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Crime fiction in August: Mexico, America, South Africa and New Zealand

August 28, 2022 10 comments

Let’s have a tour of my August crime fiction travels. First, let’s go to Madrid.

Adiós Madrid by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (1993) French title: Adiós Madrid. Translated by René Solis

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a Mexican crime fiction writer. I’ve already read Days of Combat featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. Adiós Madrid is the seventh or ninth book of the series.

This time, Belascoarán is sent on a mission to Madrid by his friend Justo Vasco, the assistant manager of the museum of anthropology in Mexico. He’s going all the way to Madrid to deliver Vasco’s threat. The Black Widow, “ex-rancheras singer, mistress of an ex-president of Mexico who had recently passed away, ex-icon of the Mexico nightlife and ex-landlord of the country.”, lives in Madrid.

Belascoarán has to tell her that if she tries to sell the plastron of Moctezuma, an antique that belongs to the anthropology museum, Vasco will leak all kinds of embarrassing information about her.

Belascoarán is happy to get a free trip to Madrid, the city where his parents grew up and it’s a bittersweet experience for him to confront the Madrid that his parents described to the actual and modern one. And then of course, things don’t go according to plan as far as the threat delivery is concerned.

Adiós Madrid is a very short book for crime fiction (102 pages in French) and it was good fun but nothing more. No need to rush for it.

After Madrid, it was time to fly to Washington DC and let George Pelecanos drive me through his hometown.

The Cut by George Pelecanos (2011) French title: Une balade dans la nuit. Translated by Elsa Maggion.

In The Cut, Spero Lucas, a former marine who was in Afghanistan, works as a non-licensed investigator for a lawyer, Tom Petersen. Spero’s job is to unearth useful clues that help Petersen during procedurals.

Spero starts on a case where he finds crucial clues that unable to bail Petersen’s client’s son out of jail. The thing is: Petersen’s client is Anwan Hawkins, head of a marijuana trafficking organization and currently in jail. Hawkins uses the “Fedex method”: send the drug via Fedex at the address of an unsuspecting citizen, follow up the delivery on internet, be on location at delivery time and intercept the parcel.

Now two parcels went missing and the loss amounts to 130 000 USD. For a 40% cut, Spero is ready to track down the missing parcels. And that will prove to be more dangerous than expected, even for an ex-marine.

Spero Lucas is a well-drawn character, we see him struggle with his military past and his father’s death. He comes from an unconventional tight-knit family with Greek roots and the personal side of the book was a nice addition to the crime plot.

My only drawback is Pelecanos’s style. You can see that he’s used to writing scenarios as it is very cinematographic. Lots of descriptions of driving the streets of Washington DC were hard to picture and didn’t bring much to the book. In my opinion, it could have been more literary. It was Good entertainment though.

Then, I traveled to South Africa to read my first Deon Meyer. He’s a writer I’d seen and heard at Quais du Polar and had wanted to read for a long time.

Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (1998) French title: Les Soldats de l’aube.

Dead at Daybreak is, according to Goodreads, Matt Joubert book #1.5. This is a series I’m very tempted to read after this introduction to Meyer’s literary world.

Zatopek van Heerden is a former police officer, he’s adrift and when the book opens, he’s hungover in jail after fighting in a bar in Capetown. Like Spero Lucas in The Cut, he’s hired by a lawyer, Hope Beneke, to help her with her client Wilhelmina van As. Here’s the reason she hired van Heerden:

Johannes Jacobus Smit was fatally wounded with a large-calibre gun on 30 September last year during a burglary at his home in Moreletta Street, Durbanville. The entire contents of a walk-in safe are missing, including a will in which, it is alleged, he left all his possessions to his friend, Wilhelmina Johanna van As. If the will cannot be found, the late Mr Smit will have died intestate and his assets will eventually go to the state.’

It seems simple enough: find the will. Van Heerden will have to get out of his drunken funk, informally reconnect with his former colleagues, solve the case, get paid and move on. However, the case takes him to another affair that happened in 1983, during the time of the Apartheid and economic sanctions against South Africa.

Dead at Daybreak is a fantastic crime fiction book and it has it all. A riveting plot. Fascinating thoughts about South Africa, the change of regime and relationships between the black and white communities. Well-drawn characters.

The plot driven chapters are third person narrative, with the reader following the investigation. They alternate with chapters with first person narrative, where van Heerden writes about his life, from his childhood to the events that brought him to get into bar fights and drink too much. These chapters were captivating too. The ending of the book was both the closing of the investigation and closure for van Heerden.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

My next crime fiction book took me to New Zealand where I was happy to reconnect with Maori police officer Tito Ihaka.

Fallout by Paul Thomas. (2014) Not available in French. Published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Fallout is my second book by Paul Thomas as I’d already read and loved Death on Demand.

Fallout has a triple plot thread with interconnected stories. It starts with Finbar McGrail, the District Commander in Auckland who is on the verge of retirement. His first murder case in 1987 is still unsolved and he recently had a new lead. He asks Ihaka to look into it and see if he can find who murdered Polly Stenson at the posh Barton party in 1987.

Meanwhile, Ihaka’s former colleague Van Roon is hired as a non-licensed investigator to find Eddie Brightside. This man has been hiding abroad for years and he was seen in New Zealand.

On the side, Miriam Lovell, Ikaka’s ex-lover, contacts him regarding his father’s death, some twenty years ago. Lovell is writing her PhD thesis about work unions in New Zealand and as Ikaha’s father was a well-known unionist, she comes across breaking news: Jimmy Ihaka might not have died of a heart attack but could have been murdered. Ihaka decides to investigate his father’s death.

I loved Fallout as much as I loved Death on Demand. Ihaka is an incredible character. He’s a maverick police officer with a code of conduct of his own. He’s loud, crude but loyal. He’s either respected or despised and he’s not good with precinct politics. This is Ihaka, assessing a witness.

Gentle, thought Ihaka; sensitive; arty. Probably plays the guitar and writes songs about how hard it is being gentle, sensitive and arty in this fucked-up world.

Political correctness is not Ihaka’s strong suit and that’s why I enjoyed my time with him.

Fallout is a tour de force. I never felt lost between the three investigations, mixing up characters or stories. It was perfectly orchestrated, a fine-tuned mix of standard crime, personal matters and political issues as it branches out on the topic of New Zealand anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s. Fascinating stuff.

Excellent book: highly recommended.

So, that was my month of August with crime fiction. All in all, it was a good pick of books, various places and well-drawn characters and plots. I’m looking forward to reading more by Deon Meyer, so don’t hesitate to leave recommendations in the comments below.

