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

June 23, 2021 6 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.

Open Season by C.J. Box – my thoughts about Joe Pickett vs Walt Longmire

April 7, 2021 6 comments

Open Season by C.J. Box (2001) French title: Détonations rapprochées.

Open Season by C.J. Box is the first instalment of his crime fiction series.

Set in Saddlestring, Wyoming, it features the Game and Fish Warden Joe Pickett. In this first volume, Pickett has been appointed in Twelve Sleep County for three months, after his mentor Vern Dunnegan suddenly retired. His friend Wacey works in the adjacent area.

Joe moved into the Game & Fish state-owned house with his family, his wife Marybeth and his daughters Sheridan and Lucy. Another baby is on the way. The family barely survives on Joe’s salary.

Box describes the inconsistence between game warden recruitment requirements and the wages they get for their degree and dedication:

There were 55 game wardens in the State of Wyoming, an elite group, and Joe Pickett and Wacey were two of them. Wacey had received his B.A. in wildlife management while bull-riding at summer rodeos before Joe had graduated with a degree in natural resource management. Three years apart, both had been certified at the state law enforcement academy in Douglas and both had passed the written and oral interviews, as well as the personality profile, to become permanent trainees in Jeffrey City and Gillette districts respectively, before becoming wardens. Each now made barely $26,000 a year.

No wonder Joe’s family struggles to make ends meet.

Joe is still a rookie and has acquired an unfortunate notoriety when a poacher, Ote Keeley, took Joe’s gun while he was writing Keeley a ticket for poaching. Joe isn’t a good shot, at least on fixed objects. He’s an honest game warden, a job he loves and takes seriously. He’s an ordinary man with a strong moral compass.

When Ote Keeley stumbles and dies in Joe’s garden, Joe gets involved in spite of him. Ote Keeley has been shot. Sheriff Barnum leads the investigation and the case involves an endangered species and the project of a gas pipeline from Canada to California. A classic case of protection of nature vs greed and the promise of jobs for the locals.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I also read Craig Johnson’s crime series also set in Wyoming. So, how do the two compare?

I’m afraid Box isn’t half as good as Johnson. If I compare Open Season to The Cold Dish, Johnson is superior to Box in plot, characterization, sense of place and style.

Here, I guessed the plot quite early in the story, but maybe Box improved in the following volumes. The characters are less quirky and original, even if having a game warden who isn’t an excellent shot is a great idea. I wasn’t in Twelve Sleep county the same way I feel transported to the Absaroka county.

Saddlestring was a classic western town borne of promise due to its location on the railroad, but that promise never really played out. In the 1880s, a magnificent hotel was built by a mining magnate, but it had faded into disrepair. The main street, called Main Street, snaked north and south and had a total of four stoplights that had never been synchronized. The two-block “downtown” still retained the snooty air of Victorian storefronts designed to be the keystones of a fine city, but beyond those buildings, the rest of Main Street looked like any other American strip mall, punctuated by gun shops, sporting goods stores, fishing stores, bars, and restaurants that served steak.

This is almost everything we learn about the place. Open Season misses the little moments we have in The Cold Dish, Longmire going to the Busy Bee Café, the exchanges with Lucian, the former sheriff and all the little interactions with the locals that make the place come to life.

Johnson’s books are also closer to Nature Writing. Contrary to Box, who was born and raised in Cheyenne, Johnson isn’t a native from Wyoming. And yet, he has a way to describe nature and its impact on people’s lives and way of thinking that is a lot more convincing.

Johnson’s Wyoming is also more multicultural than Box’s. In the Longmire series, Johnson has native American characters, the Cheyenne reservation is part of the local life and there’s a volume about the Basque community. Craig Johnson has been to Quais du Polar several times and I remember hearing him say that books set in Wyoming that don’t include Indians don’t reflect local life properly.

And Box’s Wyoming is made of white people who love guns, hunting and fishing.

Today was, he knew, likely to be the last Sunday for at least three months that he would be able to cook breakfast for his girls and read the newspapers—and now he hadn’t even been able to do that. Big game hunting season in Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming, would begin on Thursday with antelope season. Deer would follow, then elk and moose. Joe would be out in the mountains and foothills, patrolling. School would even be let out for “Elk Day” because the children of hunters were expected to go with their families into the mountains.

Wow. A day off school to go hunting!

Both books include funny details about local life, like the electric plugs on parking meters to heat cars during the winter or the local way to shield their hats from rain:

A few ranchers stretched plastic covers, sometimes referred to as “cowboy condoms,” over their John B. Stetsons but few people owned umbrellas.

Can you imagine the Stetsons with the plastic over them? Sounds like a funny sight.

Style-wise, Johnson is more literary. The descriptions are more poetic, little thoughts about life are peppered in the books. It’s deeper in a off-handed way, especially considering Johnson’s great sense of humor. I love writers with a good sense of humor.

The general feeling is that Box describes a more conservative white community than Johnson. I’m sure both Wyomings exist, but I’m more inclined to read Johnson than Box. I’ll probably read another Box or two, to see how the characters develop and because it’s still good entertainment.

Recommended as a Beach & Public Transport book.

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona – a biography

March 7, 2021 24 comments

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of Woman in Black by Dominique Bona (2000) Original French title: Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir. 

Berthe Morisot – The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona was our Book Club read for February. It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I was looking forward to reading it as it was a great opportunity to dive into the artistic Paris of the 19th century.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in a bourgeois family. Her father was a préfet, a civil servant and her mother was a lot younger than her husband but it was a love marriage. She had two sisters, Yves and Edma and a younger brother Tiburce. The three girls were close in age but Berthe was tight with Edma.

Madame Morisot had a lot to do with her daughters’ upbringing. She was the great-niece of Fragonard and was instrumental in Berthe and Edma’s painting lessons. She allowed them to devote a lot of time to painting, understood that her daughters were gifted and accepted that painting wasn’t just a hobby for them. She didn’t sacrifice their passion on the autel of bourgeois thinking. We owe her for Morisot’s paintings. Paul Claudel wasn’t as understanding.

Edma and Berthe followed different paths. Edma got married and gave up painting. Berthe kept on painting and married Eugène Manet, Edouard’s brother, in 1875. He always supported her career and helped organize exhibitions.

Dominique Bona places Berthe Morisot in her time, among her friends. And what a group of friends she had! Fantin-Latour, Puvis de Chavanne, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Mallarmé. She was an early impressionist, she remained faithful to her group and kept on working on her talent, following her path. Manet influenced her painting, especially at the beginning. They worked a lot together and she influenced him too. They had a close relationship.

Bona’s biography is chronological and shows Morisot’s personal and professional life. We see who were her teachers, her friends, where she painted and the history of the Impressionist exhibitions.

Morisot’s life is fantastic material for a book. She was the only female painter in a group of artists who revolutionized painting in a Paris. And yet, this biography is a disappointment. The style is flat, flat, flat to the point of boredom. I expected better from a member of the Académie Française.

In my opinion, Bona failed to bring the Paris of that time to life. I would have liked better descriptions of the ambiance, of the places these painters spent time in and more context about what was happening at the same time in politics, literature and science. I would have liked her to show in which society the Impressionist movement happened.

But the worst is the “secret of the woman in black” angle. It grated on my feminist sensibilities.

