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

October 4, 2020 2 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?

20 Books of Summer #10: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

August 5, 2020 18 comments

Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983) French title: Les vitamines du bonheur. Translated by Simone Hilling.

I think that I first heard of Raymond Carver in interviews of Philippe Djian. He admires Carver a lot and I had in mind to read at least one of his books. It’s always difficult to write about a collection of short stories and Cathedral is not an exception to that rule. I’ll spare you the one by one account of each story.

Carver’s stories are like short videos of a moment in the lives of these men and women. We feel that they’ve lived before we peeked into their lives and that they’ll keep on living after we’ve dropped the curtain we had risen.

We catch them at awkward moments of their lives, like in the first story Feathers. A couple goes to the man’s colleague’s house for dinner. The couples have never met before and the guests are confronted with the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen and a strange peacock. Talk about an uncomfortable meal.

We meet people in hard times, a couple losing their child on his birthday, a man unable to leave his sofa after being laid off, a couple recently separated, an alcoholic just admitted in a rehab facility, a man whose wife has taken off, leaving him struggling with their two children. We catch them raw, at a pivotal time of their lives even if they don’t always know it. We see middle and working class people in their quotidian. They lose their job, they go fishing with their colleague or they try to crawl out of alcoholism.

The only story that stood out and seemed at odds with the others is The Compartment. An American man in on the train to Strasbourg, France to meet his estranged son. An event on the train will derail him from his journey. This one was different, probably because of the setting and the context.

Carver has a gift to pack a lot in a few pages and each story leaves vivid impressions on the reader. Some end abruptly and I thought “That’s it? What then?” and others sound more complete. The last one, Cathedral, eponymous of the collection’s name is about a man who attempts to describe a cathedral to a blind man. They end up drawing one. It’s what writers do. They observe life with their unique glasses and take us, blinds, through their vision. And they draw characters and write stories.

Highly recommended.

20 Books of Summer #4: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke – Breathtaking

July 12, 2020 6 comments

The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke (1986). French title: Le boogie des rêves perdus.

In the darkness of the tavern, with the soft glow of the mountain twilight through the blinds, I began to think about my boyhood South and the song I never finished in Angola. I had all the music in my mind and the runs that bled into each chord, but the lyrics were always wooden, and I couldn’t get all of the collective memory into a sliding blues. I called it “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” and I wanted it to contain all those private, inviolate things that a young boy saw and knew about while growing up in southern Louisiana in a more uncomplicated time.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is the second James Lee Burke I’ve read. (The other one is The Neon Rain, the first book of the Dave Robicheaux series)

When the book opens, we’re in 1962 and thirty-year old Iry Paret is about to leave the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. He’s on parole after a little more than two years in jail for manslaughter. He killed a man during a bar brawl. Iry is a gifted musician, he plays rural blues in bars. Now, he’s going back to his childhood home, where he’s not welcome.

It wasn’t going to be pleasant. Their genuine ex-convict was home, the family’s one failure, the bad-conduct dischargee from the army, the hillbilly guitar picker who embarrassed both of them just by his presence in the area.

His mother and sister died in 1945, his father is dying and his brother and sister aren’t too happy to see him again. Iry knows his stay in Louisiana will be short: he has applied to do his parole in Montana and work at his friend’s parents’ ranch. Buddy Riordan did time in Angola for marijuana possession. Buddy is a jazz pianist and music brought the two men together.

Buddy Riordan was working on a five-to-fifteen for possession of marijuana when I met him in Angola. He was a good jazz pianist, floating high on weed and the Gulf breeze and steady gigs at Joe Burton’s place in New Orleans, and then he got nailed in a men’s room with two reefers in his coat pocket. As a Yankee, he was prosecuted under a felony rather than a misdemeanor law, and the judge dropped the whole jailhouse on his head.

Buddy is already back in Montana when Iry drives across the country to get to the ranch. As soon as he arrives, they stop at a bar and Iry feels the hostility towards them. He soon learns that Buddy’s father, Frank, has made enemies in his county. Indeed, he lodged a complaint against the company who owns the local pulp mill because it doesn’t have a proper filter and pollutes the whole Missoula area. People are angry because the pulp mill might close and they’ll lose their job.

Iry finds himself guilty by association and the locals are determined to run him out. He’s in the middle of this feud when he needs to lie low and comply with the rules of his parole.

Neither Iry or Buddy are hardened criminals. Iry wants a chance at a new life while Buddy drives through his at full throttle with his head clouded by drugs and alcohol. He’s separated from his wife Beth, he rarely sees his two sons but not even his family manages to ground him. Buddy has a love-hate relationship with his father and doesn’t get along well with his grownup sister. He feels like a failure.

What they didn’t understand about Buddy was that he had turned in his resignation a long time ago: an “I casually resign” letter written sometime in his teens when he started bumming freights across the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t have a beef or an issue; he just started clicking to his own rhythm and stepped over some kind of invisible line.

Iry inserts himself in Buddy’s life, working and living on the ranch, bonding with Frank and meeting Beth and the kids. Buddy is a bad influence on Iry and inadvertently thwarts Iry’s efforts to turn over a new leaf. They drink too much and Buddy does drugs. His temper is volatile and Iry never knows what he could get himself into.

Don’t misunderstand me, the two of them start thick as thieves but Iry wants to grow up and yearns for a chance at a new life. He’s not a saint but he’s trying. He needs to start believing that he deserves it. The Lost Get-Back Boogie is his journey to redemption, even if he seems like a “loser” most of the time, but he’s just a man who fought in the Korea war and came back with a Purple Heart and a bruised mind, a sensitive blues musician who can play any song after only hearing it and a person who wants a second chance at life. Who sets the parameters of the definition of “loser” anyway? He’s doing a lot of soul-searching and I hoped he would find his way back to a quieter life.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie also reflects on the DNA of America. Capitalism, violence, hard work and hope. Remember, we’re in the early 1960s and consumer society is the new norm. Here’s Iry driving home from Angola and observing the changes:

But as we neared New Orleans, the country began to change. Somebody had been busy in the last two years; it was no longer a rural section of the delta. Land-development signs stood along the highway, replacing the old ads for patent medicine and Purina feed, and great areas of marsh had been bulldozed out and covered with landfill for subdivision tracts. Mobile-home offices strung with colored flags sat on cinder blocks in the mud, with acres of waste in the background that were already marked into housing plots with surveyors’ stakes. The shopping-center boys had been hard at work, too. Pecan orchards and dairy barns had become Food City, Winn-Dixie, and Cash Discount.