All these books belong to my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

PS : Fallout is published by an indie publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, their books are available online and well, the more books they sell, the more chances we have that they bring us great crime fiction books.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

July 2, 2022 21 comments

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1997) French title: Promenons-nous dans les bois. Translated by Karine Chaunac.

After a few of very busy weeks and weekends, I’m back! I kept on reading, so expect a burst of billets. Let’s start with 20 Books of Summer #1, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

In 1996, Bill Bryson moves back from England to America and settles in New Hampshire with his family. He’s near the Appalachian Trail (AT) and decides that he wants to hike this mythic trail. He starts his journey in Georgia with his old friend Stephen Katz. Both are rather inexperienced hikers, no athletes –Katz is overweight and a recovering alcoholic— and not fully prepared for their travels.

The book is a mix of chapters between their walking, their progression on the trail and how things go.

They’ll hike 870 miles before abandoning their project and it represents around 40% of the entire trail. Chapters alternate between Bryson and Katz’s adventures and facts about the AT, the mountains and the places they go to or through.

It’s readable, informative but quite superficial. In my opinion, Bryson was a bit condescending at times and lacked of self-deprecating humor. He wasn’t always kind to Katz and I found that a bit jarring.

They engage into a project that consists in hiking a long and tough trail for which they are unfit. Unless Bryson downplays his fitness for the sake of the narration. They aren’t trained for that but go for it anyway. I’m torn between awe (How gutsy!) and consternation (How imprudent!)

Each time they are out of the trail, they rush to fast food restaurants to gorge on soda, hamburgers, pies and other junk food. That’s so far away from a usual hiker’s way of life that I didn’t know what to think about this. Typically American? I can’t imagine reading about someone walking the Camino de Santiago and stopping at McDonald’s at any opportunity. Maybe I read too many nature writing books.

A Walk in the Woods was published in 1997 and felt quite dated sometimes. Obviously, there’s the technology part: they do it without GPS or cell phones and the maps they have aren’t always as useful as they should be.

But it is also a book of its time. It was written before climate change really became a hot topic and the awareness about nature wasn’t as important as it is now. Bryson gives information about the trail, the places they go through and describes the landscape but not with the reverence and gratefulness I expected from my 2022 perspective. Again, maybe I read too much nature writing.

But in the last 25 years, at least in France, hiking has developed tremendously. According to a survey ordered by the FFRandonnée (French Federation of Hiking), in 2021, 56% of French people had done at least one hike in the last twelve months. It has become a widespread hobby for people who want to find some quiet time in nature. It’s also linked to a trend to put our foot on the brake of our frantic consumer life. I didn’t find this in Bryson’s book, mostly because it was written in 1997 and we’ve changed since then.

On another aspect, I would have liked more introspection on Bryson’s side. How did this challenge affect him beyond the blisters, the wet clothes and the uncomfortable shelters? What did he get from it besides the satisfaction to deliver a new book to his publisher? One can’t go out of 870 miles of hiking in the woods without soul searching moments.

In other words, I expected more, probably because Pete Fromm and Rick Bass spoilt me with Indian Creek and The Book of Yaak. Now, if you know a book about the Appalachian trail that is closer to these books than to A Walk in the Woods, please leave a comment.

PS : the French title of A Walk in the Woods is Promenons-nous dans les bois.

It means “let’s walk in the woods” and comes from a nursery rhyme that says “Let’s walk in the woods as long as wolves aren’t there because if they were there, they would eat us”. Children stuff is scary, sometimes.

Three beach-and-public-transport crime fiction books: let’s go to Sweden, Japan and Australia.

June 12, 2022 13 comments

The summer holiday are coming soon, with lazy reading hours, waiting time in airports or train stations, train or plane travels and all kinds of noisy reading environments. That’s what my Beach and Public Transports category is for: help you locate page turners that help pass the time and don’t need a lot of concentration. So, let’s make a three-stops journey, starting in Stockholm with…

The Last Lullaby by Carin Gerardhsen. (2010) French title: La comptine des coupables. Translated from the Swedish by Charlotte Drake and Patrick Vandar.

It’s a classic crime fiction book that opens with a murder. Catherine Larsson and her two children are murdered in their apartment. She was from the Philippines, got married to Christer Larsson and they were divorced. He was deeply depressed and had no contact with his children.

Catherine lived in a nice apartment in a posh neighborhood in Stockholm. How could this cleaning lady afford such a lavish home?

The commissaire Conny Sjöberg and his team are on the case. The troubling fact is that their colleague Einar Ericksson has not shown up for work and hasn’t call in sick. Sjöberg looks for him and soon discover that Catherine Larsson and Einar Ericksson were close, that he used to come and meet her and play with the children. His sweater was in her flat.

Now the police are in a difficult position: their colleague is a suspect but Sjöberg thinks he’s a victim too. It complicates the investigation.

I enjoyed The Last Lullaby as the story progressed nicely, all clues clicking into place one after the other. I thought that the police team’s personal lives were a bit heavy. What are the odds to have on the same team someone with a traumatic past, someone who was raped and filmed, someone recovering of a heart attack and multiples divorces and affairs. It seemed a bit too much for me.

That minor detail aside, it’s a nice Beach and Public Transport book. Now, let’s travel to Japan for a very unusual story.

The House Where I Once Died by Keigo Higashino (1994) French title: La maison où je suis mort autrefois. Translated from the Japanese by Yukatan Makino. Not available in English.

The unnamed Narrator of the book and Sayaka met in high school and were a couple for a few years. Sayaka broke up with him when she met her future husband. He wasn’t too heartbroken, they never meant to spend their life together anyway. Seven years later, they reconnect at a high school reunion.

Sayaka contacts the Narrator a few weeks later and asks him to accompany her on a strange trip. When her father died, he left her with a key to a house. She knows that her father used to go there once a month but never talked about it. Since her husband is on a business trip, she doesn’t want to go alone. The Narrator accepts and they drive to a strange house in the woods by Matsubara Lake.

Sayaka doesn’t have any family left and has no memories of her early childhood. She wants her memory back and hopes that this house will trigger something in her.

The Narrator and Sayaka enter the house and start playing detective to find out whose house it is, why it is empty, where its inhabitants are and how they are linked to Sayaka’s father.

The House Where I Once Died is a fascinating tale and as a reader, I was captivated from the start. It’s like a children’s mystery tale, a strange house, clues in the rooms, a memory loss and weird details everywhere.

Step by step, along with the Narrator and Sayaka, we discover the truth about the house and its family. The ending was unexpected and the whole experience was a great reading time.