In the first chapters, Bona describes how many paintings of Morisot Edouard Manet did, points out that she was his most frequent model and hints that he was in love with her. She also hints that Morisot was in love with him. The last chapter of the book comments on the fact that the correspondence between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet is nowhere to be found. That’s suspicious and would mean that they exchanged love letters. Well, ok. Maybe they were lovers. Maybe she loved him and it was unrequited love. Who knows? And more importantly, what does it matter? I can’t help wondering: if Bona had written Edouard Manet’s biography, would she have chosen this angle? Would the title be, Edouard Manet. The secret of the man with the beard? Probably not. It seems to me that women artists with close relationship with other artists are always seen as their sidekick. You know, like Camille Claudel. They are mentioned in relation to their male friend or partner.

And then, there’s this passage, page 205, that left me stunned, stricken by its sheer stupidity. (Sorry if the translation is terrible, I’m not fluent in astrological terms. I barely know them in French.)

Car Berthe ne sait peindre que ce qu’elle ressent, elle exprime ce qu’elle est. Or, qui est-elle sinon cette fille née sous un signe de Terre –Capricorne—mais qu’anime un fort ascendant d’Eau—Cancer. Son thème astral, selon les spécialistes, conjugue un Soleil en Capricorne—une forte ambition, apte à se réaliser—et une Lune en Balance conjointe à Mars –qui souligne les valeurs instinctives et de puissantes aspirations affectives. Les astres qui l’ont vue naître sont propices à une personnalité douloureuse et conflictuelle, qui est à la fois Ambition et Féminité ; mais aussi Passion et Colère. Conflit permanent entre la Terre et l’Eau –la réalisation concrète de soi et les appels lancinants d’une sensibilité exacerbée—, Berthe Morisot est très différente de l’univers qu’elle peint, des toiles aux tons joyeux et calmes, où irradie le bonheur. Les experts en astrologie complètent leur analyse en opposant la position de Neptune en Verseau (ces deux planètes de la sensibilité renforcent l’influence de la Lune, déjà importante dans le signe) et celle de Saturne en Sagittaire (autre moteur de la réalisation de soi.)

Berthe only paints what she feels. She expresses what she is. And who is she but his girl born under an earth sign –Capricorn—but animated by a strong water ascendant –Cancer. Her birth chart, according to specialists, mixes Sun with Capricorn—a strong ambition, likely to be fulfilled – and Moon with Libra, along with Mars—which underlines strong instinctive values and powerful emotional aspirations. The stars she was born under are liable to lead to a painful and conflictual personality, which is both Ambition and Femineity but also Passion and Anger. Berthe Morisot is a permanent conflict between Earth and Water – concrete self-actualization and the nagging calls from an exaggerated sensitivity. She’s very different from the world she paints, pictures with joyful and soothing tones, irradiating with happiness. Experts in astrology back up their analysis in opposing the position of Neptune in Aquarius (these two planets of sensitivity strengthen the influence of the Moon, already important in the sign) to that of Saturn in Sagittarius (another push towards self-actualization.)

See the astrological mumbo jumbo? First, it’s contradictory. How can she paint what she feels and then be very different from her paintings? Second, it’s more that stupid, it’s insulting for this extraordinary artist.

And again, I wonder: would anyone write something like this about Manet? Who would use astrology to describe a male’s artist style? Would anyone call Renoir a “boy”? Who would make Monet’s sensitivity sound like a flaw?

Just typing the quote made me angry. I see Berthe Morisot as a strong woman. She kept on painting despite the difficulties. She was gifted, smart enough to pursue her career without making any waves and yet never giving up her line of work. She didn’t marry young as it was customary in her social class. She chose herself a partner who understood her, supported her and helped her career. She was in the center of one of the most important painting movement of the century. She had her own style, she never wavered. Berthe Morisot deserves better that this astrological analysis.

My only regret is that I didn’t read this biography before going to the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019. I would have appreciated it more. And now, I want to rush to the Musée d’Orsay, see again all the Impressionists’ paintings there but of course, it’s closed at the moment.

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler – entertaining as hell

February 11, 2021 10 comments

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler (2008) Not available in French.

How to describe Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler? Crazy, fun, violent, ironic and so true about human nature.

We’re in the future, Mortimer Tate has just spent the last ten years in his hide-out in the Tennessee mountains. Initially, he set it up to escape his soon-to-be ex-wife, Anne. But when the end of the world as we know, he was safely tucked away in his cave and missing all the drama.

After ten years of solitude, he’s ready to go down from his mountain and see what happened to other human beings. His first encounter with fellow humans ends with three casualties.

He eventually finds his way back to “civilization” only to discover that the USA are a mess. There’s no petrol anymore and cars are abandoned along highways. There’s no electricity, unless you have servants who ride static bikes to generate it. People have to fight for their lives. The US dollar doesn’t exist any longer.

The only thing that seems to be running are Johnny Armaggedon’s sassy A-Go-Go Strip Clubs. People find some sort of normalcy in drinking beer, watching lap dances, getting drunk, eating proper food and sleeping in a true hotel room. Armageddon’s organization has set up an ecosystem to keep the bars running. They need to a supply chain to provide for the booze, the food and keep the hotel rooms clean and ready. Therefore, they created their own money and then their bank to secure the money.

A system of loyalty membership is set up and Tate becomes the richest man in Spring Town and Platinium Member in Armageddon when he sells thirty-five bottles of genuine Johnny Walker. 

Tate feels guilty that he left his wife in the dark regarding his mountain cave and he’s determined to find her. He heard through the grapevine that she’s in Atlanta, so, that’s where he’s headed.

Flanked by a would-be cowboy, Buffalo Bill and a would-be stripper, Sheila, Mortimer Tate embarks in a dangerous journey and finds himself in the middle of the battle between Armageddon’s people and their opponents, the violent Red Stripes who also intend to rule the world and control booze supply.

And with their travels, Gischler describes this post-apocalyptic world, how people tried to cope and survive.

Needless to say, this is a fast-paced plot where the protagonists travel slowly and run into formidable dangers at every corner. It has the same vibe as the Charlie Harding series by Duane Swiercszynski, only Swiercszynski is funnier. They almost die at every chapter, and each step in their journey gives them more information about the two organizations at war. They’ll have to take a side.

Behind the basic entertainment, the book, as often with SF or crime, is more serious than it sounds. After all, Gischler tells us that, after a collapse coming from a worldwide conflict, the people who would rebuild the world would do it through the booze-and-sex business. That’s the only thriving method to give the world a foundation for a new society. What does it say about Western civilization, eh?

Recommended when you’re in the mood for an action movie. Here’s Guy’s review (far better than mine) and thanks for the book, Guy! 

Voices of Freedom: militant writers in the 19th Century by Michel Winock – France between 1815 and 1885.

December 16, 2020 22 comments

Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC century by Michel Winock (2001) Not available in English. Original French title: Les Voix de la liberté. Les écrivains engagés au XIXème siècle.

After reading an anthology of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs From Beyon the Grave, I decided to finally pick from my shelves Winock’s Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC. It’s a 600 pages essay that describes how writers fought for the freedom of speech in France from 1815 to 1885.

