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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata – highly recommended

February 5, 2023 21 comments

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1948) French title: Pays de neige. Translated by Bunkichi Fujimori.

Sometimes people ask whether you’d buy a book for its cover. My answer is always yes and Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata is the perfect example of it. I was drawn to the cover, a part of a 1858 painting by Hiroshige entitled Yugasan in Bizan Province. (see below: isn’t it beautiful?)

Snow Country is the improbable love story between Shimamura, a dilletante from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha from a small watering town in the mountains. (Kawabata doesn’t mention the town’s name in the novel but it’s Yuzawa, in the Niigata prefecture.)

Shimamura is married, has children and comes from old money. He writes articles about ballet and he became obsessed with Western dancing after he got tired of Japanese traditional dances. He’s a dilletante without an actual profession. Shimamura enjoys hiking retreats in the mountains to refuel. This is how he landed in this town, tired but happy and re-energized after a week-long hike.

He’s staying at an inn and asks for a geisha. This will be his first encounter with Komako, who’s not a geisha at the time. Something moves him in her beauty and her attitude.

The second time he comes back is actually the opening scene of the novel. He’s looking forward to seeing Komako again. He’s on the train on his way to the watering town and he observes a young woman taking care of her sick companion in their train carriage. He watches their reflection on the train’s window and it allows him to stare at them without being impolite. They hop off the train at the same station as him and he’ll see them later.

Yugasan in Bizan Province by Hiroshige

He reconnects with Komako, who is now a geisha. She attaches herself to him, and they will spend a lot of time together. Her attitude is not in accordance with the codes of her profession and they try to stay under the town’s radars.

The third time he comes will be the last. Komako is now too attached to him for her own good and their relationship can go nowhere. Shimamura likes her but he’s not in love with her and anyway, he’s married. It’s time to end it.

The story is a traditional love story doomed from the start and details from Komako’s life are revealed in the course of the story. The baseline is not new but the novel is a masterpiece nonetheless, all due to the writing.

The first chapter when Shimamura looks at the young people in the train’s window is truly beautiful. It’s cinematographic and very Proust-like. I can’t help thinking about the scenes on the train in Normandy during the Narrator’s stays in Balbec. Shimamura is entranced by the young girl’s beauty.

The descriptions of the landscapes are poetic and the interaction between the surrounding nature and Shimamura’s moods reminded me of Nature Writing. He comes to this mountain town once in May and spring is in full swing, once in December and it snows and once in the Fall. These three different moments of the year bring a different atmosphere to the town and play on Shimamura’s state of mind.

So, the beauty of the painting on the book cover reflects the beauty of Kawabata’s descriptions. Snow Country also captures a side of a disappearing Japan, as the country turns to Western modernity.

Shimamura lives in Tokyo and is interested in Western culture. After all, he writes about ballet and translates Alain and Paul Valéry. His trips to the mountains are a way to reconnect with himself and with traditional Japan. The old world, before the country opened to the West, still lingers in this remote village. It’s disappearing fast and Komako herself has spent time in Tokyo for her apprenticeship. She’s not a country pumpkin who has never left her hometown. Shimamura and Komako have a connection because he’s eager to go back to traditional Japan and she knows his world too. They meet halfway.

I really don’t know much about Japanese customs and sometimes I think I should read a book like Japanese customs for dummies before diving deeper into Japanese literature. So, curious as I am, I truly enjoyed reading about the geisha world and its organization, the villagers’ life and other customs like traditional dances, the making of Ojiya-chijimi fabric, the way women dress, bath and do their hair. It’s part of Shimamura’s attraction to the place and it’s part of my attraction to Kawabata’s book.

Snow Country is my second Kawabata after Kyôto and I’m afraid I’ve no recollection of Kyôto except that I liked it alright. I should reread it now that I’m older. Snow Country is a classic of Japanese literature and it is understandable as the story is universal and the style stunning.

This is my participation to Doce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

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

January 8, 2023 6 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.

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.

Proust reads and reading Proust

November 20, 2022 18 comments

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (1905) Original French title: Sur la lecture. Suivi de Journées de lecture.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (1931) French title: Proust. Translated by Edith Fournier.

Proust died on November 18th, 1922. The centenary of his death has been celebrated here with books, TV specials, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, exhibitions and so on. I meant to publish this billet on November 18th but life got in the way.

