Archive

Archive for the ‘21st Century’ Category

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slobozia by Liliana Lazar – a Romanian tragedy

October 3, 2021 25 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesser of Evils by Joe Flanagan – Great debut noir fiction

September 19, 2021 4 comments

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan (2016) French title: Un moindre mal. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan is an excellent example of what neo-noir can be.

Cape Cod, 1957. Bill Warren is acting as chief of police in the small town of Barnstable. The appointed chief of police, Marvin Holland is in the hospital after a heart attack and might be forced into early retirement. Warren lives alone with his disabled son, Michael, nicknamed Little Mike. His alcoholic wife disappeared on them and never came back.

Several crimes happen at the same time in Cape Cod. Two boys are found dead and were sexually harassed. A man was beaten up after he failed to reimburse his due to loan sharks. The local police start investigating but the DA, Elliott Yost transfers the affair to the State police led by Dale Stasiak.

Warren is furious but he’s on shaking grounds with his team, the town council and the DA. He’s only acting as chief of police and he’s different from Chief Holland, less smarmy and ill-at-ease with the political side of the job. He doesn’t want to compromise and let things slide when it comes to prominent citizen.

The plot thickens as corruption, mafia, sexual predators are settling in otherwise quiet Cape Cod. Who is behind the boys’ murders? Is the Boston mafia trying to set up a place for illegal bets and loans? Who are the crooked cops and the honest ones? How deep in the mud are local politicians?

Warren keeps investigating, even if he’s not supposed to.

Lesser Evils is Joe Flanagan’s debut novel and it’s a tour de force. Everything sounds right and is perfectly orchestrated. The characters are deep enough, well-defined and come to life. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seems realistic –to me, at least, after all, I’ve never been there—and the author comes from the area.

The plot threads are masterfully developed and equally engaging. A lot of characters come into play but the reader is never lost among them and always knows how to place them. It’s suspenseful and I couldn’t put the put down.

Warren is an engaging character, with his kind relationship with his son and his fair dealings with his team. Like Johnson’s character Walt Longmire, Warren was a police officer in the army before joining the police force after the war. We are in a classic neo-noir with an investigator who is honest and is willing to jeopardize his career, put his life on the line to keep his integrity.

You can imagine this story in a black-and-white movie from the Hollywood Golden Age. I read it during the holidays and couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended, especially since, in the Northern hemisphere, we’re heading towards cold Sundays with reading under a blanket.

See Marina’s review here. She’s a little less enthusiastic than me.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – good literature but too bleak for me.

September 15, 2021 12 comments

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2012) French title: Les douze tribus d’Hattie. Translated by François Happe.

As often, I’m late with my billet as The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis was our Book Club choice for July.

In 1923, the young Hattie moves out of Georgia with her family to settle in Philadelphia. They go to the city and away from the Jim Crow laws. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is made of twelve vignettes, each for one of Hattie’s offspring, with Hattie as an Ariadne thread along the book. We meet each child or grand-child at one moment in their lives and through the different chapters, we get an idea of Hattie’s life. Each chapter is a key moment in Hattie’s life and each belong to one child.

We start in 1925. Hattie is now married to August and they have seven-month twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The twins die of fever, no, out of poverty. Hattie and August didn’t have the money to buy the penicillin that could have saved them. This made Hattie’s and August’s lives derail with sorrow.

We leap to 1948 where we meet Floyd, the jazz musician of the family.

We’re in 1950 and we spend time with Six, the future preacher.

We’re in 1951, when Ruthie was born and Hattie tried to leave her husband.

In 1954, Ella, Hattie’s last baby is sent out to live with her barren aunt Pearl, in Georgia.

In 1968, we see what has become of Alice and Billups and why they have a special bond.

In 1969, we spend some time in Vietnam with Franklin.

In 1975, Bell is dying of tuberculosis and we learn about her difficult relationship with her mother.

In 1980, Cassie is schizophrenic and Hattie and August have to hospitalize her. Her daughter Sala comes to live with her grand-parents.

Hattie spent her life taking care of her children, preparing meals, cleaning and worrying about money while August paraded in new clothes, went out dancing and had various affairs. She also had an affair with Lawrence and would have left August if she could have taken her children with her. The untimely death of the twins shattered her confidence for a better future.

It is the life of a woman who never had time for herself, was a tough cookie and never managed to communicate her love for her children. Her love was in the energy she put in feeding, clothing and nursing them. But with nine children and her pregnancies, did she have time for anything else?

On paper, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is my kind of book but I wasn’t too fond of it. The form of the book left me hanging. Each chapter is devoted to one child and then we never hear anything from them again. We leave Franklin in 1948, he’s a gifted musician, he has just understood that he’s gay and then poof! he disappears of the book. That was disappointing, as if they only had an existence to pinpoint a moment in Hattie’s life.

And then I found it too bleak. Not one of them has a better life, except maybe Floyd and Ella but we don’t know for sure. They are all marked by tragedy or illness. One had 50% of his body burnt when he fell in boiling water. One is schizophrenic. One was abused as a child and his sibling knew about it. One is a drunkard. One is separated of her mother to live with her aunt. One is in an abusive relationship.