It goes from the fall of Napoléon to the death of Victor Hugo. Since several of you liked the timeline I included in my Chateaubriand billet, here’s a new one with political regimes in France from the birth of Chateaubriand to the death of Victor Hugo. I chose these two writers because they have been involved in public life during their whole career. Chateaubriand was well-respected and Hugo wanted to be Chateaubriand or nothing.

Years

Political Regime

Leader

Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

Hugo’s age

1768-1792

Monarchy.

King Louis XV

King Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

Not born

1792-1804

First Republic

Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

Born in 1802

1804-1815

Empire

Napoléon

1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

2-13

1815-1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Louis Philippe

King Charles X

 

47-62

13-28

07/1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Charles X

July Revolution

62

28

08/1830-02/1848

July Monarchy

Louis-Philippe

 

62-80

28-46

02/1848

Second Republic

Lamartine

Abolition of slavery

80

46

12/1848-12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

12/1848 : Louis Napoléon Bonaparte is elected President

Dead

46

12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

Coup d’état

Dead

49

1852-1870

Second Empire

Napoléon III

 

Dead

50-68

09/1870

Fall of the Second Empire

Third Republic

 

War with Prussia

France loses Alsace-Moselle terrirories

Dead

68

1871-1885

Third Republic

(1870-1940)

 

1871 Commune de Paris

Dead

69-83

It’s not going to be easy to sum up this book and I’ll concentrate on my reaction to it.

Winock’s angle in his essay is the fight for the freedom of speech and for free press but he ends up writing up 70 years of public life in France. He takes the word “écrivain” (writer) is a broad sense, including literary writers (Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand), historians (Michelet), political science writers (Tocqueville, Guizot, Quinet, Prévost-Paradol), theology and religion thinkers (Renan, Veuillot), journalists (all of them!), social writers (Flora Tristan) and “socialist” theorists (Proudhon, Saint-Simon). Let’s use the anachronistic term “intellectuals” to embrace them in one word.

It tells so much about where France comes from and explains our vision of a secular State, our attachment to political and religious caricatures and our idea of freedom of speech as a cardinal value of the republic.

Winock takes us through the political battles, revolutions and theories that involved writers between 1815 and 1885. These are fascinating 70 years. The country had to recover from the Revolution and the Empire, political thinkers and writers started to research the revolutionary years and assess these years and especially the Terror. What good did the Revolution do? They all agree upon one thing: going back to the old absolute monarchy isn’t possible. The French society has changed too much.

During these years, intellectuals researched and wrote about the best regime for the country. Parliamentary monarchy? Empire? Republic? Various strong currents pulled or pushed one way or the other and the Catholic church meddled in the discussion. Monarchy and religion go hand in hand. For the monarchists, the country must be catholic and the power in place an alliance between church and politics. (The Pope Pie IX played a role too) In opposition to the monarchists, how strong political currents developed under the “secular” banner, to keep faith and religion private and out of public affairs. Tocqueville travels to America and comes back with ideas. There were a lot of debate about voting and which citizen should qualify to vote. 

These seventy years also see the industrial revolution settle in France and modern capitalism building lasting roots. Writers start to pay attention to the poor: Victor Hugo writes Les Misérables; in spite of him, Eugène Sue becomes the champion of the destitute with his Mysteries of Paris and Zola too, with L’Assomoir or Germinal.

Feminism finds voices in Flora Tristan, George Sand and Louise Michel.

Newpapers bloom or survive, according to the times and how tight the power in place takes the reins of freedom of speech. Newpapers may need an approval before publication or not. Books and articles are published abroad, mostly in Belgium and Switzerland and cross borders secretly. Napoléon III was especially ferocious against freedom of speech. For example, the newspaper La Lanterne crossed the border between Belgium and France hidden in Napoléon III busts. They got busted when one of the sculptures broke at the border and the smuggling was discovered.

In parallel to political thinking, technical and social progress improve the people’s access to newspapers. At the beginning of the century, political opinions traveled through songs written by political singers like Béranger, who was a huge star at the time. There were also reading cabinets, where readers could borrow papers and read. Between 1815 and 1885, more and more children went to school. In 1832, 53% of twenty-year olds couldn’t read. Their number dropped to 8.5% in 1892. The press soared, as Maupassant describes it in Bel Ami and technical progress in printing and assembling articles for print concurred to its growth.

The book is a vivid rendition of these years, moving from one writer to the other, showing their personal development and the course of their thinking. Lamartine was instrumental to the Second Republic. Balzac had ideas that were really backward and Winock points out that his books had the opposite result to what he expected. Flaubert stayed away from politics but stirred some trouble with Madame Bovary. Stendhal wanted to be consul in Italy. We see Constant, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Vallès, Sand and many other writers and their position on events.

Victor Hugo is truly a monument of the century. Romanticism applied to theatre plays (the battle of Hernani) fought against the theatre rules imposed by classicism (Corneille, Racine) It was an oblique way to champion the Revolution and its ideals. Hugo led that battle. His exile in Guernsey for as long as Napoléon III was in power increased his prestige. Like Chateaubriand, he didn’t change sides when it was convenient. Les Misérables was a literary bomb and what I discovered about his political views warmed me to him as a man and a thinker. Already dreaming of the United States of Europe in the 1880s! He was always on the side of the poor and that endeared me to him.

I loved this journey among militant writers in the 19th century. It showed me how hard earned is our current freedom of speech, why our streets have these names, where our contemporary vision of the republic stems from. These seventy years are a cauldron of thoughts, of theories that founded our modern society. It’s the development of today’s capitalism, the roots of communism and socialism, the birth of social thinking (unions, benefits for the poor, solidarity between the haves and the have nots), the political development that discarded monarchy forever and settled on republic for the country and the real beginning of education for the masses and mass communication through newspapers.

A fascinating read. Now I need to read Les Misérables, Bel Ami and Les Mystères de Paris.

Three good entertaining books by Dominique Sylvain, Pierre Christin and HG Jenkins

November 22, 2020 15 comments

Let’s face it, my TBW is out of control, the end of the year is coming and with the second lockdown, I keep reading. I’m not used to mixing several books in a billet but I’m doing it today, mostly focusing on light and entertaining books. See it as an attempt at taming the TBW.

First, we’re going on a trip to Japan with Dominique Sylvain. Her crime fiction novel Kabukichō takes us to Tokyo’s red-light district.

Kate Sanders works in a hostess bar, Club Gaia, and shares an apartment with a coworker, Marie. One night, Kate doesn’t show up for work. Her father in London receives a text message, a photo of his daughter with the caption “She’s sleeping here”.

A few days later, Kate is found dead. Captain Yamada is appointed to the case. He and his lieutenant Watanabe will investigate Kate’s life in Kabukichō. She was very good friend with Yudai, a charming young man who owns a host bar, the male version of the hostess bar.

I’m not familiar with Japan and I found Kabukichō fascinating for its description of the functioning of this red-light district. The crime plot was well-drawn, mixing the private lives of Kate, Marie and Yudai. Captain Yamada, old school compared to his lieutenant was an attaching policeman. All the characters have cracks in their souls, minor but irritating like a never healing small wound or major rifts that make them cross-over to the side of craziness.

It was a quick read, entertaining and enlightening with a stunning ending. It would make a wonderful film. Sadly, this book is not available in English.

