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Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Highly recommended

December 19, 2021 19 comments

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (2020) French title: Betty. Translated by François Happe.

No matter how beautiful the pasture, it is the freedom to choose that makes the difference between a life lived and a life had.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is our Book Club choice for December and the proof that one should never write their best-of-the-year post before the year is truly ended. What a book.

Betty Carpenter was born in 1954 in a dry claw-foot bathtub in Arkansas. She’s the sixth child of a family of eight children. Her parents were a mixed couple, her father Landon was Cherokee and her mother Alka was white.

Betty is our narrator and she tells us her family’s story from 1909, her father’s birth to 1973, the year he died. Her parents were dirt poor and after a few years of moving around, they settled in an abandoned house lent by a friend in Breathed, Ohio. It was Leland’s hometown. They lived off the land, off the medicine Landon could concoct and off odd jobs. They were dirt-poor.

The first part of the book covers the 1908-1961 years. It’s shorter because Betty doesn’t have her own memories of these years but it’s an important part to root the family tree in its history. Landon’s Cherokee roots mean that he comes from a culture with a matriarchal tradition and a history of violence as his elders hid in the wilderness to avoid deportation to Oklahoma. Alka comes from a Bible abiding family with a history of domestic violence and no respect for women.

Alka and Landon have eight children: Leland, Fraya, Yarrow, Waconda, Flossie, Betty, Trustin and Lint. Yarrow and Waconda died before they were two. Betty’s story is centered around her and her sisters Fraya and Flossie. They father told her:

“In different native tribes, the Three Sisters represent the three most important crops. Maize, beans, and squash. The crops grow together as sisters. The oldest is maize. She grows the tallest, supportin’ the vines of her younger sisters. The middle sister is beans. She gives nitrogen and nutrition to the soil, which allows her sisters to grow resilient and strong. The youngest is squash. She is the protector of her sisters. She stretches her leaves to shade the ground and fight off weeds. It is squash’s vines which tie the Three Sisters together in a bond that is the strongest of all. This was how I knew I’d have three daughters, even after Waconda died. Fraya’s the corn. Flossie is the beans. And you, Betty, are squash. You must protect your sisters as squash protects the corn and beans.”

A tall order for Betty, who becomes the custodian of the family stories. Her mother tells her about her personal tragedy. She witnesses Fraya’s horrible fate and the two sisters share Fraya’s secret. She knows about Flossie’s dirty secrets too. A resilient child, Betty understands that women and men don’t have the same opportunities in life.

I realized then that pants and skirts, like gender itself, were not seen as equal in our society. To wear pants was to be dressed for power. But to wear a skirt was to be dressed to wash the dishes.

Betty is an ode to generation of women who had to live through discrimination due to their race, their gender or their social status. And sometimes the three at the same time, like Betty who was ostracized and bullied in school because of her Cherokee physique, her poverty and her gender. Telling Alka’s, Fraya’s and Flossie’s tragic lives is a way to keep them alive and tell the world that their lives mattered. The three of them were captive of a man around them, their father, their brother or their husband. Alka explains to Betty:

“My mother used to have figurines,” Mom said as she lifted her chin as high as it would go as she added another layer of lotion to her neck and collarbone. “All of the female figurines you could take apart because they were boxes or bowls. They all held somethin’. In their skirts, in their bodies, they all held somethin’. None of the male figurines held anything. They were solid. You couldn’t put anything in and you couldn’t take anything out. I suppose if you think about it long enough, you’ll see why this is like real life.”

Alka, like Hattie in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, due to her own issue, isn’t equipped to mother so many children. As often in this case, the oldest daughter steps up and helps. But contrary to Hattie’s children, Alka’s children had their father. He’s the glue of the family. The one who heals with plants, teaches through gardening and relies on nature to help his children see the beauty around them instead of focusing on their misery. He loves his children and he mothers their bodies and their souls. He has stories about everything to turn a magic and poetic camera on the harsh reality of their lives.

I realized then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, we needed to believe them as well. To believe in unripe stars and eagles able to do extraordinary things. What it boiled down to was a frenzied hope that there was more to life than the reality around us. Only then could we claim a destiny we did not feel cursed to.

And the admirable outcome is that she’s able to say: Through his stories, I waltzed across the sun without burning my feet.

He’s a deeply caring man, one who is invested in his children’s life and education, who has no expectations of them, except to become what they want. Sons or daughters, it doesn’t matter. Intelligent, troubled, impaired or shallow, he loves them equally and is the real glue of the family.

Betty is emotional, tragic, violent, poetic, lyric, resilient and empowering.

Betty is actually Tiffany McDaniel’s mother and the author writes a beautiful ode to her lineage of strong women and an even more beautiful one to her grandfather, a man she never knew but was unusual in his generation for thinking that his daughters could be more than wives and mothers.

Betty is as much a tribute to Landon Carperter as the story of the Carpenter women. Betty says:

“Growin’ up,” I said, “I felt like I had sheets of paper stuck to my skin. Written on these sheets were words I’d been called. Pow-wow Polly, Tomahawk Kid, Pocahontas, half-breed, Injun Squaw. I began to define myself and my existence by everything I was told I was, which was that I was nothing. Because of this, the road of my life narrowed into a path of darkness until the path itself flooded and became a swamp I struggled to walk through.

“I would have spent my whole life walkin’ this swamp had it not been for my father. It was Dad who planted trees along the edge of the swamp. In the trees’ branches, he hung light for me to see through the darkness. Every word he spoke to me grew fruit in between this light. Fruit which ripened into sponges. When these sponges fell from the branches into the swamp, they drank in the water until I was standin’ in only the mud that was left. When I looked down, I saw my feet for the first time in years. Holdin’ my feet were hands, their fingers curled up around my soles. These hands were familiar to me. Garden dirt under the fingernails. How could I not know they were the hands of my father?

