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Book Club 2022-2023 : The List

September 18, 2022 21 comments

I’m a little late with my usual Book Club list but, here we go!

Our reading year starts in September with The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (UK, 1990)

This is the first volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, the story of an English family from 1937 to the 1950s. It’s our September read and I’ve finished it now and won’t write a full billet about it. I know it is a beloved series but I was very disappointed and terribly bored.

I expected something between Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson and ended up in a plain soap opera full of clichés.

An eccentric couple as patriarch and matriarch of the family. A woman who left her career to marry and ends up stuck with a womanizer. A closeted lesbian spinster. A would-be painter, a widower remarried to a beautiful but vapid young woman who doesn’t like her step-children. An affectionate couple who can’t seem to speak to each other. A sister married to a scoundrel and struggling with money, until a dear old aunt dies. An ugly and poor governess. An army of children with the expected dreams and angst: being an actress, fleeing from home, fighting with each other…And servants as side characters.

All this in a style I found very plain. Tedious and lifeless descriptions of the countryside, the different homes or the cook’s culinary wonders. I expected a bit of humor and found none. I couldn’t find any interest in the characters’ fate and struggled to finish The Light Years. Needless to say, I won’t be reading the next one.

I couldn’t immerse myself in Downtown Abbey either, that should have clued me in. At this time, I don’t know if the other members of our Book Club enjoyed it more than me. I’m looking forward to hear their take.

Since several bloggers I respect and share literary interests with really loved this series, I wonder what I missed. A British cultural background?

October will bring another historical novel with Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (USA, 2014)

Like The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Flight of the Sparrow is based upon the real life of a woman who feels stifled by the restricted status of women in her time and who starts questioning the vision of the world she was born in.

Set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1676, Flight of the Sparrow is based upon the real life of Mary Rowlandson who lives in a Puritan community and is captured by Indians. Sharing the Indians’ quotidian, she’ll discover another way of living, another kind of civilization.

I’m looking forward to it.

November will be totally different with Animal Souls by Jose Rodrigues Dos Santos (Portugal, 2020).

It is the eleventh volume of a crime fiction series featuring a recurring character, Tomás Noronha. I’ve never heard of this writer, specialized in scientific crime fiction and who bases his books on true scientific research.

Animal Souls explores the topic of the intelligence and the consciousness of animals as Tomás Noronha investigates a murder at the Oceanarium in Lisbon.

It sounds fascinating. December will take us to India with Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. (2011)

Set in Mumbai, it’s the story of a man who refuses to leave his apartment and sell to a property developer. On principle.

I like him already.

I hope to learn a bit more about India through this book even if it’s already eleven years old and many things have happened since.

January will bring us back to Europe and in the 19th century with The Waltz of the Trees and the Sky by Jean-Michel Guenassia (2016).

I don’t think it’s been translated into English and the original French title of the book is La valse des arbres et du ciel.

The beautfiful cover is spot on as this book relates the last days of Van Gogh’s life with the Gachet family in Auvers-sur-Oise. It’s based upon the latest research on Van Gogh’s life and his work.

February will see us back in the 21st century with Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov. (Ukraine)

Lots of reviews of this book have blossomed on our literary blogosphere since the war in Ukraine started.

I’m looking forward to understanding better the background of the war in Ukraine through Kurkov’s eyes.

I still have his other book, The Chameleon, on the shelf.

In March, we’ll go to Atlanta and read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

According to the blurb, it sounds like the little brother of If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

A young couple with a promising future is set apart when the husband is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

How will their couple survive this?

Then it’s back to France and crime fiction in April.

We’ll read Boccanera by Michèle Pedinielli, a crime fiction book set in Nice. Boccanera is a woman PI who will investigate a murder in the gay community. She sounds like a great character, a maverick in a men’s world.

On the cover it says : “If Montale and Corbucci had a daughter, she’d look like Boccanera.”

Doesn’t it sound great?

We’ll fly back to America in May, to New-York and his Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. (2021)

According to the blurb, it is a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.

It sounds more playful than the very serious Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys.

