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

October 25, 2020 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 14, 2020 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

September 22, 2020 12 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer #18: The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson – Longmire #5

September 16, 2020 8 comments

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson (2009) French title: Dark Horse. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Dark horse: noun

1 a: a usually little-known contender (as a racehorse) that makes an unexpectedly good showing. B: an entrant in a contest that is judged unlikely to succeed.

2: A person who reveals little about himself or herself, esp. someone who has unexpected talents or skills.

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson is the fifth volume of the Longmire series of crime fiction books set in Wyoming. I was happy to read the definition of dark horse because it explains a lot about the title and how fitting and multilayered the book is.

In this volume, Sheriff Sandy Sandberg of the Campbell county transferred his prisoner Mary Barsad to the jail in Absaroka county, Longmire’s jurisdiction.

In appearance, it’s a straightforward case. Wade Barsad was found dead with six bullets in his body. He and his wife Mary owned a ranch where she raises horses. She used to compete in racehorses and is very attached to her horse, Black Diamond Wahoo Sue.

Wade had set the horses’ barn on fire before going to bed, while the horses were trapped in the building, burning them alive. Incredibly cruel. Mary confessed that she killed him for this. See, straightforward.

But, locked in Longmire’s jail, Mary refuses to eat and the sheriff starts interacting with her to coax her into eating her meals. Things don’t add up and Longmire goes undercover in the town of Absalon, 40 souls to investigate this murder.

Being undercover in Wyoming and in a town of 40 inhabitants is a challenge. It turns out Wade has made enemies in town, due to shady dealings.

He came from the West coast, knew nothing about ranching still purchased a ranch. Longmire remarks: “He hated animals, and he hated the West? That kind of strikes me as odd for a fella who buys a ranch in Wyoming.”

What pushed Wade Barsad to settle in Wyoming? Why did have to move?

Did Mary really kill him? Longmire is on the killer’s trail while digging into Wade’s past and business to understand what lead to his death.

As usual with this series, the sense of place makes the salt of the book. Details like this one when Longmire arrives at a bridge that workers are dismantling, contribute to the feeling.

I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren’t very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches.

Apparently, even old bridges can be monetized and auctioned. I’m always surprised by the deals made between the State and the people on practical matters. It probably is better for the State’s budget to sell the bridge than to cover the costs for destroying it. It’s like asking the ranchers to cut the grass along the roads to keep it for their cattle. It’s such a different mentality than the French one.

Johnson always aims at deconstructing western clichés, like here:

“You know, one of the worst images perpetrated on society is the idea of a cowboy with a gun—you give a real cowboy a choice between a gun and a rope and he’ll take the rope every time, because that’s how he makes his living. No self-respecting cowboy makes a living with a gun.”

I guess it makes sense.

I won’t go into details about the personal lives of the characters, to avoid spoilers. Longmire’s daughter Cady is back to her life in Philadelphia, the election for sheriff is coming up and Longmire’s right arm Vic is true to herself.

I read The Dark Horse in the car, during a long drive during the holidays and it was a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. Tight plot, charming characters, a good sense of humor and little reflections dropped here and there:

I thought about how we tilled and cultivated the land, planted trees on it, fenced it, built houses on it, and did everything we could to hold off the eternity of distance—anything to give the landscape some sort of human scale. No matter what we did to try and form the West, however, the West inevitably formed us instead.

My next Craig Johnson will be Junkyard Dogs.

PS : Another ugly cover for the English edition. It looks like a kid’s book.

20 Books of Summer #16: Last concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen – A Breton crime fiction novel

September 9, 2020 2 comments

Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen (2009) Original French title: Dernier concert à Vannes.

During my holiday in Brittany, when I visited the book village Bécherel, I discovered the publisher Edition du Palémon. It’s a Breton publishing house focused on regional books and local crime fiction. If you’re abroad and want to read Breton crime fiction, their books are available in ebooks on their website. They even have three translated into English. They seem to have fifteen authors of their own on their catalogue.

I wonder why I’ve never heard of Palémon before. I picked up Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen and Hide-And-Seak in Ouessant by Françoise Le Mer which I haven’t read yet.

Last Concert in Vannes is first book of the Commissaire Baron series and it has 17 titles already. The book opens on a scene where Commissaire Baron is woken up in the middle of the night because there’s been a murder. I couldn’t help thinking about Bosch’s first appearance in The Black Echo, especially since Baron likes jazz music too.

Francine Rich’s husband found her body in their house. He’s a photographer and had gone for the weekend to take pictures. They were getting a divorce and Francine had rented an apartment in downtown Vannes.

Stéphane Arbona is the guitar player of the rock band Why Not. They had a gig at a bar, the Jack’s Potes. After the bar closed, he found a woman on the parking lot, arguing with a man. Her name was Corrine and he decided to drive her home. He went up to her apartment but they only had a drink. Now Stéphane wants to see her again but when he looks for her, she seems to have vanished.

Eventually someone connects the dots and realize that Francine and Corinne are one person and that she had well-kept secrets. The victim was also a poisonous person for people around her, her husband, lovers or colleagues. Baron digs into her past and uncovers the dirt until its muddy trail takes him to the murderer.

Last Concert in Vannes is an honest polar, in the cozy crime category. We follow Baron and his team when they investigate Francine’s murder but we also see what happens for Stéphane Arbona. A former convict, he tries to start over and doesn’t always make the best choices.

I thought that Baron was a promising character and Huguen’s style and plot were good enough to catch my attention. I kept reading to know who had killed Francine. I thought that sometimes his style was a bit old-fashioned in the choice of words. Who still calls a computer a micro instead of ordinateur or cell phone un cellulaire instead of a portable? The Brittany setting wasn’t that important, I don’t think it gave to the book a special sense of place.