“When I took a step forward, the hands took it with me. I realized then that the whole time I thought I’d been walking alone, my father had been with me. Supportin’ me. Steadyin’ me. Protectin’ me, best he could. I knew I had to be strong enough to stand on my own two feet. I had to step out of my father’s hands and pull myself up out of the mud. I thought I would be scared to walk the rest of my life without him, but I know I’ll never really be without him because each step I take, I see his handprints in the footprints I leave behind.”

Isn’t this what parenthood is all about? Steadying feet and hanging lanterns along the path to adulthood?

Highly recommended.

PS : The original cover of the book (kept for the French edition too) is based on an Afghan crocheted by Betty. The UK paperback edition features a picture of Betty as a child. More pictures here, on Tiffany McDaniel’s website.

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

December 5, 2021 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury – Born to be wild

November 28, 2021 13 comments

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury (2018) French title Sauvage. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Jamey Bradbury was born in 1979 in the Midwest and Alaska has been her home for fifteen years. The Wild Inside is her debut novel.

Tracy is seventeen years old and lives in Alaska with her younger brother Scott and her father Bill. Her mom died about a year ago and the three of them had to adjust and go on with their lives as best as they can. Bill is a musher, he used to compete in the Iditarod race and his wife was his partner in this. She helped preparing and training the dogs. Everything fell apart when she died. Bill had to find other ways to support his family, to raise his children alone and to cope with his grief.

This is the background story of Tracy. High school is not her cup of tea. She loves nothing more than hunting and racing with her dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. She sets traps in the forest to catch animals. She stays outdoor for hours, with her sleigh and her dogs. It is vital for her. She’s restless if she can’t hike in the forest everyday. She competes in the Junior Iditarod and she’s passionate about her sport.

Like her mother, Tracy has a special way to connect with animals and the wilderness around her. She relies on instinct, on a unique way to plug her brain to the nature around her, to be attuned to it the way animals are.

Tracy struggles with this new life. She misses her mother and even more since she was the only one who knew and understood Tracy’s gift. She doesn’t like her father’s choices: she wants to compete again, to train the dogs but they can’t afford to hire staff to take over her mother’s workload. Bill doesn’t want her to spend so much time in the wilderness hunting with the dogs. Whatever. Tracy will wait for him to sleep like a log to go out at night.

Tracy’s life changes when a man attacks her in the forest and she wakes up with blood on her. She’s certain that she has fatally injured him. Actually, Tom Hatch, her victim came to their house and her father took him to the ER. She knows he has survived but does he know that she kept his backpack with all his money? Will he come back for her? This possibility is constantly on her mind, fear impairing her thought process.

A short while later, a young man arrives at their property. Jesse saw the ad that Bill put up to rent a cabin on their land, in order to make a bit of money. Jesse proposes to trade work against rent and utilities. He soon makes himself indispensable to Bill and is a game changer in the family’s dynamics.

The Wild Inside is part thriller, part horror, part coming-of-age novel, a risky mix that Jamey Bradbury pulls off with the ease of an experienced writer. We wonder if Tracy is really in danger or if she’s so stressed about Tom Hatch that she makes up problems where there aren’t. I won’t say anything about the horror element as it would spoil the novel for a new reader. It was disturbing and unsettling, I didn’t know what to do with what I was reading. Jamey Bradbury kept me on my toes.

And along with the thriller/horror side, she manages to explore the quest of identity of the characters. Bill is trying to build a new life without his wife. Scott doesn’t find a comfortable place between his sister and his father as he doesn’t share their love for the outdoors. Tracy struggles to understand who she is, how to handle her gift. Her attraction to Jesse leads to an unsuspected surprise. Who is he? Where does he really come from and what brought him to Alaska?

The décor of the book is the incredible beauty of Alaska. I know that writers don’t have to write about something they know to picture it properly. However, I think that life in extreme conditions like Alaska or Wyoming winters are best described by writers who actually live there. They have a sense of the place, a knowledge of the climate and the wilderness that runs in their blood and seeps on the page. Jamey Bradbury makes you armchair travel to Alaska with Tracy and her dogs.

The Wild Inside came with my Kube subscription and I’ve never read anything like it. I had to put it down because I felt spooked by what I was reading. I was so unsettled at times that I almost abandoned it but I couldn’t. I had to know how things would end. One of my friends read it too and had the same reading experience. Unease, compulsion to finish and awe. What a book!

Four novellas, four countries, four decades

November 20, 2021 37 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Borgo Vecchio, I traveled to Japan and read…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Ice by Michael Connelly – excellent page turner

November 11, 2021 10 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chances Are…by Richard Russo – friendship at Martha’s Vineyard

November 7, 2021 8 comments

Chances Are… by Richard Russo (2019) French title: Retour à Martha’s Vineyard. Translated by Jean Esch.

For our October read, our Book Club had chosen Chances Are…by Richard Russo. It’s not my first Russo, I’ve already read Empire Falls (pre-blog) and Straight Man and I have fond memories of them.

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey have known each other since college. They are now in their sixties and Lincoln is about to sell the house he inherited from his mother in Martha’s Vineyard. Before selling it, he invites his college friends for a last weekend there, in this house and place where they spent the Memorial Day weekend after graduation in 1971.

Lincoln married his college girlfriend, Anita. They have six children, he works in real estate, she’s a lawyer and they make a comfortable income, even if the 2008 crisis rocked Lincoln’s boat.

Teddy works for an endangered publishing house attached to a university. It is specialized in religious books and it was under the patronage of the dean, Theresa. Now that Teresa has taken a better position at another university, Teddy knows that his job is at stake. Teddy never married and none of his friends has ever seen him in a long-term relationship.

Mickey is a musician. He has a rock band and he spends his life on tour. He’s single, dresses like a rocker and acts as if he refuses to get old.

In college, the three of them bonded as children from the working or middle class thrown with students from the upper classes. They worked at the Theta House as servers and washer-up and it is where they watched on TV the Draft Lottery for the Vietnam war on December 1st, 1969.

Mickey was number 9, Lincoln’s number was in the middle and Teddy was 362. Chances were that Mickey would go to Vietnam, Teddy wouldn’t and Lincoln could hope that the war would be over before his day came. They had respite until they graduated in 1971, since they could finish school first.

At university, the three young men saw themselves as the Three Musketeers and their D’Artagnan was Jacy. She was a member of the Theta House, a rich girl who wanted to be free from her social class constraints. The three boys were in love with her but none of them made a move and they remained friends.

At the moment of the Memorial Day weekend in 1971, Jacy was half-heartedly engaged to a young man from her social class. Mickey was about to get shipped to Vietnam. Teddy was undecided and Lincoln was with Anita who knew how to steer her boyfriends into the direction of her life plans.

Jacy disappeared at the end of this fateful weekend and none of them knows what happened to her. That weekend was their last weekend together, before starting their adult life and it ended with an enigma. When they meet again in Martha’s Vineyard all those years later, they still wonder what happened. Jacy’s shadow hovers over them and they wish they knew for sure what had become of her.

Back at Martha’s Vineyard where their adult life abruptly started, everything brings back old memories and pushes them to find closure. They reminisce their past, they probe their memories and the facts, to reflect on their lives. Lincoln starts digging as a sleuth. Teddy re-visits places and fights against a massive anxiety attack. And Mickey brings the fun and their youth because in appearance, he remained the same.

The reader learns about their childhood and the mark their education left on them. The chapters alternate between Lincoln’s and Teddy’s voices, until Mickey finally adds his voice to the choir. The reader discovers bits and pieces of their lives and the fault line that Jacy’s disappearance left on their souls. Lincoln is as fragile as his two friends but Anita’s steady presence keeps him standing, like a prop for a plant. Teddy suffers from severe anxiety crises. Mickey never went to war and fled to Canada instead. He seems carefree, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person, but is it true?

Chances Are…explores the paths of three men whose lives were impacted by odds. Working and meeting at the Theta House when they came from different States and different background. Striking a friendship with Jacy. The Vietnam Lottery. For Lincoln, meeting Anita.

The novel also questions the nature of friendship. They never addressed the fact that they were all in love with Jacy. They didn’t want to break the fragile balance of their friendship. Did she have feelings for one of them? Was it better to keep wondering who was her favorite?

And a last question, do we really know our friends? The three of them kept secrets that none of them suspected. They rarely meet in person because they live far from each other. It’s easy to keep up appearances when contacts are not frequent. Do they still know each other? If they met now, would they become friends?

This last weekend in the Martha’s Vineyard house will break all the walls and leave them naked in front of the truth.

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 28 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet B Is For Bleak: the bleak fest continues in Oktober, I tried to mitigate the effect of bleak reads and plays with comfort books.

The first one was The Stationery Shop by Ogawa Ito. (2016. translated by Myriam Dartois-Ako).

I had already read another of her novels, The Restaurant of Love Regained and I knew I’d be reading something soft and uplifting.

In The Stationery Shop, Hatoko is 25, she’s back in her native town of Kamakura to take over the family business after her grandmother passed away. Hatoko inherited a stationary shop and has to replace her grandmother as a public letter-writer.

We follow her as she settles into her new life, meets people in the neighborhood, connects with clients and learns about her past. I knew nothing bad would happen and that Hatoko’s life would improve as she made peace with her past and built her future. It didn’t disappoint on that part.

However, The Stationery Shop has the same backbone as The Restaurant of Love Regained and the parallels are striking. A young woman comes back to her hometown or village. She’s lonely. She has unsolved issues with the woman who raised her, mother or grandmother. She starts or runs a business based on Japanese traditions. She knows a craft deeply embedded in Japanese customs, cuisine for one, calligraphy for the other. She connects to her Japanese roots through this craft, one that is turned towards others and aims at making her customers happy with a meal or with the right letter for an event or to a dear one. While she applies her craft as a balm to her customers’ souls, she finds her inner peace. It bothered me to find out that the two books had the same structure.

Ogawa Ito gives a lot of details about Japanese calligraphy. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Japan and its tradition to catch on all the calligraphy explanations and details about the writing, the quill, the choice of paper, of stamps…I missed a layer of knowledge and all these details bored me, which is even worse than getting emotional over a bleak play. So, the comfort book wasn’t that comforting, I thought it was a bit slow and dull. A bit goodie-two-shoes too, you know, a novel aimed at spreading love and good feelings.

The next time I turned to a different kind of comfort read, crime fiction set in Montana, with The Grey Ghosts Murders by Keith McCafferty. (2013. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens)

I’d already read the first volume of the series, The Royal Wulff Murders and had enjoyed it. I expected entertainment and a reprieve from emotional books.

It’s crime fiction, so, of course, there are terrible deaths and corrupt politicians like everywhere else, and it doesn’t qualify as a fluffy feel-good novel but the context is positively endearing.

No stiff in dirty back alleys like in a Connelly novel. No, you’re in the wild part of Montana. The police and the medical examiner have to hike to go to the body, only to discover that bears messed up with the evidences and that their pepper spray is damned handy when they get too close to a mamma bear and her cubs while on the job.

The main character, Sean Callahan shares his time between working as a fishing guide, painting Montana landscapes for tourists and playing amateur sleuth. Beside the murders, a group of fishermen who purchased a cabin together for their fishing holidays, ask him to investigate a theft: two of their antique fishing flies were stolen from their display cases. They were mounted by famous fishermen who invented these flies, a breakthrough in fly-fishing techniques. It’s as serious as stealing Dumbledore’s wand and yet, it’s funny to think that somewhere, there’s a parallel world where fishermen collect antique flies.

Sean helps with the murders investigation and researches thoroughly the person who had the idea to steal antique fishing flies.

Sean is quirky character, with a tender heart and he falls in love too easily, with the wrong women. He has a touchy relationship with Martha, the sheriff. He has decided to settle in Montana for good and we understand why, with all the attaching second characters in the book.

