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No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

June 12, 2014 10 comments

No Beast So Fierce (1973) by Edward Bunker. (1933-2005) French title: Aucune bête aussi féroce.

BunkerNo Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker is the second Humbook Guy gave me last Christmas. Born in 1933 in Hollywood, Edward Bunker had a rocky childhood and spent his youth in foster homes and reform schools. He was involved in criminal activities, mostly scheming robberies and extorting funds from pimps. He was caught several times, acquired quite a reputation and had spent 18 years in prison when he wrote his first novel No Beast So Fierce. I don’t usually linger on authors’ biographies when I write a billet but Bunker’s life experiences nourished his writing and the story of this novel.

When the book opens, Max Dembo is released on parole after eight years behind bars. The first part of the novel describes his first weeks of freedom. The second and third parts are about his subsequent offence. I don’t want to say a lot about the plot and the characters because it’s difficult to do so without spoilers. Max’s and Bunker’s childhood and adolescence have a lot in common. The difference between the two is that Bunker had a helping hand in the person of Mrs Wallis. Like Bunker, Max had a broken home, was in foster care and in reform school. He had to fend for himself when he was very young and he grew up like weed, without direction.

Bunker’s style is luminous, precise. It combines description of the action, glimpses of the environment and time in Max’s inner mind. No Beast So Fierce lets common people into the mind of a criminal. The criminal world raised Max. He grew up with a set of values given by the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, con artists and thieves.

I’d never had qualms about killing. My system of values came from the jungle of reform school and prison. I’d never heard anyone denounce killing on moral grounds. Violence was deemed by some to be “uncool” or “stupid”, but never evil or wrong.

He’s angry at society and while he’s determined to remain on the safest side of law when he goes out of prison, he quickly falls back into his old habit. He’s out of prison on parole and there’s no safety net.

I RODE off the prison property with sixty-five dollars, a cheap suit (ten years out of style), a set of khakis and change of underwear in a brown parcel, and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. A uniformed guard drove me to the depot and waited until I was on board.

Then he’s left to meet with his parole officer. Earlier this year, I read On Parole by Akira Yoshimura. I couldn’t help but compare the social net that awaited the two characters. In Japan, Kikutani has a social worker taking care of him and showing him around to adjust to the city. He’s led to a temporary room until he lands on his feet and couldn’t have been out of prison without a job. Society makes sure that material conditions are good enough to give the ex-convict a chance to a successful rehabilitation.

Here, in California, the social net isn’t very solid. Max’s parole officer is totally oblivious of the canyon lying between his values and Max’s. He fails to convince him to go and live in a halfway house until he gets on his feet. They can’t find a communication channel and his rigid mental posture leads Max into refusing the little help he proposes.

“Bend a little and I’ll bend a little. Just ask that I don’t commit any crimes, not that I live by your moral standards. If society demands that, society shouldn’t have put me in foster homes and reform schools and twisted me. And these last eight years. Shit, after that, nobody would be normal. Just understand my predicament. I don’t know anyone but ex-convicts, hustlers, and prostitutes. I don’t even feel comfortable around squarejohns. I like call girls instead of nice girls. I don’t need a Freudian explanation, which wouldn’t change the fact anyway. But because I prefer going to bed with a prostitute doesn’t mean I’m going to use an acetylene torch on a safe.”

His righteous parole officer can’t bend. Max will only bent a little. Well, you know what happens for the oak and the reed in the fable by Lafontaine. The reed bending adapts to the weather conditions, the oak is uprooted.

So Max is left to his own devices and must follow parole conditions:

There was a copy of the parole agreement I’d signed, and its conditions. They were standard—maintain suitable employment (what’s “suitable”?), make no address change and drive no automobile without written permission, no drinking, make no contract, borrow no money, avoid ex-felons and persons of ill repute, and heed the advice and counsel of the parole officer. Failure to comply with any condition was grounds for return to prison without notice or hearing.

It’s kind of hard to live in Los Angeles without a car; the city is not built for pedestrians and the underground is totally underdeveloped. He’s not allowed to drive a car and anyway, he’s not allowed to borrow money to buy one. He doesn’t have a job and by law, he has to tell his employer about his ex-convict status. He’s not directed to companies that are used to hiring ex-convicts (it is the case in the Yoshimura); he has to find a job by himself, say he’s just been out of prison and hope that his employer won’t mind hiring a thief on parole. Like these jobs are easy to find. What chances does he stand when he has no money and needs to pay for a hotel and food at least? And since Max has no family, no girlfriend, he turns to the only network he knows: the criminal network. The lack of empathy and communication skills of his only contact with the legal world can only lead to failure. He doesn’t stay on the right path for long and soon goes back to his old world. There, he knows the rules, he knows who he can trust and he has friends.