Obviously, Kabukichō is exotic for a French reader. For me, the setting of Little Crimes Against Humanities by Pierre Christin was almost as foreign as Tokyo. The whole book is set in the French academic world and there’s a specific vocabulary related to positions and to the French university system. I’ll use American terms, as best as I can.

In Little Crimes Against Humanities, we’re in the small university of Nevers, in the center of France, basically the French equivalent of Iowa.

Simon Saltiel wrote his PhD thesis about Death in Art. Think about vanity paintings and such things. At the moment, he’s a teacher at the Humanities department but without a tenured post. He’s friend and roommate with an older teacher, Etienne Moulineaux. Their dean is Goulletqueur, notorious for preferring local candidates to others and this is why Simon has failed again to get a permanent position. The dice are loaded.

Léon Kreisman, a famous academic, art and book collector, collapses on the university stairs after a lecture. Fatal heart attack. He has no wife or children, only a pit bull secretary Madame Danitza.

Simon was among the first people on the premises and is dragged in spite of him, in the intrigues coming after Kreisman’s death. People want to put their hands of Kreisman’s collections. Goulletqueur wants to have a new library and hope that these resources will attract foreing academics and finally put the Nevers university on the international map of universities. L’Hours, a big man in the ministry of Education in Paris wants the collection to fill a new museum he will inaugurate. A private collector wants this collection for himself.

A mysterious poison-pen letter writer sends vengeful messages to several members of the faculty. The police get involved. The poor commissaire has his hands full with this foul business at the university on top of agricultural happenings from the Confédération Paysanne, a radical agricultural union that doesn’t have the decency to follow the usual methods of demonstration of the established union, the FNSEA.

Mild-mannered Simon finds himself in the middle of all this and with the help of two other colleagues, things won’t pan out as expected for the hot-shot and ambitious academics.

Besides the plot about Kreisman’s heritage, this is a satirical picture of the French universities, a milieu Christin knows from inside out. He shows the bureaucracy, the lack of money, the pettiness and the ambitions. An institution whose tenured posts are trusted by people who were young the the 1970s, a time when the Humanities were polarized, Trotskyists or not in the aftermath of 1968. He also shows an institution that, at local level, tries their best for their students. Their janitor is a genius at repairing anything with little means and teachers remain invested in their job.

Very humoristic about universities, small town France, Parisian centralization and the Ministry of Education but also about international academic relationships and symposiums. It’s almost as if David Lodge had written cozy crime.

Still on the lookout for easy and entertaining reads, I asked for recommendations to fellow book bloggers. Jacqui came up with Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins. Published in 1918, it’s in the same vein as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a way to spend a moment in a bubble far away from 2020.

Patricia Brent is 24 and works as a private secretary to a “rising MP”. She lives at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, in other word, a boarding-house.

One night, she overheads the other tenants talk about her and commiserate that she was lonely and never went out with young men. Piqued, Patricia invents herself a fiancé, tells them that she won’t be there for dinner the next day because she was to meet him at the Quadrant. She plays along, actually shows up to the restaurant, intending to dine there on her own when she realizes that the Galvin House gossipmongers are there to spy on her. She plops herself on a chair at a man’s table and asks him to play along. This is how she meets Lt.-Col. Lord Peter Bowen, DSO.

The outcome of the book is a given from the first chapters but Jenkins draws a colorful picture of the guests at the boarding house, the MP’s family and Lord Bowen’s circle. It’s a great comedy, the light plot designed to cast an amused glance at the different classes of the London society. I loved Jenkins’s sense of humor. Today, he’d write TV shows. His characters are quick at repartee, here’s a sample:

“Can you, Mrs. Morton, seriously regard marriage in this country as a success? It’s all because marriages are made in heaven without taking into consideration our climatic conditions.”

And

Bowen turned slowly and re-entered the taxi. “Where to, sir?” enquired the man. “Oh, to hell!” burst out Bowen savagely. “Yes, sir; but wot about my petrol?”

He’s also extremely funny in his descriptions of places, people and manners.

Mr. Archibald Sefton, who showed the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath, was always vigorous on Sundays.

The whole book is a fast paced comedy. Patricia Brent, Spinster did the job. Easy to read, entertaining and good escapism. Much needed this year but as Jenkins writes, When you lose your sense of humour and your courage at the same time, you have lost the game.

PS: I have the Jenkins on kindle with a bland cover so I added the cover of the original edition that I found on Goodreads. It’s terrible, isn’t it? These eyes seem ominous.

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa – Let’s play a game with book covers

October 25, 2020 19 comments

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa (2008) French title: Le restaurant de l’amour retrouvé. Translated from the Japanese by Myriam Dartois-Ako.

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa is a celebration of food and its healing powers. Rinko works as a cook in the city and when she comes home, she is shocked to discover that her boyfriend has cleaned up their apartment and left. The flat is totally empty and with no home and no boyfriend, Rinko decides to go back to her native village, a place she left behind ten years ago, when she was barely fifteen.

The shock is such that Rinko is speechless. Literally. She can’t speak anymore and has to communicate through notes. Her village is in the country and Rinko has a complicated relationship with her mother, Ruriko. Rinko is an illegitimate child and she doesn’t know who her father is. Her mother runs the local bar, financed by Neocon, a rich man who paid for the bar and covers Ruriko with presents. Rinko dislikes her mother and Neocon.

Ruriko accepts to lend money to Rinko, so that she can launch her own restaurant in the village. She calls it The Snail. It becomes a very special place, where Rinko only serves one table at a time, creating a special menu for the guests. Soon, her restaurant has the reputation to foster love and bring a happy-ever-after to the guests. Her success is immediate.

Said that way, it sounds cheesy but it’s not, at least for the first part of the book, the one I enjoyed the most. I immersed myself in Rinko’s world, made of an indifferent mother, a strange pet pig named Hermes after the luxury brand and that she has to look after, a gentle janitor, Kuma, who helps her clean and install the restaurant. I liked Rinko’s resilience and the feeling that it was a tale out-of-time and out-of-space.

I liked the pages about selecting the right produce and preparing food. I enjoyed reading about Rinko’s soul-searching venture through her restaurant. Cooking for her guests is a gift, a way for her to spread her love to others. Rinko nurses her broken heart in the kitchen, bringing happiness to her guests. Cooking is an act of love, her way to connect to others and belong to the world.

As long as I was reading about the restaurant, I was fine and invested in the story. I started to get bored when Ruriko’s story came into the mix. I won’t tell much because it’d spoil the story for other readers but I thought it was too much. Improbable family secrets are revealed and Rinko’s world is once again turned upside down.

I rarely do that, because I don’t think books should come with warning stickers, but the last part is not for vegan and vegetarian readers, and that’s all I’ll say.

For another opinion, here’s Vishy’s review. And Bookmaniac’s.

As always, I looked for the English language cover of the book. As usual, I found it lacking and went looking for covers in other languages. Let’s play a game. You’ve seen the French cover and here are six other covers from other languages, including the original Japanese.

I’ve read the book and I can tell you that the Asian covers are the best to represent the atmosphere of Rinko’s tale. Naïve drawing showing her in her village in the mountains, connecting to nature and the locals.

The French cover is OK, it’s faithful to the text, it shows the delicate beauty of the book. It’s different from the other Western covers, with its blue tone.

