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

October 14, 2020 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 16, 2020 8 comments

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

Dark horse: noun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson always aims at deconstructing western clichés, like here:

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

I guess it makes sense.

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

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

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

My next Craig Johnson will be Junkyard Dogs.

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

The Wrong Case by James Crumley – Classy noir

May 15, 2020 6 comments

The Wrong Case by James Crumley (1975). French title: Fausse piste. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

There’s no accounting for laws. Or the changes wrought by men and time. For nearly eight years the only way to get a divorce in our state was to have your spouse convicted of felony or caught in an act of adultery. Nor even physical abuse or insanity counted. And in the ten years since I resigned as a county deputy, I had made a good living off those antiquated divorce laws. Then the state legislature, in a flurry of activity at the close of a special session, put me out of business by civilizing those divorce laws. Now we have dissolutions of marriage by reason of irreconcilable differences. Supporters and opponents were both shocked by the unexpected action of the lawmakers, but not as shocked as I was. I spent the next two days sulking in my office, drinking and enjoying the view, considering the prospects for my suddenly very dim future. The view looked considerably better than my prospects.

My office is on the fourth floor if the Milodragovitch Building. I inherited the building from my grandfather, but most of the profits go to a management corporation, my first ex-wife, and the estate of my second ex-wife. I’m left with cheap rent and a great view. At least on those days when the east wind doesn’t inflict the pulp mill upon is or when an inversion layer doesn’t cap the Meriwether Valley like a plug in a sulfurous well, I have a great view.

This is the beginning of The Wrong Case by James Crumley, the first book featuring the PI Milo Dragovitch. We’re in Meriwether, a fictional small town in Montana, not a quaint one surrounded by ranches and trout-fishing streams but a by-product of the mining industry gone awry. We’re in the 1970s and Milo is waiting for his 35th birthday to get his hands on his trust fund. He used to work for the local police station but resigned and settled as a PI. Between the end of the adultery business and his ex-wives, money is tight.

His days are spent between the office and the local bar where he has an unofficial office in the back. His friends are Simon, who drinks with diligence and towards a slow suicide and Dick, a local teacher with whom he plays handball. Ex-Wife #1 is now married to Jamison, the Meriwether chief of police. Milo and Jamison despise each other and that makes any work relationship between the two awkward.

Milo’s life is about to get more complicated when Helen Duffy struts into his office. She’s that kind of femme fatale, the poisonous beauty that reels PIs into taking on cases they know they should stay away from. The Wrong Case is exactly that.

Milo knows that digging into the disappearance of Helen’s brother Raymond will do him no good. It quickly appears that Raymond is involved with the local crime scene. It doesn’t help that Milo lusts after Helen who has a passionate liaison with a married Dick, the friend I mentioned before.

Milo will follow the Raymond lead and it takes him to a wife abandoned when her husband discovered his homosexuality, the local mafia, the town drug trafficking and all kind of dangerous businesses that confirm that he should have stayed put.

We are in classic noir territory here and James Crumley builds a believable Meriwether, kicking the bucolic Montana image to the curb. There are drugs, criminality and misery like everywhere else. Milo is an interesting character with his ex-marriages, his loyal friendship to Simon and Dick and his imperfect father role to his children.

Crumley’s style belongs to literary crime fiction. I’m currently reading a Viveca Sten, and that’s subject-verb-complement crime fiction. Crumley is classy and poetic. Milo is a no-future kind of guy, he trudges through life, one day at a time, carrying his baggage of his father’s untimely death, his failure as a husband and a father. And yet, despite his frequent visits to the bar and his prayers to the gods of drunkenness, I liked him a lot more than Jack Taylor.

Recommended to fans of classic noir fiction. Another book published by Gallmeister.

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

May 8, 2020 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need the wilderness to protect us from ourselves.

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Bless the beasts and children by Glendon Swarthout – “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”, they said

May 3, 2020 32 comments

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout (1970) French title: Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes. Translated by Gisèle Bernier.

One of the great pleasures of book blogging is doing readalongs. Reading is a solitary affair but there is something very satisfying in reading a book along with someone else and have the opportunity to discuss it with another reader who has all the details fresh in mind. Vishy and I decided to read along Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout and Vishy’s review is here.

Six teenagers, aged twelve to fifteen share a cabin at Box Canyon Boys Camp, Arizona. The oldest is John Cotton, from Cleveland. He lives with his mother, who’s already gone through three marriages and three divorces. Lawrence Teft III comes from NY and is testing is father’s patience as he doesn’t want to follow the designated path: go to Exeter and Dartmouth. Samuel Shecker, son of a Jewish comic who has a show in Las Vegas finds solace in food and in his father’s jokes. Gerald Goodenow suffers from school phobia and his stepfather decided it was high time he grew up. The Lally brothers come from Illinois and are raised by absentee parents who are not over their honeymoon phase and never added the parenting role in their couple.

The boys camp sounds like boot camp for teenagers or a school for alpha males. There are six cabins, five named after Native American tribes and the last one is named the Bedwetters. There is a competition between the cabins, with challenges, trophies, rules and a good dose of public humiliation for those who lose. Five trophies are animals (manly animals like a mountain lion) and the last one is a chamber pot. All the challenges are sports ones, of course. Weakness is not allowed at Box Canyon Boys Camp and our six protagonists, with their psychological issues and non-athletic physique are the Bedwetters. It makes them weak in the eyes of the other kids and the camp’s counselors. They are the misfits of this camp, all sent there by parents who wanted to get rid of them for the summer and teach them how to become men. More about that part later.

At some point, John Cotton had enough and decided to turn his roommates into a real tight-knit team. When the book opens, they are back in their cabin after a traumatic day. We don’t know what they witnessed but it was bad enough for them to leave the camp at night and go on a secret mission. We follow them as they take their horses to go to the nearest town, steal a car and go to the location where they witnessed something terrible. They are determined and will conquer their fears to achieve what they set up to do. I will discuss their mission later on, with a spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what they are up to.

