the life of the community, the importance of the Catholic church.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a mix of acceptance, —Carmela belongs to the community and is not really ostracized—and cowardice –nobody intervenes to save Cristoforo and his mother from their abusive father and husband.

We get to know the neighborhood and the tension builds up, leading to an inevitable drama. The reader feels a lot of empathy for these children. What chance do they have to do better than their parents?

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) French title: La fille de la supérette. Translated from the Japanese by Mathilde Tamae-Bouhon

With Sayaka Murata’s book, I discovered the word kombini, a work that comes from the English convenient store (supérette in French)

The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at a SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend and, according to her voice, she seems to be on the spectrum.

Her life is made of working hard, following her routine and learning social cues from her coworkers. Anything to sounds and behave like a normal woman, whatever that means. All is well until a new employee, Shihara, joins the team. He has his own issues with Japan’s expectation of him.

Convenience Store Woman is a lovely novella about a woman who struggles to fit in a society that likes nothing more than conformity. She stands out because she’s single and is not looking for a husband and because she’s happy with what is considered as a temporary job for students. Shihara disrupts her life and makes her question herself.

This theme about fitting in reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan, with less romance and more sass. I liked Keiko and I’m glad got to spend time with her. The author has a good angle on the pressure for conformity of the Japanese society.

Then I virtually flew to Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to…

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner (1937) French title: Une journée d’automne. Translated from the American by Françoise Torchiana.

Alec Stuart and his wife Margaret are wealthy farmers. Their life changes when Elspeth, Margaret’s younger sister, comes to live with them, freshly emigrated from Scotland.

Elspeth is 18, full of life. She marvels about the farm, looks at everything with enthusiasm and with a fresh eye. She instills energy and joy in Alec and Margaret’s settled life. She’s also awakening to desire. She and Alec become close, until an unhealthy love triangle arises from their staying in close quarters.

Love, betrayal and tragedy are round the corner of the barn.

Wallace Stegner is a marvelous writer. His characters are well-drawn, revealing their complexity, their innocence or their flows. The countryside of Iowa leaps from the pages, with its sounds, its smells and its landscapes. According to the afterword written by Stegner’s wife, this novella is based on the true story of her aunts, which makes the story even more poignant.

This was my second Stegner, after Crossing to Safety, which I recommend as highly as Remembering Laughter. Imagine that Stegner taught literature and had among his students Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. What a record!

As mentioned at the beginning, this is another contribution to the excellent even Novellas in November. Thanks ladies for organizing it! Reading novellas is fun.

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly – excellent page turner

November 11, 2021 10 comments

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly (1993) French title: La glace noire.

The Black Ice is the second volume of Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I knew about him but had never read him before he came to Lyon at the Quais du Polar festival. I’ve read The Black Echo and like it well-enough to read another one.

When The Black Ice opens, it’s Christmas Day. Bosch is at home and he’s on call when he intercepts a message about a body found in a hotel room near Hollywood. He goes on the scene and discovers that it’s probably the corpse of another cop, Cal Moore. Bosch should be on the case since he was on call but his hierarchy puts him aside. He pushes his way through the doors and sees the room with the body. The death will be ruled as a suicide but details on the scene don’t add up in Bosch’s mind.

Cal Moore was a LAPD narcotics officer and the rumor says that he had crossed over. A couple of weeks before his death, Moore had a meeting with Bosch, inquiring about Internal Affairs ways. His wife has supposedly sent an anonymous letter to denounce him and they had started an investigation.

Bosch’s bosses send him to announce the bad news to Moore’s ex-wife and Bosch finds himself oddly attracted to her.

Then, Pound, the chief of Bosch’s unit, asks him to take on some cases from his colleague Porter. He’s an alcoholic who doesn’t have the best success rate in solving cases and Pound wants to improve the squad’s rate by the end of the year. As it happens, one of those cases is related to Moore.

A couple of days later, Moore’s colleagues of the narcotics squad hand Bosch a file that they found in their patrol car and that Moore wanted Bosch to have if something happened to him.

Between knowing Moore personally, feeling indebted to his ex-wife, getting Moore’s file, knowing that it wasn’t a suicide but a murder and getting a related case, it’s hard for Bosch to do anything else but lead a little maverick investigation on the side, using Porter’s cases as an excuse.

This will lead him to investigate the trafficking of Black Ice, a new drug that is spreading like a bad disease in Los Angeles. He will dig into Moore’s past to figure out whether he was a cross over or not. His investigation will chafe against police protocol, put him at risk and confront him to corruption in LA but in Mexico as well.

Like The Black Echo, The Black Ice is perfectly executed. The reader holds their breath from the beginning until the end, immersed into LA, the cop world and the case. We dive into Bosch’s personal life and his past, just enough to keep us interested in the man and his love for jazz music.

The writing is simple but efficient and the whole book is really atmospheric. We’re in LA with Bosch and we see the neighborhoods, the bars and the alleys. Connelly knows the city by heart and it shows through his writing. The whole book is like a film. Since it was published in 1993, it’s pre-cell phones and it’s a different world for policemen who chase after pay phones, receive messages at their hotels and can be conveniently out of reach when they want to.

Connelly finds the right balance between the case, the city, the business at the LAPD and the case. I maintain what I said about The Black Echo: this series is a great source of reliable entertaining literature, the kind of books you take on a long train journey because you’re sure you won’t get bored and time will fly.

More about Bosch’s world: check out the Bosch playlist on Spotify!

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 29 comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

The Signal by Ron Carlson (2019) French title: Le signal. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right?” We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”

Somehow air came to his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his handand closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”

He’d been there ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times. We’ll do this every year. They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew.

In The Signal, Ron Carlson writes the story of a last hiking and fishing trip between Mack and Vonnie. We’re in Wyoming, in the Wind Rivers Mountain area.

Mack and Vonnie met when they were teenagers. Mack’s father had a ranch and turned it into a dude ranch during ten weeks each summer to bring in additional income and keep the ranch afloat. Vonnie came as a guest with her parent and fell in love with the West. Enough to come back to the area.

As mentioned in the opening quote, Mack and Vonnie had been married eight years when Mack spiraled down into a hole of alcohol and bad decisions. One of them was driving illegal merchandise, including drugs, through Wyoming. He finally got caught, ended up in jail and lost Vonnie in the process.

They are now taking a closure trip to Clarke Lake and the book opens with Mack waiting for Vonnie to show up at their meeting point at the beginning of the trail.

What Vonnie doesn’t know is that Mack also agreed to do a job for Charley Yarnell, a shady entrepreneur. Mack needs the money to keep his family’s ranch. All he has to do is to find a beacon that fell from an airplane. Yarnell gave him a military Blackberry that should detect the beacon as soon as it is within a mile range of it. It sounds simple enough and a way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Signal is divided in six days, one per hiking day. Carlson takes us to the Wind River Mountain trails, lakes and wilderness. Vonnie and Mack take a hike down memory lane, trying to make peace and put an end to their relationship. Vonnie has moved on and lives with Kent now and Mack needs to accept it, even he still loves her.

Their trip takes a bad turn when they encounter aggressive poachers and when Mack’s beacon search proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected.

The book starts as a love autopsy, a cathartic hike to mourn their couple and turns into a suspenseful story as Mack’s side mission collides with their trip.

Mack’s introspection brings him to analyze his past. He was born on a ranch, loved it but was never a rancher. He’s not good with fire arms, not good with cattle and is not cut out to manage a ranch. However, he can’t imagine live anywhere else than on his childhood ranch. He tried to make a living in IT but he was never really successful. His life took a dive when his father died as he lost his human compass and became untethered. His grief engulfed him and he lost his sense of direction.

Ron Carlson’s writing is sumptuous and I wish I had more quotes to share but I read it in translation. Carlson weaves the landscape into Mack and Vonnie’s story. This is their anniversary hike and this outdoor trip is part of their relationship. Nature is what brought them together and now they expect it to heal their wounds to be able to move on. The descriptions of the wilderness and how Mack and Vonnie connect to it and through it are truly excellent.

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister, with a marvelous translation by Sophie Aslanides.

Inspector Dalil in Paris by Soufiane Chakkouche – Moroccan debut crime fiction

April 28, 2021 8 comments

Inspector Dalil in Paris by Soufiane Chakkouche (2021) Original French title: L’inspecteur Dalil à Paris. Not available in English

Soufiane Chakkouche is a Moroccan author who went to university in France, got a degree in business intelligence and changed of career to become a journalist and a writer. He writes in French.

Inspecteur Dalil à Paris is his debut crime fiction novel, a new genre for Moroccan authors, according to his indie publisher, Jiggal Polar. I’d never heard about him but his book was on display in a bookstore, which proves again that independent bookshops are vital for new authors. (Btw, April 24th was the fortieth anniversary of the Lang Law, the one that imposes a unique price for books and thus helps independent bookstores keep their clients.)

Inspector Dalil is a retired officer of the Moroccan police. The chief of the Bureau Central d’Investigation Judiciaire in Casablanca asks him to come back and work on a case in Paris with the French police.

Bader Farisse has been kidnapped in Paris, in front of the mosque on Myrha street. He’s Moroccan student who is doing a PhD on transhumanism. He was working on a project to implant a chip in people’s brains, that would grant them immediate connection to the internet and augment their brain capacities. Their surfing would be untraceable, which means that terrorists and criminals could be connected and act without leaving any trail . Add the quicker and better brains to the mix and you get a very desirable invention for terrorist organizations but also for secret services.

Since Bader is Moroccan and has been abducted in Paris, the French and Moroccan police collaborate to find him before it’s too late.

In a crime fiction novel, the good plot is essential to keep the reader interested but the salt of this kind of books is in their lead characters and whether the reader has certain fondness for them.

Inspector Dalil is an odd ball. He has an ongoing discussion with his Little Voice, who gives unsolicited advice, makes sarcastic comments and points out what Dalil would prefer to ignore. Dalil has old fashioned but efficient investigating methods. His consensual personality allows him to navigate the political aspects of his job in Morocco but also to deal with Commissaire Maugin, the slightly conceited head of the Quai des Orfèvres, the French police.

Chakkouche has an unusual style for a crime fiction writer. There’s an underlying ironic tone in his prose, as if Dalil never takes things too seriously. Murders? Tiny human affairs compared to the great scheme of things. This slightly amused tone belies the seriousness of the plot and I don’t know whether it comes from a Moroccan storytelling tradition or from the author’s own voice.

I thought Chakkouche used too many question marks, that his style was loaded with weird expressions, odd words and stylistic device. At beginning of the book, he sounded clumsy. At the end of the book, I had gotten used to his personal ways with the French language and I thought he was using French with gusto, like you’d enjoy a great dessert. It’s unorthodox but it’s the charm of Francophony, reading how French is spoken and written in other countries.

Now I’m curious to see if Inspector Dalil will have another adventure in Paris or in Casablanca.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie – The #1936Club

April 14, 2021 29 comments

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. (1936) French title: Cartes sur table.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie is my first read for the #1936 Club hosted by co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I bought it during my stolen escapade to an English bookstore in Paris last February.

Mr Shaitana collects various objects but puts his life on the line when he decides to invite to diner four sleuths and four murderers who got away with it. After the meal is over, the guests are split into two rooms to play bridge.

The four sleuths are Superintendent Battle from Scotland Yard, Colonel Race from the Secret Service, Hercule Poirot, a private detective and Mrs Oliver, a crime fiction writer.

The four murderers are Dr Roberts, a middle-aged and jolly GP, Mrs Lorrimer, a very clever widow and skilled bridge player, Major Despard who seems to have been to every corner of the British Empire and Miss Meredith, a rather poor young lady who works as a paid companion.

Mr Shaitana stays in the room where the four criminals play bridge and is murdered, stabbed with one of his own daggers.

Scotland Yard opens an investigation and Superintendent Battle handles it in his official capacity. However, he decides to involve the other three. Each has their own method to dig out the truth and of course, Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells is always ahead.

Agatha Christie draws a very clever plot, full of suspense and with original premises. Colonel Race is less involved in the investigation than the three others but Christie shows three different and yet complementary ways to search for the culprit.

Battle has his official position and the means that go with it: he’s all about clues and interviews.

Poirot takes the psychological route and asks left-field questions to understand the murderer’s mindset and deduct who did it.

Mrs Oliver uses her literary clout to befriend Miss Meredith’s friend and collect gossip about the past. I suspect that Mrs Oliver is a sly caricature of mystery fiction writers like Agatha Christie herself.

When I was in my teens, I read a lot of Christie books, all in French. It’s the second time I read a book with Poirot in the original. It’s a delight to read Poirot’s English and its French ring. Poirot never makes too many blatant grammar mistakes but here and there, his turn of phrase sounds French. Like here:

Je crois bien – a Grand Slam Vulnerable doubled. It causes the emotions, that! Me, I admit it, I have not the nerve to go for the slams. I content myself with the game.

It causes the emotions implies an improper use of the, something French native speakers struggle with when they learn how to speak English. When do we have to use nouns without articles? That’s a tricky question for us.

The I admit it is the literal translation of Je l’admets, which is often used in French but sounds weird in English. It’s the same about I content myself with the game, which stands for Je me contente de jouer and means I only care about the game. I’m not a native speaker myself but I don’t think one would use sentences that include it causes emotions, I admit it or I content myself with.

Here’s another example:

It is not my business – no. But, all the same, it offends my amour propre. I consider it an impertinence, you comprehend, for a murder to be committed under my very nose – by someone who mocks himself at my ability to solve it!

In this passage, you comprehend is the literal translation of vous comprenez which, in this context, means, you see. And someone who mocks himself comes from the French se moquer, which is reflexive. Poirot means either that someone makes fun of his ability to find out the murderer or wants to test it.

It amuses me to spot the things in the text. However, the language I certainly didn’t understand in this book is the one regarding bridge. I don’t know how to play bridge and I was totally lost in the explanations of the game, like in the first quote. I get the general meaning but not the subtelties that helped Poirot solve the crime.

Cards on the Table is an entertaining book, published in 1936 but it is timeless. Nothing from the outside world and its political affairs interferes in the characters’ lives. It is a good Beach and Publish Transport book. Un roman de gare, quoi!

The #1936Club starts tomorrow – some reading suggestions

April 11, 2021 26 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy #1936 Club!

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright – Subtle, poignant and balanced

February 28, 2021 16 comments

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright (2017) Not available in French.

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright opens with a foreword by Meike Ziervogel from Pereine Press.

The result of the EU referendum shocked me. I realized that I had been living in one part of a divided country. What fears—and what hopes—drove my fellow citizens to vote for Brexit? I commissioned Anthony Cartwright to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains that have opposed each other since the referendum day.

And Anthony Cartwright delivered a poignant story that points out the differences between these two Britains, builds a tentative bridge and avoids the pitfall of judgment. I’m reading this with the eyes of a foreigner, so forgive me if I missed cultural undercurrents or if I’m making naïve remarks.

We’re in Dudley, in the county of West Midlands. (I had to look it up on Wikipedia, I’m not good with UK geography) It’s a former coal, iron and limestone industrial area.

Cairo Jukes, in his early forties, has lived his whole life among the canals of the Black Country. He’s been divorced for years and he’s already a grand-father as his daughter Stacey-Ann got pregnant at 19. He lives with his parents because he can’t afford a flat. He struggles to support himself on zero-hours contracts.

Grace is a successful documentary film-maker and she comes from London to do a reportage in Dudley. They meet by chance in downtown Dudley and Cairo agrees to speak with her and participate to the documentary. They are attracted to each other but clearly don’t live in the same world, with the same codes and same vocabulary. The bridge is hard to build as they don’t have the same foundations.

Cairo lives one day at a time, he literally can’t afford to make projects. He never knows how many hours he’ll work and how much he’ll earn. This is where the current pandemic puts us all on equal footing: we all have to learn to live with uncertainty and the impossibility to plan ahead. And it’s hard.

We know something dramatic happens and page after page, we discover Cairo’s life, his world and Anthony Cartwright manages to put the right words on it. He’s never condescending. Cairo comes to life, a multidimensional character with hollows and bumps. I found him very moving and of all the differences between Cairo and Grace, their circumstances, their past and their hope for the future, the one that upset me the most was in this paragraph:

What swayed him was when she said it might be fun. She actually used the word fun. She was a person who used words such as fun and wonderful, and he was not sure he’d ever met anyone who spoke like this in real life, or anywhere else for that matter. It seemed to open something up. Maybe it was OK, changing again after years, to feel himself becoming someone new, when he’d assumed he’d shrink away.

Something is seriously wrong with our countries if we have people who don’t know how to use the word fun anymore.

The campaign for the Brexit is in the background, a white noise that makes itself more and more persistent as the book progresses. Cartwright shows a mosaic of people around Cairo and none of them can be pingeonholed in a comfortable little box. Brexit is a complex matter and turning complex matters into a simple referendum question leads to disaster.

Cartwright doesn’t make a statement, doesn’t take any side but paints an accurate picture of two people who don’t live in the same country. Hell, they put subtitles on the television when Cairo’s interview is broadcasted. I’ve never seen this on the French TV, except sometimes for Québec speakers. Most Francophone speakers are intelligible without subtitles.

Cairo’s vision is summed up here:

People are tired. Tired of clammed-up factory gates, but not even them any more, because look where they are working now, digging trenches to tat out the last of whatever metal was left. Tired of change, tired of the world passing by, tired of other people getting things that you and people like you made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired to be told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong. Tired of supermarket jobs and warehouse jobs and jobs guarding shopping centres. Work had always worn people out, the heat of furnaces, the clang of iron, but this is tiredness of a different order, tiredness that a rest will not cure, like a plague, eating away at them all.

That’s one reason people vote for Brexit, to try something new. That’s how they put on their yellow vests and invest roundabouts and city centres. But the reasons are more complex than that and it’s time the Grace side of the world pays attention to them.

The Cut is set in the UK but it goes with books like And Their Children After Them by Nicolas Mathieu, Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis, films by Robert Guédiguian or plays like I Took My Father on my Shoulders by Fabrice Melquiot or the stage adaptation of Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon. Hot topics that were swept under the carpet by a pesky virus but will come back full force in 2022.

Many thanks to Marina Sofia for sending me this book. Her interesting review is here. It’s still time to add this to the #ReadIndies challenge hosted by Karen and Lizzy. It’s a Pereine Press book, after all.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 21 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek is our Book Club choice for December.

Published in 1936, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

Voices of Freedom: militant writers in the 19th Century by Michel Winock – France between 1815 and 1885.

December 16, 2020 22 comments

Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC century by Michel Winock (2001) Not available in English. Original French title: Les Voix de la liberté. Les écrivains engagés au XIXème siècle.

After reading an anthology of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs From Beyon the Grave, I decided to finally pick from my shelves Winock’s Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC. It’s a 600 pages essay that describes how writers fought for the freedom of speech in France from 1815 to 1885.

It goes from the fall of Napoléon to the death of Victor Hugo. Since several of you liked the timeline I included in my Chateaubriand billet, here’s a new one with political regimes in France from the birth of Chateaubriand to the death of Victor Hugo. I chose these two writers because they have been involved in public life during their whole career. Chateaubriand was well-respected and Hugo wanted to be Chateaubriand or nothing.

Years

Political Regime

Leader

Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

Hugo’s age

1768-1792

Monarchy.

King Louis XV

King Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

Not born

1792-1804

First Republic

Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

Born in 1802

1804-1815

Empire

Napoléon

1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

2-13

1815-1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Louis Philippe

King Charles X

 

47-62

13-28

07/1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Charles X

July Revolution

62

28

08/1830-02/1848

July Monarchy

Louis-Philippe

 

62-80

28-46

02/1848

Second Republic

Lamartine

Abolition of slavery

80

46

12/1848-12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

12/1848 : Louis Napoléon Bonaparte is elected President

Dead

46

12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

Coup d’état

Dead

49

1852-1870

Second Empire

Napoléon III

 

Dead

50-68

09/1870

Fall of the Second Empire

Third Republic

 

War with Prussia

France loses Alsace-Moselle terrirories

Dead

68

1871-1885

Third Republic

(1870-1940)

 

1871 Commune de Paris

Dead

69-83

It’s not going to be easy to sum up this book and I’ll concentrate on my reaction to it.

Winock’s angle in his essay is the fight for the freedom of speech and for free press but he ends up writing up 70 years of public life in France. He takes the word “écrivain” (writer) is a broad sense, including literary writers (Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand), historians (Michelet), political science writers (Tocqueville, Guizot, Quinet, Prévost-Paradol), theology and religion thinkers (Renan, Veuillot), journalists (all of them!), social writers (Flora Tristan) and “socialist” theorists (Proudhon, Saint-Simon). Let’s use the anachronistic term “intellectuals” to embrace them in one word.

It tells so much about where France comes from and explains our vision of a secular State, our attachment to political and religious caricatures and our idea of freedom of speech as a cardinal value of the republic.

Winock takes us through the political battles, revolutions and theories that involved writers between 1815 and 1885. These are fascinating 70 years. The country had to recover from the Revolution and the Empire, political thinkers and writers started to research the revolutionary years and assess these years and especially the Terror. What good did the Revolution do? They all agree upon one thing: going back to the old absolute monarchy isn’t possible. The French society has changed too much.

During these years, intellectuals researched and wrote about the best regime for the country. Parliamentary monarchy? Empire? Republic? Various strong currents pulled or pushed one way or the other and the Catholic church meddled in the discussion. Monarchy and religion go hand in hand. For the monarchists, the country must be catholic and the power in place an alliance between church and politics. (The Pope Pie IX played a role too) In opposition to the monarchists, how strong political currents developed under the “secular” banner, to keep faith and religion private and out of public affairs. Tocqueville travels to America and comes back with ideas. There were a lot of debate about voting and which citizen should qualify to vote. 

These seventy years also see the industrial revolution settle in France and modern capitalism building lasting roots. Writers start to pay attention to the poor: Victor Hugo writes Les Misérables; in spite of him, Eugène Sue becomes the champion of the destitute with his Mysteries of Paris and Zola too, with L’Assomoir or Germinal.

Feminism finds voices in Flora Tristan, George Sand and Louise Michel.

Newpapers bloom or survive, according to the times and how tight the power in place takes the reins of freedom of speech. Newpapers may need an approval before publication or not. Books and articles are published abroad, mostly in Belgium and Switzerland and cross borders secretly. Napoléon III was especially ferocious against freedom of speech. For example, the newspaper La Lanterne crossed the border between Belgium and France hidden in Napoléon III busts. They got busted when one of the sculptures broke at the border and the smuggling was discovered.

In parallel to political thinking, technical and social progress improve the people’s access to newspapers. At the beginning of the century, political opinions traveled through songs written by political singers like Béranger, who was a huge star at the time. There were also reading cabinets, where readers could borrow papers and read. Between 1815 and 1885, more and more children went to school. In 1832, 53% of twenty-year olds couldn’t read. Their number dropped to 8.5% in 1892. The press soared, as Maupassant describes it in Bel Ami and technical progress in printing and assembling articles for print concurred to its growth.

The book is a vivid rendition of these years, moving from one writer to the other, showing their personal development and the course of their thinking. Lamartine was instrumental to the Second Republic. Balzac had ideas that were really backward and Winock points out that his books had the opposite result to what he expected. Flaubert stayed away from politics but stirred some trouble with Madame Bovary. Stendhal wanted to be consul in Italy. We see Constant, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Vallès, Sand and many other writers and their position on events.

Victor Hugo is truly a monument of the century. Romanticism applied to theatre plays (the battle of Hernani) fought against the theatre rules imposed by classicism (Corneille, Racine) It was an oblique way to champion the Revolution and its ideals. Hugo led that battle. His exile in Guernsey for as long as Napoléon III was in power increased his prestige. Like Chateaubriand, he didn’t change sides when it was convenient. Les Misérables was a literary bomb and what I discovered about his political views warmed me to him as a man and a thinker. Already dreaming of the United States of Europe in the 1880s! He was always on the side of the poor and that endeared me to him.

I loved this journey among militant writers in the 19th century. It showed me how hard earned is our current freedom of speech, why our streets have these names, where our contemporary vision of the republic stems from. These seventy years are a cauldron of thoughts, of theories that founded our modern society. It’s the development of today’s capitalism, the roots of communism and socialism, the birth of social thinking (unions, benefits for the poor, solidarity between the haves and the have nots), the political development that discarded monarchy forever and settled on republic for the country and the real beginning of education for the masses and mass communication through newspapers.

A fascinating read. Now I need to read Les Misérables, Bel Ami and Les Mystères de Paris.

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