The Western covers are all the same deep red tones, not a color I associate with Japan but more with China. The Italian one is good as it represents Rinko cooking and it’s a major aspect of the book. The Spanish one is cheesy with the rice heart and the worst one is the American one. I truly wonder where it comes from and who had the idea of such an odd picture considering the book.

And what about you? Which covers would lead you to pick up The Restaurant of Love Regained from a display table in a bookstore?

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

September 22, 2020 12 comments

Sator or the Riddle of the Magic Square by Alain Le Ninèze (2008). Original French title: Sator ou l’énigme du carré magique. Not available in English.

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze is a historical fiction novel set in Judaea in 62-67 AD. At this time, Nero was the emperor of the Roman Empire. The narrator of Sator is Lucius Albinius Piso, based upon the historical figure Lucceius Albinus. He was the Roman procurator of Judaea from 62 til 64 AD.

When the book opens, he’s in Jerusalem in times of unrest. His uncle the senator Balbus Piso – based upon Gaius Calpurnius Piso – is in Rome. He’s under the scrutiny of Poppaea Sabina, the Roman Empress married to Nero. Poppaea demands that Piso solves the mystery of the Sator Square, a word square used by early Christians. He asks for his nephew’s help.

Piso is a Roman senator secretly converted to Christianism. At the times, Christians were persecuted by Nero and his life is in danger. He also asks for information about Jesus’s death.

As the book progresses, we see Lucius investigating Jesus’s death, meeting with witnesses of the crucifixion and wondering what really happened. He also digs into the Sator riddle, discussing it with Jewish scholars. Meanwhile, he exchanges letters with his uncle who keeps him informed of his fate in Rome. The situation there deteriorates quickly as Nero becomes more and more crazy and despotic.

The Great Fire of Rome happens, Christians are murdered and Balbus Piso decides to participate to a conspiracy to assassinate Nero.

In Judaea, things deteriorate as well. The Jews rebel against the Roman rule and Lucius Albinus fails to prevent a war. He refuses to break the law and is dismissed by Nero. We see a procurator not really into his task, struggling to be the armed arm of an emperor he doesn’t respect anymore. He’s happy to be demoted and goes to live in the household of a retired centurion who married a Jewish lady and settled in Jerusalem.

Le Ninèze’s Lucius Albinus is a lot more human than his actual counterpart, according to the portray depicted on Wikipedia. No big deal. This is a historical novel and Le Ninèze imagines a humanist procurator who doesn’t want to use force when it’s not needed.

It’s a first-person narrative and Lucius addresses to us. It is strange to have a character tell you that he went to the Mount of Olives, that he now shares the outcome of his interviews with soldiers who guarded Jesus’s grave after he died or with people who attended his trial. Lucius takes you to a time where all this was recent history or event contemporary. I was raised a Catholic and hearing Lucius Albinus investigate this as a journalist put things at human height, stripped of the aura brought by religious rituals. It’s a strange feeling.

Le Ninèze also shows that there were a lot of messiahs at the time and that the communities in Jerusalem had trouble coexisting in peace. (Greeks against Jews, radical Jews against moderate Jews, all against the Roman occupant) The region was always bubbling with rebellions and attacks.

Le Ninèze left a lot of footnotes to give the source of the events he describes. He mostly used the Evangiles, The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus and The Histories by Tacitus. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed reading about Judaea at the time. I liked being in Lucius’s company and I had fun watching him unravel the Sator Square riddle. (or at least find his own meaning)

PS: The Sator Square includes the word Tenet and it has something to do with Christopher Nolan’s film, in case you’re wondering.

20 Books of Summer #18: The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson – Longmire #5

September 16, 2020 8 comments

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson (2009) French title: Dark Horse. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Dark horse: noun

1 a: a usually little-known contender (as a racehorse) that makes an unexpectedly good showing. B: an entrant in a contest that is judged unlikely to succeed.

2: A person who reveals little about himself or herself, esp. someone who has unexpected talents or skills.

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson is the fifth volume of the Longmire series of crime fiction books set in Wyoming. I was happy to read the definition of dark horse because it explains a lot about the title and how fitting and multilayered the book is.

In this volume, Sheriff Sandy Sandberg of the Campbell county transferred his prisoner Mary Barsad to the jail in Absaroka county, Longmire’s jurisdiction.

In appearance, it’s a straightforward case. Wade Barsad was found dead with six bullets in his body. He and his wife Mary owned a ranch where she raises horses. She used to compete in racehorses and is very attached to her horse, Black Diamond Wahoo Sue.

Wade had set the horses’ barn on fire before going to bed, while the horses were trapped in the building, burning them alive. Incredibly cruel. Mary confessed that she killed him for this. See, straightforward.

But, locked in Longmire’s jail, Mary refuses to eat and the sheriff starts interacting with her to coax her into eating her meals. Things don’t add up and Longmire goes undercover in the town of Absalon, 40 souls to investigate this murder.

Being undercover in Wyoming and in a town of 40 inhabitants is a challenge. It turns out Wade has made enemies in town, due to shady dealings.

He came from the West coast, knew nothing about ranching still purchased a ranch. Longmire remarks: “He hated animals, and he hated the West? That kind of strikes me as odd for a fella who buys a ranch in Wyoming.”

What pushed Wade Barsad to settle in Wyoming? Why did have to move?

Did Mary really kill him? Longmire is on the killer’s trail while digging into Wade’s past and business to understand what lead to his death.

As usual with this series, the sense of place makes the salt of the book. Details like this one when Longmire arrives at a bridge that workers are dismantling, contribute to the feeling.

I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren’t very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches.

Apparently, even old bridges can be monetized and auctioned. I’m always surprised by the deals made between the State and the people on practical matters. It probably is better for the State’s budget to sell the bridge than to cover the costs for destroying it. It’s like asking the ranchers to cut the grass along the roads to keep it for their cattle. It’s such a different mentality than the French one.

Johnson always aims at deconstructing western clichés, like here:

“You know, one of the worst images perpetrated on society is the idea of a cowboy with a gun—you give a real cowboy a choice between a gun and a rope and he’ll take the rope every time, because that’s how he makes his living. No self-respecting cowboy makes a living with a gun.”

I guess it makes sense.

I won’t go into details about the personal lives of the characters, to avoid spoilers. Longmire’s daughter Cady is back to her life in Philadelphia, the election for sheriff is coming up and Longmire’s right arm Vic is true to herself.

I read The Dark Horse in the car, during a long drive during the holidays and it was a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. Tight plot, charming characters, a good sense of humor and little reflections dropped here and there:

I thought about how we tilled and cultivated the land, planted trees on it, fenced it, built houses on it, and did everything we could to hold off the eternity of distance—anything to give the landscape some sort of human scale. No matter what we did to try and form the West, however, the West inevitably formed us instead.

My next Craig Johnson will be Junkyard Dogs.

PS : Another ugly cover for the English edition. It looks like a kid’s book.

20 Books of Summer #15: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou – An ode to James Baldwin

September 6, 2020 11 comments

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou. (2007) Original French title: Lettre à Jimmy.

Alain Manbanckou wrote Letter to Jimmy in 2007, for the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. It is an essay, a letter to a writer and a man he admires immensely, someone he feels close to. You don’t see it in the English translation but this letter is written with “tu” and not “vous”. It’s a letter addressed to Jimmy, not James, a “tu”, not a “vous”.

