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Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese – Native Canadians and hockey.

July 4, 2022 5 comments

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012) French title: Jeu blanc. Translated by Christine Raguet.

This week Lisa from ANZ LitLovers hosts her First Nation Reading Week. In previous years, I read books by Aborigine authors but this year, I picked two books by North American Indians. (I use the word Indian because these writers use it themselves.) The first one is by the Ojibway Canadian writer Richard Wagamese. I had already read his Medicine Walk but I think that Indian Horse is even better.

Set in Manitoba and the north of Ontario, the book is the story of Saul Indian Horse who speaks from a rehab facility where he’s treated for alcoholism. His psychologist asked him to write his story to rid himself from its weight.

Saul was born in 1953 in an Ojibway family and had an older brother, Ben. He spent his first years living according to the traditional Ojibway ways, as his family hid the children in the woods to avoid their kidnapping by the government. They didn’t want their kids to be sent to a school belonging to the Canadian residential school system.

The authorities caught Ben first and after a fateful trip, Saul was sent to Saint Jerome’s Indian Residential School. This place is hell on earth. The catholic nuns and priests who run the place are positively awful.

The children have no actual education. They endure moral and sexual harassment. They have to work hard. They die due to child abuse and are buried in the woods. It reminded me of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

I’ll never understand institutions that abuse children. When these institutions are Christian, it’s even worse. Saul explains that breakfast was a torture because they had to eat bland and vile porridge when the nuns and priest at the nearby table had bacon and eggs. How is that in line with the message of the New Testament?

Saul’s way out appears when Father Gaston Leboutillier arrives at St Jerome’s and starts a hockey team. Saul has a gift for the game. It will give him a goal, a mental lifeline to keep going at St Jerome’s.

Hockey is his safe place. It’s a game he excels at and when he’ll later join a team, it will give him the immense pleasure of the game but also expose him to the ever-present racism against native Canadians. I confess that some descriptions of the hockey games went over my head. It’s not a popular sport in France –the French publisher had to include two pages of explanations about hockey to enlighten the reader about it –so I probably didn’t enjoy as much as I should have the outstanding descriptions of hockey games.

Indian Horse is the poignant story of a man whose identity was partly destroyed and stolen by an inhumane system. It is an ode to hockey and a descent into the life of an Indian in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t pretty and it’s consistent with what Plamondon describes about the Migmaqs in Taqawan.

Saul’s life is built on drama but he still finds beauty and self-value in hockey. His sport gives him his worst and his best experiences. He faces racism and hatred but also builds friendships and a team family.

Wagamese writes well about the Ojibway culture and how white Canadians treated Indians in the 1970s. Some scenes are shocking but I don’t think his imagination went away from him. Like Baldwin for black people, he’s descriptive. He writes about actual behaviours in a system built to reject Indians. He shows the reader how things were and lets them make their own opinion about it.

We follow Saul in his quest for his lost Indian soul, his buried childhood trauma and his difficulties as an adult. I wanted to lift him up and ensure he’d live a better life from now on. A powerful book.

Highly recommended.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

July 2, 2022 20 comments

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1997) French title: Promenons-nous dans les bois. Translated by Karine Chaunac.

After a few of very busy weeks and weekends, I’m back! I kept on reading, so expect a burst of billets. Let’s start with 20 Books of Summer #1, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

In 1996, Bill Bryson moves back from England to America and settles in New Hampshire with his family. He’s near the Appalachian Trail (AT) and decides that he wants to hike this mythic trail. He starts his journey in Georgia with his old friend Stephen Katz. Both are rather inexperienced hikers, no athletes –Katz is overweight and a recovering alcoholic— and not fully prepared for their travels.

The book is a mix of chapters between their walking, their progression on the trail and how things go.

They’ll hike 870 miles before abandoning their project and it represents around 40% of the entire trail. Chapters alternate between Bryson and Katz’s adventures and facts about the AT, the mountains and the places they go to or through.

It’s readable, informative but quite superficial. In my opinion, Bryson was a bit condescending at times and lacked of self-deprecating humor. He wasn’t always kind to Katz and I found that a bit jarring.

They engage into a project that consists in hiking a long and tough trail for which they are unfit. Unless Bryson downplays his fitness for the sake of the narration. They aren’t trained for that but go for it anyway. I’m torn between awe (How gutsy!) and consternation (How imprudent!)

Each time they are out of the trail, they rush to fast food restaurants to gorge on soda, hamburgers, pies and other junk food. That’s so far away from a usual hiker’s way of life that I didn’t know what to think about this. Typically American? I can’t imagine reading about someone walking the Camino de Santiago and stopping at McDonald’s at any opportunity. Maybe I read too many nature writing books.

A Walk in the Woods was published in 1997 and felt quite dated sometimes. Obviously, there’s the technology part: they do it without GPS or cell phones and the maps they have aren’t always as useful as they should be.

But it is also a book of its time. It was written before climate change really became a hot topic and the awareness about nature wasn’t as important as it is now. Bryson gives information about the trail, the places they go through and describes the landscape but not with the reverence and gratefulness I expected from my 2022 perspective. Again, maybe I read too much nature writing.

But in the last 25 years, at least in France, hiking has developed tremendously. According to a survey ordered by the FFRandonnée (French Federation of Hiking), in 2021, 56% of French people had done at least one hike in the last twelve months. It has become a widespread hobby for people who want to find some quiet time in nature. It’s also linked to a trend to put our foot on the brake of our frantic consumer life. I didn’t find this in Bryson’s book, mostly because it was written in 1997 and we’ve changed since then.

On another aspect, I would have liked more introspection on Bryson’s side. How did this challenge affect him beyond the blisters, the wet clothes and the uncomfortable shelters? What did he get from it besides the satisfaction to deliver a new book to his publisher? One can’t go out of 870 miles of hiking in the woods without soul searching moments.

In other words, I expected more, probably because Pete Fromm and Rick Bass spoilt me with Indian Creek and The Book of Yaak. Now, if you know a book about the Appalachian trail that is closer to these books than to A Walk in the Woods, please leave a comment.

PS : the French title of A Walk in the Woods is Promenons-nous dans les bois.

It means “let’s walk in the woods” and comes from a nursery rhyme that says “Let’s walk in the woods as long as wolves aren’t there because if they were there, they would eat us”. Children stuff is scary, sometimes.

Three beach-and-public-transport crime fiction books: let’s go to Sweden, Japan and Australia.

