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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

June 12, 2021 35 comments

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017) French title: Eleanor Oliphant va très bien. Translated by Aline Azoulay-Pacvoň

With June starts my 20 Books of Summer challenge and what do I do? Read a book that is not on the list. Oh well, Cathy said we could switch some books.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman came in my Kube box for June. It sounded like an easy read and what I needed when I collapse on the couch after a challenging day at work. It fit the easy bill, no worries about that. For the rest… See by yourself.

Eleanor Oliphant is a young woman who lives in self isolation and like a robot. Go to work from Monday to Friday, have a weekly chat with mother, spend the weekend alone, drink some vodka, read books, do housework, rinse, repeat. She’s an introvert, avoids contact with people and doesn’t interact with her colleagues. When she does, she tends to speak her mind and disregard social conventions.

Two things happen at the same time and derail her life from her routine.

She wins concert tickets in a raffle in the office and asks her colleague Billy to go with her. They go and she develops an instant crush on Johnny Lomond, the lead singer of the local band who was playing that night. Eleanor is now convinced he’s her HEA and that she needs to metamorphose into a “normal” woman to be ready when he’ll notice her and obviously fall for her.

Then her computer breaks down and Raymond, the new IT guy in the office, comes to fix it. That day, she stumbles upon Raymond after work, they are walking together on the street when an old man collapses on the pavement. They rescue him and this leads them into a tentative friendship.

Eleanor is weighed down by a personal tragedy that is slowly unveiled as the story progresses. She’s opening up to life and other people, driven by her crush and pushed by Raymond who tricks her into attending social events.

I guess it’s supposed to be a feel-good novel about how much we need other people in our lives, how loneliness is not a life sentence if we make efforts and how we bloom under other humans’ love and friendship. You know, a book full of pearls of wisdom.

Actually, I thought it was a whole necklace of pearls of clichés.

The characters’ jobs cliché: Socially inapt Eleanor is an accountant and awkward Raymond is IT support staff. As a CFO, in the name of the different teams of accountants I managed along the years, I resent the stupid cliché of the mousy female accountant who loves numbers more than people because they are safe. And not all IT people are nerds who spend time at their mom’s and dress poorly.

The socially inapt character. Eleanor aims to be like Grace in Addition by Toni Jordan or like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion She doesn’t know how to behave in pubs, at concerts, at weddings… She has no filter… Her colleagues think she’s weird…

The terrible secret. Eleanor has survived a personal drama that shaped up her whole life. She’s a survivor and built her coping mechanisms. Now is time to stop coping, go to the shrink and start living.

The lives-under-a-rock cliché. Eleanor lives in downtown Glasgow, goes to work every day in public transports, shops at Tesco and reads a newspaper daily. And yet she sounds like she’s been dropped from the planet Mars. She’s clueless about almost everything. How is that possible? We are surrounded by information, even when you don’t care about something, you know about it if it’s popular enough. Think of football. You can’t help knowing the names of players or of the national team coach.

The makeover cliché. To conquer her rock singer, Eleanor reads women magazines, goes to the hairdresser and has her long hair cut, gets her nails done and goes to the beautician for a waxing.

The you-don’t-see-what-under-you-nose cliché. Actually, Eleanor’s colleagues really like her, Raymond wants to be more than a friend and she’s more loveable than she thinks.

You get the drift.

I finished it because I was tired, it didn’t require a lot of brain power and it was pleasant enough. I understand why readers find it uplifting but I thought it was clichéed and implausible. Usually, I’m rather an easy audience for light romance books once in a while. But they need better characterization and style than that.

For positive reviews, read Kim’s here and Claire’s here.

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan – Australian vaudeville

December 22, 2020 13 comments

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan (2016) Not available in French.

Yesterday was quite stressful: I was waiting for my daughter to fly back from Singapore via London after her semester at her school’s campus there. She was on the Singapore-London redeye when one after the other, European countries closed their border with the UK due to this new COVID stain. Her journey from London to our home has been an adventure and of course, her luggage is missing. But in the end, all went well and thank God for technology, I was following her trip step by step.

But I needed a good distraction. I started to work on my best-of-the-year list and eventually decided that I needed a sugar-without-cellulite book to keep my mind off things. I killed two birds in one stone when I downloaded Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan. It was the perfect distraction for the day and I reached the Stella stage of my 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Brilliant.

When the book opens, Caroline and Henry just had a fight. They’re married and have two daughters, Mercedes and Paris. (I wonder how they would have named their boys. Aston and Rome?) Caroline discovered that Henry’s cheating on her with Martha, their daughter Mercedes’s grade three teacher. Henry is trying to explain to his daughters why he’s leaving with the teacher. Janice, Caroline’s sister is at their place, ready to take over and watch her nieces for the weekend and this is the scene she witnesses at her arrival:

When I get to Caroline and Henry’s bedroom at the end of the corridor, I’m faced with a scene of devastation. Henry’s suits are spread out over the unmade bed like a two-dimensional gay orgy: here a Paul Smith, there a Henry Bucks, everywhere a Zegna. The trouser-half of each and every one of them is missing its crotch and Caroline, chip off the old block, is peering over them with her reading glasses on the end of her nose and the good scissors in her hand. She’s still in her nightie, freshly foiled hair loose and a silk kimono draped over her shoulders. She looks forlornly at her symbolic castration and sighs, just like Mum did all those years ago. ‘What a waste,’ she says, as she shakes her head. ‘Maybe not super-helpful at this point, Caroline darling,’ I say. She shrugs. ‘These trousers failed in their primary duty, which is to contain the penis. They have only themselves to blame.’

Henry is actually leaving Caroline for Martha. He’s taking her to Noosa for the weekend. When Caroline realized where Henry takes Martha, she chases after them. She’s quite miffed that the mistress is going to Noosa when the wife went to Dromana. I checked what it meant in Australian standards and here’s my American translation: for his lover, Henry planned a trip to the Keys, Florida when he took his wife to a coastal town in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, the neighbours Lesley and Craig stop by, wondering what’s happening. They’ve heard the fight between Caroline and Henry and their nosiness got the better of them, they needed to meddle.

Janice is the self-conscious micro-biologist sister, she divorced Alec two years before and although she dumped him, she hasn’t recovered yet. After Caroline and Henry left, she settles with the girls and decides to sleep in her sister’s room to be near them. She’s quite surprised to find a naked Craig in the bed with her when she wakes up. Apparently, Caroline has secrets too.

Next morning, new discovery. Alec arrives on her doorstep for his planned visit to the girls. Janice didn’t know he was still in touch with Caroline and Henry.