Bleak, bleak, bleak. Not one uplifting moment in the whole book. It’s not even plausible that, out of nine living children, not one lived to live an uneventful life, especially during the Post-war economic boom. Then I read in the Acknowledgments that Ayana Mathis thanks Marilynne Robinson for her friendship and guidance and I thought “Of course, now the bleakness makes sense.” I really really disliked the only Robinson I’ve read, Housekeeping. All I remember about it are broken souls, bleakness and constant rain.

Hattie’s children have a complicated relationship with their mother as they grew up in a tough environment. They have attachment issues. And of course, seen from the book’s angle, it seems to be Hattie’s fault. August was absent, throwing away money that could have helped the household but he’s not the defective parent. Too much depends on women and the children’s difficulties all seem to stem out of her lack of hugs. I would have liked to hear about the children’s difficult relationship with their father too, but it’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, not of August, as if children only belonged to their mother. And in Hattie’s time, it’s probably true. The responsibility of raising children only fell on the mother’s shoulders.

If I look at The Twelve Tribes of Hattie through a literary magnifying glass, it’s an excellent book. The style is good, you can see it’s well-constructed, the story makes sense and there’s a goal in showing black America from the 1920s to the 1980s, although, in my opinion, the fact that it’s a black family isn’t that important. You could have had the same story in an Irish-American family. The only difference is that, due to their leaving Georgia, Hattie was out of a support system when the babies were sick. No tribe for Hattie’s generation, no sense of community like in American-Italian neighborhoods.

The most disheartening part of it is that the book is called The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not Hattie’s Tribe. Each offspring is on their own. These siblings don’t make one united tribe and that’s probably their parents’ biggest failure.

Have you read this book? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Between Two Worlds by Olivier Norek – Translation tragedy. This book needs an English translator.

September 11, 2021 11 comments

Between Two Worlds by Olivier Norek (2017) Translation Tragedy: not available in English. Original Franch title: Entre deux mondes.

Our first book for our new Book Club season was Entre deux mondes by Olivier Norek. The title’s literal translation is Between Two Worlds. Olivier Norek is a French crime fiction writer who was a humanitarian worker during the war in Yugoslavia and who is now a police officer is the tough department of Seine-Saint-Denis near Paris. For once, we have a French writer who is neither a journalist nor a teacher or an academic.

Entre deux mondes relates the story of Adam Sirkis, a Syrian who worked undercover in the Syrian police department but fought against Bashar al-Assad. The book starts when one of his accomplices has been caught and is now tortured.

It’s time for Adam to flee the country. He knew it was a risk and he’s ready for it. First, he sends his wife and daughter abroad, to Libya where they will hop on a boat towards the Italian coasts.

Early on, we know Nora and Maya won’t make it. Adam arrives in France in the Calais Jungle. It was a camp for migrants who repeatedly tried to go to UK (Youké, as it is spelled in the book)

Bastien Miller, a police lieutenant freshly transferred to the Calais police force, arrives in Calais at about the same time as Adam. His wife is depressed, his teenage daughter isn’t exactly happy with the move. His colleagues at the station introduce him to the particularities of their job in Calais.

As a murder occurs in the Jungle, Adam and Bastien collaborate.

Entre deux mondes is one of these vital books that make you understand a tricky political and humanitarian situation. Norek manages a tour-de-force with this book. There is no sugarcoating the situation. We encounter various migrants, each with their personal story and nothing is ever black or white.

We see the terrible job of the police force in Calais, caught between doing their duty, trying to protect the Calais population’s lives and at the same time hating the operations against the migrants that they have to do. Norek describes extremely well the controls performed by the police before trucks are allowed through The Channel Tunnel.

We see migrants with their despair and their hope for a better life in UK, where they may have family and often know a bit of the language. We see that they arrive from countries at war with deep scars that nobody sees in Europe because they have seen and lived through things that we cannot imagine. Through a child character, Kilani, we understand how wrong our perception can be, because we have a mental set of references that conditions how we grasp situations.

We see how life is organized in the Jungle, the violence, the closed camp for women to avoid rapes, the trafficking and the powerplays between ethnic groups and people.

There is no naïve optimism in Entre deux mondes. No bad or good people. Only humans who aspire to a better life and other who try to do their best and to not hate themselves for it. Norek shows that there is no obvious solution, no ready-made action plan and how helpless the police and humanitarians feel. Law enforcement characters sound real and the migrants aren’t only victims. Norek demonstrates that difficulties to communicate between people who don’t speak the same language may have dramatic consequences and that it doesn’t help with already complex circumstances.

We were all deeply moved and quite stunned by the book. It brings something to the world. Through a nuanced story, we have a raw picture of the migration Catch 22.

THIS BOOK NEEDS AN ENGLIH TRANSLATOR.

Another book about this topic : Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. This one is available in English.

PS : As a bonus, Olivier Norek has lovely words for libraires and book bloggers in the Acknowledgment section of the book.

I’m thankful for… (…)

Libraires whose daily fight to exist is commendable. When we won’t have independant bookstores anymore, we’ll only have the phone book to read.