Before that, I would like to point out an important aspect of this coming-of-age novella: what white America considers as “being a man”. When John Cotton decides to boost his roommates, how does he win his leadership? He smokes, he has a weapon, drinks a bit of whisky and imposes last names to address to each other. For this teenager, this is what a real man looks like. There is no room for feelings, weakness or compassion. His mission to dry out tears, fears and need for love in his teammates. This is also the message conveyed by their fathers or father figures: to become a man, you need to survive and conquer at Box Canyon Boys Camp.

The philosophy there is based on the Darwinism applied to humans: put up some competitive events to speed up natural selection. Allow the strongest boys to humiliate the weakest ones. They are not asked to help them to catch up, no, they are enticed to rejoice in their success and look down on others. There is no room for intellectual brightness, a man is someone who excels at physical activities. Intellectuals are not real men either.

The more I read American literature, the more I think that part of the white population of America has an issue with the definition of masculinity. The model of masculinity is the cowboy: a tough, silent type, who grits his teeth in adversity, defends himself with a gun and shows no emotion.

I am sure there were (are?) Box Canyon Boys Camps, just as there are dude ranches for adults. After all, the camp’s slogan is “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”. The rules of the camp in Bless the Beasts and Children left me speechless. I have never heard of such camps in France, even in the fifties. What kind of education is that? They also reminded me a passage of Balakian’s memoir, when he compares his Armenian father’s parenting to the one of his WASP friends.

He makes the same comments as Roth when he tells about his childhood in the Jewish community in Newark. Their fathers didn’t have the same definition of “being a man”. They didn’t objectify women the same way or talk about them like connoisseurs of fresh meat, as Gary used to say. True, it was in the 1950s or the 1940s and Swarthout’s book came out in 1970. But Rick Bass mentions the same cowboy reference in his Book of Yaak published in 1996. (Upcoming billet). It is an issue that Gary questions in 1965 in The Ski Bum (in French, Adieu Gary Cooper). Sometimes I wonder if this long-lasting admiration for the cowboy model didn’t bring Trump to power. Bass and Gary think it has a negative impact on the way politics is done, because acting strong is acting like a cowboy and not negotiating or protecting the weak.

But I digress. Time to come up with the part with spoilers. You may wonder now what the beasts are and why there are bison on the covers. The children gave themselves the assignment to free a group of buffalo from a reserve in Arizona. Why? Because the day before, on their way back from hiking in Petrified Forest, they stopped by this bison reservation and stumbled upon the day of bison hunting, organized to monitor the population of buffalos. Hunters won tickets at a lottery and were allowed to shoot at close range on cornered animals. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) called it hunting. The children in Swarthout’s novella named it slaughtering and overcame their fears to stop it.

Bless the Beasts and Children is famous for being a book about animal rights. Swarthout shows the cruelty of men who enjoy killing for pleasure. He was well-informed and the cruel hunts he describes really took place. After his book went out and was made into a film, the AGFD had to change the rules of buffalo hunting.

And Swarthout seems to ask us: what’s better? The cowboy masculinity of these buffalo hunters or the children’s weakness and compassion for the beasts?

Highly recommended. Of course, published by Gallmeister in a revised translation.

PS: A question and a comment about the book titles, in English and in French.

Question about the English title: Why is it Bless the Beasts and Children and not Bless the Beasts and the Children? Why only one the?

Comment about the French title: In my opinion, it is not Bénis soient les bêtes et les enfants because in this case, bête is heard as someone stupid and not beast whereas Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes immediately conveys the idea that bêtes are animals.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage – rush for it.

March 10, 2020 17 comments

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967) French title: Le pouvoir du chien. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down the first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments, the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. “Mountain oysters,” Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they’d do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil’s brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

This is the opening page of The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage and it sets up the place (a ranch), the two main characters (Phil and George), their relationship (they’re brothers) and this simple scene of ranch life, the castrating, reveals a lot about each brother’s temper.

We are in the 1920s, in Montana. Phil and George run the family ranch and they’re among the wealthiest families in the state. They’re bachelors, Phil is forty and George is thirty-eight. Phil is brighter than George and he’s a complex man. He’s outspoken and rash, always voicing things that would be polite not to mention. He’s the total opposite of political correctness and refuses to play social games. George’s mind is slower but he’s more sensitive to other people’s needs and feelings. See in this paragraph, how Phil purposely hints at sex, knowing George will be ill-at-ease.

Phil loves ranch life and lives it the rough way. It’s described in this paragraph through the gloves thing, a detail that will have a capital importance at the end of the book. Phil washes in the stream near the house, summer and winter. He doesn’t wear gloves, loves to ride and partake in all kind of physical activities. He also doesn’t like changes in his life. He’s a great admirer of a long-dead cowboy, Bronco Henry. He keeps mentioning how Bronco Henry did this or that. Phil is a bit nostalgic about the old days, when Bronco Henry was alive and part of the ranch staff.

Phil and George’s parents have moved out to Salt Lake City, leaving the ranch to their sons. Nothing has changed in the house and the brothers still sleep in their twin beds in their childhood bedroom. Phil is perfectly happy that way and George seems to be too.

In nearest town, Beech, Rose Gordon and her son Peter make ends meet by running an inn after her husband John died. John was a doctor but he never managed to build a good practice in Beech, there’s not enough solvent patients for it. Peter is a clever child, interested in medicine and always buried in books. He’s now a teenager and wants to study medicine. He’s an outsider at school and he’s violently bullied but soldiers on and never complains.

Phil and George go to Rose’s inn during their trip to town to sell and ship off their cattle. George and Rose start talking and much to Phil’s dismay, George marries Rose. She moves into the ranch house and Peter stays away at school.

As you can imagine, Phil isn’t happy about these new circumstances. Thomas Savage is an extraordinary writer who weaves a story, thread after thread, knot after knot until you get the whole tapestry at the last page. It’s also built like Noir, with a growing tension stemming from this lockup situation.

Charismatic and older brother Phil rules everything on the ranch, manages the hands and takes a lot of space with his cocky attitude. Rose cannot find her place her new home, she knows that Phil wants her gone and she’s under his watchful eyes and it makes her extremely nervous. George is mostly oblivious, he’s like a horse with blinders because he’s not quick enough to pick on the tension. He thinks that things will get better by themselves, he cannot imagine that his brother could be mean to his wife.