June 12, 2022 12 comments

The summer holiday are coming soon, with lazy reading hours, waiting time in airports or train stations, train or plane travels and all kinds of noisy reading environments. That’s what my Beach and Public Transports category is for: help you locate page turners that help pass the time and don’t need a lot of concentration. So, let’s make a three-stops journey, starting in Stockholm with…

The Last Lullaby by Carin Gerardhsen. (2010) French title: La comptine des coupables. Translated from the Swedish by Charlotte Drake and Patrick Vandar.

It’s a classic crime fiction book that opens with a murder. Catherine Larsson and her two children are murdered in their apartment. She was from the Philippines, got married to Christer Larsson and they were divorced. He was deeply depressed and had no contact with his children.

Catherine lived in a nice apartment in a posh neighborhood in Stockholm. How could this cleaning lady afford such a lavish home?

The commissaire Conny Sjöberg and his team are on the case. The troubling fact is that their colleague Einar Ericksson has not shown up for work and hasn’t call in sick. Sjöberg looks for him and soon discover that Catherine Larsson and Einar Ericksson were close, that he used to come and meet her and play with the children. His sweater was in her flat.

Now the police are in a difficult position: their colleague is a suspect but Sjöberg thinks he’s a victim too. It complicates the investigation.

I enjoyed The Last Lullaby as the story progressed nicely, all clues clicking into place one after the other. I thought that the police team’s personal lives were a bit heavy. What are the odds to have on the same team someone with a traumatic past, someone who was raped and filmed, someone recovering of a heart attack and multiples divorces and affairs. It seemed a bit too much for me.

That minor detail aside, it’s a nice Beach and Public Transport book. Now, let’s travel to Japan for a very unusual story.

The House Where I Once Died by Keigo Higashino (1994) French title: La maison où je suis mort autrefois. Translated from the Japanese by Yukatan Makino. Not available in English.

The unnamed Narrator of the book and Sayaka met in high school and were a couple for a few years. Sayaka broke up with him when she met her future husband. He wasn’t too heartbroken, they never meant to spend their life together anyway. Seven years later, they reconnect at a high school reunion.

Sayaka contacts the Narrator a few weeks later and asks him to accompany her on a strange trip. When her father died, he left her with a key to a house. She knows that her father used to go there once a month but never talked about it. Since her husband is on a business trip, she doesn’t want to go alone. The Narrator accepts and they drive to a strange house in the woods by Matsubara Lake.

Sayaka doesn’t have any family left and has no memories of her early childhood. She wants her memory back and hopes that this house will trigger something in her.

The Narrator and Sayaka enter the house and start playing detective to find out whose house it is, why it is empty, where its inhabitants are and how they are linked to Sayaka’s father.

The House Where I Once Died is a fascinating tale and as a reader, I was captivated from the start. It’s like a children’s mystery tale, a strange house, clues in the rooms, a memory loss and weird details everywhere.

Step by step, along with the Narrator and Sayaka, we discover the truth about the house and its family. The ending was unexpected and the whole experience was a great reading time.

That’s another excellent Beach and Public Transport book at least for readers who can read in French, since it hasn’t been translated into English.

Now let’s move to Tasmania with…

The Survivors by Jane Harper (2020) French title: Les survivants.

This is not my first Jane Harper, I’ve already read The Dry and Force of Nature. This time, Jane Harper takes us to the fictional Tasmanian small town on Evelyn Bay. It’s on the ocean and along the coasts are caves that can be explored when the tide is low and that get flooded when the tide is high.

Kieran and his girlfriend Mia live in Sydney with their three-month old baby but they both grew up in Evelyn Bay. They are visiting Kieran’s parents Brian and Verity in their hometown. Brian has dementia and the young couple is here to help Verity pack their house to move Verity into an apartment and Brian goes to a medical facility.

This family is still haunted by the drama that occurred twelve years ago. Kieran was in the caves when a bad storm hit the town. Finn, his older brother who had a diving business with his friend Toby, went out to sea to rescue him. The storm turned their boat and they both drowned. Kieran has always felt responsible for the death of his older brother.

The storm devastated the town. The material damage was repaired. The psychological one, not really. That same day of the historical storm, Gabby Birch disappeared and never came back. She was fourteen and she probably drowned too. Her body was never found.

That summer, Kieran and his friends Ash and Sean were a tight unit who partied a lot. They were just out of high school and Kieran had secret hook-ups with Olivia in the caves. Gabby was Olivia’s younger sister and Mia’s best friend.

So, the group of friends who meet again in Evelyn Bay has this traumatic past in common. Olivia and Ash are now in a relationship. Olivia works at the local pub, with a student who is there for the summer. Bronte is an art student at university in Canberra. She waitresses at the pub too and shares a house on the beach with Olivia.

One morning shortly after Kieran and Mia’s arrival, Bronte is found dead on the beach. Who could have wanted to kill her? Old wounds reopen and everyone thinks about the storm and Gabby Birch’s unexplained death. The digital rumour mill runs freely on the town’s forum.

Are the two deaths related? How will Kieran deal with being in this town again in the middle of another dramatic event? What happens in those caves?

The Survivors isn’t an outstanding crime fiction book but it does the job. It’s entertaining and exactly what you need to read on a beach. Well, except for the fear you may get about rising tides and being stuck in caves…

The Survivors is my first of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge. Do you look for easy and entertaining reads for the summer or do you take advantage of the slower pace (no school and related activities, holidays…) to read more challenging books?

The Color of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy – murky waters in the seaside town of Bognor Regis in Sussex

June 6, 2022 4 comments

The Colour of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy. (2011). Not available in French.

This one has been on the Kindle TBR for 10 years, I think. I must have downloaded it after reading Guy’s excellent review.

John Dexter first met Ruth Taylor at a school disco when she was fifteen and he was twenty-five. She was a student and he was a young professor. Ruth got pregnant at that time, John says nothing happened between them.

They meet again five years later, by chance. John is now married with two kids. They go to a café and talk. Ruth is poor and struggles to raise her daughter Sandy. John gives her money to help her start over.

They meet again five years later. They become lovers and John takes interest in Sandy, Ruth’s daughter.

Ruth and John are a case of opposites attract. He was drawn to her when she was fifteen. The colour of her eyes is of the same green as the Southdown Motor Company buses that he used to take with his parents when he was a child. They used to spend the day at Bognor Regis. Happy memories.