Days of Reading is a short essay by Proust, where he muses over the pleasure and the experience of reading.

As often, Proust shows his talent for a catching incipit.

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all:the days we spent with a favorite book. Translation by John Sturrock.

In the subsequent pages, he remembers the glorious hours he spent with books as a child. He wanted to be left alone with his books and not do anything else. I can relate to that.

His thoughts about finishing a book, the fact that we leave the characters on the last page to never “see” them again is relatable too. Who has never reached the end of a book thinking “That’s all? What will become of them now?”. He muses over our relationship with books, our connection to writers and how they lead us to beauty and intelligence. La lecture est une amitié, he says. And yes, reading is a friendship with books, authors and imaginary worlds.

While Proust talks about his love for reading in Days of Reading, Beckett writes about his response to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Beckett wrote Proust, his essay about In Search of Lost Time, in 1931, when he was only 25. Time Regained had only been published four years before in 1927. Beckett was an earlier adopter of Proust and it says something about his ability to understand modern literature and spot a breakthrough in literature, even if Proust wasn’t taken so seriously at the time.

Proust is not an academic essay, it’s the brilliant review of a book through the eyes a passionate reader. Beckett shares his experience with reading Proust and displays a deep knowledge of Proust’s work.

He gives very detailed and precise examples – he quotes from memory, a nightmare for the French translator of his essay because she needed to find the actual quotes in French…He shows a profound understanding of what Proust intended to do with his work and he was ahead of his time.

Beckett goes through all of Proust’s favourite themes: the force of habit, the importance of a setting, his fascination for the Guermantes, his passion for art (literature, painting, opera, music, theatre and architecture.) He has valid points about the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator.

And then come thoughts about memory, remembrance and our thought process. He gives his perception of how memories are triggered by sensations.

Proust is an impressive review of Proust’s masterpiece and it’s a tribute to Beckett’s intelligence as much as an ode to Proust. It’s an excellent companion book for any reader of La Recherche, as we have nicknamed In Search of Lost Time in French.

Proust reads and Beckett reads Proust. I missed the actual day of the centenary of Proust’s death but still decided to bake madeleines to celebrate this anniversary.

Time Regained by Marcel Proust – a conclusion and a beginning.

October 9, 2022 22 comments

Time Regained by Marcel Proust (1927) Original French title: Le Temps retrouvé.

Time Regained is the last volume of In Search of Lost Time and it was published five years after Proust’s death. We’re lucky that Proust’s brother had them published.

I’ve now finished rereading In Search of Lost Time. It took me several years because I wandered away, lost time and yet always found my way back to it. I never forgot where I left the Narrator and resumed reading as if I had stopped the day before. Proust’s prose and narration is a drizzle, it pervades into your brain and your soul. It goes deep and stays with you on a long-term basis.

I first read Time Regained in my last year of high school. My memories of reading it were of a brilliant conclusion to In Search of Lost Time, the book where everything starts and ends in a coherent way, a volume that made the whole journey worth all the reading time I devoted to Proust.

My memories were accurate, if it even makes sense to apply this adjective to memories after all Proust has written about their fleetingness and inaccuracy. I have twenty-five pages of quotes from Time Regained, all worthy of attention. I’m not qualified to write an essay about Proust, an imperfect summary is all I can hope for.

This last volume has three parts all equally fascinating and for different reasons.

The first part is about Paris during WWI and how things were for Parisians and Proust’s circle. The Narrator is back to Paris after two years in the country, in a nursing home. From a historical standpoint, this part is very interesting. He pictures the political context of the time and the attitude of the various characters of his novel towards the Germans and how they express or broadcast their patriotism. The war time has rearranged the cards in his friends and acquaintances’s position in the world. He unveils what the characters are up to during these difficult times. Who became a journalist. Who is on the front. Who is an army deserter. What women do and what salons have become. Who works for the government. What happened to Combray, Méséglise and a little bridge on the Vivonne river. Who is a spy. How Françoise lives through this.

But people are people and life goes on. Thanks to Charlus, Jupien runs a brothel for homosexuals, which provides for the Baron’s enjoyment of sadomasochism and the Narrator witnesses it all. (Proust used to go to this kind of brothels himself, he even got arrested in one once).