Bloggers. For small blogs, big ones, the ones full of emotions, the ones with mistakes, the heartfelt ones, the poetic ones. For bloggers who become more than mere acquaintances, those who write about any kind of authors, those whose walls hold up with TBRs, the ones who tell you when your book is bad and go to book fairs with you. You are the real chroniclers of crime fiction.

Money Shot by Christa Faust – Gripping and entertaining

September 8, 2021 8 comments

Money Shot by Christa Faust (2008) French title: Money Shot. Translated by Christophe Cuq.

Money Shot by Christa Faust is the first book featuring Angel Dare, a character I discovered in Choke Hold. When the book opens, the reader jumps right in the heart of action: Angel Dare is tied up in the trunk of a car.

Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies. In real life, it takes forever to do little things like pry open your eyes. You spend excruciating ages trying to bend you left middle finger down far enough to feel the rope around your wrists. Even longer figuring out that the cold hard thing poking you in the cheek is one of the handles of a pair of jumper cables. This is not the kind of action that makes for gripping cinema. Plus there are these long dull stretches where people in the audience would probably go take a piss or popcorn, since it looks as if nothing is happening and they figure maybe you really are dead after all. After a while, you start to wonder the same thing yourself. You also wonder what will happen if you throw up behind the oil rag duct-taped into you mouth or how long it will take for someone to notice you’re missing.

Angel Dare is a former porn star who retired and started Daring Angels, an agency for adult modeling. Her friend Sam called in a favor and asked her to do one more porn film with the new male rising star of the industry, Jesse Black. It turns out that it was a set-up as criminals had Sam’s wife.

Angel gets tortured and raped because the men believe she has information about Lia, a girl who came to Daring Angels. She had a briefcase and was looking for one of Angel’s models, Zandora Dior.

The setup is complete when the men kill Sam with Angel’s gun and throw her in a car’s trunk.

As you imagine, she manages to get out of the car and seek for help in the form of James Malloy, her employee in security. A former cop, Malloy works for her to ensure her models’ protection.

Bruised and battered, she’s now on the run from the criminals and the police. She wants revenge and wants to know what’s behind her kidnapping and Sam’s murder.

She and Malloy start investigating, even if it puts their lives in danger.

This is a fast and furious crime fiction book that I devoured. Fast paced, written with energy, it’s a wonderfully entertaining book. Angel is an excellent character, someone you connect with even if her life experience has nothing to do with your own. It’s also a glimpse at the porn industry, its workings and the human trafficking that can be behind it.

Highly recommended for fun, beach and public transport travelling.

As you can see, the French and English covers are quite different but each is in line with the publisher’s editorial line. It’s Gallmeister for France, and you’re familiar with their covers now and Hard Case Crime for the USA.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke – multilayered crime fiction

August 16, 2021 17 comments

Dark Water Rising by Attica Locke (2009) French title: Marée noire. Translated into French by Clément Baude.

I have the French translation of Black Water Rising by Attica Locke because I bought my copy at Quais du Polar, the year she was at the festival for conferences and book signings. I have fond memories of that edition of the festival.

It took me several years to read her book but I’m really happy I put it on the TBR. When the book opens, Jay Porter, a struggling lawyer is organizing a mini cruise on the bayou near Houston for his wife’s birthday. Money is tight, Bernie is pregnant and the cruise is more a boat tour with on a friend of a friend’s boat than a glamourous cruise. Things go rather well until they hear a woman shout on the shore, as if she were fighting with someone. A gunshot, a splash and Jay dives into the dark water to save a white woman. Jay and Bernie are black, we’re in 1981 and getting mixed into white people’s business is risky. That’s why they ask her almost nothing and drop her at a police station and drive away.

We soon learn more about Jay, his past as a civil rights militant and his current caseload. He needs money and so far, his best shot is a hooker, Dana Moreland who got injured in a car accident while she was entertaining the local harbor commissioner who also wants to go into politics. No need to say he’s ready to find a settlement to hush things up. Jay wants to get the most out of him and keeps investigating to find a witness to present to the court to support his client’s version.

Meanwhile, Reverent Boykins is involved in the Longshoremen Strike. The white union and the black union had to merge and the ex-black side is trying to convince the ex-white side to go on strike with them for a better pay. Reverent Boykins is Jay’s stepfather, and his church helped Jay win his trial when he was pursued under false pretenses. The real reason was that the FBI wanted this militant of the civil rights out of the streets. Jay is indebted to Reverent Boykins and can’t refuse to help with the strike and be their lawyer.

This is Houston in 1981, the oil economy is thriving, the city expands quickly and oils companies own everything, literally or figuratively. The three issues, the murder, the hooker and the longshoremen strike have areas where they overlap. Jay, who lives in fear after his short stay in prison, won’t be able to hide and stay under the radar. His past as a militant is about to spill into his present and the unsolved issues demand attention.