Unbridled capitalism has the same effects in southern Louisiana as in Montana. It destroys landscapes and people for profit. Quickly. Very quickly.

Capitalism builds up on fear. We’re in 1962. The Great Depression is a fresh memory and people still have scars from that time. Unemployment is their greatest fear and they are ready to accept a lot from rogue companies as long as they have a job. Firms had a lot of leeway to use violence against workers who would protest. These men working at the pulp mill would rather turn against Frank Riordan than fight for the implementation of a proper filter at the pulp plant.

As the novel progresses, Iry discovers Montana and finds out the common points with southern Louisiana. He reflects on Montana’s history, one that also mirrors America’s history. It’s based on violence and the appropriation of the land to make money but also on the hope of immigrants. The country is built on violence and destruction. Slavery. Indians. The killing of buffalos in the 19thC. The destruction of rivers and trees in the name of progress in the 20thC. In Montana, the natural resources are wood. They have pulp mills. In Louisiana, the natural resources are oil. They have oil fields, and sugar mills.

Bonner was the Anaconda Company, a huge mill on the edge of the river that blew plumes of smoke that hung in the air for miles down the Blackfoot canyon. The town itself was made up of one street, lined with neat yards and shade trees and identical wood-frame houses. I hadn’t seen a company town outside of Louisiana and Mississippi, and though there was no stench of the sugar mill in the air or vision through a car window of Negroes walking from the sugar press to their wooden porches in the twilight with lunch pails in their hands, Bonner could have been snipped out of Iberia Parish and glued down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

The same causes have the same consequences. Underpaid workers work to destroy their own environment, barely survive and mortgage their children’s future. But who can judge them? They need to put food on the table.

Burke describes Montana people as rough. After all, they settled in a place with a hard climate and only the tougher survived.

“You don’t understand Montana people. They’ll hate your ass and treat you like sheep dip, but they come through when you’re in trouble. Wait and see what happens if you bust an axle back on a log road or get lost deer hunting.”

They do justice themselves with their rifles and their fists. Iry and Buddy get beaten up and threatened and the sheriff lets it slide. That’s the way justice is done around there. It’s something you guess in The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage too. Like Savage, Burke is never judgemental. He’s observant, that’s all.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is a very atmospheric book with incredible descriptions of Louisiana in the beginning and Montana later. Burke draws the portray of a man who’s fighting to crawl out of the hole he fell into. Music sustains him. Friendship too. In an interview I read in L’Amérique des écrivains, Burke says that it took nine years and 111 refusals to have The Lost Get-Back Boogie published by LSU Press. A big thank you to them for taking a chance on this marvelous piece of literature. Everything I love in a book is there: stellar style, great characters and a background of social commentary.

Very highly recommended.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is my fourth billet of my 20 Books of Summer series.

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 8 comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian – Thriller in the Basque country

August 25, 2019 11 comments

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian (1983) French title: L’été de Katya. Translated by Emmanuèle de Lesseps.

But despite the physical and emotional parallels between today and that distant summer, I find it difficult to express my memories lucidly. The problem is not in the remembering; it is in the recording; for a while I recall each note clearly, they play a false melody when I string them together. And it is not only the intervening years that distort the sounds and images; it is the fact that the events occurred on the other side of the Great War, beyond the gulf of experience and pain that separate two centuries, two cultures. Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre. The things we did and said, our motives and methods, had different implications from those they now have; therefore, it is possible for a description of those things to be completely accurate without being at all truthful.

When the narrator of The Summer of Katya by Trevanian says this, we are in August 1938. Dr Jean-Marc Montjean is 45 as he recalls his summer of 1914, just before the Great War started.

In 1914, he’s 21 and he’s back in the French Basque country after studying medicine in Paris. Dr Gros took him in as assistant to his clinic where he specializes in the “discomforts” associated with menopause. Jean-Marc is skeptical about the clinic’s patients, doesn’t hide it from Dr Gros but he took him in anyway.

Jean-Marc meets the Treville when Katya comes into the village to fetch a doctor because her brother Paul hurt his shoulder. They are twins and look very much alike. They live with their father in a remote rented house. Their father is buried in books, a history buff who only comes out of his office from time to time.

Jean-Marc is soon fascinated by Katya and strikes an odd friendship with Paul. The young man seems to play a game of push-and-pull with him, sometimes letting him in as a friend and sometimes roughly pushing him away. Katya is the same, apparently torn between going further with him and rejecting him for reasons he has yet to discover. Jean-Marc is on a constant roller-coaster of emotions with these two. Paul and Katya have warned him off: their father must not think there is any kind of love relationship between Katya and Jean-Marc. Why?

A feeling of unease rapidly invades the reader’s mind. Why are the Treville in Salies-Les-Bains? What are they hiding from? What scandal pushed them to flee from Paris? Why did Katya decided to change her name from Hortense to Katya? They share a heavy burden, but what is it?

Paul keeps telling Jean-Marc that he must not fall in love with Katya but you can’t avoid falling in love. The atmosphere thickens and the reader knows from the start that there will be no happy ending, we just wait for the drama to unfold before our eyes.

Besides the story between the protagonists and the thriller side of the book, The Summer of Katya is a fine piece of literature. Trevanian has lived in the French Basque country for a while and you can feel it in the descriptions of Salies-les-Bains, of the countryside and the village feast the Treville and Jean-Marc attend. As you heard it in the quote before, his language has a melancholic musicality. Jean-Marc never married after that summer, the one of Katya, the last one of his youth, before History hit him with the Great War and he had to recover from the aftermath of Katya. It was the end of a civilization and the end of his world.

I had never read any book by Trevanian before this one. I understand that The Summer of Katya is different from his other novels and that his most famous one is Shibumi. Has anyone read him before?

