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Posts Tagged ‘Abandoned Books’

Two abandoned books, a bookstore and mimosa trees

February 27, 2021 21 comments

I’ve been traveling the two last weekends and didn’t post anything. Before my billet about The Cut by Anthony Cartwright, a quick post about two books I couldn’t finish, a visit to a bookstore and a sunny picture of mimosa trees.

The first book I couldn’t finish is Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads.

In the heart of a civil war-torn African nation, primate researcher Hope Clearwater made a shocking discovery about apes and man. Young, alone, and far from her family in Britain, Hope Clearwater contemplates the extraordinary events that left her washed up like driftwood on Brazzaville Beach. It is here, on the distant, lonely outskirts of Africa, where she must come to terms with the perplexing and troubling circumstances of her recent past. For Hope is a survivor of the devastating cruelities of apes and humans alike. And to move forward, she must first grasp some hard and elusive truths: about marriage and madness, about the greed and savagery of charlatan science . . . and about what compels seemingly benign creatures to kill for pleasure alone.

I couldn’t make myself care about Hope, her failed marriage to mathematician John Clearwater and her research about apes. I persevered until page 77 and opted out. I know it was a successful book when it was published but it wasn’t for me and I don’t think it’s a question of timing.

The second book I abandoned is Arsène Lupin in the Secret of Sarek by Maurice Leblanc. After the series Lupin went out (and no, I haven’t watched it yet) I picked the Arsène Lupin episode I had on the shelf, determined to read it and have fun. How disappointing!

Imagine a woman, Véronique d’Hergemont, who was kidnapped as a young woman, married to a cruel Count Vronski. She had a son with him and lost him.

Imagine an island in Brittany, called the “island of the thirty coffins”. A legend says that thirty people will die, among which four women on a cross. Véronique d’Hergemont arrives there to find the son she lost fourteen years ago and finds her face as one of the four crucified women.

I couldn’t get into the story and I found the premises quite farfetched. It felt like reading an episode of Scooby Doo, without the humor. I’m not into ghost stories, stuff about superstition and supernatural. And Leblanc’s style was a real disappointment. I thought it was flat. I lasted until page 82 and since I wasn’t into the story, I moved on to another book.

Feel free to tell me whether you liked either Brazzaville Beach or Arsène Lupin in the Secret of Sarek. I expected better from both.

Last weekend I was in Paris and let me tell you, Paris without its museums and its cafés and restaurants is not the same. It feels empty. I walked around in the Latin Quarter and stumbled upon San Francisco  Books and Co, a bookstore that sells used books in English. Sorry the picture is askew, I didn’t want to take the car parked in front of the entrance.

Isn’t that ironic that you have City Light Bookstore in San Francisco and San Franscico Books Co in the City of Lights? Anyway, the libraire in San Francisco Books Co was British, couldn’t or wouldn’t utter a word in French when I said Bonjour and was listening to the BBC. The store is small but packed with books in English from the floor to the ceiling. I got Card on the Table by Agatha Christie for the #1936Club and found a copy of Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym.

I hope all is fine with you in your corner of the world. I leave you with a picture of mimosa in bloom in the South of France.  Sending a friendly hello to Australian readers: I learnt these trees were brought to the South of France from Australia by James Cook.

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker – not my cup of tea.

December 12, 2020 12 comments

All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker (2016) French title: Tout n’est pas perdu. Translated by Fabrice Pointeau

This is a short billet about All Is Not Forgotten, a thriller by Wendy Walker. I’m not a great fan of thrillers and I got Walker’s book with one of my Quais du Polar subscriptions. So, not a book I would have bought myself and after abandoning it at page 110, the only satisfaction I get from the experience is that I’m getting better at spotting books that aren’t for me.