Let’s go to Harlem in the 1960s!

June will have a totally different vibe with L’Autre by Andrée Chedid (2005).

I don’t think that this one is translated into English. Andrée Chedid is a poetess and a novelist. In this novella, an old man sees someone at the window of a hotel just before an earthquake. He’ll do his best to steer the rescue teams towards this stranger and save him.

And July will be a reread, Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. No description needed. I’m curious to read it as an adult.

That’s all for the coming year. I’m happy with our choices, it’s a good mix of historical, crime and literary fiction. Did you read any of them and did you like them?

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 20 comments

I really really have a hard time keeping up with billets and blogging at the moment, so I’ll catch up on different books I’ve read and write mini-billets about them. Everything is fine, I’m just terribly busy.

I’ve been reading American literature again or books related to America. All were good, I’ve been lucky with my reading choices. They all deserve a full billet but I’m too knackered to tackle six billets at the moment.

The first one is a French book, set in Ellis Island, Those Who Leave by Jeanne Benameur 2019. (Original French title: Ceux qui partent.) We’re in 1910, in Ellis Island, New York.

Emilia Scarpa and her father Donato, Esther Agakian and Gabor are all candidatures to emigrate to America. Emilia and Donato are Italian and she wants to be free and be a painter. Esther is survivor of the Armenian genocide. Gabor is a Rom and is fleeing the pogroms. All aspire to start a new life, either to leave traumatic events back in Europe or to open to opportunities they wouldn’t have in their native country.

Andrew Jónsson, an American photograph also spends a lot of time at Ellis Island, recording the arrivals of new immigrants. His father emigrated from Iceland with his grand-mother when he was a child and Andrew chases his own history through the newcomers.

All the characters meet at Ellis Island and their lives intertwine for a while. Jeanne Benameur muses about leaving, about new beginnings. Can you start over or as the song says, “You don’t rebuild your life, you only go on”? What do “roots” mean? How to you survive a genocide? How are you linked to your lineage?

Jeanne Benameur has a lovely and poetic style. Her tone is smooth, contemplative and tries to convey the characters inner thoughts.

It was a good read but sometimes I felt she could have said the same in less pages.

Then I was in New York again with The Fire, Next Time by James Baldwin (1963). This non-fiction book is composed of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew James and an essay about being black in America.

The letter was very moving, one James giving advice to his namesake nephew. Words of wisdom and self-confidence.

As always, Baldwin is spot on, direct and unflinching. He’s intelligent, nuanced and never lets himself fall into the pitfall of simplification.

He explores the idea of violence and various schools of thought about the future of the black community in America. He’s not convinced by any extremist thinking.

There is no hatred in his words but a challenge issued to white people: the condition of black people will change only if they’re willing to acknowledge that they need to change.

Then I moved to Kansas, around the same time as The Fire, Next Time, with In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) I read it in French (De sang froid) in the 1966 translation by Raymond Girard.

This translation needs to be updated, that’s for sure. It was done in a time where we were a lot less Americanized and the translation reflects this with comments about obvious American things or weird spelling. (“base-ball”, really?) I was intimidated by In Cold Blood and thought it would be best to read it in French but I think I could have read it in English.

Anyway. I’m not sure it’s necessary to remind you that In Cold Blood is about a true crime affair. The Clutter family, a well-loved family in the village of Holcomb, Kansas was savagely murdered without any reason. Capote reconstructs the crime, showing the murderers before and after their crime, including their time in jail and switching of point of view to picture the family and the KBI inspectors who work on the case.

It was a memorable time for many people and Capote’s various angles shows the trail of devastation and life-changing moment that such a crime entails for a broad cast of people.

I enjoyed it a lot more than expected and it was easy to read. The chapters cover the different moment of this terrible crime, with a bit of suspense. The writing is vivid, like a reportage and it’s well worth reading.

After Capote, I changed of scenery but remained with law representatives. I went to North Carolina, where Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (2014) is set. It was my first novel by Ron Rash, as I had only read a collection of short stories before, Burning Bright.