And the show goes on, with a fast-paced plot with witty dialogues. There are laughing-out-loud dialogues, like the one when the adults talk about sex using a gardening analogy to protect the little ears that are sitting in the room. I enjoyed Jordan’s piques:

Honestly Caroline, let it go. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ ‘That’s garbage,’ she says. ‘What doesn’t kill you joins forces with all the other things that don’t kill you. Then they all gang up together to kill you.’

I agree with Caroline. I dislike this “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” saying because I’m not sure it’s true. And it guilts people into thinking that if a tragedy makes them weak, they are wrong and should overcome it and feel stronger.

Janice is overwhelmed by all the people going in and out of the house and she struggles to avoid encounters between two wrong persons. She’s a peacemaker at heart and would like Caroline and Henry to patch things up for their daughters’ sake. And of course, things never go as she’d like and she has to be quick on her feet and adapt.

Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is an Australian vaudeville and it could be a theatre play with doors banging, husbands and lovers hiding behind doors or under the bed, misunderstandings, secrets, allusions and grand scenes. I would love to see this on stage.

You need to be in the right mood to enjoy this kind of book. And I was in the right frame of mind. I had a lot of fun reading it, it didn’t require a lot of brainpower but kept my mind busy and more importantly, it kept worry at bay. Mission accomplished, Toni Jordan!

Other reviews by Lisa and Guy.

Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

July 4, 2020 21 comments

Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) 1920 Not available in French.

This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

I’d never heard of O. Douglas before reading Ali’s post about Penny Plain for the 1920 Club. I decided it was a good book to have on hand for lockdown times or for days with little book concentration. I was happy to find it on my e-reader on a headachy Sunday.

Penny Plain is a romantic comedy set in Priorsford, Scotland, in 1920. Jean is 23 and lives with her brothers David, Jock and their adoptive brother Mohr in a rented house, The Rigs. Their parents are dead and Jean raises her brothers. She struggles to make ends meet. When the book opens, two events change her routine: David is leaving home to study in Oxford and Pamela Reston settles in Priorsford.

Pamela Reston is from English aristocracy. She’s almost forty, single and tired of her superficial socialite life. She decided to come to Priorsford to enjoy a simple life. Her brother, Lord Birdborough is in India. She calls him Birdy and they are close. In a nutshell, Pamela is having what we call now a mid-life crisis. Her arrival makes waves in Priorsford…

“I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very ‘twopence coloured’ she wants the ‘penny plain’ for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our ‘penny-plainness’—it jumps to the eye!

But Pamela soon befriends the locals, especially Jean. In appearance, they are total opposite. Jean is the kind of virtuous character you only find in novels. She’s rather mousy and here she is, seen through Pamela’s eyes.

Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, “like a trout-stream in Connemara,” that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock,

(Trout fishing really follows me everywhere, eh?)

It’s a romantic comedy, there’s no great originality in the plot but the characters are well-drawn. Jean’s brothers are funny, especially Mohr, the little one, only aged seven. He’s full of mischief. The crew of servants is also quirky, even if they tend to speak with Scottish accent and that was a challenge for me. Sentences like this require a bit of attention:

He couldna veesit his folk at a wise-like hour in the evening because he was gaun to hev his denner, and he couldna get oot late because his leddy-wife wanted him to be at hame efter denner.

You can’t forget you’re in Scotland. Going to England seems like crossing a border and venturing into a foreign land. And what it is with Scotland and religious intricacies? Catherine Helen Spence mentions it in her Autobiography and it went over my head. Her family was Calvinist and it weighed on her vision of life. Jean’s aunt, who raised her, was also a Calvinist and was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed.

There are different churches in Priorsford and any newcomer must pick one. That’s already strange for a French for whom things are rather clear-cut. In the 1920s, you’re Catholic, maybe Protestant and there’s only one church of each. The real debate would have been between the churchgoers and the anti-clerical folks. Here, since there’s a wider offer of religious services, there are puzzling passages about the merits of a clergyman or the other, peppered with remarks like Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians. I read this and thought “?????”

This brings me to the other nice side of Penny Plain, O Douglas’s witty prose and clever observations. It counterbalances well the obviousness of the plot. It can be in descriptions of people:

Mrs. Jowett is a sweet woman, but to me she is like a vacuum cleaner. When I’ve talked to her for ten minutes my head feels like a cushion that has been cleaned—a sort of empty, yet swollen feeling.

Don’t we all know people like that whose conversation is one-sided and leaves you baffled? It’s also in little notes..

January is always a long, flat month: the Christmas festivities are over, the bills are waiting to be paid, the weather is very often of the dreariest, spring is yet far distant. With February, hope and the snowdrops begin to spring, but January is a month to be warstled through as best we can.

I’ve always felt like this about January. Some things don’t change, even a century later.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book, and with a little wave to Bill, I’d say a perfect one to listen to while driving a truck. I’ll leave you with a last oh-so-true little quote:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

 

 

A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge – Melbourne, tea cups and romance

April 26, 2020 20 comments

A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge. (1896) Not available in French.

I decided to sign up for Australian Women Writer Challenge again. I had joined this literary event in 2018 and all my Australian readings are in here. AWW (#AWW2020) is hosted by Australian bloggers and its rules are described on their website.

The idea is to read four, six, ten or more books written by Australian women writers. I’ve already read four, so I’m joining the party now. The first ones are two books by Catherine Helen Spence, her novel Mr Hogarth’s Will and her Autobiography

I had A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge on the TBR because it was included in my omnibus collection of books by Cambridge that I acquired when I read The Three Miss Kings.

It also includes Sisters, A Mere Chance, Materfamilias, The Retrospect and her memoirs Thirty Years in Australia. I’ve read Sisters (upcoming billet). Among the ones I still have on the TBR, which one would you recommend?

A Humble Entreprise doesn’t seem to be one of Cambridge’s most famous books, it’s not even listed on her Wikipedia page.

A Humble Entreprise opens with a familiar scene of 19thC novels: Joseph Liddon, a dutiful clerk at the Churchills’ offices and dies in a tram accident, leaving his wife and his three grown-up children without an income.

His young son is hired as a clerk in the same office as his father but he can’t support the whole family with his entry-level wages. The eldest daughter, Jenny, comes with a plan: she convinces her mother and sister to open a tea shop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. To keep the running of the shop simple and efficient, they decide to serve tea, coffee and scones, since Mrs Liddon excels at baking them.

She puts an ad in the paper to advertise the place and Mr Churchill, her father’s former employer, stumble upon it. He remembers about the late Mr Liddon and also that his family declined any financial help from the firm. He’s impressed by their entrepreneurship and their willingness to support themselves with their tea shop.

He decides to visit the place and endorse it. He asks his wife and daughter to have tea there on their next shopping trip to Melbourne and to promote the shop to their lady friends.

Soon, thanks to Jenny’s sound management of their money and Mrs Churchill’s patronage, the place is successful.