Then Peter comes live on the ranch for the summer and it adds another weight to the relationships’ scale and throws it off balance.

From the beginning, Thomas Savage drops hints about Phil. His parents acknowledge that they know but we don’t know what they refer to. He’s a complex character. He’s mean the way teenagers can be: he says whatever he wants without thinking of the consequences, he teases people, he observes their flaws and swoops down on them and he exposes people’s pretenses. Phil’s development seems stuck at teenager stage.

George is a grownup and a good man. He and Rose have a solid and healthy relationship. They want each other for companionship. She brings him out of his shell and she found a safe harbor in him. He has found someone to talk to and someone who doesn’t compare him to his outspoken and sharp brother and find him lacking.

Thomas Savage (1915-2003) grew up on a ranch in Montana. He knows the landscape and the local way-of-life. He’s worked as a ranch hand before being a university teacher and a full-time writer. It’s palpable in his writing. The setting contributes to the story and its atmosphere. He doesn’t romanticize a rancher’s life. The hands are all unmarries because they have to live on the premises and couldn’t support a family anyway. It’s a life made of hard work during the week, entertainment in town during the weekend and dreams of buying clothes and fancy gloves in catalogues. They live in closer quarters, isolated from the outside world and it fuels the story too.

The tension builds up until the very last pages. It’s remarkable, everything falls into place and all the clues dropped here and there come back to you. The characters are well-developed and I was rooting for Rose and George to find a way to live side-by-side with Phil.

Highly recommended.

Literary Escapade: an evening with Gallmeister at Au Bonheur des Ogres

March 7, 2020 26 comments

I suppose that every usual reader of this blog knows that I’m huge fan of the publisher Gallmeister. Last month, the bookstore Au Bonheur des Ogres organized a meeting with one of Gallmeister’s representatives, Thibault. The aim was to talk about this publisher’s story and editorial line.

Before telling you all about this fascinating insight of a publisher’s workings, let’s talk a little bit about Au Bonheur des Ogres. (The Ogres’ Paradise, if I translate into English the French play-on-words on Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise). It’d be a strange name for a bookshop if it weren’t the title of the first installment of the Malaussène series by Daniel Pennac. Read Guy’s review here and rush for this series if you’re in need of good entertainment. In Lyon, Au Bonheur des Ogres is a cozy bookstore operated by an enthusiastic libraire (*), Antony, who welcomed us after hours to discuss Gallmeister’s literature.

Thibault started the evening with a warm thank you to Au Bonheur des Ogres and a statement about the unique book ecosystem that we have in France. It survives under the shield of the Lang Law, something I’ve mentioned before and that is the fixed price for books. The price of a book is set by its publisher and only 5% discounts are allowed. You’re not tempted to browse through books in a bookstore, go out empty-handed and buy your book online. It won’t be cheaper. So, you buy it right away and this helps maintaining a dense network of independent bookstores in the country. This network is not always doing well, but they’re still there.

In France, ebook sales don’t take off and Amazon only represents 4% of Gallmeister’s turnover. We, readers have the power: we are the ones who decide through our buying habits where we’d rather purchase our books and we can keep the big bad American wolf at bay. Our libraires participate to the diversity of the French book ecosystem: they ensure that a large diversity of books reach their shelves and are available to meet their readers. They are a link between indie publishers and readers.

Therefore, Gallmeister’s policy has been to bet on independent bookstores and libraires.

Oliver Gallmeister founded his eponymous publishing house in 2005. Maybe I should say home instead of house, because it seems to be a good home for books, writers and literature. OG is an avid reader of Nature writing and stories featuring trappers, cowboys, and nature as an essential part of the narration and the plot. He’s able to read American literature in the original. Sadly, some of these marvelous books weren’t translated into French and that where the adventure began. A publishing house centered around American literature about nature, people living in the wilderness for a while, of people living in small towns and rural areas. Gallmeister publishes what OG loves to read and reflects his passions. He loves fly-fishing and Thibault told us with a kind humor that they publish a book per year that features fly-fishing. The employees call it “The Trout” and it comes out every November. Now you understand why I keep stumbling upon books about fly-fishing or where fly-fishing is involved! It’s even become a family inside joke.

The first Gallmeister books were The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a story about fun and crazy eco-terrorists in Utah, and Indian Creek by Pete Fromm. I’ve never read Pete Fromm but Thibault told us that he writes about nature beautifully but truthfully. It’s not always a welcoming place for mankind and he doesn’t romanticize his experience of living in the woods. I now have his A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do on the shelf.

Gallmeister’s first bestseller was Sukkwan Island by David Vann, a novella included in Legend of a Suicide. Interesting fact, a bestseller means selling 80 000 copies of a novel. They sold 300 000 copies of Sukkwan Island. David Vann is better known in France than in his own country.

This novella was a turning point in Gallmeister’s young life. US agents started to contact OG directly to push new books. (Fun fact: in France, anyone can send a manuscript to publishers, there’s no need for an agent but in the US, you can’t.) And Gallmeister sometimes publishes books in French that haven’t even been published in America.

One of OG’s goal is that his writers are able to live of their writing. He also pushes their American agents to keep fighting and find them a US publisher when they argue that the book was already a success in France.

French people are HUGE readers of American literature and literature in translation in general. Gallmeister has found an editorial line that appeals to the French public. For example, Gabriel Tallent has sold more copies of My Absolute Darling in one year in France than in three years in the US. (Last time I saw it in a bookstore, it had a banner that said 400 000 copies) I wonder how it is in other European countries.

Thibault explained that right from the start, Gallmeister decided to rely on indie bookstores to promote their books and it made the difference, it’s part of the DNA of the house and a reason for their success. And of course, they need readers to keep buying books in these bookshops.

I think that they publish a kind of literature that fascinates the French readers and a type of books that has no French equivalent. It makes us travel, it’s far from our everyday life and doesn’t linger on first world problems of the upper classes. Their books tell stories about hardworking misfits, loners and blue-collar people. They question the American dream and show a lesser known side of America.