All in all, it was an entertaining read.

20 Books of Summer #15: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou – An ode to James Baldwin

September 6, 2020 11 comments

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou. (2007) Original French title: Lettre à Jimmy.

Alain Manbanckou wrote Letter to Jimmy in 2007, for the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. It is an essay, a letter to a writer and a man he admires immensely, someone he feels close to. You don’t see it in the English translation but this letter is written with “tu” and not “vous”. It’s a letter addressed to Jimmy, not James, a “tu”, not a “vous”.

Mabanckou says it all started with a picture of Baldwin that he bought in Paris at a bouquinist on the banks of the Seine. It was in the late 80s, which means that Mabanckou was in his twenties. You can say that Baldwin influenced him early in his life.

Letter to Jimmy takes the reader on a journey through Baldwin’s life, his literary work and his essays. Manbanckou explains where Baldwin came from and how it influenced his thinking. He never knew his biological father and was raised by David Baldwin, a preacher who wanted his son to be a preacher too. This will be the material for Go Tell it on the Mountain (La Conversion, in its French translation)

Baldwin was born in 1924 and David Baldwin’s mother lived with them and she was a former slave.

N’importe quel Noir américain est attaché à l’histoire de l’esclavage. Sauf que Barbara Ann Baldwin est là, et l’histoire se lit non pas dans les manuels, mais dans les yeux baissés de la vieille femme.

Any Afro-American is linked to the history of slavery. Except that Barbara Ann Baldwin is here and history is not in school text books but in the old woman’s downcast eyes.

To James Baldwin, the history of slavery was in front of him when he was growing up. His father hated white people. James Baldwin will not follow this road because his white teacher noticed his intelligence and took him under her wing. (What we owe to primary school teachers! Thinking of Camus here.)

We follow Baldwin to Paris, we see his own thinking develop and set free from his influences like Richard Wright. Mabanckou explains how Baldwin wanted out of the Black Writer box. He didn’t want to write books only about the condition of Afro-Americans or with black characters. Giovanni’s Room is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a black writer but it doesn’t mean he must write only about black characters.

We go back to the USA and see Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Mabanckou branches out and reflects on the fight against colonialism that Africans went through. He also broadens the issue and reflects on being black in France. This section of the book complement Christiane Taubira’s Slavery Explained to My Daughter. They are in agreement.

James Baldwin in 1969 by Alan Warren. From Wikipedia

Mabanckou pictures very well Baldwin’s unique standpoint. His brand of opposition lies in healthy indignation. Hatred and systematic opposition are not constructive. They burn bridges and leave ashes. Angelism is another pitfall. It’s cowardice and Baldwin’s essays are not gentle. They are documented punches aimed at facing the truth and moving forward. This is also Taubira’s approach and one I can relate to.

In the end, Baldwin shaped Mabanckou’s mind. He found in him someone who was brave enough not to take the easiest route, to stand up for himself and had humanism as a guiding light. Baldwin came out and wrote about homosexuality in 1956. He fought for civil rights and never fell for violent theories. He never let his personal experience foster hatred. His bright intelligence and insight meant a clean, direct and nuanced thinking.

We are in dear need of nuanced thinking these days, so reading Letter to Jimmy is a way to remember that such thinkers exist and that, alas, what Baldwin wrote is still accurate. Besides Go Tell It to the Mountain, I’ve also written billets about If Beale Street Street Could Talk and Going To Meet the Man. My next one will be Giovanni’s Room. 

PS: Letter to Jimmy opens with a foreword featuring Mabanckou lying on Santa Monica State Beach and feeling Baldwin’s presence. I know I’m obsessed, but it sounds like the incipit of Promise at Dawn, especially in French since Gary lies on the sand on a beach in Big Sur, which is not translated as such in English.

20 Books of Summer #12: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg – Adventure, banter and soul-searching

August 14, 2020 13 comments

The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (2010) English translation by Martin Aitken. French title: Les enfants des cornacs. French translation by Anne-Charlotte Struve

It’s not that one can’t take pleasure in seeing others make progress in life, especially when it’s your parents. But making progress isn’t enough on its own, one has also to consider in what direction such progress is progressing. And right now, as we sit here in front of all these newspapers clippings, Tilte and I share the thought that our mother and father seem to be progressing in giant evolutionary leaps towards at least eight years in prison.

Meet Peter and Tilte, the two main protagonists of The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg. The only narrator we’ll have is Peter. We’re on Finø island, the island they call Denmark’s Gran Canaria. Tilte and Peter are the youngest siblings among three children. Their brother Hans is older and remains on the mainland. Tilte is sixteen and Peter fourteen. They have a dog, Basker, named after The Hound of Baskerville. Let’s call them the Finø Team.

Their parents Konstantin and Clare are respectively the minister and the organist of a church on Finø. They are missing and their children are tracking them down. From the beginning, we understand that Peter’s parents are con artists and that they are probably working on a big scam to embezzle money. Contrary to the blurb on my paperback edition, I don’t want to say too much about the plot because Peter slowly unveils the extent of the issue.

The whole book is an adventure, a race against the clock. Will they find out on time what their parents are up to? Will they manage to prevent it and save their parents from themselves? They’re not the only interested party in this. The bishop of their church also wants to avoid a scandal and will do anything to find Konstantine and Clara before it’s too late. The police are after them too, because they want to put them in a children shelter until their parents are found.

Will the Finø Team escape their pursuants?

