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The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy – great literature.

January 21, 2023 26 comments

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) French title: Le Dahlia noir. Translated by Frédéric Michalski.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy is probably one of the oldest books of my TBR. The mention inside says my roommate gave it to me in 1995. Ahem. I was reluctant to read it, not sure I’d get along with Ellroy. I only started to read noir fiction after I went online with Book Around the Corner and discovered Guy’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy’s a crime fiction and noir afficionado.

And now I wonder: what was I waiting for?

The Black Dahlia is loosely based upon a real case, the murder of Elizabeth Short that the press nicknamed the Black Dahlia. She was born in 1924 in Boston and was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. Her case became famous because her body was horribly mutilated and it’s still unsolved.

Ellroy uses the Black Dahlia case as a basis to write a complex story with a striking picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is our narrator. He’s a former boxer and LAPD agent. He met Lee Blanchard, another LPAD agent when they covered the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Both have a checkered past. Bucky is the son of a German immigrant who doesn’t hide his racist tendencies. Bucky’s patriotism was tested during WWII and he agreed to give his Japanese neighbors up to keep his job with the LAPD. He’s still reeling from it.

Lee Blanchard is famous for solving a hold-up case and shacking up with Kay, the criminal’s girlfriend after the trial. He still lives with her and this scandalous relationship cost him a promotion. His little sister was murdered when he was a teenager and he feels guilty of not protecting her enough.

As semi-famous former boxers, their bosses ask them to fight against each other to raise funds for the LAPD and promote a bill that would increase the wages of the LAPD agents. They get a transfer to the Warrants department. They agree to it. The fight is highly publicized, they are nicknamed Fire and Ice. Their bond is based upon camaraderie and respect but is also tainted by politics and tactics. The relationship between Bucky, Lee and Kay is central to Ellroy’s book.

As you imagine Bucky and Lee are detached to the police force dedicated to solving Betty Short’s murder. They get swallowed in the case and the book moves to a classic investigation.

Ellroy follows the thread of a murder investigation and shows corruption and power fights in the LAPD. He takes his characters to the shadiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and takes pleasure in describing brothels, dives, underground gay and lesbian meeting points and seedy hotels. He also brings us to rich neighborhoods and uncovers the ugliness present behind closed doors and polished manners. Greed. Sex. Perversion. They invade every corner of the city and Ellroy exposes what’s behind the Hollywood dreamy facade.

He conveys the pulse of the city, its rapid growth and real estate moguls, the Hollywood hype and the sordid world of hopeless hope of aspiring actresses.

He takes us across the Mexican border to Tijuana in an even more violent and corrupted country. He describes perfectly the intricacies of office politics in the LAPD, the violence against suspects and police procedurals. Or lack thereof.

It’s well-oiled book that keeps the reader on edge. I wanted to know how Bucky would come out of it, if Ellroy would make his characters solve the murder while reading about Los Angeles in the 1940s. I was curious about Bucky, Lee and Kay’s trio. I wondered if the big LAPD machine would run over Bucky or if he’d make it alright.

A brilliant book but I’m glad I waited to read it. There will be more Ellroy in my future.

For the record, I also have the graphic novel of this book by Miles Hyman Matz and David Fincher and it’s a good companion book.

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams – it’s a question of hooks

January 8, 2023 4 comments

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams. (1953) – “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive.”

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams was previously entitled Hell Hath No Fury. This noir thriller dates back to 1953 and I guess it was renamed after the film version of the book was released in 1990.

In French, it was translated by Bruno Martin for the Série noire collection in 1955. The French title was Je t’attends au tournant and I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore.

The original translation seems out of print which is good because it’s an abridged version. There’s no way to translate all the sentences of a 190 pages English book into a 185 pages French paperback, since the said French paperback is smaller than the English book and French takes more words than English to say the same thing. I checked a random paragraph and bingo, the original sentences are cleverly cut to keep the book under 200 pages as it was supposed to be read in one sitting on a train journey.

Lucky French readers, Gallmeister published a new translation by Laura Derajinski 2019 and kept the title Hot Spot. These different translations didn’t impact my reading though, since I read The Hot Spot in English.

Now, the book

I lighted a cigarette and smoked it out nervously, listening to the night sounds and thinking of the dangerous mess I was drifting further into all the time. I had twelve thousand dollars I couln’t touch, I was crazy about a girl who was in some kind of trouble she couldn’t tell me about, and I was getting more hopelessly fouled up every day with crazy Dolores Harshaw.

This is Harry Madox. He’s a twenty-eight drifter who comes to a small Texas town, finds a job as a car salesman and settles in a boarding house. He works for George Harshaw who also has a side-business in car loans to go with the dealership. Gloria Harper runs the loan office.

Harshaw is married to Dolores who seduces Harry for what he thinks is a simple hookup. She doesn’t see it that way and although she’s definitely not in love with him, she sinks her hook in him and wants him all to herself. He’s her ticket out of her boring marriage. But Harry falls for Gloria who has a lot of issues of her own. When Gloria and Harry start dating, it sends Dolores on the war path.

Besides the sex and love affairs, Harry put himself in a nice little mess of his own doing when he robbed the local bank.

Two events sparked this crazy idea: first, during a fire on Main Street, he noticed that all the people were focused on the fire and that the bank was left almost unattended and second, as Dolores asked him to help her move some boxes in an abandoned building near the bank, he noticed it was full of junk and that is was an incredible fire hazard. What if he set the building on fire, robbed the bank and made sure to be seen helping the firefighters?

That’s what he does it but the local sheriff is cleverer than he expected. He doesn’t buy it and intends to question him until he relents and spills the beans. He’s only released from custody because Dolores spontaneously lies and gives him an alibi. His relief is short-lived. Now she has him and she knows it.

Harry still thinks he can get out of it if he lays low but his feelings for Gloria get in the way. He feels protective of her and things get out of hand when he tries to help her with her own issues.

Harry is taken in a web of lies and crimes. Dolores is a skilled manipulator but she’s enabled by Harry’s actions. The robbery and his relationship with Gloria give her leverage. She’s poisonous but his actions leave him with his flesh exposed and she just sees where and how she can sink her hooks into him.

The Hot Spot is a masterpiece of noir fiction. All the right ingredients are there.