Thibault was here to talk about literature, share his passion for his job and tell us about the book industry and the innerworkings of Gallmeister. He failed to mention that part of Gallmeister’s success is also their innovative and killer marketing. It’s respectful of literature and readers. The books have original covers, all in the same style because there’s one illustrator. No pictures of faceless people. No aggressive colors. No cheesy or girlish stuff for female writers. The books are classy and distinctive. Here are bookmarks and a stylish catalogue of their paperback collection, Totem.

I have read or bought 34 of their 161 paperbacks, 21%. The catalogue gives a short bio of the authors and a blurb of their books. The last pages say all about the Gallmeister spirit. It’s a resume of the Totem collection with random facts like: which translation took the longest time, which one is the most beer-soaked book and the list of the most encountered animals. I loved the humor in the mention: “we didn’t list all the fish, for the lack of space”

They pay attention to the whole book chain: the printers, the illustrators, the authors and of course, the translators. The translations are impeccable, the American vibe is there and yet, it’s perfect French. New translations are crucial for Noir as their first translation was sometimes sketchy when they were published in Série Noire. This is why Gallmeister has started to re-translate all of Ross McDonald’s books.

The choice of books shows flawless literary tastes, whether the book speaks to you or not and their books are centered around five themes now: Wilderness, Cities through Noir fiction only, Intimate stories, the place of America in the world and a common theme: Noir is the Ariadne’s thread, different in each book but always present in the background.

The next big release is a new translation of Gone With the Wind, not a book I would have picked but I might after Thibault shared some passages. In 2021, they’ll expand to new countries, Italy, UK and Germany.

You know I lack of objectivity when it comes to this publisher but I truly had a lovely evening. It’s nice to hear about what’s behind the scene and how a small publishing house operates. Many thanks to Au Bonheur des Ogres for hosting this event. For me, it was a breath of fresh air after a day in the office, a wonderful way to leave my office-related worries behind and focus on reading and sharing the love for books with likeminded people. Of course, I brought two books home.

___

(*) A libraire is a booklover who recommends books to other readers in a bookstore and eventually sells them. In English: a bookseller.

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian – excellent

February 1, 2020 18 comments

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian (1998) French title: Incident à Twenty-Mile. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of westerns. I know of the genre, I’ve seen passages of films, I know the key actors and what they look like but I haven’t actually watched a lot of those films. My mind doesn’t keep an extensive bank of western images for future reference. I like to think that I approach westerns in books with an almost clean mind.

My first western book was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey and the next one was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. Incident at Twenty-Mile is my third visit to the genre, a western written by Trevanian in 1998. To be more precise, it is a novel that mixes two genres, western and crime fiction.

The novel opens at the State Prison at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1898. Lieder is a very dangerous prisoner held in the security quarters of the prison. He reads a lot, can manipulate his wards and has already escaped from two other prisons. His new ward is a rookie and his colleagues have warned him against Lieder’s sneaky ways and violence.

Meanwhile, a young man named Matthew arrives at the small of town of Twenty-Mile, a town settled along a railway line between the town of Destiny and a silver mine up in the mountain. The few inhabitants of Twenty-Mile survive because they provide necessities and entertainment to the miners every weekend. This explains why the city has a General Store owned by Mr Kane and his daughter, an inn operated by the Bjorkvist family, a barber shop run by Pr Murphy, a brothel managed by Mr Delany and his three “girls” and a stable handled by Coots and BJ Stone.

When Matthew arrives at Twenty-Mile, he’s penniless and looking for a job. He makes a tour of the business owners but none of them wants to hire him. He doesn’t give up and convinces each of them to employ him for a few hours a day, selling himself at a low price in order to create his own job.

Through hard work, calm and politeness, Matthew worms himself in Twenty-Mile, ends up settling in the vacated sheriff’s house. He needs to belong to a community and decided to settle in this isolated town full of misfits.

From the beginning, we see that Matthew is a troubled man. He tries too hard. He’s afraid of rejection. He has a childish obsession for the children books The Ringo Kid, an anachronic reference to a Marvel Comics series from the 1950s. When he doesn’t know what to do, Matthew wonders what The Ringo Kid would do and acts accordingly. His father was a drunkard and he’s still trying to heal the scars he got from domestic violence and poverty. He wants to be loved and part of something.

Of course, Lieder escapes from Laramie’s prison with other inmates and decides that the money from the silver mine near Twenty-Mile would be a good loot. The town of Twenty-Mile gets prepared to defend itself against this dangerous criminal.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is absolutely brilliant. Trevanian is a gifted writer, with a flowing prose, a knack for describing landscapes and for setting a specific atmosphere. The people in Twenty-Mile are well-drawn, each of them has something in their past or their present that keeps them hostage of the place. The town is a character in itself, an example of these remote Western towns that grew over night, along with the discovery of gold or silver veins. Wyoming and Montana have ghost towns and Twenty-Mile is already declining. We know that if the mine closes, this town up the mountain will die with it.

This is my second Trevanian in a year, the other one was The Summer of Katyaa psychological thriller set in the Basque country in France before WWI. Despite the very different settings, the two books have similarities.

Here, Trevanian plays with codes of westerns, it’s obvious in the various descriptions of the street in Twenty-Mile and the way Matthew repeatedly squints at the horizon. You can almost hear a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

In both books, characters experienced a trauma in their adolescence and it affects their abilities to live as capable and sane adults. Lieder is a psychopath and his damaging childhood released a lot of violence in him, a total lack of empathy and a messianic vision of his role in this world. It’s a bit chilling and uncanny to hear him promote WASP supremacy and rant against immigrants.

Matthew isn’t a functioning adult either, only the outcome is different. He was the recipient of raw violence and does everything he can to tame these tendencies, thanks to the Ringo Kid ideal. I can’t say more to avoid spoilers but Trevanian’s exploration of Matthew’s mind and past goes farther.

In The Summer of Katya, Trevanian showed a pointed interest in psychoanalysis. I think that it is present in Incident at Twenty-Mile too and this particular undertone gives a special flavor to his novel.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is an excellent thriller, with an extraordinary sense of place, well-drawn characters and good suspense. Highly recommended.