After the Narrator updates us on what happened to several of the characters, he goes to a matinée hosted by the Princesse de Guermantes, the new one, since the prince has remarried.

When he arrives at their mansion, he stumbles upon a paved stone and Venice is brought back to his memory with the same force as Combray with the madeleine. He enters the mansion and has to stay in the library until the musicians whon are currently playing have finished their piece. Then he’s be allowed into the salon. This time in the Guermantes library is a revelation. Several details trigger his memory and his brain and his literary mission downs on him. His artistic pursuit is not a pipedream after all. He now knows what he will write, how he will write it. He’s on a mission.

This second part is a breathtaking explanation of how Proust conceived In Search of Lost Time. He explains his vision of art and what was the starting point of the work we’ve been reading. The conception of his artwork is laid out here, in the book itself, in a brilliant mise en abime. We read about the aim and the blueprints of his literary cathedral. And right there, in this library, he can’t wait to start writing it. Unsurprisingly, his epiphany has something to do with the perception of Time.

But before shutting himself up to write, in a hurry to ensure he has enough time to finish it before he dies, he has to attend the party. And this party is the ultimate place to meet all kind of people from the past. Some are only there through the remembrance of guests as they are dead. Most of the guests have suffered from the assault of Time. They are grey, old, senile, forgetful. The social order is askew or even upside down. And the Narrator observes them with his acute perception, seeing through them and pointing out the changes and the ridicules.

An era is dying. Time has taken his toll and the Narrator is going to bring them back, not in a realistic way but through is perception of them. He will take us from the beginning of the Third Republic to WWI and describe a milieu and an era. There will be political, social and mored matters. There will be no judgment, no question of sin and morality. He will dig into himself and analyze others to show the mechanisms of love, jealousy, grief, habits, imagination and oblivion.

It’ll be a lie. It’ll be non-linear and impressionistic. It’ll be human. It’ll be a masterpiece.

Henri Gervex (1852-1929). “Une soirée au Pré-Catelan”, 1909. (A l’extérieur, Anna Gould et Hélie de Talleyrand-Perigord. A l’intérieur, 1ère baie, à droite : Marquis de Dion. Baie au centre : Liane de Pougy. Baie à gauche : Santos-Dumont). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

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.

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.

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.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese – Native Canadians and hockey.

July 4, 2022 12 comments

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012) French title: Jeu blanc. Translated by Christine Raguet.

This week Lisa from ANZ LitLovers hosts her First Nation Reading Week. In previous years, I read books by Aborigine authors but this year, I picked two books by North American Indians. (I use the word Indian because these writers use it themselves.) The first one is by the Ojibway Canadian writer Richard Wagamese. I had already read his Medicine Walk but I think that Indian Horse is even better.

Set in Manitoba and the north of Ontario, the book is the story of Saul Indian Horse who speaks from a rehab facility where he’s treated for alcoholism. His psychologist asked him to write his story to rid himself from its weight.

Saul was born in 1953 in an Ojibway family and had an older brother, Ben. He spent his first years living according to the traditional Ojibway ways, as his family hid the children in the woods to avoid their kidnapping by the government. They didn’t want their kids to be sent to a school belonging to the Canadian residential school system.

The authorities caught Ben first and after a fateful trip, Saul was sent to Saint Jerome’s Indian Residential School. This place is hell on earth. The catholic nuns and priests who run the place are positively awful.

The children have no actual education. They endure moral and sexual harassment. They have to work hard. They die due to child abuse and are buried in the woods. It reminded me of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

I’ll never understand institutions that abuse children. When these institutions are Christian, it’s even worse. Saul explains that breakfast was a torture because they had to eat bland and vile porridge when the nuns and priest at the nearby table had bacon and eggs. How is that in line with the message of the New Testament?

Saul’s way out appears when Father Gaston Leboutillier arrives at St Jerome’s and starts a hockey team. Saul has a gift for the game. It will give him a goal, a mental lifeline to keep going at St Jerome’s.

Hockey is his safe place. It’s a game he excels at and when he’ll later join a team, it will give him the immense pleasure of the game but also expose him to the ever-present racism against native Canadians. I confess that some descriptions of the hockey games went over my head. It’s not a popular sport in France –the French publisher had to include two pages of explanations about hockey to enlighten the reader about it –so I probably didn’t enjoy as much as I should have the outstanding descriptions of hockey games.