An unreliable narrator who would want us to forget he’s a bank robber. A beautiful young woman who’s not as innocent as she seems. A femme fatale who knows what she wants and how to get it. And the whole plot, clever and articulate as a Shakespearian tragedy is served by an excellent literary style. We are with Harry in this little Texas town. We imagine the heat, the town, the dealership, the cars and the characters in their 1950s outfits. We sweat with Harry and recoil from the violence and we see how events unfold in an implacable manner.

A must-read for all crime fiction lovers.

Have a look at Guy’s excellent review here.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Baindridge – it puts the reader on edge

December 28, 2022 18 comments

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (1974) French title: Sombre Dimanche. Translated by Françoise Cartano.

The Bottle Factory Outing is my second Beryl Bainbridge, after An Awfully Big Adventure and I can find similarities between the two books.

In The Bottle Factory Outing, we’re in London and our protagonists are two roommates, Freda and Brenda. They live in a boarding house and like each other well enough but have opposite characters. Freda is outgoing and flirty. She loves clothes and make up and wants to marry well. She’s energetic and knows what she wants.

Brenda landed in London after she escaped from an abusive marriage. She’s mousy, down-to-earth and wants to be left alone. She’s passive and her attitude sends mixed messages to people around her and gets on Freda’s nerves.

In the following passage, Freda and Brenda are watching a funeral from their window and their interaction gives away their personalities:

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.
‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’
‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There aren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’
‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’
‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’
‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’

See how Freda romanticize what she sees and projects her future and how Brenda remains practical and attempts to bring her back to reality? It’s typical.

Freda and Brenda work at the same bottle factory owned and managed by Mr Paganotti. He’s Italian and all the workers come from the same Italian village, except Patrick, an Irishman, Freda and Brenda.

Freda has a crush on Mr Paganotti’s nephew, Vittorio. He’s handsome, prances around the factory and flirts a little bit with Freda. She grows things out of proportion because she’s decided that he’s the perfect candidate for the handsome and rich husband she ambitions to marry.

She’s infatuated with him but she doesn’t know him well. In order to spend time with him outside of the factory, she organizes a factory outing on a weekend. But things don’t turn out so well…

Relationships between men and women are creepy in The Bottle Factory Outing just as they were in An Awfully Big Adventure.

Brenda was in an abusive marriage and even if nothing precise is revealed about her past, the reader guesses that it must have been pretty bad for Brenda to take action. And she’s barely started to work at the bottle factory for three days when she starts getting a lot of unwanted attention at work from Rossi, the foreman. She doesn’t know how to rebuff his advances because she doesn’t want to lose her job. Brenda the mouse also caught the attention of her coworker Patrick. He offers to fix her toilet to see her outside of work. At least this one seems respectful.

Freda has Vittorio’s attention but he’s unlikely to marry her and she sets herself up for deception. It’s a classic case of wishing to be the wife and being seen as a mistress. Usually, it only means a broken heart, nothing life-threatening. As far as Freda is concerned, the most disturbing events occur during the outing.

Beryl Bainbridge has a great sense of humour and it shows in her descriptions of her characters and of the outing. But the ending takes a very dark turn, one I didn’t expect. She’s an author who keeps her reader on their toes as her characters are a bit off, as they can sense that events are about to take a dramatic turn or that painful pasts lurk in the characters’ background.

This is a very well constructed novel.

Have you read books by her? What did you think of them? I still have The Dressmaker on the shelf.

Guy has reviewed several of them and his take on The Bottle Factory Outing is here.

Five crime fiction books, all different

December 21, 2022 4 comments

Friendship Is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle (2018) French title: L’amitié est un cadeau à se faire. Translated by Simon Baril

This is my second book by William Boyle after The Lonely Witness and he’s definitely an author I want to keep reading.

Friendship… is set in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and upstate New York. It all starts when Rena Ruggiero, the widow of a mafia gangster, kicks her eighty years old neighbor and thinks that she killed him as he lays unresponsive on her floor. High on Viagra, he tried to rape her.

Rena takes his car and drives to the Bronx where she wants to stay with her estranged daughter Adrienne and rekindle her relationship with her granddaughter Lucia.

She arrives there just as Richie Schiavano decides to steal money from a mafia gang.

Rena and Lucia find shelter at Adrienne’s neighbor’s house. Lacey, ex-porn star known as Lucious Lacey, welcomes them in her home and they end up fleeing the Bronx with the mafia on their tail.

The book takes a delightful Thelma and Louise turn and the reader is in for a fantastic ride.

William Boyle has a knack for a crazy plot, for attaching characters and an fantastic sense of place. A wonderful discovery by Gallmeister.

Alabama 1963 by Ludovic Manchette & Christian Niemiec (2020). Not available in English.

This is a French crime fiction novel set in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, just before President Kennedy was assassinated and right in the middle of the Civil Right movement.

Girls are rapped and murdered. Bud Larkin, a white PI, former police officer, is volunteered to help a black family find out who killed their daughter. His former colleagues also hire him a black cleaning lady, Adela Cobb. In segregated Alabama, she’ll be an asset to Larkin as black people talk to her but not to him.

As other murders happen, Bud and Adela get more and more anxious to find out who’s behind these crimes. And if this adventure can help them sort out their lives, all the better.

I’m always a bit suspicious about books written by French writers and set in America, written as if they were American writers. This one was OK, and the fact that the two authors’ day job is to translate American TV series into French probably helps writing a convincing story. They know all the codes.

I had a good time reading it, I got attached to Adela and Bud.

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson (2012) French title: A vol d’oiseau. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

This is the 8th volume of the Walt Longmire series. I read them in English now since the French paperbacks are no longer published by Gallmeister but by Pocket. The books aren’t as nice, so, the original on the kindle is better.

This time around, Caddy, Longmire’s daughter is getting married in two weeks on the Cheyenne reservation when Walt discovers that she no longer has a venue.

He’s on his way to visit another location with his friend Henry Standing Bear when they see a woman fall from a cliff and die. She had her six-month old baby in arms when she fell. The baby miraculously survived.

Walt Longmire will mentor the new chief of the Tribal Police, Lolo Long during this investigation. She’ll learn a few tricks, soften some hard edges and see how to navigate the tricky relationship with the FBI. Very useful skills if she wants to keep her job or stay alive while doing it.

As always, Craig Johnson delivers. The plot is well-drawn, a part of fun is introduced with Lolo Long’s blunders and the relationship between Walt and Caddy is lovely. This volume is set on the Cheyenne reservation and it rings true, at least to my French ears.

Craig Johnson doesn’t disappoint and I’m looking forward to reading the ninth book.