Black Water Rising is an excellent thriller. The crime plot is gripping and it mixes artfully a blood crime with white collar criminality and racial questions. It gives a good vision of Houston at the time, a sprawling city at the mercy of oil magnates. Their only god is money and they infiltrate everything for their own profit. A puppet female mayor at the City Hall. A mole in the unions. Some help in federal agencies.

Besides Houston at its turning point, Black Water Rises also questions of the aftermath of the civil rights movement. What did its militants become? Jay is one of the first black lawyer in the area. His companions have settled down into a comfortable middle class or hold on to their glory days like Kwane Mackalvy. It’s a valid question: what do you do after living intense years like this? What’s your new normal? And how do you see the people who came after you, benefited from your combats and don’t even realize what your generation brought to them? (The same question applies to women who grew up after the great feminist battles).

Jay is at a crossroad. He’s going to be a father. He needs to make peace with his past. His practice needs to soar to support his family. He needs to stop living in fear.

But now: who murdered this man in the bayou? Will the unions start a strike that will paralyze Houston’s commercial port and impact oil sales? What will happen to Jay, who keeps being thrown on the frontline while he’d like to take care of his wife? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book!

Very highly recommended.

Rosa Candida by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir – not totally convincing

August 7, 2021 16 comments

Rosa Candida by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2007) French title: Rosa Candida. Translated by Catherine Eyjólfisson

I received Rosa Candida by the Icelandic writer Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir through my Kube subscription and I’m not sure I would have bought it myself.

Arnljótur Thórir, “Lobbi” is twenty-two and lost his mother Anna in a car accident. He lives with his ageing father and has a twin autistic brother. The three men try to survive Anna’s death, each in their own way. The father, who was much older than his wife, tries to cook his wife’s recipes. Lobby was close to his mother and loved working with her in their greenhouse. They grew roses, especially an eight-petal one, Rosa candida. Lobbi worked a few months as a fisherman to fund his dream: he wants to go abroad and restore the famous rose garden of a monastery.

Lobbi leaves his father and brother behind, but also his daughter Flóra Sól. She’s seven-month-old and lives with her mother Anna. Lobbi and her had a tryst in the greenhouse and accidentally conceived their daughter. Anna is still a student. She and Lobbi barely saw each other during her pregnancy and after the baby’s birth. He doesn’t feel an attachment to his daughter and yet carries her photo and talks about her to strangers. He knows he ought to feel something more about his daughter.

After an initiatic journey, Lobbi arrives at the monastery and is welcomed by Father Thomas, monk and film buff extraordinaire. Lobbi came with three cuttings of rosa candida, to add them to the monastery’s garden.

Lobbi starts working at the garden, finds a new routine in the village and spends evenings watching films with Father Thomas. He’s content with his life when he receives a letter from Anna, telling him she needs time to write her dissertation and that she wants him to take care of Flóra Sól for a few weeks. Lobbi accepts and plans for their arrival.

The whole book is about growing and blooming, as a plant and as a person.

There’s an underlying comparison between the garden’s restoration and Lobbi’s growing-up. He opens out as a man, as a gardener and as a father. He needed to leave Iceland to become an adult and grieve his mother. Her rosa candida, and thus part of herself, will survive in the garden of the monastery. Flóra Sól, with her flower name, her age is the personification of blooming. The monks grow fond of the roses and start going out of the library to enjoy the garden.

Rosa Candida is told with Lobbi’s candid voice and there are beautiful passages about fatherhood and how he builds a connection with his daughter. It is a coming-of-age novel with Lobbi learning to live on his own, thinking about life, death, sex and his place in the world.

The book is built with a certain timelessness and “placelesness”. There are no cell phones but they watch videotapes. Lobbi still goes to the phone booth. The village is set in a non-described country with a language only spoken locally. It sounds a lot like a remote village in Italy, but who knows.

Rosa Candida is well-written and poetic, with a slow pace to match the speed of plants growing and the time Lobbi needed to mature and figure things out.

I feel like I should have loved this book but I just can’t. Lobbi grew on me but the whole setting felt artificial to me. The coincidences of the names –two Annas in Lobbi’s life, his mother and the mother of his child–, Flóra Sól, a baby with a flower name whose birthday is the day (but not the year) when Lobbi’s mother died. The way the story is set up in an undefined time and place, to build a feeling of universality. Well, it didn’t quite work for me.

I think that the best novelists don’t need artificial devices in their books to reach universality. They tell stories set in their time in such a way that centuries later, people still connect with them. Think of Jane Austen or Balzac. Great novelists stories set in their country and readers abroad feel close to the characters.

Lobbi’s story is about grieving and growing as a father but if you want to read a beautiful book about grief and fatherhood, rush for A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm, a book that touched me a lot deeper than Rosa Candida.

PS: I usually don’t participate to Women In Translation Month hosted by Meytal ,mostly because I don’t read English translation of books and I live in a country where reading in translation is not an issue. However, Rosa Candida qualifies for it, so I’ll add my stone to the WIT edifice.

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle – an excellent thriller set in Brooklyn

August 4, 2021 9 comments

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle (2018) French title: Le témoin solitaire. Translated by Simon Baril.

With The Lonely Witness, William Boyle wanted to write a noir crime fiction novel set in his hometown, Brooklyn.