In this novel, Les is 52, sheriff in a county in North Carolina. He’ll retire in three weeks, handing over his job to Jarvis Crowe. He has a burgeoning relationship with Becky, a park ranger. They both carry a heavy personal baggage.

Les has to handle two cases that represent the spectrum of country sheriff duties: on the one hand, he has to deal with Gerald who trespasses on his neighbor’s property and on the other hand he has a very precise intervention to close a meth lab, as drug is a major issue in this State.

Above the Waterfall is representative of books set in small towns America.

Like Longmire, the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Les has to take into account the local history, the relationship between the parties and look the other way sometimes to preserve peace. They all have to live together anyway. Btw, this reminds me that I also read Hell Is Empty by Craig Johnson but I won’t write a billet about it as it’s not my favorite Longmire story. It felt like a long race in the cold, in the falling snow of the Rocky Mountains.

But let’s leave Wyoming behind and go back to Rash’s novel set in the Appalachians, where he lives.

His books are cousins to David Joy’s or Chris Offutt’s books. Should we call them the Appalachians School? They are in the same vein and as a reader, I think they give an accurate picture of their land. Rash is less violent than Joy and he’s also a poet. I know from attending his interview at Quais du Polar, that he reads his books aloud to ensure they ring well. Above the Waterfall has a very poetic side and I’m not sure I caught all the beauty of his descriptions of wilderness.

It was a story full of grey areas where what is right isn’t always legal and vice-versa. Life isn’t black and white and like with Baldwin, I appreciate that Rash doesn’t over simplify issues but turns his writing spotlight in different corners of this Appalachian county, near the Shenandoah National Park. He lets us see different point of views.

I still have another book by Rash on the shelf, Serena and I’m looking forward to it as I really think that Ron Rash is a talented writer.

Then I flew to Argentina and you may wonder how Thursday Nights Widows by Claudia Piñeiro (2005) belongs with a billet about America. Well, it does because it is set in a country, a gated community at 50 kilometers from Buenos Aires. This huge compound is modeled after its American counterparts and it’s a sort of Argentinean Wisteria Lane. Rich businessmen have their house there, they live in close quarters and their wives, who don’t work, have very few opportunities to spend time in real Argentina.

Everything is about status, not making waves and getting along with everyone. Buy a the end on the 1990s and early 2000s, a devastating economic crisis shatters Argentina and these couples’ carefully balanced life is at threat. Unemployment spreads at Covid speed. The husbands try to keep face, the wives are oblivious and everyone has dirty secrets that stay hidden (or not) behind closed doors.

Piñeiro excels at describing this microsociety and its unspoken rules. Their carefully assembled houses of cards is fragile and drama looms. We know from the start that a tragedy occurred and the author takes us to the genesis of it, coming back to recent events or to older ones with anecdotes that pinpoints the characters’ tempers.

I have read it in a French translation by Romain Magras. It is entitled Les Veuves du jeudi and I recommend it.

At my personal bingo of literary events, I ticket several boxes with these books. All but the Jeanne Benameur count for my 20 Books Of Summer Challenge. (Books 5 to 9) Thursday Nights Widow counts for Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month hosted by Stu.

Have you read any of these six books? What did you think about them?

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné – a girl’s resilience

May 15, 2022 6 comments

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (2018) Original French title: La vraie vie.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné was our Book Club choice for April. It is set in a suburb in Belgium and since the author was born in 1982, I think she used the time of her childhood as a reference. The way of life in the novel matches with the 1990s. There’s a before and after cellphones.

The narrator is a girl who is never named. She’s ten when the book opens and her brother Gilles is six. It’s the summer holiday and the two children spend their time playing around in their generic housing development complex. Their father works at an amusement park, their mom is a stay-at-home mother.

Their father is a hunter and they have a whole room in the house for his hunting trophies. His most prized one is a tusk. Yes, the man loves to hunt and doesn’t hesitate to travel abroad and break the law if need be. I’d despise him just for that. Between hunting trips, he spends his free time at home, sitting on the couch, drinking whisky and beating up his wife. Now he’s just gone up from despicable to scumbag.