In All Is Not Forgotten, Jenny, fifteen, is raped in the park behind the house where she was attending a party. Her parents get called to the hospital and agree to let the doctors give her a treatment that will make her forget this terrible night. The mother, Charlotte, wants to erase that night and is focused on moving on. The father, Tom, is not totally on board with this drug because Jenny’s missing memories will go against the police’s chances to find her aggressor. Charlotte wins and Jenny’s agression disapears from her consciousness but not from her mind and she’s not getting better.

Several things bothered me in this book and eventually led me to put it aside. Like Guy says in his review of A Helping Hand by Celia Dale, I prefer crime books where the killer is an ordinary person who crosses the line and becomes a murderer. I’m not too fond of serial killers and I can’t help thinking that building a plot around a teenager who gets violently raped in the woods lacks a bit of imagination.

I also found that the family was caricatural. They live in Fairview, a rich small town in Connecticut. Charlotte doesn’t work, keeps a strong hand on her husband and cherishes her membership to the local country club. She never has a hair out of her tight chignon and wears spotless clothes and make up. Well, you know the type. And her status is town is important to her, which puts pressure on her husband Tom. She’s a cold bitch, he’s an emotional carpet. Cliché.

The narrator of the book is Alan Forrester, a psychiatrist who sees Jenny after her suicide attempt. I guess he was going to take us through the story and its denouement after poking at Jenny’s mind and looking into her parents’ past hurts.

It’s not a bad book per se, it just confirms that I’d rather read Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith than this kind of stories.

Has anyone read it?

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.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong : Sorry, but I quit

November 16, 2019 45 comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929) French title: Berlin ALexanderplatz. Translated by Olivier Le Lay

This is my second attempt at reading Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin. Lizzy and Caroline host it this year for German Lit Month and I thought I’d try again. I stretched my fingers to hold the chunkster, put the sticky notes in the book to mark the weeks of the readalong and started to spend time with Franz Biberkopf, the hero of this 613 pages long novel. (At least in French and in my Folio edition. Don’t forget that, due to the language, books are about 10% longer in French than in English)

Despite my motivation, I abandoned Berlin Alexanderplatz again. I don’t care to know what’s going to happen to Franz Biberkopf. I was reading and pages were gliding over my brain like water on trout’s skin. (Yeah, no more fly-fishing reads for me, I have scars) In other words, I was reading and not imprinting anything.

I tried to force myself and after a few painful reading sessions, I started to wonder why I was inflicting this to myself. For the bragging rights? To tick a box on the 1001-books-you-must-read-before-you-die list? (I’m closeted 1001-books lister) I had to stop and remind myself that nobody cares whether I finish it or not, that reading is my hobby, not my duty. And reading must remain a pleasure, and nothing else. Goodbye to Berlin!

So, I hope that the other participants to the readalong have a great time with Döblin. My thoughts haven’t changed in five years and what I wrote in my previous billet is still valid.

Tschüβ!

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie – Disappointing

September 22, 2019 12 comments

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (2013) French title: Sidney Chambers et l’ombre de la mort. Translated by Patrice Repusseau.

I have a rule for Book Around the Corner: write a billet about every book I read, even if I don’t finish it. I have a rather long backlog of billets and I see that I only have three months left to catch up before 2020 starts. Phew! Combine the rule and the backlog and you’ll have a quick-and-dirty billet about Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, a crime fiction book I couldn’t finish.

I’d never heard of Runcie but it is published by Babel Noir, a good reference for crime fiction and the cover called to me. It’s the first volume of the Grantchester mysteries, featuring the vicar Sidney Chambers. He plays amateur detective and feeds his friend inspector Georgie Keating with information. I see that there’s a TV series made out of it.

How can I say this? I was looking for a so-British cozy crime mystery, something that smelled of old spinsters, gossips and church ladies. Sidney Chambers is a thirty-two-year of vicar who has been appointed to the town of Grantchester. Runcie draws the setting, introduces us to his main character. At Stephen Staunton’s funeral, a woman approaches Chambers to speak with him privately. She was Staunton’s mistress and she doesn’t believe that he committed suicide. She asks the vicar to dig around, since he can go where the police are not welcome.