Amy Falconetti lives in Gravesend, Brooklyn. She moved into this neighborhood with her ex-girlfriend Alessandra and stayed there after they broke up. Alessandra decided to go to Los Angeles to be an actress, left Amy behind and never looked back. At the time, Amy was a natural blonde, wore clothes from the 1940s, was a party girl and worked as bartender at the Seven Bar in Manhattan.

After Alessandra left, she changed of life. She rented a small basement apartment to Mr Pezzolanti who consider her as his daughter. She became a brunette, a teetotaler, started to wear conservative clothes and now lives the life of a mousy church attendant, bringing communion to the elderly in the parish. You can say her lifestyle took a 180° turn.

One day, when she visits Mrs Epifanio, the old lady tells her that her usual caretaker from the church, Diane, has been sick and was replaced by her son Vincent. She didn’t like his snooping in her bedroom and felt that he was up to no good. She felt threatened, even if he wasn’t openly menacing. Amy understand Mrs Epifanio’s disquiet when Vincent comes to Mrs Epifanio’s while she’s still there. She finds him shady too.

Amy starts following Vincent, out of curiosity and for the adrenaline rush. Of course, she tells herself it’s for Mrs Epifanio’s safety. The truth is that her old personality is resurfacing, leaving her mousy devout new self behind.

When she’s on the prowl, Vincent gets murdered right in front of her. Instead of calling 911 and the police, she lets Vincent die, retrieves the knife the murderer used to stab Vincent to death and flees from the scene.

Now she has a murderer on her trail since she has seen him long enough to be able to identify him. She doesn’t know his name but she knows his face. She’s no longer safe.

She starts investigating Vincent’s murder and she enjoys playing Nancy Drew. She secretly loves the thrill of the chase, poking around, asking questions about Vincent, his activities and his whereabouts.

Amy makes irrational and dangerous decisions; she’s like a superhero who changes of skin, mixing her old self and her new one, to create a third self. She’s not as wild as she used to be. She’s not as quiet as she wanted to be. She’s an ex-barmaid to tried the skin of a church spinster. None of these personalities are real or fit her.

Vincent’s murder pulled the trigger to another transformation and she’s now on a new life journey to understand what the next stage of her life will be.

But let’s not forget that The Lonely Witness is a thriller. Boyle explores Amy’s inner struggles but he also moves the plot forward quickly. It’s full of twists and turns and it was hard to put the book down.

Brooklyn is a character of the book. As I said in introduction, William Boyle wanted to write something set in Brooklyn and his growing up in the area shows in the descriptions of Amy’s surroundings. He knows the place and the reader can feel it. Amy walks a lot and it’s an opportunity to describe the buildings, the streets, the shops, the metro and its weird connections. All the characters are Italian-American, we’re in the neighborhood of the film Saturday Night Fever. I felt that I was in Brooklyn with her and wished I could go there too and feel the atmosphere of the area too.

Excellent pick by Gallmeister.

Towards Beauty by David Foenkinos – does art heal wounds?

August 3, 2021 15 comments

Towards Beauty by David Foenkinos (2018) Original French title: Vers la beauté.

I think I purchased Vers la beauté by David Foenkinos at the Musée d’Orsay bookstore. I was drawn to its cover with the Modigliani picture.

Antoine teaches art at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Lyon. When the book opens, he has taken a leave of absence, fled from Lyon without telling anyone where he went. He got hired as a museum attendant at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. We don’t know why he left so abruptly, just that he’s desperate and doesn’t want to interact with anybody. He just wants to lick his wounds at the museum and hope that the beauty of the paintings surrounding him will heal him. He’s a specialist of Modigliani and he loves to have silent conversations with the portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne.

Mathilde, the HR manager of the museum is intrigued by her new employee. She guesses that he’s wounded and she wants to understand why an art professor would want a job as a museum attendant. Slowly, she manages to break through Antoine’s defenses and we understand that he was already vulnerable after a painful breakup with his long-term girlfriend when a traumatic event happened in Lyon.

In the second part, we switch to Camille’s life and personal drama. Like Antoine, she sought solace in her painting and her art studies.

I can’t tell more about the characters without spoiling the book. Let’s say that both Antoine and Camille try to find hope and a healing balm in art. It is soothing but, in the end, talking to people, letting them in and accepting their help seems the most efficient way of healing one’s wounds.

Foenkinos writes well, his novel has a certain musicality, built out of a clever balance between melancholy, soft irony and musings. It’s a nice book, one you can read in one sitting. It is set in Paris and Lyon, I enjoyed reading about places I knew.

It’s not available in English, yet. Other books by Foenkinos have been translated, like Delicacy.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart – a Texan family saga

July 18, 2021 2 comments

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) French title: Le sillage de l’oubli. Translated by Marc Amfreville.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is set in the fictional town of Dalton, in Lavaca County, Texas.

The Skala family settled there when the first Czech immigrants of the family arrived from Europe. This area is full of Czech families. The plot covers three periods of time: 1895, 1910 and 1924. Each year is a turning point in the saga of the Skala family.