His wife is mousy and loves to spend her time with her pet goats. The Narrator calls her an amoeba. Pretty telling. She acts like a wallflower, trying to fly under her husband’s predatory radar. If it means that she neglects her children, then so be it. She devotes all her time and pours her love into her pets.

This explains why the children are joined to the hip and the Narrator feels responsible for her little brother’s safety. They’re a team and Gilles is the Narrator’s sunshine. He brings warmth in her life and she’d do anything to keep this sunshine alive.

That summer, a terrible accident happens. The children’s daily pleasure is to buy an ice-cream cone at the ice-cream truck that drives through their neighborhood. The old man who serves them always adds whipped cream to the Narrator’s cone even if he knows that her father forbids it. That day, the whipped cream maker explodes as he’s serving the Narrator. The impact is such that it takes away half of his face and he dies on the spot. The two children are witness and they are traumatized.

As their parents are faulty, they do nothing to heal their trauma. Gilles stops speaking, behaves weirdly, becomes mean. The Narrator swears to herself that she will bring him back.

The book covers several summer holidays, each worse than the previous one. The reader feels the tension building, sees the Narrator fight against her family circumstances. School is her safe place and she discovers that she loves physics.

Her mother’s distraction plays in her favor when she wants to do things on her own. She babysits some children in the neighborhood to pay for her physics lessons. She hides everything to keep out of her father’s wrath.

As things deteriorate at home, the reader feels that a dramatic event is bound to happen and dreads the conclusion of the novel. I kept wondering how it would end.

Children narrators are hard to pull off but Adeline Dieudonné made it. For her sake, I hope that nothing in her novel is autobiographical except how it was to be a child and teenager in the 1990s. It’s a powerful book, a novel that has several cousins in Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, by Gabriel Tallent, or Blood by Tony Birch.

Not a fun read, but highly recommended. As it’s not an easy book to tuck into a nice little box, we have a festival of book covers when we look at the various translations of Real Life. Ready for the show?

I don’t understand the English cover, as everything happens in the summer. The Spanish one is lovely but the reader will expect something sweet. The Hungarian is … I don’t know what to say.

I see a rabbit pattern in Germany and Finland but I don’t understand why. I’m not sure bout the Little Red Riding Hood reference of the Russian version.

I really like the Japanese cover, it fits the Narrator’s tone and it reflects the fact that she’s a child. And she’s never whining but always resilient and fighting. The Persian one is puzzling and the Polish one has the same idea as the Russian one.

What a diversity of covers! I wonder what the author thinks about that.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig – a belated billet

January 15, 2022 22 comments

Magellan by Stefan Zweig (1938) French title: Magellan. Translated by Alzir Hella.

Magellan by Stefan Zweig was our November Book Club read. I’m very late again with my billet, I know. As the title of the book implies, it is a biography of Magellan, written by a literary author.

I’m not going to write a detailed summary of the book or Magellan’s life, there’s Wikipedia for that and, as much as I respect Zweig as a writer, he’s not a historian.

In his introduction, Zweig says that he was travelling comfortably to America on a passenger ship when he got to thinking about Vasco de Gama, Magellan and all their fellow explorers and their grueling traveling conditions. He decided to write a book about Magellan and started to research that time in the ship’s library. Imagine that these ships had libraries so well stocked that he could read several books about the Age of Discovery. Now I understand why one would want to quit flying and travel on a passenger ship instead! It’s an opportunity for binge reading. (For the anecdote, I have a four-week break in February and when I said to my husband that I was going to have a book orgy, he deadpanned “Isn’t that what you’re doing already?” Ahem…)

The book opens with a quick summary about the spice trade and its importance at the time. It explains how the Portuguese became a great nation of explorers and what was at stake. It gives an overview of the importance of Prince Henry the Navigator and King João II (1481-1495) and King Manuel I (1495-1521), the one who ordered the building of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, if you’ve ever been to Lisbon.