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

May 8, 2019 9 comments

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989) French title: Amour monstre. Masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

If you’ve never heard of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, forget about nerd techies and Star Wars aficionados. The geek here means more freak as in Freak Show. I started to read it in English but had to switch to French because I couldn’t picture what I was reading and didn’t know whether it came from my English or something else.

Something else it was.

Al and Lily Binewski inherited of the flailing Fabulon carnival show, had trouble keeping freaks on payroll to attract an audience and decided to breed their own freak show. Al would tinker with Lily’s pregnancies so that Lily would give birth to their own troop of freaks.

I’m sorry for the long quote that will follow but I don’t know a better way to introduce you to the Binewski family and give you a taste of Dunn’s brand of crazy prose.

First, this is how Al and Lilly took matter into their own hands and started their family:

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn’t mind. Relying on Papa’s ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

And then the outcome was *drum roll*

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it’s been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone-scale.

I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother’s and sisters’. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living-van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents’ masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Furtunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

The narrator is Olympia, the hunchbacked dwarf. We see her in present time (1980s) with Miranda, her daughter. Only Miranda thinks she’s orphaned and Olympia takes care of her financially and observes her from afar and is about to step into her life. (I won’t tell more to avoid spoilers). Olympia also tells us her family story, something so extraordinary that I struggle to sum it up.

Let’s say that the Binewski siblings were raised by nomadic parents who operated the Fabulon Carnival, founded by Al’s father and developed by Al himself and then Arturo. The siblings are raised in the idea the freakiest you are, the more love-worthy you are. They compete for their parents’ love through their earnings in the carnival. Whose show brings in the most money?

After a while, Arturo takes over the management, expands the carnival and soon reigns over a big crowd. In a sense, he promotes the concept of Freak Pride and call the other humans the norms (for normal people) He becomes a sort of guru, inside and outside his family. His siblings would do anything for his affection.

Geek Love is a crazy book that won’t let you indifferent. I wondered how the author’s brain came out with such a story. There are a lot of weird side characters in Geek Love and Dunn managed to design a coherent world. The details she gives about the carnival help build up her world, just like all the details about Hogwarts reveal the school of Witcraft and Wizardry in our minds and give it substance. It comes to life under our eyes.

It’s an alternative world where beauty, power, adoration and wealth are in the hands of the deformed. Obviously, it goes against the dictatorship of beauty. But if you go behind the curtain of strangeness, it’s a story of rivalry between the siblings and out-of-norm love. It describes the functioning of a close-knit clan who lives in their own world, with their own rules and bring the spectators in for the time of the show. Human nature remains and the quest for love, approval and a sense of self-worth are the same for the Binewskis as for anyone else.

Dunn questions a lot of human behaviors in her Geek Love. It challenges our reaction to physical differences. It points out our fascination for abnormalities. The Fabulon carnival wouldn’t exist without its constant influx of awestruck spectators, as if the public was at the same time repulsed, riveted and relieved that these deformities are not theirs.

Al and Lily’s actions are also questionable. Are parents allowed to interfere in a pregnancy to have the baby they want? Is it right by their children? The question is even more pressing nowadays since the medical techniques have developed tremendously since Geek Love was published.

Geek Love was our Book Club read for April and we had a lot to share about it. It’s disturbing to the point of nightmares. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to see it on a big screen as some images are better tamed in one’s mind when they come from words than from film. I know blocked things and scenes I didn’t want to imagine fully. I didn’t like the Binewkis very much but some of us found them touching in their own weird ways.

I’m eager to talk about this book with other readers. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Spoilers are allowed if readers are warned. I’m looking forward to discussing aspects of the book I couldn’t put into this billet. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

PS: The French title of the book, Amour monstre is perfect. Monstre as a noun covers the word Geek and monstre as an adjective means huge and this fits the story. Amour monstre means both Geek Love and Huge Love and this applies to the love Olympia feels for Arturo and Miranda.

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin – French Noir

November 27, 2018 4 comments

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin (1982) Not available in English.

Jean Vautrin (1933-2015) was a writer and a scriptwriter. Heatwave was our Book Club pick for November and it was a stark contrast to The Ice Princess, the crime fiction we read the month before.

Heatwave opens on a runaway criminal, Jimmy Cobb who has attacked a bank in Paris. He’s in the Beauce countryside, the agricultural region near Paris. There are large flat fields there and nowhere to hide. The police are after him and he’s digging a hole in a field to hide his loot from the robbery. He’s dressed in an elegant suit and it draws the attention of eleven-years old Chim. He sees him from his hiding place and decides to steal the money and hide it somewhere else.

Chim comes from the Morsang farm, the closest house. That’s where Jimmy Cobb decides to hide when the police’s chopper starts making rounds above his head.

The Morsang farm is the home of a violent and mostly uneducated family. Horace Maltravers married Jessica to take over the farm and its vast estate. His drunkard brother Socrate lives with them. Horace has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage, Ségolène. She’s not right in her head and a total nympho. She keeps assaulting men around her. Jessica had Chim with a seasonal farmhand before her marriage to Horace. Three employees work on the farm, Saïd from Algeria, Soméca Buick from an African country and Gusta Mangetout.

At the Morsang farm, they all have issues, except the employees. Horace is extremely violent and volatile. He hates Chim. Socrate could be sensible if drinking had not changed him into a useless slob. Jessica has locked herself into her housework, bringing cleanliness in the house since she can’t have a safe and sane home. Ségolène is creepy, always trying to corner males employees. They are all horrible in their own way. Horace and Ségolène clearly have mental health problems. Socrate and Jessica try to survive in this environment in their own way. And Chim is damaged for life.

The novel is a man chase, the police being after Cobb and the inhabitants of the farm willing to take advantage of his presence for their personal gain. Will Cobb get out alive of the farm? Will the police catch him or will the Morsang inhabitants get to him first? The whole novel happens in the span of two days.

Heatwave is a polar written in the pure tradition of classic Noir in bad French translations. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the American crime fiction was published in the famous Série Noire. They were published quickly, translated in a way to respond to the French public, sometimes without much respect for the original text. If passages were too long, they were cut to keep the book within a certain number of pages. Thick argot was used, some of which got old quickly and is incomprehensible today.

