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Magellan by Stefan Zweig – a belated billet

January 15, 2022 16 comments

Magellan by Stefan Zweig (1938) French title: Magellan. Translated by Alzir Hella.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig was our November Book Club read. I’m very late again with my billet, I know. As the title of the book implies, it is a biography of Magellan, written by a literary author.

I’m not going to write a detailed summary of the book or Magellan’s life, there’s Wikipedia for that and, as much as I respect Zweig as a writer, he’s not a historian.

In his introduction, Zweig says that he was travelling comfortably to America on a passenger ship when he got to thinking about Vasco de Gama, Magellan and all their fellow explorers and their grueling traveling conditions. He decided to write a book about Magellan and started to research that time in the ship’s library. Imagine that these ships had libraries so well stocked that he could read several books about the Age of Discovery. Now I understand why one would want to quit flying and travel on a passenger ship instead! It’s an opportunity for binge reading. (For the anecdote, I have a four-week break in February and when I said to my husband that I was going to have a book orgy, he deadpanned “Isn’t that what you’re doing already?” Ahem…)

The book opens with a quick summary about the spice trade and its importance at the time. It explains how the Portuguese became a great nation of explorers and what was at stake. It gives an overview of the importance of Prince Henry the Navigator and King João II (1481-1495) and King Manuel I (1495-1521), the one who ordered the building of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, if you’ve ever been to Lisbon.

Magellan (1480-1521) was born in Portugal, as a nobleman. His real Portuguese name is Ferñao de Magalhães. He was always a sailor, went to the West Indies in 1505-1512. He and his cosmologue friend Faleiro were convinced that there was a way to the Spice Islands by sailing west from Europe. Carlos I, future Charles the Fifth, financed the trip after King Manuel refused to do it. Magellan and his men left Spain on September 10, 1519 with five ships and 285 men. They came back on September 6th, 1521 with one ship, 18 men and without Magellan who died in the Philippine Islands. One of them was Antonio Pigafetta, the scholar who wrote a journal about the trip, a great source of information. We owe him a lot.

Zweig relates Magellan’s life and travels, explaining the political intricacies, the financing of the project, the fiddly preparation, the conflicts between the captains of the fleet and all the dangers these sailors had to face.

As you know, Magellan and his crew discovered the Strait of Magellan, in southern Chile. It’s a dangerous route, not really a practical one but one of the few natural passages between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The 18 men who came back did the first circumnavigation of the world and proved that the Earth is not flat.

I found some facts astonishing. Imagine that the Pope approved of the split of the world between Spain and Portugal after drawing an imaginary line: new territories west of the line belong to Spain and east of the line to Portugal. Hence Spain’s motivation to sponsor Magellan’s trip from West to East. I’m always floored by the arrogance of the Catholic Church and the kings of the time. I know I shouldn’t judge the past with today’s eyes but I can’t help my reaction.

Imagine that the stations along the African coasts from the Good Hope Cape to Europe all belonged to the Portuguese. Magellan’s last ship didn’t take the risk to moor there or stop for food and water. The crew was afraid to be imprisoned as they were sailing under Spanish pavilion and as this expedition fueled the competition between Spain and Portugal. (If I understood properly) So they’d rather risk dying of thirst and hunger than have a pit stop at one of those stations. Borders weren’t a joke at the time!

Zweig pictures Magellan as a hard-working and stubborn man who overcame all kind of difficulties to prove his theory. I can’t fathom the courage these sailors had to leave everything behind and risk their life to go and face the great unknown. It’s hard for us to imagine as there aren’t many unexplored places these days. Except other planets. The value of one’s life wasn’t as important as today, I suppose. See Magellan’s family. He died during his trip, facing all kind of dangers. Meanwhile, his wife and son died at home, doing nothing special. Untimely deaths were common, maybe they didn’t rate the risk taken by these sailors as high as we do now, with our modern eyes.

Magellan is an easy read as Zweig is a smooth writer. It has the right level of details for a reader who is not a history buff: you learn things but don’t feel too lost in details you don’t understand because you lack of historical background. I don’t know how accurate it is but I think that the major facts are right and these are the only ones I’ll remember anyway.  

Joyeux Noël and A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry.

December 24, 2021 21 comments

A Christmas Legacy by Anne Perry (2021) Not available in French.

So, we’re back on the Covid merry-go-round, playing a game of Omicron Says. In other words, it’s Christmas with Covid Season 2.

New restrictions are blooming all over Europe like toxic mushrooms infecting our Christmas again. In France, we are exempted of too many restrictions for now, except the usual health pass, the hydroalcoholic gel fiesta and the mask wearing. They are starting to feel as the new normal. We’re in a frenzy of PCR testing for family reunions and we’ll try to enjoy ourselves despite the omicron cloud over our heads.

With all the bad news piling up, I was looking for something sweet after reading Betty by Tiffany MacDaniel. I turned to Anne Perry’s last Christmas story, A Christmas Legacy and it did the job.

In this one, we’re with with Gracie, Charlotte and Thomas Pitt’s former maid. She has now left their service to get married. She has three children and is happy with her new life. A few days before Christmas, Millie, a girl Gracie has taken under her wing and who works as a housemaid in a Londoner townhouse, comes to her house and says she feels insecure at her employer’s house, Gracie replaces her for a couple of days to investigate what’s going on in this mansion.

This is a book you read under a plaid with tea, Christmas cookies and papillotes. It’s nothing to write home about but a nice and relaxing read. Exactly what I needed.

I hope you and your family are safe and well and that you were able to spend Christmas with the people you love. If you’re locked down because of this damned virus, I hope you planned a wonderful self-party and celebrated the holiday anyway. We, avid readers, are lucky bastards: our main enjoyment is Covid-compliant. We should count our blessings, and that’s definitely one.

Give me some news in the comment section if you wish and Joyeux Noël!

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Highly recommended

December 19, 2021 17 comments

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (2020) French title: Betty. Translated by François Happe.

No matter how beautiful the pasture, it is the freedom to choose that makes the difference between a life lived and a life had.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is our Book Club choice for December and the proof that one should never write their best-of-the-year post before the year is truly ended. What a book.