Indian Horse is the poignant story of a man whose identity was partly destroyed and stolen by an inhumane system. It is an ode to hockey and a descent into the life of an Indian in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t pretty and it’s consistent with what Plamondon describes about the Migmaqs in Taqawan.

Saul’s life is built on drama but he still finds beauty and self-value in hockey. His sport gives him his worst and his best experiences. He faces racism and hatred but also builds friendships and a team family.

Wagamese writes well about the Ojibway culture and how white Canadians treated Indians in the 1970s. Some scenes are shocking but I don’t think his imagination went away from him. Like Baldwin for black people, he’s descriptive. He writes about actual behaviours in a system built to reject Indians. He shows the reader how things were and lets them make their own opinion about it.

We follow Saul in his quest for his lost Indian soul, his buried childhood trauma and his difficulties as an adult. I wanted to lift him up and ensure he’d live a better life from now on. A powerful book.

Highly recommended.

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

May 26, 2022 5 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.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné – a girl’s resilience

May 15, 2022 6 comments

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (2018) Original French title: La vraie vie.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné was our Book Club choice for April. It is set in a suburb in Belgium and since the author was born in 1982, I think she used the time of her childhood as a reference. The way of life in the novel matches with the 1990s. There’s a before and after cellphones.

The narrator is a girl who is never named. She’s ten when the book opens and her brother Gilles is six. It’s the summer holiday and the two children spend their time playing around in their generic housing development complex. Their father works at an amusement park, their mom is a stay-at-home mother.

Their father is a hunter and they have a whole room in the house for his hunting trophies. His most prized one is a tusk. Yes, the man loves to hunt and doesn’t hesitate to travel abroad and break the law if need be. I’d despise him just for that. Between hunting trips, he spends his free time at home, sitting on the couch, drinking whisky and beating up his wife. Now he’s just gone up from despicable to scumbag.

His wife is mousy and loves to spend her time with her pet goats. The Narrator calls her an amoeba. Pretty telling. She acts like a wallflower, trying to fly under her husband’s predatory radar. If it means that she neglects her children, then so be it. She devotes all her time and pours her love into her pets.

This explains why the children are joined to the hip and the Narrator feels responsible for her little brother’s safety. They’re a team and Gilles is the Narrator’s sunshine. He brings warmth in her life and she’d do anything to keep this sunshine alive.

That summer, a terrible accident happens. The children’s daily pleasure is to buy an ice-cream cone at the ice-cream truck that drives through their neighborhood. The old man who serves them always adds whipped cream to the Narrator’s cone even if he knows that her father forbids it. That day, the whipped cream maker explodes as he’s serving the Narrator. The impact is such that it takes away half of his face and he dies on the spot. The two children are witness and they are traumatized.

As their parents are faulty, they do nothing to heal their trauma. Gilles stops speaking, behaves weirdly, becomes mean. The Narrator swears to herself that she will bring him back.

The book covers several summer holidays, each worse than the previous one. The reader feels the tension building, sees the Narrator fight against her family circumstances. School is her safe place and she discovers that she loves physics.

Her mother’s distraction plays in her favor when she wants to do things on her own. She babysits some children in the neighborhood to pay for her physics lessons. She hides everything to keep out of her father’s wrath.

As things deteriorate at home, the reader feels that a dramatic event is bound to happen and dreads the conclusion of the novel. I kept wondering how it would end.

Children narrators are hard to pull off but Adeline Dieudonné made it. For her sake, I hope that nothing in her novel is autobiographical except how it was to be a child and teenager in the 1990s. It’s a powerful book, a novel that has several cousins in Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, by Gabriel Tallent, or Blood by Tony Birch.

Not a fun read, but highly recommended. As it’s not an easy book to tuck into a nice little box, we have a festival of book covers when we look at the various translations of Real Life. Ready for the show?

I don’t understand the English cover, as everything happens in the summer. The Spanish one is lovely but the reader will expect something sweet. The Hungarian is … I don’t know what to say.

I see a rabbit pattern in Germany and Finland but I don’t understand why. I’m not sure bout the Little Red Riding Hood reference of the Russian version.

I really like the Japanese cover, it fits the Narrator’s tone and it reflects the fact that she’s a child. And she’s never whining but always resilient and fighting. The Persian one is puzzling and the Polish one has the same idea as the Russian one.