A paragraph here and there and we get to know this family and their quirks. Tilte has a formidable personality and a lot of sass. It’s encapsulated in her forewarning her mother before a parents-teacher meeting at school:

Mother, this evening the teachers will complain about me, and it’s because they feel squeezed by the breadth of my personality.

Isn’t that the most wonderful way to explain mischief in the classroom? (This is something that Arturo Bandini, Fante’s recurring character, could say)

Peter is an odd but refreshing narrator. He’s obsessed with soccer and I have to admit some of his soccer comparisons flew over my head as I know nothing of the rules of the game. He’s also heartbroken because his girlfriend Conny left Finø to become an actress. He’s a thoughtful teenage boy, observant and looking at the world with his own lenses and always at odd angles. He’s a lonely soul, reflective and sharing his thoughts about life.

Peter Høeg created a gallery of characters with odd names and weird biographies. For example, you’ve got Count Rickardt Three Lions, Anafalbia Borderrud or Leonora Ticklepalate. Adults will either help or chase after the children. There are many twists-and-turns in the book and a solid suspension of belief is necessary to enjoy the ride. The tone of the book is light and fun, like a continuous banter.

It’s something between The Fabulous Five, The Goonies and Scoobidoo, if these referred to Nietzsche and discoursed on loneliness. It’s full of humor and it made me chuckle and smile.

There’s a school of philosophy that has established itself on Finø and elsewhere in Denmark that believes that blondes with plunging necklines to be warm-hearted, though empty-headed. The woman in front of me dispels that theory at once. She’s as cool as a refrigerator and her aura suggests she is continually processing information at high speed.

The constant banter and detours to say something was tiring sometimes. It’s fun but too much fun kills the fun. Here’s another sample of the book’s tone:

Among Danes at large, even on Finø, a great many people, adults and youngsters alike, though perhaps especially the former, hold the opinion that of all the humiliations and insults to which they have been subjected, life is by far the worst. This doesn’t apply to the residents of Big Hill. Not one of them has escaped losing everything in the world, and for that reason, they seem to recognize that once a year, at least, one perhaps ought to be slightly glad to be alive.

It’s fun but it makes you long for Hemingway’s style.

However, soulful passages are inserted in the fun. Tilte explains that their parents are elephant keepers without knowing it.

She means that Mother and Father have something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control.

In his offhand tone, Peter muses over various deep topics: parenthood, loneliness, dreams, love, family and one’s expectations. It complements the cartoonesque side of the book and provides nice breaks in the chase.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children is an unusual book and I can’t decide whether I find it entertaining or irritating, light or deep. Perhaps it’s a little of everything.

It’s not for every reader, I found it tiring at times but still enjoyed the ride.

20 Books of Summer #8 and #9 : two books I couldn’t finish

August 3, 2020 25 comments

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) French title: Neige. Translated by François Pérouse. // La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (2006) Not available in English.

I can’t say I got along with our two last Book Club reads, Snow by Orhan Pamuk and La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (Not available in English and a literal translation would be The Shutter Troopers) In both cases, I read around 120-150 pages before giving up, I think I’ve given them a fair chance.

Let’s start with Snow. The character Ka –sounds like he’s coming of a Dino Buzzati novel—arrives in the provincial town of Kars, in Turkey. It’s winter and snowing. He’s back in his country after living in Germany for a decade. He’s a published poet and he’s sent to Kars as a reporter to investigate the suspicious suicides of young girls in the area. It’s also where his former university classmate Ipek lives. He had a vague crush on her back then and now he thinks she could be marriage material.

I know that Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize of Literature and that Snow is a well-acclaimed novel. I just didn’t get along with it. I thought that the constant religious discussions were too long and boring and I found the relationship between Ka and Ipek implausible.

It’s the kind of book I should have liked and I’m sure it tells lots of interesting things about Turkey but I was really struggling. I asked the other Book Club members how they were doing with it and the one answer I got was that the last 200 pages were a little boring. Since the first 100 pages were already plenty boring to me, I made the decision to stop reading it. I couldn’t push through the 500 pages left. I was just bored.

It’s obviously a good book, just not one for me. Or perhaps I read it at the wrong time.

 

Now The Shutter Troopers. It’s SF, so really out of my comfort zone and I was apprehensive to tackle these 730 pages of hardcore SF, not even dystopian fiction. Think of Dune.

The first chapter threw me off. Humans are in a life-threatening wind tempest in a décor of rammed earth houses and Australian bush. The author is from Lyon and rammed earth houses are typical from the Dauphiné region, between Lyon and Grenoble. Since the landscape was made of red earth, spinifex, eucalypti and oaks, I thought about Australia. Images of my in-laws’ village clashed in my head with images of Uluru.

The structure of the book is unusual. The chapters go from XIX to I. The main characters are described in a glossary at the end of the book, something I’ve just discovered. The characters speak one after each other and are represented by Greek symbols. You never know who’s speaking unless you click on the symbol (ebook) or refer to the characters bookmark (paper book). The POV changes several times per chapter.

I have the ebook version and I hated clicking on the symbol because it broke my reading flow, so I stopped checking. (It would have been the same with the paperback anyway) I didn’t always know who was speaking and I spent the few chapters I read trying to understand what I was reading. French speaking readers will understand what I mean with this quote: “Les chrones les plus petits ont le volume d’un gorce. Les plus gros pourraient tenir dans la doline.”

I asked about La Horde du Contrevent to French readers on Twitter and got the same answers. It takes half of the book to really get into it; you have to read it in few sittings to really manage to enter into the book’s world and you need the book bookmark to follow who’s speaking but after 350 pages, it’s getting better. I also asked what it was about and the most accurate description was that it’s about a sort of rugby team who travels the Earth to find out where the wind comes from. It’s a spiritual quest.