Being in Max’s head is not always comfortable. Being in Kikutani’s head was uncomfortable because I could feel he was unbalanced. Max is not unbalanced. He’s enraged against the society that mistreated him since childhood and he doesn’t want to follow its rules. He loves his freedom and lives by the only code he knows: the thief’s code. At times I felt compassion for him and at others I thought he was a lost cause. That said, I was very interested in his way of comprehending the world. It humbles you and shows that righteous condemnation will not ensure the rehabilitation of criminals. Incidentally, I talked about this book to a friend who’s a lawyer and discovered that in France, prisoners can’t be on parole; the system doesn’t exist and I wasn’t aware of that.

Among Max’s friends and help system are ex-convicts or wives of accomplices in crime. Max finds shelter in their homes, bringing a whiff of the underworld with him. He gives them money to help them raise their children. I felt sorry for them. They are victims of their social environment. The children grow up poor, with an absent father and a mother struggling to make ends meet. Shady characters crash at their house and they are in an unstable environment. What is their chance to have a better life? Who can show them another way to live? How can their parents’ fate not repeat with them?

No Beast So Fierce is an honest book. Bunker shows Max’s anger, pictures what the system made of him, pities him but doesn’t deny his responsibility in his actions. He never says that Max is a victim who doesn’t have a choice. He shows how his life story leads him to the choices he makes. Max is never hiding behind phony excuses to justify his actions.

It’s disgusting to behave stupidly, but doubly so while knowing it’s stupid in advance.

He made poor decisions and he went into crime with his eyes open. He also mentions the thrill it gives him (A tremor almost sexual passed through me as I anticipated the coming robbery.) and the rebel in him doesn’t want to bend. He’s a fascinating character but not one I’d want to be friend with.

I know it doesn’t show in this billet because I wanted to avoid spoilers but No Beast So Fierce is also a high-paced novel. The first part sets the décor and characters. The second part increases the pace and starts the action. The third part races to the denouement and it’s gripping. Quentin Tarantino loved No Beast So Fierce and hired Bunker to play Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs. I think I know why.

Many, many, many thanks to Guy for picking this book for me. I’d never heard of it and it’s a fantastic read.

The three puddin’ musketeers

January 26, 2014 17 comments

The Magic Pudding (1918) by Norman Lindsay (1879-1969)

We swear to stand united, Three puddin’-owners bold.

Lindsay_Magic_PuddingLisa chose The Magic Pudding as my Humbook gift for Christmas and receiving a book starring a pudding is kind of spot on for Christmas, isn’t it? She hoped I could read it along with my daughter but alas, no French translation was found. So it’s just me writing about it now.

The Magic Pudding is a traditional Australian children book, featuring Sam Swanoff, Bill Barnacle, Bunyip Bluegum and a Magic Pudding named Albert. He’s a steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy who regenerates himself when eaten. So basically, the pudding-owners can’t starve. The story starts when Bunyip Bluegum decides to leave his home to see the world. Along the road, he meets and befriends with Sam and Bill and they decide to travel together. Their magic pudding is much wanted by Pudding Thieves incarnated by a possum and a wombat. The story is mostly about rescuing the pudding from being stolen. The plot is simple enough to appeal to children and an undercurrent of irony lets adults understand that there’s more to it than the apparent story.

When I discovered Lisa’s pick for me, I thought, “Children lit? Piece of cake!” (Or in this case “Slice of pudding!”) How wrong I was. Firstly, I forgot (again) that Australia is far away and that there are many things about the environment that I don’t know about. So I ended up reading on the kindle and with a tablet in front of me set on Google image where I’d look for pictures of wombats, barnacles, bandicoots, bunyips, kookaburra, flying-foxes, possums and wart-hogs. Secondly, I forgot that Australian English is like Canadian French: same language but lots of different words. The definitions of words in the kindle dictionary would often start with “Early 17th century”, which brought the comparison with Canadian French. (Nincompoop, galore). And of course, there’s slang. Fortunately, Lisa came to my rescue and sent me a link to a website for Australian slang.  In addition, there are Hergé-esque insults like ‘Of all the swivel-eyed, up-jumped, cross-grained, sons of a cock-eyed tinker,’ which are probably very funny with their Captain Haddock style but were lost on me. Plus, there are distorted words like in this sentence

‘You ain’t poisoned, Albert,’ said Bill. ‘That was only a mere ruse de guerre, as they say in the noosepapers.’