What a diversity of covers! I wonder what the author thinks about that.

The Line That Held Us by David Joy – “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?”

May 8, 2022 7 comments

The Line That Held Us by David Joy (2018) French title: Ce lien entre nous.

I downloaded The Line That Held Us by David Joy after hearing his interview at Quais du Polar. He made a lot of references to Dwayne Brewster, one of the main characters of this novel, enough to push me to read his book.

The Line That Held Us opens on a fatal mistake.

We’re in Jackson County, in North Carolina. Darl Moody and Carol “Sissy” Brewster are both trespassing on Coon Coward’s land while he’s away for a week. Darl Moody is a hunter and he’s after a deer. Carol Brewster is poaching ginseng, a root that grows in the woods in the Appalachians and can be sold at a hefty price. (It’s like truffles in France, I believe).

Darl mistakes Carol for his prey and accidentally shoots him dead. Instead of going to the police, Darl calls his best friend Calvin and they bury Carol’s body in a makeshift grave on Calvin’s property. They don’t want Carol’s brother Dwayne to know what they did to his brother and Darl wants to escape any legal consequences for his action.

Carol and Dwayne come from a poor and dysfunctional family and the two brothers stick together and are each other’s family. Dwayne is the violent one who protects his soft younger brother.

Dwayne understood that his brother was not meant for this place, that some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world. There was no place for weakness in a world like this. Survival was so often a matter of meanness.

Dwayne starts looking for his brother when he goes missing. No one suspected that the old Coon Coward had installed video surveillance on his land. Darl and Calvin are easily recognized.

Dwayne doesn’t believe in the justice of men and despite his extensive Bible reading, he doesn’t believe in the justice of God either. He takes matter into his own hands.

The Line That Held Us is a local and universal tale. It is deeply rooted in Jackson County, in the Appalachians in North Carolina. David Joy lives there and he excels at describing the landscape with love and awe.

An unseasonable cold snap following one of the driest summers the county had ever seen brought on fall a month ahead of schedule. It was the last week of September, but the ridgelines were already bare. Down in the valley, the trees were in full color with reds and oranges afire like embers, the acorns falling like raindrops. The nights were starting to frost and within a few weeks the first few breaths of winter would strip the mountains to their gray bones.

He takes you to his home county and like he said in his interview, the old mountain way-of-life is slowly disappearing. His book is a way to give his people a voice and be a witness of the local ways. His characters are part of this land and they were raised in these customs.

Sixty-three years later, having happened three decades before he was born, Calvin knew the story the same as everyone else to ever come out of Jackson County. Things had a way of never leaving these mountains. Stories took root like everything else. He was a part of one now, part of a story that would never be forgotten, and that made bearing the truth all the more heavy.

People know each other and the family stories are carried on from one generation to the other. The police are people you went to school with. Everyone knows where people work and the places they like to go. It is small town life in secluded places, where solidarity holds hand with nosiness. Darl, Calvin, his girlfriend Angie, Dwayne and Carol all belong to a people living in a tough environment, where people love deeply but not necessarily express their feelings with words.

It’s also a land where people are rather religious. David Joy said he used to go to church three times a week with his parents and the stories from the Bible were an important part of his education. Dwayne Brewster reads the Old Testament on his own and interprets it his own way. He came to the following conclusion:

A God of mercy, they say. I look around this world and I don’t see no mercy. They talk about a God of compassion. I want you to look around. You show me a place where compassion outweighs selfishness. The only thing we might agree on is forgiveness.” Dwayne nodded his head. “I reckon He’d have to be forgiving when He’s done plenty worse Himself. A God of forgiveness. Now that I can see.”

I thought that The Line That Held Us was like a biblical tale, not that I’m overly familiar with them.

Dwayne is the one who forces Darl and then Calvin to face their fear and their selfishness. He challenges them, directly or indirectly. Darl would rather hide Carol’s death than man up and face Dwayne’s reaction and legal consequences. He convinces himself that it’s the best option since his sister relies on his help.

With Calvin, Dwayne acts like the devil or God who tempts or challenges a biblical character and forces them to make a tough choice. Dwayne makes Calvin strip his soul and reveal the raw core of his being. Think of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.

The Line That Held Us is constructed like such a story and manages to be a social commentary of life in Jackson County wrapped in a poetical description of the surrounding wilderness.