The thing is, I don’t have the luxury to read 730 pages in one or two sittings, even on holiday. It got on my nerves not to be able to understand whose POV I was reading, even if the characters have distinct voices. I believe I would have recognized them in the end. But there are 23 troopers. How long would it have taken me to spot each character through their voice? Russian novels are piece of cake after that, believe me. Each trooper has a role in the team and it’s hard to assimilate as well since these roles are totally imaginary.

Call me conservative but I don’t think I should refer to a bookmark for the names of the characters when I’m reading. All this irritated me, got in the way of my immersion in Damasio’s world. And, honestly, it’s a pity. He’s insanely creative. His descriptions are precise, poetic and visual. He imagined a coherent world with rules and inhabitants and I’m sure that for some readers, it’s a wonderful journey. But Damasio is too verbose for my tastes. I put the book down for a few days, thinking I’d get back to it. I tried to resume reading and I was put-off by the style. I wasn’t interested in knowing what would become of them and I wasn’t intrigued enough to push through the discomfort of feeling totally disoriented.

La Horde du Contrevent won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2006, the Goncourt of SF. It’s rated 4.46 stars on Goodreads. My vision of it is only mine and says nothing about the quality of the book just that it wasn’t a good match for this reader.

This blog is not about reviewing books, it’s my reading journey, I share the good and the bad experiences.

20 Books of Summer #6: Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira – Educational and thoughtprovoking

July 19, 2020 11 comments

Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira (2002 – revised in 2015) Original French title: L’esclavage raconté à ma fille.

I bought Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira at the temporary bookshop set up in the Musée d’Orsay at the end of the exhibition Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse.

Christiane Taubira is a French politician who was, among other political achievements, Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016. She a literature lover and a feminist, as mentioned in my billet here.

As you can see it on the cover of the book, she’s a black woman. She was born in Cayenne, in French Guiana, one of the French overseas departments. And yes, Cayenne is where Dreyfus was deported, in a penal colony. Taubira was deputy of French Guiana from 1993 to 2012.

She has always fought against racism and for France to deal with its history as a slave state. During her mandate she pushed for a law about slavery. The Loi n°2001-434 was promulgated on May 13th, 2001.

In its first article, the law states that France acknowledges that the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean and in the Indian Ocean and slavery perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas, in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and in Europe and against Africans, indigenous people, Indians and Madagascans is a crime against humanity.

The second article imposes that the history of the slave trade and of slavery be taught in schools with sufficient details and taking into account historical sources from Europe and from Africa, America and the Caribbean.

The third article says that France will push the Council of Europe, the UN and other international organizations to acknowledge the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity too. France must also push for a common date to commemorate the abolition of slave trade and slavery.

No wonder Taubira’s favorite author is Toni Morrison. Slavery Explained to My Daughter reflects who she is: combative, passionate, factual and non-violent. As a French, she mostly pays attention France’s history. Through the exchange with her daughter, I learnt or reread about historical facts but what I liked the most is her views on the matter.

She says that a formal and legal acknowledgment of the crime is a necessity, a ground to build the future.

She also says that Europe fabricated false reasonings to justify their crime and that even then, people knew it was not right but clung to their arguments to ease their conscience and keep making money or annexing countries. So, saying it was legal at the time is not a valid argument to brush off the matter and not look at the facts as crimes.

She’s against financial reparations because it would sell her ancestors a second time and it would be a nightmare to organize. How much should be paid and to whom? For her, the only way to compensate now is to put money into programs that will guarantee that the descendants of former slaves and white people have equal opportunities in life. I’m with her. Compensation through investing in the future, that sounds fair to me.

Besides the European side of the issue, she also stresses on slaves’ side. She puts forward slaves who fought against their condition and also reminds us of the new culture that uprooted people created to survive. She takes pride in her ancestry and shares it with the reader.

I thought that Slavery Explained to My Daughter was an intelligent book. The facts and the emotions are there. It’s educational, optimistic but also realistic. There is still a lot to do. It will require a lot of education and political goodwill. I wish my kids studied this book in school.

This was another read for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

20 Books of Summer #5: The Overstory by Richard Powers – a book tree

July 14, 2020 10 comments

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) French title: L’Arbre-monde. Translated by Serge Chauvin.

I decided to read The Overstory by Richard Powers after reading his interview in the review America where he talked about the fascinating world of trees and made me look at them in a different angle. I thought I’d give his sequoia novel a try.

The Overstory is a Sagrada Família book. Built like a cathedral with precise blueprints and with trees as pillars. Like a tree, it has four parts, Roots, Trunc, Crown and Seeds.

In the Roots part, we meet nine characters, Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Ray, Dorothy, Douglas, Neelay, Patricia and Olivia. Each has a tree totem. They come from California, the Midwest or the West. All have a relationship with trees and forests. It comes from their childhood or they have a revelation later. They come from different backgrounds, two of them have immigrant parents. It’s hard to say how old they are but they’re born between the 1940s and the 1960s. Some will keep a remote relationship with trees. Some will turn into green activists or even eco-warriors. One is a scientist devoted to the cause of biodiversity. All are convinced that old forests are precious and need to be protected.

The Trunc part is where some of the roots meet and live together for a while. Crown sees them live apart, make their own way in life. And Seeds is their legacy. The structure of the book is rather clear-cut and it is intentional, Powers is too gifted for it to be random clumsiness.