Betty Carpenter was born in 1954 in a dry claw-foot bathtub in Arkansas. She’s the sixth child of a family of eight children. Her parents were a mixed couple, her father Landon was Cherokee and her mother Alka was white.

Betty is our narrator and she tells us her family’s story from 1909, her father’s birth to 1973, the year he died. Her parents were dirt poor and after a few years of moving around, they settled in an abandoned house lent by a friend in Breathed, Ohio. It was Leland’s hometown. They lived off the land, off the medicine Landon could concoct and off odd jobs. They were dirt-poor.

The first part of the book covers the 1908-1961 years. It’s shorter because Betty doesn’t have her own memories of these years but it’s an important part to root the family tree in its history. Landon’s Cherokee roots mean that he comes from a culture with a matriarchal tradition and a history of violence as his elders hid in the wilderness to avoid deportation to Oklahoma. Alka comes from a Bible abiding family with a history of domestic violence and no respect for women.

Alka and Landon have eight children: Leland, Fraya, Yarrow, Waconda, Flossie, Betty, Trustin and Lint. Yarrow and Waconda died before they were two. Betty’s story is centered around her and her sisters Fraya and Flossie. They father told her:

“In different native tribes, the Three Sisters represent the three most important crops. Maize, beans, and squash. The crops grow together as sisters. The oldest is maize. She grows the tallest, supportin’ the vines of her younger sisters. The middle sister is beans. She gives nitrogen and nutrition to the soil, which allows her sisters to grow resilient and strong. The youngest is squash. She is the protector of her sisters. She stretches her leaves to shade the ground and fight off weeds. It is squash’s vines which tie the Three Sisters together in a bond that is the strongest of all. This was how I knew I’d have three daughters, even after Waconda died. Fraya’s the corn. Flossie is the beans. And you, Betty, are squash. You must protect your sisters as squash protects the corn and beans.”

A tall order for Betty, who becomes the custodian of the family stories. Her mother tells her about her personal tragedy. She witnesses Fraya’s horrible fate and the two sisters share Fraya’s secret. She knows about Flossie’s dirty secrets too. A resilient child, Betty understands that women and men don’t have the same opportunities in life.

I realized then that pants and skirts, like gender itself, were not seen as equal in our society. To wear pants was to be dressed for power. But to wear a skirt was to be dressed to wash the dishes.

Betty is an ode to generation of women who had to live through discrimination due to their race, their gender or their social status. And sometimes the three at the same time, like Betty who was ostracized and bullied in school because of her Cherokee physique, her poverty and her gender. Telling Alka’s, Fraya’s and Flossie’s tragic lives is a way to keep them alive and tell the world that their lives mattered. The three of them were captive of a man around them, their father, their brother or their husband. Alka explains to Betty:

“My mother used to have figurines,” Mom said as she lifted her chin as high as it would go as she added another layer of lotion to her neck and collarbone. “All of the female figurines you could take apart because they were boxes or bowls. They all held somethin’. In their skirts, in their bodies, they all held somethin’. None of the male figurines held anything. They were solid. You couldn’t put anything in and you couldn’t take anything out. I suppose if you think about it long enough, you’ll see why this is like real life.”

Alka, like Hattie in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, due to her own issue, isn’t equipped to mother so many children. As often in this case, the oldest daughter steps up and helps. But contrary to Hattie’s children, Alka’s children had their father. He’s the glue of the family. The one who heals with plants, teaches through gardening and relies on nature to help his children see the beauty around them instead of focusing on their misery. He loves his children and he mothers their bodies and their souls. He has stories about everything to turn a magic and poetic camera on the harsh reality of their lives.

I realized then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, we needed to believe them as well. To believe in unripe stars and eagles able to do extraordinary things. What it boiled down to was a frenzied hope that there was more to life than the reality around us. Only then could we claim a destiny we did not feel cursed to.

And the admirable outcome is that she’s able to say: Through his stories, I waltzed across the sun without burning my feet.

He’s a deeply caring man, one who is invested in his children’s life and education, who has no expectations of them, except to become what they want. Sons or daughters, it doesn’t matter. Intelligent, troubled, impaired or shallow, he loves them equally and is the real glue of the family.

Betty is emotional, tragic, violent, poetic, lyric, resilient and empowering.

Betty is actually Tiffany McDaniel’s mother and the author writes a beautiful ode to her lineage of strong women and an even more beautiful one to her grandfather, a man she never knew but was unusual in his generation for thinking that his daughters could be more than wives and mothers.

Betty is as much a tribute to Landon Carperter as the story of the Carpenter women. Betty says:

“Growin’ up,” I said, “I felt like I had sheets of paper stuck to my skin. Written on these sheets were words I’d been called. Pow-wow Polly, Tomahawk Kid, Pocahontas, half-breed, Injun Squaw. I began to define myself and my existence by everything I was told I was, which was that I was nothing. Because of this, the road of my life narrowed into a path of darkness until the path itself flooded and became a swamp I struggled to walk through.

“I would have spent my whole life walkin’ this swamp had it not been for my father. It was Dad who planted trees along the edge of the swamp. In the trees’ branches, he hung light for me to see through the darkness. Every word he spoke to me grew fruit in between this light. Fruit which ripened into sponges. When these sponges fell from the branches into the swamp, they drank in the water until I was standin’ in only the mud that was left. When I looked down, I saw my feet for the first time in years. Holdin’ my feet were hands, their fingers curled up around my soles. These hands were familiar to me. Garden dirt under the fingernails. How could I not know they were the hands of my father?

“When I took a step forward, the hands took it with me. I realized then that the whole time I thought I’d been walking alone, my father had been with me. Supportin’ me. Steadyin’ me. Protectin’ me, best he could. I knew I had to be strong enough to stand on my own two feet. I had to step out of my father’s hands and pull myself up out of the mud. I thought I would be scared to walk the rest of my life without him, but I know I’ll never really be without him because each step I take, I see his handprints in the footprints I leave behind.”

Isn’t this what parenthood is all about? Steadying feet and hanging lanterns along the path to adulthood?

