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Three crimes is a charm : England in the Middle Ages, high tech in Virginia and a haunting past in Finland.

January 29, 2023 12 comments

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (2007) French title: La confidente des morts. Translated by Vincent Hugon.

This is the first instalment of a series by Ariana Franklin featuring the female doctor, Adelia Aguila. We’re in Cambridge, in 1171, during the reign of King Henry II of England. Adelia came from Sicily with Simon of Naples and Mansur.

They were sent by their king upon Henry II’s request. Children have been murdered in Cambridge and the local population accuses the Jews of the crime. They have been staying in a castle for months now and as valuable tax payers, Henry II wants them back to their occupations.

Adelia is an oddity for 12th century England: she’s a woman, a doctor and “mistress of the art of death”, in other word, the ancestor of medical examiners.

The book is a criminal investigation, a cool description of life in Cambridge at the time. I’m not sure that everything is totally accurate or that the characters are historically plausible but I didn’t care. I’m no historian, the main details were correct and I had a great time following this ad hoc team of investigators while they looked for the perpetrator of these gory murders.

Recommended to spend a good afternoon on the couch, with a blanket during a cold winter Sunday or lying on a towel on the beach during a hot summer day.

Livid by Patricia Cornwell (2022) Not available in French. Yet.

My daughter raised to the challenge of getting me a book for Christmas and the poor child sweated bullets and spent a lot of time in a bookstore wondering what to buy to her bookworm of a mother.

I hadn’t read anything by Cornwell in 25 years, I think. I used to read her, Mary Higgins Clark and Elizabeth George in my teens and twenties. Then I got tired of them, even if Elizabeth George is the best writer of the three. What Came Before He Shot Her is truly remarkable. But back to Cornwell.

Kay Scarpetta is back in Alexandria, Virginia, as the chief of medical examiners and let’s say that CSI techniques have progressed since Adelia’s time in Cambridge.

The book opens with an excellent trial scene where Scarpetta is testifying and put under unfair pressure by the Commonweath’s Attorney while the judge doesn’t intervene. The said judge is Annie Chilton, her college friend and by the end of the day, Scarpetta learns that the judge’s sister Rachael has been murdered and that there was an attempted terrorist attack against the president of the USA.

Scarpetta goes on the crime scene and the CIA and FBI have already invested the place as the victim worked for the CIA. Scarpetta quickly understands that Rachael was killed by a microwave gun, a very rare and specific weapon. Later, another body is discovered in the neighborhood.

Follows a family investigation since Scarpetta does the autopsy, her niece is on the case as an FBI agent and so is her husband Benton, as a secret services agent. What a family, eh?

It’s good entertainment even if the pace of the book is a bit weird at times. The description of Scarpetta’s work at the morgue seemed to drag on while the denouement was rushed and not detailed enough. The characters sounded a bit formulaic and I wasn’t too interested in the office politics and antagonism.

It was published in October 2022 and I couldn’t help noticing that the war in Ukraine was already mentioned in the book. Eight months after it started it’s already in a published book. There was no time wasted in editing and polishing this book before its publication, it seems.

Anyway, this is another Beach & Public Transport book, one you read as you watch a CSI episode on TV.

The Oath by Arttu Tuominen (2018). Not available in English. French title: Le serment. Translated by Anne Colin du Terrail.

The Oath is truly the best book of the three. We’re in Pori, Finland in 2018. Jari Paloviita is the interim head of the local police and Rami Nieminen is murdered by Antti Mielonen during a party in a cabin in the woods. The victim was stabbed in the back and Antti ran out of the cabin and was found in the woods with his sweatshirt full of the victim’s blood. There is no doubt he did it.

Inspector Henrik Oksman and his partner Linda Toivonen know it. All they have to do is follow procedures to the letter to ensure there is no room for doubt about Antti’s guilt when the trial comes.

But Jari Paloviita used to go to school with Rami and Antti. Antti was his best friend while Rami bullied him relentlessly. He and Antti share a heavy baggage as the story unfolds and we discover what happened to them during the summer 1991. They were 13 at the time and dramatic events pushed them out of childhood.

To what length is Jari prepared to go to in the name of an old friendship?

I’d say you’ll have to read the book to find out but sadly, it’s not available in English. It baffles me since Nordic crime is such a hit in the English-speaking world. It’s a real pity because the plot is tight, the back and forth between 2018 and 1991 is gripping and full of grey areas. The characters’ personal life is troubled and I can see the beginning of a great series.

This is also my contribution to Annabel’s event Nordic FINDS.

It strikes me that I didn’t choose the three books I just wrote about. I got the Ariana Franklin with my Quais du Polar entry ticket, my daughter gave me the Cornwell for Christmas and the Tuominen came with my Kube subscription. The Tuominen is probably the only one I would have bought myself, so kudos for the Kube libraire who blind-picked it for me.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy – great literature.

January 21, 2023 28 comments

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy (1987) French title: Le Dahlia noir. Translated by Frédéric Michalski.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy is probably one of the oldest books of my TBR. The mention inside says my roommate gave it to me in 1995. Ahem. I was reluctant to read it, not sure I’d get along with Ellroy. I only started to read noir fiction after I went online with Book Around the Corner and discovered Guy’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations. Guy’s a crime fiction and noir afficionado.

And now I wonder: what was I waiting for?

The Black Dahlia is loosely based upon a real case, the murder of Elizabeth Short that the press nicknamed the Black Dahlia. She was born in 1924 in Boston and was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. Her case became famous because her body was horribly mutilated and it’s still unsolved.

Ellroy uses the Black Dahlia case as a basis to write a complex story with a striking picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is our narrator. He’s a former boxer and LAPD agent. He met Lee Blanchard, another LPAD agent when they covered the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Both have a checkered past. Bucky is the son of a German immigrant who doesn’t hide his racist tendencies. Bucky’s patriotism was tested during WWII and he agreed to give his Japanese neighbors up to keep his job with the LAPD. He’s still reeling from it.

Lee Blanchard is famous for solving a hold-up case and shacking up with Kay, the criminal’s girlfriend after the trial. He still lives with her and this scandalous relationship cost him a promotion. His little sister was murdered when he was a teenager and he feels guilty of not protecting her enough.

As semi-famous former boxers, their bosses ask them to fight against each other to raise funds for the LAPD and promote a bill that would increase the wages of the LAPD agents. They get a transfer to the Warrants department. They agree to it. The fight is highly publicized, they are nicknamed Fire and Ice. Their bond is based upon camaraderie and respect but is also tainted by politics and tactics. The relationship between Bucky, Lee and Kay is central to Ellroy’s book.

As you imagine Bucky and Lee are detached to the police force dedicated to solving Betty Short’s murder. They get swallowed in the case and the book moves to a classic investigation.

Ellroy follows the thread of a murder investigation and shows corruption and power fights in the LAPD. He takes his characters to the shadiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and takes pleasure in describing brothels, dives, underground gay and lesbian meeting points and seedy hotels. He also brings us to rich neighborhoods and uncovers the ugliness present behind closed doors and polished manners. Greed. Sex. Perversion. They invade every corner of the city and Ellroy exposes what’s behind the Hollywood dreamy facade.

He conveys the pulse of the city, its rapid growth and real estate moguls, the Hollywood hype and the sordid world of hopeless hope of aspiring actresses.

He takes us across the Mexican border to Tijuana in an even more violent and corrupted country. He describes perfectly the intricacies of office politics in the LAPD, the violence against suspects and police procedurals. Or lack thereof.

It’s well-oiled book that keeps the reader on edge. I wanted to know how Bucky would come out of it, if Ellroy would make his characters solve the murder while reading about Los Angeles in the 1940s. I was curious about Bucky, Lee and Kay’s trio. I wondered if the big LAPD machine would run over Bucky or if he’d make it alright.

A brilliant book but I’m glad I waited to read it. There will be more Ellroy in my future.

For the record, I also have the graphic novel of this book by Miles Hyman Matz and David Fincher and it’s a good companion book.

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams – it’s a question of hooks

January 8, 2023 4 comments

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams. (1953) – “Oh what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive.”

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams was previously entitled Hell Hath No Fury. This noir thriller dates back to 1953 and I guess it was renamed after the film version of the book was released in 1990.

In French, it was translated by Bruno Martin for the Série noire collection in 1955. The French title was Je t’attends au tournant and I found a copy in a second-hand bookstore.