I could guess this one but I still wonder how many of them I missed. The text is also full of songs and has a folk-song musical style like here:

Out sprang Bill and Sam and set about the puddin’-thieves like a pair of windmills, giving them such a clip-clap clouting and a flip-flap flouting, that what with being punched and pounded, and clipped and clapped, they had only enough breath left to give two shrieks of despair while scrambling back into Watkin Wombat’s Summer Residence, and banging the door behind them.

I read slowly, trying to hear the musicality in my head.

And last but not least, I forgot how much children literature can be rooted in the quotidian. The book keeps telling about this steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy and I don’t even know what it tastes like. Initially, I thought pudding was a dessert. The mention of steak-and-kidney in a dessert didn’t bother me, after all, English cuisine has the reputation to be weird and I knew about the ingredients of mincemeat. Then, they mentioned the gravy and everything I had imagined about this pudding crumbled.

Reading The Magic Pudding was an unexpected challenge. It made me think again about how hard it is to know about another country without growing up there. Reading this children book reminded me of all the tiny cultural details that build a country and hold a society together. It was also confusing because I guessed that Norman Lindsay was sending messages to the adults through the apparently innocent adventures of the Pudding Owners against the Pudding Thieves. Bunyip Bluegum speaks like an English aristocrat and Sam and Bill came on a ship but speak like sailors –or English criminals deported to Australia? I wonder if they represent the ruling class and the first settlers in Australia. The Pudding Thieves are a wombat and a possum, typically Australian fauna. Do they represent the natives? I couldn’t help wondering about a metaphorical pudding. Wealth in the form of everlasting food is kept by the pudding owners while the others are condemned to try to steal their share…

Even if it’s been a challenging read, thanks Lisa for choosing this book and for answering my questions while I was reading. I feel a bit frustrated because I know that I didn’t understand everything but I’m glad I had the opportunity to read about this classic of Australian literature for children.

Joyeux Noël and Happy Humbook!

December 25, 2013 22 comments

Hello everyone !

Mafalda_ChristmasI wish you all a Merry Christmas, or as we say here, Joyeux Noël. I hope you’re having a nice day with your families or if you’re far away from them, that you are among good friends. I still wonder about Christmas in places where it’s warm or even hot at that time of year. I can’t imagine spending Christmas by a swimming pool. Christmas is such an important time for children and memories of them stay with you and shape your idea of what a Christmas should be. For me Christmas goes with hot beverages, fires, cold, snow sometimes, mandarins, chocolate and short days. We have a tradition here in Lyon: the papillottes. It’s a chocolate wrapped in a shiny paper in which there is a message. Now, it’s a quote from a famous writer; lots of aphorisms by Oscar Wilde, JB Shaw, Jules Renard or Alphonse Allais. But it originally started at the end of the 18th Century when a young chocolate-maker in love with the girl living in his building but on an upper floor started to send her chocolates wrapped in billets doux. Lucky girl: chocolates and love letters all in one.

From a blogging point of view, Christmas is also the day when willing copinautes exchange Humbook gifts. This year, we were five: Brian from Babbling Books, Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers, Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog plus Guy and I.

So here are the books Guy and I picked for Brian, Lisa and Stu.

For Lisa:

La première gorge de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules by Philippe Delerm. It exists in English but we thought you could try it in French in its Kindle version. It’s not fiction. It was a great success when it was published in France a few years ago. It’s a collection of short texts about the small pleasures of life. (The title means, The first sip of beer and other tiny pleasures) It reminds us that if we pay attention, we have lots of happy moments in our everyday life. It reflects the notion of pleasure that we have in French, a notion I have trouble translating into English.

For Stu:

All yours by Claudia Piñeiro. We wanted to find a book in translation, so here is an Argentinean book. Since you had enjoyed her Thursday Night Widows, we imagined you’d like this one too. I haven’t read it but Guy has and his review is here.

For Brian

The Plague by Albert Camus. No need to present Albert Camus. I’m looking forward to reading your review of it.

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. In this historical novel, Hugo brings to life the upheaval of the Chouans in Vendée in 1793.

We hope we’ve made good choices and will be reading your reviews of your Humbook gifts in 2014. I’m curious to discover what Lisa picked for Stu and vice versa.

Gary_White_DogGuy, you expected a Romain Gary last year, you’ll have one this year. 2014 will be the centenary of Gary’s birth. I have chosen White Dog. On paper, it has lots of ingredients that should interest you. It’s in California and in Paris, in 1968. It involves Gary’s life with Jean Seberg. It’s about a dog which needs to be reformed. It describes the political movements of the time from the inside through Seberg’s involvement with the Black Panthers. Cherry on the Christmas pudding: It has been made in to a film.