Highly recommended.

PS : The original cover of the book (kept for the French edition too) is based on an Afghan crocheted by Betty. The UK paperback edition features a picture of Betty as a child. More pictures here, on Tiffany McDaniel’s website.

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss – a trip to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation

December 5, 2021 8 comments

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss. (1995) French title: Le canyon des ombres. Translated by Danièle et Pierre Bondil.

James D. Doss (1939-2012) is the author of the crime fiction series set in the Southern Ute Indian Reservation (Colorado) and featuring the Ute detective Charlie Moon. The Shaman Laughs is the second book of the series.

It all begins when Big Ouray, Gorman Sweetwater’s bull, is found dead in the Cañon del Espiritu. The bull was mutilated and it is a great loss for its owner as it is a valuable breeder. Gorman had insurance for his bull, a policy he subscribed through a local and Ute insurance broker, Arlo Nighbird.

Arlo is not the most well-loved Ute in the community. He cheats on his wife, Emily. He’s a sexual predator. He’s a shrewd and dishonest business man who doesn’t want to pay Gorman for the loss of Big Ouray. He’s working on a project with the Federal government to bury nuclear waste in the Cañon del Espiritu, which means that Gorman won’t be able to let his herd graze there and that Daisy Perika, the last shaman of the community will have to move out of her trailer set at the mouth of the canyon. The man is a nuisance to the community.

So, when Arlo is found dead with the same mutilation as Big Ouray the bull, nobody grieves him too much. But the tribal police, led by Charlie Moon and Scott Paris, flanked by a rookie FBI agent James E. Hoover have to investigate the murder.

The Shaman Laughs owns its title as there is a great sense of humor in this book. Charlie Moon plays tricks to Hoover, not openly lying to him but leaving out important information that bring comical effects. Like not correcting him when he assumes that Big Ouray is a human. Charlie Moon and his people enjoy playing pranks to Matukach (white) people, mostly using their own prejudice and clichés about Indians against them.

We go into Charlie and Scott’s love lives. Charlie’s unexpressed feeling will stay buried with the girl’s death. His grief is private, full of what will not be. Scott doesn’t quite know where things will go with his girlfriend Anne, now that she has taken a job in Washington D.C. and he’s still in Colorado.

Humor and diving into the characters’ personal lives is not new and happens a lot in modern crime fiction books, to get the readers attached to the characters and alleviate de tension.

The additional kick of this series, one that Tony Hillerman started in the 1970s with its Navajo Tribal police mystery novels, is the Native American setting and the description of the Ute beliefs and traditions. You’ll find the same in Craig Johnson’s books as he always makes room for Cheyenne customs. The common point between these Western series is also the role of law enforcement in small rural communities. They are sheriffs (Walt Longmire), Tribal Police (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Charlie Moon) or Game Warden (Joe Pickett) and they have to compose with being the law in a small community where everyone knows everyone, a community they are a part of. What they do on duty impacts their off-duty life as they live among the people they work for.

The Shaman Laughs emphasizes on nature and its connection with animal and human lives. The landscape descriptions are stunning, vibrant and captivating. Several times, the point of view switches to an animal’s like a mouse or a rabbit. It connects the reader to the land in a different way.

A lot of spirituality comes off the land and the story relies on dreams, visions and intuition. It leaves imprints on people and impact their actions but it doesn’t sound artificial. It seems to be embeded in the place. Even Scott the white man feels it. Daisy goes into trances, seeks for answers in her dreams and leaves offering to the pitukupf, a sort of Leprechaun who lives in the Cañon del Espiritu. Christianism is part of the mix and Doss pictures how the Ute incorporate Christian faith and Ute spirituality. He also shows that the Ute customs are dying with the elder and that they need to be protected.

Black Mesa Landscape New Mexico, Out Back of Marie’s II,1930 by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Doss’s talent lies in his ability to mix all these ingredients into a story that makes you travel into this Indian community, far from your home and daily life, looking forward to knowing who killed Big Ouray and Arlo.

Incidentally and thanks to Goodreads, I discovered that November was Native American Heritage Month in the US.

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury – Born to be wild

November 28, 2021 13 comments

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury (2018) French title Sauvage. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Jamey Bradbury was born in 1979 in the Midwest and Alaska has been her home for fifteen years. The Wild Inside is her debut novel.

Tracy is seventeen years old and lives in Alaska with her younger brother Scott and her father Bill. Her mom died about a year ago and the three of them had to adjust and go on with their lives as best as they can. Bill is a musher, he used to compete in the Iditarod race and his wife was his partner in this. She helped preparing and training the dogs. Everything fell apart when she died. Bill had to find other ways to support his family, to raise his children alone and to cope with his grief.

This is the background story of Tracy. High school is not her cup of tea. She loves nothing more than hunting and racing with her dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. She sets traps in the forest to catch animals. She stays outdoor for hours, with her sleigh and her dogs. It is vital for her. She’s restless if she can’t hike in the forest everyday. She competes in the Junior Iditarod and she’s passionate about her sport.

Like her mother, Tracy has a special way to connect with animals and the wilderness around her. She relies on instinct, on a unique way to plug her brain to the nature around her, to be attuned to it the way animals are.

Tracy struggles with this new life. She misses her mother and even more since she was the only one who knew and understood Tracy’s gift. She doesn’t like her father’s choices: she wants to compete again, to train the dogs but they can’t afford to hire staff to take over her mother’s workload. Bill doesn’t want her to spend so much time in the wilderness hunting with the dogs. Whatever. Tracy will wait for him to sleep like a log to go out at night.

Tracy’s life changes when a man attacks her in the forest and she wakes up with blood on her. She’s certain that she has fatally injured him. Actually, Tom Hatch, her victim came to their house and her father took him to the ER. She knows he has survived but does he know that she kept his backpack with all his money? Will he come back for her? This possibility is constantly on her mind, fear impairing her thought process.

A short while later, a young man arrives at their property. Jesse saw the ad that Bill put up to rent a cabin on their land, in order to make a bit of money. Jesse proposes to trade work against rent and utilities. He soon makes himself indispensable to Bill and is a game changer in the family’s dynamics.