I enjoyed Roots, learning about the characters, knowing they’d interact somewhere in the future. I liked the Trunc part but was a bit disappointed with the rest. I learnt things about the destruction of trees, either because of bugs or through the cutting for woods. I heard the argument about giving trees the status of a legal body. Lawyers can represent their interests in court, then. I was fascinated by the description of the workings of the ecosystem around the roots of the trees. They live in harmony with other living creatures, animals or plants. Scientist are only unearthing the complexity of the communication system between trees. Since trees don’t move and don’t interact with us, we forget they’re living creatures. And Powers points out, Noah only took animals and humans on his ark. I got it and it’s a valid argument.

We think with our times. When people fought against slavery, for women’s rights, for the independence of colonies, a lot of their contemporaries thought they were extremist and nuts. They were ahead of their time and now their vision is the norm. Did we make the same mistake with environmental activists since the 1960s?

Powers says you don’t change people’s minds with rational thinking, that humans aren’t wired that way. You might change their minds with a good story. I think he’s right. The Overstory is not like The Monkey-Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey even if some parts reminded me of the Gang. It’s less abrasive in it’s form, more consensual and more likely to reach readers with moderate thinking.

Back to the Sagrada Família book. I have mixed feelings about The Overstory. Powers’s writing is incredibly poetic and his sentences rustle like leaves in a quiet forest. The tree metaphor is everywhere. I suppose that it needed to be that long (730 pages) to mirror the longevity of the old trees it sings about. I had the feeling that things were coming along smoothly, that important facts were sown in a poetic vision of forests and trees.

I was captivated and bored. I wasn’t really receptive to some farfetched communication channel between trees and one of the characters, Olivia. I am wary of people with callings. I’m with James Lee Burke when he writes “I’ve had some experience with people who are always trying to right the world by wiping out large portions of it. They all have the same idea about sacrifices, but it’s always somebody else’s ass that gets burned.”

Everything is well orchestrated, like a symphony. Each character plays its own instrument, has its part and they are in perfect sync. It doesn’t mean that the characters are saints. They are adrift, mean sometimes and not always good spouses or parents. They try to raise awareness but symphonies are barely heard in the world of pop-music.

The Overstory is a majestic symphony. I acknowledge it’s beautiful just like I do when I hear classical music. But symphonies never manage to move me the way blues does. The Overstory didn’t tug at my emotions as much as The Book of Yack by Rick Bass did.

I’m curious about other readers’ responses to this book. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

20 Books of Summer #3: Blood by Tony Birch – Indigenous Literature Week

July 7, 2020 14 comments

Blood by Tony Birch (2011) French title : Du même sang. Translated by Antoine Bargel.

Tony Birch is an Australian Indigenous writer. His debut novel Blood is my third 20 Books of Summer billet and my contribution to Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week. Lisa hosts this event to help readers discover Indigenous Literature, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. If you want to know more, here’s her post that describes the event and gives book recommendations.

In Blood, Tony Birch introduces us to Jesse and Rachel who live with their useless mother, Gwen. She works where and when she can and she’s constantly attracted to bad boys with criminal streaks and has no motherly instinct.

Jesse (13) and Rachel (8) almost never go to school. They move too much, living in abandoned farmhouses, in trailers, in shitty flats. Their mother leaves them on their own and the telly is their baby-sitter. They watch a lot of crime shows and films they’re too young to see. Gwen shows no real affection to her children. She’s always on the run.

The children know nothing about a normal life and a normal childhood. They stick together and their deepest fear is to be picked up by social services and to be sent to different foster homes. Jesse feels responsible for his sister, they made a blood pact to always help each other. Gwen is the major source of their issues.

We’d always been on the move, shifting from one place to another, usually because she’d done the dirty on someone, or she was chasing some fella she’d fallen for. And when Gwen fell for a bloke, she had to have him.

Once she shacks up with Jon, an ex-convict. Due to his past, he can’t find a job, stays home and starts to take care of the house and the kids. He’s determined to stay on the wagon and to turn his back to his former life. He sticks to it, cooks, cleans up the house, takes the children to school. They start to have a routine but this life becomes too homely for Gwen, Jon lost his edge and she kicks him out. The children lose a caring adult and are back to square one.

Gwen leaves them behind at her estranged father’s house. Jesse and Rachel have never met him and the improbable trio finds their way together. Stability is around the corner when Gwen shows up again and takes the kids away. Now she’s with Ray and this one is a real criminal. Jesse quickly realises that this man is very dangerous. He starts thinking about running away with Rachel and his hatred for his mother grows.

We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened. Jesse, the only narrator in the book, rings true. He takes us through his life up to the present. The story is suspenseful, breathtaking and heartbreaking. I was hooked from the first pages, mentally cheering the children, dreading for their future and cursing Gwen’s idiotic and shameful behaviour. It’s bleak but Jesse never gives up.

It sounds like American Darling by Gabriel Tallent. I rooted for Jesse and Rachel like I did for Tallent’s Turtle. I wish that Turtle and Jesse could meet, bond and share their mad survival skills. Both Tallent and Birch are gifted storytellers, embarking us on a journey in these kids’ lives. Blood isn’t as emotionally scarring as American Darling but it still made me angry on behalf of Jesse and Rachel.

Blood is on this thin line between literary fiction and crime fiction. (Gabriel Tallent was invited to Quais du Polar, btw.) We see children put on the path of violent criminals by their worthless mother. We wonder where social services are and how children can live under the radar like this. No institution worries when they don’t come back to school. No social worker ever shows up at their house. The world of adults constantly fails them, up to the point that Jesse and Rachel take matters in their own hands.

Blood is a compelling read that will stay with me and I highly recommend it. Many thanks to Lisa for reviewing books by Tony Birch. I knew of him when I visited the bookshop Readings in Melbourne and Blood was among the books I brought back to France.

 

20 Books of Summer #2: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski – Take a walk on a wild timeline

June 27, 2020 6 comments

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (2010) French title: Date limite. Translated by Sophie Aslanides

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski was our Book Club choice for June. I’ve read enough Swierczynskis now to be –almost—able to write his name without mixing the letters up or putting too many Ys. I’ve read The Blonde and the Charlie Hardie series, Fun and GamesHell and Gone and Point and Shoot.

All books mix Noir, thriller and SF with a huge dose of humor. Imagine the cocktail. I love it. For French readers, Swierczynski’s translator is Sophie Aslanides and it’s published by Rivages Noir. That’s enough for crime fiction lovers to pick the book, IMO.

So, what happens in Expiration Date?

We’re in Philadelphia. When the book opens, it’s present time. Journalist Mickey Wade has just been fired by his newspaper. Since he earned just enough to survive with his wages as a journalist, he’s now flat broke. He’s moving from his upscale neighborhood to a bad one, Frankford. That’s where he grew up and where he’s going to stay rent-free in his grandfather’s apartment while he’s at the hospital.

First night in the building, there’s a bodega downstairs but not a lot of neighbors. His friend Meghan helps him moving in and when she’s gone, Mickey feels tired, lonely, a bit desperate and headachy. He looks around Grand Pop Henry’s apartment and is intrigued by all the boxes he sees. But now is not the time to go through Pop’s stuff. He hunts down pills to fight his headache, finds what he thinks is Tylenol, pops two in his mouth, washes them out with some water and is thrown back to Frankford on February 22, 1972, his date of birth.

And I can’t tell you more about the plot without truly spoiling it. It sounds like Back to the Future but it’s by Swierczynski, so there must be murders, an investigation and bad guys. The plot is gripping and takes you for such a spin that sometimes you don’t know where you are or when. That’s the entertaining side of the book.

The more serious side is that, through these journeys into the past, Swierczynski takes us to Frankford street and shows us how it was a working-class neighborhood in the 1920s, moved to a middle-class one in the 1970s when Mickey was a kid to a run-down neighborhood. It’s now dangerous and the territory of gangs and drug dealers. The decline of industrial jobs in the US happened. It is the same implacable scenario that Roth describes for his hometown Newark. There is always some social commentary in good crime fiction.

A word about the American edition. Swierczynski writes for Marvel Comics and this one is published by Minautor Books. It includes black-and-white illustrations like in old fashioned books. It gives them a wonderful vintage feel.

Do I need to add that this is a great holiday read?

PS : A big thank you for this book to Guy, from His Futile Preoccupations.

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ – the pressure of traditions on young couples

June 20, 2020 13 comments

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017) French title: Reste avec moi. Translated by Josette Chicheportiche.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a Nigerian writer and her novel Stay With Me was our Book Club choice for May. (Yes, I’m late with writing this billet. I never seem to be able to write billets in the same order as I read books)

Yejide and Akin are still in university when they meet and fall in love. They get married quickly and are happy together. Unfortunately, four years after their wedding, Yejide isn’t pregnant yet. The young couple wouldn’t worry about it if Akin’s mother didn’t put pressure on them. As her eldest son, he must have children to keep his family’s lineage alive. Yejide sees all the specialists and medicine men she can, but to no avail. Life goes on until her mother-in-law brings to her house Akin’s second wife.

Stay With Me goes back and forth between the present (2008) and the past (the 1980s) where everything began. Yejide’s first reaction is intense jealousy towards Fumni, Akin’s second wife. She feels betrayed by her husband, by her mother-in-law. She’s against polygamy and never wanted to be an Iya, a first wife.

Yejide has lost her mother when she was little. Her father was close to her but she had to live with his other wives and their children and she never found her place in the household. She thought she had found a new family with Akin’s family and her mother-in-law’s behavior is hard to accept.

Things don’t go where you think they’re headed, with a cohabitation between the two wives and all the drama around it. I can’t tell you how the story develops without spoilers, so let’s keep it that way: it’s dark and unorthodox.

Stay With Me shows an educated young couple with a Western type of relationship who is powerless to resist the pressure put by family and tradition. Yejide owns her hairdressing salon and Akin works in a bank. They live in a rather big city. They are happy the way they are but they don’t dare to go against tradition. Fighting Akin’s mother’s wishes is rude and impossible to do.

I discovered a culture I knew nothing about. Akin’s younger brother, Dotun is married and has children but it’s not enough to appease their mother. Her first born must be a father, at any cost. There’s also strong beliefs in devils, various superstitions that weigh on people’s lives.

Stay With Me is narrated by Yejide but also by Akin, and it was interesting to see events from his side. We see the pressure put on their shoulders. Of course, when a couple doesn’t have children, the assumption is that the woman’s fertility is the cause of the absence of pregnancy. Akin’s mother can’t imagine that her son could be responsible for it.

Stay With Me also mentions politics in Nigeria in the 1980s. There was a military coup in 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida. It doesn’t impact Yejide’s and Akin’s lives more than any other Nigerian of the time. They are not involved in politics and it doesn’t interfere in their attempts to have children. I didn’t see the point of including these political events in the novel.

I thought that Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s book was poignant and that it is an important plea for more individual freedom in her country. We’re in 2020, the story takes place in the 1980s, I don’t know how mores have changed in almost 40 years but surely things have moved on.

I enjoyed traveling to Nigeria, reading about the food, the customs, life in Yejide’s salon and the time it takes to braid women’s hair. I liked Stay With Me well-enough but something’s missing and it prevented me from loving it. It’s still worth reading, though.

In French, Stay With Me is published by Charleston, a publisher I’d never heard of. After a bit of research, they publish romance, which might explain why I never came across them. The French translation is by Josette Chicheportiche who has just published a new translation of Gone With the Wind. It’s a chunkster, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle such a long book. So if you’ve read it and loved it, I need some encouragements here. 😊

For the anecdote, there’s a “battle” between Gallmeister, the publisher of the new translation and Folio, who republished its old translation. If Folio’s translation of Gone With the Wind is like their translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or A Rage In Harlem, I’m definitely team Gallmeister and I’ll be reading Chicheportiche’s translation.

A Mirrors Greens in Spring by Selina Sen – New Delhi in the 1980s

June 10, 2020 19 comments

A Mirror Greens in Spring by Selina Sen (2007) French title: Après la mousson. Translated by Dominique Goy-Blanquet.

A Mirror Greens in Spring is an Indian book by Selina Sen. Set in New Delhi in the early 1980s, it focuses on the lives of two sisters, Chandrayee “Chhobi” and Sonali. We are in a Bengali household where the two young women live with their widowed mother and their grand-parents.

The grandfather is very nostalgic of his youth. He had to leave his hometown after the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s from Bangladesh and he chose to stay in India but he never truly healed and still feel in exile.

Chhobi is 25 and Sonali is 19. The two sisters have very different personalities, due to a different education. When Chhobi was a young girl, their father died and she stayed in a Catholic boarding school when Sonali went back to New Delhi with their mother.

Chhobi is more studious and loves history. She works for a magazine in Delhi and writes pieces about various historical places of the city. She wants to have a PhD in Indian history. She’s the serious one, taking care of her sister and behaving responsibly. As she’s already 25, their intrusive neighbour, Mrs Chatterjee, wonders why she doesn’t have any prospect of marriage yet. But Chhobi enjoys being single and doesn’t seem eager to get married. She’s intelligent, grounded and her good sense brings a good support to her family. Her boss, Rosemary, encourages her to follow her dreams and not give up for family reasons.

Sonali is the frivolous one. She’s gorgeous, spoilt and self-centred. Her only interests in life are clothes, jewels and parties. She’s naïve and since she’s so pretty, her grandmother, the real master of the house, hopes for a rich marriage. So, when Sonali sneaks out of the house to meet her wealthy boyfriend Sonny, her mother and grandmother turn a blind eye. The inevitable happens: Sonny’s family has already chosen someone else for their son…

The first part of the book is pretty standard. Two girls with opposite characters, a cautious one and a reckless one. I thought that the plot was a classic déjà-vu and I almost stopped reading. The second part moved past the jilted poor girl part of the plot and became more suspenseful and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it.

Overall, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring but I thought there were too many descriptions of places, flowers, dishes, saris and of the weather. It felt written for an international public who doesn’t live in India. The descriptions happened at odd moments, as if a tourist guide jack-in-the-box popped up to give details and it broke my reading flow. It did make me want to learn how to cook Bengali cuisine though, everything sounded delicious!

India is a complex country for foreigners and I didn’t get the Bengali vs Panjabi comments from the characters. Sonali got on my nerves because I have little patience for spoilt princesses. I rooted for Chhobi and hoped she wouldn’t sacrifice her dreams to take care of her vapid sister and support her family.

Selina Sen takes us to a cultured household who struggles to make ends meet. We see three generations of women and the toll that widowhood puts on the girls’ mother. The book is set at the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and I wonder why the author chose this time and place for her novel written in 2007. Politics has little to do with the story but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement appears in the plot. Selina Sen mentions the historical wounds that people still carry with them, the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, terrorism in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring for the sense of displacement, for taking me away from my home and drop me into another country, into another culture.

Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

May 31, 2020 12 comments

Still Waters (2008) and Closed Circles (2009) by Viveca Sten. French titles: La Reine de la Baltique and Du sang sur la Baltique. Translated from the Swedish by Laura A Wideburg (Still Waters) and by Rémi Cassaigne (Du sang sur la Baltique)

I’d heard of the Swedish writer Viveca Sten from a colleague and she was on the Quais du Polar writers’ panel for this year’s aborted edition. I think it’s the first time I’ve read two crime fiction books in a row from the same series since I had my Agatha Christie binge in 5ème (7th Grade in the US system)

It’s also the first time I read one in English translation (Still Waters) and one in French (Closed Circles). More of that later.

Still Waters and Closed Circles are the two first books of the Sandhamn series by Viveca Sten. Set on the Sandhamn island in the Stockholm archipelago, they feature Inspector Thomas Andreasson and his friend Nora Linde. Thomas works at the Nacka police and Nora is a legal advisor in a bank. Both work in Stockholm and have spent their summers in the islands near Stockholm since they were children. Nora uses her legal knowledge to help Thomas in his investigations. Unofficially, of course.

Sandhamn has become a famous vacation spot in Sweden and, from what I gathered in the books, it’s like The Hamptons in the US or Deauville in France. Nora inherited her house from her grandmother, otherwise she couldn’t afford to buy one. Thomas has a summer house on Harö, a nearby island. The two books are set in July, in the peak season for holidaying in Sweden.

In Still Waters, a body is found on the beach during the summer holidays. Thomas soon finds out it’s Krister Berggren, a middle-aged man from Stockholm who works for the state-run alcohol shops, Systembolaget. He has no obvious link to Sandhamn, what happened?

In Closed Circles, a famous regatta organized by the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) is about to start when a participant is shot. The victim, Oscar Juliander is the deputy president of the RSYC and a well-known bankruptcy lawyer in Stockholm. Thomas was already on the scene since he was among the public who wanted to watch the race. He will lead the investigation. Nora is also in Sandhamn for the holidays, with her husband and children.