Meanwhile, at the Churchill mansion, the family prepares themselves to the return of Mr Churchill’s eldest son, Anthony, from his trip in Europe. His stepmother is particularly happy to see him again, she who hoped to marry him but eventually married his father. She’s still romantically attracted to her stepson, which brings a certain twist to the story.

Anthony is thirty-five, still single and thinks it’s time to settle down. If only he could find the right wife. He has played the field enough and knows he doesn’t want a frivolous wife who only cares about clothes and parties. He wants an industrious, caring wife, one who’ll want to take care of their children and not let them too much in the care of nannies.

Guess what happens when he meets hard-working, no-nonsense and entrepreneurial Jenny?

A Humble Entreprise is written for a readership of young girls. Ada Cambridge uses this light and fluffy romance to give advice about love and marriage. There are several passages in which Anthony muses over the qualities he wants in his future wife. Pretty doesn’t come first, he’s more looking for companionship. Ada Cambridge addresses directly to her readers:

And, my dear girls—to whom this modest tale is more particularly addressed—I am credibly informed that quite a large number of men are inclined to matrimony or otherwise by considerations of the same kind. You don’t think so, when you are at play together in the ball-room and on the tennis-ground, and you fancy it is your “day out,” so to speak; but they tell me in confidence that it is the fact. They adore your pretty face and your pretty frocks; they are immensely exhilarated by your sprightly banter and sentimental overtures; they absolutely revel in the pastime of making love, and will go miles and miles for the chance of it; but when it comes to thinking of a home and family, the vital circumstances of life for its entire remaining term, why, they really are not the heedless idiots that they appear—at any rate, not all of them.

Something Jane Austen says in one sentence in Emma, “Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”

Of course, her views on marriage are in accordance with the mores of her time but she still advocates equality in the personal relationship. She sees marriage as a loving partnership and she clearly wants to teach her readers that beauty evaporates with time and that a good character with adequate skills lasts longer. They should work on useful skills instead of entertaining ones.

I wonder why she didn’t go further and explain to her female readers what they should look for in a husband. After all, women of sense do not want a silly husband either. Drunkards, gamblers, idlers, spendthrifts, cheaters and quick-tempered men should raise warning flags as well. Perhaps she didn’t go there because girls didn’t have the luxury to be picky and could only hope for the best.

A Humble Entreprise is a fluffy novella I’ve read in one sitting, which was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to read a feel-good novella and it filled the bill. Cambridge writes in a light tone and has a good sense of humour, as you can see in her description of the Churchills going out to downtown Melbourne:

Half an hour later her husband and stepdaughter, two highly-finished, perfectly-tailored figures, sober and stately, severely unpretentious, yet breathing wealth and consequence at every point, set forth together through spacious gardens to the road and the tram—which appeared to the minute, as it always does for men of the Churchill stamp, who are never too soon or too late for anything.

As always, because I’m curious about everyday life in other countries and previous centuries, I enjoyed reading about Melbourne in the 19thC.

Recommended to readers who enjoy 19thC literature and are not allergic to romance.

PS: About the cover. I really don’t understand where this cover comes from. It’s miles away from the atmosphere of the book, as far from it as Nana is from Emma. The second picture is more accurate, you can imagine Jenny running the tea shop while her mother bakes the scones and her sister holds the cash register.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Meet Belinda, the clever spinster

April 19, 2020 28 comments

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950) French title: Comme une Gazelle apprivoisée.

Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog – something to love, that was the point.

For April, our Book Club chose to read Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, thanks to Jacqui’s recommendation. It is my second Pym after Excellent Women. What a delightful read it was!

We are in a little village in England, probably in the 1930s, as it’s before WWII et rather far from WWI.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are two spinsters, both over 50. They live together near the vicarage. Harriet is the most outgoing of the two. She’s friendly, cheerful and loves to socialize. Her pleasure in life is to take care of the curates of the village. She loves to have people at diner and share good food. She gets along well with Count Bianco, who regularly proposes to her and gets refused.

Belinda, our narrator, is quiet and has been in love Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve for thirty years. They met at college, bonded over poetry and she was heartbroken when he married Agatha instead of her. She now lives with her unrequited love and gets a bit bullied by Henry’s wife.

Some Tame Gazelle tells the story of the village over the span of a few months during which several events occurred. A new curate arrived, much to Harriet’s delight. Agatha went away to heal her rheumatism, freeing Belinda from her looming presence. An old friend from college, Dr Parnell came to stay at the vicarage with his colleague Mr Mold. This setting reminded Belinda of their youth. And then Agatha came back, accompanied by Bishop Theodore Grope, in charge of a diocese in Africa. All these visits and arrivals disturbed the usual course of Harriet’s and Belinda’s lives.

Harriet is bubbly and seems to have decided to make as much as possible of her life, within the constraints of country life. She enjoys nice and fashionable clothes, she cares for good food and good company. Pym says about her that Harriet was still attractive in a fat Teutonic way.

Belinda tries not to delve into the past and succumb to melancholy but living so close to Henry is like constantly pouring salt in a wound that never has time to heal to be painless at last.

Belinda is humble, probably because she doesn’t think of herself as loveable and worth of any attention after being rejected by Henry. Besides, Harriett always shines more in company and Agatha picks at her, chopping at her self-esteem.

Henry is a disagreeable pompous man but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s not fit for the life of a clergyman and I wondered how he came to this career, suspecting that Agatha roped him into it, as she is the daughter of a bishop. Henry seems only interested in poetry, a love he shares with Belinda. His sermons are full of literary references that fly over his parishioners’ heads:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. He began at the seventeenth century. Belinda reflected that if he had gone back any further, the sermon would have assumed Elizabethan proportions.

He neglects his duties as a clergyman and it’s hard to say whether he’s lazy or simply can’t be bothered with them because he doesn’t have the calling that should go with his position. He lacks the necessary people skills, the empathy and the ability to find the right comforting words at the right time. He sounds selfish and irritable but I thought it might come a deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He sounds like he wishes he has married Belinda.

Under Pym’s writing, Belinda is a delightful middle-aged lady who casts a lucid and funny look at her life and her fellow villagers. She sees a lot and is quite astute in her perception of people and the meaning behind their actions. She’s benevolent, sees the good in people and tolerates their little flaws and quirks as everyone has theirs. She’s not blind about Henry’s shortcomings but loves him anyway.

Men in Some Tame Gazelle aren’t great people. They see women and wives as convenient co-workers and caretakers for old age. A most distinctive skill for a woman is her ability to knit a good pair of socks, well-shaped and of the right size. Dear, no wonder Harriet stays single. Dr Parnell sums it up in a blunt statement: After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.’ A way to a man’s heart is his stomach and his well-socked feet.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Belinda and Henry. They seemed well-suited for each other and Belinda’s life is a waste of her talents. She could have been so much more but her crushed hopes put her in a shell she never went out of. And Henry is probably living the wrong life, with a career that was not his calling.

