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Magellan by Stefan Zweig – a belated billet

January 15, 2022 20 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.  

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.

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!

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.

Sundborn by Philippe Delerm – about Scandinavian impressionists

August 5, 2021 21 comments

Sundborn or the days of lightness by Philippe Delerm (1996) Original French title: Sundborn ou les jours de lumière. Not available in English.

Another book from the Musée d’Orsay bookstore, Sundborn ou les jours de lumière by Philippe Delerm is about the Scandinavian group of artists who gathered in Grez-sur-Loing in 1884. We have Carl Larsson and his wife Karin, Peder Severin (“Soren”) Krøyer, Christian Krohg, Karl Nordström and August Strindberg and his wife Siri.

Grez-sur-Loing seemed to be destined to be linked to artists: this is where Laure de Berny, Balzac’s muse and inspiration for Lily in the Valley is buried.

Delerm imagines that a French-Danish young man whose grand-parents live at Grez-sur-Loing, meets the artists and befriends them. When the group dissolves, he follows the Carlssons to Skagen, Denmark and later visits them in Sundborn, Sweden. His name is Ulrik Tercier, an association of first and last names that shows his mother’s Danish side and his father’s French side. Ulrik stays at Grez-sur-Loing every summer, coming from Paris where his father is a doctor. I know, it sounds a lot like Proust’s childhood and adolescent summers in Combray, especially since Ulrik and Marcel are around the same age.

Ulrik remains close to the Larssons and this prop offers Delerm the opportunity to explore several decades of these painters’ lives.

The moments at Grez-sur-Loing are the premises of the Skagen Painters group who lived and worked in Skagen in community, like French impressionists. Delerm describes a vivid group of artists, horsing around and working together, hosted at the Hôtel Chevillon. (The servant of this inn is named Léonie, a reference to Proust’s Aunt Léonie in Combray?)

Sundborn is a lovely book that pictures a group of artists who enjoy life, look for the best light in their painting and are on a quest as artists. They are Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and they share playful days in Skagen, where Krøyer settles and then brings his wife, the painter Marie Triepke. In Skagen, the group has the addition of Michael Ancher and his wife Anna, Viggo and Martha Johansen and Oscar Björk.

Krøyer’s painting Hip, Hip, Hurrah is a testimony of their group’s everyday life.

Later, the Larssons go back to Sweden, buy a country property in Sundborn and change it into a homey house open to friends and visitors. The Carlssons had a lot of children and Delerm hints that their family life changed them and influenced their art. They found their inner light in their family life. Carl turned to watercolor and Karin to kraft. They became iconic in Sweden.

Carl Larsson: Köket.NMB 270

Delerm develops Ulrik’s story as a bystander, the lover of a side painter, Julia. It is not a book about painting technique but more about a group of painters who aimed at harmony between their art and their happiness, who changed official painting in their respective country and brought the impressionist movement into Scandinavian art. It’s a book by an art lover who makes the reader want to rush to a museum and see all these paintings by themselves.

Incidentally, there’s currently an exhibition about Soren Krøyer at the Musée Marmottan-Monet in Paris. I went to the exhibition at the end of June. I bought Delerm’s book years ago, picked it from the shelf in a decrease-the-TBR move and ended up reading about the very painter whose painting I discovered a month ago. Serendipity. Krøyer’s painting is stunning. The rare sunny days in Skagen have a distinctive lightness and the colony of painters tried to capture moments of life at Skagen, their walks on the beach, their life together but also the lives of the Skagen fishermen. I was mesmerized by the light coming off Krøyer’s paintings. Little girls pop out of the frame and come alive in front of you.

The beach is bright and inviting. You think Marie will turn and start talking to you. I could have stared at the paintings for hours.

P.S. Krøyer Summer evening on Skagen’s Beach. Anna_Ancher and Marie Krøyer walking together

This image doesn’t do justice to Krøyer’s amazing gift at transcribing light. Now, let’s watch paintings from this attaching group of Scandinavian artists.