That’s another excellent Beach and Public Transport book at least for readers who can read in French, since it hasn’t been translated into English.

Now let’s move to Tasmania with…

The Survivors by Jane Harper (2020) French title: Les survivants.

This is not my first Jane Harper, I’ve already read The Dry and Force of Nature. This time, Jane Harper takes us to the fictional Tasmanian small town on Evelyn Bay. It’s on the ocean and along the coasts are caves that can be explored when the tide is low and that get flooded when the tide is high.

Kieran and his girlfriend Mia live in Sydney with their three-month old baby but they both grew up in Evelyn Bay. They are visiting Kieran’s parents Brian and Verity in their hometown. Brian has dementia and the young couple is here to help Verity pack their house to move Verity into an apartment and Brian goes to a medical facility.

This family is still haunted by the drama that occurred twelve years ago. Kieran was in the caves when a bad storm hit the town. Finn, his older brother who had a diving business with his friend Toby, went out to sea to rescue him. The storm turned their boat and they both drowned. Kieran has always felt responsible for the death of his older brother.

The storm devastated the town. The material damage was repaired. The psychological one, not really. That same day of the historical storm, Gabby Birch disappeared and never came back. She was fourteen and she probably drowned too. Her body was never found.

That summer, Kieran and his friends Ash and Sean were a tight unit who partied a lot. They were just out of high school and Kieran had secret hook-ups with Olivia in the caves. Gabby was Olivia’s younger sister and Mia’s best friend.

So, the group of friends who meet again in Evelyn Bay has this traumatic past in common. Olivia and Ash are now in a relationship. Olivia works at the local pub, with a student who is there for the summer. Bronte is an art student at university in Canberra. She waitresses at the pub too and shares a house on the beach with Olivia.

One morning shortly after Kieran and Mia’s arrival, Bronte is found dead on the beach. Who could have wanted to kill her? Old wounds reopen and everyone thinks about the storm and Gabby Birch’s unexplained death. The digital rumour mill runs freely on the town’s forum.

Are the two deaths related? How will Kieran deal with being in this town again in the middle of another dramatic event? What happens in those caves?

The Survivors isn’t an outstanding crime fiction book but it does the job. It’s entertaining and exactly what you need to read on a beach. Well, except for the fear you may get about rising tides and being stuck in caves…

The Survivors is my first of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge. Do you look for easy and entertaining reads for the summer or do you take advantage of the slower pace (no school and related activities, holidays…) to read more challenging books?

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

June 5, 2022 15 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very highly recommended.

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

February 15, 2022 28 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss – a trip to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation

December 5, 2021 8 comments

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss. (1995) French title: Le canyon des ombres. Translated by Danièle et Pierre Bondil.

James D. Doss (1939-2012) is the author of the crime fiction series set in the Southern Ute Indian Reservation (Colorado) and featuring the Ute detective Charlie Moon. The Shaman Laughs is the second book of the series.

It all begins when Big Ouray, Gorman Sweetwater’s bull, is found dead in the Cañon del Espiritu. The bull was mutilated and it is a great loss for its owner as it is a valuable breeder. Gorman had insurance for his bull, a policy he subscribed through a local and Ute insurance broker, Arlo Nighbird.

Arlo is not the most well-loved Ute in the community. He cheats on his wife, Emily. He’s a sexual predator. He’s a shrewd and dishonest business man who doesn’t want to pay Gorman for the loss of Big Ouray. He’s working on a project with the Federal government to bury nuclear waste in the Cañon del Espiritu, which means that Gorman won’t be able to let his herd graze there and that Daisy Perika, the last shaman of the community will have to move out of her trailer set at the mouth of the canyon. The man is a nuisance to the community.

So, when Arlo is found dead with the same mutilation as Big Ouray the bull, nobody grieves him too much. But the tribal police, led by Charlie Moon and Scott Paris, flanked by a rookie FBI agent James E. Hoover have to investigate the murder.

The Shaman Laughs owns its title as there is a great sense of humor in this book. Charlie Moon plays tricks to Hoover, not openly lying to him but leaving out important information that bring comical effects. Like not correcting him when he assumes that Big Ouray is a human. Charlie Moon and his people enjoy playing pranks to Matukach (white) people, mostly using their own prejudice and clichés about Indians against them.

We go into Charlie and Scott’s love lives. Charlie’s unexpressed feeling will stay buried with the girl’s death. His grief is private, full of what will not be. Scott doesn’t quite know where things will go with his girlfriend Anne, now that she has taken a job in Washington D.C. and he’s still in Colorado.

Humor and diving into the characters’ personal lives is not new and happens a lot in modern crime fiction books, to get the readers attached to the characters and alleviate de tension.

The additional kick of this series, one that Tony Hillerman started in the 1970s with its Navajo Tribal police mystery novels, is the Native American setting and the description of the Ute beliefs and traditions. You’ll find the same in Craig Johnson’s books as he always makes room for Cheyenne customs. The common point between these Western series is also the role of law enforcement in small rural communities. They are sheriffs (Walt Longmire), Tribal Police (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Charlie Moon) or Game Warden (Joe Pickett) and they have to compose with being the law in a small community where everyone knows everyone, a community they are a part of. What they do on duty impacts their off-duty life as they live among the people they work for.

The Shaman Laughs emphasizes on nature and its connection with animal and human lives. The landscape descriptions are stunning, vibrant and captivating. Several times, the point of view switches to an animal’s like a mouse or a rabbit. It connects the reader to the land in a different way.

A lot of spirituality comes off the land and the story relies on dreams, visions and intuition. It leaves imprints on people and impact their actions but it doesn’t sound artificial. It seems to be embeded in the place. Even Scott the white man feels it. Daisy goes into trances, seeks for answers in her dreams and leaves offering to the pitukupf, a sort of Leprechaun who lives in the Cañon del Espiritu. Christianism is part of the mix and Doss pictures how the Ute incorporate Christian faith and Ute spirituality. He also shows that the Ute customs are dying with the elder and that they need to be protected.

Black Mesa Landscape New Mexico, Out Back of Marie’s II,1930 by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Doss’s talent lies in his ability to mix all these ingredients into a story that makes you travel into this Indian community, far from your home and daily life, looking forward to knowing who killed Big Ouray and Arlo.

Incidentally and thanks to Goodreads, I discovered that November was Native American Heritage Month in the US.

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

The blogging event Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca has a perfect timing, I was in the mood to read several novellas in a row. One has been on the shelf for almost a decade (Yikes!), two arrived recently with my Kube subscription and one was an impulse purchase during my last trip to a bookstore. So, here I am with four novellas set in four different countries and in different decades.