The book opens on a dramatic scene. We’re in 1895 and Klara Skala dies in child-birth. Karel, the baby, survives his mother and Vaclav, the father will never be the same.

The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that land became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.

Vaclav and Klara had already three boys, Stanislas, Thomas and Eduard when she died giving birth to Karel. The four boys have a very hard childhood with their father who is only interested in acquiring land, farming and breeding race horses. These horses are his passion. The boys do the heavy work in the fields, including pulling the plow that the race horses are too precious to pull. They grow up without affection.

In 1910, Guillermo Villasenõr arrives from Mexico with a lot of money and three daughters to marry. He knows about the Skala boys and intends to settle in the Lavaca County and marry his daughters to these farm boys.

The girls get their first glimpses of their future husbands, what they see, instead of blond-haired and handsome Czech farm boys, like they’ve been told by their father to expect, are weathered young men straining against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, their necks cocked sharply to one side or the other, their faces sunburned despite their hats and pealing and snaked with raised veins near the temples, their boots sliding atop the earth they’re sweating to unearth. The four of them work harnessed two abreast in front of their father, who’s walking in their work, one foot to each furrow spitting stained juice between his front teeth and periodically cracking a whip to keep the boys focused and the rows straight.

With this kind of living conditions would you blame the boys to be willing to do anything to escape their father’s literal and figurative yoke? They know Villasenõr’s arrival is a ticket out of their father’s power. They grab that ticket, even if it’ll tear their family apart.

Fast forward in 1924. Karel is married to Sophie, it’s December and she’s about to give birth to their third baby. She wanted to go to church, even if it’s far and risky with her pregnancy. She’ll break her waters during the church service and, contrary to Klara, will get a midwife’s help in time. Meanwhile, Karel waits and drinks. He hires two teenagers to go and take care of the farm while he stays in town with Sophie. The boys also have to deliver the moonshine beer he makes, discretion needed since it’s the prohibition area. The boys will not follow orders and take ill-advised initiatives. This will trigger another dramatic event for the Skala family.

The Wake of Forgiveness goes back and forth in time, between 1910 and 1924. It covers thirty years in the life of this Texan family. Life is hard and we follow Karel’s point of view, the boy whose birth triggered the family’s unhappiness. Although he never says it aloud, it is clear that he carries the weight of depriving his brothers of a mother and his father of his wife. He doesn’t know how to make up for that and he sure doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He’s a hard man but, despite his harsh upbringing, he’s a better father than his own, playing tenderly with his daughters.

I’ve read The Wake of Forgiveness in an excellent translation by Marc Amfreville. Machart’s style is beautiful and haunting. Nature and men are one, each has power over the other. As you can see in the two previous quotes, Machart compares humans to the land and shows how the land impacts humans. Human emotions find their counterpart in the mesmerizing descriptions of the landscape. The land and the climate shape the humans who settles there, imprinting their mark on people’s tempers. With subtle brush strokes, Machart takes us to Lavaca County, among these farmers who live a hard life and with this family who needs to find their way to happiness through forgiveness and redemption.

A very powerful book and another great find by Gallmeister.

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara – the appalling Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918

July 11, 2021 15 comments

A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara (2014) Not available in French.

I’ve had A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara on the shelf since 2018, when I bought it at Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs. I decided to read it for Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week organised from July 5th to July 11th. Given my timeline, we’re still on July 11th when I write this, so I’m still on time.

I’ve heard of Marie Munkara on Lisa’s blog and read her autobiography Of Ashes and Rivers that Runs to the Sea. She’s one of the Stolen Generation people and she explains how she came back to her biological family.

A Most Peculiar Act is a satirical novel set in the Northern Territory in 1942. Each chapter starts with an excerpt of the Aboriginal Ordinances Act that date back to 1918. Basically, the Aborigines have no civil rights

We are in a remote place in the bush. The Aborigines live in two places, The Camp where families are gathered and The Pound, a place “enclosed with a high fence to keep the coloured females under eighteen in and everyone else out.”

They can’t live outside of The Camp, the young women must go the The Pound and they’re not allowed to welcome who they want at The Camp. They are all listed on the Register of Wards of State. The girls are placed as domestics in white families. Whitish babies are taken away from their mothers.

White civil servants operate The Camp and The Pound. The staff is composed of an Administrator, a Chief Protector of Aboriginals, four patrol officers and a Superintendent of The Pound. The wives also play an important part in the system. This little clique runs the Aboriginals’ lives according to the power bestowed upon them by the Aboriginal Ordinances Act and according to their incompetence, their prejudice and their meanness. They are all unworthy of their power.

We follow the fate of Sugar, a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal and of Ralphie, a patrol officer.

When the book opens, Sugar is pregnant and at the end of her pregnancy. She fails to hide in the bush when Ralphie and Desmond, the two patrol officers, come to the Camp. She’s sent to the hospital against her will. She wanted to deliver her baby in the bush, among her people. We soon learn that she had an affair with Ralphie and when she delivers twins, the whitest of the two is taken away and given to a white family.