A Tame Gazelle is a great study of characters, being in Belinda’s head was charming. Pym also shows a society full of social constraints, of etiquette and habits. We see it in passing when Belinda muses “Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.” How can there be a rule about when to think about poetry?

As a French, I also had a lot of fun with the food. It is of much importance to Harriet’s well-being and Pym shares about the various menus. I wondered what sardine eggs, cauliflower cheese, a tin of tongue, potato cakes, Belgian buns, trifles and rissoles could be. And I found this discussion most puzzling:

What meat did you order?’ ‘Mutton,’ said Belinda absently. ‘But we haven’t any red-currant jelly,’ said Harriet. ‘One of us will have to go out tomorrow morning and get some. Mutton’s so uninteresting without it.’

What has mutton to do with red-currant jelly?

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – Entertaining

December 24, 2018 15 comments

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. (2013) French title: Le théorème du homard.

This month, I’m supposed to read Dead Souls by Gogol before my next Book Club meeting. I am too tired to concentrate on it and so far, I haven’t been able to go further than page 2. Yes, it doesn’t sound good. So, I’ve been reading easy books for the sake of entertainment. I had The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion on my kindle and it seemed the right time to get to it.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at the university of Melbourne. He’s single, almost forty, never passed the first date stage and now wishes to get married. His friends Gene and Claudia tried to set him up with friends but to no avail.

He decides to set up a very detailed questionnaire to find the perfect wife. This is how he starts The Wife Project. When Gene sends Rosie to Don’s office as she has a question related to genetics, Don misunderstands her coming to him and thinks that Gene sent her after she applied to The Wife Project.

Don starts taking interest in Rosie’s search for her biological father. He gets invested in what becomes The Father Project. Rosie inserts herself into his life, and although he dismissed her as a valid candidate for The Wife Project, he slowly discovers that science cannot solve everything.

Don is the narrator and we understand from the start that he has an IQ higher than everyone, that he has trouble interacting with people, that he painfully lacks social skills. His life is organized by the minute on a white board and he aims at maximizing his time for everything. Scientific thinking is his only way of thinking. He’s rational and has trouble with spontaneity and non-analytical behaviours and responses.

Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the Wife Problem. Unfortunately, their approach was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences. I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing. However, there is something about me that women find unappealing. I have never found it easy to make friends, and it seems that the deficiencies that caused this problem have also affected my attempts at romantic relationships.

This is typical of Don’s voice.

At the beginning of the novel, he replaces his best friend Gene to be the speaker at a conference about Asperger’s syndrome. His reaction to the public and the few words he says about the content of the conference leads the reader into thinking that Don has Asperger’s syndrome. But it’s never said directly and that was clever of Simsion. He avoids further criticism about inaccurate psychiatric details and Don isn’t pigeonholed as someone with a disorder but just as someone odd. Rosie brings spontaneity into his life and breaks his routine, throwing him out of his comfort zone. Her presence disrupts his life and forces him to come out of his self-built shell.

The Rosie Project reminded me of Addition (2008) by another Australian writer, Toni Jordan. In Addition, Grace, the main character has OCD and a life with a lot of rules and habits, just like Don.

The Rosie Project is tagged as a “feel-good” novel. If the narrator and the writer were female, I bet it would be tagged as chick lit. I suppose that, like Addition, it a romcom with an unusual character, one who’s socially inapt but still loveable. Don’s deadpan tone is quite entertaining and he finds himself in situations that become comical. His vision of life is endearing as he tends to take everything at face value. Since he has trouble understanding non-verbal messages, he has difficulties in social settings. Lots of miscommunication happen. Rosie has her own issues and interacting with matter-of-fact Don isn’t easy for her either. He doesn’t know how to sugar-coat things, he always speaks his mind and he can be hurtful. Unintentionally.

The Rosie Project won several prizes and I suppose that in its category, it’s a good book. It’s easy to read and written in a good style. It’s a perfect distraction, an excellent Beach & Public Transport book. It’s also a novel that reminds us that it takes all sorts to make a world and that we shall accept people the way they are and not always try to change or improve them or make them enter into some socially accepted standards.

For another review, see Lisa’s here (She also mentions Addition) and Sue’s here.

Saturday news: two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade and a sugar-without-cellulite read.

September 22, 2018 33 comments

I’ve been away for work, weekends have been busy and my TBW (To Be Written) pile has not decreased. So far, September has been made of two abandoned books, a missed literary escapade in Moscow and a sugar-without-cellulite novel as comfort read.

The first abandoned book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville (2007) and it starts like this:

The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year. Not it had fetched up at the end of the earth. There was no lock on the door of the hut where William Thornhill, transported for the term of his natural life in the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and six, was passing his first night in His Majesty’s penal colony of New South Wales.

Follows the story of William Thornhill and his wife Sal from London to the newly founded Sydney. The Secret River is a famous and well-beloved Australian book but I couldn’t finish it and I abandoned it after reading one third of it.

I thought that the part in London where Grenville explains how Thornhill was deported was way too long. There were too many details about a poor man’s life in London, his job on the Thames and how misery led him to steal goods from boats in order to feed his family. Grenville could have made her point in a lot less pages and it could have been even more powerful.

Then there’s the arrival in Sydney and the story progressed slowly again, with details that were useless to me while others were missing. I would have liked more information about how the Thornhills dealt with the strange land and the workings of the colony.

William Thornhill has no flaw: he’s hardworking, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, loves his wife and was a good apprentice. There were too many pages about this in the London part, as if Kate Grenville was trying to prove that Thornhill was a good man. I had the feeling she was trying to buy respectability to the convicts that were sent to Australia and by transitivity to all the white people who founded the current Australian society.

I stopped reading when I reached Part III. I was still not interested in the Thornhills’ fate and I thought that if Grenville had failed to engage me by then, it was a lost cause. In my opinion, she was trying too hard to make of this book an homage to the white ancestors of Australia by telling an uplifting story about how honest hard work will make you successful.

The Secret River felt like a book that had already been done, about “pioneers” who arrive to a strange land, have a successful life and participate to the foundation of a new country. But it doesn’t have the power of Cather’s My Ántonia and it didn’t work for me. I can’t believe it’s a trilogy! If you’ve read The Secret River, what did you think of it?

I’ll spend less time on the second book I abandoned since it’s L’homme qui marche by Yves Bichet, a French novel that has not been translated into English.

The main character is Robert Coublevie and he spends his time walking with his dog Elia on the border between France and Italy in the Alps.

His wife has left him for another man and he sort of replaced her by a dog named after her. Sometimes he goes back to town and spends time at the Café du Nord. The owner has a teenage daughter named Camille and when he’s back on the mountain, he realizes that Camille is there, walking with a stranger.