Sœurs de sang by Dominique Sylvain (1997, reviewed by the author in 2010). Not available in English

I’ve read several books by Dominique Sylvain. Kabuchiko, set in Japan, Les Infidèles and Passage du Désir set in Paris. The three books are different and Soeurs de sang is closer to Passage du Désir than to the other ones.

We’re in Paris. Louise Morvan is a PI who is hired by Ana Chomsky to find a former lover that she spotted as a character in a video game. Louise starts investigating, discovers that he’s Axel Langeais, one of the creators of the game.

It could stop here but Victoria Yee, the lead singer of the group Noir Vertige is murdered on Axel’s barge, in front of his sister Régine. Louise embarks on a murder investigation that will lead her to Berlin and Los Angeles and into the strange artistic world of the Victim Art.

I read this with pleasure, a novel set in a very peculiar milieu, the one of extreme art and I was curious to see how the story would unfold.

Ames animales by JR Dos Santos (2021). Not available in English.

This was one of our Book Club choices and it was a promising read.

It’s a Portuguese novel set in Lisbon. The main character is Tomas Noronha whose wife Maria Flor is involved with a charity that works on animal intelligence. When the director of this charity is murdered, she’s the last one to have seen him and is accused of murder.

Chapters alternate between the crime plot and flash backs where the militant and director is enlightening Maria Flor about the latest researches about animal intelligence. These lengthy explanations were too didactical for me, cut the flow of the crime investigation and I lost interest.

I abandoned the book. I don’t read crime fiction to read scientific lectures, there are radio podcasts for that. A missed opportunity.

I have also read The Hot Spot by Charles Williams but this one is so good that it deserves its own billet.

Literary Escapade: the Proust Exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

December 18, 2022 13 comments

For the centenary of Proust’s death, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Bnf), the French equivalent of the Library of Congress, curates an exhibition entitled Marcel Proust – La fabrique de l’œuvre. It means Marcel Proust, the making of his work.

In French, A la Recherche du temps perdu, In Search of Lost Time in English, is nicknamed La Recherche and I’ll use that expression in my billet as it conveys a familiarity and a fondness for it.

This exhibition takes us through Proust’s creative process. For each book of we can see how Proust wrote and reviewed his work and, for the volumes published after his death, how his work came to us.

The exhibition shows 370 pieces from the Proust fund at the BnF. Marcel Proust had kept all of his manuscripts and his brother Robert inherited them when Marcel died. Suzy Mante Proust, Robert’s daughter, donated the manuscripts to the BnF in 1962.

Therefore, the BnF has almost all of Proust’s manuscripts from his school essays to La Recherche. They have 26 volumes of proofs and boards, 23 type-written texts, drafts typed by various secretaries, many paperoles, 23 notebooks of edited texts, 75 notebooks of drafts, hundreds of paper sheets, four other notebooks and one diary. That’s a lot of material and here’s a picture of the different sources.

Marcel Proust didn’t write La Recherche from the beginning to the end in a linear fashion. He wrote Swann’s Way and Time Regained at the same time. He wrote episodes of La Recherche here and there and put them in the volumes where he saw fit.

Now, let’s have a tour of the different volumes and I’ll share with you pictures and anecdotes.

Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). 1913 (self-published) and 1919 (reviewed edition – Gallimard)

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure is probably one of the most famous incipits of French literature, along with Aujourd’hui, maman est morte, from The Stranger by Albert Camus. The BnF showed the different versions of this incipit until Proust settled on Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. They did the same about the madeleine, from toast (1907-1909 drafts) to rusk to a madeleine.

It was fascinating to witness Proust’s thought process, the attention to details and have the evidence that the incipit and the key moment of the madeleine were thoroughly forethought. The first version of Swann’s Way was published in 1913 but it was in the making since 1907. It goes against the idea of a Proust who wasted his time in society life and didn’t start working hard until later in life.

The exhibition also features key objects of the books and for Swann’s Way, I was mostly interested in this drawing from a magic lantern telling the story of Geneviève de Brabant.

It’s a story that the young Narrator used to love and this shows us what kids saw in their magic lanterns.

Proust was a master of copy-paste, long before office solutions and computers were invented. This board from Swann’s Way shows how Proust worked.

Fascinating, no? (Or maybe a typist’s nightmare…) Now let’s move on to the Narrator’s adolescence with…

A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) 1919 – Prix Goncourt

This volume is key as the Narrator gets acquainted with major characters of La Recherche: Robert de Saint-Loup, the group of girls to which Albertine belongs, the painter Elstir, the Baron de Charlus and the Verdurin clan. We’ll follow them all during our literary ride with the Narrator, from Balbec to Paris.

Le côté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way) 1920-1921 (Published in two volumes)

The Guermantes Way is where the Narrator is of all the parties and in the heart of high society. It’s the turning point of his adult life: the high society isn’t a glamorous fairytale anymore, as the harsh words of the Duc de Guermantes to a dying Swann remind us. He’s about to explore the kingdom of Sodom and Gomorrha through Charlus and Albertine.

Sodome et Gomorrhe – 1921-1922 (Published in two volumes)

The discussion about homosexuality was conceived as soon as 1909. Marcel Proust didn’t know yet where he would include it. The reader understands as soon as the Baron de Charlus is introduced that he’s gay. The Narrator will only see the light when he catches the Baron de Charlus and Jupien.

Homosexuality is also a hot topic as the Narrator suspects that Albertine is a lesbian. He’s aware of lesbian relationships since Balbec when he saw Mlle de Vinteuil and her friend.

Sodom and Gomorrah were the last volumes published under Marcel Proust’s supervision. Marcel Proust changed the structure of La Recherche several times; for example, he toyed with the idea of three volumes for Sodom and Gomorrah.

The last three volumes were published by Gallimard with the help of Robert Proust. Here’s a letter from Gallimard to Robert Proust describing the final division of La Recherche in the current number of volumes.

The Narrator has now feelings for Albertine and their relationship mirrors Swann and Odette relationship.

La Prisonnière (The Captive) –1923

Marcel Proust wanted La Prisonnière to be the third volume of Sodom and Gomorrha and he sent to Gallimard his last review of the typed version of La Prisonnière a few days before he died.

The exhibition shows a report from A. Charmel, the concierge of the 8 bis rue Laurent Pichat where Marcel Proust lived from May 31st to October 1st 1919. This report is about all the cries from the street vendors and the various trades on a typical Parisian Street.

