Saturday News: My Black Friday is Book Friday with Un Petit Noir bookstore

November 28, 2020 10 comments

This week I decided to do a Book Friday and prepare Christmas. I contacted the Jean-Pierre Barrel, the libraire of Un Petit Noir, a bookstore specialized in crime fiction in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood in Lyon. (See my Literary Escapade here.)

I sent him an email, gave a list of crime books I’d enjoyed in the past and asked him to pick ten paperback crime fiction books. He came back with an original selection of books I’d never heard of.

Title in English Title in French Author Country
Dark Town Dark Town Thomas Mullen USA
Not available in English Le Cherokee Richard Morgiève France
Not available in English L’aigle des tourbières Gérard Coquet France
Days of Rage Quatre jours de rage Kris Nelscott USA
Not available in English La traque de la musaraigne Florent Couao Zotti Benin
The Wild Inside Sauvage Jamey Bradbury USA
Not available in English Adieu Oran Ahmed Tiab Algeria
Tail of the Blue Bird Notre quelque part Nii Ayikwei Parkes UK
Not available in English Par les rafales Valentine Imhof France
Vigilance Vigilance Robert Jackson Bennett

USA

Algeria, Benin, France, Ireland, Albania, Alabama, Illinois, Utah and Alaska, he chose books to travel. Set between the 1940s to 2030 with dystopian Vigilance, it’s also a travel in time. All books seem to explore the underbelly of the countries and towns they use as a setting. They are published by independent publishing houses, Zulma, Le Bélial, Rivages, Edition Joëlle Losfeld, Editions Jigal, Editions de l’Aube, Gallmeister and Editions du Rouergue.

All these books are not mainstream crime fiction and I’m very curious. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, since you’re all book lovers who support independant bookstores but really, I’d never have found these books by myself, especially not on an online bookstore. Browsing online has nothing to do with browsing through physical shelves and with the help of a libraire.

Today’s the day bookstores reopen in France, I’m looking forward to visiting Un Petit Noir and get my new book pile. Some will become Christmas presents and others will stay with me.

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Three good entertaining books by Dominique Sylvain, Pierre Christin and HG Jenkins

November 22, 2020 15 comments

Let’s face it, my TBW is out of control, the end of the year is coming and with the second lockdown, I keep reading. I’m not used to mixing several books in a billet but I’m doing it today, mostly focusing on light and entertaining books. See it as an attempt at taming the TBW.

First, we’re going on a trip to Japan with Dominique Sylvain. Her crime fiction novel Kabukichō takes us to Tokyo’s red-light district.

Kate Sanders works in a hostess bar, Club Gaia, and shares an apartment with a coworker, Marie. One night, Kate doesn’t show up for work. Her father in London receives a text message, a photo of his daughter with the caption “She’s sleeping here”.

A few days later, Kate is found dead. Captain Yamada is appointed to the case. He and his lieutenant Watanabe will investigate Kate’s life in Kabukichō. She was very good friend with Yudai, a charming young man who owns a host bar, the male version of the hostess bar.

I’m not familiar with Japan and I found Kabukichō fascinating for its description of the functioning of this red-light district. The crime plot was well-drawn, mixing the private lives of Kate, Marie and Yudai. Captain Yamada, old school compared to his lieutenant was an attaching policeman. All the characters have cracks in their souls, minor but irritating like a never healing small wound or major rifts that make them cross-over to the side of craziness.

It was a quick read, entertaining and enlightening with a stunning ending. It would make a wonderful film. Sadly, this book is not available in English.

Obviously, Kabukichō is exotic for a French reader. For me, the setting of Little Crimes Against Humanities by Pierre Christin was almost as foreign as Tokyo. The whole book is set in the French academic world and there’s a specific vocabulary related to positions and to the French university system. I’ll use American terms, as best as I can.

In Little Crimes Against Humanities, we’re in the small university of Nevers, in the center of France, basically the French equivalent of Iowa.

Simon Saltiel wrote his PhD thesis about Death in Art. Think about vanity paintings and such things. At the moment, he’s a teacher at the Humanities department but without a tenured post. He’s friend and roommate with an older teacher, Etienne Moulineaux. Their dean is Goulletqueur, notorious for preferring local candidates to others and this is why Simon has failed again to get a permanent position. The dice are loaded.

Léon Kreisman, a famous academic, art and book collector, collapses on the university stairs after a lecture. Fatal heart attack. He has no wife or children, only a pit bull secretary Madame Danitza.

Simon was among the first people on the premises and is dragged in spite of him, in the intrigues coming after Kreisman’s death. People want to put their hands of Kreisman’s collections. Goulletqueur wants to have a new library and hope that these resources will attract foreing academics and finally put the Nevers university on the international map of universities. L’Hours, a big man in the ministry of Education in Paris wants the collection to fill a new museum he will inaugurate. A private collector wants this collection for himself.

A mysterious poison-pen letter writer sends vengeful messages to several members of the faculty. The police get involved. The poor commissaire has his hands full with this foul business at the university on top of agricultural happenings from the Confédération Paysanne, a radical agricultural union that doesn’t have the decency to follow the usual methods of demonstration of the established union, the FNSEA.

Mild-mannered Simon finds himself in the middle of all this and with the help of two other colleagues, things won’t pan out as expected for the hot-shot and ambitious academics.

Besides the plot about Kreisman’s heritage, this is a satirical picture of the French universities, a milieu Christin knows from inside out. He shows the bureaucracy, the lack of money, the pettiness and the ambitions. An institution whose tenured posts are trusted by people who were young the the 1970s, a time when the Humanities were polarized, Trotskyists or not in the aftermath of 1968. He also shows an institution that, at local level, tries their best for their students. Their janitor is a genius at repairing anything with little means and teachers remain invested in their job.

Very humoristic about universities, small town France, Parisian centralization and the Ministry of Education but also about international academic relationships and symposiums. It’s almost as if David Lodge had written cozy crime.

Still on the lookout for easy and entertaining reads, I asked for recommendations to fellow book bloggers. Jacqui came up with Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins. Published in 1918, it’s in the same vein as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a way to spend a moment in a bubble far away from 2020.

Patricia Brent is 24 and works as a private secretary to a “rising MP”. She lives at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, in other word, a boarding-house.

One night, she overheads the other tenants talk about her and commiserate that she was lonely and never went out with young men. Piqued, Patricia invents herself a fiancé, tells them that she won’t be there for dinner the next day because she was to meet him at the Quadrant. She plays along, actually shows up to the restaurant, intending to dine there on her own when she realizes that the Galvin House gossipmongers are there to spy on her. She plops herself on a chair at a man’s table and asks him to play along. This is how she meets Lt.-Col. Lord Peter Bowen, DSO.

The outcome of the book is a given from the first chapters but Jenkins draws a colorful picture of the guests at the boarding house, the MP’s family and Lord Bowen’s circle. It’s a great comedy, the light plot designed to cast an amused glance at the different classes of the London society. I loved Jenkins’s sense of humor. Today, he’d write TV shows. His characters are quick at repartee, here’s a sample:

“Can you, Mrs. Morton, seriously regard marriage in this country as a success? It’s all because marriages are made in heaven without taking into consideration our climatic conditions.”

And

Bowen turned slowly and re-entered the taxi. “Where to, sir?” enquired the man. “Oh, to hell!” burst out Bowen savagely. “Yes, sir; but wot about my petrol?”

He’s also extremely funny in his descriptions of places, people and manners.

Mr. Archibald Sefton, who showed the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath, was always vigorous on Sundays.

The whole book is a fast paced comedy. Patricia Brent, Spinster did the job. Easy to read, entertaining and good escapism. Much needed this year but as Jenkins writes, When you lose your sense of humour and your courage at the same time, you have lost the game.

PS: I have the Jenkins on kindle with a bland cover so I added the cover of the original edition that I found on Goodreads. It’s terrible, isn’t it? These eyes seem ominous.