Meanwhile, we see the absurdity of the interactions between the white management. The new Chief Protector of the Aboriginals, nicknamed Horrid Hump, is a teetotaller and a man with ambitions that far outweighed his capabilities. He fires Ralphie for drinking too much, condemning him to poverty. He hires Drew Hepplewaite to replace him. She’s mean-spirited and racist. She’ll go beyond her duty to make the Aboriginals’ lives miserable. She’ll also wreak havoc among the whites, destroying the carefully constructed balance between the people.

Each chapter is more absurd than the other and Marie Munkara uses her novella to point out the cruelty and the stupidity of the system. The Chief Protector of Aboriginals doesn’t protect them from anything and the assimilation policy ends up in changing people’s names or stealing their children. That’s why Aboriginal characters are named Rawhide, Horseshoe, Fuel Drum, Donkey Face or Pickhandle.

While Marie Munkara succeeds in showing the appalling system of these ordinances, I would have liked to learn more about the Aboriginal characters of the book. Also, for a French reader, the pidgin English spoken by the Aboriginal characters was difficult to read and to understand. It wasn’t a smooth read for this reader and it got in the way of fully enjoying the book. I might have missed some references too.

Out of the two Munkaras I’ve read, I’d recommend her autobiography before reading A Most Peculiar Act.

See Lisa’s review here.

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi – a fresco of Egyptian emigration

June 23, 2021 7 comments

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi (2009) French title: L’Arche de Noé Translated from the Arabic by Soheir Fahmi in collaboration with Sarah Siligaris.

Noah’s Ark by Khabel Al Khamissi is a twelve-chapter book with eleven intertwined stories. Each chapter is about one character, their story and why they decided to emigrate from Egypt. The last chapter is where we meet the narrator, the lady who collected all these stories and explains why all these people hopped on the Noah’s Ark of emigration and how they did it.

The different protagonists choose different countries as their new home: the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Kuwait, Dubai or Iraq. They all have different reasons to leave Egypt behind and I suppose that Khaled Al Khamissi wanted us to have a global picture of the issue.

There’s Ahmad Ezzedine who can’t find a decent paying job after studying law. He decides to emigrate to the USA through chatting up an American woman. The aim is to get her to marry him, obtain his green card and stay. This schemed obliged him to break up with his girlfriend Hagar, and he broke both their hearts in the process.

Hagar emigrates to the USA when her father marries her off to Ayman who owns a restaurant in New Jersey and is back in Egypt for a couple of weeks to shop for a wife. He falls for Hagar and her parents are all too willing to ship her off to America.

We don’t know how Abd el-Latif Awad reached New Jersey but he’s employed by other Egyptians as a cook, a chauffeur, a singer and a handyman. A man of all trades, he’s exploited by other Egyptians and that’s also a sad side of emigration. He doesn’t fit well where he is.

We meet Farid al-Mongui who left to study abroad, another way to get your first visa to the West.

Mortada Al-Baroudi is a teacher in a London university and had to leave Cairo because he was threatened by the government. His philosophy classes don’t refer to the Coran enough. He was as clean as a whistle, so they couldn’t imprison him for something he’d done. He had to emigrate.

Yassine Al-Baroudi was desperate enough to attempt to reach Europe through Lybia. He tries the Mediterranean sea route and almost died in a shipwreck.

Névine Adly never thought she’d have to leave her country but she and her family are Christians. Her daughter fell in love with a Muslim and there’s no hope for this kind of relationship in contemporary Egypt. It’s getting harder to be a Christian woman in Cairo, especially to walk down the streets without a hijab. They now fear for their lives and move to Canada.

Talaat Zohni emigrated to the USA years ago and missed Egypt too much. So he decided to move to Kuwait after living in New York City. Living abroad isn’t that easy.

Hassouna Sabri is from the Nubian minority in Egypt, near the Aswan dam. It’s a very touristic region and lots of people live off tourism. Hassouna relates how Nubians are treated as second zone citizen and how hopeless they feel. Another way to emigrate? Have a love story with a tourist and win a Western passport through marriage.

Then we hear the point of view of a smuggler, Mabrouk Al-Menafi. He explains that he always accompanies the migrants on their trip and that he picks routes through planes and roads. No sea and shipwrecks for him. He details the different techniques and states that he doesn’t feel guilty as he makes sure that his clients arrive safely. He also hammers hard truths: Egypt needs the money sent back home by the diaspora and European countries turn a blind eye to a certain level of illegal immigration because they need the extra arms.

And finally, Sanaa Mahrane emigrates trough the world’s oldest profession and reaches Germany via Georgia through a prostitution network.

Noah’s Ark explains all the reasons why the characters take a huge leap of faith and leave their home behind. The author doesn’t sugarcoat reality: it’s hard to leave everything behind, it’s hard to live in a strange place and it’s hard to adapt to Western culture. All would rather stay in their country if they had a future, if their government made the right decisions for the economy, if all the political and administrative cogs were not gripped by corruption, if there were more freedom of speech and less weight of Islamic ruling.