It will become a famous scene in La Prisonnière where the Narrator listens to the noises coming off the street. It’s a vivid passage that brings the reader to the Paris of this time, to all the street vendors and odd jobs that have disappeared now.

Except from 1909 to 1911, Proust wasn’t a solitary man. He had a lot of people around him, helping him. He sent out friends and servants to check certain details and facts and all this was included in his work.

Albertine disparue (The Fugitive). First title La fugitive 1925

Just before he died, Marcel Proust retrieved 250 pages of Albertine disparue, undermining the consistency of the volume. Robert Proust decided to keep these pages after Marcel died. I guess it was the best choice, no one knew how Marcel would have modified his work to straighten the narrative. I’m relieved to know that Marcel Proust thought that something was off in this volume as it’s the one I struggled the most with.

Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained) – 1927.

In Time Regained, Proust writes about Paris during WWI and here’s a picture of a bombing near the metro St Paul, rue de Rivoli (Night 12-13 April 1918)

It also means that the first version of Time Regained, written before the war started, has been augmented. Marcel Proust added a fascinating picture of Paris during WWI, life behind. He lost friends and acquaintances during the war and he adapted his characters’ fates to the events. He even changed the location of Combray from the West of Paris to the East.

In each room of the exhibition the visitor could see how the novel was finished and got ready for publication: drafts, notebooks, typed sheets, additions through paperoles, phrases crossed and rewritten…All precious testimonies of the making of La Recherche.

This is a major exhibition about Proust. I wasn’t aware of his writing process. I knew about the drafts, adds-on or paperoles and that he sent out Céleste or her husband to check out things.

I didn’t know that he wrote La Recherche in pieces and not in the chronological order. I didn’t know that his books were made of pieces stitched together and that Proust sewed his book together like a couture dressmaker.

I had this image of a Proust writing frantically, knowing his years were counted. It may stem from Time Regained where the Narrator understands late in the game what he has to write. But in Proust’s real life, this epiphany came a lot earlier than I thought and his work is even more astonishing.

We’re talking about a writer who had his masterpiece in mind from the beginning. Given the length, the complexity and the number of characters, his mind was more than a brilliant machine. He knew what he wanted to demonstrate but he didn’t have everything mapped out, or he wouldn’t have changed the structure of the volumes until the end or included historical facts along the way. He had key scenes written and the global idea of what he wanted to pass on about art, life, memory and our journey on this earth.

The key scenes are wonderfully polished because they were written and rewritten, his ability to adapt to real life events roots the novel in French history and this vision of society is also priceless. Proust has the amazing ability to dig deep into people’s inner life without cutting them off real life. He was like that too, having the vivid imagination of an introvert and living the life of a social butterfly.

Extraordinary.

Now, a last picture for the road, this is Marcel Proust’s writing material.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – magnificent

December 7, 2022 16 comments

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) French title: Tous les hommes du roi. Translated by Pierre Singer.

I had never heard of Robert Penn Warren before receiving All the King’s Men through my Kube subscription. I read it in a French translation by Pierre Singer and in a magnificent edition by the publisher Monsieur Toussaint Louverture. It has a beautiful golden cover, the pages are on very nice paper, the text is published in an agreeable font. It has several tiny details that cost nothing but appealed to me as a reader and showed the reverence and the care this publisher has for books. Like that MERCI printed beside the price of the book on the back cover.

A gorgeous book as an object and a gorgeous piece of literature.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) is a Southern writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for All the King’s Men a complex novel about politics, legacy and the meaning of life. A tall order.

The narrator is Jack Burden and we’re in 1936 in the Deep South. We know from the start that he’s recovering from a tragedy and the fall of his boss, Willie Stark.

Governor Willie Stark is the king mentioned in the book’s title and his men are composed of Sadie Burke, his secretary and long-time lover, Jack Burden, his right hand and sounding board, Tiny Duffy an obsequious man Stark would rather have with him than against him and Sugar Boy, his faithful driver.

Willie Stark comes from a poor farm, studied law by himself and decided to go into politics. He’s a populist who addresses to the redneck voters and who got genuinely angry when children died in the collapse of a school due to poor workmanship. Thanks to corrupt politicians, the contract wasn’t awarded to the most competent bidder.

Jack attached himself to Stark after he covered his first campaign for a newspaper. It was in 1922 and he was a journalist at the time. Now, he’s in his thirties, has a degree in history and he has no ambition. Jack comes from Burden’s Landing, a small town on the coast. His family is wealthy, at least his mother is. His parents are divorced and he despises them a little. He sees his mother as a serial monogamist who married for the third time, and to a much younger man. His father, a former lawyer, now devotes his time to religious endeavors. Jack thinks that his mother is materialistic and that his father is idealistic. During his younger years, Judge Irwin, a friend of the family, mentored him.

Willie Stark started out his political career with excellent ethics but he soon learnt that he had to play the same game as the current political circles if he wanted a chance to be elected and pass laws.

Now he’s powerful, has enemies and knows how to pull strings. He’s ruling the State as a dictator and his long-time opponent is still after him.

The beginning of the end starts when the virtuous Judge Irwin starts sniffing around him and Stark decides to use his usual method of threats and intimidation.

Jack tells us what happened from the moment the king’s men arrive at Burden’s Landing to threaten Judge Irwin. It doesn’t work and Stark missions Jack to investigate the judge’s past and unearth some dirt for Stark to gain leverage. From now on, Stark’s orders overlap with Jack’s private life. He’s known Irwin since he was a kid, it’s his hometown and this will set everything into motion.

Robert Penn Warren writes a perfectly oiled tragedy. The various characters ignite things here and there and lives blow up.

Jack is a man whose family picture doesn’t add up. He knows something is amiss and but he doesn’t know what. His background is like a jigsaw with a missing piece and he feels incomplete. He tends to be depressed. He never got over his adolescent love affair with Anne Stanton, his best friend Adam’s sister. He goes with the flow, trying to swim in clear waters and avoid joining the sewage that surrounds Stark.

Jack takes Stark as he is: he has no illusion about what man is ready to do to win an election and yet he forgives him a lot of things because he knew him before he became governor and because the local political scene is rotten to the core. If Stark doesn’t play by the corrupt politician playbook, how can he win an election? And if he doesn’t win, how is he going to implement his program and improve the people’s lives? Jack maneuvers to stay on Stark’s good side without getting his hands too dirty.