Something happened, we know it right away because the first chapter of the book is a police transcript of Detective Inspector Harris interrogating John Dexter. The tone of the questions is judgmental. Harris has a dirty mind and he keeps putting words in Dexter’s mouth. Harris assumes that Dexter has sexually assaulted Ruth at the disco and that Sandy is his daughter.

Right from the start, we’re in murky waters. We read the police transcripts and John sounds sincere but also very clever. Enough to manipulate Harris and step aside all the obvious traps Harris plants in his line of questioning.

DI Harris has an awful personality. He’s oldish, always dreaming about constable Phillips’s breasts, he’s racist and judgmental. A real prick. The reader understands that he’s as an unreliable narrator as John.

The novel is constructed around the police transcripts, John’s narration and Harris’s thoughts and life. The language is rather crude on Harris’s side, more polite and elaborate on John’s side. It strengthens their voices and their roles and blurs the line between legal and illegal, moral and immoral.

Being in their mind is uncomfortable. John is weird and did he really fight his attraction to Ruth at that disco? Is their relationship a true love story or a sordid affair? Harris isn’t as professional as he should be and his vision of the world is narrow-minded and reactionary.

The reader tries to make their own opinion of what happened and who the protagonists are but their personalities make it hard to disentangle the true from the false. This feeling of walking on quicksand kept me reading and wondering what the truth was and where the author was taking me.

The ending blurred the lines again and there were threads in the book that bothered me a bit but I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

Conan Kennedy also peppers his novel with thoughts about the British society as his two main characters muse about the world they live in or the EU (should I stay or should I go?). They express their distaste towards foreigners (even John’s wife, Yvette, who is Belgian), a feeling of loss of their “Englishness” and traditional values, and a general distrust of globalization. The Colour of Her Eyes was published in 2011, five years before the Brexit referendum. Maybe its outcome shouldn’t have been such a shock as it was all there already.

And ten years later, I recognize in Harris’s thinking the rank smell of the racist and retrograde arguments of some candidates at the last French presidential election. Seeing where the UK is headed, I imagine we could follow the same path. Now, that really, really scares me.

So, not-clear-cut crime fiction associated with social commentary, what’s not to like? Thanks, Guy!

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm – A stay in the Idaho woods

June 5, 2022 15 comments

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm (1993) French title: Indian Creek. Translated by Denis Lagae-Devoldère.

Pete Fromm was born in 1958 in Wisconsin and Indian Creek Chronicles are the memoir of the winter 1978-1979 that he spent on his own, in a tent in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho. The book opens on his first moments alone in his new lodgings:

Once the game warden left, the little tent we’d set up seemed even smaller. I stood in front of it, shivering at a gust I thought I felt running across my neck. Could this really be my home now? My home for the next seven months? For the entire winter? Alone? I glanced up at the river canyon’s steep, dark walls, already cutting off the mid-afternoon sun. Nothing lay beyond those walls of stone and tree but more of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I was alone, in its very heart.

The shadow of the canyon’s wall fell over me and I hurried away from it, into the sunlight remaining in the meadow. My steps rustled through the knee high grass and the breeze soughed through the towering firs and cedars hemming the small opening. The river’s whispering rush ran through it all, creating an insistent quiet that folded around me like a shroud.

I stopped at the phone pole the warden had said would link me to the outside. Yesterday we’d discovered the phone didn’t work. I picked it up anyway, listening to its blank silence, the voice of the rest of the world. With the receiver still against my ear I turned and looked back at the shadowed tent, far enough away now for perspective.

The canvas walls closed off an area fourteen by sixteen feet. The wardens had told me that, bragging it up, making it sound spacious. On the phone, sitting at a college swimming pool, when I’d been accepting this job, it had sounded palatial.

Fromm explains that he went to the University of Missoula on impulse, after stumbling upon a brochure. He had been camping and hiking with his family but he was not familiar with the West. He read a lot about frontiermen, fur trapper and other mountain men. He knew about Hugh Glass through books like Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred and had loved The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr. He was definitely attracted to life in the woods and solitary exploits.

He was on the swimming team at college and when the program got canceled, he was angry and jumped on the opportunity to take on a job with the Fish and Game department in Idaho. His mission consisted of monitoring salmon eggs during a whole winter for a science experiment.

The mama bear in me had a surge of empathy for his poor mother, who had to live several months with the knowledge that her son was on his own, in the Rocky Mountains, in a tent, in winter with snow and temperatures dropping to -30°C, with roads closed and without a phone. The only comforting thought is that bears hibernate and wouldn’t be around.

Pete Fromm has a lot of humor and we follow his preparations for his trip. The warden gave him almost no guidance. His roommate Jeff Rader helped him pack. He had to decide upon which camping gear to take with him and buy his own food.

Imagine that when he went there, he didn’t know how to drive with a stick (The Fish & Game truck had one), he didn’t know how to use a rifle and he had never spent so much time in the wilderness on his own. He didn’t know the codes of his new environment as we understand it when the wardens leave after settling him in the woods:

The wardens climbed into their truck, ready to leave. ‘You’ll need about seven cords of firewood. Concentrate on that. You’ll have to get it all before the snow grounds your truck.

’ Though I didn’t want to ask, it seemed important. ‘What’s a cord?’

I thought “Wow. How can you be so bold as to go and live in the woods with so little knowledge of life in the wilderness?” I’m in awe for this mix of confidence and carefree attitude. I wish I were more like him.

He’s here to tell the story, so we know from the start that all is well that ends well, but still.

Pete Fromm writes about his experience and we see a young college guy become a mountain man in front of our eyes. The job of monitoring the salmon eggs lasts about fifteen minutes per day but must done daily. The goal is to ensure that the water around the egg farm is always running, so breaking the ice everyday in winter is a necessity.

With so little to do for his actual job, his quotidian is made of activities to ensure his daily life. He talks candidly about his months there, the mistakes he makes and various episodes that could have really taken a bad turn. Fortunately, he’s intelligent and fit, he understands what he did wrong and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He must have had real frights sometimes, though.

He walks a lot in the woods, observes the wilderness around him. The wardens check on him once in a while, to bring him his mail. The visits don’t last long. He doesn’t hide that it was hard to adjust to the loneliness and he was glad when his roommate managed to come and visit him on a snowmobile.

I won’t tell any episodes of his stay at Indian Creek, you’ll have to discover them yourself. I’d rather write about the atmosphere of the book.