Mabanckou says it all started with a picture of Baldwin that he bought in Paris at a bouquinist on the banks of the Seine. It was in the late 80s, which means that Mabanckou was in his twenties. You can say that Baldwin influenced him early in his life.

Letter to Jimmy takes the reader on a journey through Baldwin’s life, his literary work and his essays. Manbanckou explains where Baldwin came from and how it influenced his thinking. He never knew his biological father and was raised by David Baldwin, a preacher who wanted his son to be a preacher too. This will be the material for Go Tell it on the Mountain (La Conversion, in its French translation)

Baldwin was born in 1924 and David Baldwin’s mother lived with them and she was a former slave.

N’importe quel Noir américain est attaché à l’histoire de l’esclavage. Sauf que Barbara Ann Baldwin est là, et l’histoire se lit non pas dans les manuels, mais dans les yeux baissés de la vieille femme.

Any Afro-American is linked to the history of slavery. Except that Barbara Ann Baldwin is here and history is not in school text books but in the old woman’s downcast eyes.

To James Baldwin, the history of slavery was in front of him when he was growing up. His father hated white people. James Baldwin will not follow this road because his white teacher noticed his intelligence and took him under her wing. (What we owe to primary school teachers! Thinking of Camus here.)

We follow Baldwin to Paris, we see his own thinking develop and set free from his influences like Richard Wright. Mabanckou explains how Baldwin wanted out of the Black Writer box. He didn’t want to write books only about the condition of Afro-Americans or with black characters. Giovanni’s Room is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a black writer but it doesn’t mean he must write only about black characters.

We go back to the USA and see Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Mabanckou branches out and reflects on the fight against colonialism that Africans went through. He also broadens the issue and reflects on being black in France. This section of the book complement Christiane Taubira’s Slavery Explained to My Daughter. They are in agreement.

James Baldwin in 1969 by Alan Warren. From Wikipedia

Mabanckou pictures very well Baldwin’s unique standpoint. His brand of opposition lies in healthy indignation. Hatred and systematic opposition are not constructive. They burn bridges and leave ashes. Angelism is another pitfall. It’s cowardice and Baldwin’s essays are not gentle. They are documented punches aimed at facing the truth and moving forward. This is also Taubira’s approach and one I can relate to.

In the end, Baldwin shaped Mabanckou’s mind. He found in him someone who was brave enough not to take the easiest route, to stand up for himself and had humanism as a guiding light. Baldwin came out and wrote about homosexuality in 1956. He fought for civil rights and never fell for violent theories. He never let his personal experience foster hatred. His bright intelligence and insight meant a clean, direct and nuanced thinking.

We are in dear need of nuanced thinking these days, so reading Letter to Jimmy is a way to remember that such thinkers exist and that, alas, what Baldwin wrote is still accurate. Besides Go Tell It to the Mountain, I’ve also written billets about If Beale Street Street Could Talk and Going To Meet the Man. My next one will be Giovanni’s Room. 

PS: Letter to Jimmy opens with a foreword featuring Mabanckou lying on Santa Monica State Beach and feeling Baldwin’s presence. I know I’m obsessed, but it sounds like the incipit of Promise at Dawn, especially in French since Gary lies on the sand on a beach in Big Sur, which is not translated as such in English.

20 Books of Summer #8 and #9 : two books I couldn’t finish

August 3, 2020 25 comments

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) French title: Neige. Translated by François Pérouse. // La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (2006) Not available in English.

I can’t say I got along with our two last Book Club reads, Snow by Orhan Pamuk and La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (Not available in English and a literal translation would be The Shutter Troopers) In both cases, I read around 120-150 pages before giving up, I think I’ve given them a fair chance.

Let’s start with Snow. The character Ka –sounds like he’s coming of a Dino Buzzati novel—arrives in the provincial town of Kars, in Turkey. It’s winter and snowing. He’s back in his country after living in Germany for a decade. He’s a published poet and he’s sent to Kars as a reporter to investigate the suspicious suicides of young girls in the area. It’s also where his former university classmate Ipek lives. He had a vague crush on her back then and now he thinks she could be marriage material.

I know that Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize of Literature and that Snow is a well-acclaimed novel. I just didn’t get along with it. I thought that the constant religious discussions were too long and boring and I found the relationship between Ka and Ipek implausible.

It’s the kind of book I should have liked and I’m sure it tells lots of interesting things about Turkey but I was really struggling. I asked the other Book Club members how they were doing with it and the one answer I got was that the last 200 pages were a little boring. Since the first 100 pages were already plenty boring to me, I made the decision to stop reading it. I couldn’t push through the 500 pages left. I was just bored.

It’s obviously a good book, just not one for me. Or perhaps I read it at the wrong time.

 

Now The Shutter Troopers. It’s SF, so really out of my comfort zone and I was apprehensive to tackle these 730 pages of hardcore SF, not even dystopian fiction. Think of Dune.

The first chapter threw me off. Humans are in a life-threatening wind tempest in a décor of rammed earth houses and Australian bush. The author is from Lyon and rammed earth houses are typical from the Dauphiné region, between Lyon and Grenoble. Since the landscape was made of red earth, spinifex, eucalypti and oaks, I thought about Australia. Images of my in-laws’ village clashed in my head with images of Uluru.

The structure of the book is unusual. The chapters go from XIX to I. The main characters are described in a glossary at the end of the book, something I’ve just discovered. The characters speak one after each other and are represented by Greek symbols. You never know who’s speaking unless you click on the symbol (ebook) or refer to the characters bookmark (paper book). The POV changes several times per chapter.

I have the ebook version and I hated clicking on the symbol because it broke my reading flow, so I stopped checking. (It would have been the same with the paperback anyway) I didn’t always know who was speaking and I spent the few chapters I read trying to understand what I was reading. French speaking readers will understand what I mean with this quote: “Les chrones les plus petits ont le volume d’un gorce. Les plus gros pourraient tenir dans la doline.”

I asked about La Horde du Contrevent to French readers on Twitter and got the same answers. It takes half of the book to really get into it; you have to read it in few sittings to really manage to enter into the book’s world and you need the book bookmark to follow who’s speaking but after 350 pages, it’s getting better. I also asked what it was about and the most accurate description was that it’s about a sort of rugby team who travels the Earth to find out where the wind comes from. It’s a spiritual quest.

The thing is, I don’t have the luxury to read 730 pages in one or two sittings, even on holiday. It got on my nerves not to be able to understand whose POV I was reading, even if the characters have distinct voices. I believe I would have recognized them in the end. But there are 23 troopers. How long would it have taken me to spot each character through their voice? Russian novels are piece of cake after that, believe me. Each trooper has a role in the team and it’s hard to assimilate as well since these roles are totally imaginary.

Call me conservative but I don’t think I should refer to a bookmark for the names of the characters when I’m reading. All this irritated me, got in the way of my immersion in Damasio’s world. And, honestly, it’s a pity. He’s insanely creative. His descriptions are precise, poetic and visual. He imagined a coherent world with rules and inhabitants and I’m sure that for some readers, it’s a wonderful journey. But Damasio is too verbose for my tastes. I put the book down for a few days, thinking I’d get back to it. I tried to resume reading and I was put-off by the style. I wasn’t interested in knowing what would become of them and I wasn’t intrigued enough to push through the discomfort of feeling totally disoriented.