The blurb was crime-fictionish, which attracted me in the first place. But in the end, I didn’t like Bichet’s style with all the descriptions of the mountains and of his walking.

Again, I wasn’t engaged in the story.

These were the two first sad experiences of September but the most frustrating one was a missed opportunity for a literary escapade in Moscow.

I was there for work and all I could think about was that out there were the houses or apartments of Pushkin, Chekov, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy and others.

I’ve only seen Moscow by night and the closest to any literary thing I went was the Pushkin square and seeing bookshelves in all the restaurants I went to. I am so frustrated.

I also read Pike by Benjamin Whitmer (more of this one in another billet) and after this gritty noir and the busy weeks at work, I needed something sugary and I turned to Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom, a book I’d downloaded after reading Caroline’s review.

The kindle cover is dreadful and I’m glad you don’t see them when you read on the kindle. I picked the paper book cover for your eyes. It’s a bit like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

Ann Clement is 35, unmarried and works as a secretary in a London office. She’s bored with her life, spent between work, chores and visits to her brother’s family. Ann was brought up in a corseted family who denies pleasures in life and is narrow-minded but she yearns for more.

Her brother’ name is Cuthbert and his way of thinking and his behaviour is are as medieval as his name.

Cuthbert had the usual outlook of an Englishman, with the beautiful belief that though the Almighty had made the British Isles, with the possible exception of Ireland, which was Popish and Sinn Fein, the devil had undoubtedly made every other part of the world. And that was that!

When Ann wins a large sum of money in a sweepstake, she decides to embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean.

We follow her on the ship and in her excursions in Gibraltar, Marseille, Venice and more as she discovers the world outside of England, observes her contemporaries and finds herself. It was written in the 1930s and it shows the condition of single women of the time, trapped in a narrow choice of employment and living under thumb of relatives. I enjoyed watching Ann coming out of her shell and learning how to let go of old-fashioned life principles.

Besides Ann’s awakening, Bloom draws a funny picture of Brits abroad and of the misfortunes of mass tourism. They go on tours like sheep, complain about the hot weather and compare everything to some place back home. Ann is a keen observer of her surroundings, she basks in the beauty of the landscapes and points out the ridicules of her travel companions.

I found some of the comments about France and French people quite funny. Here’s Ann’s vision of Paul Vallé, one of her diner companions.

Monsieur Paul Vallé came next. He was twenty-four and he spoke extremely bad English, but thought that he spoke it very well. He sat the other side of Ann, and before the meal started she realized to her horror that he was a distinctly French eater! He spiked her with his elbows as he ate; he was very noisy; he masticated freely and thoroughly. He was little and rotund, with small dark eyes peering at the red-lipped Ethel through goggle glasses. She intrigued him ‒ he called her Mees ‒ if he had been the girl sort probably he would have had an affaire du coeur with Mees. But he wasn’t the girl sort. He was the food sort. He had come for the menu, and he wasn’t going to allow Mees to distract him from that menu.

I wondered in which alternate universe Ann Clement was living because it’s one where a Frenchman books a cruise solely to binge on British food. 😊

It’s definitely a Sugar-Without-Cellulite and Beach-And-Public-Transport book. It’s light, the comments about other people on the ship are funny and Ann is a nice character to spend time with. It’s not the literary work of the century but it did the unwinding I needed.

Here’s another review by Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books.

That’s all for today, folks. I hope I’ll have more time for blogging and reading your reviews in the coming weeks but I doubt it.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

June 14, 2017 14 comments

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald (2013) French title : La bibliothèque des cœurs cabossés. Translated from the Swedish by Carine Buy.

As mentioned in my previous billet about The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus, after reading A Cool Million and the said Duck Hunt, I was in dire need of a feel-good novel. So during a visit to a bookstore, I got myself The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.

The blurb is made for bookworms. Sara Lindqvist is twenty-eight years old and lives in Haninge, a small town in Sweden. She’s a book lover and started a correspondence with Amy, another booklover who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. They’ve been discussing books and life for two years when the bookshop where Sara works goes belly up. Amy convinces the now unemployed Sara to come and stay with her for a few weeks. Sara organizes her trip but when she arrives in Broken Wheel, it’s the day of Amy’s funeral. What to do now?

She decides to stay and gets acquainted with the villagers, an odd bunch of people who stayed in their declining hometown. Broken Wheel progressively lost its inhabitants, then its school and the buildings on Main Street have lost their luster. It’s now a sleepy town that will wake up with the arrival of this foreigner who decides to use Amy’s books to set up a bookstore on Main Street. Sara wants to use Amy’s library to convert Broken Wheel to literature.

Ahem.

Lucky me, I read this at a time when my tolerance for approximate prose and clichéd characters was exceptionally high. I’m so tired after work that I welcomed the reprieve. I finished it despite its 500 pages, its nice but unreal characters, the description of corn fields and the tepid plot. It says a lot about my fatigue.

Conclusion: Two years of correspondence between Sara and Amy and yet for me, nothing to write home about. I do enjoy fluffy books from time to time but this one wasn’t good enough. Good fluff is hard to write too.

Other review: Claire from Word by Word read it too and is more positive than I am about it. Her review is here.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 23 comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.

watson_frenchShe musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.

Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.

Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.

She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.

Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:

Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.

Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.

It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.

‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.

Totally Captain Haddock, no?

Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Not even good enough for a beach read

August 4, 2013 28 comments

Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson 2006. French title : Le diable vit à Notting Hill.

I don’t know what woke me up – I drank no alcohol last night, I observed the carb curfew, I had only one espresso during the day, plus I did a Pilates class and hours of gardening in the fresh air – but I’m definitely awake now. Wide awake.

Johnson_Notting_HellThis is the first paragraph of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson. I know what you’re thinking: Why on earth did she pick this book? Well, I didn’t, I got it for my birthday. It’s not a book I would have chosen for myself but I decided to give it a go. We’re now in the South of France, for a couple of weeks of R&R by the sea. I’m exhausted by the last weeks at the office and I thought this would be the perfect time to read Notting Hell. My brain cells are frozen by fatigue and it sounded smart to not to waste good books on the first couple of days of reading at the beach. That’s why I went for this book that didn’t require many brain cells. Actually, it didn’t require brain cells at all and the few I had left threw a tantrum in my skull, urging me to abandon the book. I followed their lead after 80 pages of silliness, not with a capital S, that wouldn’t be big enough, but with a huge initial letter S like in the book of Kells.