This comfort read totally worked because, to me, it’s exotic and took me far away from the previous book. It did the job and I’ll get the third volume on the shelf for future comfort read. It’s like having a Louise Penny on the ready.

That was before I read Sandrine Collette. After that one, I needed a solid pick-me-up and decided to take the safest option with guaranteed HEA.

I read Beauty and the Beast, the 1740 original tale by Madame de Villeneuve. The story was consistent with the children version I’d read before. The Disney movie and the film by Cocteau are based on a later version of the story, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

Compared to this well-known version, the original has an additional part in which Madame de Villeneuve describes the war between the fairies and explains how the prince fell under a magic spell and why Beauty ended up with her father’s family. Interesting and relaxing.

Now my reading has come back to its usual mix of easy, challenging and entertaining books, like Richard Russo, Michael Connelly and Balzac.

What kind of books do you turn to after a challenging or emotional read?

The Girls From the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage – The 1976 Club goes to Montana

October 13, 2021 21 comments

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys by Elizabeth Savage. (1976) Not available in French.

Take five girls anywhere, at any time. Three will be all right, and one will make it. One won’t. There they go.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is Elizabeth Savage’s semi-autobiographical novel. It is set in Missoula, Montana, The Garden City where the Five Great Valleys meet: the Mission, the Missoula, the Blackfoot, the Hellgate, and the Bitterroot.

Five girls, Hilary, Amelia, Doll, Kathy and Janet. We’re in 1934, the summer between the girls’ junior and senior year in high school. Doll struggles with school, she knows she won’t go to university; the others will and Hilary, their leader, knows that this year is a turning point in their lives.

The novel is set during the Great Depression but among families who are doing fine. Hilary’s father has a coal & ice business that is struggling but he’s been investing in land to secure their future. Amelia comes from old money. Doll’s father has kept his job, money is tight but they make do. Janet’s father is a doctor, he replaced the old GP after he retired. Kathy’s father is a professor at Missoula university, a stable job that doesn’t pay well, as Savage cheekily points out: Kathy’s father drank but only right after payday, since that is the only time professors can afford it. Of course, the mothers have no job.

Hilary has a purpose. She wants to succeed and be someone. Her next step is to get into a Greek sorority and she trains her little group for that. She understands how things work and she intends to play by the rules, even if she doesn’t totally agree with them. She has great social skills and understanding of social status. They certainly weren’t city girls, but the fact of the Rocky Mountains didn’t make them country girls, either. They need a clean reputation and it means sticking together and avoiding getting too involved with boys.

Three characters are more developed than the others, Hilary and his ambition, Doll and her acceptance that she’ll marry young and will probably live like her family and Amelia who struggles to find her true self between Anne, her arrogant and selfish mother and her disabled little sister. Her father died (committed suicide?) in a car accident and she feels responsible for her mother and sister.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a vivid picture of Missoula’s middle class in the 1930s. Hilary is the main character but we see her parents’ point view and Anne’s too.

Hilary’s parents, Myra and Hank, have a solid and loving relationship, a traditional one. Myra, the mother takes care of the house and defers to her husband for all decisions. Hank wants to provide for his family and free his wife of any financial concern. The couple has a daughter and a son, they are better off than their parents and impersonated the American middle-class dream.

Elizabeth Savage was born in 1918 and spent her youth in Missoula, where her father was a teacher at the university. She went to Missoula County High School before going to Colby College in Maine. I assume that Kathy is the character who looks the most like her.

Savage draws a portrait of western life and western mentality as opposed to the East and to California. We’re in the 1930s and it’s not good to be openly communist in Missoula. It costs Mr Barry, a teacher, his position at the high school, and it’s not only his ideas that are different:

And Mr. Barry did other things that were not wise. He wore a hat. To this day in the Garden City Where the Five Great Valleys Meet, men wear hats. But proper hats. Proper hats are Stetsons. They don’t make Stetsons anymore, but Monkey Ward makes a sort of Stetson and so does J.C. Penney. That kind of hat indicates that though you may not be a rancher, you live near where the ranchers live and have in mind the welfare of the West. Mr. Barry’s hat had a narrow brim. He said it was a Borsolino and he said it was the finest hat ever made.

It’s not good to stand out, in Missoula. Hilary understands it perfectly. And although Hank approves of Roosevelt’s politics, he will never acknowledge it publicly.

If the truth were known, in some ways Hank agreed with Mr. Barry. Everyone knew the big companies had too much muscle. He even agreed about the new President. Hank hadn’t voted for him, but next time he probably would. That didn’t mean he was going to go all around town saying so.

I enjoyed The Girls from the Five Great Valleys for its sense of time and place. I always love picking up details about everyday life. I was surprised that Capek’s play R.U.R was played in drama class in Missoula high school. I didn’t know that Milky Way candies already existed. (You took a sandwich and a Milky Way.) And I still wonder what eggshells do in coffee. (Then in a crisp housedress and in the kitchen, she started to make the coffee with eggshells in it, the way her husband liked it.)

I also relished in Savage’s sense of humor and observation skills. They come out in statements like Weak people often are unhappy; strong people can’t take the time. Or If your mother is plump it is comforting to know your father is not attracted to storks. Or You can put up with a real mean man; one who is trying to be mean is meaner, maybe because the one who’s naturally mean doesn’t have to try so hard.

The Girls from the Five Great Valleys is a way for Elizabeth Savage to write about Westerners’ ways and let her reader know about her youth in Montana. You learn facts of life from the area like that Any young person in Montana knows that chasing stock is not allowed. It makes them lose weight and it makes them drop their young. or that People on ranches don’t like knocks on the front door because anyone who belongs comes in the back.

As always when I read books set in the 1930s in the USA, I’m surprised by their way of life compared to Europe at the same time and how much we have been Americanized since then.

And the tradition of having a cabin up the mountain to roughen it up was already there and alive. Amelia’s family has one, by a lake, where people go swimming and (trout?) fishing.

No cabin was named, nor did any sign proclaim its owner. This was the result of the same agreement that forbade running water. You had an outhouse and a shallow well with a hand pump. You washed outside if you felt you must wash. Half the fun was pretending to be your own ancestor.

Right!

This is my participation to Karen’s and Simon’s 1976 Club.

Thank you for organizing this event, it’s always a fun way to explore one’s TBR.

I’m looking forward to reading other reviews about 1976 books and hope you’ll pick another year for the Spring.

Check out my billet about The Last Night at the Ritz, another excellent book by Elizabeth Savage.

Lesser of Evils by Joe Flanagan – Great debut noir fiction

September 19, 2021 4 comments

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan (2016) French title: Un moindre mal. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan is an excellent example of what neo-noir can be.

Cape Cod, 1957. Bill Warren is acting as chief of police in the small town of Barnstable. The appointed chief of police, Marvin Holland is in the hospital after a heart attack and might be forced into early retirement. Warren lives alone with his disabled son, Michael, nicknamed Little Mike. His alcoholic wife disappeared on them and never came back.

Several crimes happen at the same time in Cape Cod. Two boys are found dead and were sexually harassed. A man was beaten up after he failed to reimburse his due to loan sharks. The local police start investigating but the DA, Elliott Yost transfers the affair to the State police led by Dale Stasiak.

Warren is furious but he’s on shaking grounds with his team, the town council and the DA. He’s only acting as chief of police and he’s different from Chief Holland, less smarmy and ill-at-ease with the political side of the job. He doesn’t want to compromise and let things slide when it comes to prominent citizen.

The plot thickens as corruption, mafia, sexual predators are settling in otherwise quiet Cape Cod. Who is behind the boys’ murders? Is the Boston mafia trying to set up a place for illegal bets and loans? Who are the crooked cops and the honest ones? How deep in the mud are local politicians?

Warren keeps investigating, even if he’s not supposed to.

Lesser Evils is Joe Flanagan’s debut novel and it’s a tour de force. Everything sounds right and is perfectly orchestrated. The characters are deep enough, well-defined and come to life. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seems realistic –to me, at least, after all, I’ve never been there—and the author comes from the area.

The plot threads are masterfully developed and equally engaging. A lot of characters come into play but the reader is never lost among them and always knows how to place them. It’s suspenseful and I couldn’t put the put down.

Warren is an engaging character, with his kind relationship with his son and his fair dealings with his team. Like Johnson’s character Walt Longmire, Warren was a police officer in the army before joining the police force after the war. We are in a classic neo-noir with an investigator who is honest and is willing to jeopardize his career, put his life on the line to keep his integrity.

You can imagine this story in a black-and-white movie from the Hollywood Golden Age. I read it during the holidays and couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended, especially since, in the Northern hemisphere, we’re heading towards cold Sundays with reading under a blanket.

See Marina’s review here. She’s a little less enthusiastic than me.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – good literature but too bleak for me.

September 15, 2021 13 comments

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2012) French title: Les douze tribus d’Hattie. Translated by François Happe.

As often, I’m late with my billet as The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis was our Book Club choice for July.

In 1923, the young Hattie moves out of Georgia with her family to settle in Philadelphia. They go to the city and away from the Jim Crow laws. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is made of twelve vignettes, each for one of Hattie’s offspring, with Hattie as an Ariadne thread along the book. We meet each child or grand-child at one moment in their lives and through the different chapters, we get an idea of Hattie’s life. Each chapter is a key moment in Hattie’s life and each belong to one child.

We start in 1925. Hattie is now married to August and they have seven-month twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The twins die of fever, no, out of poverty. Hattie and August didn’t have the money to buy the penicillin that could have saved them. This made Hattie’s and August’s lives derail with sorrow.

We leap to 1948 where we meet Floyd, the jazz musician of the family.

We’re in 1950 and we spend time with Six, the future preacher.

We’re in 1951, when Ruthie was born and Hattie tried to leave her husband.

In 1954, Ella, Hattie’s last baby is sent out to live with her barren aunt Pearl, in Georgia.

In 1968, we see what has become of Alice and Billups and why they have a special bond.

In 1969, we spend some time in Vietnam with Franklin.

In 1975, Bell is dying of tuberculosis and we learn about her difficult relationship with her mother.

In 1980, Cassie is schizophrenic and Hattie and August have to hospitalize her. Her daughter Sala comes to live with her grand-parents.

Hattie spent her life taking care of her children, preparing meals, cleaning and worrying about money while August paraded in new clothes, went out dancing and had various affairs. She also had an affair with Lawrence and would have left August if she could have taken her children with her. The untimely death of the twins shattered her confidence for a better future.

It is the life of a woman who never had time for herself, was a tough cookie and never managed to communicate her love for her children. Her love was in the energy she put in feeding, clothing and nursing them. But with nine children and her pregnancies, did she have time for anything else?

On paper, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is my kind of book but I wasn’t too fond of it. The form of the book left me hanging. Each chapter is devoted to one child and then we never hear anything from them again. We leave Franklin in 1948, he’s a gifted musician, he has just understood that he’s gay and then poof! he disappears of the book. That was disappointing, as if they only had an existence to pinpoint a moment in Hattie’s life.

And then I found it too bleak. Not one of them has a better life, except maybe Floyd and Ella but we don’t know for sure. They are all marked by tragedy or illness. One had 50% of his body burnt when he fell in boiling water. One is schizophrenic. One was abused as a child and his sibling knew about it. One is a drunkard. One is separated of her mother to live with her aunt. One is in an abusive relationship.

Bleak, bleak, bleak. Not one uplifting moment in the whole book. It’s not even plausible that, out of nine living children, not one lived to live an uneventful life, especially during the Post-war economic boom. Then I read in the Acknowledgments that Ayana Mathis thanks Marilynne Robinson for her friendship and guidance and I thought “Of course, now the bleakness makes sense.” I really really disliked the only Robinson I’ve read, Housekeeping. All I remember about it are broken souls, bleakness and constant rain.

Hattie’s children have a complicated relationship with their mother as they grew up in a tough environment. They have attachment issues. And of course, seen from the book’s angle, it seems to be Hattie’s fault. August was absent, throwing away money that could have helped the household but he’s not the defective parent. Too much depends on women and the children’s difficulties all seem to stem out of her lack of hugs. I would have liked to hear about the children’s difficult relationship with their father too, but it’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, not of August, as if children only belonged to their mother. And in Hattie’s time, it’s probably true. The responsibility of raising children only fell on the mother’s shoulders.

If I look at The Twelve Tribes of Hattie through a literary magnifying glass, it’s an excellent book. The style is good, you can see it’s well-constructed, the story makes sense and there’s a goal in showing black America from the 1920s to the 1980s, although, in my opinion, the fact that it’s a black family isn’t that important. You could have had the same story in an Irish-American family. The only difference is that, due to their leaving Georgia, Hattie was out of a support system when the babies were sick. No tribe for Hattie’s generation, no sense of community like in American-Italian neighborhoods.

The most disheartening part of it is that the book is called The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and not Hattie’s Tribe. Each offspring is on their own. These siblings don’t make one united tribe and that’s probably their parents’ biggest failure.

Have you read this book? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Money Shot by Christa Faust – Gripping and entertaining

September 8, 2021 8 comments

Money Shot by Christa Faust (2008) French title: Money Shot. Translated by Christophe Cuq.

Money Shot by Christa Faust is the first book featuring Angel Dare, a character I discovered in Choke Hold. When the book opens, the reader jumps right in the heart of action: Angel Dare is tied up in the trunk of a car.

Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies. In real life, it takes forever to do little things like pry open your eyes. You spend excruciating ages trying to bend you left middle finger down far enough to feel the rope around your wrists. Even longer figuring out that the cold hard thing poking you in the cheek is one of the handles of a pair of jumper cables. This is not the kind of action that makes for gripping cinema. Plus there are these long dull stretches where people in the audience would probably go take a piss or popcorn, since it looks as if nothing is happening and they figure maybe you really are dead after all. After a while, you start to wonder the same thing yourself. You also wonder what will happen if you throw up behind the oil rag duct-taped into you mouth or how long it will take for someone to notice you’re missing.

Angel Dare is a former porn star who retired and started Daring Angels, an agency for adult modeling. Her friend Sam called in a favor and asked her to do one more porn film with the new male rising star of the industry, Jesse Black. It turns out that it was a set-up as criminals had Sam’s wife.

Angel gets tortured and raped because the men believe she has information about Lia, a girl who came to Daring Angels. She had a briefcase and was looking for one of Angel’s models, Zandora Dior.

The setup is complete when the men kill Sam with Angel’s gun and throw her in a car’s trunk.

As you imagine, she manages to get out of the car and seek for help in the form of James Malloy, her employee in security. A former cop, Malloy works for her to ensure her models’ protection.

Bruised and battered, she’s now on the run from the criminals and the police. She wants revenge and wants to know what’s behind her kidnapping and Sam’s murder.

She and Malloy start investigating, even if it puts their lives in danger.

This is a fast and furious crime fiction book that I devoured. Fast paced, written with energy, it’s a wonderfully entertaining book. Angel is an excellent character, someone you connect with even if her life experience has nothing to do with your own. It’s also a glimpse at the porn industry, its workings and the human trafficking that can be behind it.

Highly recommended for fun, beach and public transport travelling.

As you can see, the French and English covers are quite different but each is in line with the publisher’s editorial line. It’s Gallmeister for France, and you’re familiar with their covers now and Hard Case Crime for the USA.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke – multilayered crime fiction

August 16, 2021 17 comments

Dark Water Rising by Attica Locke (2009) French title: Marée noire. Translated into French by Clément Baude.

I have the French translation of Black Water Rising by Attica Locke because I bought my copy at Quais du Polar, the year she was at the festival for conferences and book signings. I have fond memories of that edition of the festival.

It took me several years to read her book but I’m really happy I put it on the TBR. When the book opens, Jay Porter, a struggling lawyer is organizing a mini cruise on the bayou near Houston for his wife’s birthday. Money is tight, Bernie is pregnant and the cruise is more a boat tour with on a friend of a friend’s boat than a glamourous cruise. Things go rather well until they hear a woman shout on the shore, as if she were fighting with someone. A gunshot, a splash and Jay dives into the dark water to save a white woman. Jay and Bernie are black, we’re in 1981 and getting mixed into white people’s business is risky. That’s why they ask her almost nothing and drop her at a police station and drive away.

We soon learn more about Jay, his past as a civil rights militant and his current caseload. He needs money and so far, his best shot is a hooker, Dana Moreland who got injured in a car accident while she was entertaining the local harbor commissioner who also wants to go into politics. No need to say he’s ready to find a settlement to hush things up. Jay wants to get the most out of him and keeps investigating to find a witness to present to the court to support his client’s version.

Meanwhile, Reverent Boykins is involved in the Longshoremen Strike. The white union and the black union had to merge and the ex-black side is trying to convince the ex-white side to go on strike with them for a better pay. Reverent Boykins is Jay’s stepfather, and his church helped Jay win his trial when he was pursued under false pretenses. The real reason was that the FBI wanted this militant of the civil rights out of the streets. Jay is indebted to Reverent Boykins and can’t refuse to help with the strike and be their lawyer.

This is Houston in 1981, the oil economy is thriving, the city expands quickly and oils companies own everything, literally or figuratively. The three issues, the murder, the hooker and the longshoremen strike have areas where they overlap. Jay, who lives in fear after his short stay in prison, won’t be able to hide and stay under the radar. His past as a militant is about to spill into his present and the unsolved issues demand attention.

Black Water Rising is an excellent thriller. The crime plot is gripping and it mixes artfully a blood crime with white collar criminality and racial questions. It gives a good vision of Houston at the time, a sprawling city at the mercy of oil magnates. Their only god is money and they infiltrate everything for their own profit. A puppet female mayor at the City Hall. A mole in the unions. Some help in federal agencies.

Besides Houston at its turning point, Black Water Rises also questions of the aftermath of the civil rights movement. What did its militants become? Jay is one of the first black lawyer in the area. His companions have settled down into a comfortable middle class or hold on to their glory days like Kwane Mackalvy. It’s a valid question: what do you do after living intense years like this? What’s your new normal? And how do you see the people who came after you, benefited from your combats and don’t even realize what your generation brought to them? (The same question applies to women who grew up after the great feminist battles).

Jay is at a crossroad. He’s going to be a father. He needs to make peace with his past. His practice needs to soar to support his family. He needs to stop living in fear.

But now: who murdered this man in the bayou? Will the unions start a strike that will paralyze Houston’s commercial port and impact oil sales? What will happen to Jay, who keeps being thrown on the frontline while he’d like to take care of his wife? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book!

Very highly recommended.

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle – an excellent thriller set in Brooklyn

August 4, 2021 9 comments

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle (2018) French title: Le témoin solitaire. Translated by Simon Baril.

With The Lonely Witness, William Boyle wanted to write a noir crime fiction novel set in his hometown, Brooklyn.

Amy Falconetti lives in Gravesend, Brooklyn. She moved into this neighborhood with her ex-girlfriend Alessandra and stayed there after they broke up. Alessandra decided to go to Los Angeles to be an actress, left Amy behind and never looked back. At the time, Amy was a natural blonde, wore clothes from the 1940s, was a party girl and worked as bartender at the Seven Bar in Manhattan.

After Alessandra left, she changed of life. She rented a small basement apartment to Mr Pezzolanti who consider her as his daughter. She became a brunette, a teetotaler, started to wear conservative clothes and now lives the life of a mousy church attendant, bringing communion to the elderly in the parish. You can say her lifestyle took a 180° turn.

One day, when she visits Mrs Epifanio, the old lady tells her that her usual caretaker from the church, Diane, has been sick and was replaced by her son Vincent. She didn’t like his snooping in her bedroom and felt that he was up to no good. She felt threatened, even if he wasn’t openly menacing. Amy understand Mrs Epifanio’s disquiet when Vincent comes to Mrs Epifanio’s while she’s still there. She finds him shady too.

Amy starts following Vincent, out of curiosity and for the adrenaline rush. Of course, she tells herself it’s for Mrs Epifanio’s safety. The truth is that her old personality is resurfacing, leaving her mousy devout new self behind.

When she’s on the prowl, Vincent gets murdered right in front of her. Instead of calling 911 and the police, she lets Vincent die, retrieves the knife the murderer used to stab Vincent to death and flees from the scene.

Now she has a murderer on her trail since she has seen him long enough to be able to identify him. She doesn’t know his name but she knows his face. She’s no longer safe.

She starts investigating Vincent’s murder and she enjoys playing Nancy Drew. She secretly loves the thrill of the chase, poking around, asking questions about Vincent, his activities and his whereabouts.

Amy makes irrational and dangerous decisions; she’s like a superhero who changes of skin, mixing her old self and her new one, to create a third self. She’s not as wild as she used to be. She’s not as quiet as she wanted to be. She’s an ex-barmaid to tried the skin of a church spinster. None of these personalities are real or fit her.

Vincent’s murder pulled the trigger to another transformation and she’s now on a new life journey to understand what the next stage of her life will be.

But let’s not forget that The Lonely Witness is a thriller. Boyle explores Amy’s inner struggles but he also moves the plot forward quickly. It’s full of twists and turns and it was hard to put the book down.

Brooklyn is a character of the book. As I said in introduction, William Boyle wanted to write something set in Brooklyn and his growing up in the area shows in the descriptions of Amy’s surroundings. He knows the place and the reader can feel it. Amy walks a lot and it’s an opportunity to describe the buildings, the streets, the shops, the metro and its weird connections. All the characters are Italian-American, we’re in the neighborhood of the film Saturday Night Fever. I felt that I was in Brooklyn with her and wished I could go there too and feel the atmosphere of the area too.

Excellent pick by Gallmeister.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane

July 28, 2021 6 comments

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane (1989) French title: L’homme qui a perdu son nom. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane is focused on Joe Sterling, an untethered young man who needs to find his way back to his identity. This explains why the French title is L’homme qui a perdu son nom, or The man who lost his name.

Joe Sterling comes from a family who owns a ranch in Deadrock, Montana. His father inherited it but made a career at the local bank before his promotion as bank manager in Minneapolis. He moved his family there and became another man. Joe’s father never sold the ranch. He leased it to his rival and neighbor, Mr Overstreet, who wants nothing more than to buy it because its plot of land is inserted into his property. Of course, Sterling refuses, out of pride. The rivalry is kept alive.

When Sterling senior dies, the ranch goes to his sister Lureen, who is supposed to keep it safe for Joe’s future. The understanding is that she owns the property deed but the moral contract says that Joe’s the actual owner and is entitled to the rent’s money.

Joe used to spend his summers working at the ranch under the supervision of Overstreet’s foreman. He also went out with Ellen, Overstreet’s daughter and got beaten up by a local boy, Billy Kelton. These summers are part of his identity, moments of happiness and rightness. It’s also in the abandoned house of a forgotten rich man from the silver rush that he experiences his first deep encounter with painting.

Joe loved Montana and the ranch but didn’t see himself operating it. He chose an entirely different path: he went to Art School at Yale, became a successful painter in New York and lost his mojo.

He moved to Key West, met Astrid and lived off the rent from the ranch and from his commercial drawings. Indeed, after dropping his career as a painter, he started to work for his university friend Ivan who sells electronic devices and is always in need of explanatory drawings for the instruction manuals.