Another great find by Gallmeister and masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty – Murders and fly-fishing

January 22, 2020 12 comments

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith MacCafferty (2012). French title: Meurtres sur la Madison. Translated by Janique Jouin-De Laurens.

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith MacCafferty is a book published by Gallmeister in France and with a sticker that says that Craig Johnson found it marvelously entertaining. How could I resist?

The book opens with Rainbow Sam, a fly-fishing guide, whose client fishes a dead body instead of trout. The client generously throws up at the sight and Sam contacts the sheriff. We’re in the small town of Bridger, a fishing community on the Madison river, in Montana. The sheriff is a woman, Martha Ettinger. With her second-in-command Walt, their first task will be to identify the victim and answer the other question: is it an accident or a murder?

Meanwhile, Sean Stranahan, ex PI from Boston and current fly-fisherman/painter is hired by a singer, Vareda Lafayette, to follow her father’s footsteps on the Madison river. Her father has died a year before, loved travelling from New Orleans to Bridger for fly-fishing. He had marked the trout he had taken and Vareda would like Sean to fish them back, to honor her father. (Fishermen are weird, I know but so are bookworms). Soon Sean realizes that Vareda’s problems are more complicated that he imagined, that her brother who lives in the area is missing. Against his will, he will investigate his disappearance.

Martha and Sean follow their leads and eventually understand that their investigations overlap and join their forces. They will dive into the mudded waters of fly-fishing and its lucrative business. (and not, it’s not farfetched)

Keith MacCafferty sounds like a combination of William G Tapply and Craig Johnson. The law representatives are named Martha and Walt, probably a friendly allusion to Craig Johnson. Indeed, Johnson’s main character is named Walt Longmire and his late wife was named Martha. Sean Stranahan reminded me of Stoney Calhoun, Tapply’s fishing guide/detective.

I went to see Craig Johnson at a meeting in a bookstore and he said that sheriffs in Wyoming and Montana are often big guys because the staff of the police force is small, the territory is huge and they often are alone on a spot and can’t count on a quick backup if things go awry. They tend to be muscular and armed. So, deciding on a female sheriff in Montana for a main character is kind of daring.

I liked Martha, her hidden insecurities while she keeps up appearances and leads her investigation like a pro. Like Longmire, she has an Indian friend who helps her in her job. At the same event I mentioned before, Craig Johnson said that books set in Wyoming and Montana that have no Indian characters lack authenticity: there are several reservations in these States and Indians are part of the local population.

The other main character is Sean. He’s divorced, still wears the scars of his failed marriage and left Boston and his past behind to start afresh in Montana. He paints fishing scenes and Montana landscapes to make a living and put a PI sign on his door to differentiate himself from other newcomers. He never thought that someone would take it seriously and hire him, especially since he’s not licensed in Montana.

The Royal Wulf Murders is a lovely combination of beautiful landscapes, loveable characters and a well-oiled plot. I learnt new details about fly-fishing and could test whether I had assimilated some of John Gierach’s lessons from Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing. I want to know Sean and Martha better and see where their informal collaboration will lead them. The plot builds up slowly, probably because MacCafferty settles his characters for the upcoming series but the last third of the book accelerates and takes us to territories I had not anticipated.

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb – Mystery in the countryside, US mode

December 22, 2019 4 comments

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb (2014) French title: Meurtres à Willow Pond. Translated by Laurent Bury

I swear that when I purchased Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb, I was drawn to it because of its classic British crime vibe in an American setting. Indeed, it is set in a country lodge in Maine, a sort of US equivalent of the country house in England. A murder occurs and the murderer is among the family and guests. See what I mean with the “classic British crime vibe”? The fact that the lodge is specialized in fishing trips with two family members as renown fishing guides is incidental and has nothing to do with reading William G. Tapply or John Gierach. That said, Ned Crabb put as much care and craft in the plot and in the characters as Gierach in making his flies.

The book opens on Alicia and Six Godwin, retired university teachers, who live on their compound on Winsokkett Pond. They love books and fishing and live for them. They are the happiest with a book in their hands on their porch or on the water with their fishing rod. They have a good marriage, with a warm complicity and the reader likes them immediately.

They are related to Iphigeny Seldon, “Gene” who owns and runs Cedar Lodge, a famous upscale fishing lodge on Willow Pond. Gene is over seventy, she runs everything in a military way. She’s loud, insensitive and relishes in the power she has as the master of Cedar Lodge. She’s a spinster and after her brother and sister-in-law’s accidental death, she took over Cedar Lodge and operates it with her nephews and niece.

Brad Seldon is her oldest nephew. He’s 48, an alcoholic, a celebrated fishing guide whose reputation makes guests book their vacation at Cedar Lodge. He’s married to Renée, who is ten years younger than him. Their marriage has been dead for a while but Renée doesn’t want a divorce if she can’t get a nice settlement, one that Brad can’t afford without his inheritance. And Gene holds the purse strings, if Gene-the-tomboy ever had a purse.

Merill Beauchamp is Brad’s sister. She’s 45, addicted to cocaine and is the other fishing guide asset of Cedar Lodge. She’s married to Huntley Beauchamp, a crook. Their marriage is a sham, they both want out but, guess what, Beauchamp won’t let go without a nice settlement. Now Merrill is involved with Bruno Gabreau, a French fellow fishing guide and she really wants a divorce but she can’t have it unless she puts her hands on her inheritance.

Kipper is the third Seldon sibling. He works in managing Cedar Lodge and he’s the only one who has a decent relationship with Gene. He’s 40, gay and has a relationship with Cedar Lodge’s cook, a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Lemaire. His lover is tired of living out in the woods in Maine and wants to open a restaurant in New York. Kipper is all for it but he needs his inheritance to fund the restaurant.

Beauchamp is Cedar Lodge’s financial advisor and he embezzled money. He’s afraid that Gene will find out. He took measures against it, mostly to have people temper with the books and hide the missing money. But now he’s not sure that he didn’t put himself in the hands of gangsters and brought them to Cedar Lodge.

They all hate Gene. They all need money. They all contemplate murder. And now Gene organized a family weekend to tell them that she changed her will. They all converge to Cedar Lodge for this family reunion. So, when Gene dies during a thunder night at the lodge, there are plenty of suspects.