Stark is a complex character based on the real politician from Louisiana Huey Long. Yes, he’s a bully who manipulates people around him. Yes, he’s a shameless populist. But he did something for his fellow-citizen. He had roads built. He raised taxes to improve public services and transports. He wanted to have a positive legacy through affordable health care. Robert Penn Warren shows that some good comes out of Stark’s mandate despite his despotic ways.

Like in a Greek tragedy, Stark’s public fall and Jack’s private shattering come from their Achilles’ heels. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

All the King’s Men is a brilliant novel that allies Stark’s rise and fall and Jack’s private life as he finally finds some peace. The style is elaborate and stunning. It’s a novel from the South before air conditioning. It’s hot and the weather puts a lid of languor over Jack. Since Huey Long was the governor of Louisiana, the novel is supposed to be set there but there is no direct mention of a precise Southern state. I was thinking more about Alabama or Mississippi as there is no mention to Cajun culture in the whole book.

It’s also a novel from the South before the Civil Rights movements. There are no black characters in this novel except quick mentions to black servants. This microcosm around Stark lives in an all-white environment.

It’s also a novel from the South with its religious undercurrent. Religion is not present through churches and clergymen. It’s understood in Jack’s questioning about moral compasses and fate. I can’t explain it but the characters ooze some kind of Bible Belt vibe.

Robert Penn Warren writes an intelligent book with multidimensional characters. He could have written something really polarized, good versus evil, virtue against sin but he didn’t. He chose to draw complex characters, flawed humans who have their moments of darkness and their moments of generosity and loyalty. Their emotions overrule them sometimes, they are unethical and accept to have their hands dirty. I liked Jack’s voice, lucid and poetic. No sugar coating for Jack.

I don’t know if All the King’s Men is “The definite novel about American politics” as the New York Times says. I hope not because it would be depressing. What I do know is that it’s an exceptional piece of literature.

Highly recommended.

Proust reads and reading Proust

November 20, 2022 18 comments

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (1905) Original French title: Sur la lecture. Suivi de Journées de lecture.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (1931) French title: Proust. Translated by Edith Fournier.

Proust died on November 18th, 1922. The centenary of his death has been celebrated here with books, TV specials, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, exhibitions and so on. I meant to publish this billet on November 18th but life got in the way.

Days of Reading is a short essay by Proust, where he muses over the pleasure and the experience of reading.

As often, Proust shows his talent for a catching incipit.

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all:the days we spent with a favorite book. Translation by John Sturrock.

In the subsequent pages, he remembers the glorious hours he spent with books as a child. He wanted to be left alone with his books and not do anything else. I can relate to that.

His thoughts about finishing a book, the fact that we leave the characters on the last page to never “see” them again is relatable too. Who has never reached the end of a book thinking “That’s all? What will become of them now?”. He muses over our relationship with books, our connection to writers and how they lead us to beauty and intelligence. La lecture est une amitié, he says. And yes, reading is a friendship with books, authors and imaginary worlds.

While Proust talks about his love for reading in Days of Reading, Beckett writes about his response to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Beckett wrote Proust, his essay about In Search of Lost Time, in 1931, when he was only 25. Time Regained had only been published four years before in 1927. Beckett was an earlier adopter of Proust and it says something about his ability to understand modern literature and spot a breakthrough in literature, even if Proust wasn’t taken so seriously at the time.

Proust is not an academic essay, it’s the brilliant review of a book through the eyes a passionate reader. Beckett shares his experience with reading Proust and displays a deep knowledge of Proust’s work.

He gives very detailed and precise examples – he quotes from memory, a nightmare for the French translator of his essay because she needed to find the actual quotes in French…He shows a profound understanding of what Proust intended to do with his work and he was ahead of his time.

Beckett goes through all of Proust’s favourite themes: the force of habit, the importance of a setting, his fascination for the Guermantes, his passion for art (literature, painting, opera, music, theatre and architecture.) He has valid points about the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator.

And then come thoughts about memory, remembrance and our thought process. He gives his perception of how memories are triggered by sensations.

Proust is an impressive review of Proust’s masterpiece and it’s a tribute to Beckett’s intelligence as much as an ode to Proust. It’s an excellent companion book for any reader of La Recherche, as we have nicknamed In Search of Lost Time in French.

Proust reads and Beckett reads Proust. I missed the actual day of the centenary of Proust’s death but still decided to bake madeleines to celebrate this anniversary.

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie – #1929Club

October 28, 2022 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Regained by Marcel Proust – a conclusion and a beginning.

October 9, 2022 22 comments

Time Regained by Marcel Proust (1927) Original French title: Le Temps retrouvé.

Time Regained is the last volume of In Search of Lost Time and it was published five years after Proust’s death. We’re lucky that Proust’s brother had them published.

I’ve now finished rereading In Search of Lost Time. It took me several years because I wandered away, lost time and yet always found my way back to it. I never forgot where I left the Narrator and resumed reading as if I had stopped the day before. Proust’s prose and narration is a drizzle, it pervades into your brain and your soul. It goes deep and stays with you on a long-term basis.

I first read Time Regained in my last year of high school. My memories of reading it were of a brilliant conclusion to In Search of Lost Time, the book where everything starts and ends in a coherent way, a volume that made the whole journey worth all the reading time I devoted to Proust.

My memories were accurate, if it even makes sense to apply this adjective to memories after all Proust has written about their fleetingness and inaccuracy. I have twenty-five pages of quotes from Time Regained, all worthy of attention. I’m not qualified to write an essay about Proust, an imperfect summary is all I can hope for.

This last volume has three parts all equally fascinating and for different reasons.

The first part is about Paris during WWI and how things were for Parisians and Proust’s circle. The Narrator is back to Paris after two years in the country, in a nursing home. From a historical standpoint, this part is very interesting. He pictures the political context of the time and the attitude of the various characters of his novel towards the Germans and how they express or broadcast their patriotism. The war time has rearranged the cards in his friends and acquaintances’s position in the world. He unveils what the characters are up to during these difficult times. Who became a journalist. Who is on the front. Who is an army deserter. What women do and what salons have become. Who works for the government. What happened to Combray, Méséglise and a little bridge on the Vivonne river. Who is a spy. How Françoise lives through this.

But people are people and life goes on. Thanks to Charlus, Jupien runs a brothel for homosexuals, which provides for the Baron’s enjoyment of sadomasochism and the Narrator witnesses it all. (Proust used to go to this kind of brothels himself, he even got arrested in one once).