Heatwave was written in this Série Noire tradition. It’s a polar à la San Antonio. It’s full of play-on-words, of twisted French and old-fashioned gangster way of speaking. When I started to read it, right after The Emperor’s Tomb I felt disoriented.

Heatwave is written in a style that requires a bit of adjustment from the reader. It’s also a succession of quick vignettes that betray Vautrin’s experience with cinema. It felt stroboscopic. It was like entering a nightclub and needing a moment to adjust to the place, the noise, the dark and the flashing lights. At first, you’re overwhelmed. Then, once you’ve been here for a while, you get used to it and you start seeing details, enjoying the décor and having fun. The reader must reach page 50 to get accustomed to Vautrin’s brand of writing and to start enjoying the atmosphere and the inventive style. It’s better to read Heatwave in a few sittings or the process of adjusting to the ambiance is to be done each time. Among the horrible argot, we can find poetic descriptions of the landscape,

Vingt-deux heures cinq

C’est l’heure des exhalaisons soudaines. Au moindre souffle de la brise, les odeurs voyagent à dos de pollen ou de petit lapin. Chiendent, blé tendre, coquelicots, fleurs neuves, les senteurs de la nuit sortent de terre. Elles remercient le soleil

10 :25 pm

It’s the time for sudden exhalations. With each breath of breeze, scents travels on pollenback or on rabbitback. Couch grass, common wheat, poppies, new flowers, the night’s scent come out of the earth. They are thankful for the sun.

and quirky descriptions.

It’s also extremely violent. Gunshots, torture and violence to women. I was also bothered by the descriptions of Saïd and Soméca Buick, full of clichés coming from colonial France. Maybe it was tolerated in 1982, twenty years after the war in Algeria and decolonization but now, it’s shocking. And I’m happy to be shocked because it means that things have improved.

I thought it was rather unrealistic as far as police procedural is concerned. The GIGN intervenes. They’re Special Operations in the gendarmerie, elite corps who come in touchy situations. They don’t show their face to cameras and don’t give their names. And here, they introduce themselves as country gendarmes do. But I guess accuracy is not the point of the book.

I don’t know what to think about Heatwave. It’s obviously classic noir, written into a tradition. The gangster jargon used here and there felt like a pastiche, a will to follow the Série Noire rules. It is a pity that Vautrin tried too hard to do that because when his own writing dominates, it’s powerful with clear-cut descriptions, sharp portrays and poetic descriptions of the landscapes.

Heatwave is not available in English but it has been made into a film directed by Yves Boisset. The lead actors are Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Victor Lanoux. I won’t be watching the movie because I have a better tolerance to violence when it’s written than when it’s on film. When I read, I manage to block images from flooding my head, something I can’t do with films.

For foreign readers curious about Vautrin’s style, I would recommend to check out the sample on Amazon, you’ll see what it sounds like.

The Killer Koala: Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook.

April 16, 2018 13 comments

The Killer Koala – Humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook (1986) French title: Le koala tueur et autres histoires du bush. Translated from the English by Mireille Vignol.

I bought The Killer Koala, humorous Australian Bush Stories by Kenneth Cook at the Fête du Livre de Bron and it seemed to be a common collection of short stories published in France. Since I’m reading Australian books this year, it sounded a light and funny read. I wasn’t mistaken, these fifteen short-stories are a wild ride through Australia. Not sure they are good for tourism, though. They might frighten potential visitors.

To write this billet, I tried to find the list of the short stories’ original titles and I discovered that it’s OOP in the English-speaking world and I couldn’t find the table of content of this collection of short stories. So, sorry, I can’t give you the list. If anyone has it, please feel free to post them in a comment below.

Kenneth Cook (1929-1987) is best known for his Noir novel Wake In Fright, a book I’ll read too. The Killer Koala is part of a trilogy of short stories, the other volumes being Wombat Revenge and Frill-Necked Frenzy. He loved the Australian bush and all the stories are related to his supposedly true adventures in the outback. They are too extraordinary to be invented, he said.

I think that all the Australian states and territories have at least one dedicated story. Let’s me see:

  • Queensland, north of Mackay: With poisonous snakes like black snakes and king browns, it’s better not to fall asleep in an aquarium full of them,
  • Northern Territory, near Arnhem: There’s a story featuring the violent sex life of crocodiles and another story is about venomous snakes,
  • Tasmania, Kudulana island and its irate koala that grips you like vise,
  • South Australia, Coober Pedy and its crazy opal miners.
  • New South Wales, near Sydney: another encounter with poisonous snakes,
  • New South Wales, the narrator is at a friend’s farm where he performed a rectal injection on a female elephant,
  • Queensland, Cape York and its deathly crocodiles,
  • Western Australia, in the desert where cunning Aborigines sell camel tours to naïve tourists,
  • South Australia, near Marree: our narrator encounters a strange cat while bringing cattle to the Marree railway station,
  • New South Wales, the Macquarie swamps and its wild boars,
  • Western Australia, near Kalgoorlie and its gold trafficking,
  • Queensland, near Rockhampton, where his crazy dog George keeps bringing him a poisonous snake as a gift,
  • Queensland, Airlie Beach, where he almost drowns when he goes diving in the Great Corral Reef.

After reading these stories, only Victoria seems a safe place to be in Australia. Strangely, there’s no encounter with wandering kangaroos or monstrous spiders or poisonous jelly fishes. They must be too common, I don’t know. Or they’re part of the Wombat Revenge.

Kenneth Cook is the Australian equivalent of Jim Harrison, I think. They both were bon vivant, liked food and alcohol and had the body to prove it. Working out wasn’t their thing. They loved the wilderness in their country, Australia for Cook, the Upper Peninsula for Harrison. Some of the stories also reminded me of Craig Johnson’s Wait For Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories, probably because of the hilarious story involving an owl, a bear, a tourist and a Porta Potty. The three writers share a love for life, a good dose of humanity and a deep respect for the natives.

All along the stories, we see the narrator in dangerous situations, always told with a fantastic sense of humour. This large man who wasn’t in the best shape ends up in situation where he needs to run, walk, flee, swim, crawl or ride a camel to get out of perilous adventures. He’s not as good a gunman as he should be, which endangers him. He’s open and trusting and this leads him to interact with swindlers, nutcases, poachers and other various adventurers. In these stories, he has dubious encounters that almost lead him to disaster. It’s normal, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything funny and gripping to tell. However, I bet that he also met great people through his travels and thanks to his openness.