West of Rome by John Fante – two novellas

November 15, 2020 4 comments

West of Rome by John Fante (1986) French version in two books Mon chien Stupide et L’Orgie. Both translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Life is quite busy at the moment and I’m late: the TBW pile keeps increasing, mostly because I’m too tired after work to open my personal computer and face a screen again. Let’s not talk about all the interesting blog reviews that sit in my inbox, unread. Sorry, fellow book bloggers.

West of Rome by John Fante was our Book Club read for…ahem…September. (see before)

The good news about being so late is that I can now cheekily add it to my November in Novellas reading since West of Rome is actually composed of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy.

For French readers who’d read this in translation, it’s published in two different books, Mon chien stupide and L’Orgie. Both are translated by Brice Matthieussent.

John Fante died in 1983, these two novellas were published posthumously.

West of Rome

In West of Rome, we’re in Point Dune, California, not far from Santa Barbara, end of the 1960s, early 1970s. The Vietnam war is not over, it gives us a timeframe. Henry writes scenarios for Hollywood and he’s currently unemployed. Henry is 55, he’s been married to Harriet for twenty-five years, they have four children, Dominic, Tina, Denny and Jamie. The youngest one is Jamie and he’s 19.

But she was very good, my Harriet, she had stuck it out with me for twenty-five years and given me three sons and a daughter, any one of whom, or indeed all four, I would have gladly exchanged for a new Porsche, or even an MG GT ’70.

This is Henry for you. He’s offensive the way Post Office by Bukowski is offensive. (Bukowski rediscovered Fante and was instrumental to the republishing of his books) He’s a questionable father figure and has the nerve to be disappointed in his children. Dominic wants to go to New York and be an actor but he’s stuck in California because he’s in the army reserves. Tina is in love with a surfer, Rich. Needless to say, Henry despises Rich. Denny is in college, relies on his mother to writer his literature papers and has a black girlfriend which is not acceptable for Henry. Jamie is the only one he tolerates. Henry is terribly rude to his wife, even if he loves her:

Backing the Porsche out of the garage I sensed the flat deadness of my cheek, the place where Harriet had not kissed me goodbye. For a quarter of a century the habit of a goodbye kiss had been part of our lives. Now I missed it the way a monk missed a bead in his rosary.

Henry is one of these insufferable persons who are loud, obnoxious, rude and volatile. You never know what he’s going to say. He’s got a weird view on life, it’s like his internal camera always watches scenes at a weird angle that screws up is assessment of a situation. He’s unemployed (and lazy), 55 and not dealing well with the children growing up. Harriet is the eternal peacemaker, the communication channel between the children and their father who can be an insensitive prick and extremely hurtful.

When Henry finds an Akita dog sprawled on his lawn, he takes him in. He calls him Stupid. In White Dog by Romain Gary, the dog was white because he was trained to attack black people and Gary discovered it after he took him in. Here, Henry discovers that Stupid humps male humans and especially Rich. Imagine Henry’s glee when Stupid molests him.

Stupid becomes the catalyst that makes the family explode. He’s as obnoxious as Henry and when Henry decides to keep him, the kids rebel but Henry doesn’t change his mind.

I knew why I wanted that dog. It was shamelessly clear, but I could not tell the boy. It would have embarrassed me. But I could tell myself and it did not matter. I was tired of defeat and failure. I hungered for victory. I was fifty-five and there were no victories in sight, nor even a battle. Even my enemies were no longer interested in combat. Stupid was victory, the books I had not written, the places I had not seen, the Maserati I had never owned, the women I hungered for, Danielle Darrieux and Gina Lollobrigida and Nadia Grey. He was triumph over ex-pants manufacturers who had slashed my screenplays until blood oozed. He was my dream of great offspring with fine minds in famous universities, scholars with rich gifts for the world.

Henry knows that the kids are growing up and that they will leave the nest soon. It starts with meal independence…

Otherwise it had become a do-it-yourself kitchen, everyone cooking to his own taste. It had to be that way because everyone wakened at a different hour and nobody could be depended upon to show up for dinner except Harriet and me.

…and end ups with kids moving out. Henry fears the empty nest syndrome, despite his tantrums against his kids.

I can’t help thinking that My Dog Stupid is partly autobiographical. Indeed, Henry, like Fante is a semi-successful screenwriter who loves golfing. Harriet, like Fante’s wife Joyce has money of her own and the patience of a saint. The Fantes had four children, three sons and a daughter. If this is what their home life was like, he must have been a difficult man to live with.

The Orgy

The Orgy is totally different from My Dog Stupid. We’re in Colorado, in 1925 and the Narrator is a lot like Arturo Bandini, the hero of Fante’s Bandini Quartet. The narrator is ten, his family is Italian, his father Nick is a bricklayer and his mother a stay-at-home mom and a fervent Catholic. If in West of Rome, Stupid was the family member who divided the family in two camps, in The Orgy, the bone of contention is the friendship between Nick and Franck Gagliano. (Something also present in Wait Until Spring, Bandini.)

His name was Frank Gagliano, and he did not believe in God. He was that most singular and startling craftsman of the building trade—a left-handed bricklayer. Like my father, Frank came from Torcella Peligna, a cliff-hugging town in the Abruzzi. Lean as a spider, he wore a leather cap and puttees the year around, and he was so bowlegged a dog could lope between his knees without touching them.

And Often, but not always, Frank was my father’s best friend. But he was always and without exception my mother’s mortal enemy.

The boy works along with his father as a waterboy, he carries water to the crew on building sites. Once, a worker quits after getting rich on the stock market and as a farewell gift, gives Nick the deeds to a mine concession. Frank and Nick start going there on the weekends to dig for gold. Once, the boy goes with them and sees his father through a new light.

In The Orgy, Fante takes us back into familiar grounds: Nick, the Italian bricklayer, non-religious, womanizer and good friends with another Italian atheist. The mother, Catholic and judgmental, sprinkling holy water in the house, hardworking but kind of a harpy too. And the three children, taken back and forth between the two extremes, loving both parents and having a hard time finding a middle ground between the two.

Fante is a talented writer, he has an eye for descriptions, a fondness for his characters who are not always likeable and a wonderful sense of humor. Here’s Henry going grocery shopping:

And so my day began, a thrill a minute in the romantic, exciting, creatively fulfilling life of a writer. First, the grocery list. Varoom! and I roar down the coast highway in my Porsche, seven miles to the Mayfair Market. Scree! I brake to a stop in the parking lot, leap from the car, give my white scarf a couple of twirls and zap! I enter the automatic doors. Pow! The lettuce, potatoes, chard, carrots. Swooshl The roast, chops, bacon, cheese! Wham! The cake, the cereal, the bread. Zonk! The detergent, the floor wax, the paper towels.

I never knew that the difference between a writer and me was the Porsche because for the rest, I can relate. 😊

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage – 30 years in Grayling, Montana

November 11, 2020 2 comments

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage (1988) French title: Rue du Pacifique. Translated by Pierre Furlan.

And we’re back in Montana with a novel by Thomas Savage, The Corner of Rife and Pacific. Savage’s earlier novel, The Power of the Dog was part of the Read-the-West readalong that I did with my sister-in-law. We decided to go for another year of reading books together. In September, we read the excellent Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer and our choice for October was The Corner of Rife and Pacific. In November, we’re reading The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert.

In The Corner of Rife and Pacific, Thomas Savage takes us to Grayling, Montana. A quick search on Wikipedia shows that there’s no Grayling in Montana but that Grayling, Michigan is where Jim Harrison was born.

When the book opens, we’re in 1890, the town of Grayling is officially founded and Mr Rife is its first mayor. He’ll become a street name. Two families were present at the ceremony, the Metlens and the Connors who arrived from California in the 1880s. They’re Pacific.

An omniscient narrator with a storyteller voice starts to tell us the story of these two families, with the Metlen in the foreground and the Connors in the background. John Metlen and his wife Lizzie settled in Grayling on a ranch. Later, they also had a hotel in town. The Connors settled in town and became bankers.