The story is about rich families living around a private square in Notting Hill. They’re rich and they have problems. Every sentence mentions a brand of some sort, there are so many of them that I wondered if their marketing VPs paid the “writer” on their advertising budget. I have little patience with that kind of setting. The characters are thin, they have obvious professions; the husbands are bankers, the wives are a free-lance journalist specialised in deep articles such as the pros and cons of being flat-chested or, of course, stay-at-home mothers. Heaven forbid that the women have a job in a scientific field. Their main concern is who sleeps with whom around the square. They observe each other and gossip. Zzzzzzzzz.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some snobbish intellectual who only raves about Proust. I enjoy light reads too. But light doesn’t mean stupid. Now, my beach read is You Never Know With Women by James Hadley Chase (THANKS GUY) and I’m having a great time.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about the excellent Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

In Sydney, the Ladies’ Paradise is named Goode’s

March 21, 2013 37 comments

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. 1993.

St_John*Sheepish*. Before starting Book Around The Corner, to me, Australia meant kangaroos, sun and INXS. Starting from nearly zero, my knowledge of the country and its literature could only improve. After reading Lisa’s review about The Women In Black, I decided I wanted to read it too and it soon joined other friends on the TBR.

The Women in Black are the salespersons at Goode’s, a department store in Sydney that can be compared to the Galeries Lafayette. They wear black clothes provided by the store. We’re in the 1950s, and we follow a group of sales clerks in the Ladies’ Frocks Department and the Model Gowns areas during a few weeks around Christmas.

Fay is 30 and still single. Patty has been married to Frank for ten years and still works since they don’t have children. Frank was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate. Poor Patty. Magda is an immigrant from Slovenia married to a Hungarian immigrant Stefan; she works for the Model Gowns Department and feels slightly superior. Lisa is about 18 and works at Goode’s as a temp while she’s waiting for the results of her Leaving Certificate. The novel is split into fifty-five very short chapters, sharp like scenes in a sitcom. (Fifty-five? Does the novel happen in 1955?) It has the same upbeat feeling as the Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.

For me, reading this was puzzling at times. Most of all, it’s strange to read a story around Christmas time where the characters complain about heat, go to the beach, want a bathing suit as a Christmas gift and wait for results to their exams. Try to buy a bikini in December in France. I had to research Australia on Wikipedia when the prices were mentioned in £; I was sure the money was AUD so, what was that? I discovered they changed from £ to AUD in 1966. Good to know, I like to go to bed less stupid than I got up. Then, there were the sizes of clothes!

Patty Williams’s frock was an SSW as we know, whereas Fay Baines was an SW, but Miss Jacobs was a perfect OSW, especially around the bust.

What? This sentence left me guessing the women’s figures from slimmest to fattest. I also assumed that the Leaving Certificate is the Australian equivalent to the French baccalauréat.

Another interesting aspect was the attitude toward European immigrants. Well, not all of them, Continentals. I’ve never heard that word used in other circumstances than followed by breakfast. I suppose it covers immigrants from Europe that are neither British nor Irish. They live in different neighbourhoods, eat different food and don’t expect to marry outside of their community. Except for Rudi, Madga and Stefan’s friend, who wants to marry a real Australian girl.

I don’t know Madeleine St John, but I’m sure of one thing: she speaks French. Stefan, Rudi and Magda used to communicate in French before switching to English after they immigrated to Australia. Their English is tainted with mistakes Francophones make when they speak English, like “I am enchanted to meet you” or “I can recommend the chocolate pudding here, it is formidable.” Formidable sounds like a faux ami; in French, it means fantastic, not dreadful, unless you also use formidable while meaning awesome? Madga often includes French words and expressions in her sentences although I suspect it is more out of snobbery. After all, she works in the Haute Couture section of the store, she needs to have class! However Ms St John uses French words or references in her descriptions, as in “Up here, all was luxe, calme et volupté, with nice pink lights and pink-tinted mirrors which made you look just lovely, and the thick grey silence underfoot of finest Axminster.” Luxe, calme et volupté comes from a poem by Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage.

The novel speaks about another era, at least for Australia and other Western countries. Lisa’s father doesn’t want her to go to university, even if she has stunning grades and a full scholarship. She’s a girl, what’s the point? Here is Patty’s doctor about her childlessness:

The physician regarded his patient with some despair. It was too bad. Here was a woman well into her childbearing years with no baby to nurse: it was entirely unnatural. She had lost all her bloom and was therefore not likely to attract another man who might accomplish the necessary so if her husband failed to come up to scratch her life would be wasted. It was too bad, it really was.

What is she? A cow?

The department store closes at mid-day on Saturdays and all the shops are closed during the weekend. Sydney is a dead city until Monday. We forget that there were times when you couldn’t shop on Saturday afternoons. Patty will stop working if she can prove her usefulness and get pregnant. Rudi is always happy and the reader can only suspect that he’s seen so horrible things before leaving Hungary for Australia that he’s grateful to just be alive and free. Other problems are mere inconveniences.

All these details just show you how much I enjoyed reading The Women in Black. I needed a light and funny read after Under the Volcano and I got a good one. Thanks Lisa. I’ll read That Deadman Dance that you virtually gave me for Christmas in a few weeks.

You can find another review HERE, in French, from a French blogger who now lives in Australia.

Don’t they have coils in Sweden?

February 16, 2013 24 comments

Familjegraven by Katarina Mazetti 2005. French title: Le caveau de famille. Not available in English.

Mazetti_Caveau_FamilleFamily Grave is the sequel of Benny and Shrimp, a book I read almost two years ago. I wouldn’t have bought the sequel as these are usually disappointing unless the initial literary project was to write something in several volumes. Otherwise, once the pleasure of discovering a new set of characters and a new environment is gone, the sequel lacks the freshness of first impressions. In this case, my in-law lent me the book and I read it in two settings. It’s short, entertaining and does not really engage a lot of brain cells. Just look at the categories I chose; this is not a criticism, just a statement.

Mazetti’s characters are Benny, a farmer who struggles to keep his farm afloat by himself and Dérirée, who is a librarian and a city girl. They meet in the cemetery since Benny’s mother’s grave is beside Dérirée’s husband’s grave. They have nothing in common but still fall in love. In the sequel, we follow their improbable love story as they become parents. In this kind of book, with that kind of blurb, it can be anything from extremely corny to extremely funny and witty. Only the skills of the writer can make a difference. Perhaps it is, in a way, more difficult to write excellent fluffy books following well-battered paths than it is to write a book about yourself and your relationship with your mother.

But back to Benny and Désirée. Things weren’t easy between them in the first volume, they don’t improve in the second. It’s still written in the same light and funny tone as Benny and Shrimp and the details are rather realistic. Katarina Mazetti describes with a rather good accuracy the life of parents who both work and have several children under four years old. You live on a binary mode: Parent-Employee-Parent-Employee…Sometimes the man or the woman in you pops up provided that you haven’t fallen asleep before it can even happen. So it’s full of details that non-parents may have a hard time believing but that are still true. The huge piles of laundry, the illness that always occur at the worst moment, the desperate need to find someone to watch them when they’re ill and you need to work, the holidays that aren’t unwinding, the relief when it’s time for their nap or the constant run against to clock to get everything done and respect their need for meals and naps at fixed hours. Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderful moments with small children when you help them acquire new skills and cuddle them. These moments get enough advertising; it’s nice to have someone showing the other side of parenthood.