I’d already read his novel A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do and I found in Indian Creek the same steady voice as in his novel. His prose is lovely and progresses at the rhythmic and peaceful pace of a hiker. One word after the other, carefully chosen. One foot after the other, carefully put on the trail, so as not to stumble.

The quiet observation of nature pervades in his reflective thoughts and he shares with us moments in the wilderness that he was the only one to witness. He takes us far away from our daily lives and through his eyes, watch with awe the miracle of nature.

Very highly recommended.

Country Dark by Chris Offutt – In the Appalachian mountains, again.

May 26, 2022 4 comments

Country Dark by Chris Offutt (2018) French title: Nuits Appalaches. Translated by Anatole Pons-Reumaux.

I discovered Chris Offutt at Quais du Polar in 2019 and I knew I’d like his books. I started with Country Dark, published in 2018. I could have read it in English, I suppose, but Gallmeister editions are gorgeous enough to make me read in translation.

Country Dark starts in 1954. Tucker is 18, he’s back from the Korean war where he was decorated and learnt all kinds of surviving skills. He’s going back to Kentucky, where his roots are and decided to walk and hitchhike home through the Appalachian woods.

On his way home, he saves Rhonda from her uncle’s clutches just when he was going to sexually harass her. She’s only 15. Tucker helps her, makes sure that her uncle stays out of her life for good and buys the uncle’s car in the process. Rhonda and Tucker are now an item, two kids starting their adult life together.

1964. Tucker and Rhonda are married, with five children. They’re poor. Tucker works as a driver for a bootlegger, so, officially, he has no stable job. Hattie, the social worker who visits Rhonda from time to time isn’t really worried about the family. She provides help but sees that the children are loved and that their parents do their best.

Things take a dramatic turn when Hattie makes her rounds with her judgmental boss. The social services now threaten Tucker’s family and he turns to his survival skills to protect his wife and children.

I liked Tucker. He’s a solid guy with a lot of good sense, some of it acquired at home and some in the army. He’s intelligent, sober, hardworking and gentle. Chris Offutt pictures it in two paragraphs, when he describes a moment in Tucker’s trip home:

Tucker sought share and found a strip cast from the leg of a billboard encouraging him to buy shaving cream. He needed a shave, but didn’t figure a giant picture would convince him to spend money on something he could make from borax, oil, and chipped soap. He dropped his rucksack, opened a can of Libby’s Vienna sausages and ate them with saltine crackers. He used a church key to open a bottle of Ale-8, and drank half.

A katydid landed on his forearm and he admired its silky green body, serrated back legs, and delicate wings. They were prettier than a grasshopper and didn’t piss all over you like frogs did. The insect leaned backward and swelled itself, the thorax expanding, wings distending as if preparing for battle. Tucker nudged it away. He dropped the empty sausage can in a ditch blooming with milkweed and set off walking.

Tucker comes from a poor family from Kentucky. Chris Offutt describes people’s life in this area, how isolated they are from one another. It means that people need to take care of themselves. They are far away from a maternity ward when women give birth. They are far from the sheriff if something happens. Their job prospects are not good, some live during the week to work in the factories up north. Poverty means that kids have to help around the house.

Offutt’s novel progresses nicely, showing Tucker and Rhonda’s characters. His writing relays the importance of their natural environment on their lives. They are who they are because they were born and are living in the Appalachians.

The doctor from the social services sets everything in motion and puts Tucker in corner. He’s smart, acts coolly and selflessly. He’ll do anything to protect Rhonda and the kids.

Tucker’s only wealth is his wife and children. He has a lot of love to give to Rhonda and his children and his ambition in life is to live a peaceful life with his family, in his house on an Appalachian hill.

He’s different from men of his generation, I believe, because he’s not full of this toxic masculinity I associate with his time. He doesn’t need to show off his strength, to go to bars, to be violent or despise supposedly feminine tasks. He’s a good man and the reader understands his motivations and his actions.

In a way, Chris Offutt writes another answer to David Joy’s question For whom are you willing to lay down your life?

Highly recommended.

Crazy me, I’ll do 20 Books of Summer again #20booksofsummer22

May 22, 2022 38 comments

I’m crazy busy and yet, I plan on doing 20 Books of Summer again.

Cathy from 746Books is the mastermind behind this event. I could pick only 10 or 15 books but I wanted to have 20 books to choose from and then we’ll see how it goes.

I already have the books from my ongoing readalongs with my Book Club, my sister-in-law, my Proust Centenary event and my non-fiction challenge. That makes seven books.

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (USA)
  • Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro (Argentina)
  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Australia)
  • Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (South Africa)
  • Fall Out by Paul Thomas (New Zealand)
  • Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (France)
  • Proust by Samuel Beckett (Ireland)

In August, I’ll be travelling to the USA, going through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve already read The Line That Held Us by David Joy and Country Dark by Chris Offutt. I love to read books about the place I’m visiting, so I’ll be reading:

  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Louisiana)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (North Carolina)
  • Serena by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Southern Region)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachians)
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos (Washington DC)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Southern Region)

That’s eight more books and some of them rather long. I also wanted to do Liz’s Larry McMurtry 2022 readalong as I’ve had Lonesome Dove on the shelf for a while. That’s two chunky books in a beautiful Gallmeister edition.

And then I’ve selected four novellas, to help me reach the 20 books with one-sitting reads:

  • Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (France)
  • A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi (Algeria)
  • The Miracles of Life by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
  • Adios Madrid by Pablo Ignacio Taibo II (Cuba)

I’m not sure I’ll make it but who doesn’t love a little challenge? I’m happy with my choices, a mix of countries, of crime, literary and non-fiction and of short and long books.

Have you read any of the books I picked? If yes, what shall I expect?

If you’re taking part to 20 Books of Summer too, leave the link to your post in the comment section, I love discovering what you’ll be up to.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné – a girl’s resilience

May 15, 2022 6 comments

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (2018) Original French title: La vraie vie.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné was our Book Club choice for April. It is set in a suburb in Belgium and since the author was born in 1982, I think she used the time of her childhood as a reference. The way of life in the novel matches with the 1990s. There’s a before and after cellphones.

The narrator is a girl who is never named. She’s ten when the book opens and her brother Gilles is six. It’s the summer holiday and the two children spend their time playing around in their generic housing development complex. Their father works at an amusement park, their mom is a stay-at-home mother.