We follow the Metlens from 1890 to 1920, from the foundation of the town to its thirtieth anniversary. The local aristocracy is made of the families who were there when the town was founded, recreating a system of class inherited from the old world.

Besides the Metlen family’s story, we witness the world change during these years and it comes to Grayling too. Advertising, phones, cars, new technologies appear, but that would be the same for any novel set in that time. The two families don’t have the same vision of life, the Metlens want to live decently and peacefully besides the Shoshones tribes. The Connors are ambitious moneymakers and support the removal of the native Americans from their land.

Thomas Savage describes the foundation of a pioneer mythology. The locals celebrate the foundation of their city and reinvent their past. They do a carnival where women come dressed up in “old time” costumes, which means that they wear their mothers’ clothes. They do rodeos. Amateurs go on stage and play historical moments of the pioneer history. They don’t embarrass themselves with historical accuracy, taking in all that looks old.

Savage says that the locals have lost part of their past because it stayed back in Europe with the families left behind when the first family member came and settled in Montana. These towns with no history, no past have to create their own history, to have common grounds and strengthen their roots. We all need to know where we come from and the community of Grayling builds their own legend and roots. It’s based on a certain idea of masculinity, the myth of the cowboy and of the pioneers.

John Melten and his son Zack don’t fit well in this idea of masculinity. Lizzie says John is a dreamer and a poet. They have a balanced relationship and John relies on her for moral support. She’s also a good listener, a sounding board. Zack isn’t fond of hunting, horse-riding or any other outdoorsy activities. He’s intelligent and into science and communications technologies. His parents support his endeavors and he’s not pressured to run the ranch or take over the hotel. They seem a bit eccentric among the others or simply ahead of their time.

Thomas Savage was born in 1915 in Salt Lake City and was raised on a ranch in Montana. John Melten and his wife Lizzie have common traits with the Phil and George’s parents in The Power of the Dog. I wonder if The Corner of Rife and Pacific is not also a quiet tribute to Savage’s family and his Western roots.

I think that The Power of the Dog is a better book than The Corner of Rife and Pacific but it is still an easy and enjoying read.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – good fun, most welcome at the moment.

November 7, 2020 22 comments

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. (1945) French title: La poursuite de l’amour.

‘I don’t want to be a literary curiosity,’ said Linda. ‘I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation. I think it’s too dismal to have been born in 1911.’

I was looking for a book I was sure I’d enjoy and turned to The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. I had really fond memories of Christmas Pudding, its funny tone, Mitford’s witty prose, its eccentric characters and its entertaining plot.

In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford takes us to Alconleigh, the Radlett’s family estate. The narrator is Fanny Wincham, a niece of the Radletts who spends her holiday at Alconleigh. Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie have seven children and Linda is the one closest in age to Fanny. They have a close relationship, built during the holidays at Alconleigh. Fanny tells us Linda’s story.

Raised by a father who uses his children as baits instead of foxes for fox hunting, the children are homeschooled under the supervision of a dubious French governess. The boys go to Oxford, the girls stay home since they don’t need education according to their father.

Uncle Matthew loathed clever females, but he considered that gentle-women ought, as well as being able to ride, to know French and play the piano.

Fanny’s mother had no inclination for motherhood and it was decided that little Fanny would be raised by Aunt Emily, Aunt Sadie’s sister and her mother’s sister as well. Aunt Emily had a more modern and conventional vision of girls’ education.

While Linda grew up with little structure and no formal education, Fanny went to school. She also led a quiet life with Aunt Emily who later remarried to Davey. Linda and Fanny grew up in a very different atmosphere.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.

The two cousins are quite opposite but their bond is solid. Linda is fanciful, her goal in life is to have a full romantic life. She’s a sort of Emma Bovary. No solid education, expecting Great Love and unable to settle for less and bear the quotidian. Fanny, who married a scholar named Alfred muses, comparing her life to Linda’s:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-racking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle. These are the components of marriage, the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining; Linda had been feeding upon honey-dew, and that is an incomparable diet.

We follow Linda in her pursuit of love and Nancy Mitford takes us on a vivid tour of the upper-class milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read her biography on Wikipedia and it’s clear her own life, family and friends inspired her.

I don’t want to spoil the plot and tell too much about Linda’s love tribulations. You’ll have to discover by yourself what happens to her.

Linda is an attaching character with a dazzling personality. People are drawn to her, despite her lack of any useful competence. Even if she tries to do something by herself, she fails spectacularly, has no qualms about it and recounts her endeavours with disarming ingenuousness. Here she is, playing house:

‘But oh how dreadful it is, cooking, I mean. That oven – Christian puts things in and says: “Now you take it out in about half an hour.” I don’t dare tell him how terrified I am, and at the end of half an hour I summon up all my courage and open the oven, and there is that awful hot blast hitting one in the face. I don’t wonder people sometimes put their heads in and leave them in out of sheer misery. Oh, dear, and I wish you could have seen the Hoover running away with me, it suddenly took the bit between its teeth and made for the lift shaft. How I shrieked – Christian only just rescued me in time. I think housework is far more tiring and frightening than hunting is, no comparison, and yet after hunting we had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours, but after housework people expect one to go on just as if nothing special had happened.’ She sighed.

I guess everything is a question of perspective and upbringing, right. (Athough I dislike vacuum cleaners too. They stink, they’re noisy and make you sweat. *shudders*) Linda seems perfect for partying and chatting with friends and nothing else.

Besides Linda’s story, I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love for the picture of the British upper-class in the 1920s and 1930s. Strangely, it made me think of Brexit. Nancy Mitford’s characters react like the upper-classes of the time and she discloses their view of the world. Uncle Matthew hates foreigners.

‘Frogs,’ he would say, ‘are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’

Like in The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, I sometimes felt in the book an ingrained distrust for non-English things. I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just built-in certainty that the English civilization tops everything else and that there’s “us” and “them”. I’m not sure that 40 years in the EU are enough to erase that feeling from a people’s psyche. Just wondering if it helped the Leave side of the campaign, pushing the right buttons.

At some point, Linda ends up in France and Nancy Mitford writes:

She looked out of the window and saw chateaux, lime avenues, ponds, and villages exactly like those in the Bibliothèque Rose – she thought she must, at any moment, see Sophie in her white dress and unnaturally small black pumps cutting up goldfish, gorging herself on new bread and cream, or scratching the face of good, uncomplaining Paul.

Being a middle-aged French, I perfectly understand what she means. But what do non-French readers make of this quote nowadays? There were also a lot of French sentences or expressions in that part of the book. Mitford’s readership probably knew French well-enough to understand but what about now? There were no footnotes to help a modern reader. It’s not the first time I notice passages in French without any translation. It’s easy for me but how do other readers feel about it? Is there a rule in publishing that says that these passages shouldn’t be translated?

After these random observations, I’ll leave you with this quote about Paris, one that still rings true and makes me long for my Parisian escapades to wander in neighbourhoods and visit art exhibitions.

Paris in the early morning has a cheerful, bustling aspect, a promise of delicious things to come, a positive smell of coffee and croissants, quite peculiar to itself.

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara – Is there something strange in Otto’s neighborhood?

November 3, 2020 9 comments

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara. (2013, Brazil) Not available in English. French title: Les Nuits de laitue. Translated by Dominique Nédellec. Original title : Noites de Alface.

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara is a book I picked on a whim in a bookstore, because the cover caught my eyes and and also because Zulma is a good publisher. It sounded like a unique book, a clever blend of eccentricity, tenderness and mystery. And it is. Quirky is the best adjective I can come up with.

Ada and Otto had been married for fifty years when Ada died suddenly. They didn’t have any children and after half a century of constant companionship, care, animal documentaries, puzzles, cooking and ping-pong, Otto is on his own. They have lived in their neighborhood for ages and we soon get acquainted with their lovely and funny neighbors.