Mazetti_tomba_famigliaThe only detail I had difficulties to swallow is that Désirée keeps on getting pregnant by accident. Don’t they have coils in Sweden? This is the 21st century and I have a hard time imagining it can happen to such an educated woman as Désirée.

The most interesting aspect of the book is about Benny and his farm. Katarina Mazetti’s husband is a farmer, so she knows how it works. Benny works all the time, doesn’t earn enough to support a family, struggles with EU paperwork and Désirée isn’t very optimistic about the future of agriculture in Sweden. Money is tight and farms disappear. Benny is the last one milking cows in his neighbourhood. His character, although a bit of a caricature, still rings true. I’m not saying that all farmers act like Benny but more that they encounter the same kind of troubles in their work.

This novel doesn’t pretend to be a masterpiece; it isn’t but it’s a good light read if you need one. It came as a nice distraction to Marcel’s claustrophic behaviour to Albertine.

A word about the covers. The French one is rather corny and the red heart is a link to the cover of the first volume. I think that the Italian one is awful and the book doesn’t deserve such a pink syrupy cover. Again, it’s a book marketed for women and we can’t escape pink. And those ridiculous butterflies! It has nothing to do with the book…

What can I say, I’m a city girl

December 15, 2012 16 comments

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimbal 2010. French title: Une vie pleine. Mon histoire d’amour avec un homme et une ferme.

A while ago, I read Le mec de la tombe d’à côté by Katarina Mazetti, a nice little novel about a Swedish city girl falling in love with a farmer. So someone lent me The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, which is in appearance, the same kind of book. Except that Katarina Mazetti is a writer creating a funny story while Mrs Kimball relates her life. Kristin Kimball was journalist, working in New York and she was sent on an assignment in a farm in Pennsylvania. Mark grows organic vegetables and raises animals. They fall in love, she leaves New York to start a new life with him on a decrepit farm. She wrote a book about their first year together.

That’s for the story. I could be fine with it. After all, I had already read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.

Before writing more about The Dirty Life, I have to say a few words about myself. I grew up in an urban environment. My first encounter with country life was when I was seventeen. That summer, I had signed up for a three weeks stay in a German family and ended up in a farm in Bayern. The farmer there thought that t-shirts were optional pieces of clothing, went around the place bare chested in tiny shorts, scratching his behind. The couple were very nice to me but I can’t say I enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night and stand in the barn in my nightgown to watch the cow calve. No epiphany there. My idea of a perfect location for a home is How far is it from the bakery and from the cinema? Although this is not a life for me, I have a deep respect for farmers, they work really hard and they love their job, otherwise they’d quit. I also cook mostly from produce, we compost part of our food scraps, so I know what vegetables and fruit look like before they’re in cans or in frozen pieces. In addition, I believe in moderation in every thing and I have trouble getting along with extremists of all sides because black and white situations are just too simplistic for me. Now that I’ve written a long disclaimer, let me tell you my opinion about The Dirty Life.

Mrs Kimball and I started off on the wrong foot right from the first pages when she describes her first encounter with Mark:

I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can’t believe I drove all this way to hoe brocoli for this dude.

Then a few pages later you have:

Michael [a farm employee] handed me a hard-toothed rake, and we set off in adjacent rows. Penn State was just down the road, and Michael, a film major, had graduated that spring. He’d begun volunteering weekends at Mark’s farm to see if, as he put it, hard work would make him a man.

Kimball_Vie_pleine_HardI can deduct from these quotes that cerebral men are not real men but only ersatz and that being a real man means working with your hands. Hard work at university or in the office doesn’t make a man of you. I frowned. Old clichés don’t apply only to women. I could have forgiven her that gratuitous comments if she hadn’t nailed them a few pages later when she says she wishes to every woman that she finds a man with a body fit by hard work and not by working out at the gym. Well, Mrs Kimball, there’s no accounting for taste but I rather like living with a graduate of the French equivalent of an Ivy League school who wears business suits to go to work and doesn’t come home caked with mud or stinking cow dunk. I can live without the farming muscles. Who does she think she is?

As expected, she describes with lots of details her experience with farming. I skipped lots of pages of descriptions of vegetables, milk, the colour of butter and other edifying explanations. To be fair, she doesn’t hide that it’s exhausting and that it takes their whole days. But I’m a bit suspicious about the rosy description of her neighbourhood: what? All are perfectly friendly, no one’s nosy, no one’s eyeing suspiciously the newcomers and their crazy project?

Because, I haven’t told you everything yet. They start farming but Mark is an extremist: no tractor, no chemical products. He doesn’t want plastic anywhere, had a phase of living without electricity and doesn’t own a car. He rides a bike. I’m all for organic agriculture and being cautious with technology but really, was horsedrawn farming absolutely necessary?

Of course, she glorifies farm work, sometimes in a strange way. The slaughtering of animals doesn’t bother her but ploughing does, she finds it violent to the Earth. (obscene is the word used by the translator) That puzzled me. What surprised me too is how little regulation there seem to be in America. In France, you can’t slaughter a pig or a calf in your backyard; you need to bring them to the slaughterhouse. And is putting a horse to sleep with a gun authorised?

Kimball_Vie_plein_1018I finished this book out of respect for the person who lent it to me. I can’t wait to discuss it with her. As you now know it, I didn’t like The Dirty Life neither in substance nor in form. Barbara Kingsolver honestly shared her experience of farming with her reader. It was an interesting and intelligent narration. Here, I found the tone patronizing.  I’m married to a man who spent his adolescence making up fake homework to avoid being enrolled to farm work by his father, I don’t find farming glamorous. I don’t envy her, I don’t think her life is fuller than mine. If living from farming was that fantastic, can you explain to me why all these people left the country to take a job in factories and in cities in the 20th Century?

PS: I have a copy published by France Loisirs, that’s right in their alley. But I discovered that 10:18 published it as well and I’m disappointed that my favourite publisher picked this book for their collection.

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

September 11, 2012 28 comments

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan 2010 Not available in French.

I heard about Fall Girl on Lisa’s blog a while ago and I’m always grateful when someone discovers good quality light and entertaining books. I like to have some on the shelves whenever I want distraction. And didn’t I need distraction after reading Bord de Mer by Véronique Olmi!  Frequent readers of this blog will notice that I’m terribly late to write this billet as I’ve read the book back in mid-August. In a way it’s an interesting situation since it’s a light book and it shows how much of the book stayed with me.