David Vann binds his books with Greek tragedy tradition. David Joy ties his with Sunday School. In the end, both put their characters in life-changing and character-revealing situations.

We don’t know ourselves fully until we’ve had to answer the question “For whom are you willing to lay down your life?” Most of us hope to never find themselves in a position where they have to answer this question. Meanwhile, Dwayne reminds us:

“What I’m saying is that it’s easy to take the high road so long as there aren’t any stakes. But the minute you’ve got something to lose, a man’ll do all sorts of things.”

We all ought to meditate on that statement, I think. All this makes of Dwayne Brewster an unforgettable character despite his horrible actions. There will be other books by David Joy in my future and I’m looking forward to my visit to Jackson County in August.

Very Highly Recommended.

The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo – What a blast!

February 15, 2022 29 comments

The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo. Total Kheops (1995) Chourmo (1996) and Solea (1998). Original French titles: Fabio Montale (Total Kheops, Chourmo and Solea)

Les belles journées n’existent qu’au petit matin. J’aurais dû m’en souvenir. Les aubes ne sont que l’illusion de la beauté du monde. Quand le monde ouvre les yeux, la réalité reprend ses droits. Et l’on retrouve le merdier.Beautiful days only exist in the early morning. I should have remembered that. Dawns are only the illusion of the beauty of the world. When the world opens their eyes, reality takes over. And we’re back in deep shit.

I just spend two days visiting Marseille and I took The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo as a traveling companion. What a marvelous idea it was! I am not going to describe the plot of each volume, that would be too long and useless. I want to give you the flavor of the books and the irresistible urge to get them and read them on the spot.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000) was born in Marseille in family of Italian and Spanish immigrants. His mother was born in a working-class area of Marseille, Le Panier. He was a member of the Communist party from 1966 to 1978. He was a journalist, a poet and a writer. It’s important to know his background to understand his character, Fabio Montale.

Fabio Montale is in his forties. When the first book opens, his childhood friend Ugo got killed when he himself killed a gangster to avenge the death of their other childhood friend, Manu. The three of them were thick as thieves when they were young, in the figurative and the literal way. They parted after a break-in at a pharmacy that turned bad. Manu chose a career in crime. Ugo left the country. Fabio went to the army and later joined the police force. They were all in love with Lole, the only girl of their group.

The volume go from this settling of scores, from organized crime to the presence of the Mafia in the South of France, in the Var (Toulon), Alpes Maritimes (Nice) and Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille) departments and through the raise of racism and religious extremism. The plots of the three books are suspenseful and you want to keep reading to see what will happen next. As often in good crime fiction, the best is on the side, though.

At the end of Total Kheops, I thought that Montale was a lot like Connelly’s Bosch. He’s a maverick and compassionate investigator. He loves music, especially jazz. He’s single, lives in a house with an incredible view. He loves his town. But unlike Bosch, Montale loves to fish and lives in a cabin by the sea. He inherited it from his parents, which explains why his neighbor Honorine is over seventy and treats him like her son. In the next volumes, the comparison isn’t so obvious, Montale takes off as a character and becomes unique.

Music plays a capital role in Montale’s life. It’s soothing, raging, uplifting, consoling. A haven through life’s storms, a constant blankie to pick him up or pacify him. The books are named after songs. Total Kheops comes from a rap song by IAM, a group from Marseille. It means total mess, in their language. Chourmo comes from a word from Provencal patois and is a song by Massilia Sound System, another group from Marseille. And Solea is a piece by Miles Davis. Like there’s a Harry Bosch playlist on Spotify, you’ll find a Fabio Montale one too. It’s made of jazz, French, Arab, Italian, Cuban music. It’s a melting-pot of sounds and influences, the spitting image of Marseille, in sounds.

Like Los Angeles in the Bosch series, Marseille is a character itself in the Fabio Montale trilogy. Izzo has lived all his life in Marseille, except for a mere two years in Saint-Malo. He knows the city in and out and his love for this multi-cultural, blue-collar city pours off the pages of his trilogy. It gives us evocative descriptions of the weather and the town.