The other book I’ve picked for you is Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti. It’s a political crime fiction book set in the area I grew up in. I really hope I’ve made good choices.

I just have to wish you a happy reading and I leave you with a picture of a Christmas chimney.


cheminee

You need to read this: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad

December 22, 2013 30 comments

Dans les meules de Beyrouth by Toufic Youssef Aouad. 1972. In English: Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

Preamble:

Apparently the transcription of Arabic names is totally different between French and English. Compared to this, the difference between Tolstoy and Tolstoï is piece of cake. Without this blog, Arabic Literature (In English) I wouldn’t have found the English version of this novel. I have read Dans les meules de Beyrouth in French, so I’ll use the French spelling of names in this billet. It will probably differ in English if you decided to read it.

aouad_meulesThis is a pre-Christmas Humbook. When I met in Nino in Lyon a few weeks ago, he gave me his favourite Lebanese book Death in Beirut by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. We all have clichés about foreign countries. For me Lebanon means Kahlil Gibran, fine food, business as in the journalistic expression “L’homme d’affaires libanais” and Francophone cultured elites. But it also brings back childhood memories of the pictures of three French hostages in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. They stayed there three long years and every night, the news on television opened with their photos and the countdown of their captivity. In colloquial French, “C’était Beyrouth” is used to describe chaos, a place of destruction. I’d rather think about the first clichés, literature and cuisine. So, what about Dans les meules de Beyrouth?

We’re in 1968-1969. Tamima Nassour is around 17 when the book opens. She lives in a small village named Mehdiyyé. She has an older brother Jaber who is studying law in Beirut. Her father Tamer has been in Guinea for almost twenty years. He built a business there and sends money home to support his family. Her mother Amné is a traditional Arab wife, like you see in books by Naguib Mahfouz. She stays at home, prays God, accepts everything that life throws at her without complaining and worships her husband and son. Tamima is in high school and she struggles to find the money to pay for the tuition of her senior year. She’s a brilliant student and unlike her mother, she’s aware of Jaber’s flaws. She knows he’s debauched, violent and would rather starve his mother and sister than renounce to pleasures for himself. When she visits Jaber in Beirut to ask for the tuition money, she makes two life-changing acquaintances. She meets with Ramzi Raad, an influential journalist and poet. She admires him for his relentless attacks against the government and his fight for individual freedom. She also stumbles upon Hani, a Maronite Christian activist in the student movement.

The book revolves around Tamima. She becomes Ramzi’s lover and falls in love with Hani. Once in university, she joins the student political movements. Hani relies on her as a correspondent in her uni and she becomes a key figure of this movement and she’s quite good at organising it. She’s intelligent and rather moderate. The novel is written from Tamima’s point of view and she doesn’t see herself as valuable as she is. She tends to minimise her actions and thoughts. However, for this reader, she’s a brilliant young woman whose gender hampers her advancement in life. Her capacities can’t blossom fully in this context.

Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad portrays his country through his two heroes. Hani fights against religious prejudices when the government sends a Muslim as a primary school teacher in his Maronite village. The villagers don’t accept him as a teacher and Hani will organise his first political fights to defend this teacher. Hani is more moderate than Tamima. He deeply believes in changing things from the inside. Tamima is less afraid of a violent revolution. Perhaps it comes from their difference of background. Hani’s a man and comes from the most influential community in Lebanon, if I understood properly. Tamima is a young Muslim woman whose brother believes he has a right to slit her throat if she doesn’t behave decently. She has more to gain in a revolution and less to lose.

Aouad_EnglishTawfiq Yusuf Awwad was born in 1911, so he was already 60 when he wrote this book. He became a diplomat after the independence of Lebanon and he was posted in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Dans les meules de Beyrouth is a novel written by an experienced man. He’s experienced with life as he’s already 60 and experienced in politics through his career as a diplomat. He wrote this novel in 1972, shortly after the events and three years before the civil war began. His insight is amazing. He perfectly describes the explosive mix between the youth’s cravings for freedom and the political context.

Students push for changes in their country just as other students in the world did at this time. 1968 was an explosive year for student protests. Lebanon became totally independent in 1946, so it’s quite young in 1968. It’s a multi-confessional country and the power is split between Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunnite Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The students question the direction their country is headed to and there’s a ground swell among them to abolish the multi-confessional system. For example, a newspaper ordered a poll about mixed marriages between Muslims and Maronites and about civil marriages because it’s a key issue. Tamima wants sexual freedom for women but she comes from a culture where it is “tradition” to slaughter a woman who has a lover. This side of the problem is enough to create quite a stir in the country especially given the very different cultural backgrounds of the population. It’s always difficult to fight against traditions on issues touching marriages and women rights. It takes time and a lot of explaining. In France, the right to abortion was voted in 1973 and it was an ugly fight. And France is a mono-cultural country. Imagine here with populations with so different customs about such intimate and everyday life issues. It’s difficult to reach a consensus about these topics in a peaceful time and quite impossible in troubled political times.