There’s Nico, who works at the local pharmacy and is obsessed with side effects of medications. He keeps reading all the explanatory leaflets and marvels at the oddest side effects he can find. There’s Aníbal, the crazy postman who sings at the top of his lungs and randomly delivers mail. There’s Iolanda and her crazy chihuahuas and Teresa the typist and her three dogs. And last but not least, there’s Mr Taniguchi, an old Japanese who believes that the war in the Pacific isn’t over. It’s an eccentric neighborhood where people look after each other.

Otto is trying to find a new normal without Ada, who was beloved in their community. She loved Milanese cauliflower dishes and she generously spread that love in her street, making random deliveries to her neighbors. When Otto started to suffer from insomnia, she cooked lettuce herbal tea, thinking it would help. It didn’t. Now Otto’s insomnias taste like lettuce and he hates any leafy vegetable.

Otto is a grumpy old man and he used to leave all the socializing to Ada. Now, he just wants to be left alone in his home and bury himself there until death comes and gets him. His neighbors have other things in mind and soon Otto suspects that they’re hiding something from him.

It’s hard to describe Barbara’s novel. It’s fun, light and bubbly. At the same time, Otto’s pain is palpable. He lost his wife, his best friend and his window to the world. The quotidian needs to be reinvented without Ada and Otto holds on to small tasks and his notes-to-self are often amusing:

Il se leva et, en trainant des pieds, alla se brosser les dents et se laver le visage avec deux types de savons antibactériens –l’un éliminait 99.8% des bactéries et l’autre 99.7%. A eux deux, ils feraient donc mieux qu’exterminer les micro-organismes nocifs : sa peau afficherait un solde créditeur. He got up and, shuffling his feet, went to brush his teeth and wash his face with two different anti-germ soaps –one killed 99.8% of germs and the other 99.7% Between the two, they’ll do more than eliminate toxic micro-organisms: his skin would show a credit balance.

Vanessa Barbara takes us to each house and tells us about each neighbor, their past, their dreams and their goals. Meanwhile, a series of events make Otto suspicious. He doesn’t know if something’s wrong or if it’s just a conspiracy to bring him back among the living. And you’ll need to read the book to find out whether he’s right or wrong.

The Lettuce Nights is written in a witty tone, Otto making quirky remarks and remembering Ada’s habits with fondness. It’s a bit like The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Høeg as it has the same texture of fun, quirk and thoughtful musings on love, life and death. Jean-Pierre Bacri would make a perfect Otto as he rocks the combination of snarky and oddly fragile. Now that I think of it, it’d make a great French comedy film.

An entertaining read.

Saturday news: gloom and doom but saved by books

October 31, 2020 22 comments

It’s been a while since my last Saturday News billet but I felt I needed one today to reflect on October and try to imagine what November will look like. We’re October 31st and we woke up here to what we call un temps de Toussaint, in other words All Saints’ Day weather. It’s misty, grey, rather cold and depressing, a bit like October.

The month started with bad news. Quino, the creator of the wonderful Mafalda had died.

Photo by Daniel Garcia. AFP

She’s my alias and you can read why I picked her here. It made the news everywhere in France. What can I say, we love witty cartoonists.

Things started to look up on October 3rd, when I went back to the theatre for the first time since this bloody pandemic started. I’ve seen Saint-Félix. Enquête sur un hameau français, written and directed by Elise Chatauret.

Built like a journalistic investigation, we see four city people invading a little village in the French countryside and ask question about a drama. A young woman settled there and started to breed goats. She died a mysterious death and our four investigators want to find out what happened. The text is between tale and journalism. They interview the villagers and we witness small town gossip but also the end of a kind of rural life. Young people have left, the village was dying and this newcomer came and started a new farm. The production was lovely, served the text well and the actors brought this village to life.

Being in the theatre again was great but the atmosphere was subdued. We were not allowed to linger in the bright lighted hall and socialize. It was silent, as we headed to our seats with our masks on and went out in a single file, respecting safety distances. Better than nothing, that’s what I thought.

That was positively cheerful compared to what was yet to come.

Usually, I don’t comment the news here but this time, I need to. On October 16th, Samuel Paty was beheaded for teaching about the freedom of speech. He was a history teacher, he was doing his job, teaching the official syllabus from the French state. Nothing, and I mean it, nothing can justify this assassination. There’s no middle ground on this, no “he should have known better” or “these cartoons are offensive to some people, let’s not show them”. Sorry but no, a thousand times no. The same way women shouldn’t stop wearing short dresses to avoid being raped, we shall not tone down our right to mock, criticize and point out the extremists of this world. We already have a law that restricts the freedom of speech and condemns racism, antisemitism and speeches that advocate hatred and violence. That’s it.

We have fought over a century to earn the right to live in a secular republic, a democracy with freedom of speech and we won’t back down. Caricaturists, chansonniers and humorists are part of our tradition, one that goes back to the 18th century at least. And I’m not sure non-French people realize how deeply rooted in our culture secularism is. In the Third Republic, the one that established once for all freedom of speech and secularism, teachers were the armed arms of the said republic. Assassinating a teacher is stabbing the republic in the heart. So, in the name of our freedom of speech and against fanatics who want to impose their way of thinking…

More about this history when I write my billet about the fascinating book Voices for freedom. Militant writers in the 19th century by Michel Winock.

The month ended with other assassinations of Catholic worshippers in a church in Nice and with the news of a second lockdown until December 1st. Depressing. The doctors already say that Christmas is compromised and the perspective of not seeing my parents for Christmas is dreadful but worst things could happen, right? So, we’re settling for a month of homeworking with our son still going to high school. He joked about it, saying he’ll go out to work when we stay home like children. Daughter is enjoying herself as she’s doing a semester abroad.

With the new lockdown, the French literary world is in motion to protect independent bookstores from bankruptcy. There’s a debate about the question “Are bookstores indispensable businesses?”. Readers rushed to stores on Thursday and some booksellers reported that they sold as many books as on the last Saturday before Christmas. The jury of the Goncourt Prize decided to delay the announcement of the 2020 winner until independent bookstores are open again. Lobbying worked and bookstores are allowed to sell through click-and-collect and due to unfair competition, Fnacs and supermarkets have to close their book sections. Let’s hope that it will not boost Amazon’s sales. We are determined to maintain our lovely network of independent libraires.

Staying home means more reading time and luckily, November is rife with bookish events. I hope to participate to several of them.

German Lit Month is hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, AusReading Month, by Brona, Novella in November, by Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746Books. And there’s also Non-Fiction November.

I’ve gathered my books for the month, my pile is made of my Book Club pick, my Read The West readalong and others from the TBR that fit into November bookish events.

Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement by Assia Djebar is our Book Club read and The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert is my Read the West book. Then I have The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower for AusReading Month. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper is Australian non-fiction. For German Lit Month, I’ve picked from the shelves The Confusion of Young Törless by Robert Musil and a novella by Thomas Bernhard, Concrete. I’m not sure I’ll have time to read them all but it’s good to have goals, right?

Regular reader of Book Around the Corner know that I’m a fan of Duane Swierczynski. I follow him on Twitter and last year, he sadly lost his teenage daughter Evie to cancer. He’s organizing Evie’s Holiday Book Drive, a book donation to the Children’s Hospital in LA. It’s from October 23 to December 4. There are details about how to donate on the poster and on this web site, The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation. Duane Swierczynski tweets at @swierczy.

In the middle of all this, I stumbled upon an article by Nancy Huston in the Translittérature magazine, issue by the French association of literary translators. She wrote about the English version of Romain Gary’s books. (She’s a fan too) He supervised the ‘translations’ of his books, wrote some directly in English and then did a French version of them. I realized that I never investigated who translated Gary’s books in English and I went online to get as many English versions of his books as I could find. I already had White Dog, The Ski Bum and the recently published The Kites. Now I also have Lady L, The Enchanters, King Solomon, Europa and The Talent Scout.