Il a fini par pleuvoir. Un orage violent, et bref. Rageur même, comme Marseille en connaît parfois en été. Il ne faisait guère plus frais, mais le ciel s’était enfin dégagé. Il avait retrouvé sa limpidité. Le soleil lapait l’eau de pluie à même les trottoirs. Une tiédeur s’en élevait. J’aimais cette odeur.It rained, eventually. A violent storm, and brief too. Furious, even, as Marseille has them in the summer sometimes. It wasn’t cooler but the sky was clear, at least. It was limpid again. The sun was lapping up the rain on the sidewalks. A warmth came off them. I loved this scent.

I walked around the city, knowing of the streets, some restaurants and bars, some places sounded familiar, thanks to Izzo’s books. Izzo was also a poet, his first literary love. It gives a flavor to his writing as his poetic sensitivity applies to his descriptions of his beloved city but also to Montale’s love interests and hypersensitivity.

Fortunately, Izzo doesn’t stick to postcard Marseille full of sea, sun, local soap, pastis and wonderful cuisine. He also writes about its darker side, the rampant criminality, the corruption of the politicians, the collusion between organized crime, politicians, the police and other administrations. He describes the raging unemployment that feeds racism, fuels resentment and raises candidates for organized crime, drug trafficking, religious extremists and extreme-right political parties. He can only deplore the extremist and violent path that his beloved city seems to take.

The trilogy is set at the end of the 1990s and Montale is in his forties. His parents are dead and his best friends too. He’s nostalgic of his youth and also understands that these 1990s are the end of an era. The post-war society doesn’t exist anymore and the witness of his youth are almost all gone. His old neighbords, Honorine and Fonfon, are the last generation of the Marseillais you have in Pagnol’s plays. Honorine has even a Pagnol name, typical from the South. They speak with the Marseille accent, something that is transcribed in Izzo’s dialogues. For a tourist like me, she sounds like sunshine, cicadas and holidays (I wonder what the translators of these books did about that.)

The 1990s were my formative years. Highschool, business school, first job, meeting the man who’ll become my husband, starting our life together. That decade was busy and self-centered. For Montale, the 1990s are the end of the communist dream (and thankfully the end of the communist nightmare for Eastern countries), the final collapse of old industries and the defitinive take-over of money and capitalism as a leading power over the world. It’s the decade of the war in Yugoslavia, the massacre in Rwanda and the terror of the FIS in Algeria. From Marseille, right on the other side of the Mediterranean. With inevitable repercussions in France. He also describes the settling of the Mafia in the South of France.

It’s also the last decade before 9/11, before other wars and the bloom of the digital revolution. We’re pre-smartphones, digital services and all that will come with the 21st century. Montale’s melancholy is a black echo to the end of the century.

The sadness is tempered by an indomitable joie de vivre. Life cannot be too bad as long as there’s the sun, the sea, good food, good music and pretty ladies. Women are Montale’s Achilles’ heel. He admires them and loves them. He attracts them but never really recovered from Lole. His failed love life torments him.

But Montale is also a bon viveur –how did the French bon vivant turned into the English bon viveur, I wonder. He loves good food and I wish there were a cookbook of all the recipes of Honorine’s cuisine along with a Fabio Montale wine list. Maybe it exists somewhere. Like music, food is a soothing balm to his soul. Honorine’s cuisine is a like an umbilical cord to his childhood. Another blankie.

I turned the last page of this trilogy with sadness, like I was leaving a friend behind. I love the South of France too and that’s probably why this passage felt like a little dig:

Du ciel à la mer, ce n’était qu’une infinie variété de bleus. Pour le touriste, celui qui vient du Nord, de l’Est ou de l’Ouest, le bleu est toujours bleu. Ce n’est qu’après, pour peu qu’on prenne la peine de regarder le ciel, la mer, de caresser des yeux le paysage, que l’on découvre les bleus gris, les bleus noirs, et les bleus outremer, les bleus poivre, les bleus lavande. Ou les bleus aubergine des soirs d’orage. Les bleus verts de houle. Les bleus cuivre de coucher de soleil, la veille de mistral. Ou ce bleu si pâle qu’il en devient blanc.From the sky to the sea, it was an endless variety of blues. For the tourist, the one who comes from the North, the East or the West, blue is always blue. It’s only afterwards, if you take the time to observe the sky, the sea, to caress the landscape with your eyes, that you’ll discover the grey blues, the black blues, the ultramarine blues, the pepper blues, the lavender blues. Or the eggplant blues of stormy nights. The green blues of swell. The copper blues of sunsets, on the eve of a mistral day. Or this blue so pale that it’s almost white.