Lightning Strikes merges Nature Writing with Crime Fiction, the two wrapped in a light touch of humor. There are beautiful descriptions of the nature around the lodge and the Godwins’ compound. In that respect, it’s very similar to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Lightning Strikes has the same slow-life tempo as any Nature Writing book, despite all the twists and turns of the story.

The well-oiled mechanism of the classic whodunnit is there too. We are both on familiar and unfamiliar grounds. The minor characters are excellent too: the old playboy who wants to marry Gene as a retirement plan, the pseudo-British guests, Tory and Nelson, a couple of tourists who aren’t at the lodge only to fish trout. The sheriff team is not used to dealing with murders like this. Sheriff Doucette (which, for a French, equals to reading Sheriff Sweetie) is not sure about what to do and Crabb opens a window to the team’s dynamics. These interactions are delightful too. And the Godwins play the sheriff’s assistants and love it.

It’s not a highly memorable book but, like Weekend at Thrackley, it’s entertaining.

It’s a Gallmeister book, and as always, the translator is excellent. I loved how he transcribed the American way of saying Beauchamp, because I never would have guessed it was Bi-tcheum.

 

Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach – Boring and endearing

November 10, 2019 6 comments

Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach. (1990) French title: Sexe, mort et pêche à la mouche. Translated by Jacques Mailhos

When I bought Sex, Death and Fly-fishing by John Gierach, I expected something of Jim Harrison’s short-stories mated with Tapply’s passion for fly-fishing. I didn’t expect eighteen detailed non-fiction stories about fly-fishing.

I learned more about fly-fishing than I’ll ever care to know. I got a 360-degre view on fly-fishing. Let’s see:

Bugs: their life’s stages, their hatching and the trout gobbling them. Fishing is all about being at the right place at the right time (On the rare overcast, drizzly afternoons, the Red Quill dun can hatch late, and the spinner fall can come early, giving you hours of good fishing with a transition point when both forms of the bug are on the water at once.). I had to google Red Quill, dun, spinner…

Equipment: best bellyboats, waders, poles, hats, sticks, hoop nets…I had to google bellyboats because, for the life of me, I couldn’t decipher what it was, even reading the book in French.

Flies: Their size, their color, their making, the materials to use. How midge fishing became trendy in the fly-fishing world. How John Gierach decided to built a henhouse and raise hens to have his home-made feathers to make flies.

Fish: bluegrass, cutthroat, black bass, rainbow trout. I discovered the hierarchy between the fish, as not all are worth the same for the fisherman. Apparently, trout is royalty compared to peasant black bass. I had to google them, of course. Somehow it registered in my memory bank because I playfully wondered what trout I was cooking the other day and decided that it was definitely rainbow trout.

Rivers: Lots of descriptions of landscapes and rivers in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and British Columbia. That was nice and brought the escapism I needed. I particularly enjoyed the story I’d Fish in Anyone’s St Vrain. Gierach explains how every fisherman has his favorite river, close to their home, a lesser-known river that they know in and out. Being invited to fish in someone’s favorite river is a treat.

Weather: What’s the best weather for fly-fishing. Since it’s overcast or rainy, I’m not sure I’m made for that sport. When to fish, how to fish in cold weather…

That was the boring side of Sex, Death and Fly-fishing. The endearing side was Gierach’s light and funny tone. He’s full of humor probably because he knows how geeky he sounds. He also inserts thoughts about environmental concerns and life as a fisherman/writer. I enjoyed his non-judgmental tone. Even if he’s passionate about fishing, he remains open-minded. He doesn’t think that his ways are the best, doesn’t make fun or get angry at philistines. He’s happy that it’s a catch-and-release sport, he enjoys the wilderness, the peaceful comradeship with his fishing buddies.

The other endearing side was his geeky side. He’s passionate and enthusiastic. He’s all about the details of the sport, he gets excited about getting the right material for making a perfect fly for future fishing trips. He researches entomology to better understand the bugs that make trout swim to the surface of water to gorge themselves on the said bugs. I was reading and thinking that I didn’t give a damn about the right feather, animal hair or whatnot to make THE fly that will attract trout but I found his devotion to his passion amusing and worth reading about. I could feel him grinning and glowing of happiness while writing about fishing.

And then I thought, “Are we, book lovers, any different from him”? How do we sound to non-readers when we gush about Gallmeister books or collect Penguin classics? How weird must we sound when we have heated discussions about translations and ask around which translation is best for In Search of Lost Time? Shall we read the Scott Moncrieff or a more recent one? How did I sound to my colleague the other day when I joined a meeting where coffee and pastries were served and I told him off-handedly while picking a madeleine, “I’m eating a madeleine because it’s the centennial of Proust’s Prix Goncourt?” In a team building meeting, we were asked to describe ourselves with a word. I said “literary nerd”, which is a total opposite to my actual position in the company and but it’s the first thing that popped to my mind.

And that’s what I enjoyed most about Sex, Death and Fly-fishing: I loved the pure joy that seeped from Gierach’s words as he wrote stories about his lifelong passion, even if some descriptions of flies, bellyboats and fishnets made me yawn. I bet he could describe himself as a fishing nerd too.

And folks, this is why Sex, Death and Fly-fishing is boring and endearing.

PS: Outstanding translation by Jacques Mailhos. As usual.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – Historical, fun and thoughtprovoking

October 31, 2019 5 comments

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) French title: L’oiseau du Bon Dieu. Translated by François Happe

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride relates the story of John Brown (1800-1859), an American abolitionist who was in favor of armed insurrection to abolish slavery. He’s responsible for the Pottawatomi Massacre in 1856 (Kansas) where his group killed five supporters of slavery. He took part in other battles and his last one was a raid against the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. According to historians, Brown’s campaign and its press coverage were one of the sparks that kindled the Civil War.

The God Lord Bird relates Brown’s story from the moment he arrived in Kansas to the fiasco of Harpers Ferry. (Btw, this is also the story of Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.) The narrator is The Onion, a young black boy who was kidnapped by Brown when he arrived in Kansas. Kidnapped is a neutral word here, because, depending on which side of slavery you stand, Henry was either “stolen” or “freed”.