Karl Nordström Field of Oats at Grez
Michael Ancher – A stroll on the beach
Atelje idyll Konstnärens hustru med dottern Suzanne
Carl Larsson 1885
Anna Ancher – Sunlight in the blue room
Viggo Johansen – Dividing the catch
Marie Kroyer – selfportrait
Christian Krohg – Tired

PS: Philippe Delerm also wrote Autumn, about the pre-Raphaelites.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane

July 28, 2021 6 comments

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane (1989) French title: L’homme qui a perdu son nom. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane is focused on Joe Sterling, an untethered young man who needs to find his way back to his identity. This explains why the French title is L’homme qui a perdu son nom, or The man who lost his name.

Joe Sterling comes from a family who owns a ranch in Deadrock, Montana. His father inherited it but made a career at the local bank before his promotion as bank manager in Minneapolis. He moved his family there and became another man. Joe’s father never sold the ranch. He leased it to his rival and neighbor, Mr Overstreet, who wants nothing more than to buy it because its plot of land is inserted into his property. Of course, Sterling refuses, out of pride. The rivalry is kept alive.

When Sterling senior dies, the ranch goes to his sister Lureen, who is supposed to keep it safe for Joe’s future. The understanding is that she owns the property deed but the moral contract says that Joe’s the actual owner and is entitled to the rent’s money.

Joe used to spend his summers working at the ranch under the supervision of Overstreet’s foreman. He also went out with Ellen, Overstreet’s daughter and got beaten up by a local boy, Billy Kelton. These summers are part of his identity, moments of happiness and rightness. It’s also in the abandoned house of a forgotten rich man from the silver rush that he experiences his first deep encounter with painting.

Joe loved Montana and the ranch but didn’t see himself operating it. He chose an entirely different path: he went to Art School at Yale, became a successful painter in New York and lost his mojo.

He moved to Key West, met Astrid and lived off the rent from the ranch and from his commercial drawings. Indeed, after dropping his career as a painter, he started to work for his university friend Ivan who sells electronic devices and is always in need of explanatory drawings for the instruction manuals.

At some point, Lureen stops sending the rent money, Ivan comes with a drawing order for a ridiculous and useless Miss X machine and Astrid sounds unsufferable. Joe leaves Key West and drives to Montana, to take over the ranch and hopefully find his identity.

Joe doesn’t fit anywhere. He starts raising cattle on the ranch but, even if he doesn’t make any fatal mistake, he knows that full-time ranching isn’t his calling. He doesn’t paint anymore. He doesn’t know if he still loves Astrid or not. He’s in an uncomfortable zone where every area of his life itches.

He fumbles through life and needs the time in Montana to reconnect with his aunt Lureen, his uncle Smitty and the local community. He explores his family’s history and the dynamics between the three siblings: his father, his aunt and his uncle Smitty. His father was a bit estranged and feared by his siblings. Uncle Smitty never recovered from the war and is a little swindler who takes advantage of his sister Lureen. She covers for him, out of love. Joe finds out that his father was not popular in Deadrock, especially after the bank forclosed several local ranches.

Joe realizes that he doesn’t really belong to the Deadrock community. There’s a striking scene where Joe is at a funeral and makes a speech about the deceased only to realize that he was talking about another man with the same name.

Keep the Change was published in 1989 and in a way, reflects the atmosphere of the 1980s.

Joe doesn’t really want to conform to society’s expectations. He doesn’t want to be a white middle-class man with the white picket fence, the two kids and a job. He rejects the Miss X project because deep down, he’s against all these devices that the industry shoves down our throats. He’s at odds with the yuppie atmosphere of the 1980s. He doesn’t want to be a blind consumer.

He also doesn’t understand the need to own land. It’s an urge he doesn’t feel and that makes him at odds with the Montana mentality. There are beautiful passages where Joe rides his horse on the ranch, he contemplates the beauty of the land surrounding him and he doesn’t feel any pride for owning it. Its beauty is enough to satisfy him.

Greed is not in Joe’s bones. The book title is Keep the Change, and in my mind, I hear Joe saying it as he checks out of the American society and doesn’t bother to gather his change before turning its back to it.

For a change, my edition includes a very interesting foreword by the translator, Brice Matthieussent. He’s also the translator of Jim Harrison’s books. Since McGuane and Harrison were excellent friends, wrote to each other once a week and did fishing trips together, it’s interesting to see that they had the same French translator.