I started to get into the story, thought the plot was developing and suddenly, wham, bam, thank you reader, mystery is solved and now we’re off to a New Year’s Eve dinner party where jewelry is stolen. I thought “What?! That’s it?”

I tried to read further but I couldn’t find any interest in the plot or in the characters’ company. I thought that they were caricatures. I disliked the weepy hostess of the dinner party. Why did she have to be a blubbering mess because something happened in her house?

Long story short, I abandoned it and I was disappointed because I expected a light and entertaining read. Has anyone read this series or watched it TV version? Did I read it at the wrong time or was I not the only one unconvinced by Sidney Chambers?

PS: Don’t you think that the title sounds like Harry Potter?

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

February 3, 2018 11 comments

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009) French title: Un autre monde. Translated by Martine Aubert.

A quick post about my abandoning The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I think I gave it a read shot, I waited until page 215 to let it go. It’s 664 pages long and I couldn’t see myself reading the four hundred and something pages left.

I’m disappointed because I usually enjoy Kingsolver’s books.

This one is the story/journals of Harrison William Shepherd, son of a Mexican mother and an American father. When the book opens, his mother has just left her American husband to follow her Mexican lover to his property on Isla Pixol, Mexico. We’re in 1929 and Harry is 14.

The style is a mix of chapters told by an omniscient narrator, some are made of Harry’s journals sandwiched between chapters by his translator. We understand that Harry is dead, that he became a famous writer, that his translator gathered his journals to make this book.

After a few Mexican years, Harry is sent back to his father in America. Now feeling in a parental mood, he enrolls Harry in a private military school in Washinfton DC. We get to read Harry’s journal: normal boy stuff and news from the outside with riots due to the Great Depression. W’ere in 1930/1931, during the Hoover presidency.

Then it’s back to Mexico with his flighty mother who’s always looking for a man to support her. Harry is hired as a member of Diego Rivera’s domesticity. Trostsky is hidden at the Rivera’s house…and that’s where I dropped out of the story.

I couldn’t find interest in Harry’s life or in the real-life events the book mentions. The only things that interested me were the mentions about Mexican cuisine and the dishes Harry learns to cook. That’s pretty thin and not enough to trudge to the end page.

I was determined to read it all since it’s our Book Club choice for January but really, I was looking at my TBR with longing, eager to pick something else and that’s the sure sign that it’s time to give up and move on. Life is short, there’s never enough reading time. I can’t afford to waste it.

I am now in company of Dave Robicheaux, the gritty New Orleans cop imagined by James Lee Burke. A treat.

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 41 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson

June 12, 2016 6 comments

The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson. (2006) French title: La confrérie des mutilés. Translated by Françoise Smith.

Evenson_confrérieI have a lot of billets to catch up with, so I’ll be very quick with The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson because I couldn’t finish it. It sounded promising, really. I wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. Kline is a PI who lost his hand in a mission that didn’t end well. He’s hired by a secret society to investigate a murder in their community. This brotherhood is only composed of mutilated men. The more mutilated you are, the higher you climb in the hierarchy. And brothers only have access to brothers who are on the same level of mutilation –which is in contradiction with the term of brother, according to me, but I’m not the writer here.

Since access to information requires a certain rank in the secret society, how far will Kline go to investigate this murder? Will he accept additional mutilations?

The blurb was soft and theoretical. The book is not. I cringed when I read how Kline lost his hand but I’ve read worse. However, I couldn’t stomach the brotherhood. I recoiled from the concept of mutilating yourself voluntarily. I couldn’t read more about these people who are in awe of men who cut toes or fingers to score points. I couldn’t read more discussions about whether cutting a toe counted as one mutilation point or if toes should be counted as a whole to get a point. I disliked mutilation parties to celebrate someone’s new mutilation.

Really, I couldn’t go further with this, despite Télérama’s glowing review. It’s too gore for me.

So, if anyone’s read this one till the end, I’m interested in their opinion on this er…unusual novel.

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq

June 4, 2016 30 comments

A Dark Stranger by Julien Gracq (1945) Original French title : Un beau ténébreux. English translation by Christopher Moncreiff.

gracq_beau_ténébreuxA Dark Stranger is set during the summer 19.. in Kérantec, a fictional seaside resort in Britanny. A group of idle young people are staying at the hotel Les Vagues. They go to the beach, swim, walk, play tennis, chess and read. The novel is mostly a diary written by Gérard who has an unconventional point of view. He spends time with this group but he doesn’t really belong with them. He has firsthand material to retell what’s going on and still has the outsider’s point of view.

The group is classically composed of Jacques, a happy-go-lucky man. He’s uncomplicated, loves sports and is a bit in awe with Christel. She’s the queen bee that all men gravitate around. Even Gérard is intrigued by her. There’s a married couple, Irène and Henri. They are the go-between to organize outings. Bored, Gérard is about to leave when Grégory, another member of the gang, announces that one of his childhood friend is about to arrive. Curiosity pushes Gérard to stay and meet with Allan and Dolorès, the new couple in the hotel.

Allan rapidly becomes the center of attention. He’s the dark stranger of the title. He seems to have it all, athletic, cultured, attractive. And yet, Gérard lets us understand that something is off in Allan’s behaviour.

That’s where I stopped to read. I was page 99 out of 255 and I couldn’t stand to read one more page of this. I took a lot of irritated notes while reading. How the group sounded a bit like a teen movie with the popular and the others. How it seemed a poor remembrance of Balbec with the tortured narrator trying to get in the pants of the pretty and elusive girl. How the picnic on the ruins in the Brittany countryside reminded me of the epic picnic in Emma by Jane Austen only without the wit. I wasn’t interested in this group at all.

See the teen movie vibe:

En quelques jours Allan était devenu le dieu de la bande “straight”. Within a few days, Allan had become the new god of the in crowd.

Gracq_pushkinStraight is the name of the group of young people staying at the hotel and led by Jacques. Until Allan’s arrival, that is. The name is mentioned right at the beginning of the novel and I kept wondering what it meant in the pre-AIDS & Gay Pride era when us French started to learn about the other meaning of straight. The mystery was solved later. Christopher Moncreiff, the latest English translator of A Dark Stranger, chose to translate it as “in crowd”, which comforts my impression of high school drama.

In the end, what made the book unbearable to me was the style. It’s bombastic, full of complicated words for no reason at all. I noted that I was page 21 and he had already called upon the manes of Poe, Balzac and Rimbaud. The pages seemed crowded, all of a sudden. I don’t like this kind of name dropping. I’m under the impression that the author is not sure enough of his craft, that he needs offerings to the literary gods for their genius to coat his literature with a rain of glitter.

Then, there is the extensive use of words in italic and piece of sentences starting with “–“. It hurts the eye. I found myself scanning the page before reading to check how many of them there were. If it wasn’t obvious to the writer, what was the publisher thinking? Isn’t it part of their job to edit books to avoid things like this? Page 96, there are NINE “–“ and THREE words in italic. Again, it leaves me with the feeling of a writer unsure of himself. A writer doesn’t need to emphasize words like this all the time. Either it’s the right word and no italic is needed or he ought to pick another word. And Gracq could have done it, his vocabulary is as wide as a dictionary.

Granted, Graq’s descriptions of Britanny are marvelous and poetic. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the rest. There are the oneiric parts, the walks and picnic at night that didn’t appeal to me at all. It reminded me of Le grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier, a book I really don’t like despite its literary merits.

Gracq wrote this during WWII and he was a war prisoner in Silesia. I suppose that he wanted to write something as far as his quotidian as possible. After all, Romain Gary wrote Education Europénne, set in the heart of the cold Polish winter when he was roasting in the Middle East. He needed the idea of the snow to escape his reality.

Of course, since I didn’t finish the book, I can’t give a fully informed opinion about the plot. Someone’s going to die, that’s for sure, we know it from the preamble. To read a better informed and more enthusiastic review, see here.

To make a long story short, it’s probably a great piece of literature but it’s not my cup of tea at all. Sometimes it’s a question of a bad timing. Here, the book is just not for me.

I’m dying to hear about someone else’s opinion on this one. So don’t hesitate to comment.

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

December 29, 2015 10 comments

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz. (2014)

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz is our Book Club choice for December and I’m not going to waste a lot of time reviewing it. That’s how irritated I am with this book I abandoned at page 67.

First, there’s this ridiculous font of characters that reminded me of a giggling teenage girl who puts little hearts on her is. Look!

Moriarty_police

Then there’s the flatness of the style and the easy literary devices: addressing to the reader to go back in time and introduce the plot or describe the characters or make useless detours to add fake life to the prose. I started to roll my eyes from the first page after I recovered from the silly font. The narrator is American, a detective from the famous Pinkerton Agency.

As I sit at my Remington Number Two improved model typewriter (an American invention, of course) et begin this great labour, I know that I am likely to fall short of the standards of accuracy and entertainment that he maintained to the end.

Well, that inspires me. The first part of the sentence seems labored, as an American would spell it and autobiographical for the actual writer. He fell short of fiction greatness and accuracy is an accounting standard, which might be crucial if the point of the book is to earn money. You think I go a bit too far? You need another round of it:

My appearance? Well, it’s never easy for any man to describe himself but I will be honest and say that I could not call myself handsome. My hair was black, my eyes an indifferent shade of brown. I was slender and though only in my forties, I was already too put-upon by the challenges life had thrown my way. I was unmarried and sometimes I worried that it showed in my wardrobe, which was perhaps a little too well worn.

See? Am I mistaken when I say he doesn’t sound like a New Yorker? And compared to Craig Johnson, Horowitz writes like a toddler.

I was still willing to suffer through the banal prose for a good piece of entertainment. But then it got worse when the British inspector from Scotland Yard came into the story. The deciphering of the secret code included in a letter made me groan of frustration. Like we say in French, I threw the sponge away. (I gave up) I’m too old to read a mix of Da Vinci Code and The Famous Five. I’m too busy to waste good reading time on such a book.

So, bye bye Moriarty! Hello Petros Markaris! I’m taking the French leave and going to Athens for Liquidation à la grecque.

If you want to read an gentler review of Moriarty, go to Caroline’s review.

 

Danish disappointment

August 7, 2015 16 comments

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.

 

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes.

June 18, 2015 13 comments

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. 2015 (Not available in English)

Despentes_vernonIWhat a disappointment! I was looking forward to reading Virginie Despentes’s new novel after enjoying Apocalypse Bébé and Teen Spirit.

Vernon Subutex is the name of the main character, a former record dealer whose professional life was destroyed by digital music. We’re all aware of what happened to the music industry with the development of internet, P2P and music in mp3 files instead of CDs. So Vernon’s store sunk and he sunk with it. His financial situation worsens and when his friend Alex dies, he doesn’t have anyone anymore to help him with his rent and he’s evicted from his apartment. Alex is not a guy-next-door kind of friend, he’s a rock star. And Vernon has tapes where Alex talked about himself. Surely, such precious material is worth money?

That brought me to page 120 out of 393, of the first volume. (The second one was released this month and there’s a third one scheduled for later). Although Despentes is still punchy in her style, I couldn’t care less about the story. I heard her talk about her novel at the Fête du Livre de Bron and I expected something more about society’s shortcomings. She explained our society is uncompromising for the weak and Vernon’s situation spiraled out of control. I expected to sympathise with Vernon.

Instead, I thought Vernon was a bit of a Peter Pan. He never wanted to grow up and he now resents ageing even if he doesn’t complain about it.

Passé quarante ans, tout le monde ressemble à une ville bombardée. After forty, everybody looks like a town after a bombing.

He’s more in a mood of “where the hell did those years go?” He failed to acknowledge his professional world was changing, he failed to branch out when it was time. Perhaps it was such a strong wave that the whole music industry didn’t see it coming. His friends or so call friends are all the artistic/media world (rock stars, rock journalist, screenwriter or working on TV) I wasn’t interested at all in their angst. I could imagine a sordid plot was about to explode about Alex’s recordings and that it would be ugly and expose society’s greediness. But I didn’t feel like reading more about that.

So after seeing the book lying around for a while and never feeling like picking it up, I decided to stop reading it. It’s not a bad book at all. I still enjoyed Despentes’s style and she hasn’t lost her edge

Pedro s’appelait Pierre, mais il prenait tant de cocaïne qu’il avait hérité d’un prénom sud-américain. Pedro’s real name was Pierre but he sniffed so much cocaine that he inherited of a South-American name.

However, sometime, I could hear the English under her French, which is really odd. I noticed this sentence Emilie est devenue balistique sur la propreté. (Emilie went ballistic on hygiene) and later I spotted a Marque mes mots (mark my words) In both cases, it means absolutely nothing in French if you’re not aware of the English expressions. I truly love the English language but when you write in French, you don’t sabotage the beauty of the language by literally translating English expressions into French. It bothers me.

So, in a nutshell, I think she’s as talented as ever but that her Vernon Sullivan never engaged me. Her novel should have left me with a head full of rock music. Instead, it left me with a song by Renaud, P’tite Conne. In this song, Renaud describes the funeral of a young woman who died of an overdose and who came from social circles where drugs were accepted. See part of the lyrics:

Tu fréquentais un monded’imbéciles mondains

Où cette poudre immonde

se consomme au matin,

 

Où le fric autorise

à se croire à l’abri

Et de la cour d’assises

et de notre mépris

 

Que ton triste univers

nous inspirait, malins

en sirotant nos bières

ou en fumant nos joints…

You belonged to a worldOf stupid socialites

Where this disgusting powder

Is consumed in the early morning,

 

Where money allows you

To feel protected

From the Crown Court

And from the contempt

 

That your sad little world

Inspired us, smartasses

While we sipped our beers

Or smoked our pot…

Vernon Sullivan seemed a part of this sad delusional world and I left him there.

This was my second read of my #TBR20 project.

 

 

 

Lackey is lacking

October 31, 2014 10 comments

Phoenix & Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. 2004. The Elemental Masters, volume 4. 

Lackey_ElementalI decided to read this as participation to Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. It intrigued me, I wanted to try something out of my usual box and I hoped to discover a series my daughter might like.

Phoenix and Ashes is set in England during WWI. It is loosely based upon the Cinderella fairy tale with Eleanor in the role of Cinderella, a nasty stepmother named Alison and two stepsisters trying to catch Reggie, the local most eligible bachelor, the modern version of Prince Charming. Add magic to the mix since Phoenix & Ashes is the fourth volume of the Elemental Masters series. “Elemental masters” means that as in Harry Potter, wizards live among humans and there are four kinds of wizards, each mastering one element (Earth, Fire, Air and Water) Alison is an Earth wizard, Eleanor is just discovering she’s a Fire master and Reggie is an Air one which explains why he is a pilot in the burgeoning air force. Alison keeps Eleanor attached to scrubbing the kitchen and the house via a spell. She wants one of her daughters to marry Reggie and she plots a way to get them acquainted. Poor Reggie is in bad shape as he was wounded during an air battle; his airplane fell down and he was kept in a bunker while critters from an Earth Elemental master tortured him. He no longer thinks himself as an Air Elemental master. That’s the setting.