The Origin of the World by Pierre Michon (1996) Original French title: La Grande Beune

We’re in 1961, in the French countryside of Dordogne, the region of the Lascaux caves. The narrator is 20 and he has just been appointed as primary school teacher in the village of Castelnau. It’s his first time as a teacher. He takes lodgings at Hélène’s and discovers the life of the village. Soon, he becomes infatuated with the beautiful Yvonne, the village’s tobacconist and the mother of one of his pupils, Bernard.

Michon describes the narrator’s sex drive as he walks in the country, as he visits caves with paintings, as he obsesses over Yvonne but still has sex with his girlfriend Mado.

The English translation is entitled The Origin of the World, probably as a reference to the caves, their rock painting and the beginning of humanity and to femineity, like Courbet’s painting. The French title, La Grande Beune, is the name of the river near the village.

Pierre Michon is considered as a great writer by critics. He’s not my kind of writer, I don’t connect well with his prose. I can’t explain why, there’s something in the rhythm that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the first time I read a book by him, I only saw a play version of his book, Vie de Joseph Roulin. Roulin was the postman in Arles, the one who was friend with Van Gogh. I expected a lively biopic, it was one of the most boring plays I’ve ever seen.

After my stay in Dordogne, I traveled to Sicily, in a poor neighborhood of Palermo.

Borgo Vecchio by Giosuè Calaciura (2017) Translated from the Italian by Lise Chapuis.

Calaciura takes us among the little world of the Borgo Vecchio neighborhood. Mimmo and Cristofaro are best friends and Mimmo has a crush on Celeste.

The three children don’t have an easy life. Mimmo’s home life is OK but he’s worried about Cristofaro whose father is a mean drunkard and beats him badly every evening. Celeste spends a lot of time on the balcony of her apartment: her mother Carmela is the local hooker and she works from home. Her daughter stays on the balcony, to avoid her mother’s clients and witness her dealing with men. Cristofaro and Mimmo find solace in nurturing Nanà, a horse that Mimmo’s father acquired to run races and make money on bets.

The neighborhood’s other legend is Totò, the master of the thief squad, a quick worker who gets away with everything because he’s fast, agile and knows the neighborhood’s every nook and crannies. The police can’t compete with that and the fact that the inhabitants of Borgo Vecchio protect their own.

Calaciura’s prose is poetic, almost like a fairy tale. It tempers the horror of the characters’ lives but doesn’t sugarcoat it. It breathes life into Borgo Vecchio and we imagine the alleys, the noise coming from the harbor, the life of the community, the importance of the Catholic church.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a mix of acceptance, —Carmela belongs to the community and is not really ostracized—and cowardice –nobody intervenes to save Cristoforo and his mother from their abusive father and husband.

We get to know the neighborhood and the tension builds up, leading to an inevitable drama. The reader feels a lot of empathy for these children. What chance do they have to do better than their parents?

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) French title: La fille de la supérette. Translated from the Japanese by Mathilde Tamae-Bouhon

With Sayaka Murata’s book, I discovered the word kombini, a work that comes from the English convenient store (supérette in French)

The main character, Keiko Furukura, is a peculiar lady. She’s 36 and had been working at a SmileMart convenience store for 18 years. She’s single, never had a boyfriend and, according to her voice, she seems to be on the spectrum.

Her life is made of working hard, following her routine and learning social cues from her coworkers. Anything to sounds and behave like a normal woman, whatever that means. All is well until a new employee, Shihara, joins the team. He has his own issues with Japan’s expectation of him.

Convenience Store Woman is a lovely novella about a woman who struggles to fit in a society that likes nothing more than conformity. She stands out because she’s single and is not looking for a husband and because she’s happy with what is considered as a temporary job for students. Shihara disrupts her life and makes her question herself.

This theme about fitting in reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan, with less romance and more sass. I liked Keiko and I’m glad got to spend time with her. The author has a good angle on the pressure for conformity of the Japanese society.

Then I virtually flew to Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to…

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner (1937) French title: Une journée d’automne. Translated from the American by Françoise Torchiana.

Alec Stuart and his wife Margaret are wealthy farmers. Their life changes when Elspeth, Margaret’s younger sister, comes to live with them, freshly emigrated from Scotland.

Elspeth is 18, full of life. She marvels about the farm, looks at everything with enthusiasm and with a fresh eye. She instills energy and joy in Alec and Margaret’s settled life. She’s also awakening to desire. She and Alec become close, until an unhealthy love triangle arises from their staying in close quarters.

Love, betrayal and tragedy are round the corner of the barn.

Wallace Stegner is a marvelous writer. His characters are well-drawn, revealing their complexity, their innocence or their flows. The countryside of Iowa leaps from the pages, with its sounds, its smells and its landscapes. According to the afterword written by Stegner’s wife, this novella is based on the true story of her aunts, which makes the story even more poignant.

This was my second Stegner, after Crossing to Safety, which I recommend as highly as Remembering Laughter. Imagine that Stegner taught literature and had among his students Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry. What a record!

As mentioned at the beginning, this is another contribution to the excellent even Novellas in November. Thanks ladies for organizing it! Reading novellas is fun.

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly – excellent page turner

November 11, 2021 10 comments

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly (1993) French title: La glace noire.

The Black Ice is the second volume of Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I knew about him but had never read him before he came to Lyon at the Quais du Polar festival. I’ve read The Black Echo and like it well-enough to read another one.

When The Black Ice opens, it’s Christmas Day. Bosch is at home and he’s on call when he intercepts a message about a body found in a hotel room near Hollywood. He goes on the scene and discovers that it’s probably the corpse of another cop, Cal Moore. Bosch should be on the case since he was on call but his hierarchy puts him aside. He pushes his way through the doors and sees the room with the body. The death will be ruled as a suicide but details on the scene don’t add up in Bosch’s mind.

Cal Moore was a LAPD narcotics officer and the rumor says that he had crossed over. A couple of weeks before his death, Moore had a meeting with Bosch, inquiring about Internal Affairs ways. His wife has supposedly sent an anonymous letter to denounce him and they had started an investigation.

Bosch’s bosses send him to announce the bad news to Moore’s ex-wife and Bosch finds himself oddly attracted to her.

Then, Pound, the chief of Bosch’s unit, asks him to take on some cases from his colleague Porter. He’s an alcoholic who doesn’t have the best success rate in solving cases and Pound wants to improve the squad’s rate by the end of the year. As it happens, one of those cases is related to Moore.