Magellan (1480-1521) was born in Portugal, as a nobleman. His real Portuguese name is Ferñao de Magalhães. He was always a sailor, went to the West Indies in 1505-1512. He and his cosmologue friend Faleiro were convinced that there was a way to the Spice Islands by sailing west from Europe. Carlos I, future Charles the Fifth, financed the trip after King Manuel refused to do it. Magellan and his men left Spain on September 10, 1519 with five ships and 285 men. They came back on September 6th, 1521 with one ship, 18 men and without Magellan who died in the Philippine Islands. One of them was Antonio Pigafetta, the scholar who wrote a journal about the trip, a great source of information. We owe him a lot.

Zweig relates Magellan’s life and travels, explaining the political intricacies, the financing of the project, the fiddly preparation, the conflicts between the captains of the fleet and all the dangers these sailors had to face.

As you know, Magellan and his crew discovered the Strait of Magellan, in southern Chile. It’s a dangerous route, not really a practical one but one of the few natural passages between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. The 18 men who came back did the first circumnavigation of the world and proved that the Earth is not flat.

I found some facts astonishing. Imagine that the Pope approved of the split of the world between Spain and Portugal after drawing an imaginary line: new territories west of the line belong to Spain and east of the line to Portugal. Hence Spain’s motivation to sponsor Magellan’s trip from West to East. I’m always floored by the arrogance of the Catholic Church and the kings of the time. I know I shouldn’t judge the past with today’s eyes but I can’t help my reaction.

Imagine that the stations along the African coasts from the Good Hope Cape to Europe all belonged to the Portuguese. Magellan’s last ship didn’t take the risk to moor there or stop for food and water. The crew was afraid to be imprisoned as they were sailing under Spanish pavilion and as this expedition fueled the competition between Spain and Portugal. (If I understood properly) So they’d rather risk dying of thirst and hunger than have a pit stop at one of those stations. Borders weren’t a joke at the time!

Zweig pictures Magellan as a hard-working and stubborn man who overcame all kind of difficulties to prove his theory. I can’t fathom the courage these sailors had to leave everything behind and risk their life to go and face the great unknown. It’s hard for us to imagine as there aren’t many unexplored places these days. Except other planets. The value of one’s life wasn’t as important as today, I suppose. See Magellan’s family. He died during his trip, facing all kind of dangers. Meanwhile, his wife and son died at home, doing nothing special. Untimely deaths were common, maybe they didn’t rate the risk taken by these sailors as high as we do now, with our modern eyes.

Magellan is an easy read as Zweig is a smooth writer. It has the right level of details for a reader who is not a history buff: you learn things but don’t feel too lost in details you don’t understand because you lack of historical background. I don’t know how accurate it is but I think that the major facts are right and these are the only ones I’ll remember anyway.  

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.

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 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.

Book Club 2021-2022 : The List

August 14, 2021 35 comments

This is my 1001th post and it’s not about the 1001 books you must read before you die –btw, there’s Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary among them—but it’s about the 12 books we’ll read for our 2021-2022 Book Club. This year I’m a little late with the list but, well, better late than never.

Without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, THE LIST 😊

August 2021

Between Two Worlds by Olivier Norek (2017). Its original French title is Entre deux mondes and I’m not sure it’s been translated into English. It’s available in Spanish, Italian and German.

Olivier Norek is a French crime fiction writer who used to be a commissaire de police in tough areas in France. He writes from experience and Entre deux mondes is about migrants and the way we treat them. I’m looking forward to reading this, no matter how hard it’ll be.

September 2021

Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyun-sook. (2008) The French translation is entitled Prends soin de maman. That’s a shot at Korean fiction and I’ve heard it’s a good start.

October 2021

Chances Are… by Richard Russo. (2019) It’s been translated as Retour à Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve read several books by Richard Russo, some pre-blog and some since starting Book Around the Corner. That’s why you’ll only find a billet about Straight Man.

November 2021

Magellan by Stefan Zweig (1938) and the title is the same in French. Zweig decided to write about the explorer Magellan during his own transatlantic journey.