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa – crime fiction in Bogota

July 24, 2021 7 comments

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa (1997) French title: Perdre est une question de méthode. Translated into French by Anne-Marie Meunier.

J’ai perdu. J’ai toujours perdu. Ça ne m’irrite pas, ça ne m’inquiète pas. Perdre n’est qu’une question de méthode : Luis SepulvedaI lost. I’ve always lost. It doesn’t irritate me, it doesn’t bother me. Losing is only a question of method: Luis Sepulveda.

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer who used to work as a journalist for RFI (Radio France International), which might explain why his books found a publisher in France but are not available in English.

Set in Bogota, Losing Is a Question of Method is a crime fiction novel. Victor Silanpa is a journalist at El Observador. When the book opens, the body of a crucified and drowned man is found by Lake Sisga. The police call Silanpa, he’s used to working with them and writing articles about crimes. Silanpa and the police captain Aristophanes Moya have a win-win working relationship. Silanpa unofficially helps with investigations in exchange for a good story for his newspaper.

At first, nobody knows who the dead man is. Silanpa is at the morgue when different families with a missing person come to see if the body is their relative’s. Comes Estupiñan. He thinks that the body is his brother’s but he’s not totally sure because they were estranged and had only recently rekindled their relationship.

Silanpa and Estupiñan associate to investigate the case and they will end up in the middle of an affair of corruption and business. We are reminded that we’re in Bogota when Estupiñan ensures that the case has nothing to do with the Narcos or the FARC before getting involved in the investigation.

The town council member Esquilache had his last campaign financed by a real estate corporation Grande Capitale. In return for their support, he promised they’d get their hands on the land by Lake Sisga to build a tourist resort. Esquilache also double-crossed them with the real estate company owned by Vargas Vicuña. Between them is Banagan, a lawyer who lives beyond his means, gambles, and has the debt that comes with this addiction. He’s all too willing to bend over backward to accommodate Estupiñan.

People fight over a piece of land and in the mix is a naturist club that owns a plot of land right in the middle of what would be the resort. The naturists want to stay where they are. The real estate moguls want their resort, and they all have the same problem: the title deed for these precious 400 hectares is missing. The last known owner was Pereira Antunez, a local businessman who was also a member of this naturist club. Who inherited of this plot of land?

Losing Is a Question of Method is an entertaining read. The crime plot is well put together, and the suspense kept me reading. Silanpa is an attaching character. There’s nothing in it for him if he solves the case, except a good story for the paper, and that’s why they back him up. Silanpa suffers from chronic hemorrhoids, he’s in the middle of a nasty breakup with his girlfriend Mónica but doesn’t hesitate to hook up with a bar escort, all this while carrying his melancholy.

I’ve seldom read a crime fiction book where the police are so useless. We know nothing of their investigation and only hear about Moya when he reads his speeches to his dieting group. He’s overweight, eats too much and needs lose a few kilos. Given how easily our two amateur sleuths manage to find clues and piece things together, the police seem even more incompetent.

I enjoyed Gamboa’s style. He has a great sense of humor…

– Au-dessus de la tête de ces bandits pend l’épée de Démosthène.
– Démosthène ? dit Silanpa. Vous voulez dire Damoclès ?
– C’est la même chose, chef. A notre époque, tout le monde est armé.
– Over these gangsters’ heads hangs Demosthenes’s sword.
– Demosthenes? Says Silanpa. You mean Damocles?
– It’s all the same, boss. Nowadays, everybody is armed.

And peppers his pages with little thoughts and comments.

La réalité lui devenait si exagérément hostile qu’il ne pouvait pas ne pas vouloir l’altérer. Mais cela n’a servi à rien, se dit-il en pensant à son Underwood. La réalité est la seule chose qu’on ne peut jamais semer. Elle vous rattrape toujours.Reality had become so excessively hostile to him that he could not not want to alter it. But it didn’t matter, he mused, thinking about his Underwood. Reality is the only thing one can never shake off. It always catches up on you.

He definitely won me over when one of his characters confesses that he loves comics, especially Mafalda.

The plot moves forward at a good pace and was suspenseful. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the town, the meetings in bars to catch up on the case since it was written pre-cell phones. I followed the story between Silanpa and Mónica and ended up thinking I’d like to see Silanpa in another book.