La Horde du Contrevent won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2006, the Goncourt of SF. It’s rated 4.46 stars on Goodreads. My vision of it is only mine and says nothing about the quality of the book just that it wasn’t a good match for this reader.

This blog is not about reviewing books, it’s my reading journey, I share the good and the bad experiences.

A Mirrors Greens in Spring by Selina Sen – New Delhi in the 1980s

June 10, 2020 19 comments

A Mirror Greens in Spring by Selina Sen (2007) French title: Après la mousson. Translated by Dominique Goy-Blanquet.

A Mirror Greens in Spring is an Indian book by Selina Sen. Set in New Delhi in the early 1980s, it focuses on the lives of two sisters, Chandrayee “Chhobi” and Sonali. We are in a Bengali household where the two young women live with their widowed mother and their grand-parents.

The grandfather is very nostalgic of his youth. He had to leave his hometown after the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s from Bangladesh and he chose to stay in India but he never truly healed and still feel in exile.

Chhobi is 25 and Sonali is 19. The two sisters have very different personalities, due to a different education. When Chhobi was a young girl, their father died and she stayed in a Catholic boarding school when Sonali went back to New Delhi with their mother.

Chhobi is more studious and loves history. She works for a magazine in Delhi and writes pieces about various historical places of the city. She wants to have a PhD in Indian history. She’s the serious one, taking care of her sister and behaving responsibly. As she’s already 25, their intrusive neighbour, Mrs Chatterjee, wonders why she doesn’t have any prospect of marriage yet. But Chhobi enjoys being single and doesn’t seem eager to get married. She’s intelligent, grounded and her good sense brings a good support to her family. Her boss, Rosemary, encourages her to follow her dreams and not give up for family reasons.

Sonali is the frivolous one. She’s gorgeous, spoilt and self-centred. Her only interests in life are clothes, jewels and parties. She’s naïve and since she’s so pretty, her grandmother, the real master of the house, hopes for a rich marriage. So, when Sonali sneaks out of the house to meet her wealthy boyfriend Sonny, her mother and grandmother turn a blind eye. The inevitable happens: Sonny’s family has already chosen someone else for their son…

The first part of the book is pretty standard. Two girls with opposite characters, a cautious one and a reckless one. I thought that the plot was a classic déjà-vu and I almost stopped reading. The second part moved past the jilted poor girl part of the plot and became more suspenseful and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it.

Overall, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring but I thought there were too many descriptions of places, flowers, dishes, saris and of the weather. It felt written for an international public who doesn’t live in India. The descriptions happened at odd moments, as if a tourist guide jack-in-the-box popped up to give details and it broke my reading flow. It did make me want to learn how to cook Bengali cuisine though, everything sounded delicious!

India is a complex country for foreigners and I didn’t get the Bengali vs Panjabi comments from the characters. Sonali got on my nerves because I have little patience for spoilt princesses. I rooted for Chhobi and hoped she wouldn’t sacrifice her dreams to take care of her vapid sister and support her family.

Selina Sen takes us to a cultured household who struggles to make ends meet. We see three generations of women and the toll that widowhood puts on the girls’ mother. The book is set at the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and I wonder why the author chose this time and place for her novel written in 2007. Politics has little to do with the story but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement appears in the plot. Selina Sen mentions the historical wounds that people still carry with them, the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, terrorism in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring for the sense of displacement, for taking me away from my home and drop me into another country, into another culture.

Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

May 31, 2020 12 comments

Still Waters (2008) and Closed Circles (2009) by Viveca Sten. French titles: La Reine de la Baltique and Du sang sur la Baltique. Translated from the Swedish by Laura A Wideburg (Still Waters) and by Rémi Cassaigne (Du sang sur la Baltique)

I’d heard of the Swedish writer Viveca Sten from a colleague and she was on the Quais du Polar writers’ panel for this year’s aborted edition. I think it’s the first time I’ve read two crime fiction books in a row from the same series since I had my Agatha Christie binge in 5ème (7th Grade in the US system)

It’s also the first time I read one in English translation (Still Waters) and one in French (Closed Circles). More of that later.

Still Waters and Closed Circles are the two first books of the Sandhamn series by Viveca Sten. Set on the Sandhamn island in the Stockholm archipelago, they feature Inspector Thomas Andreasson and his friend Nora Linde. Thomas works at the Nacka police and Nora is a legal advisor in a bank. Both work in Stockholm and have spent their summers in the islands near Stockholm since they were children. Nora uses her legal knowledge to help Thomas in his investigations. Unofficially, of course.

Sandhamn has become a famous vacation spot in Sweden and, from what I gathered in the books, it’s like The Hamptons in the US or Deauville in France. Nora inherited her house from her grandmother, otherwise she couldn’t afford to buy one. Thomas has a summer house on Harö, a nearby island. The two books are set in July, in the peak season for holidaying in Sweden.

In Still Waters, a body is found on the beach during the summer holidays. Thomas soon finds out it’s Krister Berggren, a middle-aged man from Stockholm who works for the state-run alcohol shops, Systembolaget. He has no obvious link to Sandhamn, what happened?

In Closed Circles, a famous regatta organized by the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) is about to start when a participant is shot. The victim, Oscar Juliander is the deputy president of the RSYC and a well-known bankruptcy lawyer in Stockholm. Thomas was already on the scene since he was among the public who wanted to watch the race. He will lead the investigation. Nora is also in Sandhamn for the holidays, with her husband and children.

These two books are part of a series and a key success factor of a series is to hook up the reader on the characters’ private lives. We’re in the realm of all modern crime fiction series, away from Poirot and Maigret who don’t seem to have a life outside of crime investigating. It worked with me since I engaged in Thomas and Nora’s lives and picked up Closed Circles right after reading Still Waters.

Thomas is a Swedish cliché: six foot four, well built, his shoulders broad from years of handball training. He looked just like the archetypal policeman, big and reassuring, with blond hair and blue eyes. He’s divorced and his marriage to Pernilla fell apart after their infant died from SIDS. After almost drowning in sorrow, he’s now slowly resurfacing. After several crime fiction books with alcoholic PIs and detectives, Thomas was a welcome reprieve.

Nora is married to Henrik, a doctor, and they have two sons, Adam and Simon. In her late thirties, Nora starts to think she doesn’t get that much out of her marriage. Henrik spends his holiday on his boat and participates in regattas while she’s left behind with the children. Then Nora’s employer asks whether she’d be interested in becoming the head of their legal department in Malmö. It’s a promotion but one that requires a move. Will Henrik accept to uproot the family for her career?

I wasn’t thrilled by Still Waters, I thought that the writing was a bit clumsy at times (Nora placed the chicken dish on the table and put on the latest Norah Jones CD, her namesake apart from the h.) and I had guessed who the murderer was, which is not a good sign. When I read crime fiction, I let the writer carry me to the ending. I don’t try to pick up clues and outsmart the detective to find out who did it. So, if I guess the ending without trying to find it, in my eyes, the book is flawed. The cliffhanger about Nora’s life pushed me to read the second book, also thinking that the first book of the series isn’t always the best one. Unfortunately, the same thing happened with Closed Circles: I guessed the two main clues of the plot and that’s a definite no-go for me. Plus, the characters’ lives took a turn that didn’t interest me anymore.