I beg to differ, Fabio. I’m a tourist from the North and the East but I know the variety of blues. I know how beautiful the landscapes are, how radiant the sea can be and how different the light is from one season to the other. That’s why I keep coming back, in all seasons. February smells like mimosa. April often smells like rain and wind. July and August give off the heady scent of pine trees heated by the sun and salt from the sea. October fights against the upcoming cold season and spreads a last hooray of sunshine, warmth and summer scents.

Go and rush to The Marseille Trilogy. You won’t regret it. No translation tragedy here. The only tragedy is Izzo’s untimely death that deprived us of more books. Fucking cancer.

PS: There’s a TV adaptation of the trilogy with Alain Delon as Fabio Montale. I would have prefered Gérard Lanvin. I’m not sure I want to replace my mental images of the book with the ones of the series. I’m not inclined to watch it.

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett – Killing in the name of…a game

February 3, 2022 9 comments

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett (2019) French title : Vigilance. Translated by Gilles Goullet.

His Ideal Person is between sixty-four and eighty-one years old. Their average net worth is $202,900, and they are male, Caucasian, and increasingly burdened with medical debt.

Living conditions, he thinks.

McDean’s Ideal Person is decidedly suburban or exurban, having resided an extensive, rigorously planned residential environment (two trees per front yard, gated community, six possible styles of brick) for at least the past ten years, and their home falls between 2,000 and 6,500 square feet— They are not, in other words, « urban » in any sense of the words, and they are decidedly isolated.

Another variable, he thinks. Marriage.

His Ideal Person has been married but the number of marriages doesn’t really matter : McDean’s models indicate that an Ideal Person with up to six marriages under their belt will still generate the minimum target market activation level.

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett is a dystopian fiction set in the USA in 2030. America has become a country where people are afraid of terrorists, feel threatened by immigrants and everyone has guns. Mass-shootings are the norm.

McDean is an executive at ONT, a cable TV channel and in charge of the reality TV show Vigilance. All he thinks about is his targeted audience (The Ideal Person), his Target Market Activation level and maximizing the revenue of advertising.

We arrive in the book just as McDean is going to launch a new episode of the show Vigilance.

Basically, Vigilance is a live mass-shooting program. ONT organizes a mass-shooting somewhere in the country. Three candidates are armed by the channel, picking their own weapons and are sent out on a location with the aim to kill as many persons as possible. The last killer alive wins a hefty prize. If someone on the location kills a candidate, they get a prize. People are motivated to have a gun with them and use it. Indeed, a Vigilance game can start anywhere, any time. They are told to be ready.

The killers are profiled by AIs. Algorithms and AIs select the location where the shooting takes place. Malls, train stations, most of the time. Bots spread information on social networks to have the public on edge. People know a new episode of Vigilance is imminent but they don’t know where and when.

The point of view shifts to Delyna, a barmaid to a local dive, the South Tavern. Her customers are drinking and speculating about the next Vigilance episode. Most of the patrons have guns. Delyna doesn’t share their love for guns since her father was a policeman and he was shot on duty. She’s wary of firearms and appalled by the behavior of the patrons. They are looking for a fight. They are excited by the game. They’re so intoxicated by the advertising (propaganda?) of the game that they don’t even realize what this show is about: killing people.

Like in a film, the camera swtiches from the TV headquarters to the bar, as we follow the action on both sides. We see all the TV and AI machinery used to manipulate the public and maximize profits. We see how much it works and how people have lost all critical sense. It’s their new normal. The people who get killed? They weren’t quick enough on their feet, not vigilant enough to save their life.

Vigilance is like an action movie set in an America who has surrendered to gun power and fear. It’s chilling. In 150 pages, Bennett draws an implacable picture that sounds way too realistic. Punchy, scary and thought-provoking. It reminded me of books by Max Barry, especially Jennifer Government.

Very highly recommended.

PS : In France, Vigilance is published by the Indie Publisher, Le Bélial, specialized in SF and Fantasy. Not my usual reads. I came accross Vigilance thanks to the libraire of Un Petit noir. Indie publisher, indie bookshop, all is good for Karen and Lizzie’s #ReadIndies2.

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.

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