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Taqawan by Eric Plamondon – 1981 on the Mi’gmaq reservation in Gaspesia

January 19, 2022 15 comments

Taqawan by Eric Plamondon (2017). Not available in English.

Au Québec, on a tous du sang indien. Si ce n’est pas dans les veines, c’est sur les mains.In Québec, we all have Indian blood. If it’s not in our veins, it’s on our hands.

Eric Plamondon is a Québecois writer but I don’t think that his book is translated into English. I will never understand why Canadian books are not available in the two official languages of the country. I received his novella Taqawan through my Kube subscription.

Taqawan takes the reader back to the month of June 1981, to the Indian reservation La Restigouche in the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec. The indigenous nation living on this reservation are the Micmac, or Mi’gmaq.

When the book opens, Océane, a Mi’gmaq teenager is on her way back to the reservation at the end on her school day. She goes to an English-speaking school in New Brunswick. She’s on the school bus when it is stopped on the Van Horne bridge that separates Québec from New Brunswick.

Understanding that the police are blocking the entry to the reservation, she slips out of the bus and despite the danger climbs down from the bridge to the ground to go home.

What follows that night is a violent police intervention related to the “salmon war” between the white Québec authorities and the Mi’gmaq nation. The Québec government has set new rules to issue fishing permits for salmon and these rules are unfathomable for a Native Canadian. They don’t want to abide by them because they simply don’t understand them. 300 policemen of the Sécurité of Québec are sent on the reservation to confiscate the fishermen’s nets.

In the middle of the mayhem where the police force abuse of their power, beat several Mi’gmaqs, arrest them without cause, three policemen rape Océane in the woods and left her there to her own devices. Yves, a former ranger who lives in a cabin in the woods finds her, brings her home and seeks for help. Beyond the basic human reaction to help someone in distress, Yves holds a grudge against the local authorities. He quit his job as a ranger because he didn’t approve of the treatment of the Mi’gmaqs and he didn’t want to lend a hand to the police, as required by his hierarchy.

Yves knows William, a Mi’gmaq who also lives in the woods. Together and with the help of Caroline, Yves’s former lover, they will help and protect Océane, putting their own safety at risk.

In the thread of Océane’s story, Plamondon inserts vignettes from the past and from the present politics. The images of the past go back to the importance of salmon for the Mi’gmaqs, to the help the Mi’gmaqs provided to the European first settlers. They wouldn’t have survived without their help. There are passages about fishing and Mi’gmaq culture and these short chapters give a historical context to the book and remind the white Québécois what they owe to native peoples.

The other set of vignettes comes back to the political context of the time and how the fight between Québec and the federal government ricocheted and impacted the daily life of the Mi’gmaq community. The issue of the salmon fishing rights is a pawn in the war between René Lévesque at the head Québec and the Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. We’re just the year after the 1980 referendum for the independence of Québec, lost by the partisans of Québec sovereignty.

Plamondon draws a severe picture of the Québec government, of the racism and violence of the Sécurité of Québec (we’re far, far away from Inspector Gamache’s gentleness) and of the treatment of indigenous nations in Canada. I understood that William, the oldest Indian character, has been in one of those despicable residential schools. But remember, the book is set in 1981.

Percé, Gaspésie.

On a lighter note, as usual when reading Québec literature, I had fun tracking down the funny words and expressions. I still don’t understand why we don’t use the same gender for some words between France and Québec. Why say son jeep (masculine, Québec) and not sa jeep (feminine, France), since the word car (voiture) is feminine. Maybe it’s because Québécois say char for voiture and char is masculine? Same for job. Why say une job and not un job since all the French words for job are masculine? (un travail, un emploi, un métier.)

I also love hearing the English under their French and chuckled when I saw Heille, man, a Gallicized version of Hey, man. The most endearing is when both French and Québécois use an English word in their French and France gets it wrong. Québécois use the appropriate English word choke for the device used to start a car when the French say un starter!

I need to read more Québec litterature, it’s often really enjoyable. It’s a pity that Taqawan isn’t translated into English and it goes in the Translation Tragedy category. It’s available in German, if that helps. Another good score for Kube!

PS: Remember my billet about The Grey Ghost Murders by Keith McCafferty where I discovered the existence of antique fishing flies? Well, Plamondon says that the oldest drawing of fly-fishing dates back to Ancient Egypt, fourteen centuries BC. I should start a “fun facts about fishing” category.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Highly recommended

December 19, 2021 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury – Born to be wild

November 28, 2021 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 7, 2021 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 13, 2021 21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right!

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

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

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

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

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)

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

September 15, 2021 13 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.

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.

Sundborn by Philippe Delerm – about Scandinavian impressionists

August 5, 2021 21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Larsson: Köket.NMB 270

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane

July 28, 2021 6 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 18, 2021 5 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.

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

June 23, 2021 8 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.

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