So, no more Viveca Sten for me, unless I want something easy to read. That said, reading two books from the same series, one in English and one in French was an interesting experience.

I had the English rhythm of Sten’s writing well in mind when I started the second book in French. It didn’t have the same vibe and it took me a few chapters to get used to the French translation. The English one felt neutral and smooth, the French one felt a bit contrived and inaccurate. The translator overdid it when he translated the scenes at the Nacka precinct, lowering the level of language of the police team, as if they needed to sound more NYPD Blues to sound true.

In the English version of Still Waters, the police chief is introduced like this: The old man was the head of criminal investigation in Nacka, Detective Chief Inspector Göran Persson.

Then, he’s called Persson in the rest of the book. In my head, he was close to retirement and a bit quick-tempered. In the French translation, he’s called le Vieux. (The Oldman) I was really surprised and downloaded an extract of the English translation of Closed Circles. Chapter 5, we’re at the precinct:

Göran Persson, the head of the criminal unit of the Nacka police, couldn’t keep his anger under control.

Göran, chef de l’unité criminelle à la police de Nacka, surnommé le Vieux, ne parvenait pas à contenir sa colère.

Where does the “surnommé le Vieux”, (“nicknamed the Oldman”) comes from? And then, he becomes le Vieux in the book. A few lines later, about Carina:

Carina Persson, the chief’s daughter sat beside them. For the past two years, she’d worked as their administrative assistant while trying to get into the police academy. She’d finally been admitted this fall. A côté d’eux était assise Carina Persson, la fille du Vieux, qui travaillait depuis deux ans au commissariat comme assistante administrative, tout en préparant le concours de l’école de police. Elle allait enfin le passer à l’automne.  

The “chief’s daughter” becomes the “Oldman’s daughter”. In French, le Vieux is more derogatory than Oldman in English. You never know what was the publisher’s order regarding the translation, they may have asked for this and the translator had to comply. We’ll live with this.

But inaccuracy has nothing to do with the publisher’s requests. In the quote before, “She’s finally been admitted this fall” becomes in French “She’ll take the exam in the fall”, which is not the same at all and it happens to be an important detail in the story.

And then there was the victim’s profession. Oscar was a bankruptcy lawyer. I have no clue how it is said in Swedish but I’m sure that Viveca Sten, being a lawyer herself, used the right term. In French, the proper term in administateur judiciaire, not un administrateur de faillite like in the translation. A little research would have prevented that.

I usualIy don’t read English translations of books. Why should I make my life more difficult and read in English when I could read in French a translation made for a French reader? But I had the opportunity to get Still Waters for a cheap price on my e-reader and went for it. Reading Closed Circles in French right after Still Waters in English was eye-opening.

The writer doesn’t sound the same way in the two translations and the French one, on top of its translation flaws, sounds a bit old-fashioned. The publisher’s probably partly responsible for it, if you look at the translation of the titles. La Reine de la Baltique (The Queen of the Baltic Sea) and Du sang sur la Baltique (Blood on the Baltic) sound a lot more sensational than Still Waters and Closed Circles, which are, according to Google translate, the right translations from the Swedish.

What can I say? Readers, the publisher matters. Le Livre de Poche is not Rivages, Actes Sud or Gallmeister as far as translations are concerned. I wish they’d paid more attention to it or spent more money on it. In my opinion, they have no excuse as this book was meant to sell well: it’s crime fiction, a hugely successful genre in France, it’s Nordic crime, a bestselling sub-genre and Sten was already a success abroad. What was the financial risk on this one? We, readers, deserve a better translation than that. Maybe Gallmeister changed me into a spoiled princess, sensitive to every little pea in my crime fiction translations.

Meanwhile, if I ever read another Viveca Sten, I’ll get it in English.

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass – Poetic, peaceful and militant

May 8, 2020 10 comments

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass (1996 & epilogue: 2007) French title: Le livre de Yaak. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni.

It is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church — this last one percent of the West – but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God – the scent, feel, sight, taste, and sound of God – forever fresh upon it.

I continue my literary journey in Montana and through nature writing as the hope of visiting Montana and Wyoming this summer vanishes like snow in the sun. My next stop is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, brought to French readers by Gallmeister.

Rick Bass has lived in the Yaak valley in Montana for twenty years before moving to Missoula. He wrote The Book of Yaak in 1996 and added its epilogue in 2007. It is an ode and a plea for the protection of these 471 000 acres of wilderness threatened by the timber industry. In this valley, less than two hundred humans cohabit with black bears, grizzlies, deers, wolves and coyotes.

Rick Bass tells us how he and his wife fell in love with the place. He takes us hiking in these old woods, describing the trees, the flowers, the river and the animals. He has a different approach to nature than Thomas McGuane in An Outside Chance.

With McGuane, hiking and hunting were sports. With Rick Bass, it’s a spiritual experience, a way to find peace, to experience the invisible link between humans and nature. It feels closer to Amerindian customs, more instinctive. His writing conveys his genuine love for this valley. It has become his happy place. He writes beautiful passages about art and nature and their connection. Living in this valley grounds him and fuels his artistic endeavors. He’s in communion with the nature around him. I’ve never read his fiction but I will.

I loved The Book of Yaak and I’m puzzled. I’m still trying to pinpoint why I love nature writing so much and what I find in these books.

I’m a very urban non-outdoorsy person. I don’t long to hike in the rain to reach the right fishing spot. I hated it when my parents took us blackberry gathering when I was a kid, mostly because I was bored to death and would have rather been at home with my books. I love the theatre, museums and sitting in coffee shops with a novel or my billets notebook. I love walking in historical districts of cities and admire old buildings, traditional shops and watch passersby. I can’t seem to do anything with my hands except hold a book and cook a little. For the rest, I’m pretty useless. My lack of sense of direction is legendary among my family, friends and colleagues. How would I survive in these nature writers’ tough environment?

However, the older I get, I more I want to spend my holidays in large spaces. I need to refuel. The more work experience I get in the corporate world, the more I envy the Rick Basses of this world who were brave enough to retrieve themselves from the grind. I’m not saying their life is easier or lazy, because it certainly isn’t. I’m saying they managed to cut the ball-and-chain of middle-class expectations and what-ifs that I have at my ankles. Mostly they were not afraid. Of missing out on the little comforts of everyday life, like central-heating, electricity and hot water. Of raising kids in a remote place. Of getting sick and being far from hospitals. Of not having enough money when they are old. Of living without a security net.

The Book of Yaak is also a plea, a way to raise awareness and seek for the reader’s help. Rick Bass is an ecology activist and he’s been relentless to have the Congress pass a bill to protect his beloved valley from the timber industry. He’s a moderate and doesn’t want to stop any woodcutting in the area, he just wants it to be local based and respectful of the fragile ecosystem of the valley. Saving the Yaak valley is a way to save humanity, a way to show ourselves that we can still turn our backs to our profit-oriented ways.

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We’re an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man’s caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

I guess I love nature writing for that and maybe it’s always been in me. After all, I loved Jim Harrison instantly when I was a young adult and Gary advocates the same ideas in The Roots of Heaven. In the end, the way we treat nature is an indication of how we treat humans.

Highly recommended.

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