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Quais du polar #3: Mindreader by Iain Levison

March 15, 2016 9 comments

Mindreader by Iain Levison (2015) French title: Ils savent tout de vous. Translated by Fanchita Gonzales Batlle.

Quais_polar_logoThis one was a total disappointment on two levels. The first one is on me. I’d already read A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison, a novel based on his experience as a poor worker in America and I heard his interview on France Inter about Mindreader whose French title is Ils savent tout de vous (They know everything about you) My previous read of a Levison book, his interview on France Inter and the French title of the novel led me into expecting a novel about internet and social media. Something in the line of Andrew Blackman’s Virtual Love. Had I known the English title, I wouldn’t have been surprised by the main idea of the book: what if the FBI had some chosen individuals operated to have them become mindreaders? What an asset they would be in international negotiations, in interrogations of terrorists, etc.

Levison_toutJared Snowe is one of them. He’s a deputy in the Kearns police force in Massachusetts and he start hearing the thoughts of other people. He’s just exploring his new power when agent Terry Dyers finds out that he’s “awaken”. She was operated too, but the other way round: her mind is unreadable to mindreaders. She protects the secrets of the program and she can meet with the mindreaders.

Now she has another mission to attend to. She needs to transfer Brooks Denny from a prison in Oklahoma to participate to negotiations at the UN building in New York. He’s also a mindreader. Problem is: Denny ended up in prison because he killed a policeman. He’s in the death row. Getting him out of here won’t be easy.

Terry and her boss Emmanuel puts things in motion though and everything goes according to plan until Denny’s ward gets nosy and goes through Terry’s things. He understands that Denny will be killed after his job, he’s happy that this cop killer will die. He thinks about it in Denny’s presence, Denny hears it and decides to take the French leave.

Who can go after a mindreader? Another mindreader. That’s where Snowe comes into the mix…

So we have two mindreaders on the loose and one FBI team who needs them back under their control but must keep things under wraps about their program. Who will win the chase?

Mindreading and the angst that go with it. No offense, Iain Levison, but Stephenie Meyer beat you to it in Twilight. Her vampire hears other people’s thoughts, except Bella’s and we know how crowded his head is from all the wandering thoughts around him.

Mindreader has nothing to do with social media and all the IT traces we leave in our everyday lives with our phones, computers, cars and so on. One evening, my work Iphone informed that if I left the office right now, it would take me 34min to get home. This is my work phone. I have no personal data in it. I guess it just tracked where I spend my days and where I spend my nights and assumed these locations where work and home. It kind of freaked me out. This topic is a tremendous playing field for dystopian fiction. (or not so dystopian, btw) Here, this path isn’t explored, except slightly through a member of the FBI team, Jerry, who has mad competences with internet tracking. It seems such a waste of good plot material and from what I heard of his interview, Iain Levison could do better on the political and social exploration of the theme. So it was a disappointment.

If it wasn’t meant to be that serious, then it didn’t go overboard enough. A few billets ago, I answered the questions of the Book FanCarroting Award and one of the questions was: Which book would you like to see re-written by your favorite writer? I have a new answer to this question now. I want Mindreader re-written by Duane Swierczynski. What a blast it would be.

Preparing for Quais du Polar 2016

February 20, 2016 32 comments

Quais_polar_logoThe festival Quais du polar will be from 1st to 3rd of April in Lyon, France. In French, polar is a generic and affectionate term to call crime fiction. Quais is probably a reference to 36 Quai des Orfèvres where the Parisian police have their headquarters and to Interpol’s headquarters located 200, Quai Charles de Gaulle in Lyon. L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Police is also in Lyon. It’s the school where police officers and commissaires are trained. So the city that hosts Quais du polar is also the headquarters of famous police institutions. But Quais also means river banks and the other reason why Quais is included in the name of the festival comes from the geography of Lyon. Indeed, the river Rhône and the river Saône run through Lyon and the city centre is called the Presqu’île (peninsula) as it is between the two rivers. The city is really shaped by its two rivers. So, Quais du polar is an apt name for a festival that celebrates crime fiction in Lyon.

2016 is the 12th season of the festival and I hope the series Quais du Polar will have many seasons. Last year, it attracted 70 000 visitors and, from what I’ve seen, writers were enchanted. My post about the 2014 and 2015 editions are here and here. Quais du polar is a mixed festival: there’s a huge bookstore in the magnificent building of the Chamber of Commerce, where writers come and sign their books, conferences, a whodunit promenade throughout the city and other activities.This year, the festival will show off Francophone crime fiction with writers from France, Québec, Switzerland, Gabon and Togo.

Quais_polarAs last year, I bought a subscription to the festival. It’s not mandatory but it helps accessing to the conférences; it costs 30€ and comes with a free book. The access to everything is free, the festival relies on volunteers. Paying a subscription is also a way to help them. The free book is Tout le monde te haïra by Alexis Aubenque. To be honest, it’s not a book I would have picked myself as it is a thriller and it is set in Alaska. I’m a bit wary of writers who write crime fiction set in another country as theirs. But I’ll give it a try.

The web site has not been updated yet with the detailed program of the festival but the guest writers are already listed. You can have a look here: Invités Quais du Polar. If you do have a look, please let me know who you’d like to meet if you were attending. It’s always nice to have pointers.

Johnson_camp_mortsPeace_1974Meanwhile, I will be reading some writers who will be participating to Quais du Polar. I’m delighted to see that Craig Johnson will be there. He was already present in 2014 but now I’ve started his Longmire series and I hope I’ll be able to talk to him. My billet about the first volume of the series, Little Bird, is here and I will write soon about the second opus, Death Without Company. I’m happy to report that I found it as good as the first one. I love the atmosphere of Durant, Wyoming and Longmire’s personality, colleagues and friends. I will also read 1974 by David Peace, a book that has been on my shelf for a while. #TBR20 is still on and it will make up for the three books I bought for the occasion.

Ferey_ZuluI decided to read Zulu by Caryl Férey. He’s a French writer and the book is set in Cape Town, South Africa. I know, my buying this not exactly consistent with my previous my comment on Alexis Aubenque. I can’t explain why I have a better feeling about Zulu. Or perhaps I’m not so thrilled to read a book set in Alaska because the place reminds me of Sarah Palin, the dreadful Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, horrifying working conditions on fishing boats described by Iain Levison and oil spills.  Zulu got multiple prizes, so I’m curious. It sounds like a compelling story with incursions into local politics and sociology. Crime fiction is a great medium for that. It is available in English, if anyone’s interested.

Levison_toutI also purchased Ils savent tout de vous by Iain Levison. I’ve already read his Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I’ve heard his interview on France Inter and his last book sounded interesting. Wanna know the funny thing about it? It’s been written in English but you can only find it in French because it’s only been published in France. The guy’s publisher is French and Levison refuses to publish his book in the US. So, here I am, perfectly able to read the original but forced to read it in translation. I wish it were published in parallel texts or one after the other in an omnibus edition.

Niel_hamacsThe last one is Les Hamacs de carton by French author Colin Niel. He’s an engineer specialized in environmental issues and he has lived several years in French Guiana. He created a series set in this overseas department with a main character named Capitaine Anato. Les Hamacs de carton is the first volume of the series. *sheepish* French Guiana only means three things to me: Amazonia, Christiane Taubira and the penal colony where Dreyfus and Henri Charrière (Papillon) were sent. I’m curious to learn more about the place.

I hope I’ll have time to read these books before the festival. If you’re interested in Quais du Polar, you can come to Lyon for the weekend. The city is beautiful and the atmosphere during the festival is special. If you’d like to come but can’t, you can follow Quais du polar on Twitter : @QuaisPolar or on Facebook.

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A glimpse in the world of poor workers in America

December 29, 2013 33 comments

A Working Stiff’s Manifesto by Iain Levison. 2002. French title: Tribulations d’un précaire.

In the last ten years, I’ve had forty-two jobs in six states. I’ve quit thirty of them, been fired from nine, and as for the other three, the line was a little blurry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, you just know it wouldn’t be right for you to show up anymore.

I have become, without realizing it, an itinerant worker, a modern-day Tom Joad. There are differences, though. If you asked Tom Joad what he did for a living, he would say, “I’m a farmworker.” Me, I have no idea. The other difference is that Tom Joad didn’t blow $40,000 getting an English degree.

And the more I travel and look around for work, the more I realize that I am not alone. There are thousands of itinerant workers out there, many of them wearing business suits, many doing construction, many waiting tables or cooking in your favorite restaurants. They are the people who were laid off from companies that promised them a lifetime of security and then changed their minds, the people who walked out of commencement with a $40,000 fly swatter in their hands and got rejected from twenty interviews in a row, then gave up. They’re the people who thought, I’ll just take this temporary assignment/bartending job/parking lot attendant position/pizza delivery boy job until something better comes up, but something better never does, and life becomes a daily chore of dragging yourself into work and waiting for a paycheck, which you can barely use to survice. Then you listen in fear for the sound of a cracking in your knee, which means a $5,000 medical bill, or a grinding in your car’s engine, which means a $2,000 mechanic’s bill, and you know then that it’s all over, you lose. New car loans, health insurance, and mortgages are out of the question. Wives and children are unimaginable. It’s surviving, but surviving sounds dramatic, and this life lacks drama. It’s scrapping by.

Levison_FrenchI know it’s a long quote but it’s the perfect introduction to Ian Levison’s Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I picked this book on a whim in my favorite bookstore. They know what they put on the shelves and it’s even recommended by Le Monde and La Tribune. It is a terrifying journey into the working conditions in contemporary America. The language of the quote gives away the century the book was written in otherwise, you could think it was an excerpt from The Odd Women by Gissing. It reminded me of Mr Bullivant who would like a wife but doesn’t earn enough money to settle down. The big difference now is that women can work as well, at least if there is appropriate and affordable day care for children.

This is a memoir where Levison relates his experiences as a worker. He has a degree in English but can’t find a job in his field. He describes his job applications, and the various experiences he has in small jobs in different states.

The longest section of the book is dedicated to his experience in Alaska where he works on ships and with fish. Due to its harsh climate and its appalling Sarah, I can’t say Alaska was on my list of the 1001 places to see before I die. After reading about Levison’s working conditions there, it’s almost an act of rebellion to avoid the place. If I ever want to try on extreme cold living conditions, I’ll stick to Quebec where they even speak French with a lovely accent and charming words. Levison is first hired on a ship to prepare crabs to be exported to Japan. They work in shifts of 16 hours, sleep in bunk in a room with at least 10cm of water on the floor and are basically wet all the time. It’s cold and wet, so it’s not the same conditions as in California but it still reminded me of Bandini’s time in the can factory in The Road to Los Angeles. Fante also did odd jobs and I’m sure that Bandini’s experience stems from his own. It’s depressing to write that Levison’s working conditions bring me back to novels from the late 19th century and pre-WWII 20th century.

All along the book, details about the lack of laws to protect workers shocked me. I knew that regulations are less strict than in France, I hear enough of foreigners complaining about French working laws. I never thought it was that different. I suppose there’s a big difference between people working in large corporations and people working in shops and small companies. The problem lays in what the law imposes as minimum rights. You don’t live well in France with the minimum wages and the one million of persons who applied to the Restaurants du Coeur (charity like Salvation Army) won’t deny it. Young people have trouble finding a steady job. At work we’ve had several maternity leaves in a row and we repeatedly hired the same young woman as a replacement. We were happy to have her again each time because she wasgood but we were sorry for her that she was still on the job market. But still, there are minimum rules and of course, free health care and financial help for rent.

levison_EnglishI don’t want to play down Levison’s suffering but I also have mixed feelings about this book. Part of me is outraged by the working conditions Iain Levison encountered in his various jobs and I agree with him that this is more surviving than living. Part of me is also irritated by his behavior. I have nothing about not accepting the rules of the society we live in. I totally respect alternative ways of living as long as people don’t complain that the outside world doesn’t adjust to their vision of life. Yes you have to accept corporate crap when you work for a company. Granted, there seem to be more corporate crap in the US than in France. By corporate crap I mean things like the employee of the month, the smiling obligation or whichever upbeat behavior is covered by client satisfaction or management concepts.

And what job did he expect when he started his English degree? If you don’t want to be a teacher or work in the academic world (where the number of positions is limited), what can you do? Be a PA? Find a job where the company will invest on training you? Sorry if what I write seems a bit provocative, but there are so many graduates out there with a degree that leads to no concrete jobs. I see some at work. When you start a university degree, don’t you need to be a bit practical? If I had picked the subjects I enjoyed most in high-school, I’d be a history or English graduate now. And then what? I can’t be a teacher, I don’t have the patience. How could I apply to jobs that require specific technical skills beside writing without spelling and grammar mistakes?

Our working world is far from perfect and there is no excuse for what Iain Levison describes: impossible cadences for truck drivers, total disrespect for the safety of workers and no control of companies that employ workers in difficult conditions. Levison isn’t afraid to work hard as his various experiences show it. It’s really good that he stood up and talked for the army of poor workers who have no voice. It’s 10 years later now and I hope things turned out well for him, beside his writing career. The book is written in a journalistic tone with a wry sense of humor, it’s easy to read and enlightening.

PS: I have a question. Somewhere in the book, Levison mentions that the working week starts on Sundays. I had already seen on American calendars that the week starts on Sundays instead of Mondays like in here. My question is why? According to the Bible, God made the world in six days and had a rest on the seventh day. I suppose it explains why the last day of the week is Sunday for us. Why is it different in America?

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