The Wild Inside is part thriller, part horror, part coming-of-age novel, a risky mix that Jamey Bradbury pulls off with the ease of an experienced writer. We wonder if Tracy is really in danger or if she’s so stressed about Tom Hatch that she makes up problems where there aren’t. I won’t say anything about the horror element as it would spoil the novel for a new reader. It was disturbing and unsettling, I didn’t know what to do with what I was reading. Jamey Bradbury kept me on my toes.

And along with the thriller/horror side, she manages to explore the quest of identity of the characters. Bill is trying to build a new life without his wife. Scott doesn’t find a comfortable place between his sister and his father as he doesn’t share their love for the outdoors. Tracy struggles to understand who she is, how to handle her gift. Her attraction to Jesse leads to an unsuspected surprise. Who is he? Where does he really come from and what brought him to Alaska?

The décor of the book is the incredible beauty of Alaska. I know that writers don’t have to write about something they know to picture it properly. However, I think that life in extreme conditions like Alaska or Wyoming winters are best described by writers who actually live there. They have a sense of the place, a knowledge of the climate and the wilderness that runs in their blood and seeps on the page. Jamey Bradbury makes you armchair travel to Alaska with Tracy and her dogs.

The Wild Inside came with my Kube subscription and I’ve never read anything like it. I had to put it down because I felt spooked by what I was reading. I was so unsettled at times that I almost abandoned it but I couldn’t. I had to know how things would end. One of my friends read it too and had the same reading experience. Unease, compulsion to finish and awe. What a book!

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard – beautiful grumpy rant

November 14, 2021 40 comments

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard (1982) French title: Béton. Translated from the German by Gilberte Lambrichs.

Challenge of the day: write something intelligible about Concrete by Thomas Bernhard. To tell a long story short, it’s a beautiful grumpy rant.

Rudolf is ageing and ill. He has sarcoidosis, a disease that attacks his lungs and prevents him from exercising. He’s now a recluse in his property, in the village of Peiskam. He doesn’t see anyone but his housekeeper Frau Kienesberger and his hated sister Elisabeth.

When the novella opens, his sister has just left Peiskam after she arrived announced and overstayed her welcome. Rudolf is relieved that she’s gone and that he’s now be able to work on his biography of Mendelsohn Bartholdy.

Rudolf is a musicologist and has been gathering material to write this for ten years. But Rudolf is unable to start writing because he wants the conditions to be perfect and perfection is not part of this world. So…

He’s angry with himself and with the world. He blames his sister’s presence that lingers in the house. He paces through the house grumbling about everything. He’s depressed and undecided. He’s restless as he goes round in circles in his house and in his head. He needs a way out.

The result is a 158 pages long verbal diarrhea. He rants about everything. His country and its useless politicians, the Austrian people, Vienna, the Catholic Church, the press and its incompetent and complacent journalists. His sister and her business sense, her friends and the Viennese high society she belongs to. Everyone is on the same boat of mediocrity and corruption.

As his flow of consciousness fills the pages, we discover that this unreliable narrator can’t help being honest with himself. He acknowledges that he abhors his country but used to love living in Vienna. He misses the city life that his health doesn’t allow him to live any longer.

He knows his sister loves him and she came because she cares for him. Her tough love is what he needed to get out of his funk and start thinking about travelling to Majorca and feel better. She came after he asked her to, not as an imposition. She knows how to steer him out his head, out of his house and towards a better place. Majorca it will be.

Concrete is a dense text with no paragraph, no chapters, no dialogue. We’re plugged to Rudolf’s thought process. It could be annoying but it’s not. It’s surprisingly easy to read. I couldn’t help liking the cantankerous old coot in the end because at some point, he dropped all pretenses and owned up to his flaws and inconsistencies.

Je me suis persuadé que je n’avais besoin de personne, je m’en persuade aujourd’hui. Je n’avais besoin de personne, donc je n’avais personne. Mais nous avons naturellement besoin de quelqu’un, sinon nous devenons inéluctablement tel que je suis devenu : pénible, insupportable, malade, impossible au sens le plus fort du terme.I persuaded myself that I didn’t need anyone and I’m still persuading myself so. I didn’t need anyone, therefore I had no one. But by nature, we all need someone, otherwise we inevitably become as I became: tiresome, insufferable, sick, impossible at the strongest meaning of it. My translation from the French.

His honesty warmed me to him. For example, he calls his housekeeper die Kienesberger, not Frau Kienesberger. He doesn’t want to need her but he does. She’s his only link to the outside world.

This brings me to the French translation. Die Kienesberger is translated as la Kienesberger even if we don’t use articles before proper nouns in French, except in Alsace-Moselle sometimes. I’ve seen in the English excerpt of the book that she has become Frau Kienesberger in the English translation.

My German is very poor but I remember enough to notice the unusual amount of Naturellement in sentences. We’d rather say évidemment, but I’ve obseved that in translations from the German, évidemment becomes naturellement, to mirror the German natürlich, I suppose. My guess is that the French translation keeps as close as possible to the German verbal flow of Rudolf’s rant.

And his rant is funny, in spite of him. He’s so unreasonable that he made me chuckle and shake my head in disbelief like you do when a child throws a tantrum.

I really recommend Concrete to other readers, you’ll become amused riders of Rudolf’s storm in a glass of water.

This is my contribution to German Lit Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy and to Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca.

More Thomas Bernhard at Book Around the Corner : the play Elisabeth II. Another funny rant.

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly – excellent page turner

November 11, 2021 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chances Are…by Richard Russo – friendship at Martha’s Vineyard

November 7, 2021 8 comments

Chances Are… by Richard Russo (2019) French title: Retour à Martha’s Vineyard. Translated by Jean Esch.

For our October read, our Book Club had chosen Chances Are…by Richard Russo. It’s not my first Russo, I’ve already read Empire Falls (pre-blog) and Straight Man and I have fond memories of them.