This kidnapping happens at the beginning of the novel and McBride introduced an comic effect: Brown (The Old Man) thinks Henry is a girl.

“We have to move. Courageous friend, I will take you and your Henrietta to safety.” See, my true name is Henry Shackleford. But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man. “

Minding only of his safety, Henry decides to go with the flow and be a girl if need be. He becomes Henrietta, nicknamed The Onion. Henry is our only narrator and of course, he’s unreliable. He’s about 10 when Brown takes him. His only experience with life is living in his master’s saloon with his father. He has no education, a limited vision of the world. But he tells the story from the slave’s standpoint and it’s a way for McBride to give a voice to the people Brown fought for.

We follow Onion from 1856 to 1859, during his nomadic life with Brown and some years in New Orleans. The Good Lord Bird is a multilayered book, tackling the historical aspects of Brown’s combat, Henry’s identity problems since he’s impersonating a girl, the issue of slavery and its impact on the psyche of black people.

I had never heard of John Brown before opening The Good Lord Bird on my kindle. This is one of our Book Club reads, I didn’t really investigate what it was about. Kindle book means no physical book and no glance at the blurb on the back cover. There’s no foreword, which doesn’t matter because I never read them before finishing a book as they tend to be full of spoilers. This explains why it took me getting to half of the book, when Brown meets Frederick Douglass to even think that this crazy religious Brown guy was real and that I was reading historical fiction.

John Brown is a controversial character and McBride depicts a complicated man, a zealot and a humanist, a violent man ready to sacrifice everything to his cause and yet be gentle with his family, a man who can camp in the harsh conditions of the west and hold his own in the salons of the east.

Brown’s drive comes from religious grounds. He’s a Christian zealot and his interpretation of the Bible tells him that black people should be free, that slavery is condemnable and should be abolished at all cost. He doesn’t do it for himself but because he thinks it’s right. There’s no personal gain for him in this combat, no political aim, no financial gain of any kind. He fights with words, like here:

I never knowed a man who could spout the Bible off better than Old John Brown. The Old Man straightened up, reared back, and throwed off half a dozen Bible verses right in the Reverend’s face, and when the Reverend tried to back-fire with a couple of his own, the Old Man drowned him out with half dozen more that was better than the first. Just mowed him down. The Rev was outgunned.

But doesn’t neglect more material weapons:

He had more weapons hanging off him than I ever seen one man carry: two heavy seven-shot pistols strapped to his thighs by leather—that was the first I ever saw such a thing. Plus a broadsword, a squirrel gun, a buckshot rifle, a buck knife, and a Sharps rifle. When he moved around, he rattled like a hardware store. He was an altogether fearsome sight.

In passing, enjoy McBride’s playful tone in his descriptions. Henry retells long prayer sessions before battles, when the men wait Brown out because when he starts preaching, there’s no stopping him or knowing when it will end. He’s passionate and gets carried away. He has absolutely no military planning skills. He can lead his men on the battlefield but he’s unable to manage the rest: food, camp, where to stop and when to go, taking weather conditions into consideration and having proper intelligence. And arriving to battle with an army in good conditions is a key success factor.

He’s also an idealist who doesn’t have field knowledge of the slaves’ mind and condition. He’s never lived in the South, he’s certain that slaves will rally his cause quickly because, who wouldn’t want to fight for their freedom, right? He has no clue about the mental barriers that decades of slavery have built in slaves’ minds. They are built out of fear, abuse and being somebody’s property.

Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse. Your needs and wants got no track, whether you is a girl or a boy, a woman or a man, or shy, or fat, or don’t eat biscuits, or can’t suffer the change of weather easily. What difference do it make? None to him, for you is living on the bottom rail.

Rallying to Brown is a huge risk. This is also why Henry doesn’t protest when Brown takes him for a girl. He keeps the lie alive even if he could easily prove otherwise. He thinks he’ll be safer as a girl.

I come to enjoy them talks, for even though I’d gotten used to living a lie—being a girl—it come to me this way: Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are inside. You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color. Mulatto, colored, black, it don’t matter. You just a Negro to the world.

He even enjoys some aspects of impersonating a girl: he doesn’t have to fight on the battle field, he only has ‘light’ chores to do and his condition protects him sometimes. People treat women differently, obviously. He experiences from inside how people treat you differently if they take you for a girl.

On the trail, Chase did all the talking. He talked about his Ma. Talked about his Pa. Talked about his kids. His wife was half cousin to his Pa and he talked about that. There weren’t nothing about himself he didn’t seem to want to talk about, which gived me another lesson on being a girl. Men will spill their guts about horses and their new boots and their dreams to a woman. But if you put ’em in a room and turn ’em loose on themselves, it’s all guns, spit, and tobacco.

In the end, it’s all about people’s preconceived notion about who you are according to the tag that is attached to your person. People see you as a woman, they treat you a certain way. People see you as a slave, they treat you another way. Onion will impersonate a woman during 17 years and then adolescence kicks in, it complicates his life. He’s attracted to women and cannot show or act on it. White people still don’t notice that he’s not a female, confirming that for them, blacks are all the same. Black people notice it right away and it’s harder for him to keep the lie with them.

The Good Lord Bird is an interesting book in many aspects and Henry’s voice is genuine, full of humor. He takes us among Brown’s followers and America in the 1850s comes to life under McBride’s pen. Henry made me laugh with his quirky ways. But sometimes I thought that the descriptions of their travelling were too long, too precise, even if they help today’s reader understand what it was to live in Kansas in that time. Just for the fun of it, this is what 1850s GPS was like:

“Circle ’round the cabin and move straight back into the woods, past the second birch tree beyond the corn field yonder,” he said. “You’ll find an old whiskey bottle stuck between two low branches on that tree. Follow the mouth of that bottle due north two miles, just the way the mouth is pointed. Keep the sun on your left shoulder. You’ll run into an old rock wall somebody built and left behind. Follow that wall to a camp.

Given my sense of direction, I’d have died the first time I went out alone, with this kind of instructions.