I’m afraid the summary I just made of the book reflects the fact that I abandoned it after reading 30% of it. The idea in itself is interesting and could be good plot material. After all, it led me into starting the book. The execution was not up to my expectations. OK, it’s true I’m not a fan of fantasy, you may think I’m prejudiced against the genre. I did read Harry Potter with pleasure though, most of the pleasure coming from all the details JK Rowling put into the story and that make the wizards’ world consistent and plausible. She invented funny details like speaking painting. In Phoenix & Ashes, I felt a miserable attempt at mimicking JK Rowling. The style is rather poor but the few YA books I’ve read were disappointing as far as style was concerned. – One exception, JMG Le Clézio, that must be why he won the Nobel prize of literature. To be honest, I didn’t expect a masterpiece.

However, I expected a page turner, a light read for a train journey I had planned and I thought the plot was dragging and dragging and dragging. Mercedes Lackey managed the unfortunate combination of developing the plot too slowly while at the same time not giving enough quirky details about the wizard world she created. I wasn’t in a hurry to know about the plot and I couldn’t enter her imaginary world because its depiction was too blurry. In the end, the book is tasteless and while I was in the right mood and place to enjoy an entertaining novel, I had to abandon it. Frustrating. What is beyond me is how she managed to write and sell 10 volumes of this Elemental Masters series.

I’ve written this review before reading Caroline’s and you can discover her take here. No magic there, basic science: the same causes produce the same effects.

Time After Time by Molly Keane

June 29, 2014 15 comments

Time After Time by Molly Keane 1983 French title: La revenante.

Keane_TimeTime After Time is our Book Club choice for June. I’m sorry to report I couldn’t finish it, I stopped at 36%, the kindle says. I never managed to enter into the book’s universe.

It is set in Ireland, in the decrepit aristocratic mansion Durraghglass where the four Swift siblings live together. They are over sixty year old and kindly hate one another. Jasper is the only man of the group. An accident in his childhood left him one-eyed and he loves cooking and gardening. April, the only one who was married once, is almost deaf; her main hobby is buying pretty clothes and taking care of her beauty. May has a hand with only two digits and is the President of the Flower Arranger’s Guild. June –Baby— is slow and loves farming. The four of them worship their deceased mother. For example, Jasper still wears the hat she picked for him years ago and the sisters quote her words like the Gospels. Saint Mummy, pray for us.

They all have clear but different memories of the cousin Leda who was a half-Jewish Austrian. She had stayed with them during a summer and they all assume she died during WWII. A Jew married to a Jew, what else could have happened? But Leda arrives unexpectedly on their doorstep…

This is where I stopped reading. There was a feeling of déjà vu that bothered me. Molly Keane has a lovely and humorous style but the outline of the characters and the plot sounded more like a literature exercise than real creation. Four siblings, each with a disability, raised in grandeur and now impoverished. The three sisters have month names, the mother’s ghost is hovering over their lives. They each have a pet, the sisters have dogs and Jasper has a cat. Each sibling has their little quirk. And you can feel that cousin Leda’s return is going to set things in motion, dig out dark secrets and shatter the fragile modus vivendi of the Swift siblings. So she’s the deus ex-machina, as my literature textbook calls it.

This is why I couldn’t finish it. I thought the characters, setting and plot were artificial. It reminds me of theatre play rules, unity of time, place and action. I felt like Molly Keane was trying to comply with literature rules for a school assignment more than expressing herself. Four disabilities were too much for my liking and the names put me off. Seriously: April, May and June? The accumulation of quirky irritated me and I saw an accumulation of details and characters that didn’t mesh well.

I’m now curious to know what the other Book Club participants thought about it. For another review, discover Guy’s thoughts here. He was delighted by the book.

PS: I can’t reconcile the cover of the book with anything I’ve encountered in the 36% I’ve read. The explanation must come later.

 

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