December 2nd will be the fortieth anniversary of Gary’ death and I’m up to something…

While I was writing all this, the sun came out and our gloomy morning turned into a sunny afternoon. I hope it’ll translate into this month of November.

What about you? How is it going on in your world’s corner?

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa – Let’s play a game with book covers

October 25, 2020 19 comments

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa (2008) French title: Le restaurant de l’amour retrouvé. Translated from the Japanese by Myriam Dartois-Ako.

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa is a celebration of food and its healing powers. Rinko works as a cook in the city and when she comes home, she is shocked to discover that her boyfriend has cleaned up their apartment and left. The flat is totally empty and with no home and no boyfriend, Rinko decides to go back to her native village, a place she left behind ten years ago, when she was barely fifteen.

The shock is such that Rinko is speechless. Literally. She can’t speak anymore and has to communicate through notes. Her village is in the country and Rinko has a complicated relationship with her mother, Ruriko. Rinko is an illegitimate child and she doesn’t know who her father is. Her mother runs the local bar, financed by Neocon, a rich man who paid for the bar and covers Ruriko with presents. Rinko dislikes her mother and Neocon.

Ruriko accepts to lend money to Rinko, so that she can launch her own restaurant in the village. She calls it The Snail. It becomes a very special place, where Rinko only serves one table at a time, creating a special menu for the guests. Soon, her restaurant has the reputation to foster love and bring a happy-ever-after to the guests. Her success is immediate.

Said that way, it sounds cheesy but it’s not, at least for the first part of the book, the one I enjoyed the most. I immersed myself in Rinko’s world, made of an indifferent mother, a strange pet pig named Hermes after the luxury brand and that she has to look after, a gentle janitor, Kuma, who helps her clean and install the restaurant. I liked Rinko’s resilience and the feeling that it was a tale out-of-time and out-of-space.

I liked the pages about selecting the right produce and preparing food. I enjoyed reading about Rinko’s soul-searching venture through her restaurant. Cooking for her guests is a gift, a way for her to spread her love to others. Rinko nurses her broken heart in the kitchen, bringing happiness to her guests. Cooking is an act of love, her way to connect to others and belong to the world.

As long as I was reading about the restaurant, I was fine and invested in the story. I started to get bored when Ruriko’s story came into the mix. I won’t tell much because it’d spoil the story for other readers but I thought it was too much. Improbable family secrets are revealed and Rinko’s world is once again turned upside down.

I rarely do that, because I don’t think books should come with warning stickers, but the last part is not for vegan and vegetarian readers, and that’s all I’ll say.

For another opinion, here’s Vishy’s review. And Bookmaniac’s.

As always, I looked for the English language cover of the book. As usual, I found it lacking and went looking for covers in other languages. Let’s play a game. You’ve seen the French cover and here are six other covers from other languages, including the original Japanese.

I’ve read the book and I can tell you that the Asian covers are the best to represent the atmosphere of Rinko’s tale. Naïve drawing showing her in her village in the mountains, connecting to nature and the locals.

The French cover is OK, it’s faithful to the text, it shows the delicate beauty of the book. It’s different from the other Western covers, with its blue tone.

The Western covers are all the same deep red tones, not a color I associate with Japan but more with China. The Italian one is good as it represents Rinko cooking and it’s a major aspect of the book. The Spanish one is cheesy with the rice heart and the worst one is the American one. I truly wonder where it comes from and who had the idea of such an odd picture considering the book.

And what about you? Which covers would lead you to pick up The Restaurant of Love Regained from a display table in a bookstore?

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand – Chateaubrilliant, I should say

October 18, 2020 11 comments

Memoirs From Beyond the Grave by Chateaubriand (1849) An Anthology Original French title: Mémoires d’outre-tombe. Anthologie. 

I bought this anthology of Memoirs From Beyond the Grave during my literary escapable to Combourg in July. Jean-Claude Berchet, a literary critic specialist of Chateaubriand, selected the texts of this anthology. I trust him to pick the best parts of the forty-two books of Chateabriand’s Memoirs for lazy readers like me.

This billet will not bring anything to literary critic of the Memoirs, I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do that. It’ll be my experience as a reader, which is personal and has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of this monument of literature.

When Chateaubriand writes about his birth and childhood, he mentions that his mother inflicted life upon him and he wasn’t happy to live. Karma is a bitch, he’ll be on this Earth during eighty years. (September 4th, 1768-July 4th, 1848) and what eighty years! Here’s a little historical digest of the times.

Years

Political Regime Leader Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

1768-1792 Monarchy Louis XV

Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

1792-1804 First Republic Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

1804-1815 Empire Napoléon 1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

1815-1830 Constitutional Monarchy Louis XVIII

Charles X

47-62

July Revolution (07/1830)

62

08/1830-02/1848 July Monarchy Louis-Philippe

62-80

02/1848 Second Republic Abolition of slavery

80

Chateaubriand was a soldier in the Revolutionary wars (on the monarchy’s side), fled the country, stayed in England, came back and occupied various political capacities. (deputy at the Chambre des Pairs, minister of Foreign Affairs…)

I was really interested in his childhood, the passages related to his travels to America and his life during the French Revolution and his exile in England. He endured hardship with stride and never complained. I found the last books interesting too as he reflects upon France and democracy. The other books were about his political career and as you can see in the table before, the political scene is very complicated. All the explanations about where he stood and why he supported this or that side went over my head, due to the my lack of historical knowledge. I’m sure that the Memoirs are invaluable material for historians.

I was disappointed that there was almost nothing about his personal life. There’s a nice book about his wife, very polite. It was an arranged marriage that lasted until 1847. They rarely lived together and had no children. (I guess living apart is an efficient method of contraception.) Chateaubriand had mistresses and I hope his wife had lovers too.

Everything was centered on him and History. There were some passages about his books and their success but nothing about his literary life. Nothing about literary salons, only mentions about Mme de Beaumont and Mme Récamier, in passing. Not a word about the battle of Hernani. Almost no literary reference except Lord Byron, and a passage about George Sand. No description of Paris, its people, its changes. He lived in the Paris of Balzac, Musset, Hugo, Lamartine, Nerval and Stendhal and he says nothing about it. What a disappointment! (Or Jean-Claude Berchet cut all these passages)

I enjoyed reading his thoughts about political regimes, though. He was in favor of a controlled monarchy, thinking that the ultimate regime for France would be a Republic but that the country needed a transition period with a constitutional monarchy. It’ll take until 1870 for the republic to be the stable political regime for France but he foresaw that trying to reinstall a full monarchy was a pipe dream. The French population had moved on. There are fascinating thoughts about the public stance a royal family should have that could interest British readers. (Book 37)

There’s a book set in Switzerland, where he’s on holiday, walking in the mountains, trying Rousseau and Lord Byron’s paths, I suppose. And I thought, “Here we go, Romanticism and the bliss of hiking in the mountains.” And no, dear Chateaubriand surprised me with this ironic statement:

Au surplus j’ai beau me battre les flancs pour arriver à l’exaltation alpine des écrivains de montagne, j’y perds ma peine.

Au physique, cet air vierge et balsamique qui doit réanimer mes forces, raréfier mon sang, désenfumer ma tête fatiguée, me donner une faim insatiable, un repos sans rêves, ne produit point sur moi ces effets. Je ne respire pas mieux, mon sang ne circule pas plus vite, ma tête n’est pas moins lourde au ciel des Alpes qu’à Paris. J’ai autant d’appétit aux Champs-Elysées qu’au Montanvert, je dors aussi bien rue Saint-Dominique qu’au mont Saint-Gothard, et si j’ai des songes dans la délicieuse plaine de Montrouge, c’est qu’il en faut au sommeil.