The original translation seems out of print which is good because it’s an abridged version. There’s no way to translate all the sentences of a 190 pages English book into a 185 pages French paperback, since the said French paperback is smaller than the English book and French takes more words than English to say the same thing. I checked a random paragraph and bingo, the original sentences are cleverly cut to keep the book under 200 pages as it was supposed to be read in one sitting on a train journey.

Lucky French readers, Gallmeister published a new translation by Laura Derajinski 2019 and kept the title Hot Spot. These different translations didn’t impact my reading though, since I read The Hot Spot in English.

Now, the book

I lighted a cigarette and smoked it out nervously, listening to the night sounds and thinking of the dangerous mess I was drifting further into all the time. I had twelve thousand dollars I couln’t touch, I was crazy about a girl who was in some kind of trouble she couldn’t tell me about, and I was getting more hopelessly fouled up every day with crazy Dolores Harshaw.

This is Harry Madox. He’s a twenty-eight drifter who comes to a small Texas town, finds a job as a car salesman and settles in a boarding house. He works for George Harshaw who also has a side-business in car loans to go with the dealership. Gloria Harper runs the loan office.

Harshaw is married to Dolores who seduces Harry for what he thinks is a simple hookup. She doesn’t see it that way and although she’s definitely not in love with him, she sinks her hook in him and wants him all to herself. He’s her ticket out of her boring marriage. But Harry falls for Gloria who has a lot of issues of her own. When Gloria and Harry start dating, it sends Dolores on the war path.

Besides the sex and love affairs, Harry put himself in a nice little mess of his own doing when he robbed the local bank.

Two events sparked this crazy idea: first, during a fire on Main Street, he noticed that all the people were focused on the fire and that the bank was left almost unattended and second, as Dolores asked him to help her move some boxes in an abandoned building near the bank, he noticed it was full of junk and that is was an incredible fire hazard. What if he set the building on fire, robbed the bank and made sure to be seen helping the firefighters?

That’s what he does it but the local sheriff is cleverer than he expected. He doesn’t buy it and intends to question him until he relents and spills the beans. He’s only released from custody because Dolores spontaneously lies and gives him an alibi. His relief is short-lived. Now she has him and she knows it.

Harry still thinks he can get out of it if he lays low but his feelings for Gloria get in the way. He feels protective of her and things get out of hand when he tries to help her with her own issues.

Harry is taken in a web of lies and crimes. Dolores is a skilled manipulator but she’s enabled by Harry’s actions. The robbery and his relationship with Gloria give her leverage. She’s poisonous but his actions leave him with his flesh exposed and she just sees where and how she can sink her hooks into him.

The Hot Spot is a masterpiece of noir fiction. All the right ingredients are there.

An unreliable narrator who would want us to forget he’s a bank robber. A beautiful young woman who’s not as innocent as she seems. A femme fatale who knows what she wants and how to get it. And the whole plot, clever and articulate as a Shakespearian tragedy is served by an excellent literary style. We are with Harry in this little Texas town. We imagine the heat, the town, the dealership, the cars and the characters in their 1950s outfits. We sweat with Harry and recoil from the violence and we see how events unfold in an implacable manner.

A must-read for all crime fiction lovers.

Have a look at Guy’s excellent review here.

Five crime fiction books, all different

December 21, 2022 4 comments

Friendship Is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle (2018) French title: L’amitié est un cadeau à se faire. Translated by Simon Baril

This is my second book by William Boyle after The Lonely Witness and he’s definitely an author I want to keep reading.

Friendship… is set in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and upstate New York. It all starts when Rena Ruggiero, the widow of a mafia gangster, kicks her eighty years old neighbor and thinks that she killed him as he lays unresponsive on her floor. High on Viagra, he tried to rape her.

Rena takes his car and drives to the Bronx where she wants to stay with her estranged daughter Adrienne and rekindle her relationship with her granddaughter Lucia.

She arrives there just as Richie Schiavano decides to steal money from a mafia gang.

Rena and Lucia find shelter at Adrienne’s neighbor’s house. Lacey, ex-porn star known as Lucious Lacey, welcomes them in her home and they end up fleeing the Bronx with the mafia on their tail.

The book takes a delightful Thelma and Louise turn and the reader is in for a fantastic ride.

William Boyle has a knack for a crazy plot, for attaching characters and an fantastic sense of place. A wonderful discovery by Gallmeister.

Alabama 1963 by Ludovic Manchette & Christian Niemiec (2020). Not available in English.

This is a French crime fiction novel set in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, just before President Kennedy was assassinated and right in the middle of the Civil Right movement.

Girls are rapped and murdered. Bud Larkin, a white PI, former police officer, is volunteered to help a black family find out who killed their daughter. His former colleagues also hire him a black cleaning lady, Adela Cobb. In segregated Alabama, she’ll be an asset to Larkin as black people talk to her but not to him.

As other murders happen, Bud and Adela get more and more anxious to find out who’s behind these crimes. And if this adventure can help them sort out their lives, all the better.

I’m always a bit suspicious about books written by French writers and set in America, written as if they were American writers. This one was OK, and the fact that the two authors’ day job is to translate American TV series into French probably helps writing a convincing story. They know all the codes.

I had a good time reading it, I got attached to Adela and Bud.

As the Crow Flies by Craig Johnson (2012) French title: A vol d’oiseau. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

This is the 8th volume of the Walt Longmire series. I read them in English now since the French paperbacks are no longer published by Gallmeister but by Pocket. The books aren’t as nice, so, the original on the kindle is better.

This time around, Caddy, Longmire’s daughter is getting married in two weeks on the Cheyenne reservation when Walt discovers that she no longer has a venue.

He’s on his way to visit another location with his friend Henry Standing Bear when they see a woman fall from a cliff and die. She had her six-month old baby in arms when she fell. The baby miraculously survived.

Walt Longmire will mentor the new chief of the Tribal Police, Lolo Long during this investigation. She’ll learn a few tricks, soften some hard edges and see how to navigate the tricky relationship with the FBI. Very useful skills if she wants to keep her job or stay alive while doing it.

As always, Craig Johnson delivers. The plot is well-drawn, a part of fun is introduced with Lolo Long’s blunders and the relationship between Walt and Caddy is lovely. This volume is set on the Cheyenne reservation and it rings true, at least to my French ears.

Craig Johnson doesn’t disappoint and I’m looking forward to reading the ninth book.

Sœurs de sang by Dominique Sylvain (1997, reviewed by the author in 2010). Not available in English

I’ve read several books by Dominique Sylvain. Kabuchiko, set in Japan, Les Infidèles and Passage du Désir set in Paris. The three books are different and Soeurs de sang is closer to Passage du Désir than to the other ones.

We’re in Paris. Louise Morvan is a PI who is hired by Ana Chomsky to find a former lover that she spotted as a character in a video game. Louise starts investigating, discovers that he’s Axel Langeais, one of the creators of the game.

It could stop here but Victoria Yee, the lead singer of the group Noir Vertige is murdered on Axel’s barge, in front of his sister Régine. Louise embarks on a murder investigation that will lead her to Berlin and Los Angeles and into the strange artistic world of the Victim Art.

I read this with pleasure, a novel set in a very peculiar milieu, the one of extreme art and I was curious to see how the story would unfold.

Ames animales by JR Dos Santos (2021). Not available in English.

This was one of our Book Club choices and it was a promising read.

It’s a Portuguese novel set in Lisbon. The main character is Tomas Noronha whose wife Maria Flor is involved with a charity that works on animal intelligence. When the director of this charity is murdered, she’s the last one to have seen him and is accused of murder.

Chapters alternate between the crime plot and flash backs where the militant and director is enlightening Maria Flor about the latest researches about animal intelligence. These lengthy explanations were too didactical for me, cut the flow of the crime investigation and I lost interest.

I abandoned the book. I don’t read crime fiction to read scientific lectures, there are radio podcasts for that. A missed opportunity.

I have also read The Hot Spot by Charles Williams but this one is so good that it deserves its own billet.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – magnificent

December 7, 2022 16 comments

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) French title: Tous les hommes du roi. Translated by Pierre Singer.

I had never heard of Robert Penn Warren before receiving All the King’s Men through my Kube subscription. I read it in a French translation by Pierre Singer and in a magnificent edition by the publisher Monsieur Toussaint Louverture. It has a beautiful golden cover, the pages are on very nice paper, the text is published in an agreeable font. It has several tiny details that cost nothing but appealed to me as a reader and showed the reverence and the care this publisher has for books. Like that MERCI printed beside the price of the book on the back cover.

A gorgeous book as an object and a gorgeous piece of literature.