When you read The Killer Koala, it’s not surprising that Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack in the Australian bush in 1987. If he really lived the way he describes in his short stories, he didn’t treat his body well and pushed it to its limits. I hope he died happy, doing what he loved.

If anyone from Australia has read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. If you want to know what these stories sound like, I found the text of The Killer Koala here.

PS: Funny translation anecdote. I was reading several stories in a row and all involved animals. So, I thought that each story was about a different animal. When I reached the story Cent cannettes, I expected a story about a hundred quills (as ducks or cannette in French) and I read a story about someone drinking a hundred beer bottles (also a cannette in French)!

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal

March 24, 2018 14 comments

The Little Town Were Time Stood Still by Bohumil Hrabal (1985) French title: La petite ville où le temps s’arrêta. Translated from the Czech by Milena Braud.

Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) is a Czech writer considered as one of the best Czech writers of the 20th century. The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is my first encounter with his work and it was a pleasant journey into the past.

We are in a little town on the banks of the River Elbe, in the early 1930s. Our narrator is a child whose father Franci runs a brewery. His mother is a stay-at-home mom and his uncle Pepi lives with them. We don’t know how old our narrator is but when the book opens, he’s old enough to run around, slip into a bar to get a tattoo from a sailor.

It’s hard to describe this novel. It tells the tragic fate of this family as history catches with them. It starts during the Czech Republic between 1918 and 1935. We are after fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its domination over Bohemia and before the Nazis destructions followed by the Communist catastrophe. This little town has the same fate as Wilno, now Vilnius. It’s as if the Nazis and then the Communists sucked the life out of it. The River Elbe is a waterway to Hamburg, the little town’s harbor brings the world to its inhabitants. It brings life and during the Republic, the place was lively. When the Republic ended, it’s as if this city that was joyously feasting on life was put on a diet.

The narrator relates his years in this little town, his quotidian between a capricious and loud uncle and a mousy industrious father. It’s like Franci tries to even out Pepi’s eccentricities by being the exact opposite. The salt of the book lies in observing the different scenes the narrator shows us. The little town and its inhabitants come to life with their quirks, flaws and qualities. It’s like observing details on a peasant scene painted by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Lots of details, various characters in diverse situations that show everyday life. Hrabal has a great sense of humor which lightens the tragedy of this family and their town. It borders on burlesque sometimes and there’s a definite whiff of nostalgia.

Harbal grew up in a town like this and The Little Town Were Time Stood Still is part of a trilogy that starts with Cutting It Short and ends with Harlequin’s Millions. Highly recommended.

A word about the French cover. I don’t understand it at all. It’s a detail of the painting Australian Beach Pattern by Charles Meer. Frankly, I wonder what it’s got to do with the book. I prefer the English one, with the sailor who could be Uncle Pepi or the one with the city street. The Italian cover gives an idea of the narrator’s voice.

 

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

February 15, 2018 14 comments

The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987) French title: La Pluie de néon.

“It’s not a matter of guts, my friend,” Murphy said. There were small breadcrumbs in the whiskers on his chin. “Some people are adverbs, others are nouns.”

After reading Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, I turned to The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke because I wanted to read another book set in New Orleans and wash away the memory of DeWitt’s phony detective methods. The Neon Rain is the first book of the series featuring Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a police officer working for the New Orleans PD. He’s paired with Cletus Purcel, a cop with old-fashioned methods who drinks away his personal problems. Cletus is a liability in their partnership because he’s not at the best of his abilities and because of his dubious morals.

When the book opens, Robicheaux learns from a convict on death row that the mob has a contract on him. His life is threatened because he found the corpse of a young girl in the bayou and doesn’t want to let it go. The local police won’t really work on the case because she’s a poor girl and a prostitute. Robicheaux doesn’t give up, puts his nose where it doesn’t belong and gets in the middle of an IRS investigation, a FBI investigation, rotten cops, arm trafficking and political interference in the civil war in Nicaragua. Needless to say, none of the participants want a lone wolf investigating their business. Life gets dangerous for Dave Robicheaux.

Apart from the investigation, James Lee Burke introduces us to Dave Robicheaux, his present and past life, to New Orleans and Louisiana.

Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun, I suppose his last name gives it away: nothing sounds more French that words that end with eaux. His brother Jimmie is friend with the New Orleans mob and has activities that flirt with legality but he never goes too far. Let’s say he’s friendly with gray areas. The Robicheaux brothers have been raised in the bayou by their father, who did as best he could as an illiterate single dad.

The Neon Rain was published in 1987, it’s not a surprise that its main character was incorporated and shipped to Viet Nam in his twenties. Robicheaux didn’t come back intact from this dirty war and its remnants weigh on his life. He’s a recovering alcoholic and he has been off drinking for four years when he falls off the wagon after he was kidnapped and forced to drink. This one occurrence throws him off, his intoxication is immediate and massive.

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily.

James Lee Burke shows us what a powerful drug alcohol is and how strong its hooks are once they are clawed in someone’s skin. The only other time I’ve seen alcohol described that way is in Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. Nothing glamorous in it.

Robicheaux’s hope for the future is in Annie, a social worker he meets early in the novel. She’s ready to stand by him despite his dangerous job, the damages from his time in Viet Nam and his angst. It’s a second chance at happiness with someone who accepts him as he is, baggage and all, probably because she’s as bruised and battered as him.

I loved Robicheaux’s voice. He’s full of thoughtful musings on life and about the impact of our past in our present despite all our efforts to cut it loose and focus on moving on. He tells us we should embrace it because it is part of our self.

I reflected upon the ambiguous importance of the past in our lives. In order to free ourselves from it, I thought, we treat it as a decaying memory. At the same time, it’s the only measure of identity we have. There is no mystery to the self; we are what we do and where we have been. So we have to resurrect the past constantly, erect monuments to it, and keep it alive in order to remember who we are. For some, even our darkest past moments are preferable somehow to those few interludes of peace and sunshine in the world.

It is a brave way to live and probably a wise one, one that brings peace and self-acceptance.