A couple of days later, Moore’s colleagues of the narcotics squad hand Bosch a file that they found in their patrol car and that Moore wanted Bosch to have if something happened to him.

Between knowing Moore personally, feeling indebted to his ex-wife, getting Moore’s file, knowing that it wasn’t a suicide but a murder and getting a related case, it’s hard for Bosch to do anything else but lead a little maverick investigation on the side, using Porter’s cases as an excuse.

This will lead him to investigate the trafficking of Black Ice, a new drug that is spreading like a bad disease in Los Angeles. He will dig into Moore’s past to figure out whether he was a cross over or not. His investigation will chafe against police protocol, put him at risk and confront him to corruption in LA but in Mexico as well.

Like The Black Echo, The Black Ice is perfectly executed. The reader holds their breath from the beginning until the end, immersed into LA, the cop world and the case. We dive into Bosch’s personal life and his past, just enough to keep us interested in the man and his love for jazz music.

The writing is simple but efficient and the whole book is really atmospheric. We’re in LA with Bosch and we see the neighborhoods, the bars and the alleys. Connelly knows the city by heart and it shows through his writing. The whole book is like a film. Since it was published in 1993, it’s pre-cell phones and it’s a different world for policemen who chase after pay phones, receive messages at their hotels and can be conveniently out of reach when they want to.

Connelly finds the right balance between the case, the city, the business at the LAPD and the case. I maintain what I said about The Black Echo: this series is a great source of reliable entertaining literature, the kind of books you take on a long train journey because you’re sure you won’t get bored and time will fly.

More about Bosch’s world: check out the Bosch playlist on Spotify!

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd – Meet Edmond and his family in the Armenian community in Iran.

October 10, 2021 8 comments

Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd (1997) French title: Un jour avant Pâques. Translated from the Persian by Christophe Balaÿ.

This is my last billet about the twenty books I read this summer for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. It’s OK, it’s Indian summer at the moment, right?

I hoped to write about Space Between Us by Zoyâ Pirzâd for WIT Month but my TBW pile was too high. The French title of the book is Un jour avant Pâques, The Day Before Easter and it seems to be the direct translation of the original title. And it makes sense.

Born in 1952, Zoyâ Pirzâd is an Iranian writer from the Armenian community in Iran. Her book Space Between Us is set in this community and covers several decades of the main character’s life, Edmond. Three chapters, each set at a key moment of Edmond’s life, all three times around Easter day.

In the first chapter, Edmond is twelve. He’s an only child and lives in a small town by the Caspian Sea. His father is the director of the local Armenian school. Edmond’s best friend is Tahereh, the concierge’s daughter. She’s Muslim but goes to the Armenian school too, since its more practical. A drama will occur in the tight-knit community, forcing Edmond to grow up.

In the second chapter, Edmond is older, married to Marta and they now live in Teheran. They have a grownup daughter, Alenouche who announces that she’ll marry her Muslim boyfriend. Edmond accepts it willingly but Marta is rigid about it, a Christian devout and she takes it as a personal insult.

In the last chapter, Edmond is even older, a widower now. He hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, since her fight with Marta.

Space Between Us is a lovely book. It’s very poetical in its description of childhood, of food and smells. It has a melancholic ring that matches Edmond’s temper. He’s a quiet child, Tahereh is the daring part of their duo. He’s observant too and shares his thoughts about his family and the Armenian community around him. He knows that his mother is not the traditional Armenian mother, she’s not keen on housekeeping and she had to live with a formidable mother-in-law. Edmond’s father is a quiet man too who loves his wife the way she is and never pressures her to comply to traditions but the community, though helpful, is also stifling.

Marta was thick as thieves with Edmond’s grandmother. They shared the same sense of community, a strong will to keep traditions alive and not change anything in their vision of the place of men and women in a couple, the duties children had to pay or the fact that one remained in their community.

The grandmother never liked Edmond’s friendship with Tahereh and Marta didn’t take Alenouche’s engagement well. It felt more like a will to keep the Armenian community alive, not to have it dissolved into the Iranian society than anything else. They are survivors of the Armenian genocide and they have the duty to keep their community and their traditions alive not to lose their identity and lose their history. It would mean forget about their lost country, about the genocide and their tragedy as a people.

Zoyâ Pirzâd doesn’t write a political novel. She writes about the quotidian, its little beauties and the family traditions. She takes us into Edmond’s life, full of ladybugs, friendship, painted Easter eggs and Armenian dishes. He sees family politics with his child’s eyes and, as an adult, lives through it by avoiding conflicts. The French cover of the book, a watercolor is perfect for the book.

Pirzâd’s writing reminded me of Philip Roth’s when he describes the Newark of his childhood or when Peter Balakian remembers his youth in New Jersey among his Armenian family in The Black Dog of Fate, also published in 1997. A community of immigrants in a country with other traditions.

Highly recommended, both Space Between Us and The Black Dog of Fate.

Sundborn by Philippe Delerm – about Scandinavian impressionists

August 5, 2021 21 comments

Sundborn or the days of lightness by Philippe Delerm (1996) Original French title: Sundborn ou les jours de lumière. Not available in English.

Another book from the Musée d’Orsay bookstore, Sundborn ou les jours de lumière by Philippe Delerm is about the Scandinavian group of artists who gathered in Grez-sur-Loing in 1884. We have Carl Larsson and his wife Karin, Peder Severin (“Soren”) Krøyer, Christian Krohg, Karl Nordström and August Strindberg and his wife Siri.

Grez-sur-Loing seemed to be destined to be linked to artists: this is where Laure de Berny, Balzac’s muse and inspiration for Lily in the Valley is buried.

Delerm imagines that a French-Danish young man whose grand-parents live at Grez-sur-Loing, meets the artists and befriends them. When the group dissolves, he follows the Carlssons to Skagen, Denmark and later visits them in Sundborn, Sweden. His name is Ulrik Tercier, an association of first and last names that shows his mother’s Danish side and his father’s French side. Ulrik stays at Grez-sur-Loing every summer, coming from Paris where his father is a doctor. I know, it sounds a lot like Proust’s childhood and adolescent summers in Combray, especially since Ulrik and Marcel are around the same age.

Ulrik remains close to the Larssons and this prop offers Delerm the opportunity to explore several decades of these painters’ lives.

The moments at Grez-sur-Loing are the premises of the Skagen Painters group who lived and worked in Skagen in community, like French impressionists. Delerm describes a vivid group of artists, horsing around and working together, hosted at the Hôtel Chevillon. (The servant of this inn is named Léonie, a reference to Proust’s Aunt Léonie in Combray?)