Au moral, en vain j’escalade les rocs, mon esprit n’en devient pas plus élevé, mon âme plus pure ; j’emporte les soucis de ma terre et le faix des turpitudes humaines. Le calme de la région sublunaire d’une marmotte ne se communique point à mes sens éveillés. Misérable que je suis, à travers les brouillards qui roulent à mes pieds, j’aperçois toujours la figure épanouie du monde. Mille toises gravies dans l’espace ne changent rien à ma vue du ciel ; Dieu ne me paraît pas plus grand du sommet de la montagne que du fond de la vallée. Si pour devenir un homme robuste, un saint, un génie supérieur, il ne s’agissait que de planer sur les nuages, pourquoi tant de malades, de mécréants et d’imbéciles ne se donnent-ils pas la peine de grimper au Simplon ? Il faut certes qu’ils soient bien obstinés à leurs infirmités.

For the rest, it is vain for me to exert myself to attain the Alpine exaltation of the mountain authors: I waste my pains. 

Physically, that virgin and balmy air, which is supposed to revive my strength, rarefy my blood, clear my tired head, give me an insatiable hunger, a dreamless sleep, produces none of those effects for me. I breathe no better, my blood circulates no faster, my head is no less heavy under the sky of the Alps than in Paris. I have as much appetite in the Champs-Élysées, as on the Montanvers, I sleep as well in the Rue Saint-Dominique as on the Mont Saint-Gotthard, and, if I have dreams in the delicious plain of Montrouge, the fault lies with the sleep.

Morally, in vain do I scale the rocks: my mind becomes no loftier for it, my soul no purer; I carry with me the cares of earth and the weight of human turpitudes. The calm of the sublunary region of a marmot is not communicated to my awakened senses. Poor wretch that I am, across the mists that roll at my feet I always perceive the full-blown face of the world. A thousand fathoms climbed into space change nothing in my view of the sky; God appears no greater to me from the top of a mountain than from the bottom of a valley. If, to become a robust man, a saint, a towering genius, it were merely a question of searing over the clouds, why do so many sick men, miscreants and fools not take the trouble to clamber up the Simplon? Surely, they must be very obstinately bent upon their infirmities.

 Translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Chateaubriand. He is the perfect blend of the Age of Enlightenment with its Voltairean irony and the angst of the first half of the 19th century. He’s a French spirit to the core. Born in the Britany aristocracy, he embraced democracy as the final target for France. His intelligence brought us insightful thoughts about politics and the way to lead a country. Many of analyses are still up-to-date. He was true to his beliefs all his life, not compromising for a position. It left him poor sometimes but with his integrity. Freedom of speech was not something to be trifled with and he understood that King Charles X willing to suppress it contributed the 1830 July Revolution. To be honest, I expected someone a lot more conservative than he was.

Chateaubriand writes beautifully, as the quote before displays it. I wish he had dropped the frequent Greek and Latin comparisons though, because I think they weigh his sentences down. And of course, but that’s not his fault, they are mostly obscure to the modern reader.

So, what’s the verdict? I’m on the fence. I really struggled with some passages that I found truly boring. His speeches, the passage on Napoléon but I’m curious about the missing passages because I wonder if they have descriptions of his personal life. Thinking of reading the whole Memoirs is daunting, it’s more than 3500 pages. Perhaps I should just download a free ebook edition and read what interests me.

I’m happy I read this anthology as I met a great writer and a man with an exceptional intelligence. He surprised me with his modern thinking and how relevant some of his assessments are.

Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer – fatherhood and a new side of Colorado

October 14, 2020 3 comments

Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer (2014) French title: Cry Father. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Patterson Wells is a broken man. He never recovered from the death of his child, Justin. Now he works as a tree clearer. He travels to the sites of catastrophe and helps removing the fallen trees to restore power or clear roads. Hear him describe his job

This year’s work season was the roughest I’ve had in a while. There was a tropical storm that hit Texas in August and it took out most of the power in the southern half of the state. They were offering double time clearing power lines, which I couldn’t pass up, but it was the worst kind of work. Eighteen-hour days, with six hours off to try to get a little sleep in the tent city they’d set up for us, no hot meals but what we could cook on campfires. But I figured since I started early maybe I’d knock off in March. Not that it worked out that way, of course. It never does. I ended up in Missouri, South Dakota, Virginia, and then, after a freak spring storm, down in Florida. Which is why it’s now May and I’m just setting free.

Now he’s on his way back home to Colorado, where he owns a cabin on the mesa. He’s dreading coming home, seeing his ex-wife Laney, being where he used to live with her and their son. He tries to make detours to avoid the inevitable and hoped to go on a two-weeks fishing trip with Chase, a coworker.

When he arrives at Chase’s home, two weeks after they parted on a job site, it’s to find him transformed into a meth baron. He says his girlfriend Mel set it up when he was away and that he found her cheating on him with a biker when he came home. His house is filthy, his girlfriend is tied up in the bathroom and Chase is high on meth, booze and lack of sleep. He’s in a dangerous mode.

Patterson frees Mel after fighting with Chase and they leave the house separately, Mel deciding that stealing Chase’s truck was a good enough payback.

Patterson finally reaches his cabin in Colorado, a place that has no electricity and no running water. (These cabins never cease to amaze me, coming from a country where electricity is a public service and the right to access to the electricity network is written in the law.) Patterson is inconsolable and still grieves his son’s death. His therapy is to write him letters, which allows the reader to get into Patterson’s mind. He also tries to drown himself in booze.

Back on the mesa, he reunites with his friend Henry, an odd man who lives in an isolate place and has a poor relationship with his grownup son Junior. Junior is a driver, in a James Sallis meaning of the word. He drives, that’s all he does, transporting drugs between Colorado and Mexico. Junior has a daughter with Jenny who lives on the same street but in another house. Junior hates Henry and wishes to be better father to his young daughter Casey.

Patterson and Junior are two men who have a thing with fatherhood. They are both poor father figures, one has lost any chance to improve and doesn’t recover from it and the other knows nothing about parenting. Both are hurting.

Patterson and Junior strike an odd friendship, ignited by circumstances and fueled by their common feeling that they are screwups and have nothing to lose. From one bad decision to another, with alcohol, drugs and weapons at their disposal, their lives become an unstoppable train of despair and destruction.

The women in Whitmer’s novel try to bring some normalcy, some peace. They have to maintain a routine as they have to take care of children, Casey for Jenny and a son from another man for Laney. Motherhood grounds them.

Fatherhood is the crux of the novel. Henry would like to mend his relationship with Junior but it’s too late. Patterson mourns the father he could have been. Junior dreams of the father he could be. Patterson’s letters to Justin are poignant and we get to know the depth of his pain.

Whitmer describes a harsh side of Colorado. We’re a far cry from Aspen and its socialite tourists. He takes us to Denver’s back alleys, to the poor and dangerous neighborhoods. He drives us on the backroads of the mesa, where the only radio station available is Father Joe’s, who goes on about the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and who delights in spreading the most extravagant fake news. And people like Henry listen to him with rapt attention. Whitmer pictures a state where the police are absent. People rely on themselves on the mesa, Patterson carries a gun at all times. (He started it to protect himself on his clearing jobs, since he’s always in the wilderness) There are places where people can bury a body in absolute discretion. It reminded me of this quote from The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson:

It was big country in the thunder basin, a place where a person could get away with a lot and had. Like a giant, high-altitude frying pan in summer, it heated up during the day to well over a hundred degrees, but then, in accord with the extremes of its nature, plummeted past freezing at night. If you were going to kill, it seemed like the place for it.

Cry Father is a stunning book about a broken man whose life turns for the worst. There’s no redemption like in The Lost Get Back Boogie by James Lee Burke. It’s closer to Joe by Larry Brown. These fathers got booze and violence as a legacy from their fathers and don’t know how to break that mold.

Cry Father is my second Benjamin Whitmer, after Pike. It is published by Gallmeister in an outstanding translation by Jacques Mailhos. I’m under the impression that Whitmer’s other books, Old Lonesome and The Dynamiters are available in French translations but not in the original, as if they had not been published in English at all. If that’s the case, it’s such a shame because Benjamin Whitmer is a talented writer.