One of the perks of the job as a cop in New Orleans is the questioning about police methods and honor. Robicheaux reflects on his belief system, on honor and how each of us builds its own standard, the one that allows us to face the mirror every day. We all have our own limits and some give themselves a longer leash than others. Robicheaux believes in staying on the right side of law and he’s not ready to use violence. He still believes in the system…

I pretended to be a pragmatist, a cynic, a jaded war veteran, a vitriolic drunk, the last of the Louisiana badasses; but like most people I believed that justice would be done, things would work out, somebody would show up with the Constitution in his hand.

…but he’s not naïve and knows that the system has faults that profit to criminal organizations.

That sounds like a cynical conclusion for a man to arrive at while sitting on a shady stone bench on a cool morning under banana trees, but most honest, experienced cops will tell you the same thing. It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court for the pornographic bookstores and the live sex shows. They usually exist because somebody on the zoning board is getting greased. Kids don’t do dope because their parents and teachers are permissive. They do it because adults sell it to them. No psychological complexities, no sociological mysteries.

Being with Dave Robicheaux is being with someone on a quest. He hasn’t found his place in the world yet. He’s hasn’t found himself yet, he’s trying hard to pick up the pieces of his self and his life after alcohol, his personal hurricane, wrecked his life. It brought devastation to his body and mind, he’s aware that it’s a sickness that will never leave him. Alcoholism is like an alligator asleep in the bayou waters; it is rooted in his soul, under the surface, ready to strike at any moment and cut him deep or choke him.

The Neon Rain is also a tribute to New Orleans and Louisiana. Robicheaux lives on a houseboat on the Lake Pontchartrain and the view from his deck is simply stunning:

When we got to Lake Pontchartrain it was like walking out from under a layer of steam into a slap of cool, salt-smelling air. Pelicans dove for fish out of the blue sky, plummeting downward with their wings cocked behind their heads as though they had been dropped from a bomb rack, exploding in the smoky green water and rising suddenly with silvery fish flipping helplessly in their beaks. Far out on the horizon the water was capping in the sunlight, and a long, gleaming white yacht with red sails was dipping into the troughs and sending geysers of foam bursting into the air.

Beautiful, right? There are tons of descriptions of nature around New Orleans and of New Orleans itself.

A few genuine bohemians, writers, and painters still lived in the Quarter, and some professional people paid exorbitant rents for refurbished apartments near Jackson Square, but the majority of Vieux Carré residents were transvestites, junkies, winos, prostitutes, hustlers of every stripe, and burnt-out acid-heads and street people left over from the 1960s. Most of these people made their livings off middle-class conventioneers and Midwestern families who strolled down Bourbon Street, cameras hanging from their necks, as though they were on a visit to the zoo.

I wonder what remains of that after Katrina. I suppose that Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead answers that question. And the answer is : Not much. Both books have something in common: talks about food in New Orleans, which sounds pretty special : I picked up my poor-boy sandwich and started to eat. The shrimp, oysters, lettuce, onions, tomato, and sauce piquante tasted wonderful. I wonder how tasty that is…

The sauce piquante part leads me to the French vibe of the novel. For a French reader, all the French names and words create a strange feeling of familiarity. I feel at home. Names are evocative, something Proust points out brilliantly in In Search of Lost Time. Sentences like “So buy me a beignet and a coffee at the Café du Monde.” give me the impression of reading of a familiar place. I didn’t get that vibe from Gran’s book and I wonder if Burke, with his Southern English, sounds different to English natives as well. He uses phrases I would never dare to say in English because they sound too French. Here’s an example:

When you’ve hunted through the whole marsh for the bull ’gator that ate your hog and you come up empty, go back where you started and commence again.

I would never use the verb commence, I’d have the impression to make a mistake. Same for the word tranquility or the It’s facile to blame the Supreme Court you can see in a previous quote.

All this, the beignets, the Café du Monde, the Bourbon Street, the sauce piquante and the pralines make me feel close to the place, even if I’ve never been there and even if it’s actually very different from where I live.

Everything concurs to make of The Neon Rain a masterpiece of literary crime fiction. A character who has depth, baggage but not too much to make him implausible. An incredible sense of place. A fantastic literary style as you propably noticed in the previous quotes. An intriguing investigation with fascinating ramifications. Very highly recommended.

PS : Out of the three covers, I think the first one reflects better the atmosphere of the novel.

 

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 4 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

The Snuff-It Princess by Kââ – Crime fiction

June 25, 2017 11 comments

The Snuff-it Princess by Kââ (1984) Original French title: La princess de Crève. Not available in English.

I bought La princesse de Crève by Kââ at Quais du Polar. I was drawn to the great cover and the play-on-word in the title. Indeed, La princesse de Crève is a reference to the famous novel La princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678) The best translation I can come with is The Snuff-it Princess, since the verb crever in this context is a slang word for to die.

My copy of La princesse de Crève is a new edition of Kââ’s 1984 crime fiction novel or polar. I’d never heard of Kââ as a writer. According to Wikipedia, it’s the pen name of Pascal Marignac who also wrote under the names of Corsélien and Béhémoth. Kââ is a reference to the python’s name in The Jungle Book.

La princesse the Crève is a roadtrip/chase classic crime fiction. It’s told at the first person by an unnamed narrator. From the context, we can guess he’s a white man in his late thirties or early forties. He’s literate, amateur of good wines and connoisseur of fire arms. He’s a criminal with principles who has the right connections in organized crime circles. As we say in French, he’s not an altar boy but still acts according to his own moral code.

When the book opens, our narrator is sitting at a terrace, on a look-out. Mr de Warny is going to cross the border between France and Switzerland with 150 000 francs hidden in the trunk. And our narrator and his accomplice have decided to block De Warny’s road and steal the cash before he gets to Switzerland. Everything goes according to plan and they manage to pinch the money right under Roman Markos’s nose, the man behind the money laundering business.

Our narrator decides to let things cool off and chooses to hide in Bruges, Belgium. He’s having dinner at a restaurant when he meets Michelle. She’s on her own. She’s the archetype of the femme fatale, a stunning blonde with smoldering eyes. She captures his attention, he chats her up only to realize that she has hitmen after her. After putting the pieces of the jigsaw together, he understands that Markos’s men are after her. He wonders if it has anything to do with him stealing the money near Switzerland. He decides to help her escape her killers, knowing his life is at stake since he took the gangster’s money.