Sundborn is a lovely book that pictures a group of artists who enjoy life, look for the best light in their painting and are on a quest as artists. They are Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and they share playful days in Skagen, where Krøyer settles and then brings his wife, the painter Marie Triepke. In Skagen, the group has the addition of Michael Ancher and his wife Anna, Viggo and Martha Johansen and Oscar Björk.

Krøyer’s painting Hip, Hip, Hurrah is a testimony of their group’s everyday life.

Later, the Larssons go back to Sweden, buy a country property in Sundborn and change it into a homey house open to friends and visitors. The Carlssons had a lot of children and Delerm hints that their family life changed them and influenced their art. They found their inner light in their family life. Carl turned to watercolor and Karin to kraft. They became iconic in Sweden.

Carl Larsson: Köket.NMB 270

Delerm develops Ulrik’s story as a bystander, the lover of a side painter, Julia. It is not a book about painting technique but more about a group of painters who aimed at harmony between their art and their happiness, who changed official painting in their respective country and brought the impressionist movement into Scandinavian art. It’s a book by an art lover who makes the reader want to rush to a museum and see all these paintings by themselves.

Incidentally, there’s currently an exhibition about Soren Krøyer at the Musée Marmottan-Monet in Paris. I went to the exhibition at the end of June. I bought Delerm’s book years ago, picked it from the shelf in a decrease-the-TBR move and ended up reading about the very painter whose painting I discovered a month ago. Serendipity. Krøyer’s painting is stunning. The rare sunny days in Skagen have a distinctive lightness and the colony of painters tried to capture moments of life at Skagen, their walks on the beach, their life together but also the lives of the Skagen fishermen. I was mesmerized by the light coming off Krøyer’s paintings. Little girls pop out of the frame and come alive in front of you.

The beach is bright and inviting. You think Marie will turn and start talking to you. I could have stared at the paintings for hours.

P.S. Krøyer Summer evening on Skagen’s Beach. Anna_Ancher and Marie Krøyer walking together

This image doesn’t do justice to Krøyer’s amazing gift at transcribing light. Now, let’s watch paintings from this attaching group of Scandinavian artists.

Karl Nordström Field of Oats at Grez
Michael Ancher – A stroll on the beach
Atelje idyll Konstnärens hustru med dottern Suzanne
Carl Larsson 1885
Anna Ancher – Sunlight in the blue room
Viggo Johansen – Dividing the catch
Marie Kroyer – selfportrait
Christian Krohg – Tired

PS: Philippe Delerm also wrote Autumn, about the pre-Raphaelites.

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa – crime fiction in Bogota

July 24, 2021 7 comments

Losing Is a Question of Method by Santiago Gamboa (1997) French title: Perdre est une question de méthode. Translated into French by Anne-Marie Meunier.

J’ai perdu. J’ai toujours perdu. Ça ne m’irrite pas, ça ne m’inquiète pas. Perdre n’est qu’une question de méthode : Luis SepulvedaI lost. I’ve always lost. It doesn’t irritate me, it doesn’t bother me. Losing is only a question of method: Luis Sepulveda.

Santiago Gamboa is a Colombian writer who used to work as a journalist for RFI (Radio France International), which might explain why his books found a publisher in France but are not available in English.

Set in Bogota, Losing Is a Question of Method is a crime fiction novel. Victor Silanpa is a journalist at El Observador. When the book opens, the body of a crucified and drowned man is found by Lake Sisga. The police call Silanpa, he’s used to working with them and writing articles about crimes. Silanpa and the police captain Aristophanes Moya have a win-win working relationship. Silanpa unofficially helps with investigations in exchange for a good story for his newspaper.

At first, nobody knows who the dead man is. Silanpa is at the morgue when different families with a missing person come to see if the body is their relative’s. Comes Estupiñan. He thinks that the body is his brother’s but he’s not totally sure because they were estranged and had only recently rekindled their relationship.

Silanpa and Estupiñan associate to investigate the case and they will end up in the middle of an affair of corruption and business. We are reminded that we’re in Bogota when Estupiñan ensures that the case has nothing to do with the Narcos or the FARC before getting involved in the investigation.

The town council member Esquilache had his last campaign financed by a real estate corporation Grande Capitale. In return for their support, he promised they’d get their hands on the land by Lake Sisga to build a tourist resort. Esquilache also double-crossed them with the real estate company owned by Vargas Vicuña. Between them is Banagan, a lawyer who lives beyond his means, gambles, and has the debt that comes with this addiction. He’s all too willing to bend over backward to accommodate Estupiñan.

People fight over a piece of land and in the mix is a naturist club that owns a plot of land right in the middle of what would be the resort. The naturists want to stay where they are. The real estate moguls want their resort, and they all have the same problem: the title deed for these precious 400 hectares is missing. The last known owner was Pereira Antunez, a local businessman who was also a member of this naturist club. Who inherited of this plot of land?

Losing Is a Question of Method is an entertaining read. The crime plot is well put together, and the suspense kept me reading. Silanpa is an attaching character. There’s nothing in it for him if he solves the case, except a good story for the paper, and that’s why they back him up. Silanpa suffers from chronic hemorrhoids, he’s in the middle of a nasty breakup with his girlfriend Mónica but doesn’t hesitate to hook up with a bar escort, all this while carrying his melancholy.

I’ve seldom read a crime fiction book where the police are so useless. We know nothing of their investigation and only hear about Moya when he reads his speeches to his dieting group. He’s overweight, eats too much and needs lose a few kilos. Given how easily our two amateur sleuths manage to find clues and piece things together, the police seem even more incompetent.

I enjoyed Gamboa’s style. He has a great sense of humor…

– Au-dessus de la tête de ces bandits pend l’épée de Démosthène.
– Démosthène ? dit Silanpa. Vous voulez dire Damoclès ?
– C’est la même chose, chef. A notre époque, tout le monde est armé.
– Over these gangsters’ heads hangs Demosthenes’s sword.
– Demosthenes? Says Silanpa. You mean Damocles?
– It’s all the same, boss. Nowadays, everybody is armed.

And peppers his pages with little thoughts and comments.

La réalité lui devenait si exagérément hostile qu’il ne pouvait pas ne pas vouloir l’altérer. Mais cela n’a servi à rien, se dit-il en pensant à son Underwood. La réalité est la seule chose qu’on ne peut jamais semer. Elle vous rattrape toujours.Reality had become so excessively hostile to him that he could not not want to alter it. But it didn’t matter, he mused, thinking about his Underwood. Reality is the only thing one can never shake off. It always catches up on you.

He definitely won me over when one of his characters confesses that he loves comics, especially Mafalda.