Della is a member of a family of con artists. The whole family is in the conning business. Her father, her brothers, her uncle, aunt and cousins all work together as a team. When the book opens, she’s all dressed up to her new assignment. This time, billionaire Daniel Metcalf is her prey; his foundation grants money to scientist to carrying on researches. He doesn’t mind investing is crazy projects. So Della now needs to look and sound like skilled scientist to persuade him to give her money to prove there still are Tasmanian tigers in Australia and more precisely in the Wilsons Promontory National Park near Melbourne. She decided this scheme after reading an article about him and his remembrance of seeing a Tasmanian tiger as a child. The problem is that Tasmanian tigers are thought extinct since the 20thC…

Daniel asks to meet her at her office at the university she’s supposed to teach at. She can’t refuse and the organization of the fake office is a funny read. After that, Daniel asks to participate to the researches in the park. The whole escapade is organized in haste and starts quite well but Della thinks something is off, that Daniel looks suspicious. She wonders if he’s lying to her. And the reader wonders who’s conning who.

It’s an entertaining book, seeing all the details of the schemes and the lengths Della and her family are willing to go to get money is really funny. Della’s family put a lot of work into it, much more than they would if they earned money with a regular job. Their whole life is shadowy, made of flights, erasing traces not to be caught. Della never went to school to be as little noticeable as possible. They live in a closed circle, only trusting another family. They sort of live in a parallel world just for the thrill of the cases, the supposedly freedom linked to that bohemian situation.

But Della is at a turning point: does she want to keep on doing this “job” as it is the only occupation she knows? Doesn’t she long for a “normal” life? What used to be glamorous doesn’t seem that much fun these days and the money isn’t flowing into the house. With new technologies, it becomes more and more difficult to set up people as it is easier for them to check references and stories. We follow how her job goes on and also share her doubts about her life.

It seems to me that Toni Jordan had a lot of fun writing this story and describing this strange family living in a house in Cumberland Street which is full of hides, gadgets and secret way-outs. It’s a house which enchants children (Aren’t all children attracted to secret passages?) but doesn’t appeal that much to grown-ups who see it under the cold light of adulthood. The passages only mean that the inhabitants of the house need a quick way to escape and avoid prision. She also researched con artists before writing this book. It’s a life I can’t understand as I’m too honest and lazy to see the draw. For me, telling the truth remains the easiest way, at least you don’t have to keep track of all you’ve invented to remain consistent. (Like Seymour in Elliot Allagash, by the way). It’s fun to read in a book though.

PS: Lisa also interviewed Toni Jordan and you can read her post here.

My edition is a UK one and the cover is appalling, again. The flowery wall-paper behind the picture of that girl is ugly.

Addition by Toni Jordan

April 1, 2012 21 comments

Addition by Toni Jordan 2008. French title : Tu pourrais rater intégralement ta vie.

 After discovering that John Self + Lou Ford = Matt Freeman  I was more than happy to bury myself into Toni Jordan’s Addition. Just what kind of addition is this?

Grace Vandenburg is 35, lives in Melbourne and hasn’t worked for 25 months. Although we only discover later in the novel why she lost her job as a teacher, we are immediately aware of Grace’s problem. Grace counts. Everything. Her footsteps, the stairs, the number of seeds on her cake. She measures everything, keeps in touch with the outside temperature. Numbers qualify things, put reassuring fences in her life.

Numbers rule her life as comforting milestones. She strictly follows the same schedule everyday; she does exactly the same things at the same time. She’s fond of 10s and thus buys things by tens at the supermarket. She’s single, usually interacts with no one but her mother and her sister Jill who minutely call every Sunday at 8:00pm and 8:15pm respectively. “Interact” is perhaps optimistic here. Grace talks to them over the phone but there is no real conversation; they exchange small news and everyone thinks their duty is done. Grace’s only relationship is with her ten-year-old niece Hilary.

Grace admires Nikola Tesla a Serbian-American scientist. He was an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity and is best known for developing the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply system. (Wikipedia) To me his name brought back vague memories of unintelligible physics classes. To Grace, he’s like a lifebelt. He was also a bit off-kilter and was still a genius, something Grace finds comforting.

Grace has her life mapped out, so when she realizes at the cashier of her usual supermarket that she picked only nine bananas instead of ten, her need for accuracy is such that she relieves the customer next to her of the banana he has in his basket. She’s horrified by her slip and is still recovering from it in the parking lot when the above mentioned customer catches up with her and enquires after the reason why she stole that banana.

This is how and when she meets Seamus. What will come out of this encounter is up to you to discover. In other words, read the book.

Addition is a lovely book. I wish I could do it justice by writing a lovely review. It’s a first person narrative and we see the events and life in general through Grace’s eyes. She knows her addiction to number limits her life and she lives with it.

Life would be different if I didn’t count, I know that.

But without it the world would be too big and too dangerous. An endless void. I’d be lost all the time. I’d be overwhelmed.

She has come to think of her difference as a blessing, most of the time. She sees life through a peculiar angle, blurts out hilarious replies and is as funny as her illness allows her to be. But despite her acceptance, she is suffering:

I want it to stop. I want it all to stop.

Suddenly I’m sick of it. Sick of counting all the time. Of all the little games and rules and orders and lists and chewing my food 30 times and drinking a cup of tea before bed every night. I want to have a job and go to the movies and have a family and people over for a dinner that is not chicken and vegetables. I want to be like everybody else. I want to run as fast as I can in bare feet and on grass like I’m a child and my hair is streaming behind me. I want to run and I want to feel my leg muscles stretch and pull and my chest heave in the service of my freedom.

I don’t want to count anymore.

Don’t think it’s a sad book, because it isn’t. Addition is a plea to accept difference. We want to heal mental illness for people to be “normal”. But define “normal”? It also subtly points out how our societies want us to comply with the married-two-kids-a-house-and-two-cars model. There is a tendency to present it as the only way to be happy. Once I heard someone say about a thirtysomething single woman that she had no life. How can that be? She had friends, family, a job and hobbies. Isn’t it a life? As Grace points out:

Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. 10 or 12 grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it.

You could miss your whole life.

I do like the idea of cherishing mundane events and make the most of everyday life. Jordan’s novel is a light read, funny, with an unusual character. I enjoyed the way she intertwined Grace’s life with references to Tesla’s life. I was caught by the book, I couldn’t put it down. Light literature isn’t easy to write. The author is walking on a high wire, on one side they can fall into the void of so much comedy it becomes vulgar or silly and on the other side they stare at the dangerous precipice of mawkishness.

I bought Addition after reading a post about Toni Jordan on Lisa’s blog. Thanks Lisa! I had a great time.

PS: Now that you know about Grace, you can guess there are a lot of numbers in the book. That explains the foreword I talked about here.

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