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) is a Southern writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for All the King’s Men a complex novel about politics, legacy and the meaning of life. A tall order.

The narrator is Jack Burden and we’re in 1936 in the Deep South. We know from the start that he’s recovering from a tragedy and the fall of his boss, Willie Stark.

Governor Willie Stark is the king mentioned in the book’s title and his men are composed of Sadie Burke, his secretary and long-time lover, Jack Burden, his right hand and sounding board, Tiny Duffy an obsequious man Stark would rather have with him than against him and Sugar Boy, his faithful driver.

Willie Stark comes from a poor farm, studied law by himself and decided to go into politics. He’s a populist who addresses to the redneck voters and who got genuinely angry when children died in the collapse of a school due to poor workmanship. Thanks to corrupt politicians, the contract wasn’t awarded to the most competent bidder.

Jack attached himself to Stark after he covered his first campaign for a newspaper. It was in 1922 and he was a journalist at the time. Now, he’s in his thirties, has a degree in history and he has no ambition. Jack comes from Burden’s Landing, a small town on the coast. His family is wealthy, at least his mother is. His parents are divorced and he despises them a little. He sees his mother as a serial monogamist who married for the third time, and to a much younger man. His father, a former lawyer, now devotes his time to religious endeavors. Jack thinks that his mother is materialistic and that his father is idealistic. During his younger years, Judge Irwin, a friend of the family, mentored him.

Willie Stark started out his political career with excellent ethics but he soon learnt that he had to play the same game as the current political circles if he wanted a chance to be elected and pass laws.

Now he’s powerful, has enemies and knows how to pull strings. He’s ruling the State as a dictator and his long-time opponent is still after him.

The beginning of the end starts when the virtuous Judge Irwin starts sniffing around him and Stark decides to use his usual method of threats and intimidation.

Jack tells us what happened from the moment the king’s men arrive at Burden’s Landing to threaten Judge Irwin. It doesn’t work and Stark missions Jack to investigate the judge’s past and unearth some dirt for Stark to gain leverage. From now on, Stark’s orders overlap with Jack’s private life. He’s known Irwin since he was a kid, it’s his hometown and this will set everything into motion.

Robert Penn Warren writes a perfectly oiled tragedy. The various characters ignite things here and there and lives blow up.

Jack is a man whose family picture doesn’t add up. He knows something is amiss and but he doesn’t know what. His background is like a jigsaw with a missing piece and he feels incomplete. He tends to be depressed. He never got over his adolescent love affair with Anne Stanton, his best friend Adam’s sister. He goes with the flow, trying to swim in clear waters and avoid joining the sewage that surrounds Stark.

Jack takes Stark as he is: he has no illusion about what man is ready to do to win an election and yet he forgives him a lot of things because he knew him before he became governor and because the local political scene is rotten to the core. If Stark doesn’t play by the corrupt politician playbook, how can he win an election? And if he doesn’t win, how is he going to implement his program and improve the people’s lives? Jack maneuvers to stay on Stark’s good side without getting his hands too dirty.

Stark is a complex character based on the real politician from Louisiana Huey Long. Yes, he’s a bully who manipulates people around him. Yes, he’s a shameless populist. But he did something for his fellow-citizen. He had roads built. He raised taxes to improve public services and transports. He wanted to have a positive legacy through affordable health care. Robert Penn Warren shows that some good comes out of Stark’s mandate despite his despotic ways.

Like in a Greek tragedy, Stark’s public fall and Jack’s private shattering come from their Achilles’ heels. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

All the King’s Men is a brilliant novel that allies Stark’s rise and fall and Jack’s private life as he finally finds some peace. The style is elaborate and stunning. It’s a novel from the South before air conditioning. It’s hot and the weather puts a lid of languor over Jack. Since Huey Long was the governor of Louisiana, the novel is supposed to be set there but there is no direct mention of a precise Southern state. I was thinking more about Alabama or Mississippi as there is no mention to Cajun culture in the whole book.

It’s also a novel from the South before the Civil Rights movements. There are no black characters in this novel except quick mentions to black servants. This microcosm around Stark lives in an all-white environment.

It’s also a novel from the South with its religious undercurrent. Religion is not present through churches and clergymen. It’s understood in Jack’s questioning about moral compasses and fate. I can’t explain it but the characters ooze some kind of Bible Belt vibe.

Robert Penn Warren writes an intelligent book with multidimensional characters. He could have written something really polarized, good versus evil, virtue against sin but he didn’t. He chose to draw complex characters, flawed humans who have their moments of darkness and their moments of generosity and loyalty. Their emotions overrule them sometimes, they are unethical and accept to have their hands dirty. I liked Jack’s voice, lucid and poetic. No sugar coating for Jack.

I don’t know if All the King’s Men is “The definite novel about American politics” as the New York Times says. I hope not because it would be depressing. What I do know is that it’s an exceptional piece of literature.

Highly recommended.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown – pleasant and educational

November 13, 2022 5 comments

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (2014) French title: L’envol du moineau. Translated by Cindy Colin Kapen.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown came with my Kube subscription and became our October Book Club read.

It’s historical fiction based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711). She was born in England and emigrated to Salem in 1650 before her father settled down in Lancester, Massachusetts. In 1656, she married Reverend Joseph Rowlandson and they had four children.

In 1676, during King Philip’s War, she was captured by Native Americans in a raid led by Monoco, a Nashaway sachem. She was ransomed a few months later and came back to live with her husband. She wrote about her captivity in 1682 (A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson) We are a few years after the setting of The Scarlett Letter and a few years before the Salem witch trials.

The characters of Flight of the Sparrow are all historical figures and the facts of the book are actual. The people’s inner thoughts come from the author’s imagination.

In her much-appreciated afterword, Amy Belding Brown explains what historical sources she relied on and where she took some liberty. She concentrated on Mary and around her some facts that actually happened but to other people. I can understand that choice and I appreciate that it’s disclosed.

Flight of the Sparrow gives the reader a good vision of life in the Massachusetts colony in the 17th century and I felt the same than after finishing The Scarlet Letter: relieved I wasn’t born in that time and in this rigorist religious context. But then, when you’ve been raised and born in this culture, you don’t know anything else, so…

Amy Belding Brown decided to draw Mary as an early feminist. When the book opens, she’s quietly defying her husband’s authority by helping out Bess, a woman who had a child out of wedlock with Silvanus, a black slave she fell in love with. The story is true but is Mary’s open support plausible in 1676 Puritan Massachusetts?

Then she’s taken by the Nipmuc tribe and follows them in their whereabouts during the hard winter of 1676. This part of the novel was interesting as I enjoyed the descriptions of the Nipmuc way-of-life. I choose to believe that the information is accurate, as I know that Mary Rowlandson wrote about it in her memoir.

Amy Belding Brown describes the slow awareness of a woman who doesn’t want to play second fiddle to her husband, who has doubts about her faith, who internally challenges the Puritan way of thinking. She experienced another culture during her captivity where the women’s place was quite different from what she knew. I can imagine that she didn’t come unscathed of her captivity but did she really go as far as reassessing her whole beliefs? Or was she more relieved to go back to the life she’d always known?

The author also imagines a love story between Mary and Wowaus, also known as James Printer. They were contemporaries, he had been raised by an Englishman and had gone to school. As a translator, he was instrumental during the negotiations between Native Americans and England that led to Mary Rowlandson’s liberation. The relationship between Mary and James seemed a bit farfetched but I can imagine that they were civil to each other.

There’s a thread about romance, marriage and what to expect of a partner all along the book and I wonder if it isn’t a bit anachronistic. People’s vision of love and marriage sounded different from ours but maybe Amy Belding Brown’s choice is alright. What do we really know about what happened between people behind closed doors? What do we know about all the undocumented thoughts of people who were caged into society’s propriety and censored themselves or simply didn’t leave a trace?

Still, that romance thread seemed unnecessary to me as Mary Rowlandson’s story is fascinating enough. No need to spice it up with romance.

I enjoyed Flight of the Sparrow for its historical content. I didn’t know anything about King Philip’s war and almost nothing about early settler’s life in New England. Literary wise, it’s a solid narrative, well-constructed but not as literary as I would have liked. I’m getting more and more demanding on that side, so don’t mind me. It’s worth reading for the time travel to colonial and Puritan Massachusetts.

Did you read Flight of the Sparrow? If yes, how much did you like it?

Contemporary and opposite essays : The Painter of Modern Life by Baudelaire and Walking by Thoreau

November 6, 2022 11 comments

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire (1863) Original French title: Le peintre de la vie moderne.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (1862) French title: De la marche. Translated by Thierry Gillyboeuf.

I’m still doing The Non-Fiction Reader Challenge and I had picked books from the TBR for it.

Among my choices were The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire and Walking by Henry David Thoreau. I had randomly decided to read them in September and October and actually did them within the same week.

Without this timing, I don’t think I would have noticed that these two essays were published at the same time (1862 and 1863) or how opposite they are. I enjoyed both as they each speak to a different part of me. I read Baudelaire, excited about my next visit to Paris and its museums and I started Walking on a picnic break while hiking in the Estérel mountains.

Thoreau and Baudelaire were contemporaries but, according to their bios, couldn’t be more different. A nature lover vs a city-dweller. An American for whom civilization meant England vs a Frenchman. A man who lived in a cabin in the woods vs a dandy.

The Painter of Modern Life is a collection of essays about Baudelaire’s vision of art and Beauty.

He sees Beauty in art and here, he writes specifically about painting. He was an art critic, went to painting Salons and was deeply involved in the contemporary art world.

Baudelaire rejects the official art, what we call in French l’art pompier. Baudelaire argues that contemporary paintings shouldn’t picture Ancient Rome or Greece sceneries like Ingres but real life. He’s anti-Ingres and his Illness of Antiochus. Classic story, Ancient temple and clothes, you see the drift.

He says that what we consider classics now was contemporary art in their time, with their architecture and fashion. These works of arts stayed with us through the centuries because their contemporary side was only half of the artwork. The other half was that universal quality that makes us relate to them now. We see their fashion as historical information and their universal side speaks to us. Their beauty lies in a perfect combination of the two:

La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable.Modernity is made of transitory, of fleetingness and contingency; it’s half of art whose other half is eternity and permanence.

The actual painter of modern life of the title is Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire loved because his art captured the present. He painted what he saw, Paris and its life but also the Crimea War battlefields. Baudelaire uses Guys’ art to write an ode to modernity which consists in urban life, fashion, frivolity, artifice and make up.

Talk about someone totally opposite to a Thoreau who went to live in a cabin in the woods. Can you imagine Baudelaire in Walden? Not really, eh?

In Walking, Thoreau explains how walking is essential to his well-being. If I understood him properly, he tries to keep alive a link between us as part of the natural world and Nature.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Cheeky me immediately thought he wasn’t living in the Louisiana bayou rife with alligators or in the Great Dismal Swamp and its moccasin snakes.

He thinks we forget to turn to Nature as a source of beauty.

While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to Nature. In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals. How little appreciation of the beauty of the land- scape there is among us!

He wants us to retain our freedom of being, our untamed side and not to yield immediately to human laws. Walking is a way to ground oneself, to think freely, a moment to just be, leave other worldly occupations at rest. Being in communion with Nature is a way to reach a certain state of mind that opens people to their surroundings, to learning new things and simply be curious.

Thoreau sees the source of beauty in Nature while Baudelaire sees it in city life.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire explains that we should find beauty in our quotidian and to me, he opens the door to the Impressionist movement. He implies that it is noble to paint ballerinas and guinguettes.

And they will paint cities, their streets, their theatres, their parks and their people. I see paintings by Caillebotte as witnesses of life in the 19th century but I also see the permanence of human condition and that’s a bond between the people on the paintings and me. They reached Baudelaire’s goal to paint their modern life and create universal beauty.

But the Impressionists will also paint a lot outside. They’ll picture gardens in the country, people walking in fields, the light on the sea, the boating and all kind of outdoors activities.

Thoreau died in 1862. He might have enjoyed Monet’s research on light in Impression, soleil levant, in the Nymphéa series or on the Rouen Cathedral series as they capture beauty in the quotidian and in nature. There’s a quest here to paint the quiet beauty of a sunset on the Seine, on the Mediterranean or on the Channel.

I see in Thoreau’s walks a quiet time to refuel on one’s own, something he needed. It’s a way to collect one’s thoughts and be “in the moment”. And Baudelaire seems to praise all activities that will distract one from their thoughts. Thoreau enjoyed being with himself while Baudelaire’s to use modern life to run away from himself. I wonder where a conversation between the two would have taken them.

I think neither disposition is sustainable for the mainstream. Thoreau could afford to walk four hours a day to clear his head and think because he had no family obligations. He only had to earn his keep. Baudelaire could afford his whirlwind and dissolute Parisian life for the same reason.

But the rest of us, we have people who depend on us and jobs to keep. And we refuel as best we can and try to lift our heads from the daily grind and catch a sunset here and there. We steal moments to contemplate beauty in museums and during occasional hikes and live vicariously through Nature Writing books.

And now, with all the attempts at destroying beautiful paintings in the name of Nature, I’ll get Civil Disobedience and read from the source.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

November 1, 2022 11 comments

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) French title: Underground Railroad. Translated by Serge Chauvin

The Underground Railroad is my second Colson Whitehead, after the impressive Nickel Boys (2019) and I have Harlem Shuffle (2021) on the shelf for our Book Club.

The Underground Railroad is a historical novel set in pre-Civil War America. Cora, a sixteen-year-old enslaved girl flees from the plantation of her master in Georgia. Along with Caesar, another enslaved man, they reach a meeting point of the Underground Railroad that will lead her first to South Carolina and then to Indiana, via North Carolina and Tennessee.

We see the risks, the difficulties, the money owners put into finding the fugitives. Cora never feels safe, wherever she is. She has a hard time taking down the mental stronghold that her masters built in her head. She was raised on a land of fear, in a place where you didn’t know when you woke up if you’d be still alive and healthy at night. The success rate of actually leaving the plantation and starting over in a free state was extremely low.

The people who help with the Underground Railroad put their lives in danger too. Helping out enslaved people may have you killed. More progressive States had also hidden agendas. There’s no safe haven without a major change in white people’s mentality.

I read it while I was in South Carolina and visiting houses and plantations where enslaved people worked and were kept as well as the Old Slave Mart Museum. I know that everything that Colson Whitehead describes is accurate (unfortunately) and his book is very educational.

It’s written in a straightforward manner and gives the reader a glimpse of what being enslaved meant. I say “a glimpse” because we can’t pretend that we fully understand in our bodies and in our souls what bein enslaved entailed. It’s a good book for history classes and book clubs because it raises a lot of questions and fuels healthy discussion about slavery and its aftermath. It’s useful and we need this kind of books, like we need them on the Holocaust to spread information about what happened, put it at a human-sized scale and keep educating people. Over and over again.

As far as literature is concerned, I found that The Underground Railroad was a bit lacking. It doesn’t compare with a novel by Toni Morrison or with The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, but it’s not an issue because I have the feeling that Colson Whitehead’s goal was not literature but education.

I think that Handful in The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd was livelier than Cora. I was horrified by everything that Cora had to live through, her status as a sub-human and the way she was hunted like an animal. I was shocked by the atmosphere of hatred against black people and the ones who helped them and the idea of “great replacement” that starting seeping into white people’s way of thinking. This violence wasn’t as striking in The Invention of Wings, perhaps because the focus of the book was on Sarah Grimké.

It’s worth reading because it’s like watching a documentary with Cora as the main character. Just don’t expect a literary breakthrough in the style. It’s good, it’s efficient and it does the job. In these times of fake news and people re-arranging history and events for their own benefit and conscience of mind, The Underground Railroad is a necessary book, accessible to teenagers. The consequences of slavery in the USA still have an impact on the country nowadays and this book is a bridge to explain where it all began.

Incidentally, we were travelling back to Europe and happened to drive near Halifax, North Carolina. This city is officially tagged as a participant in the Underground Railroad. We stopped and paid a visit this old colonial town and its historical landmarks. It has a trail that leads to the spot of the Underground Railroad with explanations along the path.

They also had two books by Colson Whitehead in their Little Free Library on the street of the historic city center. We need all the help we can get to spread history and facts.

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns – drama in the Appalachians

October 30, 2022 4 comments

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns (2020) French title: Les femmes n’ont pas d’histoire. Translated by Héloïse Esquié.

I received Shiner by Amy Jo Burns through my Kube subscription. It was serendipity to get a book set in the Appalachians just before my trip there. I read it during the summer and well, real life got in the way of blogging. (All for good reasons, though. Nothing to complain about.)