The #1956Club: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – another Baldwin masterpiece.

October 9, 2020 33 comments

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956) French title: La chambre de Giovanni.

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long—we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer—but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea-change there.

When the book opens, David, a twenty-eight, tall and blond American is in alone in a house in a village in the South of France. (Like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where Baldwin used to live). We understand that he’ll be leaving soon, that his former girlfriend is already on her way back to America and that Giovanni will be executed the next morning.[1] David reflects on the fateful events that led him there, alone in this house, full of regrets and self-loathing. It’s confession time.

People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.

We go back in time to spring, David lives in Paris and his girlfriend Hella went on a trip to Spain, mostly to think about David’s marriage proposal. (IMO, if you have to think about the answer, the answer is obviously no.) David is on his own in Paris and goes to a gay bar in St Germain des Prés with an older homosexual, Jacques. There, he meets the barman, Giovanni. It’s love at first sight between the two men and David moves into Giovanni’s room.

The problem is that David is not ready to accept that he’s gay. He tries to convince himself that it’s only a temporary escapade, out of life, while waiting for Hella and before eventually going back to America.

And these nights were being acted out under a foreign sky, with no-one to watch, no penalties attached—it was this last fact which was our undoing, for nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

He resists his feelings for Giovanni with all his might and it taints his love relationship. Giovanni feels that David holds back. But for David, being true to himself means accepting who he is and he’s terrified. He had already had a one-night stand with a boy when he was a teenager and it scared him to death.

A cavern opened in my mind, black, full of rumor, suggestion, of half-heard, half-forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words. I thought I saw my future in that cavern. I was afraid. I could have cried, cried for shame and terror, cried for not understanding how this could have happened to me, how this could have happened in me.

He put a lid on this night and tried to conform. And now, with Giovanni, he has to face the truth. He doesn’t want to make the decision of cutting ties to Hella. We see a man who is viscerally in love with Giovanni but cannot turn his back to the white picket fence future that is the norm.

Yet it was true, I recalled, turning away from the river down the long street home, I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real. It only demanded a short, hard strength for me to become myself again.

Being gay in the 1950s isn’t easy and David isn’t ready to be open about his sexuality and his love. Giovanni’s Room is a heartbreaking story, one that makes you so glad that things have improved for homosexuals in Western countries, even if there’s still a lot to do.

This novella is also a statement. Baldwin didn’t choose an easy topic for the time and he defied what was expected of him. As Alain Mabanckou points it out in his Letter to Jimmy, Baldwin was supposed to write black novels, fictionalized social commentary about the black community in America. With Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin refuses to enter into the box of the militant black writer. He doesn’t want to be defined by the color of his skin. He just wants to be a writer. And what a writer he is.

Giovanni’s Room is a masterpiece. David’s inner struggles are dissected with compassion but without indulgence. His indecision is hurtful to Hella and will be Giovanni’s downfall. Baldwin pictures David wandering in Paris and the descriptions are so accurate that I saw myself on the banks of the Seine and the streets in the Quartier Latin. Jacques and Guillaume, older men well-known in the Parisian gay scene reminded me a bit of Charlus in Proust. Every page is so vivid and yet compact. There’s not a useless word and Baldwin packs up a lot in a mere 190 pages novella.

Very, very, very highly recommended.

I have to say a word about the Penguin Classic Edition I read. Baldwin inserts a lot of French words or little phrases in his text. It helps with the sense of place and you feel in Paris even more. However, the constant typos and spelling mistakes grated on my nerves. I know French is a pesky language with all the accents, its silent letters, its plural on adjectives and complex conjugation.

How difficult is it for a publisher to put proper accents on words (We say A la vôtre and not A la votre), to ensure that verbs are conjugated properly (T’auras du chagrin and not T’aura du chagrin, je veux m’évader and not je veuz m’evader), that words are with the right gender (Ma chérie and not ma cheri), that capital letters are used when needed (Vive l’Amérique and not Vive l’amerique) and that there is a space between words to have an operative sentence (on mange ici and not on mangeici)? Almost every French word or sentence leaped to my eyes. Don’t try to learn French in this Penguin Classic.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is the book I read for the #1956Club.

[1] In France, death penalty was abolished in 1981.

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo – A poet writes hardboiled.

October 4, 2020 3 comments

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo. (1981) French title: La mort et la belle vie. Translated by Michel Lederer

Death and the Good Life is the only crime fiction book written by Richard Hugo. He was better known as a poet. Unfortunately, he died in 1982, before he had even the chance to write another polar.

Al Barnes is a former police detective of the homicide brigade in Portland who decided to leave the grim life of a city cop behind to become a deputy sheriff in Plains, Montana. Al is nicknamed “Mush-Heart” due to his natural empathy. That makes him unsuited for most police work but a good investigator because people confide in him.

Al thought he had switched to a quiet life when two men get axed. Ralph McGreedy and Robin Tingley work for the Plains pulp mill. It belongs to the Hammer siblings, Lee and Lynn. They live eight months of the year in Portland and four months in Plains. McGreedy and Tingley run the mill for the Hammers, wealthy investors who saved the pulp mill and its jobs. They are well-acquainted with the locals and well-accepted in Plains. Who would want to kill McGreedy and Tingley?

At first, it seems that a serial killer is in action. Red Yellow Bear, the sheriff and Al’s boss decides to take advantage of Al’s experience with homicides. He will follow a lead to Portland and discover that twenty years ago, a murder happened during a party thrown by the young Lynn and Lee. Al starts digging. He meets with his former colleagues and gets the informal help he needs to push the investigation and see what’s behind the Hammers’ posh façade.

For a first, Hugo, who was a fan of hardboiled fiction, wrote an excellent polar. I was fond of Al, a man I would love to meet in real life. The plot is well-paced and peppered with little thoughts and remarks as Al navigates through the ups-and-downs of a police investigation. There’s a strong sense of place, the descriptions of Montana sound genuine and it’s the same for the parts in Portland. The sheriff is an Indian and I remember Craig Johnson say that writing a book set in Wyoming or Montana without Indians in it was not realistic as they are part of the local communities.

I read Death and the Good Life in French, in a mass paperback edition. I don’t think there’s an ebook version in English and no sample is available online, so I have no quote. I wish I had some to share. It seems that this book is a bit forgotten by its English-speaking readers. It’s too bad because it’s an excellent book to read by a rainy afternoon, by the fire, under a plaid.

After reading Death and the Good Life, I decided to check out Hugo’s poetry and browse through the first pages of his Selected Poems. Look at the first one:

Trout fishing again! I’m cursed! 😊

Trout aside, it’s a reminder that my English isn’t good enough to truly understand poetry. And once again, I have this issue with genders in English. In French, trout is a feminine word. In my mind, Trout is not a he, it’s a she. When I read in English and the gender remains neutral, it’s not a problem because I don’t think in French anymore and nothing special pops out of the sentence. But when an animal is described with a gender in English, it attracts my attention. If it’s not the same one as in French, it’s confusing. Is it the same for people who speak German and read in English? And what about speaking French, German and English?

PS: The book covers. *sigh* The French one screams ‘Montana cliché’ and it’s the wrong season. The American one looks like Gatsby is around the corner. None really reflects the atmosphere of the book…*double sigh*

PPS: Don’t let my ramblings detract you from reading Death and the Good Life.

Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 12 comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

September 22, 2020 12 comments

Sator or the Riddle of the Magic Square by Alain Le Ninèze (2008). Original French title: Sator ou l’énigme du carré magique. Not available in English.

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze is a historical fiction novel set in Judaea in 62-67 AD. At this time, Nero was the emperor of the Roman Empire. The narrator of Sator is Lucius Albinius Piso, based upon the historical figure Lucceius Albinus. He was the Roman procurator of Judaea from 62 til 64 AD.