All the characters are linked but I didn’t try to map out all the relationships. I went with the flow. The narration is very Scheherazade, slipping from one story to the other, from one character to the other until we have studied the Aubusson Tapestry of a group of Egyptian emigrants.

We see a sample of a global population who, educated to not, rich or not, cannot see a future in their home country. It’s explosive. Khaled Al-Khamissi wrote Noah’s Ark in 2009, two years before the Egyptian Revolution that started by huge demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

In libri veritas.

The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

The Signal by Ron Carlson (2019) French title: Le signal. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right?” We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”

Somehow air came to his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his handand closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”

He’d been there ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times. We’ll do this every year. They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew.

In The Signal, Ron Carlson writes the story of a last hiking and fishing trip between Mack and Vonnie. We’re in Wyoming, in the Wind Rivers Mountain area.

Mack and Vonnie met when they were teenagers. Mack’s father had a ranch and turned it into a dude ranch during ten weeks each summer to bring in additional income and keep the ranch afloat. Vonnie came as a guest with her parent and fell in love with the West. Enough to come back to the area.

As mentioned in the opening quote, Mack and Vonnie had been married eight years when Mack spiraled down into a hole of alcohol and bad decisions. One of them was driving illegal merchandise, including drugs, through Wyoming. He finally got caught, ended up in jail and lost Vonnie in the process.

They are now taking a closure trip to Clarke Lake and the book opens with Mack waiting for Vonnie to show up at their meeting point at the beginning of the trail.

What Vonnie doesn’t know is that Mack also agreed to do a job for Charley Yarnell, a shady entrepreneur. Mack needs the money to keep his family’s ranch. All he has to do is to find a beacon that fell from an airplane. Yarnell gave him a military Blackberry that should detect the beacon as soon as it is within a mile range of it. It sounds simple enough and a way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Signal is divided in six days, one per hiking day. Carlson takes us to the Wind River Mountain trails, lakes and wilderness. Vonnie and Mack take a hike down memory lane, trying to make peace and put an end to their relationship. Vonnie has moved on and lives with Kent now and Mack needs to accept it, even he still loves her.

Their trip takes a bad turn when they encounter aggressive poachers and when Mack’s beacon search proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected.

The book starts as a love autopsy, a cathartic hike to mourn their couple and turns into a suspenseful story as Mack’s side mission collides with their trip.

Mack’s introspection brings him to analyze his past. He was born on a ranch, loved it but was never a rancher. He’s not good with fire arms, not good with cattle and is not cut out to manage a ranch. However, he can’t imagine live anywhere else than on his childhood ranch. He tried to make a living in IT but he was never really successful. His life took a dive when his father died as he lost his human compass and became untethered. His grief engulfed him and he lost his sense of direction.

Ron Carlson’s writing is sumptuous and I wish I had more quotes to share but I read it in translation. Carlson weaves the landscape into Mack and Vonnie’s story. This is their anniversary hike and this outdoor trip is part of their relationship. Nature is what brought them together and now they expect it to heal their wounds to be able to move on. The descriptions of the wilderness and how Mack and Vonnie connect to it and through it are truly excellent.

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister, with a marvelous translation by Sophie Aslanides.

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier – Highway to guitar heaven and hell

June 16, 2021 9 comments

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier. (2016) Not available in English.

I bought Vintage by Grégoire Hervier at the crime fiction bookstore Un Petit Noir but it’s between crime fiction and literary fiction.

Thomas Dupré works in a classic guitar store and workshop in Paris when his boss sends him to Boleskine House in Scotland to deliver an expensive guitar to a rich collector. Lord Winsley has an impressive collection of classic electric guitars and bought Boleskine House because it used to belong to Jimmy Page.

Lord Winsley owns two protypes of the mythic Gibson guitars Flying V and Explorer. He says that the protype of the Gibson Moderne guitar was stolen from his collection and he wants Thomas to find it and bring it back.

It’s supposed to be worth 10 million euros and he promises 10% as a reward. Thomas sees it as means to pay the bills while he tries to become a professional guitarist.

Thomas embarks on a trip that will take him to Sydney, New York and Chicago but mostly on the US Route 61. Memphis, Nashville, the mythic Crossroads at Clarksdale, Greenwood. In search of the Gibson Moderne, he will discover a forgotten (and fictionnal) blues and rock artist, Li Grand Zombi Robertson. He was an outcast and experimented new techniques of recording music and was ahead of his time.

Vintage is an ode to classic rock and blues music, the one that inspired the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and so many artists. It brings us to roots of the blues and what we owe to black music of the Deep South.

There are a lot of explanations about classic guitars, their sound and the musicians who played them. Grégoire Hervier is passionate about music and he conveys his love for rock music to the reader. Even if I don’t play the guitar, I was really interested in the history of these mythic instruments and the music attached to them. I even did a playlist of all the songs and artists mentioned in the book.

It was an enjoyable road trip for this reader. OK, he was preaching to the choir since I have in mind to travel along the US Route 61 one day, when I won’t travel with kids under 21 who can’t get into bars and listen to live music.

PS: This is my second 20 Books of Summer read. This one was on the list. 😊

%d bloggers like this: