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Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden – fantastic

July 9, 2022 10 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.

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm – A stay in the Idaho woods

June 5, 2022 15 comments

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm (1993) French title: Indian Creek. Translated by Denis Lagae-Devoldère.

Pete Fromm was born in 1958 in Wisconsin and Indian Creek Chronicles are the memoir of the winter 1978-1979 that he spent on his own, in a tent in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho. The book opens on his first moments alone in his new lodgings:

Once the game warden left, the little tent we’d set up seemed even smaller. I stood in front of it, shivering at a gust I thought I felt running across my neck. Could this really be my home now? My home for the next seven months? For the entire winter? Alone? I glanced up at the river canyon’s steep, dark walls, already cutting off the mid-afternoon sun. Nothing lay beyond those walls of stone and tree but more of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I was alone, in its very heart.

The shadow of the canyon’s wall fell over me and I hurried away from it, into the sunlight remaining in the meadow. My steps rustled through the knee high grass and the breeze soughed through the towering firs and cedars hemming the small opening. The river’s whispering rush ran through it all, creating an insistent quiet that folded around me like a shroud.

I stopped at the phone pole the warden had said would link me to the outside. Yesterday we’d discovered the phone didn’t work. I picked it up anyway, listening to its blank silence, the voice of the rest of the world. With the receiver still against my ear I turned and looked back at the shadowed tent, far enough away now for perspective.

The canvas walls closed off an area fourteen by sixteen feet. The wardens had told me that, bragging it up, making it sound spacious. On the phone, sitting at a college swimming pool, when I’d been accepting this job, it had sounded palatial.

Fromm explains that he went to the University of Missoula on impulse, after stumbling upon a brochure. He had been camping and hiking with his family but he was not familiar with the West. He read a lot about frontiermen, fur trapper and other mountain men. He knew about Hugh Glass through books like Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred and had loved The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr. He was definitely attracted to life in the woods and solitary exploits.

He was on the swimming team at college and when the program got canceled, he was angry and jumped on the opportunity to take on a job with the Fish and Game department in Idaho. His mission consisted of monitoring salmon eggs during a whole winter for a science experiment.

The mama bear in me had a surge of empathy for his poor mother, who had to live several months with the knowledge that her son was on his own, in the Rocky Mountains, in a tent, in winter with snow and temperatures dropping to -30°C, with roads closed and without a phone. The only comforting thought is that bears hibernate and wouldn’t be around.

Pete Fromm has a lot of humor and we follow his preparations for his trip. The warden gave him almost no guidance. His roommate Jeff Rader helped him pack. He had to decide upon which camping gear to take with him and buy his own food.

Imagine that when he went there, he didn’t know how to drive with a stick (The Fish & Game truck had one), he didn’t know how to use a rifle and he had never spent so much time in the wilderness on his own. He didn’t know the codes of his new environment as we understand it when the wardens leave after settling him in the woods:

The wardens climbed into their truck, ready to leave. ‘You’ll need about seven cords of firewood. Concentrate on that. You’ll have to get it all before the snow grounds your truck.

’ Though I didn’t want to ask, it seemed important. ‘What’s a cord?’

I thought “Wow. How can you be so bold as to go and live in the woods with so little knowledge of life in the wilderness?” I’m in awe for this mix of confidence and carefree attitude. I wish I were more like him.

He’s here to tell the story, so we know from the start that all is well that ends well, but still.

Pete Fromm writes about his experience and we see a young college guy become a mountain man in front of our eyes. The job of monitoring the salmon eggs lasts about fifteen minutes per day but must done daily. The goal is to ensure that the water around the egg farm is always running, so breaking the ice everyday in winter is a necessity.

With so little to do for his actual job, his quotidian is made of activities to ensure his daily life. He talks candidly about his months there, the mistakes he makes and various episodes that could have really taken a bad turn. Fortunately, he’s intelligent and fit, he understands what he did wrong and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He must have had real frights sometimes, though.

He walks a lot in the woods, observes the wilderness around him. The wardens check on him once in a while, to bring him his mail. The visits don’t last long. He doesn’t hide that it was hard to adjust to the loneliness and he was glad when his roommate managed to come and visit him on a snowmobile.

I won’t tell any episodes of his stay at Indian Creek, you’ll have to discover them yourself. I’d rather write about the atmosphere of the book.

I’d already read his novel A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do and I found in Indian Creek the same steady voice as in his novel. His prose is lovely and progresses at the rhythmic and peaceful pace of a hiker. One word after the other, carefully chosen. One foot after the other, carefully put on the trail, so as not to stumble.

The quiet observation of nature pervades in his reflective thoughts and he shares with us moments in the wilderness that he was the only one to witness. He takes us far away from our daily lives and through his eyes, watch with awe the miracle of nature.

Very highly recommended.

Country Dark by Chris Offutt – In the Appalachian mountains, again.

May 26, 2022 4 comments

Country Dark by Chris Offutt (2018) French title: Nuits Appalaches. Translated by Anatole Pons-Reumaux.

I discovered Chris Offutt at Quais du Polar in 2019 and I knew I’d like his books. I started with Country Dark, published in 2018. I could have read it in English, I suppose, but Gallmeister editions are gorgeous enough to make me read in translation.

Country Dark starts in 1954. Tucker is 18, he’s back from the Korean war where he was decorated and learnt all kinds of surviving skills. He’s going back to Kentucky, where his roots are and decided to walk and hitchhike home through the Appalachian woods.

On his way home, he saves Rhonda from her uncle’s clutches just when he was going to sexually harass her. She’s only 15. Tucker helps her, makes sure that her uncle stays out of her life for good and buys the uncle’s car in the process. Rhonda and Tucker are now an item, two kids starting their adult life together.

1964. Tucker and Rhonda are married, with five children. They’re poor. Tucker works as a driver for a bootlegger, so, officially, he has no stable job. Hattie, the social worker who visits Rhonda from time to time isn’t really worried about the family. She provides help but sees that the children are loved and that their parents do their best.

Things take a dramatic turn when Hattie makes her rounds with her judgmental boss. The social services now threaten Tucker’s family and he turns to his survival skills to protect his wife and children.

I liked Tucker. He’s a solid guy with a lot of good sense, some of it acquired at home and some in the army. He’s intelligent, sober, hardworking and gentle. Chris Offutt pictures it in two paragraphs, when he describes a moment in Tucker’s trip home:

Tucker sought share and found a strip cast from the leg of a billboard encouraging him to buy shaving cream. He needed a shave, but didn’t figure a giant picture would convince him to spend money on something he could make from borax, oil, and chipped soap. He dropped his rucksack, opened a can of Libby’s Vienna sausages and ate them with saltine crackers. He used a church key to open a bottle of Ale-8, and drank half.

A katydid landed on his forearm and he admired its silky green body, serrated back legs, and delicate wings. They were prettier than a grasshopper and didn’t piss all over you like frogs did. The insect leaned backward and swelled itself, the thorax expanding, wings distending as if preparing for battle. Tucker nudged it away. He dropped the empty sausage can in a ditch blooming with milkweed and set off walking.

Tucker comes from a poor family from Kentucky. Chris Offutt describes people’s life in this area, how isolated they are from one another. It means that people need to take care of themselves. They are far away from a maternity ward when women give birth. They are far from the sheriff if something happens. Their job prospects are not good, some live during the week to work in the factories up north. Poverty means that kids have to help around the house.

Offutt’s novel progresses nicely, showing Tucker and Rhonda’s characters. His writing relays the importance of their natural environment on their lives. They are who they are because they were born and are living in the Appalachians.

The doctor from the social services sets everything in motion and puts Tucker in corner. He’s smart, acts coolly and selflessly. He’ll do anything to protect Rhonda and the kids.

Tucker’s only wealth is his wife and children. He has a lot of love to give to Rhonda and his children and his ambition in life is to live a peaceful life with his family, in his house on an Appalachian hill.

He’s different from men of his generation, I believe, because he’s not full of this toxic masculinity I associate with his time. He doesn’t need to show off his strength, to go to bars, to be violent or despise supposedly feminine tasks. He’s a good man and the reader understands his motivations and his actions.