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey have known each other since college. They are now in their sixties and Lincoln is about to sell the house he inherited from his mother in Martha’s Vineyard. Before selling it, he invites his college friends for a last weekend there, in this house and place where they spent the Memorial Day weekend after graduation in 1971.

Lincoln married his college girlfriend, Anita. They have six children, he works in real estate, she’s a lawyer and they make a comfortable income, even if the 2008 crisis rocked Lincoln’s boat.

Teddy works for an endangered publishing house attached to a university. It is specialized in religious books and it was under the patronage of the dean, Theresa. Now that Teresa has taken a better position at another university, Teddy knows that his job is at stake. Teddy never married and none of his friends has ever seen him in a long-term relationship.

Mickey is a musician. He has a rock band and he spends his life on tour. He’s single, dresses like a rocker and acts as if he refuses to get old.

In college, the three of them bonded as children from the working or middle class thrown with students from the upper classes. They worked at the Theta House as servers and washer-up and it is where they watched on TV the Draft Lottery for the Vietnam war on December 1st, 1969.

Mickey was number 9, Lincoln’s number was in the middle and Teddy was 362. Chances were that Mickey would go to Vietnam, Teddy wouldn’t and Lincoln could hope that the war would be over before his day came. They had respite until they graduated in 1971, since they could finish school first.

At university, the three young men saw themselves as the Three Musketeers and their D’Artagnan was Jacy. She was a member of the Theta House, a rich girl who wanted to be free from her social class constraints. The three boys were in love with her but none of them made a move and they remained friends.

At the moment of the Memorial Day weekend in 1971, Jacy was half-heartedly engaged to a young man from her social class. Mickey was about to get shipped to Vietnam. Teddy was undecided and Lincoln was with Anita who knew how to steer her boyfriends into the direction of her life plans.

Jacy disappeared at the end of this fateful weekend and none of them knows what happened to her. That weekend was their last weekend together, before starting their adult life and it ended with an enigma. When they meet again in Martha’s Vineyard all those years later, they still wonder what happened. Jacy’s shadow hovers over them and they wish they knew for sure what had become of her.

Back at Martha’s Vineyard where their adult life abruptly started, everything brings back old memories and pushes them to find closure. They reminisce their past, they probe their memories and the facts, to reflect on their lives. Lincoln starts digging as a sleuth. Teddy re-visits places and fights against a massive anxiety attack. And Mickey brings the fun and their youth because in appearance, he remained the same.

The reader learns about their childhood and the mark their education left on them. The chapters alternate between Lincoln’s and Teddy’s voices, until Mickey finally adds his voice to the choir. The reader discovers bits and pieces of their lives and the fault line that Jacy’s disappearance left on their souls. Lincoln is as fragile as his two friends but Anita’s steady presence keeps him standing, like a prop for a plant. Teddy suffers from severe anxiety crises. Mickey never went to war and fled to Canada instead. He seems carefree, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person, but is it true?

Chances Are…explores the paths of three men whose lives were impacted by odds. Working and meeting at the Theta House when they came from different States and different background. Striking a friendship with Jacy. The Vietnam Lottery. For Lincoln, meeting Anita.

The novel also questions the nature of friendship. They never addressed the fact that they were all in love with Jacy. They didn’t want to break the fragile balance of their friendship. Did she have feelings for one of them? Was it better to keep wondering who was her favorite?

And a last question, do we really know our friends? The three of them kept secrets that none of them suspected. They rarely meet in person because they live far from each other. It’s easy to keep up appearances when contacts are not frequent. Do they still know each other? If they met now, would they become friends?

This last weekend in the Martha’s Vineyard house will break all the walls and leave them naked in front of the truth.

Theatre: The Island of Slaves by Pierre de Marivaux

November 1, 2021 19 comments

During a weekend in Paris, I had the opportunity to go the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse and see The Island of Slaves by Marivaux, directed by Didier Long. It is a play written in 1725 and one of the most widely studied in French schools. I couldn’t find any free online translation, so you’ll have to make do with my translation of quotes.

The opening of the play is the outcome of a shipwreck. Iphicrate and his valet Arlequin, Euphrosine and her maid Cléanthis run aground an island. Iphicrate and Euphrosine are two Athenian noblemen. Iphicrate soon understands that they have arrived on The Island of Slaves.

The leader of the island is Trivelin and he soon explains to the four castaways that on this island, new comers switch roles. Masters become servants and vice-versa.

Therefore, Iphicrate becomes Arlequin’s valet and they exchange their names and their clothes to make it more real. The same thing is done between Euphrosine and Cléanthis. The idea is to do a “live-my-life” experiment and force the masters to improve.

The rule of the island is simple and as Trivelin explains what is going to happen to the deposed noblemen.

Nous ne nous vengeons plus de vous, nous vous corrigeons ; ce n’est plus votre vie que nous poursuivons, c’est la barbarie de vos cœurs que nous voulons détruire ; nous vous jetons dans l’esclavage pour vous rendre sensibles aux maux qu’on y éprouve ; nous vous humilions, afin que, nous trouvant superbes, vous vous reprochiez de l’avoir été. Votre esclavage, ou plutôt votre cours d’humanité, dure trois ans, au bout desquels on vous renvoie, si vos maîtres sont contents de vos progrès ; et si vous ne devenez pas meilleurs, nous vous retenons par charité pour les nouveaux malheureux que vous iriez faire encore ailleurs, et par bonté pour vous, nous vous marions avec une de nos citoyennes.We don’t take revenge on you, we fix you. We are after more than your life, we want to destroy the barbary in your hearts. We throw you into slavery to make you aware of all the ills that one feels in these circumstances. We humiliate you for you to see in our arrogance your past behavior and have regrets. Your slavery, or I should say, your class in humanity will last three years. After that, we let you go if your masters are happy with your results. If you don’t improve, we keep you here, out of charity, to prevent you from doing more harm and out of kindness, we marry you to one of our citizens.

Iphicrate and Euphrosine are horrified. After they have taken their servants’ clothes, Trivelin questions Arlequin and Cléanthis to make their masters understand that they were cruel and disrespectful to their servants. While working on the masters, Trivelin also works on the servants and warns them against taking revenge and abusing of their new power.