The plot moves forward at a good pace and was suspenseful. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the town, the meetings in bars to catch up on the case since it was written pre-cell phones. I followed the story between Silanpa and Mónica and ended up thinking I’d like to see Silanpa in another book.

Unfortunately, Gamboa hasn’t been translated into English. This book is available in French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Apparently, we Latin languages stick together. 😊

This is a contribution to Stu’s Spanish Lit Month.

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino

May 13, 2021 12 comments

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino (1996) French title: J’ai tout entendu. Translated by Jean-Luc Defromont.

Another Kube pick for me: What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino. I’d never heard of it but I understand it was made into a successful Hallmark movie in 1997. I’m glad my book cover doesn’t display the film poster since I’d rather have original illustrations.

Back to the book.

Ten-years old Sammy Ayers is left behind at the Greyhound station in Barrington, Georgia. His mother is gone, he’s all alone and the station manager, Jenkins lets him sleep on a cot in a small room at the station. When it is clear that no one is going to claim this boy, Jenkins keeps him and in exchange for room and board, Sammy cleans the place. Between Lucille, the owner of the station’s diner and Jenkins, Sammy grows up in Barrington and becomes a local figure. Upon his arrival, out of self-protection, Sammy pretended that he couldn’t hear or speak. This is how he learns the whole town’s secrets.

As the narrator of the story, he relates his life and the event that took place twenty years ago, in 1966. He’s not 55-60 years old.

The town’s royalty are the Tynans. Alford Tynan was a legendary lawyer. His son Tolliver is a weasel who had an epiphany and became a preacher. In passing, Gearino makes cutting remarks on Southern preachers, their lack of mandatory education and sometimes lack of morals. Tolliver is all that. He’s respected because he has enough glibness to lead a lot of people to baptism. He hides his conniving crooked dealings and his greed under a Christian mask.

The town’s trash are the Thackers. Archibald is the patriarch of his extended family. He’s ambitious but knows how to play the race game in the South. He goes in to refuse collection and hides his business savvy under the cover of the black dummy. Play the stupid black man, use a white stooge as the front of your business and the whites will leave you alone.

Sammy hears everything and puts things together too. He has a grudge against Tolliver who bullied him in class. He knows who he is under his mask of respectability. He tells us about his revenge, his search for his mother and Jenkins’s history.

It was an enjoyable story full of the guilty pleasure you feel when a character gets the better on people who tolerate him and look down on him. I had a very nice time in Sammy’s company and the novel is built as a well-oiled machinery with good storytelling.

According to the comments I read on Goodreads, the movie stripped the book of all its edges to make it a very moral and wholesome story. I can’t tell you since I haven’t watched it but with the Hallmark tag, I suppose it’s true. Well, I prefer stories with complex characters.

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi – And fear changes sides

March 16, 2021 14 comments

Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi (1991) French title: Dirty Week-End. Translated by Jean Esch.

My Kube subscription brought me Dirty Week-End by Helen Zahavi, a society and feminist novella, one that was almost censored, according to the libraire who chose it for me. What a ride it was! It opens with this stunning paragraph:

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realized she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

She could have done the decent thing. She could have done what decent people do. She could have filled her gently rounded belly with barbiturates, or flung herself, with gay abandon, from the top of a tower block. They would have thought it sad, but not unseemly. Alas, poor Bella, they would have said, as they shovelled what remained of her into the waiting earth. She must have had enough, they would have said. At least, she had the decency to do the decent thing.

As you imagine, Bella did not decide to do the decent thing. Quite the contrary.

Bella lives in Brighton, in a mezzanine flat. She’s single, lives a quiet life, reads a lot and keeps to herself. One day, she realizes that a man observes her from a nearby apartment. He starts calling her on the phone, he accosts her in her favourite park. Her life becomes filled with constant fear. She shuts herself away in her flat, closing the curtains. She stops answering the phone.

And one day, she has enough of living in fear. She doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. She doesn’t want to be afraid to go out, to open her windows or answer the phone. It’s time for fear to change side.

Bella goes over the edge and starts a killing spree against men who persecute her, force themselves on her or threaten her.

It’s a rough ride and of course Bella’s solution to her problem is not the right one. But Helen Zahavi shows one thing: how fear is ingrained in women. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t walk in dark alleys. Don’t wear short dresses or plunging necklines. Don’t go in an unknown man’s car. Don’t accept a drink you haven’t prepared yourself. Take care of your own safety.

And Bella tells us it’s not normal to live in fear and in constant worry for one’s security. It’s not normal to be obliged to be prudent because you’re a woman. Bella seems to say: Enough. Guys, live my life. It’s your turn to be afraid.

I’ve read that Dirty Week-End caused an uproar when it was published and that a request for its interdiction was brought to the Parliament. Some people in 1991 England thought it was immoral, pornographic and subversive. Thirty years after its publication, I don’t see why this book should be censored. (or any book, but that’s another debate) Let me get this straight: a book with a man serial killer who preys upon women doesn’t raise an eyebrow and the reverse is immoral?

Dirty Week-End is not a revenge novel, as it has been labelled. It’s more a novel that makes some men uncomfortable because this time, the tables are turned.

Readable in one sitting. Highly recommended.

PS: Covers are interesting to compare, for that kind of book. They influence your view of the book. I think that the French and the American one with the gun are the most faithful to the text.

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass – Poetic, peaceful and militant

May 8, 2020 11 comments

The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass (1996 & epilogue: 2007) French title: Le livre de Yaak. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni.

It is a kind of church, back in these last cores. It may not be your church — this last one percent of the West – but it is mine, and I am asking unashamedly to be allowed to continue worshipping the miracle of the planet, and the worship of a natural system not yet touched, never touched by the machines of man. A place with the residue of God – the scent, feel, sight, taste, and sound of God – forever fresh upon it.

I continue my literary journey in Montana and through nature writing as the hope of visiting Montana and Wyoming this summer vanishes like snow in the sun. My next stop is The Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, brought to French readers by Gallmeister.

Rick Bass has lived in the Yaak valley in Montana for twenty years before moving to Missoula. He wrote The Book of Yaak in 1996 and added its epilogue in 2007. It is an ode and a plea for the protection of these 471 000 acres of wilderness threatened by the timber industry. In this valley, less than two hundred humans cohabit with black bears, grizzlies, deers, wolves and coyotes.

Rick Bass tells us how he and his wife fell in love with the place. He takes us hiking in these old woods, describing the trees, the flowers, the river and the animals. He has a different approach to nature than Thomas McGuane in An Outside Chance.