December 2021

Betty by Tiffany McDaniels. (2020) Gallmeister kept the original title when they published it into French. They have already sold 300 000 copies of it in France and other francophone countries. Impressive.

It is based upon the author’s mother’s life in the Appalachians. Betty has a hard life and finds solace in writing. It may sound trite and it can be if the author is not up with the challenge but since I’ve yet to read a bad book published by Gallmeister, I expect it to be excellent. I might not connect with it but I know it’ll be good literature.

January 2022

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner (2013), translated into French as Famille parfaite. A little bit of crime fiction can’t hurt. I’ve never read Lisa Gardner but I’m sure I would never have bought her book based on its cover. I expect it to be a page-turner and a good distraction.

February 2022

The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin. In French, it becomes L’Eveil. I’ve been meaning to read The Awakening for years and I’m glad we picked it up for our book club.

March 2022

La Salle: Explorer of the North American Frontier by Anka Mulhstein, or in French, Cavelier de La Salle, ou l’homme qui offrit l’Amérique à Louis XIV. It’s a biography of the 17th century explorer whose dream was to link the Great Lakes to ports in the Gulf of Mexico. This should be interesting and I hope, as easy to read as her Monsieur Proust.

April 2022

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (2018) is the translation of a French novel, La vraie vie. It sounds like a coming of age of a young girl who lives in an unusual family.

May 2022

Ceux qui partent by Jeanne Bennameur (2019) I don’t think that this French novel has been translated into English. It is about the emigrants who used to arrive at Ellis Island.

June 2022

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1968), translated as De sang froid. I’m going to read it in French, I don’t think I can read it the original. I’m not sure I’m cut out for it but I’m sure curious about this classic.

July 2022

Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro (2005) or in its French translation, Les veuves du jeudi. Wealthy men meet every Thursday without their wives who call themselves the Thursday Night Widows. All is fine until the men are found dead, electrocuted. Accident or murder?

That’s it, twelve books for twelve months. Have you read any of them? If yes, what did you think about the ones you’ve read? If one of these books has been on your TBR for years, don’t hesitate to join us for a readalong.

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi – a fresco of Egyptian emigration

June 23, 2021 8 comments

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi (2009) French title: L’Arche de Noé Translated from the Arabic by Soheir Fahmi in collaboration with Sarah Siligaris.

Noah’s Ark by Khabel Al Khamissi is a twelve-chapter book with eleven intertwined stories. Each chapter is about one character, their story and why they decided to emigrate from Egypt. The last chapter is where we meet the narrator, the lady who collected all these stories and explains why all these people hopped on the Noah’s Ark of emigration and how they did it.

The different protagonists choose different countries as their new home: the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Kuwait, Dubai or Iraq. They all have different reasons to leave Egypt behind and I suppose that Khaled Al Khamissi wanted us to have a global picture of the issue.

There’s Ahmad Ezzedine who can’t find a decent paying job after studying law. He decides to emigrate to the USA through chatting up an American woman. The aim is to get her to marry him, obtain his green card and stay. This schemed obliged him to break up with his girlfriend Hagar, and he broke both their hearts in the process.

Hagar emigrates to the USA when her father marries her off to Ayman who owns a restaurant in New Jersey and is back in Egypt for a couple of weeks to shop for a wife. He falls for Hagar and her parents are all too willing to ship her off to America.

We don’t know how Abd el-Latif Awad reached New Jersey but he’s employed by other Egyptians as a cook, a chauffeur, a singer and a handyman. A man of all trades, he’s exploited by other Egyptians and that’s also a sad side of emigration. He doesn’t fit well where he is.

We meet Farid al-Mongui who left to study abroad, another way to get your first visa to the West.

Mortada Al-Baroudi is a teacher in a London university and had to leave Cairo because he was threatened by the government. His philosophy classes don’t refer to the Coran enough. He was as clean as a whistle, so they couldn’t imprison him for something he’d done. He had to emigrate.

Yassine Al-Baroudi was desperate enough to attempt to reach Europe through Lybia. He tries the Mediterranean sea route and almost died in a shipwreck.