Souvenez-vous en prenant son nom, mon cher ami, qu’on vous le donne bien moins pour réjouir votre vanité, que pour le corriger de son orgueil.My dear friend, in taking his name, remember that we give it to you more to cure him from his pride than to satisfy your vanity.

The play is a comedy and the scenes are vivid and played brightly but it deals with very serious issues.

It is not acceptable to be cruel to one’s staff. It points out that most of the masters don’t possess the qualities that they require out of their servants. The new slaves want the new masters to pity them but they can’t since their former master didn’t have any empathy for them.

The question of the servants’ behavior, now that they have the power, is important too. Trivelin explains to Arlequin and Cléanthis that they must refrain from being mean to their former masters and from inflicting on them what they had to endure. It’s hard to let go and not take advantage of one’s newly gained power.

Trivelin works on both sides. He drives the confrontation between Iphicrate and Arlequin on one side, Euphrosine and Cléanthis on the other side. He believes that people can be reformed and he will do his best for Iphicrate and Euphrosine to acknowledge their past behavior, truly understand the error of their ways and change them into better masters, better persons and people better fitted to be in power.

The play was written in 1725, 64 years before the French Revolution. It’s easy to see a political message behind it. Those in power shouldn’t humiliate their people because they never know, things might turn around. Imagine translating this in the corporate world with managers switching with their subordinates. It all comes down to a simple question: how to handle power?

In addition, Marivaux tells us that one’s worthiness shouldn’t be linked their status, their name or their position but should rely on their qualities as human being.

Il faut avoir le cœur bon, de la vertu et de la raison ; voilà ce qu’il faut, voilà ce qui est estimable, ce qui distingue, ce qui fait qu’un homme est plus qu’un autres.One must have a good heart, be virtuous and reasonable. This is what is needed, admirable and worthy. This is how a man is better than another.

I couldn’t help noticing the misogynistic tendency of the author. Iphicrate is quicker than Euphrosine to admit he was in the wrong. Arlequin is more willing to forgive his master’s past actions. The men seem to have an honest conversation, a real acceptance of their equal value as humans and reach an agreement for the future. I thought that Iphicrate had learned his lesson and that he’d change his ways when they got back to Athens.

The women seem more devious. Euphrosine is really reluctant to accept her faults. Cléanthis isn’t quite on board with “no retaliation” rule issued by Trivelin. They seem to patch things up as a façade, it’s a means to an end for Euphrosine who wants to go back home but needs Trivelin’s approval for it. Women are more fickle and pettier.

As an audience, we didn’t have the same opinion of the outcome. My husband and son thought that the noblemen were hypocrites who said what Trivelin wanted to hear in order to leave the island and go back home. In their opinion, nothing would change for the servants. I was a bit more optimistic about Iphicrate and Arlequin’s future, they seem genuine in their good resolutions.

An excellent play I highly recommend and for Tom’s pleasure if he reads this, I included the cover of one of those school editions he loves so much.

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 27 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet B Is For Bleak: the bleak fest continues in Oktober, I tried to mitigate the effect of bleak reads and plays with comfort books.

The first one was The Stationery Shop by Ogawa Ito. (2016. translated by Myriam Dartois-Ako).

I had already read another of her novels, The Restaurant of Love Regained and I knew I’d be reading something soft and uplifting.

In The Stationery Shop, Hatoko is 25, she’s back in her native town of Kamakura to take over the family business after her grandmother passed away. Hatoko inherited a stationary shop and has to replace her grandmother as a public letter-writer.

We follow her as she settles into her new life, meets people in the neighborhood, connects with clients and learns about her past. I knew nothing bad would happen and that Hatoko’s life would improve as she made peace with her past and built her future. It didn’t disappoint on that part.

However, The Stationery Shop has the same backbone as The Restaurant of Love Regained and the parallels are striking. A young woman comes back to her hometown or village. She’s lonely. She has unsolved issues with the woman who raised her, mother or grandmother. She starts or runs a business based on Japanese traditions. She knows a craft deeply embedded in Japanese customs, cuisine for one, calligraphy for the other. She connects to her Japanese roots through this craft, one that is turned towards others and aims at making her customers happy with a meal or with the right letter for an event or to a dear one. While she applies her craft as a balm to her customers’ souls, she finds her inner peace. It bothered me to find out that the two books had the same structure.

Ogawa Ito gives a lot of details about Japanese calligraphy. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Japan and its tradition to catch on all the calligraphy explanations and details about the writing, the quill, the choice of paper, of stamps…I missed a layer of knowledge and all these details bored me, which is even worse than getting emotional over a bleak play. So, the comfort book wasn’t that comforting, I thought it was a bit slow and dull. A bit goodie-two-shoes too, you know, a novel aimed at spreading love and good feelings.

The next time I turned to a different kind of comfort read, crime fiction set in Montana, with The Grey Ghosts Murders by Keith McCafferty. (2013. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens)

I’d already read the first volume of the series, The Royal Wulff Murders and had enjoyed it. I expected entertainment and a reprieve from emotional books.

It’s crime fiction, so, of course, there are terrible deaths and corrupt politicians like everywhere else, and it doesn’t qualify as a fluffy feel-good novel but the context is positively endearing.

No stiff in dirty back alleys like in a Connelly novel. No, you’re in the wild part of Montana. The police and the medical examiner have to hike to go to the body, only to discover that bears messed up with the evidences and that their pepper spray is damned handy when they get too close to a mamma bear and her cubs while on the job.

The main character, Sean Callahan shares his time between working as a fishing guide, painting Montana landscapes for tourists and playing amateur sleuth. Beside the murders, a group of fishermen who purchased a cabin together for their fishing holidays, ask him to investigate a theft: two of their antique fishing flies were stolen from their display cases. They were mounted by famous fishermen who invented these flies, a breakthrough in fly-fishing techniques. It’s as serious as stealing Dumbledore’s wand and yet, it’s funny to think that somewhere, there’s a parallel world where fishermen collect antique flies.

Sean helps with the murders investigation and researches thoroughly the person who had the idea to steal antique fishing flies.