With McGuane, hiking and hunting were sports. With Rick Bass, it’s a spiritual experience, a way to find peace, to experience the invisible link between humans and nature. It feels closer to Amerindian customs, more instinctive. His writing conveys his genuine love for this valley. It has become his happy place. He writes beautiful passages about art and nature and their connection. Living in this valley grounds him and fuels his artistic endeavors. He’s in communion with the nature around him. I’ve never read his fiction but I will.

I loved The Book of Yaak and I’m puzzled. I’m still trying to pinpoint why I love nature writing so much and what I find in these books.

I’m a very urban non-outdoorsy person. I don’t long to hike in the rain to reach the right fishing spot. I hated it when my parents took us blackberry gathering when I was a kid, mostly because I was bored to death and would have rather been at home with my books. I love the theatre, museums and sitting in coffee shops with a novel or my billets notebook. I love walking in historical districts of cities and admire old buildings, traditional shops and watch passersby. I can’t seem to do anything with my hands except hold a book and cook a little. For the rest, I’m pretty useless. My lack of sense of direction is legendary among my family, friends and colleagues. How would I survive in these nature writers’ tough environment?

However, the older I get, I more I want to spend my holidays in large spaces. I need to refuel. The more work experience I get in the corporate world, the more I envy the Rick Basses of this world who were brave enough to retrieve themselves from the grind. I’m not saying their life is easier or lazy, because it certainly isn’t. I’m saying they managed to cut the ball-and-chain of middle-class expectations and what-ifs that I have at my ankles. Mostly they were not afraid. Of missing out on the little comforts of everyday life, like central-heating, electricity and hot water. Of raising kids in a remote place. Of getting sick and being far from hospitals. Of not having enough money when they are old. Of living without a security net.

The Book of Yaak is also a plea, a way to raise awareness and seek for the reader’s help. Rick Bass is an ecology activist and he’s been relentless to have the Congress pass a bill to protect his beloved valley from the timber industry. He’s a moderate and doesn’t want to stop any woodcutting in the area, he just wants it to be local based and respectful of the fragile ecosystem of the valley. Saving the Yaak valley is a way to save humanity, a way to show ourselves that we can still turn our backs to our profit-oriented ways.

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

We need wilderness to buffer this dark lost-gyroscopic tumble that democracy, top-heavy with big business and leaning precariously over rot, has entered.

We’re an adolescent country, a tough, macho, posturing Madison Avenue sleek-jawed Marlboro Man’s caricature of strength.

We need the strength of lilies, ferns, mosses and mayflies. We need the masculinity of ponds and rivers, the femininity of stone, the wisdom of quietness, if not silence.

I guess I love nature writing for that and maybe it’s always been in me. After all, I loved Jim Harrison instantly when I was a young adult and Gary advocates the same ideas in The Roots of Heaven. In the end, the way we treat nature is an indication of how we treat humans.

Highly recommended.

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian – Highly recommended

April 22, 2020 17 comments

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir by Peter Balakian (1997) French title: Le chien noir du destin.

Today, I had decided to write my billet about Balakian’s memoir, Black Dog of Fate. Coincidentally, I also listened a radio program about Charles Aznavour today, and he’s a very famous member of the Armenian diaspora and I first heard about the Armenian genocide through him.

I could write a lengthy billet about this book that tells the story of the Balakian family and of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It would be too long and wouldn’t entice you to read the book. And it would be a pity because it’s worth reading, really.

Balakian opens his memoir with his childhood in New Jersey. He was born in 1951 and he talks about his grandmother, his parents and his family life in suburban New Jersey. His family customs are different from the WASP boys around him in his bourgeois neighborhood. This part of the book reminded me of American Pastoral and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The two writers describe a different way-of-life between them and the WASP children. They had formal meals, the relationship with between parents and children were different. The fathers especially have a different way to raise their sons, their vision of masculinity is less macho, I should say, for lack of a better word. Balakian says it quite well:

In the world of my friends’ dads, my father stood apart. No backslapping or hearty handshakes, or greetings of “old buddy” or “man.” No polo shirts or khaki pants or slip-on canvas sneakers, or buddies for gold on Wednesdays, when doctors were supposed to be riding the fairways in orange carts and lime-green pants and white visors. No weekend cocktails with the McKays or the Wheelers. Nor did my father joke with me about macho ideals, the kind that Hemingway and John Wayne embodied. He made no jokes of the kind my friends’ fathers would tell, in sly moments when mothers were out of the room and fathers and sons bonded. Because he was 4-F in World War II owing to high blood pressure, something he never mentioned, he had no war stories either.

This very attaching part of Balakian’s memoir is a testimony of growing up American with immigrant parents and trying to fit it, to be as American as the others. While his family kept some family traditions, they also immersed themselves in the American way-of-life.

Balakian never heard anything about the Armenian Genocide of 1915 until he was in his twenties. His awareness of the massacre didn’t come from his family and at home, it was total silence about these events. Slowly, he will investigate and research his family’s past, describe the genocide and work for its recognition.

Part of his memoir comes back to historical facts, describing the Armenian people, where they lived, what was their status in the Ottoman Empire. He describes the genocide and it’s absolutely awful. 1.5 million people were eliminated in appalling circumstances. It is comparable to the Nazi methods (Balakian said that the laissez-faire of other countries and the Turkish methods inspired Hitler) The refugees became stateless. And even worse than the crime is the fact that for a long, long time, no country acknowledged this genocide.

As Charrey and Lipstadt have written, the denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; the first killing followed by a killing of the memory of the killing.

I also loved the part when Balakian visits Lebanon and Syria, going back to the places of the massacres and on the trail of his grandmother’s stay in Syria before emigrating. It’s a very moving passage, chilling too.

At first, he didn’t understand why he’d never heard of the Armenian traumatic past before reaching adulthood. But his journey through history helped him understand his family better.

At some place in their minds my parents must have found the real issues of being Armenian too hard, too painful, too absurd. As my aunt Gladys had put it, “It was a pill too bitter to swallow, a pain too bad to feel.” In affirming the American present, my parents had done their best to put an end to exile. In the suburbs of New Jersey, they found rootedness, home, belonging. Yet, the past was a shadow that cast its own darkness on us all. The old country. I realize now that it was an encoded phrase, not meant for children. Spoken by numbed Armenians of the silent generation. It meant lost world, a place left to smolder in its ashes.

Reading Balakian memoir is a way of resisting against those who would like to erase this genocide and keep going as if it never happened. It happened and we, European countries, should be ashamed of the time it took us to acknowledge it.

Highly recommended.

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