After the Narrator updates us on what happened to several of the characters, he goes to a matinée hosted by the Princesse de Guermantes, the new one, since the prince has remarried.

When he arrives at their mansion, he stumbles upon a paved stone and Venice is brought back to his memory with the same force as Combray with the madeleine. He enters the mansion and has to stay in the library until the musicians whon are currently playing have finished their piece. Then he’s be allowed into the salon. This time in the Guermantes library is a revelation. Several details trigger his memory and his brain and his literary mission downs on him. His artistic pursuit is not a pipedream after all. He now knows what he will write, how he will write it. He’s on a mission.

This second part is a breathtaking explanation of how Proust conceived In Search of Lost Time. He explains his vision of art and what was the starting point of the work we’ve been reading. The conception of his artwork is laid out here, in the book itself, in a brilliant mise en abime. We read about the aim and the blueprints of his literary cathedral. And right there, in this library, he can’t wait to start writing it. Unsurprisingly, his epiphany has something to do with the perception of Time.

But before shutting himself up to write, in a hurry to ensure he has enough time to finish it before he dies, he has to attend the party. And this party is the ultimate place to meet all kind of people from the past. Some are only there through the remembrance of guests as they are dead. Most of the guests have suffered from the assault of Time. They are grey, old, senile, forgetful. The social order is askew or even upside down. And the Narrator observes them with his acute perception, seeing through them and pointing out the changes and the ridicules.

An era is dying. Time has taken his toll and the Narrator is going to bring them back, not in a realistic way but through is perception of them. He will take us from the beginning of the Third Republic to WWI and describe a milieu and an era. There will be political, social and mored matters. There will be no judgment, no question of sin and morality. He will dig into himself and analyze others to show the mechanisms of love, jealousy, grief, habits, imagination and oblivion.

It’ll be a lie. It’ll be non-linear and impressionistic. It’ll be human. It’ll be a masterpiece.

Henri Gervex (1852-1929). “Une soirée au Pré-Catelan”, 1909. (A l’extérieur, Anna Gould et Hélie de Talleyrand-Perigord. A l’intérieur, 1ère baie, à droite : Marquis de Dion. Baie au centre : Liane de Pougy. Baie à gauche : Santos-Dumont). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – a masterpiece

September 25, 2022 10 comments

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. (1985) French title: Lonesome Dove. Translated by Richard Crevier.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is Gallmeister #7 and #8, one of the first books that this newly founded publisher chose when they started their literary adventure. I understand why Oliver Gallmeister picked Lonesome Dove, it’s a page turner, an excellent western that brings modernity to the genre.

We’re in the late 1870s. Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers, run the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium since they left the army. They are settled in Lonesome Dove, a small town in the Republic of Texas, near the Rio Grande, by the Mexican border.

They live on their property with Pea Eye, Deets, the young Newt and Bolivar. Deets and Pea Eye come from their ranger days, Deets used to be their scout and Pea Eye is a faithful companion. Newt is only seventeen, the orphaned son of Maggie, a prostitute in Lonesome Dove. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, all think that Newt is Call’s son.

They have settled on a routine. Steal horses and cattle across the Rio Grande and sell them in Texas. Captain Call cannot stay still and make Deets, Pea Eye and Newt work as ranch hands. When the book opens, he’s dead on digging a new well on the property. Needless to say, the job is harassing under the Texan summer sun. The men admire Captain Call so much that they’d do whatever he wants.

Gus is the jolly man of the group: he talks his head off all the time, spends his days sipping whisky and visiting the local saloon. His contribution to the chores is limited to cooking biscuits for breakfast. He’s a charmer. He’s also better educated than the others and keeps an interest in papers.

Call is a born leader, in a stern and steady way. Gus is his opposite and it’s easy to see how the two men balance each other and made a good pair in the army. They are loyal to each other and loyalty is precious in these unruly days.

None of them is ready to say it aloud but they are a little bored. Call itches to be on the move and do something. Gus is still thinking about Clara, “the one who got away” and left to settle in Nebraska with her husband.

Arrives Jake Spoon, another man from their ranger days. He’s flaky and a gambler. He’s running away from sheriff July Johnson from Fort Smith after he accidentally killed a man in this town.

Jake Spoon explains that he’s been to Montana and that it is heaven on Earth and an incredible place to start a cattle ranch. Captain Call didn’t need more that this nudge to decide it’s a great idea and he starts planning their departure.

The whole book is about their trip to Montana. They get the cattle, recruit cowboys, prepare their trip. During their preparation, Jake seduces the beautiful Lorena, a local prostitute who wants to go to San Francisco. They are all more or less in love with her and Jake takes her with them.

Up till now, everything I wrote is the setting of a classic western but Lonesome Dove is more than that. It’s made of unforgettable characters who all have their intimate fault lines.

Gus is bigger than life with his sensitive approach and his boldness. He cares about others, doesn’t shy away from his feelings and is very nurturing with Newt and Lorena for example. He’s the life of the group, the one who cheers them up, talks with people who are fragile and deflects conflicts. Captain Call’s natural leadership would be harsh if Gus weren’t there to smooth things over.

In Lonesome Dove, men and women aren’t cast as usual in westerns.

McMurtry pictures multi-dimensional cowboys. They are tough on the outside, living and riding in difficult conditions. They kill people if needed and without any qualms. At the same time, they are tender-hearted, vulnerable and weak.

Dish Bogget is hopelessly in love with Lorena. Gus still longs for Clara and wishes he had married her. Call is torn over Newt and his fatherhood. Jake is a coward. Another cowboy is terrified by water and is afraid to drown. Newt often cries on his horse. Sheriff July Johnson is afraid of his shadow and a poor shot. His deputy Roscoe is a riding catastrophe when he’s on a horse and doesn’t know how to live in the wilderness.

McMurtry also describes a time where women are objects of desire and never their own person. They are prostitutes to satisfy the men’s sexual needs. They are wives to be a homemaker and free workforce. They are informal properties to steal. They live a hard life and have to steel themselves against men.

In Lonesome Dove, the women are the tough ones. They are practical, strong and don’t hesitate to make hard decisions. They need to survive.

Lorena has been pushed around by men all her life and sees Jake as a means to go to San Francisco. Clara is the one who made the tough decision to marry a reliable but dull man and who proves to be resilient and intelligent.