At some point, Lureen stops sending the rent money, Ivan comes with a drawing order for a ridiculous and useless Miss X machine and Astrid sounds unsufferable. Joe leaves Key West and drives to Montana, to take over the ranch and hopefully find his identity.

Joe doesn’t fit anywhere. He starts raising cattle on the ranch but, even if he doesn’t make any fatal mistake, he knows that full-time ranching isn’t his calling. He doesn’t paint anymore. He doesn’t know if he still loves Astrid or not. He’s in an uncomfortable zone where every area of his life itches.

He fumbles through life and needs the time in Montana to reconnect with his aunt Lureen, his uncle Smitty and the local community. He explores his family’s history and the dynamics between the three siblings: his father, his aunt and his uncle Smitty. His father was a bit estranged and feared by his siblings. Uncle Smitty never recovered from the war and is a little swindler who takes advantage of his sister Lureen. She covers for him, out of love. Joe finds out that his father was not popular in Deadrock, especially after the bank forclosed several local ranches.

Joe realizes that he doesn’t really belong to the Deadrock community. There’s a striking scene where Joe is at a funeral and makes a speech about the deceased only to realize that he was talking about another man with the same name.

Keep the Change was published in 1989 and in a way, reflects the atmosphere of the 1980s.

Joe doesn’t really want to conform to society’s expectations. He doesn’t want to be a white middle-class man with the white picket fence, the two kids and a job. He rejects the Miss X project because deep down, he’s against all these devices that the industry shoves down our throats. He’s at odds with the yuppie atmosphere of the 1980s. He doesn’t want to be a blind consumer.

He also doesn’t understand the need to own land. It’s an urge he doesn’t feel and that makes him at odds with the Montana mentality. There are beautiful passages where Joe rides his horse on the ranch, he contemplates the beauty of the land surrounding him and he doesn’t feel any pride for owning it. Its beauty is enough to satisfy him.

Greed is not in Joe’s bones. The book title is Keep the Change, and in my mind, I hear Joe saying it as he checks out of the American society and doesn’t bother to gather his change before turning its back to it.

For a change, my edition includes a very interesting foreword by the translator, Brice Matthieussent. He’s also the translator of Jim Harrison’s books. Since McGuane and Harrison were excellent friends, wrote to each other once a week and did fishing trips together, it’s interesting to see that they had the same French translator.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart – a Texan family saga

July 18, 2021 5 comments

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) French title: Le sillage de l’oubli. Translated by Marc Amfreville.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is set in the fictional town of Dalton, in Lavaca County, Texas.

The Skala family settled there when the first Czech immigrants of the family arrived from Europe. This area is full of Czech families. The plot covers three periods of time: 1895, 1910 and 1924. Each year is a turning point in the saga of the Skala family.

The book opens on a dramatic scene. We’re in 1895 and Klara Skala dies in child-birth. Karel, the baby, survives his mother and Vaclav, the father will never be the same.

The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that land became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.

Vaclav and Klara had already three boys, Stanislas, Thomas and Eduard when she died giving birth to Karel. The four boys have a very hard childhood with their father who is only interested in acquiring land, farming and breeding race horses. These horses are his passion. The boys do the heavy work in the fields, including pulling the plow that the race horses are too precious to pull. They grow up without affection.

In 1910, Guillermo Villasenõr arrives from Mexico with a lot of money and three daughters to marry. He knows about the Skala boys and intends to settle in the Lavaca County and marry his daughters to these farm boys.

The girls get their first glimpses of their future husbands, what they see, instead of blond-haired and handsome Czech farm boys, like they’ve been told by their father to expect, are weathered young men straining against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, their necks cocked sharply to one side or the other, their faces sunburned despite their hats and pealing and snaked with raised veins near the temples, their boots sliding atop the earth they’re sweating to unearth. The four of them work harnessed two abreast in front of their father, who’s walking in their work, one foot to each furrow spitting stained juice between his front teeth and periodically cracking a whip to keep the boys focused and the rows straight.

With this kind of living conditions would you blame the boys to be willing to do anything to escape their father’s literal and figurative yoke? They know Villasenõr’s arrival is a ticket out of their father’s power. They grab that ticket, even if it’ll tear their family apart.

Fast forward in 1924. Karel is married to Sophie, it’s December and she’s about to give birth to their third baby. She wanted to go to church, even if it’s far and risky with her pregnancy. She’ll break her waters during the church service and, contrary to Klara, will get a midwife’s help in time. Meanwhile, Karel waits and drinks. He hires two teenagers to go and take care of the farm while he stays in town with Sophie. The boys also have to deliver the moonshine beer he makes, discretion needed since it’s the prohibition area. The boys will not follow orders and take ill-advised initiatives. This will trigger another dramatic event for the Skala family.

The Wake of Forgiveness goes back and forth in time, between 1910 and 1924. It covers thirty years in the life of this Texan family. Life is hard and we follow Karel’s point of view, the boy whose birth triggered the family’s unhappiness. Although he never says it aloud, it is clear that he carries the weight of depriving his brothers of a mother and his father of his wife. He doesn’t know how to make up for that and he sure doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He’s a hard man but, despite his harsh upbringing, he’s a better father than his own, playing tenderly with his daughters.

I’ve read The Wake of Forgiveness in an excellent translation by Marc Amfreville. Machart’s style is beautiful and haunting. Nature and men are one, each has power over the other. As you can see in the two previous quotes, Machart compares humans to the land and shows how the land impacts humans. Human emotions find their counterpart in the mesmerizing descriptions of the landscape. The land and the climate shape the humans who settles there, imprinting their mark on people’s tempers. With subtle brush strokes, Machart takes us to Lavaca County, among these farmers who live a hard life and with this family who needs to find their way to happiness through forgiveness and redemption.

A very powerful book and another great find by Gallmeister.

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