In a way, Chris Offutt writes another answer to David Joy’s question For whom are you willing to lay down your life?

Highly recommended.

Mongolia and Montana : two crime fiction books

February 13, 2022 14 comments

Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook (2013) Not available in English

Ian Manook is the penname for the French writer Patrick Manoukian. (A play-on-word on his surname Manoukian/Manook Ian, I guess) Yeruldelgger is the first volume of the Commissaire Yeruldelgger trilogy set in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It won the Prix SNCF 2014, a prize dedicated to crime fiction.

Commissaire Yeruldelgger is still recovering from a personal tragedy when he’s called on two crime scenes at the same time. One is in the steppe, away from the capital. Nomadic people called him because they found the body of a little girl, buried with her tricycle.

The other is in Ulan Bator: three Chinese men were killed and their penis was cut and stuffed into three hookers’ mouths. Six bodies and a horrific crime scene. Inspector Oyun who works under Yeruldelgger, goes on scene and starts the investigation.

Yeruldelgger and Oyun work on the two cases at the same time. We meet the police of Mongolia, its corrupted and non-corrupted members. Yeruldelgger works with two women, Oyun and Solongo, the medical examiner. A street boy named Gantulga will help them.

Their investigations will lead them to Yeruldelgger’s past, to the exploitation of Mongolia’s natural resources by Chinese companies, to corrupted Mongolian business men who organize wild rides in the steppe for rich Koreans and to Mongolian neo-Nazi groups.

While the plot is solid and the story unfolds nicely and according to the codes of crime fiction, I can’t say that I loved Yeruldelgger. Something was off. The sense of place felt stilted, the landscape descriptions as fake as a theatre décor. I am sure that the details about Ulan Bator and the cultural references were accurate but they didn’t flow well.

The titles of the chapters were disconcerting, sounding like 19thC literature. You know those titles like “Where Mr … goes to XX and makes a fool of himself” The language couldn’t hide that the book is written by a Frenchman. A native from Mongolia would have written differently, with another sensitivity.

I think the book would have been better if Ian Manook had embraced the fact that he was a Frenchman writing a book set in another country. Yeruldelgger could have become a foreigner living in Mongolia, working with the local police under whatever capacity and all would have been well. The awkwardness would have had an explanation.

Yeruldelgger is not available in English and for once, it’s not a Translation Tragedy.

Dead Man’s Fancy by Keith McCafferty (2015) French title: La Vénus de Botticelli Creek. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens

After this visit to Ulan Bator, I turned to one of my comfort crime fiction series: cozy crime by Keith McCafferty. Back to Montana with the sheriff Martha Ettinger helped by Sean Stranahan and Harold Little Feather.

In Dead Man’s Fancy, Nanicka Martinelli, a fishing guide at the Culpepper Ranch, goes missing. For once, she was riding with the tourists of this dude ranch and her horse came back to the ranch, without its rider. A wrangler took off to find her in the mountain and he’s found dead, impaled on an elk antler. (Who needs guns for a crime scene when the wilderness provides such weapons, eh?)

The investigation leads Martha and her team to the controversy around the reintroduction of wolves in the mountains. Nanicka was pro-wolves while her father Alfonso worked for the ranches to control the population of wolves. Another strange character haunt the woods: Fern Amarok, a pro-wolves activist who camps in the area with his girlfriend. Did Nanicka and Fern know each other? Is she missing or dead?

The plot is well-drawn but the fun isn’t in the story. It is in what happens around the plot. I wonder how Keith McCafferty got the idea of Nanicka’s father, Alfonso, a Frenchman born in the Hautes-Alpes, in the village of Saint-Véran and who emigrated to Québec, British Columbia and then Montana.

Our hero Sean Stranahan now lives in a tipi. He still paints but has an office at the community center because he can’t paint in his tipi. I didn’t that change coming in the previous volume.