Another woman propositions Roscoe and asks him to marry her. Her husband is dead and she needs a man to build her farm and for sex.

Lonesome Dove pictures an attaching set of characters, it’s hard not to like Gus, Call, Newt and the others. They’re enough to keep the reader’s interest but on top of that, McMurtry has an exceptional sense of place.

He shows us how tough it was to ride from Texas to Montana. We see all the dangers, snakes, thunderstorms, heat and rivers to cross. The cook is a genius and manages to feed everyone. The cowboys manage to drive the cattle from Texas to Montana, something like 1700 miles with a herd of cows. Their bull is almost a character in the book. They lose men on the way. They are attacked by bandits and Indians. They are in the last years of total wilderness.

McMurtry also shows the end of an era. Gus and Captain Call were legendary Texas rangers. Older people still remember them and they have their picture in saloons. But a new generation is taking over. One who is building towns, doing business and has lived in a rather pacified country. The Indian wars are over in most places. The bison have been decimated by greedy hunters. Pioneers arrive everywhere to colonize the land and set up farms. The land where Gus and Call used to ride freely is becoming private property.

The time of frontiersmen has come to an end. Gus and Call have become men of the past. Their way of life is dying. Lonesome Dove is a page turner that shows how a country turns a new leaf in history.

Very, very, highly recommended.

PS: This is also my contribution to Liz Dexter’s event, Larry McMurtry 2022.

Crime fiction in August: Mexico, America, South Africa and New Zealand

August 28, 2022 11 comments

Let’s have a tour of my August crime fiction travels. First, let’s go to Madrid.

Adiós Madrid by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (1993) French title: Adiós Madrid. Translated by René Solis

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a Mexican crime fiction writer. I’ve already read Days of Combat featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. Adiós Madrid is the seventh or ninth book of the series.

This time, Belascoarán is sent on a mission to Madrid by his friend Justo Vasco, the assistant manager of the museum of anthropology in Mexico. He’s going all the way to Madrid to deliver Vasco’s threat. The Black Widow, “ex-rancheras singer, mistress of an ex-president of Mexico who had recently passed away, ex-icon of the Mexico nightlife and ex-landlord of the country.”, lives in Madrid.

Belascoarán has to tell her that if she tries to sell the plastron of Moctezuma, an antique that belongs to the anthropology museum, Vasco will leak all kinds of embarrassing information about her.

Belascoarán is happy to get a free trip to Madrid, the city where his parents grew up and it’s a bittersweet experience for him to confront the Madrid that his parents described to the actual and modern one. And then of course, things don’t go according to plan as far as the threat delivery is concerned.

Adiós Madrid is a very short book for crime fiction (102 pages in French) and it was good fun but nothing more. No need to rush for it.

After Madrid, it was time to fly to Washington DC and let George Pelecanos drive me through his hometown.

The Cut by George Pelecanos (2011) French title: Une balade dans la nuit. Translated by Elsa Maggion.

In The Cut, Spero Lucas, a former marine who was in Afghanistan, works as a non-licensed investigator for a lawyer, Tom Petersen. Spero’s job is to unearth useful clues that help Petersen during procedurals.

Spero starts on a case where he finds crucial clues that unable to bail Petersen’s client’s son out of jail. The thing is: Petersen’s client is Anwan Hawkins, head of a marijuana trafficking organization and currently in jail. Hawkins uses the “Fedex method”: send the drug via Fedex at the address of an unsuspecting citizen, follow up the delivery on internet, be on location at delivery time and intercept the parcel.

Now two parcels went missing and the loss amounts to 130 000 USD. For a 40% cut, Spero is ready to track down the missing parcels. And that will prove to be more dangerous than expected, even for an ex-marine.

Spero Lucas is a well-drawn character, we see him struggle with his military past and his father’s death. He comes from an unconventional tight-knit family with Greek roots and the personal side of the book was a nice addition to the crime plot.

My only drawback is Pelecanos’s style. You can see that he’s used to writing scenarios as it is very cinematographic. Lots of descriptions of driving the streets of Washington DC were hard to picture and didn’t bring much to the book. In my opinion, it could have been more literary. It was Good entertainment though.

Then, I traveled to South Africa to read my first Deon Meyer. He’s a writer I’d seen and heard at Quais du Polar and had wanted to read for a long time.

Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (1998) French title: Les Soldats de l’aube.

Dead at Daybreak is, according to Goodreads, Matt Joubert book #1.5. This is a series I’m very tempted to read after this introduction to Meyer’s literary world.

Zatopek van Heerden is a former police officer, he’s adrift and when the book opens, he’s hungover in jail after fighting in a bar in Capetown. Like Spero Lucas in The Cut, he’s hired by a lawyer, Hope Beneke, to help her with her client Wilhelmina van As. Here’s the reason she hired van Heerden:

Johannes Jacobus Smit was fatally wounded with a large-calibre gun on 30 September last year during a burglary at his home in Moreletta Street, Durbanville. The entire contents of a walk-in safe are missing, including a will in which, it is alleged, he left all his possessions to his friend, Wilhelmina Johanna van As. If the will cannot be found, the late Mr Smit will have died intestate and his assets will eventually go to the state.’

It seems simple enough: find the will. Van Heerden will have to get out of his drunken funk, informally reconnect with his former colleagues, solve the case, get paid and move on. However, the case takes him to another affair that happened in 1983, during the time of the Apartheid and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Dead at Daybreak is a fantastic crime fiction book and it has it all. A riveting plot. Fascinating thoughts about South Africa, the change of regime and relationships between the black and white communities. Well-drawn characters.

The plot driven chapters are third person narrative, with the reader following the investigation. They alternate with chapters with first person narrative, where van Heerden writes about his life, from his childhood to the events that brought him to get into bar fights and drink too much. These chapters were captivating too. The ending of the book was both the closing of the investigation and closure for van Heerden.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

My next crime fiction book took me to New Zealand where I was happy to reconnect with Maori police officer Tito Ihaka.

Fallout by Paul Thomas. (2014) Not available in French. Published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Fallout is my second book by Paul Thomas as I’d already read and loved Death on Demand.

Fallout has a triple plot thread with interconnected stories. It starts with Finbar McGrail, the District Commander in Auckland who is on the verge of retirement. His first murder case in 1987 is still unsolved and he recently had a new lead. He asks Ihaka to look into it and see if he can find who murdered Polly Stenson at the posh Barton party in 1987.