These two books are part of a series and a key success factor of a series is to hook up the reader on the characters’ private lives. We’re in the realm of all modern crime fiction series, away from Poirot and Maigret who don’t seem to have a life outside of crime investigating. It worked with me since I engaged in Thomas and Nora’s lives and picked up Closed Circles right after reading Still Waters.

Thomas is a Swedish cliché: six foot four, well built, his shoulders broad from years of handball training. He looked just like the archetypal policeman, big and reassuring, with blond hair and blue eyes. He’s divorced and his marriage to Pernilla fell apart after their infant died from SIDS. After almost drowning in sorrow, he’s now slowly resurfacing. After several crime fiction books with alcoholic PIs and detectives, Thomas was a welcome reprieve.

Nora is married to Henrik, a doctor, and they have two sons, Adam and Simon. In her late thirties, Nora starts to think she doesn’t get that much out of her marriage. Henrik spends his holiday on his boat and participates in regattas while she’s left behind with the children. Then Nora’s employer asks whether she’d be interested in becoming the head of their legal department in Malmö. It’s a promotion but one that requires a move. Will Henrik accept to uproot the family for her career?

I wasn’t thrilled by Still Waters, I thought that the writing was a bit clumsy at times (Nora placed the chicken dish on the table and put on the latest Norah Jones CD, her namesake apart from the h.) and I had guessed who the murderer was, which is not a good sign. When I read crime fiction, I let the writer carry me to the ending. I don’t try to pick up clues and outsmart the detective to find out who did it. So, if I guess the ending without trying to find it, in my eyes, the book is flawed. The cliffhanger about Nora’s life pushed me to read the second book, also thinking that the first book of the series isn’t always the best one. Unfortunately, the same thing happened with Closed Circles: I guessed the two main clues of the plot and that’s a definite no-go for me. Plus, the characters’ lives took a turn that didn’t interest me anymore.

So, no more Viveca Sten for me, unless I want something easy to read. That said, reading two books from the same series, one in English and one in French was an interesting experience.

I had the English rhythm of Sten’s writing well in mind when I started the second book in French. It didn’t have the same vibe and it took me a few chapters to get used to the French translation. The English one felt neutral and smooth, the French one felt a bit contrived and inaccurate. The translator overdid it when he translated the scenes at the Nacka precinct, lowering the level of language of the police team, as if they needed to sound more NYPD Blues to sound true.

In the English version of Still Waters, the police chief is introduced like this: The old man was the head of criminal investigation in Nacka, Detective Chief Inspector Göran Persson.

Then, he’s called Persson in the rest of the book. In my head, he was close to retirement and a bit quick-tempered. In the French translation, he’s called le Vieux. (The Oldman) I was really surprised and downloaded an extract of the English translation of Closed Circles. Chapter 5, we’re at the precinct:

Göran Persson, the head of the criminal unit of the Nacka police, couldn’t keep his anger under control.

Göran, chef de l’unité criminelle à la police de Nacka, surnommé le Vieux, ne parvenait pas à contenir sa colère.

Where does the “surnommé le Vieux”, (“nicknamed the Oldman”) comes from? And then, he becomes le Vieux in the book. A few lines later, about Carina:

Carina Persson, the chief’s daughter sat beside them. For the past two years, she’d worked as their administrative assistant while trying to get into the police academy. She’d finally been admitted this fall. A côté d’eux était assise Carina Persson, la fille du Vieux, qui travaillait depuis deux ans au commissariat comme assistante administrative, tout en préparant le concours de l’école de police. Elle allait enfin le passer à l’automne.  

The “chief’s daughter” becomes the “Oldman’s daughter”. In French, le Vieux is more derogatory than Oldman in English. You never know what was the publisher’s order regarding the translation, they may have asked for this and the translator had to comply. We’ll live with this.

But inaccuracy has nothing to do with the publisher’s requests. In the quote before, “She’s finally been admitted this fall” becomes in French “She’ll take the exam in the fall”, which is not the same at all and it happens to be an important detail in the story.

And then there was the victim’s profession. Oscar was a bankruptcy lawyer. I have no clue how it is said in Swedish but I’m sure that Viveca Sten, being a lawyer herself, used the right term. In French, the proper term in administateur judiciaire, not un administrateur de faillite like in the translation. A little research would have prevented that.

I usualIy don’t read English translations of books. Why should I make my life more difficult and read in English when I could read in French a translation made for a French reader? But I had the opportunity to get Still Waters for a cheap price on my e-reader and went for it. Reading Closed Circles in French right after Still Waters in English was eye-opening.

The writer doesn’t sound the same way in the two translations and the French one, on top of its translation flaws, sounds a bit old-fashioned. The publisher’s probably partly responsible for it, if you look at the translation of the titles. La Reine de la Baltique (The Queen of the Baltic Sea) and Du sang sur la Baltique (Blood on the Baltic) sound a lot more sensational than Still Waters and Closed Circles, which are, according to Google translate, the right translations from the Swedish.

What can I say? Readers, the publisher matters. Le Livre de Poche is not Rivages, Actes Sud or Gallmeister as far as translations are concerned. I wish they’d paid more attention to it or spent more money on it. In my opinion, they have no excuse as this book was meant to sell well: it’s crime fiction, a hugely successful genre in France, it’s Nordic crime, a bestselling sub-genre and Sten was already a success abroad. What was the financial risk on this one? We, readers, deserve a better translation than that. Maybe Gallmeister changed me into a spoiled princess, sensitive to every little pea in my crime fiction translations.

Meanwhile, if I ever read another Viveca Sten, I’ll get it in English.

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