It’s a hard book to describe, for its bewildering setting, the story it tells about people who seem to live like their grand-parents and according to old-fashioned and self-made rules. So, to help you figure out Shiner‘s atmosphere, let’s hear Wren introduce her story:

Making good moonshine isn’t that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman. She knows that legends and liquor are best spun from the back of a pickup truck after nightfall, just as she knows to tell a story slowly, the way whiskey drips through a sieve. Moonshine earned its name from spending its life concealed in the dark, and no one understands that fate more than I do.

Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way—dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-backed Bibles. But that’s not the real story. Here’s what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia’s highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants. Here’s what hides behind my beauty line: My father wasn’t just one of these men. He was the best.

[…] “It’s a true story,” I begin, roosting in the back of an old truck. “I swear it.”

Then I tell them that these woods can turn eerie or romantic, depending on the company you keep.

[…] The story of the snake handler’s daughter began when I’d just turned fifteen. I knew little then of the outside world my father kept from me. Ours is an oral civilization, I used to hear him say, and it’s dying. He blamed coal, he blamed heroin. He never blamed himself. He thought he had the only tales worth telling, and he never understood what my mother had run from all her life because she’d been born a woman—

The truth turns sour if it idles too long in our mouths. Stories, like bottles of shine, are meant to be given away.

This is a long excerpt of the first chapter of Shiner and it sums it up beautifully.

We’re in West Virginia, in the mountains and the nearest village is Trap. Three families live scattered in the woods. The Birds, Ivy and her family and the Sherrods.

The Bird family is composed of Ruby, Briar and their daughter Wren. She’s the narrator in this introduction and Briar is the snake- handler, gift that supposedly gives him a direct access to God. Ivy is Ruby’s best friend; she’s married to Ricky and then have four children. The Sherrods are moonshiners and the son Flynn was in school with Ruby, Ivy and Briar.

Briar is a preacher and his prestige comes from his surviving to a lightning and handling snakes. He keeps his wife and daughter captive in their cabin in the woods, away from civilization. Ivy stays close to her best friend that she swore to never leave behind. She’s the only visitor to this uncomfortable cabin and Wren follows school syllabi from Ivy’s son who is her age.

When Briar performs a miracle on Ivy, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead Wren to liberate herself from her father and discover all her family secrets.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about this book. It’s well executed and beautifully written. But it’s another bleak story about a domineering and religious man who imposes on his wife and daughter to live off the grid, according to his own rules.

I have trouble with these books because I can never relate to this religious frenzy. I want to slap these men who imprison their families into narrow lives and don’t practice what they preach. I want to shout at their wives to take their kids and leave and stop being so gullible or down on their knees with admiration for their impostors of husbands.

Not very empathetic, I know. I had the same problem with Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson or with the ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

I have a feeling of incredulity with these books. In a way they seem realistic enough not to require a suspension of belief and at the same time the families they describe seem so disconnected from mainstream life that they appear to be unrealistic. And here I am with very ambivalent feelings about Shiner, a remarkable novel I didn’t connect to as much as I would have expected.

Shiner is the story of modern Appalachia, and yes, there’s everything Ron Rash, Chris Offutt or David Joy talk about: a dying culture, a terrible problem with opioids and heroin, poverty after the mines closed, sickness after tap water was poisoned and the utter beauty of the woods. So, I have to consider that people like Ruby, Briar, Wren, Ivy and her family and the moonshiner Flynn are true-to-life characters.

And in that case, it makes me sad and angry towards several States and their politicians who accept that their constituents live like this. Has anyone read this? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – a masterpiece

September 25, 2022 10 comments

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. (1985) French title: Lonesome Dove. Translated by Richard Crevier.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is Gallmeister #7 and #8, one of the first books that this newly founded publisher chose when they started their literary adventure. I understand why Oliver Gallmeister picked Lonesome Dove, it’s a page turner, an excellent western that brings modernity to the genre.

We’re in the late 1870s. Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers, run the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium since they left the army. They are settled in Lonesome Dove, a small town in the Republic of Texas, near the Rio Grande, by the Mexican border.

They live on their property with Pea Eye, Deets, the young Newt and Bolivar. Deets and Pea Eye come from their ranger days, Deets used to be their scout and Pea Eye is a faithful companion. Newt is only seventeen, the orphaned son of Maggie, a prostitute in Lonesome Dove. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, all think that Newt is Call’s son.

They have settled on a routine. Steal horses and cattle across the Rio Grande and sell them in Texas. Captain Call cannot stay still and make Deets, Pea Eye and Newt work as ranch hands. When the book opens, he’s dead on digging a new well on the property. Needless to say, the job is harassing under the Texan summer sun. The men admire Captain Call so much that they’d do whatever he wants.

Gus is the jolly man of the group: he talks his head off all the time, spends his days sipping whisky and visiting the local saloon. His contribution to the chores is limited to cooking biscuits for breakfast. He’s a charmer. He’s also better educated than the others and keeps an interest in papers.

Call is a born leader, in a stern and steady way. Gus is his opposite and it’s easy to see how the two men balance each other and made a good pair in the army. They are loyal to each other and loyalty is precious in these unruly days.

None of them is ready to say it aloud but they are a little bored. Call itches to be on the move and do something. Gus is still thinking about Clara, “the one who got away” and left to settle in Nebraska with her husband.

Arrives Jake Spoon, another man from their ranger days. He’s flaky and a gambler. He’s running away from sheriff July Johnson from Fort Smith after he accidentally killed a man in this town.

Jake Spoon explains that he’s been to Montana and that it is heaven on Earth and an incredible place to start a cattle ranch. Captain Call didn’t need more that this nudge to decide it’s a great idea and he starts planning their departure.

The whole book is about their trip to Montana. They get the cattle, recruit cowboys, prepare their trip. During their preparation, Jake seduces the beautiful Lorena, a local prostitute who wants to go to San Francisco. They are all more or less in love with her and Jake takes her with them.

Up till now, everything I wrote is the setting of a classic western but Lonesome Dove is more than that. It’s made of unforgettable characters who all have their intimate fault lines.

Gus is bigger than life with his sensitive approach and his boldness. He cares about others, doesn’t shy away from his feelings and is very nurturing with Newt and Lorena for example. He’s the life of the group, the one who cheers them up, talks with people who are fragile and deflects conflicts. Captain Call’s natural leadership would be harsh if Gus weren’t there to smooth things over.

In Lonesome Dove, men and women aren’t cast as usual in westerns.

McMurtry pictures multi-dimensional cowboys. They are tough on the outside, living and riding in difficult conditions. They kill people if needed and without any qualms. At the same time, they are tender-hearted, vulnerable and weak.

Dish Bogget is hopelessly in love with Lorena. Gus still longs for Clara and wishes he had married her. Call is torn over Newt and his fatherhood. Jake is a coward. Another cowboy is terrified by water and is afraid to drown. Newt often cries on his horse. Sheriff July Johnson is afraid of his shadow and a poor shot. His deputy Roscoe is a riding catastrophe when he’s on a horse and doesn’t know how to live in the wilderness.

McMurtry also describes a time where women are objects of desire and never their own person. They are prostitutes to satisfy the men’s sexual needs. They are wives to be a homemaker and free workforce. They are informal properties to steal. They live a hard life and have to steel themselves against men.

In Lonesome Dove, the women are the tough ones. They are practical, strong and don’t hesitate to make hard decisions. They need to survive.

Lorena has been pushed around by men all her life and sees Jake as a means to go to San Francisco. Clara is the one who made the tough decision to marry a reliable but dull man and who proves to be resilient and intelligent.

Another woman propositions Roscoe and asks him to marry her. Her husband is dead and she needs a man to build her farm and for sex.

Lonesome Dove pictures an attaching set of characters, it’s hard not to like Gus, Call, Newt and the others. They’re enough to keep the reader’s interest but on top of that, McMurtry has an exceptional sense of place.

He shows us how tough it was to ride from Texas to Montana. We see all the dangers, snakes, thunderstorms, heat and rivers to cross. The cook is a genius and manages to feed everyone. The cowboys manage to drive the cattle from Texas to Montana, something like 1700 miles with a herd of cows. Their bull is almost a character in the book. They lose men on the way. They are attacked by bandits and Indians. They are in the last years of total wilderness.

McMurtry also shows the end of an era. Gus and Captain Call were legendary Texas rangers. Older people still remember them and they have their picture in saloons. But a new generation is taking over. One who is building towns, doing business and has lived in a rather pacified country. The Indian wars are over in most places. The bison have been decimated by greedy hunters. Pioneers arrive everywhere to colonize the land and set up farms. The land where Gus and Call used to ride freely is becoming private property.

The time of frontiersmen has come to an end. Gus and Call have become men of the past. Their way of life is dying. Lonesome Dove is a page turner that shows how a country turns a new leaf in history.

Very, very, highly recommended.

PS: This is also my contribution to Liz Dexter’s event, Larry McMurtry 2022.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – fascinating

September 11, 2022 10 comments

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014) French title: L’invention des ailes.

Different roads converging into one led me to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

My mom had raved upon her other book, The Secret Life of Bees, which pushed me to blindly download The Invention of Wings when it was on sale on the Kindle store, not knowing what it was about but willing to try her as a writer. Then, The Invention of Wings was on display in historic houses gift shops in Savannah and Charleston and I looked it up only to find out I already had it with me, on my Kindle. I’m like the girl scout of reading, always ready!

Sue Monk Kidd is a white writer from Charleston, South Carolina. I think it’s important to know that. The Invention of Wings is based upon the life of Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873), who was the daughter of a rich planter, attorney and judge in South Carolina. Her family belonged to the local aristocracy. She moved up North, became a Quaker, an abolitionist and the mother of the women’s suffrage movement. Yes, all that in one person. According to Wikipedia, growing up, Sarah Grimké was close to her enslaved servant Hetty and Sue Monk Kidd chose to write her novel with two voices, Sarah’s and Hetty’s.

We follow the lives of these two women from 1803 to 1838. Sarah was twelve when Hetty (Handful, according to the name her mother gave her) was gifted to her as her birthday gift. The author takes us through the struggles of Sarah’s life, how she was denied higher education because she was a woman, how she loathed slavery and how she found in Quaker faith a way to abolitionist and women activism. Sarah’s life is documented and I’m not going to write her biography when there’s a full Wikipedia page about her.

Sue Monk Kidd pictures a Sarah who is obviously very intelligent and who had to break a lot of barriers to be able to reach her potential, promote her ideas and be true to herself. Her life is awe-inspiring for all the courage she had to carry on and be a pioneer in not only one but two controversial fields: abolitionism and feminism.

How she became a feminist is easy to understand. She was denied the education and profession she craved for because she was female. Just thinking of all the wasted talents and repressed lives this entailed makes my head spin. I’ll never understand how humanity thought (and still thinks) that the world is a better place when you discard the brainpower of half of the population because they are female.

I admire Sarah for leading the way to feminism but what impresses me the most is her early fight for abolitionism.

Sarah was twelve when she started rebelling against the condition of enslaved people through Bible classes. She secretly taught Hetty how to read. (In South Carolina, it was unlawful to teach an enslaved person how to read since 1740.)

And I wonder: How, at only twelve, did she get the idea that slavery was wrong? It was 1804 in Charleston, South Carolina, in a family of planters.

This system was all she knew. How intelligent, intuitive and clear-headed she must have been to be able to step aside and think out of the box! She was so young, living such a sheltered and privileged life and yet she recognized her equals in black people and did not accept her society’s rules and vision of the world. I admire people who have this built-in foresight and who are able to see and think beyond their cultural background. It’s a special brand of intelligence.

When Sarah’s life is documented, Hetty’s isn’t. Sue Monk Kidd decided to show the resistance of enslaved people through Hetty and her mother Charlotte.

There’s mental resistance, remembering Africa and keeping a free space in their mind. There are little acts of rebellion and sabotages in the house and sneaking out of the house to have some free time. There’s active rebellion through church and political movements.

When Hetty speaks, Sue Mon Kidd has the opportunity to describe her work, her fears and all the rules that are applicable to enslaved people. Badges and authorizations to go out of the house. Controls on the streets. The working house as a punishment. Their worth written down as furniture in inventory ledgers. Their fate when their master dies and wills are read. Crushed dreams and a lack of future. Living in fear because their lives were not theirs to live.

Through Hetty’s voice, we discover the quotidian of an enslaved house servant. She lived with the Grimkés all her life with her mother Charlotte. I believe that the lay out of the Grimké house is based upon the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston that I visited this summer. It was fresh in my mind when I read The Invention of Wings and I could picture Hetty and Charlotte’s whereabouts.

Rhett-Aiken House, Charleston, South Carolina.
Rhett-Aiken House. Stables and upstairs, enslaved people’s quarters.
And what I see as Charlotte and Hetty’s tree.
Rhett-Aiken House. Kitchen house and enslaved people’s quarters. Another view of the tree.

The Invention of Wings is fascinating and educational. It is useful and its success is an opportunity to broadcast anti-racist causes and feminist causes. And sadly, we still need that kind of books to make people touch these important concepts with their fingertips. Fiction has the power to strike the reader’s empathy and characters embody cold concepts. Readers can relate to Sarah and Hetty and the horror of Hetty’s life becomes real and not a disembodied history chapter in a textbook.

Sue Monk Kidd’s book is useful, informative and well-executed. But it took me a while to really dive into it and feel invested in Sarah and Hetty’s lives. I started reading it without knowing that Sarah Grimké was a real person. She even seemed unrealistic to me at the beginning! The outline of book’s purpose was obvious and well, I wasn’t fully on board until Sarah left Charleston. But that’s not a big enough flaw to deter you from reading it if you haven’t.

A good companion book to this one is The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, based upon another abolitionist’s life, John Brown. The narration more unconventional and inspired and it’s written by a black author.

The Invention of Wings is a great book, a mix between biography and fiction. I appreciated the author’s afterword where she explains where and why she took some liberties with historical facts. It’s an excellent read but since it’s a novel with a clear educational purpose, it lacks this artistic flame that comes with mind-blowing literary fiction.

Crime fiction in August: Mexico, America, South Africa and New Zealand

August 28, 2022 11 comments

Let’s have a tour of my August crime fiction travels. First, let’s go to Madrid.

Adiós Madrid by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (1993) French title: Adiós Madrid. Translated by René Solis

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a Mexican crime fiction writer. I’ve already read Days of Combat featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. Adiós Madrid is the seventh or ninth book of the series.

This time, Belascoarán is sent on a mission to Madrid by his friend Justo Vasco, the assistant manager of the museum of anthropology in Mexico. He’s going all the way to Madrid to deliver Vasco’s threat. The Black Widow, “ex-rancheras singer, mistress of an ex-president of Mexico who had recently passed away, ex-icon of the Mexico nightlife and ex-landlord of the country.”, lives in Madrid.

Belascoarán has to tell her that if she tries to sell the plastron of Moctezuma, an antique that belongs to the anthropology museum, Vasco will leak all kinds of embarrassing information about her.

Belascoarán is happy to get a free trip to Madrid, the city where his parents grew up and it’s a bittersweet experience for him to confront the Madrid that his parents described to the actual and modern one. And then of course, things don’t go according to plan as far as the threat delivery is concerned.

Adiós Madrid is a very short book for crime fiction (102 pages in French) and it was good fun but nothing more. No need to rush for it.

After Madrid, it was time to fly to Washington DC and let George Pelecanos drive me through his hometown.

The Cut by George Pelecanos (2011) French title: Une balade dans la nuit. Translated by Elsa Maggion.

In The Cut, Spero Lucas, a former marine who was in Afghanistan, works as a non-licensed investigator for a lawyer, Tom Petersen. Spero’s job is to unearth useful clues that help Petersen during procedurals.

Spero starts on a case where he finds crucial clues that unable to bail Petersen’s client’s son out of jail. The thing is: Petersen’s client is Anwan Hawkins, head of a marijuana trafficking organization and currently in jail. Hawkins uses the “Fedex method”: send the drug via Fedex at the address of an unsuspecting citizen, follow up the delivery on internet, be on location at delivery time and intercept the parcel.

Now two parcels went missing and the loss amounts to 130 000 USD. For a 40% cut, Spero is ready to track down the missing parcels. And that will prove to be more dangerous than expected, even for an ex-marine.

Spero Lucas is a well-drawn character, we see him struggle with his military past and his father’s death. He comes from an unconventional tight-knit family with Greek roots and the personal side of the book was a nice addition to the crime plot.

My only drawback is Pelecanos’s style. You can see that he’s used to writing scenarios as it is very cinematographic. Lots of descriptions of driving the streets of Washington DC were hard to picture and didn’t bring much to the book. In my opinion, it could have been more literary. It was Good entertainment though.

Then, I traveled to South Africa to read my first Deon Meyer. He’s a writer I’d seen and heard at Quais du Polar and had wanted to read for a long time.

Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (1998) French title: Les Soldats de l’aube.