Sean is quirky character, with a tender heart and he falls in love too easily, with the wrong women. He has a touchy relationship with Martha, the sheriff. He has decided to settle in Montana for good and we understand why, with all the attaching second characters in the book.

This comfort read totally worked because, to me, it’s exotic and took me far away from the previous book. It did the job and I’ll get the third volume on the shelf for future comfort read. It’s like having a Louise Penny on the ready.

That was before I read Sandrine Collette. After that one, I needed a solid pick-me-up and decided to take the safest option with guaranteed HEA.

I read Beauty and the Beast, the 1740 original tale by Madame de Villeneuve. The story was consistent with the children version I’d read before. The Disney movie and the film by Cocteau are based on a later version of the story, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

Compared to this well-known version, the original has an additional part in which Madame de Villeneuve describes the war between the fairies and explains how the prince fell under a magic spell and why Beauty ended up with her father’s family. Interesting and relaxing.

Now my reading has come back to its usual mix of easy, challenging and entertaining books, like Richard Russo, Michael Connelly and Balzac.

What kind of books do you turn to after a challenging or emotional read?

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girls From the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage – The 1976 Club goes to Montana

October 13, 2021 21 comments

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage. (1976) Not available in French.

Take five girls anywhere, at any time. Three will be all right, and one will make it. One won’t. There they go.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is Elizabeth Savage’s semi-autobiographical novel. It is set in Missoula, Montana, The Garden City where the Five Great Valleys meet: the Mission, the Missoula, the Blackfoot, the Hellgate, and the Bitterroot.

Five girls, Hilary, Amelia, Doll, Kathy and Janet. We’re in 1934, the summer between the girls’ junior and senior year in high school. Doll struggles with school, she knows she won’t go to university; the others will and Hilary, their leader, knows that this year is a turning point in their lives.

The novel is set during the Great Depression but among families who are doing fine. Hilary’s father has a coal & ice business that is struggling but he’s been investing in land to secure their future. Amelia comes from old money. Doll’s father has kept his job, money is tight but they make do. Janet’s father is a doctor, he replaced the old GP after he retired. Kathy’s father is a professor at Missoula university, a stable job that doesn’t pay well, as Savage cheekily points out: Kathy’s father drank but only right after payday, since that is the only time professors can afford it. Of course, the mothers have no job.

Hilary has a purpose. She wants to succeed and be someone. Her next step is to get into a Greek sorority and she trains her little group for that. She understands how things work and she intends to play by the rules, even if she doesn’t totally agree with them. She has great social skills and understanding of social status. They certainly weren’t city girls, but the fact of the Rocky Mountains didn’t make them country girls, either. They need a clean reputation and it means sticking together and avoiding getting too involved with boys.

Three characters are more developed than the others, Hilary and his ambition, Doll and her acceptance that she’ll marry young and will probably live like her family and Amelia who struggles to find her true self between Anne, her arrogant and selfish mother and her disabled little sister. Her father died (committed suicide?) in a car accident and she feels responsible for her mother and sister.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a vivid picture of Missoula’s middle class in the 1930s. Hilary is the main character but we see her parents’ point view and Anne’s too.

Hilary’s parents, Myra and Hank, have a solid and loving relationship, a traditional one. Myra, the mother takes care of the house and defers to her husband for all decisions. Hank wants to provide for his family and free his wife of any financial concern. The couple has a daughter and a son, they are better off than their parents and impersonated the American middle-class dream.

Elizabeth Savage was born in 1918 and spent her youth in Missoula, where her father was a teacher at the university. She went to Missoula County High School before going to Colby College in Maine. I assume that Kathy is the character who looks the most like her.

Savage draws a portrait of western life and western mentality as opposed to the East and to California. We’re in the 1930s and it’s not good to be openly communist in Missoula. It costs Mr Barry, a teacher, his position at the high school, and it’s not only his ideas that are different:

And Mr. Barry did other things that were not wise. He wore a hat. To this day in the Garden City Where the Five Great Valleys Meet, men wear hats. But proper hats. Proper hats are Stetsons. They don’t make Stetsons anymore, but Monkey Ward makes a sort of Stetson and so does J.C. Penney. That kind of hat indicates that though you may not be a rancher, you live near where the ranchers live and have in mind the welfare of the West. Mr. Barry’s hat had a narrow brim. He said it was a Borsolino and he said it was the finest hat ever made.

It’s not good to stand out, in Missoula. Hilary understands it perfectly. And although Hank approves of Roosevelt’s politics, he will never acknowledge it publicly.

If the truth were known, in some ways Hank agreed with Mr. Barry. Everyone knew the big companies had too much muscle. He even agreed about the new President. Hank hadn’t voted for him, but next time he probably would. That didn’t mean he was going to go all around town saying so.

I enjoyed The Girls from the Five Great Valleys for its sense of time and place. I always love picking up details about everyday life. I was surprised that Capek’s play R.U.R was played in drama class in Missoula high school. I didn’t know that Milky Way candies already existed. (You took a sandwich and a Milky Way.) And I still wonder what eggshells do in coffee. (Then in a crisp housedress and in the kitchen, she started to make the coffee with eggshells in it, the way her husband liked it.)

I also relished in Savage’s sense of humor and observation skills. They come out in statements like Weak people often are unhappy; strong people can’t take the time. Or If your mother is plump it is comforting to know your father is not attracted to storks. Or You can put up with a real mean man; one who is trying to be mean is meaner, maybe because the one who’s naturally mean doesn’t have to try so hard.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a way for Elizabeth Savage to write about Westerners’ ways and let her reader know about her youth in Montana. You learn facts of life from the area like that Any young person in Montana knows that chasing stock is not allowed. It makes them lose weight and it makes them drop their young. or that People on ranches don’t like knocks on the front door because anyone who belongs comes in the back.

As always when I read books set in the 1930s in the USA, I’m surprised by their way of life compared to Europe at the same time and how much we have been Americanized since then.

And the tradition of having a cabin up the mountain to roughen it up was already there and alive. Amelia’s family has one, by a lake, where people go swimming and (trout?) fishing.