Stranahan works for the sheriff but never forgets to take the time to fish. He stops to fish any time he wants. Determined to try out all the rivers possible? Given McCafferty’s job as Survival and Outdoor Skills Editor of Field and Stream, the descriptions of fishing and living in Montana ring true.

I found in Dead Man’s Fancy the fun and relaxation I was looking for, even with the dreadful elk antler and the wolf cries. Despite the violent crimes, some unmistakable peace oozes from this series. I’m a bit dubious about Stranahan’s new accommodation and life style, I find it a bit too much. So, now I’m curious to see what McCafferty will do with his characters in the next volume.

Dead Man’s Fancy is published by Gallmeister, an independant publisher in France. It belongs to Oliver Gallmeister and it’s specialized in crime fiction and Nature Writing from the USA. It has recently branched out to Italian fiction, always with nature as an important part of the book.

The Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito – Italia Reading Challenge

February 8, 2022 14 comments

A Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito (2019) French title: Un jour viendra. Translated from the Italian by Laura Brignon.

In A Day Will Come, Giulia Caminito takes us to Serra de’ Conti, a village in the Marche region in Italy. Nicola and Lupo are the two surviving sons of the poor baker of the village, Luigi Ceresa. They have two sisters, Nella, who becomes a nun and Adelaide, who dies in young age. The boys are close in age and Nicola is under Lupo’s protection because he’s too fragile and afraid of everything. Together with a pet wolf, they are a close-knit unit to face the world. Their parents are absentees at best, violent sometimes.

Lupo will do Nicola’s chores to allow him to learn how to read and get an education. Nicola loves to read and write and becomes the erudite of the duo. Lupo is more into action and he finds a good outlet for his energy in the Anarchist groups that spread their ideas in the country. The peasants were mostly sharecroppers, for the convent and for other landowners. This system was very inegalitarian and the peasants were open to Anarchism that promised to erase it.

Their village of Serra de’ Conti has a convent with Clarisse sisters. Their abbess is Sister Clara, a woman who became a nun after she was kidnaped in Sudan, her native country. The convent plays a steady role in the villagers’ lives, with work, shelter, help. And music. Sister Clara plays beautifully and the villagers can hear her play. The boys’ sister, Nella is there, against her will. She got pregnant out of wedlock and her father put her in the convent and took the baby.

Through Nicola and Lupo’s story, Giulia Caminito dives into the history of this corner of Italy and shows how politics and decisions made at national level drizzle and affect people’s lives even in remote villages.

The boys were born in the early 1890s, only twenty years after the independence of Italy, won over the Austrians. It also meant that the young State has to incorporate papal territories in the new country. The fate of the convent in Serra de’Conti reflects this evolution: the church land and properties are taken over. The Anarchist movements were strong, leading to the Red Week in Ancona (CHECk), the nearest city to Serra de’ Conti.

The Great War is another shock and I discovered battles between the Italian and the Austrian troops. I know more about the battles set in France than about the ones abroad. They were just as abominable.

The Great War washed away the Anarchist movements and the brothers’ illusions. The Spanish influenza was another tide over the Great War one. The country landed in the 1920s and Mussolini took over.

I see Nicola and Lupo as a modern and peasant version of Romulus and Remus. One is word and the other is action. They are the people who are the foundation of the new Italy. They are inseparable and they have a wolf pet who protects them and Lupo, whose name means wolf, is Nicola’s protector.

In a note at the end of the book, the author explains that her grand-mother came from this village of Serra de’Conti. The characters of this novel are based on real people. Her great-grand-father, Nicola Ugolini, was one of the Anarchists of the Marche region and Giulia Caminito dug into the archives of the movement, its roots and its actions. The participants really believed they would lead to happy changes for the people. Sister Clara really existed under the name of Zeinab Alif who, in real life, became Sister Maria Giuseppina Benvenuti.

Gallmeister, the publisher, included a note about the historical landmarks that are spread into the novel. It was very useful but I think that this note would be better as a foreword as it contains no spoilers but gives useful pointers to understand the historical references of the book.

Like Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, A Day Will Come is based on the author’s family story. There’s no way to know what’s true and what isn’t and honestly, I don’t care. I enjoyed Caminito’s book for its unusual characters, for the light it sheds on a specific moment in the history of the Marche and for the poetry of her writing.