Dead at Daybreak is, according to Goodreads, Matt Joubert book #1.5. This is a series I’m very tempted to read after this introduction to Meyer’s literary world.

Zatopek van Heerden is a former police officer, he’s adrift and when the book opens, he’s hungover in jail after fighting in a bar in Capetown. Like Spero Lucas in The Cut, he’s hired by a lawyer, Hope Beneke, to help her with her client Wilhelmina van As. Here’s the reason she hired van Heerden:

Johannes Jacobus Smit was fatally wounded with a large-calibre gun on 30 September last year during a burglary at his home in Moreletta Street, Durbanville. The entire contents of a walk-in safe are missing, including a will in which, it is alleged, he left all his possessions to his friend, Wilhelmina Johanna van As. If the will cannot be found, the late Mr Smit will have died intestate and his assets will eventually go to the state.’

It seems simple enough: find the will. Van Heerden will have to get out of his drunken funk, informally reconnect with his former colleagues, solve the case, get paid and move on. However, the case takes him to another affair that happened in 1983, during the time of the Apartheid and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Dead at Daybreak is a fantastic crime fiction book and it has it all. A riveting plot. Fascinating thoughts about South Africa, the change of regime and relationships between the black and white communities. Well-drawn characters.

The plot driven chapters are third person narrative, with the reader following the investigation. They alternate with chapters with first person narrative, where van Heerden writes about his life, from his childhood to the events that brought him to get into bar fights and drink too much. These chapters were captivating too. The ending of the book was both the closing of the investigation and closure for van Heerden.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

My next crime fiction book took me to New Zealand where I was happy to reconnect with Maori police officer Tito Ihaka.

Fallout by Paul Thomas. (2014) Not available in French. Published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Fallout is my second book by Paul Thomas as I’d already read and loved Death on Demand.

Fallout has a triple plot thread with interconnected stories. It starts with Finbar McGrail, the District Commander in Auckland who is on the verge of retirement. His first murder case in 1987 is still unsolved and he recently had a new lead. He asks Ihaka to look into it and see if he can find who murdered Polly Stenson at the posh Barton party in 1987.

Meanwhile, Ihaka’s former colleague Van Roon is hired as a non-licensed investigator to find Eddie Brightside. This man has been hiding abroad for years and he was seen in New Zealand.

On the side, Miriam Lovell, Ikaka’s ex-lover, contacts him regarding his father’s death, some twenty years ago. Lovell is writing her PhD thesis about work unions in New Zealand and as Ikaha’s father was a well-known unionist, she comes across breaking news: Jimmy Ihaka might not have died of a heart attack but could have been murdered. Ihaka decides to investigate his father’s death.

I loved Fallout as much as I loved Death on Demand. Ihaka is an incredible character. He’s a maverick police officer with a code of conduct of his own. He’s loud, crude but loyal. He’s either respected or despised and he’s not good with precinct politics. This is Ihaka, assessing a witness.

Gentle, thought Ihaka; sensitive; arty. Probably plays the guitar and writes songs about how hard it is being gentle, sensitive and arty in this fucked-up world.

Political correctness is not Ihaka’s strong suit and that’s why I enjoyed my time with him.

Fallout is a tour de force. I never felt lost between the three investigations, mixing up characters or stories. It was perfectly orchestrated, a fine-tuned mix of standard crime, personal matters and political issues as it branches out on the topic of New Zealand anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s. Fascinating stuff.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

So, that was my month of August with crime fiction. All in all, it was a good pick of books, various places and well-drawn characters and plots. I’m looking forward to reading more by Deon Meyer, so don’t hesitate to leave recommendations in the comments below.

All these books belong to my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

PS : Fallout is published by an indie publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, their books are available online and well, the more books they sell, the more chances we have that they bring us great crime fiction books.

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 21 comments

I really really have a hard time keeping up with billets and blogging at the moment, so I’ll catch up on different books I’ve read and write mini-billets about them. Everything is fine, I’m just terribly busy.

I’ve been reading American literature again or books related to America. All were good, I’ve been lucky with my reading choices. They all deserve a full billet but I’m too knackered to tackle six billets at the moment.

The first one is a French book, set in Ellis Island, Those Who Leave by Jeanne Benameur 2019. (Original French title: Ceux qui partent.) We’re in 1910, in Ellis Island, New York.

Emilia Scarpa and her father Donato, Esther Agakian and Gabor are all candidatures to emigrate to America. Emilia and Donato are Italian and she wants to be free and be a painter. Esther is survivor of the Armenian genocide. Gabor is a Rom and is fleeing the pogroms. All aspire to start a new life, either to leave traumatic events back in Europe or to open to opportunities they wouldn’t have in their native country.

Andrew Jónsson, an American photograph also spends a lot of time at Ellis Island, recording the arrivals of new immigrants. His father emigrated from Iceland with his grand-mother when he was a child and Andrew chases his own history through the newcomers.

All the characters meet at Ellis Island and their lives intertwine for a while. Jeanne Benameur muses about leaving, about new beginnings. Can you start over or as the song says, “You don’t rebuild your life, you only go on”? What do “roots” mean? How to you survive a genocide? How are you linked to your lineage?

Jeanne Benameur has a lovely and poetic style. Her tone is smooth, contemplative and tries to convey the characters inner thoughts.

It was a good read but sometimes I felt she could have said the same in less pages.

Then I was in New York again with The Fire, Next Time by James Baldwin (1963). This non-fiction book is composed of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James and an essay about being black in America.

The letter was very moving, one James giving advice to his namesake nephew. Words of wisdom and self-confidence.

As always, Baldwin is spot on, direct and unflinching. He’s intelligent, nuanced and never lets himself fall into the pitfall of simplification.

He explores the idea of violence and various schools of thought about the future of the black community in America. He’s not convinced by any extremist thinking.

There is no hatred in his words but a challenge issued to white people: the condition of black people will change only if they’re willing to acknowledge that they need to change.

Then I moved to Kansas, around the same time as The Fire, Next Time, with In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) I read it in French (De sang froid) in the 1966 translation by Raymond Girard.

This translation needs to be updated, that’s for sure. It was done in a time where we were a lot less Americanized and the translation reflects this with comments about obvious American things or weird spelling. (“base-ball”, really?) I was intimidated by In Cold Blood and thought it would be best to read it in French but I think I could have read it in English.

Anyway. I’m not sure it’s necessary to remind you that In Cold Blood is about a true crime affair. The Clutter family, a well-loved family in the village of Holcomb, Kansas was savagely murdered without any reason. Capote reconstructs the crime, showing the murderers before and after their crime, including their time in jail and switching of point of view to picture the family and the KBI inspectors who work on the case.

It was a memorable time for many people and Capote’s various angles shows the trail of devastation and life-changing moment that such a crime entails for a broad cast of people.

I enjoyed it a lot more than expected and it was easy to read. The chapters cover the different moment of this terrible crime, with a bit of suspense. The writing is vivid, like a reportage and it’s well worth reading.

After Capote, I changed of scenery but remained with law representatives. I went to North Carolina, where Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (2014) is set. It was my first novel by Ron Rash, as I had only read a collection of short stories before, Burning Bright.

In this novel, Les is 52, sheriff in a county in North Carolina. He’ll retire in three weeks, handing over his job to Jarvis Crowe. He has a burgeoning relationship with Becky, a park ranger. They both carry a heavy personal baggage.

Les has to handle two cases that represent the spectrum of country sheriff duties: on the one hand, he has to deal with Gerald who trespasses on his neighbor’s property and on the other hand he has a very precise intervention to close a meth lab, as drug is a major issue in this State.

Above the Waterfall is representative of books set in small towns America.

Like Longmire, the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Les has to take into account the local history, the relationship between the parties and look the other way sometimes to preserve peace. They all have to live together anyway. Btw, this reminds me that I also read Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson but I won’t write a billet about it as it’s not my favorite Longmire story. It felt like a long race in the cold, in the falling snow of the Rocky Mountains.

But let’s leave Wyoming behind and go back to Rash’s novel set in the Appalachians, where he lives.

His books are cousins to David Joy’s or Chris Offutt’s books. Should we call them the Appalachians School? They are in the same vein and as a reader, I think they give an accurate picture of their land. Rash is less violent than Joy and he’s also a poet. I know from attending his interview at Quais du Polar, that he reads his books aloud to ensure they ring well. Above the Waterfall has a very poetic side and I’m not sure I caught all the beauty of his descriptions of wilderness.

It was a story full of grey areas where what is right isn’t always legal and vice-versa. Life isn’t black and white and like with Baldwin, I appreciate that Rash doesn’t over simplify issues but turns his writing spotlight in different corners of this Appalachian county, near the Shenandoah National Park. He lets us see different point of views.

I still have another book by Rash on the shelf, Serena and I’m looking forward to it as I really think that Ron Rash is a talented writer.

Then I flew to Argentina and you may wonder how Thursday Nights Widows by Claudia Piñeiro (2005) belongs with a billet about America. Well, it does because it is set in a country, a gated community at 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires. This huge compound is modeled after its American counterparts and it’s a sort of Argentinean Wisteria Lane. Rich businessmen have their house there, they live in close quarters and their wives, who don’t work, have very few opportunities to spend time in real Argentina.

Everything is about status, not making waves and getting along with everyone. Buy a the end on the 1990s and early 2000s, a devastating economic crisis shatters Argentina and these couples’ carefully balanced life is at threat. Unemployment spreads at Covid speed. The husbands try to keep face, the wives are oblivious and everyone has dirty secrets that stay hidden (or not) behind closed doors.

Piñeiro excels at describing this microsociety and its unspoken rules. Their carefully assembled houses of cards is fragile and drama looms. We know from the start that a tragedy occurred and the author takes us to the genesis of it, coming back to recent events or to older ones with anecdotes that pinpoints the characters’ tempers.

I have read it in a French translation by Romain Magras. It is entitled Les Veuves du jeudi and I recommend it.

At my personal bingo of literary events, I ticket several boxes with these books. All but the Jeanne Benameur count for my 20 Books Of Summer Challenge. (Books 5 to 9) Thursday Nights Widow counts for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month hosted by Stu.

Have you read any of these six books? What did you think about them?

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden – fantastic

July 9, 2022 11 comments

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. (2020) French title: Justice indienne. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

I wondered what it was like to live without that weight on your shoulders, the weight of the murdered ancestors, the stolen land, the abused children, the burden every Native person carries.

After Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese , Winter Counts is my second contribution to Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week.

We are in South Dakota, on the Rosebud reservation, land of the Lakota nation. Virgil Wounded Horse raises his nephew Nathan on his own after his sister Sybil died in a car accident three years ago. Nathan is 14 and he and Virgil have found a way to live together. Nathan is a good student, interested in science. Virgil doesn’t make a lot of money but Nathan and he get by, leaning on each other to recover from Sybil’s death.

Virgil survives on odd jobs: he’s hired to beat people up when they did something wrong and are never prosecuted. Indeed, the tribal police can only intervene on minor offence and “the feds prosecuted all felony crimes on the rez, and they didn’t mess with any crime short of murder”. For all the crimes that are not interesting enough for the feds and out of the sphere of action of the tribal police, victims may hire Virgil for a kind of local justice. This explains the French title of Winter Counts, Justice indienne.

Then Ben, councilman at the tribal council wants to hire Virgil to go after Rick Crow, a potential drug dealer. Ben says that Crow is part of a criminal organization that aims at introducing heroin on the reservation. Virgil refuses the job, his guts telling him not to go there.

Then Nathan almost overdoses on heroin and it becomes a personal matter. Virgil accepts Ben’s contract and rekindles his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Marie. She’s a social worker on the reservation, she dated Rick Crow and she’s Ben’s daughter. Three good reasons to get involved. Soon, their path crosses the FBI’s since this case is important enough for them to investigate it.

Winter Counts is a crime fiction book and the plot is centered around the heroin trafficking and Virgil’s and Marie’s involvement in this investigation but it’s a lot more than that.

Weiden writes about life on the reservation and Lakota traditions. He explains the Lakota’s view of the world, comes back on their history. Virgil has distanced himself from Lakota ways while Marie wants to promote them, to come back to them and live by them on the reservation.

This investigation involves Nathan, Virgil’s only family and it forces Virgil to lean on the community. It brings him back to his people, their way of thinking and their rituals. Reading Winter Counts, we follow Virgil’s journey as he reconnects and embraces his Lakota roots.

The title Winter Counts comes from a Lakota tradition, the making of pictorial calendars or stories to remember major events of the tribe’s history. Virgil does his own mental winter counts and it’s another way for him to get closer to his Lakota background. Along his way, the reader learns a little bit more about Lakota culture and ceremonies. Weiden explains that Lakota ceremonies are secret and that he only describes what had already been revealed in other books. Not everything is written but we get a glimpse of what they are and it is enough for us philistines.

I always enjoy augmented crime fiction books. The gripping plot holds your attention and all the detours about the context are informative and give the plot and the characters an additional depth. Winter Counts is exactly that.

In an afterword, Weiden explains that the plot of his book is based on true facts and his description of life on the reservation sound accurate. He never sugarcoats reality and he brings a nuanced and factual vision of the Rosebud reservation. Like James Baldwin for black people, he points out and reminds us what the white man has done to Indigenous nations. (Btw, like Wagamese, Weiden uses the word Indian and not Native American.) It’s not in anger or with hatred but a calm way to set history straight and make it known. Cold hard truth.

I will definitely read more books by David Heska Wanbli Weiden in the future.

This is my #20BooksOfSummer number 5, another book published by Gallmeister with an outstanding translation by Sophie Aslanides, who also translates Craig Johnson and Jake Hinkson, among others.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

July 2, 2022 22 comments

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1997) French title: Promenons-nous dans les bois. Translated by Karine Chaunac.

After a few of very busy weeks and weekends, I’m back! I kept on reading, so expect a burst of billets. Let’s start with 20 Books of Summer #1, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

In 1996, Bill Bryson moves back from England to America and settles in New Hampshire with his family. He’s near the Appalachian Trail (AT) and decides that he wants to hike this mythic trail. He starts his journey in Georgia with his old friend Stephen Katz. Both are rather inexperienced hikers, no athletes –Katz is overweight and a recovering alcoholic— and not fully prepared for their travels.

The book is a mix of chapters between their walking, their progression on the trail and how things go.

They’ll hike 870 miles before abandoning their project and it represents around 40% of the entire trail. Chapters alternate between Bryson and Katz’s adventures and facts about the AT, the mountains and the places they go to or through.

It’s readable, informative but quite superficial. In my opinion, Bryson was a bit condescending at times and lacked of self-deprecating humor. He wasn’t always kind to Katz and I found that a bit jarring.

They engage into a project that consists in hiking a long and tough trail for which they are unfit. Unless Bryson downplays his fitness for the sake of the narration. They aren’t trained for that but go for it anyway. I’m torn between awe (How gutsy!) and consternation (How imprudent!)

Each time they are out of the trail, they rush to fast food restaurants to gorge on soda, hamburgers, pies and other junk food. That’s so far away from a usual hiker’s way of life that I didn’t know what to think about this. Typically American? I can’t imagine reading about someone walking the Camino de Santiago and stopping at McDonald’s at any opportunity. Maybe I read too many nature writing books.

A Walk in the Woods was published in 1997 and felt quite dated sometimes. Obviously, there’s the technology part: they do it without GPS or cell phones and the maps they have aren’t always as useful as they should be.

But it is also a book of its time. It was written before climate change really became a hot topic and the awareness about nature wasn’t as important as it is now. Bryson gives information about the trail, the places they go through and describes the landscape but not with the reverence and gratefulness I expected from my 2022 perspective. Again, maybe I read too much nature writing.

But in the last 25 years, at least in France, hiking has developed tremendously. According to a survey ordered by the FFRandonnée (French Federation of Hiking), in 2021, 56% of French people had done at least one hike in the last twelve months. It has become a widespread hobby for people who want to find some quiet time in nature. It’s also linked to a trend to put our foot on the brake of our frantic consumer life. I didn’t find this in Bryson’s book, mostly because it was written in 1997 and we’ve changed since then.

On another aspect, I would have liked more introspection on Bryson’s side. How did this challenge affect him beyond the blisters, the wet clothes and the uncomfortable shelters? What did he get from it besides the satisfaction to deliver a new book to his publisher? One can’t go out of 870 miles of hiking in the woods without soul searching moments.

In other words, I expected more, probably because Pete Fromm and Rick Bass spoilt me with Indian Creek and The Book of Yaak. Now, if you know a book about the Appalachian trail that is closer to these books than to A Walk in the Woods, please leave a comment.

PS : the French title of A Walk in the Woods is Promenons-nous dans les bois.

It means “let’s walk in the woods” and comes from a nursery rhyme that says “Let’s walk in the woods as long as wolves aren’t there because if they were there, they would eat us”. Children stuff is scary, sometimes.

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