Who is Michelle and why does she have this string of killers chasing after her? I won’t tell more about the plot. Suffice to say that La princesse de Crève is a road trip from Belgium to the South of France and even Italy. The death toll keeps increasing along the way as more hitmen pop on their road. Michelle and the narrator are constantly on the run and escaping a painful death.

I can’t say I loved La princesse de Crève. It’s well-written but there were too many corpses, too many gun fights and too many precise references to firearms I know nothing about. The constant chase was tiring in the end. There was too much action and not enough insight on the characters’ psychology. I felt like I didn’t belong to the right gender to enjoy it. All this admiration for weapons was too much testosterone for my tastes. It’s as if the genre needed landmarks to meet virility requirements. And yet, as chauvinistic as this description sounds, it’s not. Women have a good place in the novel, Michelle is not a wallflower, she has spunk. And two of the hitmen are lesbians, quite daring for 1984.

You can’t forget that La princesse de Crève was written in the 1980s. Of course, there are these constant stops at cafés to get a phone, the models of the cars used during this roadtrip/chase are well-known cars from this decade. They smoke all the time and everywhere. They pay in francs and it’s strange now that we’re used to euros.

What felt truly dated is this narrator without a past or a future, as if he were born for this moment, this plot. The reader doesn’t know much about him, he’s a bit of a hologram. We only see him in action and we draw a portrait in our head. He’s literate and never vulgar. He enjoys female company and casual sex but doesn’t objectify women. He’s a little romantic and while he never has qualms about shooting an enemy, torture is not his MO. Recent crime fiction doesn’t work that way anymore. Authors create series and the subplot about the main character’s private life is as important as the crime plot. We are used to this now and I missed it. Despite a clever writing, La princesse de Crève lacked substance on the characters developments.

Perhaps it just didn’t work for me and I shouldn’t have expected more than easy entertainment from this book.

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston

December 29, 2016 17 comments

The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston (1981) French title: Un Noël blanc. Translated by Arlette Stroumza

Winter 1980. Constance Keating is 45 and dying. After hearing about her cancer, she left her flat and her job in London to come back to her childhood home in Dublin. Her parents are dead and she and her sister Bibi had decided to sell the house but now it will be Constance’s last home. It’s almost Christmas and Constance wants a Christmas tree to recreate the atmosphere of happier times.

I was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house. The fresh smell of pine needles in the winter room; the excitement of unwrapping the sparkling glass ornaments from the tissue paper in which they had been so carefully packed eleven months before; the warm waxy smell as the tin corkscrew candles flicker for the first time in their scalloped holders. Those early days of the tree were almost better than Christmas itself, which never came up to anyone’s expectations. I must pull myself together and get a tree, something manageable, something I can cope with on my own, something that will cause no anxiety to Bibi. The latter, of course, may not be possible. I will use electric lights, not candles. I will assure her of that.

Yes, I must get a tree.

Re-creation.

All that is left

noel_blancConstance comes from a bourgeois family from Dublin. Her parents were a socialite couple, living separate lives but staying together. Constance doesn’t know if they loved each other or only tolerated each other. But in Ireland at the time, did they have another choice than staying married? Bibi followed their parents’ footsteps. She married well, popped four children and lives the bourgeois life, with all the narrow-mindedness you can imagine.

Constance has always been a free spirit. She refused to make the comfortable choice and marry Bill, who became a doctor. She decided to leave her Irish life behind and start fresh in London. She wanted to become a writer. It didn’t turn as well as she hoped but she stayed in London, took a job and never married. She remained faithful to her lust from freedom. Then she decided to have a baby and had a holiday fling to get pregnant. Her lover was Jacob Weinberg, a Jew from Poland who emigrated to Great Britain after WWII. Even her choice of lover is unconventional.

Her little girl is now nine months old and going to lose her mother. Constance writes to Jacob, to tell him about his daughter, about her upcoming death and asks him to come and get his daughter. Will the letter reach him on time? Will he come?

Constance and Bibi obviously don’t see life through the same lenses. Bibi does her duty to Constance. She takes care of her little girl, makes sure that she’s fed and well but it’s cold as a duty. She doesn’t understand Constance at all, why she doesn’t want to stay in a hospital and do treatments to prolong her life. But Constance doesn’t want to go through unnecessary painful treatments. She wants to let cancer run its course and die at home.

Bill, her former beau, comes regularly as a doctor and as a friend and accepted her decision. He would have liked for her to go to the hospital but he respects her decision. Bibi doesn’t let go and it might not be out of love. It is hard to figure out her feelings and her opinion. On the one hand, she’s upset that Constance doesn’t follow the rules and because she can’t pass on the problem to the doctors and nurses. It’s convenient. On the other hand, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: Constance is dying. Is it because losing her sister after losing her parents is too much to bear? Or is it only some obnoxious stubbornness to accept the evidence? She keeps telling Constance that she’ll get better.

We follow Constance’s last weeks in her parents’ home, a house that brings back childhood memories. She also feels the urge to write again. We learn more about her, her life and her family. Constance is a strong independent woman who chose to go against conventions to remain true to herself. She’s not one to compromise and let age and society eat at her resolve. She chose to have a child by herself, a scandal for her family. She even chose an improper lover to father her child, a Jew, a foreigner.

Constance never connected with her family. Bibi and Constance’s mindsets are too different. Their mother never understood why she left for London. Perhaps it questioned too much her own reasons to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. And their father did his best to escape from family life, from spending time with the three females of his life. Would he have been different if he had had a son? Constance wonders.

I liked Constance for her courage. She remained true to herself, resisted peer pressure even if it came with costs. She had to emigrate, she was estranged from her family. She went against people’s expectations and lived with her decisions. It’s the mark of a true free spirit. To hell with propriety even if it can be selfish sometimes. She never wonders if her conduct exposed her mother and sister to gossip or if Bill was heartbroken when she left.