Translation Tragedy, sadly. This is another contribution to Diana’s Italia Reading Challenge.

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi – Perfect crime fiction in my book

January 30, 2022 14 comments

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi. (2019) French title: L’île des âmes. Translated from the Italian by Anatole Pons-Reumaux. Not available in English.

The Island of Souls by Piergiorgio Pulixi is a crime fiction novel set in Sardinia. I bought it at Quais du Polar after a panel about crimes set on islands. The authors were David Vann, Susanna Crossman, Piergiorgio Pulixi and Patrice Guirao. I liked the idea of showing that islands don’t always rhyme with paradise.

The Island of Souls is the first book featuring the two detectives Eva Croce and Mara Rais. They have just been assigned to set up the first cold case unit of the Cagliari police. It is not a promotion.

Eva Croce is a transfer from the Milan police. Sardinia is a demotion for her, after a screw-up, her divorce and another personal drama. She arrives on the island, bruised and battered. One day at a time, one foot before the other is her survival attitude. Her first meeting with Mara is frosty.

Mara was also set aside from her team after her divorce. Her ex-husband used his connections to get to her professionally and her prickly attitude fueled his claims.

So, our two detectives set their office down in the musty archives department, where all the documentation on their cases is stored. Their first case is the ritual murders of women spread over several decades. It is an obsession for their colleague Moreno Barrali, who is terminally ill. Eva and Mara have to get as much information as possible about the murders before he dies. They know that the commissaire Farce asked them to look into it to keep them occupied and out of trouble but also to indulge Barrali, who is well-respected.

Eva and Mara meet with Moreno and dive into the case. And then Dolores Murgia goes missing.

The police eventually find her body, murdered according to the same ritual. The cold case merges with a very hot one. Eva and Mara will work with the investigation team.

All these women are killed according to a religious ritual that goes back to the ancient Nuragic civilization, the oldest one on the island.

It is still alive through their descendants, the Ladu clan. They live off the land in the mountains. Their leader is Bastianu, who is taking over his dying grandfather, Benignu. They live according to clan rules and they worship a goddess according to an antique cult. And Bastianu has a problem: they are facing a severe dry, the harvest isn’t good and the sheep cattle is impacted too. According to ancient rules, it means that the Goddess expects the sacrifice of a young woman…

But the Nuragic civilization is also alive through the neo-Nuragic cult, a group of people who reenact the Nuragic religious customs. Needless to say, the police is suddenly very interested in their activities…

The Island of Souls is exactly what Touch and Go isn’t. It is literary crime fiction. It is engaging. It is educational. As a reader, I wanted to know more about Eva and Mara’s pasts and I enjoyed watching their interactions and the building of their work relationship. The investigation wasn’t straightforward, leading the readers to dead ends, progressing in zigzags as the police know more about the victim and the neo-Nuragic group. In parallel, we have Bastianu, who faces the worst dilemma of his life. And I kept wondering if the stories were indeed parallel or if their path would intersect at some point. And on top of the stellar characterization, the excellent plot, you have a breathtaking description of Sardinia.

It’s my perfect crime fiction combo. Literary, unusual, intelligent and with a great sense of place. Pulixi disoriented me and I didn’t guess the ending.

A terrible Translation Tragedy for you, anglophone readers as it’s only available in French and Italian. Gallmeister has branched out of American literature with Italian literature and it’s a success!

PS: Diana from Thoughts on Papyrus hosts an Italia Reading Challenge and I decided to join her as I enjoy Italian literature very much.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Highly recommended

December 19, 2021 19 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury – Born to be wild

November 28, 2021 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesser of Evils by Joe Flanagan – Great debut noir fiction

September 19, 2021 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2021 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money Shot by Christa Faust – Gripping and entertaining

September 8, 2021 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended for fun, beach and public transport travelling.

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

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

August 4, 2021 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent pick by Gallmeister.

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

July 18, 2021 5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very powerful book and another great find by Gallmeister.

The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

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

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