Unfortunately, Gamboa hasn’t been translated into English. This book is available in French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Apparently, we Latin languages stick together. 😊

This is a contribution to Stu’s Spanish Lit Month.

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein – a delight for all Proust lovers

July 18, 2021 25 comments

Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein (2012) French title: La bibliothèque de Marcel Proust.

It isn’t enough that he names or quotes the great writers of the past: he has absorbed them; they are an integral part of his being, to the point of participating in its creation. As such their works will survive, not in the immutable way great monuments endure, but constantly rediscovered and reinterpreted thanks to Proust’s unexpected, playful, and intensely personal take on different masterpieces. One of the great joys of reading La Recherche is to disentangle the rich and diverse contributions of the past.

Marcel Proust was born in July 10th, 1871. We are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth and Open Press has published a new edition of Anka Muhlstein’s Monsieur Proust’s Library. It has new illustrations by Andreas Gurewich.

In a slim volume (129 pages), Anka Muhlstein explores Proust and literature. On one side, there’s Proust as a reader and on the other side, there’s literature in In Search of Lost Time, or as French fans call it, La Recherche.

I had a lot of fun going through Proust’s first bookish loves and discovering which foreign writers he admired. We know from La Recherche that Racine, Balzac, Mme de Sévigné and Saint-Simon were among his favorite writers. When you’ve read Proust and seen his style, it’s hard to believe that Proust as a reader enjoyed books with lots of action, like Capitaine Fracasse or novels by Alexandre Dumas.

I knew he was fascinated and influenced by John Ruskin. He translated his work into French, without knowing the English language. His mother, who was fluent in English, helped him and he learned how to read English on the go. He could read but he couldn’t speak. How incredible is that? I didn’t know that he was influenced by Dickens, Hardy and Eliot and loved Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Proust was a great reader and the characters in his books are avid readers too. They all read but the Narrator sort them out between good and bad readers. In this chapter, Muhlstein picks characters in La Recherche and shows who’s a good reader in Proust’s opinion and who is not. Some are even an opportunity for Proust to convey his ideas about reading and literary criticism.

Mme de Villeparisis’s opinions about writers are a spoof of the theories of the great literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who held that knowing an author’s character, morals, religion, and comportment was indispensable for assessing the value of his work. This theory was so abhorrent to Proust that he wrote Contre Sainte-Beuve, arguing passionately that it represented the negation of all that a true writer is about. According to Proust, an artist does not express his inner self—the self that is never exposed in everyday life and is the only self that matters—in conversation, or even in letters. To look at the artist’s life in order to judge the work is absurd.

Unbeknown to be, I’ve always had the same opinion as Proust. How cool is that?

The chapter about the Baron de Charlus as a reader was enlightening too. He’s the homosexual character in La Recherche and an excellent reader. He bonds with the Narrator’s grand-mother over Madame de Sévigné. She sees in him a good, erudite and sensitive reader. In this chapter, Muhlstein demonstrates how much Balzac is embedded in Proust’s text. I discovered that Proust’s favorite works by Balzac are Girl With the Golden Eyes, a lesbian story, A Passion in the Desert, a strange love for panther, Lost Illusions, with Vautrin in love with Lucien de Rubempré and Sarrasine. I didn’t remember that Balzac had homosexual characters.

illustration by Andreas Gurewich

Another discovery for me was about Racine’s innovative ways with the French language. For me, Corneille and Racine are boring 17th century playwrights stuck in alexandrines. This chapter was truly eye-opening and the explanations about Proust’s fascination for Phèdre were very interesting.

The chapter on the Goncourt brothers was useful as their Journal was a source of information about the French literary world of their time. Proust won the Goncourt Prize in 1919 for In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

A book about Proust and literature had to include a chapter about Bergotte, the great writer in La Recherche. It’s modeled after Anatole France, a very famous writer of the time that nobody reads anymore although Proust was convinced that France/Bergotte would reach immortality. Bergotte did as a character thanks to his author.