Meanwhile, Ihaka’s former colleague Van Roon is hired as a non-licensed investigator to find Eddie Brightside. This man has been hiding abroad for years and he was seen in New Zealand.

On the side, Miriam Lovell, Ikaka’s ex-lover, contacts him regarding his father’s death, some twenty years ago. Lovell is writing her PhD thesis about work unions in New Zealand and as Ikaha’s father was a well-known unionist, she comes across breaking news: Jimmy Ihaka might not have died of a heart attack but could have been murdered. Ihaka decides to investigate his father’s death.

I loved Fallout as much as I loved Death on Demand. Ihaka is an incredible character. He’s a maverick police officer with a code of conduct of his own. He’s loud, crude but loyal. He’s either respected or despised and he’s not good with precinct politics. This is Ihaka, assessing a witness.

Gentle, thought Ihaka; sensitive; arty. Probably plays the guitar and writes songs about how hard it is being gentle, sensitive and arty in this fucked-up world.

Political correctness is not Ihaka’s strong suit and that’s why I enjoyed my time with him.

Fallout is a tour de force. I never felt lost between the three investigations, mixing up characters or stories. It was perfectly orchestrated, a fine-tuned mix of standard crime, personal matters and political issues as it branches out on the topic of New Zealand anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s. Fascinating stuff.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

So, that was my month of August with crime fiction. All in all, it was a good pick of books, various places and well-drawn characters and plots. I’m looking forward to reading more by Deon Meyer, so don’t hesitate to leave recommendations in the comments below.

All these books belong to my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

PS : Fallout is published by an indie publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, their books are available online and well, the more books they sell, the more chances we have that they bring us great crime fiction books.

Literary escapade: Marcel Proust on his mother’s side – an exhibition

July 24, 2022 9 comments

After the exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet (see my billets here and here), my celebration of the centenary of Proust’s death continues with another Parisian exhibition. Indeed, the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme set in the Marais quarter currently hosts an exhibition about Proust on his mother’s side.

Proust’s great grandfather, Baruch Weil (1780-1828) directed a porcelain manufactory in Fontainebleau and was the official circumciser of the synagogue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth in Paris. Nahé, one of his sons, married Adèle Berncastel (1824-1890) they had a daughter, Jeanne.

Jeanne Weil married Adrien Proust, a doctor from Eure-et-Loir who was probably a freemasonry acquaintance of her father.

Combray is on Adrien’s side. Adrien and Jeanne had a civil marriage and decided that their children would be educated as catholic. Nevertheless, Marcel and Robert went to the Lycée Concordet, a Républican high school and not a Catholic school.

So, Adèle Weil is Proust’s grandmother, the one who reads Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon in In Search of Lost Time. Jeanne is Proust’s mother. Adèle and Jeanne had a solid education and studied more than most girls of their time who were brought up for marriage and nothing else. (See Balzac and Flaubert) Here are photographs of these two important ladies who raised Marcel into the writer he became.

Marcel Proust was close to the Weil family. His great-uncle Louis lived in Auteuil where Proust used to live when he was a child. The great-uncle Louis is in In Search of Lost Time under Oncle Adolphe. He was rich and had no children: he left his money to his nephew Georges and his niece Jeanne and Marcel inherited part of his fortune after his mother died.

Jeanne Weil was very important in her son’s life. They had a close relationship. It came from the circumstances of his birth (right during the Paris Commune and his poor health. (Marcel almost died of an athma attack when he was ten) Beside her traditional role as a mother, she was the one interested in arts. She traveled with him, helped him translate Ruskin as her English was better than his. Adèle, Jeanne and Marcel were the art lovers while Robert was more into science and sports and closer to his father.

The exhibition aimed at pinpointing the importance of his Jewish roots in Proust’s life and literature. Sometimes I thought the connections were obvious and interesting to explore and sometimes I thought it was a bit farfetched. Let’s start with those.

The exhibition makes a comparison between Proust’s manuscripts and their “paperoles”, additions to the text and transcripts of the Talmud with their peripheral commentaries surrounding the text. See for yourself.

Sure, his “paperoles” and additions to the text exist but any other writer could have done the same, no?

His Jewish family lodgings in Auteuil or in Paris became places in his novel. His stays in Normandy from 1880 to 1914 among the Jewish intelligentsia are in the center of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. This is where we hear about the Narrator’s Jewish friend Bloch. It was the opportunity to see a few paintings as illustrations of the atmosphere of the time. I always enjoy impressionist paintings and I love that they give us glimpses of life at the end of the 19th century.

There is also a special display about Esther, Jewish the heroin of The Book of Esther. Jeanne Proust admired this heroin a lot and Sarah Bernhardt (La Berma) performed in the play Esther by Racine. It was also mentioned that Raynaldo Hahn, Proust’s friend and ex-lover accompanied her at the piano.

Then the passage about Charlus’s secret. He’s one of the homosexual characters of In Search of Lost Time. The link between homosexuality and the Jewish community is that both communities had to lay low. It sounds more an excuse to include the major theme of homosexuality in the exhibition than anything else.

I thought that the real themes about Jews in In Search of Lost Time are the Dreyfus Affair and how Proust paints Jewish characters. The Dreyfus Affair is a key topic in Proust’s work. He was on the Dreyfusard side, right from the beginning. He supported Zola and signed a protest. And yet he remained friend with the despicable Léon Daudet, a notorious anti-Semitic writer. (I’m glad that Proust never got to see how his friend turned out in the 1930s until his death)

His work depicts with accuracy the impact of this affair on the social order. He shows how families were torn apart. With light touches here and there, he makes the reader understand how antisemitic the French society was and I can truly say that reading Proust made me understand how Vichy happened. There were antisemitic roots that Vichy watered, grew and exploited.

The two main Jewish characters in Proust’s masterpiece are Charles Swann and Bloch. Swann represents the elegant and cultivated Jew while Bloch embodies the opposite. Proust was sometimes criticized because his Jewish characters seem caricatural while they are only the mirror of the society’s prejudices and not reflecting the author’s opinion.

The exhibition also points out that the Zionist movement rapidly stressed Proust’s Jewishness. It happened right after his death, in the 1920s. His work was quoted in several reviews and his recognition as a Jewish and universal artist was early. This is something I wasn’t aware of.

All in all, it was informative and interesting to think about Proust’s work through his Jewish background. It was the opportunity to visit this museum and see its permanent collections about Jewish history and culture.

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

July 2, 2022 22 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 14 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?

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