It should be a sad novel but it’s not. It has the musicality of a piano piece in Minor. I’ve read it in French, so I don’t have any other quote to share. The translation is smooth and it reflects Johnston’s prose. It’s like one of those films with flash backs in black and white family films showing a character’s past. We see vignettes of Constance as a girl, as a young woman and as Jacob’s lover. The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person narration and an omniscient narrator. It reflects Constance’s mind. She drifts to sleep. She medicates herself with alcohol and painkillers. She’s weak and the switch of point of views, the back and forth between the present and the past wonderfully create the illusion that we are with Constance, in her mind, in her room and in the last days of her life.

Highly recommended.

Sex, jazz and literature or when Bukowski meets Baldwin

September 18, 2016 33 comments

How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière (1985) Original French title: Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Cette chambre est bien le Q.G. de tout ce que cette ville compte de marginales ; cette mafia urbaine qui a trouvé d’instinct son île au 3670 de la rue Saint-Denis, au carré Saint-Louis, Montréal, Québec, Canada, Amérique, Terre. CHEZ MOI. This room is really the HQ of every marginal girl of this city, this urban mafia who instinctively found their island at 3670, Saint-Denis Street, Saint-Louis quarter, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, America, Earth. MY HOME.

LaferrièreWhy did I wait so long to read Dany Laferrière? My trip to Québec prompted me to try his books and I decided to start by the beginning, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. It is translated into English under How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. A provocative title that sure caught my eyes.

The narrator is a struggling writer who lives in a crappy room in the Carré Saint-Louis neighbourhood of Montreal. It is based on Laferrière’s own experience of his first years in Montreal after he emigrated from Haïti in the 1980s. His roommate Bouba is a couch potato/philosopher. Both have girls coming in and out of the apartment and have a very active sex life. Both are black.

The narrator relates his daily life and his interactions with various white female sex partners. Most of them are students and come from Outremont, a bourgeois part of the city. They’re sort of slumming it with him. And the narrator, who doesn’t treat them really well, makes blunt observations about the relationships between a black man and a white young woman. He’s half-amused, half-offended by the huge lies he manages to feed them about his African origins. They swallow every stupid description about customs, clothes and everyday life.

ET DIRE QU’ON ENVOIE CES FILLES DANS UNE INSTITUTIONS SERIEUSE (McGILL) POUR APPRENDRE LA CLARTE, L’ANALYSE ET LE DOUTE SCIENTIFIQUE. ELLES SONT TELLEMENT INFECTEES PAR LA PROPAGANDE JUDEO-CHRETIENNE QUE DES QU’ELLES PARLENT A UN NEGRE, ELLES SE METTENT A PENSER EN PRIMITIVES. POUR ELLES, UN NEGRE EST TROP NAIF POUR MENTIR. C’EST PAS LEUR FAUTE, IL Y A EU, AUPARAVANT, LA BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, LE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC. (*) TO THINK THAT THESE GIRLS ARE SENT TO A SERIOUS ACADEMIC INSTITUTION (McGILL) TO LEARN CLARITY, ANALYSIS AND SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM. THEY ARE SO MUCH INFECTED BY JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PROPAGANDA THAT AS SOON AS THEY TALK TO A NEGRO, THEY START THINKING AS PRIMITIVES. FOR THEM, A NEGRO IS TOO NAÏVE TO LIE. IT AIN’T THEIR FAULT, BEFORE, THERE WERE THE BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, THE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC.

They don’t question him out of ignorance but also to prove how tolerant and open-minded they can be. Blunt thoughts about how the whites see black people are spread in the book. It’s not the purpose of the novel but it’s part of the narrator’s experience as an immigrant in Montreal. This is the Baldwin side.

The Bukowski side is more in the way of life, the drinking, the sex, the dubious way he treats women. It reminded me of Post Office. Bouba and the narrator pick up girls who are like star-struck but neither of the men is really interested in them. They give them nicknames like Miz Literature or Miz Suicide according to their interests and background. One of them is lovely and seems attached to the narrator but he doesn’t really care about her. He’s on his personal journey as a struggling writer who suffers for his art in a poor hotel room like Hemingway or Bukowski. What saves him is his sense of humor. Sure, he wants to be a writer and while he wants to walk into the path of glorious writers, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Another link between Laferrière, Bukowski and Baldwin is certainly their voracious love for literature and their lust for life. A powerful energy pours out of their books. The narrator is a would-be writer, he reads all the time and books are in his blood.

Longue file d’attente au bureau de poste. On est serrés comme des sardines. J’avise une sardine, juste devant moi. Elle lit un bouquin. Je suis une sardine maniaque de bouquins. Dès que je vois quelqu’un en train de lire un livre, il faut que je sache quel est le titre, si elle aime ça et de quoi ça parle. Long queue at the post office. We’re packed like sardines. I see a sardine just before me. She’s reading a book. I’m a sardine obsessed with books. As soon as I see someone reading a book, I have to know the title, if she likes it and what it is about.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? I bet he also reads information on food packaging at the breakfast table, various instructions here and there because he’s a compulsive reader. As Guy would say, there are worse addictions. This is a most pleasant part of the book. The narrator shares thoughts about literature and shows how his reading is embedded in his everyday life. He has an intimate and casual relationship with writers, worship made of familiarity.

Faut lire Hemingway debout, Basho en marchant, Proust dans un bain, Cervantès à l’hôpital, Simenon dans le train (Canadian Pacific), Dante au paradis, Dosto en enfer, Miller dans un bar enfumé avec hot dogs, frites et coke…Je lisais Mishima avec une bouteille de vin bon marché au pied du lit, complètement épuisé, et une fille à côté, sous la douche. You must read Hemingway standing, Basho, walking, Proust, in a bath, Cervantes, in the hospital, Simenon, on a train (Canadian Pacific), Dante, in heaven, Dosto, in hell, Miller in a smoky bar with hot dogs, fries and coke…I was reading Mishima with a cheap bottle of wine by my bed, totally worn out, with a girl nearby, in the shower.

Laferrière has the humor and the bluntness of a John Fante. He’s a black man from Haiti who ended up in Montreal, lived in Florida and has been a member of the Académie Française since 2013. He’s the second black man elected in this institution, the first writer from Haiti and the first from Québec. A long way since Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Powerful stuff. Highly recommended.

(*) NB: The capital letters are in the original text and I did the translations myself.

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