Névine Adly never thought she’d have to leave her country but she and her family are Christians. Her daughter fell in love with a Muslim and there’s no hope for this kind of relationship in contemporary Egypt. It’s getting harder to be a Christian woman in Cairo, especially to walk down the streets without a hijab. They now fear for their lives and move to Canada.

Talaat Zohni emigrated to the USA years ago and missed Egypt too much. So he decided to move to Kuwait after living in New York City. Living abroad isn’t that easy.

Hassouna Sabri is from the Nubian minority in Egypt, near the Aswan dam. It’s a very touristic region and lots of people live off tourism. Hassouna relates how Nubians are treated as second zone citizen and how hopeless they feel. Another way to emigrate? Have a love story with a tourist and win a Western passport through marriage.

Then we hear the point of view of a smuggler, Mabrouk Al-Menafi. He explains that he always accompanies the migrants on their trip and that he picks routes through planes and roads. No sea and shipwrecks for him. He details the different techniques and states that he doesn’t feel guilty as he makes sure that his clients arrive safely. He also hammers hard truths: Egypt needs the money sent back home by the diaspora and European countries turn a blind eye to a certain level of illegal immigration because they need the extra arms.

And finally, Sanaa Mahrane emigrates trough the world’s oldest profession and reaches Germany via Georgia through a prostitution network.

Noah’s Ark explains all the reasons why the characters take a huge leap of faith and leave their home behind. The author doesn’t sugarcoat reality: it’s hard to leave everything behind, it’s hard to live in a strange place and it’s hard to adapt to Western culture. All would rather stay in their country if they had a future, if their government made the right decisions for the economy, if all the political and administrative cogs were not gripped by corruption, if there were more freedom of speech and less weight of Islamic ruling.

All the characters are linked but I didn’t try to map out all the relationships. I went with the flow. The narration is very Scheherazade, slipping from one story to the other, from one character to the other until we have studied the Aubusson Tapestry of a group of Egyptian emigrants.

We see a sample of a global population who, educated to not, rich or not, cannot see a future in their home country. It’s explosive. Khaled Al-Khamissi wrote Noah’s Ark in 2009, two years before the Egyptian Revolution that started by huge demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

In libri veritas.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult – Good reading time

May 1, 2021 14 comments

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (2014) French title: La tristesse des éléphants. Translated by Pierre Girard

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult was our Book Club read for April. It’s a tricky book to review because the risk of spoilers is very high and any hint at the key clue of the book could totally ruin the book for other readers.

So, I’ll go with a light summary of the plot. Jenna Metcalf is 13, she lives in New Hampshire with her grandmother. Jenna’s parents used to run a sanctuary for elephants and Alice’s researches were about grief among elephants. Her father Thomas has been in a psychiatric ward for ten years, since Jenna’s mother Alice disappeared during a fateful night. An elephant caretaker was killed by an elephant, Alice was wounded and she disappeared from the hospital. No one has heard of her since.

Jenna has Alice’s notebooks and she hopes that they hold clues that will help her find her mother. She can’t imagine that her mother left her behind. Her first investigations are online, tracking missing persons and looking for information about her mother and that night’s event. At some point, she decides that she needs help.

She hires Serenity Jones, a medium, in the hope to find out if her mother is dead or alive. Serenity is a gifted medium but she lost all credibility after a public mistake. She used to help the police find missing persons, dead or alive. But she became cocky, used her talents for money and fame and lost her touch. She reluctantly accepts to help Jenna.

Jenna also hires Virgil Stanhope, the cop who was on her mother’s case. He left the police force and now works as a PI, tracking unfaithful spouses. Jenna hopes that he will reopen the investigation and help her.

This unlikely trio teams up to look for Alice. That’s the basic plot. Now my opinion about the book.

The point of view alternates between Jenna, Serenity, Alice and Virgil. Jenna’s, Serenity’s and Virgil’s voices make the story move forward. They relate the current investigation and come back to their personal history, their mistakes and how they arrived at the point where they all met. Alice talks about her research, about the elephants, her life in Africa and her marriage to Thomas.