Their father is a hunter and they have a whole room in the house for his hunting trophies. His most prized one is a tusk. Yes, the man loves to hunt and doesn’t hesitate to travel abroad and break the law if need be. I’d despise him just for that. Between hunting trips, he spends his free time at home, sitting on the couch, drinking whisky and beating up his wife. Now he’s just gone up from despicable to scumbag.

His wife is mousy and loves to spend her time with her pet goats. The Narrator calls her an amoeba. Pretty telling. She acts like a wallflower, trying to fly under her husband’s predatory radar. If it means that she neglects her children, then so be it. She devotes all her time and pours her love into her pets.

This explains why the children are joined to the hip and the Narrator feels responsible for her little brother’s safety. They’re a team and Gilles is the Narrator’s sunshine. He brings warmth in her life and she’d do anything to keep this sunshine alive.

That summer, a terrible accident happens. The children’s daily pleasure is to buy an ice-cream cone at the ice-cream truck that drives through their neighborhood. The old man who serves them always adds whipped cream to the Narrator’s cone even if he knows that her father forbids it. That day, the whipped cream maker explodes as he’s serving the Narrator. The impact is such that it takes away half of his face and he dies on the spot. The two children are witness and they are traumatized.

As their parents are faulty, they do nothing to heal their trauma. Gilles stops speaking, behaves weirdly, becomes mean. The Narrator swears to herself that she will bring him back.

The book covers several summer holidays, each worse than the previous one. The reader feels the tension building, sees the Narrator fight against her family circumstances. School is her safe place and she discovers that she loves physics.

Her mother’s distraction plays in her favor when she wants to do things on her own. She babysits some children in the neighborhood to pay for her physics lessons. She hides everything to keep out of her father’s wrath.

As things deteriorate at home, the reader feels that a dramatic event is bound to happen and dreads the conclusion of the novel. I kept wondering how it would end.

Children narrators are hard to pull off but Adeline Dieudonné made it. For her sake, I hope that nothing in her novel is autobiographical except how it was to be a child and teenager in the 1990s. It’s a powerful book, a novel that has several cousins in Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, by Gabriel Tallent, or Blood by Tony Birch.

Not a fun read, but highly recommended. As it’s not an easy book to tuck into a nice little box, we have a festival of book covers when we look at the various translations of Real Life. Ready for the show?

I don’t understand the English cover, as everything happens in the summer. The Spanish one is lovely but the reader will expect something sweet. The Hungarian is … I don’t know what to say.

I see a rabbit pattern in Germany and Finland but I don’t understand why. I’m not sure bout the Little Red Riding Hood reference of the Russian version.

I really like the Japanese cover, it fits the Narrator’s tone and it reflects the fact that she’s a child. And she’s never whining but always resilient and fighting. The Persian one is puzzling and the Polish one has the same idea as the Russian one.

What a diversity of covers! I wonder what the author thinks about that.

The Line That Held Us by David Joy – “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?”

May 8, 2022 6 comments

The Line That Held Us by David Joy (2018) French title: Ce lien entre nous.

I downloaded The Line That Held Us by David Joy after hearing his interview at Quais du Polar. He made a lot of references to Dwayne Brewster, one of the main characters of this novel, enough to push me to read his book.

The Line That Held Us opens on a fatal mistake.

We’re in Jackson County, in North Carolina. Darl Moody and Carol “Sissy” Brewster are both trespassing on Coon Coward’s land while he’s away for a week. Darl Moody is a hunter and he’s after a deer. Carol Brewster is poaching ginseng, a root that grows in the woods in the Appalachians and can be sold at a hefty price. (It’s like truffles in France, I believe).

Darl mistakes Carol for his prey and accidentally shoots him dead. Instead of going to the police, Darl calls his best friend Calvin and they bury Carol’s body in a makeshift grave on Calvin’s property. They don’t want Carol’s brother Dwayne to know what they did to his brother and Darl wants to escape any legal consequences for his action.

Carol and Dwayne come from a poor and dysfunctional family and the two brothers stick together and are each other’s family. Dwayne is the violent one who protects his soft younger brother.

Dwayne understood that his brother was not meant for this place, that some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world. There was no place for weakness in a world like this. Survival was so often a matter of meanness.

Dwayne starts looking for his brother when he goes missing. No one suspected that the old Coon Coward had installed video surveillance on his land. Darl and Calvin are easily recognized.

Dwayne doesn’t believe in the justice of men and despite his extensive Bible reading, he doesn’t believe in the justice of God either. He takes matter into his own hands.

The Line That Held Us is a local and universal tale. It is deeply rooted in Jackson County, in the Appalachians in North Carolina. David Joy lives there and he excels at describing the landscape with love and awe.

An unseasonable cold snap following one of the driest summers the county had ever seen brought on fall a month ahead of schedule. It was the last week of September, but the ridgelines were already bare. Down in the valley, the trees were in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, the acorns falling like raindrops. The nights were starting to frost and within a few weeks the first few breaths of winter would strip the mountains to their gray bones.

He takes you to his home county and like he said in his interview, the old mountain way-of-life is slowly disappearing. His book is a way to give his people a voice and be a witness of the local ways. His characters are part of this land and they were raised in these customs.

Sixty-three years later, having happened three decades before he was born, Calvin knew the story the same as everyone else to ever come out of Jackson County. Things had a way of never leaving these mountains. Stories took root like everything else. He was a part of one now, part of a story that would never be forgotten, and that made bearing the truth all the more heavy.

People know each other and the family stories are carried on from one generation to the other. The police are people you went to school with. Everyone knows where people work and the places they like to go. It is small town life in secluded places, where solidarity holds hand with nosiness. Darl, Calvin, his girlfriend Angie, Dwayne and Carol all belong to a people living in a tough environment, where people love deeply but not necessarily express their feelings with words.

It’s also a land where people are rather religious. David Joy said he used to go to church three times a week with his parents and the stories from the Bible were an important part of his education. Dwayne Brewster reads the Old Testament on his own and interprets it his own way. He came to the following conclusion:

A God of mercy, they say. I look around this world and I don’t see no mercy. They talk about a God of compassion. I want you to look around. You show me a place where compassion outweighs selfishness. The only thing we might agree on is forgiveness.” Dwayne nodded his head. “I reckon He’d have to be forgiving when He’s done plenty worse Himself. A God of forgiveness. Now that I can see.”

I thought that The Line That Held Us was like a biblical tale, not that I’m overly familiar with them.

Dwayne is the one who forces Darl and then Calvin to face their fear and their selfishness. He challenges them, directly or indirectly. Darl would rather hide Carol’s death than man up and face Dwayne’s reaction and legal consequences. He convinces himself that it’s the best option since his sister relies on his help.

With Calvin, Dwayne acts like the devil or God who tempts or challenges a biblical character and forces them to make a tough choice. Dwayne makes Calvin strip his soul and reveal the raw core of his being. Think of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.

The Line That Held Us is constructed like such a story and manages to be a social commentary of life in Jackson County wrapped in a poetical description of the surrounding wilderness.

David Vann binds his books with Greek tragedy tradition. David Joy ties his with Sunday School. In the end, both put their characters in life-changing and character-revealing situations.

We don’t know ourselves fully until we’ve had to answer the question “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?” Most of us hope to never find themselves in a position where they have to answer this question. Meanwhile, Dwayne reminds us:

“What I’m saying is that it’s easy to take the high road so long as there aren’t any stakes. But the minute you’ve got something to lose, a man’ll do all sorts of things.”

We all ought to meditate on that statement, I think. All this makes of Dwayne Brewster an unforgettable character despite his horrible actions. There will be other books by David Joy in my future and I’m looking forward to my visit to Jackson County in August.

Very Highly Recommended.

Three crime fiction books from France – three very different rides

May 1, 2022 8 comments
  • The Wounded Wolves by Christophe Molmy (2015) Original French title: Les Loups blessés.
  • Missing in Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (2020) Original French title: Les disparus de Pukatapu.
  • Little Rebel by Jérôme Leroy (2018) Original French title: La petite gauloise.

This week I’m taking you through three different parts of France with three different authors. Christophe Molmy takes us to Paris, Patrice Guirao to Tahiti and Jérôme Leroy to a suburban town in Province.

Let’s start with Paris and Les Loups blessés by Christophe Molmy (The Wounded Wolves).

Molmy is the chief of the BRI (Brigade de recherche et d’intervention), the Gang unit of the French police. In other words, he’s specialized in fighting against organized crime. Like Olivier Norek, he’s policeman and a writer.

The commissaire Renan Pessac, chief of the BRI, is exhausted by his work, the relationship with his hierarchy and working on the field. He’s recently divorced and feels rather lonely. He has a close but complex relationship with his informers, a mix between co-dependance and sometimes attraction, as one of them is a prostitute. He’s not in a good place professionally or personally and if someone offered him an out, I had the feeling he’d take it gladly.

On the other side of the law is Matteo Astolfi, a criminal, with a master degree in holdups, living on the run and running a criminal organization. Astolfi is getting older, his partner accepts less and less to live under false identities. They a have a son, he’s six and it’s getting more and more complicated to keep him out of a normal life. Astolfi wants to do a last job and stop his illegal activities. He doesn’t want to go to prison and he wants to start a life in the open somewhere.

Two petty criminals from a Parisian suburb, the brothers Belkiche decide to branch out of hashish trafficking and attack a post office. Their team included Doumé, Astolfi’s little brother. Pessac is on the case and this affair will make Astolifi’s and Pessac’s lives collide.

Les Loups blessés is a good read as we alternate between point of views and see what happens on the three sides of the affair: Pessac, Astolfi and the Belkiche brothers have their say. Pessac felt real, with a physical and mental fatigue weighing heavily on his shoulders. Astolfi sounded human, despite the killings and years of criminal activities.

Recommended to Corylus Books, they might want to translate it into English!

Now let’s go to Tahiti.

Les disparus de Pukatapu by Patrice Guirao (Missing in Pukatapu) is set on a very isolated atoll in Tahiti. The kind of atoll where a boat comes every four months for resupplying. *shudders* You’d better not forget the sugar on the grocery shopping list! Maema an Lilith, journalist and photograph landed in this remote atoll to write an article about the impact of global warming on the locals’s life. There are 26 inhabitants on the atoll and no children.

Things start to go wrong when Lilith discovers a dead hand on the beach, while she’s lying down under a coconut tree. Whose hand is this? Maema and Lilith start investigating and digging into the inhabitants’ secrets.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the ocean, a military basis is doing secret researches and their laboratory is threatened by a submarine volcanic eruption.

The reader follows what happens on the atoll, only to realize that the paradisiac setting does nothing to abate humans’ baser instincts. The passages on the mysterious (and nefarious) military basis felt like jumping from one subject to the other and didn’t mesh well with Maema and Lilith’s work.

I thought that Guirao was trying too hard to pack an investigation and raise awareness about Tahiti and the destruction brought by the French presence there. It was in Tahiti, in the Mururoa atoll that the French government did their nuclear tests, without caring much about the consequences on the local population.

Trouble in Paradise would be a good title for this book, I think, but I wasn’t convinced by the story or the construction of the plot. The sense of place wasn’t good enough for me, which is also what I’m looking for in that kind of book.

Les disparus de Pukatapu is not translated into English and let’s say it’s not translation tragedy.

Now, the next one, Little Rebel is available in English, thanks to Corylus Books. Yay!!

It’s only 141 pages long but what a ride! It draws an actual picture of a part of today’s France. It is set in an industrial town in the West of France, where the extreme right has won the city hall election.

The characters ring true and Leroy shows the implacable puzzle of various pieces that lead to a terrorist attack. What he describes feels horribly accurate and his tone based on a sharp irony and direct talk to the reader is very effective.

I don’t want to go into details about the characters or the plot because it would give too much away.

It is a social crime fiction book and the analysis is accurate. Several important pillars of our society are eaten by pests and they threaten its foundation. Political abandonment of working and middle classes. Racism and fear. School and the disenchantment of teachers. Boredom. Infiltration of suburbs by foreign extremists. Social networks and the endless possibility to spread hatred and fake news.

And things aren’t as straightforward as they seem.

You want to read about a France that doesn’t look like Provence, sun and lovely postcards? Read Little Rebel. You want to understand how the dreadful Marine Le Pen scored that well at the last presidential election? Read Little Rebel.

On top of a breathless ride on this side of France, you’ll help Corylus Book, an independent publisher who wishes to bring new voices to crime fiction in English. And, as you know, our fellow blogger Marina Sofia is part of this adventure.

Little Rebel: Highly recommended.

The Man With the Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – a 1958 satire of the U.N.

April 24, 2022 14 comments

The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary (Fosco Sinibaldi) – 1958/1984. Original French title: L’homme à la colombe.

It’s not easy to write a billet about The Man With The Dove by Romain Gary. I tried to pull a Murakami this morning, went for a run and hoped it’d clear my head and help me write a tentative billet about this farce. It didn’t work so you’ll have make do with this billet.

First, a bit of context. Romain Gary first published The Man With The Dove in 1958 and under a penname, Fosco Sinibaldi. At the time, Gary was a diplomat and was a member of the French delegation in the UN in New York. He wasn’t allowed to publish such a book under his real name and you’ll soon understand why. A new version was published in 1984 after his death and under his real name. It’s the version that I have.

If you’ve never read Romain Gary, you need to know a bit about his literary universe and his references. He fought with de Gaulle during WWII, he was an early resistant. He’s a humanist and a promoter of French moto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. He believes in it and it is etched in his soul. He saw firsthand what communism meant as a diplomat in Bulgaria. He’s fond of the comedia del arte and loves the Marx Brothers. He uses humor as a weapon to take the pin out of mentally explosive situations. He has a wicked sense of humor and he’s the epitome of the saying “Many a true word is said in jest”.

Now that you’re aware of this, the book.

The Man With The Dove is set inside the building of the UN in New York. The tone of the book is set from the first pages. The UN is organized in such a way that it seems to take care of problems but does everything not to solve them and drag them as long as they can. That’s how the top management acts. And as always, Romain Gary thinks out of the box and points out:

A l’autre bout des longs couloirs qui unissaient le bâtiment de l’Assemblée à l’immense tour rectangulaire du Secrétariat, trois mille cinq cents fonctionnaires de toutes les races, couleurs et croyances, continuaient à résoudre tranquillement, jour et nuit, pour leur propre compte, tous les problèmes d’amitié entre les peuples, de coexistence pacifique et de coopération internationale dont leurs chefs débattaient en vain depuis plus de dix ans, dans les salles de conférences et les réunions de l’Assemblée.At the other end of the long hallways that connected the building of the Assembly to the huge square tower of the Secretary, three thousand and five hundred civil servants of all races, colors and beliefs quietly kept solving, night and day, on their own account, all the problems of friendship between nations, of peaceful coexistence and international cooperation that their bosses had been debating upon in vain since more than ten years in conference rooms and Assembly meetings.

The introduction of the book is clear: the UN works on its own, goes through the motions of taking care of international issues but does whatever it takes not to solve them. It is a theatre where the American-Russian relationship is staged and choregraphed, where everything is done to avoid any kind of escalation. It’s a comedy and the hustle and bustle is more about communication than a real attempt at efficiency.

The novella opens on a scene among the top management of the UN. The Secretary-General Traquenard (Trap) and two trustworthy members of his team, Bagtir, known for his calm and Praiseworthy, known for his prudence have a crisis meeting.

Traquenard and his men have a new problem: the building seems to have a new unofficial tenant. A man with a dove occupies a room in the building, one that is not on the map and he was seen wandering in the hallways, presenting his dove to secretaries and other staff members. They want to track him down. This mysterious character with the dove is Johnnie Coeur, supported by other outsiders of the building, a Hopi chief, three illegal gamblers who are there for the diplomatic immunity granted by the international zone of the building and a shoeshine-man. Johnnie is in search of a grand scam.

Le sourcil froncé, il rêvait de commettre, lui aussi, quelque immense escroquerie morale, quelque abus de confiance prodigieux, pour se venger de ses illusions perdues et pour montrer qu’il était complètement guéri de ses errements idéalistes.With his brow furrowed, he dreamt of committing some sort of huge moral scam, a phenomenal breach of trust that would avenge his lost illusions and would show to the world that he was totally healed of any idealistic wanderings.

And light bulb! Johnnie will simulate a hunger strike. With a little help from his friends, he’ll pull it off so well that things won’t turn out the way he thought.

The Man With The Dove was written in 1958, rather at the beginning of Gary’s literary career. It announces the themes of The Ski Bum and the ferocious tone of The Dance of Gengis Cohn. It reflects Gary’s disenchantment with the power of diplomats and international institutions.

Et oui, que veux-tu, c’est une chose qui arrive fréquemment aux Nations Unies. Les choses les plus concrètes deviennent ici des abstractions—le pain, la paix, la fraternité, les droits de la personne humaine—les choses les plus solides se volatilisent et deviennent des mots, de l’air, une tournure de style—on en parle, on en parle et à la fin, tout cela devient une abstraction, on peut passer la main à travers, il n’y a plus rien.What can I say? It’s something that happens frequently in the UN. The most concrete things become abstractions here –food, peace, fraternity, human rights—the most solid things vanish into thin air and become words, a breeze, a turn of phrase. People talk about them, again and again and in the end, all this becomes abstract, you can stick your hand through it, there’s nothing anymore.

Now you see why he couldn’t claim this book as his own when he was a diplomat. He spoke several languages, and was fluent in French, English and Russian. I can’t imagine what kind of conversations he overheard in the hallways and in meetings, with people unaware that he could understand them.

The Man With The Dove is a farce that rings true. It’s even prophetic. We saw the inefficiency of the UN peacekeeping forces during the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The UN is powerless against Putin and doesn’t help Ukraine now.

In 1958, thirteen years after the UN was founded, Gary’s analysis was that it was a cynical farce and he decided to take it at face value and actually wrote one.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala

April 13, 2022 2 comments

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala (2010) Original French title: Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala is a book I received through my Kube subscription. It’s the tenth novel by this Congolese writer and chemist. I have to confess that I’d never heard of him before.

Group Photo by the River is set in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. Méréana is a divorcée who raises her two sons and her baby niece Lyra. She’s an orphan because her mother Tamara, Méréana’s sister died of AIDS. Méréana and Tamara were close and Méréana took care of her sister during her illness, causing a rift between her and her husband Tito. He started to go out a lot and when she demanded a condom before sex, he slapped her. She left him and now has to raise the children on her own, with the help of her Auntie Turia.

Méréana was a brilliant student in high school when she got pregnant by Tito and dropped out of school. Now, she’s barely making ends meet and she needs money to go back to school and get a degree in IT . She knows she’ll have a better paying job.

This is how she found herself by the road, breaking rocks to make bags of gravel. She works with a group of women and they sell their bags to middlemen who supply construction contractors. It’s an exhausting job, outside, in the sun and with low selling prices.

One day, they learn that the sale prices that the middlemen have with the construction contractors skyrocketted because a lot of gravel is needed to build the new national airport. The ladies want a part o this profit and decide to stick together and ask for a higher price, even if it means that they won’t sell their bags right away.

The novel is about this fight for a decent income and for a decent life. This group of eight women will get organized to improve their daily life. They choose Méréana as their representative because she’s the most educated of them.

We follow their struggle, their actions and their doubts. Dongala has two goals with this novel: he wants to write a feminist book and an homage to Congolese women and he denounces the corruption of the power in the Republic of Congo and the hypocrisy around grand shows designed to appease international institutions.

This is a country where you can get poisoned for speaking up and imprisoned for nothing. Demonstrations are repressed with guns and real bullets. Méréana goes to a ministry and she berates herself because she forgot to tell someone where she was going. And in this country, you need people know you’ve been to a public office in case you just vanish into thin air and never come back.

Dongala shows us the condition of women in Africa through his characters’ life stories. They include rapes during the civil war, repudiations, expulsions from their home after their husband died, accusations of sorcery and agreement with fetishes and losing their son after the power in place kidnapped and killed them. One of them is a second office, a mistress, and there is an outstanding scene in the book where she’s in a bar at the same time as her lover’s wife and they have a verbal fight over him through karaoke. Brilliant.

Dongala points out the impacts of traditional beliefs and customs on the condition of women. Ignorance and fear of otherworldly creatures pushes villagers to act inhumanly. Family traditions allow brothers and envious sisters-in-law to strip a widow of her home, her business and her belongings. Nothing is done to stop them.

The author depicts husbands and fathers who are violent, unfaithful, lazy and cowards but not all his male characters are that way. Armando the taximan and brother to one of the women of the group provides them with free rides and contributes to their fight. One of ladies explains how her husband who had a fatal illness provided for her after his death by playing on the fear of fetishes. They built a scam to make people believe that she was protected by a powerful fetish and that people should leave her alone. It was his way of taking care of her after his death, she kept their home.

Group Photo by the River is a very attaching novel and Dongala manages to balance the militant side of his book with moving the plot forward and describing the women’s fight. As a reader, you root for Méréana and her friends and hope they will get what they want.

It would make a wonderful film and I truly don’t understand why it is not translated into English. What can I say, that’s another Translation Tragedy.

For another take on this book, see Nathalie’s, at her blog Chez Mark et Marcel. (Mark Twain and Marcel Proust)

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.

Crime in Québec : two books by Louise Penny

March 28, 2022 14 comments

The Cruelest Month (2007) and The Murder Stone (2008) by Louise Penny. French titles: Le mois le plus cruel and Défense de tuer. Translated by Michel Saint-Germain / Claire and Louise Chabalier.

I have read two Louise Penny in a row, The Cruelest Month and The Murder Stone, #3 and #4 in the Armand Gamache series and the two have a very different vibe. Louise Penny is famous for her village of Three Pines, nested in the Canadian Appalachians, in Québec, near the American border. Besides the team of the Sécurité du Québec, the main characters are Peter and Clara Morrow, both painters settled in Three Pines and pillars of their community.

The Cruelest Month is the darkest on two aspects. We’re in Three Pines again and it’s Easter time. The villagers are organizing an egg hunt. The bed and breakfast is expecting a medium as a guest and a séance is quickly organized at the old Hadley house, where a murder has already occurred.

The place creeps out the participants and suddenly, one of the participants dies of a heart attack. It’s as if she had died out of fear after a bird disturbed the séance. Of course, it’s not a banal heart attack but a murder. Armand Gamache comes with his team to handle the case and while they’re investigating the murder, a terrible smear campaign is organized against him. Part of the police institution never accepted that he revealed the wrongdoings of members of the Sécurité du Québec against indigenous people. Gamache has become a target.

The Murder Stone is a more classic whodunit with Poirot flavor. A rich family gathers at the Manoir Bellechasse, a holiday house by a lake and rather far away from civilization. They are there for their yearly reunion, to celebrate the donation of a statue of their deceased patriarch. We soon discover that Mrs Finney is the former Mrs Morrow and her son is the Peter Morrow who lives in Three Pines with his artist wife Clara. The Morrow children carry the scars of a dysfunctional family, all seeking their father’s love and approval at the expense of their relationship as siblings. Julia, the oldest daughter gets killed when the statue falls down on her. It looks like an accident but guess what? It’s a murder.

Like Poirot, Gamache happens to be at the Manoir Bellechasse with his wife Reine-Marie. They celebrate their wedding anniversary at the manor every year. Gamache’s team joins him on site and they start the investigation.

As in every book of the series, Gamache faces a personal challenge and this time, his relationship with his son is at stake when Gamache rejects the name Honoré for his future grand-son. It was his own father’s name and he was notorious for his behavior during WWII.

I preferred the second book as I don’t care for stories with séances and ghosts. I don’t understand why Louise Penny chose such an improbable setting. However, I enjoyed the cozy crime vibe of The Murder Stone. How to kill someone with a statue was a fun fact of the novel, I reckon.

I was happy to see Three Pines again and reunite with what makes the flavor of Penny’s books. The village is set in Québec, among the anglophone community and the little digs about each community’s habits sound authentic and build the sense of place. Louise Penny writes in English and I read the Québec translation, which keeps all the little language quirks that I love so much.

The complex relationship between Clara and Peter Morrow is well-developed. Both are painters and Clara has just been discovered by a famous gallerist of Montreal. Peter already sells well but wonders if Clara’s not a more gifted painter than he is. On her side, she’s eager to have his approval since she loves him and knows that he already won the public’s recognition.

The Murder Stone is an opportunity to explore Peter Morrow’s and Armand Gamache’s pasts. It is also a reflection on fatherhood and the way children always seek their father’s approval. The Morrow children did, in their own way. Gamache had to live with his father’s reputation and his relationship with his son Daniel hits a bump on Daniel’s road to fatherhood.

Despite the murders, a lot of kindness oozes of Penny’s books and it’s a treat to spend time in Three Pines with Gamache and his troops. There are 17 volumes in the Gamache series, and the good news is that I still have thirteen books of pleasure ahead of me!

The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin : highly recommended

March 20, 2022 24 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.

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