No cabin was named, nor did any sign proclaim its owner. This was the result of the same agreement that forbade running water. You had an outhouse and a shallow well with a hand pump. You washed outside if you felt you must wash. Half the fun was pretending to be your own ancestor.

Right!

This is my participation to Karen’s and Simon’s 1976 Club.

Thank you for organizing this event, it’s always a fun way to explore one’s TBR.

I’m looking forward to reading other reviews about 1976 books and hope you’ll pick another year for the Spring.

Check out my billet about The Last Night at the Ritz, another excellent book by Elizabeth Savage.

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd – Meet Edmond and his family in the Armenian community in Iran.

October 10, 2021 8 comments

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd (1997) French title: Un jour avant Pâques. Translated from the Persian by Christophe Balaÿ.

This is my last billet about the twenty books I read this summer for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. It’s OK, it’s Indian summer at the moment, right?

I hoped to write about Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd for WIT Month but my TBW pile was too high. The French title of the book is Un jour avant Pâques, The Day Before Easter and it seems to be the direct translation of the original title. And it makes sense.

Born in 1952, Zoyâ Pirzâd is an Iranian writer from the Armenian community in Iran. Her book Space Between Us is set in this community and covers several decades of the main character’s life, Edmond. Three chapters, each set at a key moment of Edmond’s life, all three times around Easter day.

In the first chapter, Edmond is twelve. He’s an only child and lives in a small town by the Caspian Sea. His father is the director of the local Armenian school. Edmond’s best friend is Tahereh, the concierge’s daughter. She’s Muslim but goes to the Armenian school too, since its more practical. A drama will occur in the tight-knit community, forcing Edmond to grow up.

In the second chapter, Edmond is older, married to Marta and they now live in Teheran. They have a grownup daughter, Alenouche who announces that she’ll marry her Muslim boyfriend. Edmond accepts it willingly but Marta is rigid about it, a Christian devout and she takes it as a personal insult.

In the last chapter, Edmond is even older, a widower now. He hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, since her fight with Marta.

Space Between Us is a lovely book. It’s very poetical in its description of childhood, of food and smells. It has a melancholic ring that matches Edmond’s temper. He’s a quiet child, Tahereh is the daring part of their duo. He’s observant too and shares his thoughts about his family and the Armenian community around him. He knows that his mother is not the traditional Armenian mother, she’s not keen on housekeeping and she had to live with a formidable mother-in-law. Edmond’s father is a quiet man too who loves his wife the way she is and never pressures her to comply to traditions but the community, though helpful, is also stifling.

Marta was thick as thieves with Edmond’s grandmother. They shared the same sense of community, a strong will to keep traditions alive and not change anything in their vision of the place of men and women in a couple, the duties children had to pay or the fact that one remained in their community.

The grandmother never liked Edmond’s friendship with Tahereh and Marta didn’t take Alenouche’s engagement well. It felt more like a will to keep the Armenian community alive, not to have it dissolved into the Iranian society than anything else. They are survivors of the Armenian genocide and they have the duty to keep their community and their traditions alive not to lose their identity and lose their history. It would mean forget about their lost country, about the genocide and their tragedy as a people.

Zoyâ Pirzâd doesn’t write a political novel. She writes about the quotidian, its little beauties and the family traditions. She takes us into Edmond’s life, full of ladybugs, friendship, painted Easter eggs and Armenian dishes. He sees family politics with his child’s eyes and, as an adult, lives through it by avoiding conflicts. The French cover of the book, a watercolor is perfect for the book.

Pirzâd’s writing reminded me of Philip Roth’s when he describes the Newark of his childhood or when Peter Balakian remembers his youth in New Jersey among his Armenian family in The Black Dog of Fate, also published in 1997. A community of immigrants in a country with other traditions.

Highly recommended, both Space Between Us and The Black Dog of Fate.

Slobozia by Liliana Lazar – a Romanian tragedy

October 3, 2021 25 comments

Slobozia by Liliana Lazar (2009) Original French title: Terre des Affranchis. Not available in English.

Liliana Lazar is a French writer of Romanian origin. She was born in 1972 in Moldavia and she arrived in France in 1996. She writes in French but her debut novel, Terre des affranchis is set in her native Moldavia, where her father was a forest warden.

The Luca family lives in the village of Slobozia. The village is a small community and life revolves around work and the Sunday mass at the orthodox church run by Părinte Ilie. The village is close to a deep forest that has a malefic lake, named La Fosse aux lions (The Lion’s Den) or La Fosse aux Turcs (The Turk’s Pit). The villagers avoid the lake like the plague as it is known to attack people and it’s haunted by moroï, living dead spirits.

Life isn’t funny in the Luca household. The father Tudor is a brute who beats his wife Ana and his children Victor and Eugenia. Nobody goes too close to the lake but it always protects Victor, even when he becomes a teenage murderer. His mother and sister hide him at the farm.

Meanwhile, Ceausescu comes to power and priests are persecuted. So, when Părinte Ilie discovers that Victor hides at the farm, he doesn’t give him up to the police but he hires him as a copyist to pass on religious texts and feed the resistance against Ceaucescu. Victor is under control during that time.

After Părinte Ilie disappears from Slobozia and is replaced by the fanatic Ion Fătu, Victor goes off track again. Ceausescu falls, another regime replaces him and the country has to atone for its sins.

At some point the novel gets bogged down in the question of good and evil, finding redemption and a terrible vision of criminals turning into heroes in the post-Ceausescu Romania.

The good thing about writing a billet several weeks after finishing the book is that you can see what stayed with you. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Terre des affranchis by Liliana Lazar is “bleak”. I’d even say it’s grim/Grimm because it mixes magic realism, local traditions and superstitions, historical facts and a serial killer. Victor is a really disturbing character and the whole book is creepy. I was engrossed by it anyway and was curious to know how it would end, even if I wasn’t convinced by the ending.

Have a look at the cover of the book as it is visual summary of the atmosphere of the story. It also reminded me of the dreadful Passport by Herta Müller.

For another take on this unusual book, see Bénédicte’s review here. (in French)

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