I enjoyed reading Leaving Time, I was looking forward to the next chapter and had an excellent reading time. The book was suspenseful, well-written and well-constructed. Maybe too well.

It’s flawless like a well-oiled machine, like a Hollywood blockbuster. I thought while I was reading, “I bet she has a degree in literature and studied creative writing.” Bingo, according to Wikipedia. You can feel it when you read. The characters are designed to have issues, our improbable trio of amateur sleuths have the conflicts you expect. Each character of the drama that happened ten years ago has a secret past and personal wounds. It’s as good as a TV series, and I say that without any contempt.

I was absorbed and interested in Alice’s research about elephants. I was invested in the story, I was in New Hampshire with the characters and forgot where I was for a while. The ending threw me off.

Jodi Picoult will never be a genius of literature but it’s OK. She writes well and holds her reader’s attention. Sometimes we don’t need more, because entertainment and escapism are a precious commodity in today’s world.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 21 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek is our Book Club choice for December.

Published in 1936, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

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

August 3, 2020 25 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 27, 2020 6 comments

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

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

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

So, what happens in Expiration Date?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Club 2020-2021 : The List

June 23, 2020 33 comments

It’s that time of year again! Our Book Club runs from August to July, and we have chosen our list for 2020-2021.

*Drum roll* Here’s our pick for our next reading year.

August

La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio (2004) This one is not available in English. It’s a science-fiction book about a group of people who live in a strange world with violent winds. I can’t fathom what it talks about from the blurb. Let’s hope I’ll like it, it’s 736 pages long. Definitely something to read during the holidays.

September

West of Rome by John Fante. (1985) It includes the two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. I love John Fante, I’ve read several of his books and enjoy his mad sense of humor.

October

Kabukicho by Dominique Sylvain (2016) On top of writing crime fiction novels, Dominique Sylvain is a translator from the Japanese into French. I’m looking forward to reading one of her polars with a Japanese setting.

November

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar (1980) The Algerian writer Assia Djebar wrote this collection of short stories to show women’s lives in Algiers, 20 years after the War of Independence.

December

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) Its French title is La guerre des salamandres. This is another science-fiction title and the French blurbs says it’s as good as 1984, but with the added bonus of a great sense of humor. I’m sold.

January

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd (1995) The blurb says it’s about a young primate researcher who makes a shocking discovery about men and apes, set in Africa during a civil war. I think I’ve read his books The New Confessions but I’m not sure. Have you read it?

February

Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir by Dominique Bona. (2002) It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. It’s not available in English but it has been translated into German. I think it’s going to be interesting to read about her life among the other impressionist painters. Bona has also written a biography of Romain Gary and I remember I liked her style.

March

Ravage by René Barjavel (1943. English title: Ashes, Ashes) Barjavel is the first writer of science-fiction I’ve ever read. All the readers I know have read La nuit des temps when they were teenagers. Most of us have cried rivers when we read it and this is a book I won’t reread because I want to keep my memories of it intact. Ravage is another type of story: we’re in 2052 in Paris and a huge electricity shortage brings chaos in the city.

April

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (2004) Its French title is La tristesse des éléphants. I’ve never read Jodi Picoult and don’t know what to expect. Has anyone read it?

May

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) Its French title is Le sillage de l’oubli. Set in Texas in 1895, a man loses his wife in childbirth. He raises his children in an austere way and concentrates on horses and bets he makes with neighbors.

June

Noah’s Ark (L’arche de Noé) by Khaled Khamissi. (2009) It’s is an Egyptian book and it’s not available in English. It’s the story of a young Egyptian who emigrates to New York.

July

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (2012) It’s published by Gallmeister under the French title Les douze tribus d’Hattie.

And that’s all, Folks! Three SF books, one biography, one collection of short stories and books from France, the USA, Egypt, Algeria, Czech Republic and UK.

What do you think about our selection?

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

June 20, 2020 13 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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