For these were troubled political times. We’re after the Six-Days War between Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the South of Lebanon has a border with Israel. Add to the mix the Palestinian Liberation Organization which was created in 1964. The Arab-Israeli conflict weighs a heavy weight upon Lebanon. Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad shows how the international political issues interfere with the student movement. External agents infiltrate the political meetings and radicalise part of the public. He depicts the slow but inevitable slide from moderate and democratic claims to more political demands. He had foreseen the violence that would shake the country a few years later.

In addition to these fascinating elements about Lebanon, Dans les meules de Beyrouth is extremely well-written. The style is descriptive, almost journalistic when Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad relates about political meetings and students fights. It’s poetic when it comes to the descriptions of landscapes and feelings. It reminded me of the lyricism you can find in Mahfouz’s prose. (“Elle aurait voulu lui sauter au cou et cueillir d’un baiser le sourire de ses yeux”.) It has this I-don’t-know-what I associate with literature translated from the Arab and Arab culture. It’s familiar although I have only read Naguib Mahfouz and Khalil Gibran, I think. I don’t know why it’s more familiar than, say, Japanese literature.

I hope I didn’t write anything inaccurate about the political and cultural context. It’s a fascinating read that makes you touch a sensitive atmosphere with your fingertips. I’ve often wondered about people’s lives in long-lasting conflicts. The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990. You can’t put your life on hold for so long. How do you live, go to school, fall in love, marry, raise children, work with such a risk of impending doom? How do you think about the future? How do you have fun on a day-to-day basis with such a threat? In other words, how does life go on?

This is going to be on my best books list for this year. Thanks Nino, I wouldn’t have read it without you. I once wrote a post about how much you can know about someone through their reading. I think you can know a great deal. My blog led you into thinking that I would enjoy this and I did. So yes, the books we love give away part of who we are.

Christmas? Bah! Humbook they say : THE COME BACK

December 1, 2013 19 comments

Bah! Humbook, they say

 

Humbook

Hello dear copinautes!

December has arrived and Guy and I would like to invite you to another edition of the Humbook Christmas Gift event.  The idea is to virtually give another blogger two books as a Christmas present. It’s a way to exchange gifts in our virtual and international literary salon. So, let’s review the rules together.

  • Choose the copinaute you will give books to,
  • Leave a comment saying you’re in and giving the name of your copinaute,
  • On December 25th, publish a post in which you reveal to your copinaute the two books you have selected for them.
  • In 2014, each copinaute reads the books and reviews them.

In addition, Guy and I will choose one book for each participant and reveal our virtual books on Christmas Day as well.

For practical reasons, each participant shall purchase the books they receive and not the books they give. This is to avoid sending books abroad, experiencing delays in delivery or whatever other problem. This means that you need to pay attention to a few things when you pick a humbook for a copinaute: check out that it’s available in their language at a reasonable price.

FAQ, in French, Foire Aux Questions

What’s a copinaute ?

Copinaute is made of the word copain/copine (friend) and internaute (Internet surfer) Copinautes are friends who know each other through the Internet. Don’t look for it in the dictionary; it’s not in there…yet. I find this word lovely and very appropriate to our friendly little book blogging community.

What if the copinaute has already read the book before?

That’s a risk and part of the game. It happens when you offer books to bookworms! Good news: the book hasn’t been purchased yet. So, you just pick another one.

What if I don’t feel like reading the book I was given?

It can happen. But we don’t always like the books we pick for ourselves, so give your copinaute the benefit of the doubt. It may be a good surprise and a way to step out of your comfort zone. I’m sure your copinaute will avoid vampire stories if they know you’re not into fantasy.

I’m not at home for Christmas, how am I supposed to post a billet that day?

If your blog is on WP, you can write it earlier and schedule it for Christmas. I suppose the same option exists on other blog platforms.

How long does the copinaute have to read the books?

You have all 2014 to read them. No pressure of any kind, reading is a pleasure, not a duty.

If you have any other question, just ask in the comment section or on Twitter (@Bookaround). All the questions are welcome. Check on Guy’s blog for more information.

I do hope you are tempted to join us. I’m looking forward to hearing from you in the comment section.

Cheers!

Emma

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