Proust has created a prodigiously interwoven universe,the form and complexity of which do not reveal themselves easily; but fortunately, it is a universe within which are to be found planets—the worlds of the Guermantes, the Verdurins, and the Narrator’s family, for example—inhabited by a diverse population of characters in turn moving, entertaining, hilarious, and cruel, to which readers are readily attracted. The same may be said of the complex world of literature that Proust himself inhabited.

As always with Proust, I’m amazed at how much I remember of the characters in La Recherche. They stayed with me and when Anka Muhlstein evokes a character or a scene, I know whom or what she’s referring to. I loved her short book about Proust and literature because it is accessible to common readers like me. You don’t need a PhD in literature to read it and it’s an enjoyable and instructive journey into Proust’s library.

Many thanks to Other Press for sending me a free copy of this affectionate book about La Recherche.

I’ve read it at the same time I went to Paris and visited the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet. They have made a whole room about Proust, since they have his bed in their collection. I wish they had redone the corked walls as well, to help us understand the atmosphere in which he wrote.

PS: Tamara at Thyme for tea organizes Paris in July again and that’s an opportunity for me to contribute to her event.

Down by the River Side by Richard Wright

June 30, 2021 13 comments

The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright. (1961 / 1938) French titles: L’homme qui a vu l’inondation (translated by Jacqueline Bernard et Claude-Edmonde Magny) and Là-bas, près de la rivière (translated by Boris Vian)

Folio has a collection of short books of around 100 pages sold at the unique price of 2€. They usually put together one to three short stories from a writer and for me, it’s a way to discover a new author without reading a full novel or read something short. (obviously).

The one entitled L’homme qui a vu l’inondation by Richard Wright was published in 2007, after the Katrina hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. It includes two short stories, The Man Who Saw the Flood, written in 1961 and more importantly, Down by the River Side, written in 1938. It has a foreword by Julia Wright, the author’s daughter.

Both stories are about floods by the Mississippi river. The Man Who Saw the Flood relates the aftermath of a terrible inundation. A family of black peasants come back to their house, only to find it destroyed, full of mud and with their tools broken and seed rotten. They are hungry and the father and husband has no other choice than go and work for a white employer. It feels like going back to slavery, in an economic way.

Down by the River Side was written in 1938 and is based on the 1927 flood. It opens on a terrible scene: a man is at his house, his wife is in labor and the delivery is difficult. He’s there with a midwife, his mother-in-law and his other child. The water level is increasing at high speed and he regrets to have stayed there when he had a chance to leave. He has sent out Bob to get a boat and his only goal now is to take his wife to the Red Cross hospital in town. This man could be anybody and Wright named him Mann, only to drive the point home, I suppose.

Bob comes back but has stolen a boat from a white man, which is a terrible offense in that part of the country. Mann decides to take the risk and use it anyway. If he doesn’t, they drown in their house.

Wright describes the flood with an implacable accuracy. (He was 19 when the 1927 flood occurred): the dark water, the powerful current and the unrecognizable landscape. It’s hard to know where to row to as almost everything is under water.

Of course, Mann don’t get away with using a white man’s stolen boat, even if it’s a life-and-death situation. The whites show no compassion for his wife. No brotherhood or empathy stems from these extreme circumstances: the whites remain on their side and the black remain niggers to them. No seeing past the color of the skin, even in this devastating flood. The whites are evacuated and the black men are requisitioned to patch the dam with sandbags in last and futile attempt to protect the town from the furious rising waters.

Julia Wright can’t help but making a parallel between this story and the terrible Katrina hurricane and the poor management of its aftermath by the authorities. Let’s be honest, if such a disaster with such a death toll and so many mistakes in the crisis management had happened on a plant, its director would have been trialed and condemned for not ensuring their workers’ safety. The politicians got away with it, no matter how high the number of casualties…

On a lighter note, you’ll see at the beginning of my billet that Down by the River Side has been translated by Boris Vian, writer and jazzman extraordinaire. When I read the title in English, I immediately hear in my mind the eponymous jazz song, a terrible contrast to the scene of desolation brought by the flood. I imagine it’s all silence too, except for the noise of the rushing waters and the relentless rain, a total opposite to its upbeat jazz namesake. This effect is totally lost in translation. The French title, accurately translated from the English, Là-bas près de la rivière, triggers nothing but soothing walks in a calm and chirpy corner in the countryside. The vibe is more “A River Runs Through It” than “murderous brown waters”. Language…

This is 20 Books of Summer #5.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa – unusual coming-of-age novel

May 24, 2021 17 comments

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (1977) French title: La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Translated by Albert Bensoussan.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa is based on the author’s youth. We’re in Lima in the 1950s. Mario is 18, he’s at university, studying law to pacify his parents. He wants to be a writer and he works at Radio Panamericana, writing news bulletins with his colleague Pascual. Meanwhile, he tries his hand at writing short stories and imagines moving to an attic in Paris to pursue his literary dreams.

Two newcomers disrupt his routine of studying, working, writing and hanging out with his friends. First, Radio Panamericana hires Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian scriptwriter and star of soap operas. Second, his aunt by marriage’s sister, Aunt Julia, moves to Lima after she divorced her Bolivian husband.

Pedro Camacho is a talented but manic scriptwriter and he soon befriends Mario, confiding in him and sharing his writing tips. Pedro quicky becomes the new star of Radio Panamericana, bringing in more and more listeners with his crazy plots. With the listeners comes the money from advertising and the radio has found their goose that lays the golden eggs.

Mario and Aunt Julia didn’t know each other before she arrived and soon begin a secret affair. She’s fourteen years older than him. Since they belong to a tight-knit extended family where gossip travels fast, their greatest fear is to get caught by a family member. Mario’s friends and cousin Nancy know about their relationship and cover for them. Mario and Julia have no place for real intimacy since they both live with their relatives. They spend time together at the cinema, at the radio or wandering in the streets.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a coming-of-age novel where we see Mario falling in love and taking charge of his future. Older Mario looks back on his younger self with humor and tenderness. The Lima of his youth comes to life with him, his friend Javier and his colleagues at Radio Panamericana. We also relive the golden age of radio, with its numerous soap operas that will move to TV when this new media is widespread.

The main difference with a “usual” coming-of-age novel is that chapters alternate between Mario’s life and Pedro’s soap operas. At the beginn

ing, I thought that the stories were Mario’s short stories but I realized it was Pedro’s. As months go by, Pedro is more and more absorbed by his stories and works longer and longer hours to keep all his balls in the air. He jungles between several soap operas and his workload is threatening his health. To be honest, I thought that the chapters with the soap opera stories were a bit too long and I struggled to keep reading and pay attention. I was more invested in Mario’s life.

Two side comments about Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

The first one is about the title. The original Spanish title is La tía Julia y el escribidor. In English, it the straightforward Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. In French, it is La tante Julia et le scribouillard. Two things caught my attention in the French title. First, why la tante Julia and not just Tante Julia? Tante Julia sounds better but by choosing this, you link aunt and Julia and it becomes a sort of new first name and thus her identity. You can’t detach the family title from the first name and I can’t help thinking it makes the relationship sound more incestuous than la tante Julia. Mario and Julia are not blood related at all and he didn’t know her growing up, so la tante Julia works better in this context. I don’t know how the aunt Julia sounds to native English speakers. Is it really weird?

Then there’s the word scribouillard, which doesn’t mean scriptwriter –that would be scénariste—and is slightly derogatory as are words with the ard suffix in French. (like chauffard). Scribouillard means penpusher. The scriptwriter can only be Pedro Camacho but the penpusher can be Mario, aspiring writer and Pedro, writer of cheap soap operas. It’s not the same.

So, which translation is the right one?

Time to go back to the original Spanish title. I don’t speak Spanish so I went to my usual online dictionary to see the actual translation of escribidor. No official translation, just references to La tante Julia et le scribouillard. I kid you not. Escribidor doesn’t exist in Spanish. It means that Llosa made this word up and I bet that, after spending years in Paris, it is his Spanish translation of scribouillard. What do you think?

My second side comment is about the various covers of this book.

The Dutch one is close to the French one I displayed at the beginning of my billet. The German one seems to come out of a French or Italian film of the 1960s and has nothing to do with the novel. The Polish one implies that Aunt Julia is a loose lady.

The English cover with the lady and the city makes me think of a WWII novel. The Swedish one goes with the Polish cover. Imagine the disappointment of German, Polish and Swedish readers who based their purchase on the cover, thinking they’d be reading a torrid love affair, and ending up with tame kisses on street corners and wild soap operas. The Penguin cover is good: we see Mario or Pedro, their typewriter and the radio. There’s no emphasis on the Julia/Mario relationship.

I think that the best cover is the Spanish one with the lady and her half-radio face. It’s a good summary of the book: it’s in the right decade, it’s not lewd, it shows Julia and the radio as they are both important in Mario’s formative years. Which one do you prefer?

PS: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Miraflores neighborhood in Lima. It is also the setting of A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique, published in 1972 and also set in the 1950s. It’s a book I highly recommend too.

Miss Mole by E.H. Young – wonderful character study

May 16, 2021 29 comments

Miss Mole by E.H Young (1930) Not available in French.

I think I owe Miss Mole by E.H. Young to Ali, from Heavenli or Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal when I asked for a comfort read during our third lockdown.

We’re in 1930, in Radstowe, not far from London. Miss Hannah Mole is an impoverished spinster who works as a governess. She has no family left, except her cousin Lilia, aka the almighty Mrs Spenser-Smith, the town’s rich patroness. Lilia doesn’t want anyone to know that Hannah and she are related.

When the book opens, Miss Mole has just quit from her position as a companion to a Mrs Widdows because she couldn’t stand her any longer. She doesn’t have any plan yet but when she stumbles upon Lilia at a tea shop, she informs her of her current predicament.

Lilia recommends Hannah to Mr Corder, the pastor of the Beresford Road Chapel. He’s a widower with two daughters, Ethel and Ruth. His son Howard is at Oxford. His nephew Wilfrid lives with them as he attends medical school. Lilia kills two birds in one stone with this recommendation. On the one hand, she ensures that Hannah is settled in a new home, which means she won’t have to invite her to hers if she doesn’t find another job. On the other hand, she appoints a housekeeper of her own in the Corder household, which puts Mr Corder out of reach of the single ladies of the parish who would insert themselves into his life through housekeeping duties. Ah, the single ladies vultures preying upon single clergymen. It’s almost a literary genre in itself.

Hannah has a lovely personality. She’s resilient and refuels on her own. She tries to be hopeful and positive all the time. She doesn’t complain and seeks for the best in people and in any situation she’s in. She rejoices in the little things and she si grateful to Fortune who, in making her a servant, had remembered to give her freedom and happiness in herself.

Hannah also has a bright and mischievous mind, a misplaced sense of humour that isn’t always compatible with her position. It’s her strength as a person but her weakness as a professional. She knows it when she arrives at the Corders’, assesses the people and the atmosphere and sets herself to improve Ruth and Ethel’s lives.

Hannah took a penitential pleasure in controlling herself. If she asserted her personality before she had established herself firmly, even Lilia’s patronage would not save her. She had to persuade Robert Corder that she was useful before she let him suspect her of a mind quicker than his own, and she behaved discreetly, for she had her compact with Mrs. Corder to keep, she had her own powers to prove, and, though she would have laughed at the idea, she had the zeal of a reformer under her thin crust of cynicism. She wanted to fatten Ruth and see an occasional look of happiness on her face, to ease Ethel’s restlessness and get some sort of beauty into the house. She could not change the ugly furniture – and there Mrs. Corder had badly failed – but friendliness and humour and gaiety cost no money; they were, in fact, in the penniless Hannah’s pocket, waiting for these difficult people to take them, and Hannah bided their time and her own.

Hannah is kind, understanding. She’s never judgmental and that makes her trustworthy. She soon gets an ally in the house, as Wilfrid quickly sees through her and acknowledges her wit through little signs. Hannah has plenty of social skills and she uses them to steer Mr Corder into smoother interactions with his children and get close to Ruth and Ethel. Being a housekeeper is high-level diplomacy, especially when you want to bring happiness into a house and reconcile its occupants.

E.H. Young shows how hard it is to be a housekeeper. Hannah doesn’t have a home of her own, she has to conceal her personality, her feelings and compose with everyone’s need. She’s almost forty and she dreads old age. Hannah can only rely on herself. She takes care of everybody but who takes care of her? She has moments when she doesn’t manage to sugar-coat her life and her loneliness smacks her in the face.