When the book opens, he’s in Jerusalem in times of unrest. His uncle the senator Balbus Piso – based upon Gaius Calpurnius Piso – is in Rome. He’s under the scrutiny of Poppaea Sabina, the Roman Empress married to Nero. Poppaea demands that Piso solves the mystery of the Sator Square, a word square used by early Christians. He asks for his nephew’s help.

Piso is a Roman senator secretly converted to Christianism. At the times, Christians were persecuted by Nero and his life is in danger. He also asks for information about Jesus’s death.

As the book progresses, we see Lucius investigating Jesus’s death, meeting with witnesses of the crucifixion and wondering what really happened. He also digs into the Sator riddle, discussing it with Jewish scholars. Meanwhile, he exchanges letters with his uncle who keeps him informed of his fate in Rome. The situation there deteriorates quickly as Nero becomes more and more crazy and despotic.

The Great Fire of Rome happens, Christians are murdered and Balbus Piso decides to participate to a conspiracy to assassinate Nero.

In Judaea, things deteriorate as well. The Jews rebel against the Roman rule and Lucius Albinus fails to prevent a war. He refuses to break the law and is dismissed by Nero. We see a procurator not really into his task, struggling to be the armed arm of an emperor he doesn’t respect anymore. He’s happy to be demoted and goes to live in the household of a retired centurion who married a Jewish lady and settled in Jerusalem.

Le Ninèze’s Lucius Albinus is a lot more human than his actual counterpart, according to the portray depicted on Wikipedia. No big deal. This is a historical novel and Le Ninèze imagines a humanist procurator who doesn’t want to use force when it’s not needed.

It’s a first-person narrative and Lucius addresses to us. It is strange to have a character tell you that he went to the Mount of Olives, that he now shares the outcome of his interviews with soldiers who guarded Jesus’s grave after he died or with people who attended his trial. Lucius takes you to a time where all this was recent history or event contemporary. I was raised a Catholic and hearing Lucius Albinus investigate this as a journalist put things at human height, stripped of the aura brought by religious rituals. It’s a strange feeling.

Le Ninèze also shows that there were a lot of messiahs at the time and that the communities in Jerusalem had trouble coexisting in peace. (Greeks against Jews, radical Jews against moderate Jews, all against the Roman occupant) The region was always bubbling with rebellions and attacks.

Le Ninèze left a lot of footnotes to give the source of the events he describes. He mostly used the Evangiles, The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus and The Histories by Tacitus. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed reading about Judaea at the time. I liked being in Lucius’s company and I had fun watching him unravel the Sator Square riddle. (or at least find his own meaning)

PS: The Sator Square includes the word Tenet and it has something to do with Christopher Nolan’s film, in case you’re wondering.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante – adultery and adolescence in Colorado in the 1920s

September 20, 2020 19 comments

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante (1938) French title: Bandini. Translated by Brice Matthieussent. (He’s Fante’s main French translator)

Then she left. The poor thing. His mother –the poor thing. It worked a despair in him that made his eyes fill up. Everywhere it was the same, always his mother –the poor thing, always poor and poor, always that, that word, always in him and around him, and suddenly he let go in that half darkened room and wept, sobbing the poor out of him, crying and chocking, not for that, not for her, for his mother but for Svevo Bandini, for his father, that look of his father’s, those gnarled hands of his father’s, for his father’s mason tools, for the walls his father has built, the steps, the cornices, the ashpits, the cathedrals, and they were all so very beautiful, for that feeling in him when his father sang of Italy, of an Italian sky, of a Neapolitan bay.

John Fante (1909-1983) was born in Boulder, Colorado. His parents were Italian immigrants. He’s well-known for his Saga of Arturo Bandini, Fante’s alter ego. Including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, I’ve now read three out of the four books of the saga. I loved it as much as The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust.

In Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Arturo is 14. His life revolves around his parents, his siblings and school. It’s winter in Colorado in the 1920s. We see how this winter is a turning point in Arturo’s life. He’s growing up, he’s losing his illusions about marriage and sees his parents in a different light.

Arturo’s father, Svevo, is a mason and bricklayer. There aren’t a lot of construction works at this time of year and he’s currently out of work. The family barely survives. Meat is rare, the children clothes are always too small and the Bandinis have debts at the local shops.

Arturo is fourteen, still a child in some aspects but getting the vision of an adult on others. He loves his parents and sees what a strange couple they make. His mother Maria is blindly in love with her charming womanizing husband. She’s also a Catholic devout, living rosary in hand, going to church every Sunday and feeling so proud that her sons are altar boys. His father Svevo doesn’t care about religion, likes to drink and gamble with his childhood friend from Italy. It’s a bone of contention between the two:

Svevo had said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to Church on Sunday? Why can’t I go to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there too? His mother always shuddered in horror at this piece of theology, but he remembered how feeble her reply to it, the same reply he had learned in his catechism, and one his mother had learned out of the same catechism years before.

This winter, Arturo will see his parents in a new light. When Maria’s mother announces one of her dreadful visits –she despises her son-in-law and never misses an opportunity to let it known –Svevo leaves the house and doesn’t come back. We see him stay with a rich mistress. Maria is so depressed that she neglects the children.

Arturo is torn between his two parents. He understands why his father would want to escape. Svevo is the sole breadwinner and bears the weight of providing for five. He doesn’t have a stable job. He never earns enough, he’s always in debt and never has a break. Seen from Svevo’s point of view, this affair sounds more like a holiday from the worries and the poverty than a true love story. He stays with her for a while, in a house where he doesn’t have to worry. As a young adolescent, Arturo is also secretly proud that his working-class father managed to seduce such a rich lady.

But Arturo also understands how heartbroken his mother is, how in love she is with Svevo and how betrayed she feels. He hates his father for it. Svevo may bear the burden of earning enough, she bears the brunt of raising the children, scraping by all the time. She’s the one who struggles to feed everyone with the little money that she has. There’s a heartbreaking scene at the butcher’s, we see how humiliating it is for her to go there without enough money and buy the cheapest meat possible.

Arturo becomes the underground middleman between the two. He threatens his brother with bodily harm if he tattles to his mother that they’ve seen their father with another woman. Arturo knows it’ll burn the bridges between his parents, and that their mother would not recover or take her husband back. And they need their breadwinner.

Arturo knows that the family needs that their parents patch things up.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini means that things will get better in the spring, when the construction works resume, when Svevo finds a job and brings money home again. They have to live through the hard Colorado winter.

Besides the drama between Maria and Svevo, we also see Arturo’s school life and his relationship with his siblings. He can’t stand his righteous brother Federico. Arturo’s temper is more like his father’s but he’s still under his mother’s influence. Religion instills a deep fear of sins and makes him sweat. He doesn’t like going to church or being an altar boy but it makes his mamma happy. He’s also desperately in love with Rosa, who is in his class and looks down on him. Fante describes his life as a poor student in a Catholic school.

All this is packed in 266 pages, in a novel full of creativity. Fante writes about hardship and poverty but keeps his sense of humor. I suspect that he hates pitying looks and that irony is a weapon against unwanted pity.

Fante was 29 when he wrote this novel. In the foreword of Wait Until Spring, Bandini, he explains that he never reread it after it was published. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe he was afraid to find it lacking. I think it’s a very fine piece of literature.

I still have to read the fourth book of Saga of Arturo Bandini, Dreams from Bunker Hill. You’ll hear more about Fante on this blog soon since our Book Club’s choice for September is West of Rome, a bundle of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. Looking through my shelves, I realized I’ve already read the French translation of The Orgy. I’ve also read Full of Life. Fante was a fashionable writer in France in the late 1980s when they go published in the 10/18 collection.

Fante also wrote the script of Walk on the Wild Side, the film made out of Algren’s book. Published in 1956, I hope to read Algren’s novel for the 1956 Club, after reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

PS : This was Book #19 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

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