Without actually making that confession, her mind went on to imagine what a real love might have been. But such loves do not come in the way of the Miss Moles of this world, and now she was nearly forty. And thinking thus, she allowed the threatening wave of her loneliness, avoided for so long, to sweep over her, and she stood still in the street, helpless while it engulfed her. It fell back, leaving her battered, but on her feet, and longing for a hand to help her upward before she could be swamped again, but she longed in vain and it was a weary woman who walked up Beresford Road and found no comfort in the ruby glow of Mr. Samson’s window curtains. She assumed her usual look of competence as soon as she entered the house. Employers do not expect their servants to have visible emotions, and professional pride straightened her back when she went into the dining-room.

There’s no room for self-pity in her world.

Young describes very well the uncertain fate of unmarried gentle women of that time. Hannah lives in the same social constraints as Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Her acquired gentility implies that she behaves according to the codes of the middle class she now belongs to. She often thinks she’d have been happier, had she remained on a farm in the country where she was raised. Now she lives in town, under the watchful eyes of the neighbours, among people who go to church every Sunday, take abnormal interest in the parish’s events and gossip a lot. Respectability and propriety make the bars of a golden cage.

Miss Mole is an excellent novel and Hannah is a very loveable character. I enjoyed her spirit and loved that Young didn’t write a rosy and implausible book. There’s hope, of course and we follow with interest all the events at the Corders’. We get to know Hannah, her past and what made her who she is. We share her inner life and are privy to her thoughts, a treat in itself. We meet people in Radstowe, good, bad, eccentric, fun or stuck-up characters. I wonder if Barbara Pym was inspired by E.H. Young because Radstowe, its church and its people sound a lot like Jane and Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle.

Highly recommended.

Ali’s review is here and Jacqui’s is here.

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino

May 13, 2021 12 comments

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino (1996) French title: J’ai tout entendu. Translated by Jean-Luc Defromont.

Another Kube pick for me: What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino. I’d never heard of it but I understand it was made into a successful Hallmark movie in 1997. I’m glad my book cover doesn’t display the film poster since I’d rather have original illustrations.

Back to the book.

Ten-years old Sammy Ayers is left behind at the Greyhound station in Barrington, Georgia. His mother is gone, he’s all alone and the station manager, Jenkins lets him sleep on a cot in a small room at the station. When it is clear that no one is going to claim this boy, Jenkins keeps him and in exchange for room and board, Sammy cleans the place. Between Lucille, the owner of the station’s diner and Jenkins, Sammy grows up in Barrington and becomes a local figure. Upon his arrival, out of self-protection, Sammy pretended that he couldn’t hear or speak. This is how he learns the whole town’s secrets.

As the narrator of the story, he relates his life and the event that took place twenty years ago, in 1966. He’s not 55-60 years old.

The town’s royalty are the Tynans. Alford Tynan was a legendary lawyer. His son Tolliver is a weasel who had an epiphany and became a preacher. In passing, Gearino makes cutting remarks on Southern preachers, their lack of mandatory education and sometimes lack of morals. Tolliver is all that. He’s respected because he has enough glibness to lead a lot of people to baptism. He hides his conniving crooked dealings and his greed under a Christian mask.

The town’s trash are the Thackers. Archibald is the patriarch of his extended family. He’s ambitious but knows how to play the race game in the South. He goes in to refuse collection and hides his business savvy under the cover of the black dummy. Play the stupid black man, use a white stooge as the front of your business and the whites will leave you alone.

Sammy hears everything and puts things together too. He has a grudge against Tolliver who bullied him in class. He knows who he is under his mask of respectability. He tells us about his revenge, his search for his mother and Jenkins’s history.

It was an enjoyable story full of the guilty pleasure you feel when a character gets the better on people who tolerate him and look down on him. I had a very nice time in Sammy’s company and the novel is built as a well-oiled machinery with good storytelling.

According to the comments I read on Goodreads, the movie stripped the book of all its edges to make it a very moral and wholesome story. I can’t tell you since I haven’t watched it but with the Hallmark tag, I suppose it’s true. Well, I prefer stories with complex characters.

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