I really enjoyed Henry’s spoken tone because it sounded more genuine. I toyed with the idea of reading Cloudsplitters right after The Good Lord Bird, as I have it on the TBR. I flipped through the first pages, discovered that the story was told from Owen’s POV (Brown’s son) in a perfect English and it sounded fake after Henry. I’ll read it later, after McBride’s book has faded away in my memory.

My last question is ‘what does McBride think of John Brown’? I think he tried to show his good and bad sides but that in the end, he is grateful for this idealist and his fight. Brown is the Good Lord Bird of the title.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Good Lord Bird feather. “The Good Lord Bird don’t run in a flock. He flies alone. You know why? He’s searching. Looking for the right tree. And when he sees that tree, that dead tree that’s taking all the nutrition and good things from the forest floor. He goes out and he gnaws at it, and he gnaws at it till that thing gets tired and falls down. And the dirt from it raises the other trees. It gives them good things to eat. It makes ’em strong. Gives ’em life. And the circle goes ’round.”

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – life assessment at old age

October 27, 2019 9 comments

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987) French title: En lieu sûr. Translated by Eric Chédaille.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event–a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

This is Larry Morgan’s voice, the narrator of Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. He’s now 64 and he and his wife Sally arrived at the Lang compound in Battel Pond, Vermont. This is the property of Charity and Sid Lang, their long-life friends. (There is was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.) They’re not here for fun, though, but more for a last farewell to Charity who’s losing battle against cancer.

Larry starts recalling their lives and tells us how their friendship started in 1937, in Madison, Wisconsin. Larry and Sid were both teachers in the English department at the local university. It’s the Great Depression and positions are rare. Larry and Sally are poor, they come from the West and from working class. They have to live on Larry’s salary, unless he keeps selling stories and develops his writing.

Charity and Sid come from the opposite side of the country and social ladder: they are a wealthy couple from New England. Sid’s fortune comes from his family’s business and his father was very disappointed when he turned to literature. Charity comes from a family of academics, her father is always buried in a book and in research while her mother runs the house.

On paper, they come from different worlds. In reality, they clicked immediately and bonded over their love for literature. Larry reflects on these early years in Madison, on the start of their friendship and how Sally and Charity took an immediate liking to each other, how it started at this diner party and wonders:

Is that the basis of friendship? Is it as reactive as that? Do we respond only to people who seem to find us interesting?… Do we all buzz or ring or light up when people press our vanity buttons, and only then? Can I think of anyone in my whole life whom I have liked without his first showing signs of liking me?

This and the opening quote earlier represent Larry quite well: he’s unassuming. He wonders why Charity and Sid are so fond of them. They graduated from Smith College and Harvard while he went to Berkeley and Sally dropped out of school to support them. They are more worldly than he and Sally are. Even if he doesn’t say it that way, he doesn’t understand what they bring into the relationship that puts them on equal footing.

[Friendship] is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.

Larry is a gifted writer and he brings the aura of talent into their tightknit group.

Sid wanted to write poetry but neither his family nor his wife support him. He was strong enough to go against his family about literature but not enough to fight Charity on writing poetry. She thinks he needs to have an established career as an academic for him to indulge into writing poetry. He doesn’t think he’s a talented enough and gives up. But it gnaws at him and Larry thinks it’s a shame he doesn’t keep on writing poetry even if he might not be a good poet, as long as it makes him happy.

And sure, why should he stop writing poetry just because he’s not good enough to be published? (Something we are not even sure of) Do amateur painters or photographers stop doing their hobby because they’ll never have an exhibition in a gallery? They don’t, and nobody tells them to stop painting or taking pictures. Why do we expect that a writer should be published or stop writing? Isn’t it what we think, in spite of ourselves?

Charity is a force of nature. She has ambition for the four of them and works to reach her goals. The issue is that Sid needs to publish articles about literature, if he wants a promotion. Stegner makes fun of this obligation that takes precedence over being a good teacher:

You hear what the dean said about Jesus Christ? ‘Sure He’s a good teacher, but what’s He published?

Larry loves to write, for himself first, but also because selling short-stories helps paying the bills. Sally and he have no family money to fall back on. They have no safety net and need the money to keep coming in. That’s his first ambition.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else — pathway to the stars, maybe. I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without benefit of drugs or orgies, have more fun.

I love the idea that Ambition is a path, no a destination. In Larry’s eyes, Charity has unconsidered ambition for Sid and that she had to carry him during their hiking on her ambition path because he didn’t quite have it in him to walk this trail alone and succeed. She’s also both generous and stubborn about how things need to be done. She loves control and cannot bear to relinquish it, whatever the cost. Larry and Sally give in because most of the time, they are guests and don’t feel untitled to go against her wishes. Sid does because he knows from experience that he won’t win. He loves her and indulges her.

Crossing to Safety is a celebration of friendship, a scrutiny of its workings, a reflection on two long marriages but it is also an older man looking back on his hardworking life, its ordeals and its successes. Of his marriage to Sally, he won’t say much, probably because it is a happy one. He resents Charity’s micromanaging of Sid’s life, he questions their marriage and the Charity’s domination.

It’s also a novel about old age, on looking back on one’s life and assessing what it was compared to what one imagined when they were young. Larry is on out on the porch, looking and smelling and recherching temps perdu and he tells us:

“Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards – the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees –have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.”

Probably because

It is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one.

Highly recommended.

PS: I haven’t read Cicero’s De Senectute and De Amicitia but Larry mentions them. I wonder how they influenced Crossing to Safety.

Choke Hold by Christa Faust – sex, drugs and MMA.

September 20, 2019 5 comments

Choke Hold by Christa Faust (2011) French title: L’ange gardien. Translated by Christophe Cuq

Do the things you’ve done in the past add up to the person you are now? Or are you endlessly reinvented by the choices you make for the future? I used to think I knew the answer to those questions. Now, I’m not so sure.

Angel Dare, former porn star is under witness protection. She’s a waitress at a diner in Arizona, hiding away from the men who want her dead. Her old life barrels into her new one when her ex-lover Vic Ventura comes to her diner with his son Cody. They don’t have to really catch up that Vic is shot dead right in front of her.

Angel doesn’t know if the killers are after Vic or her. No time to think, she just takes Cody under her wing and flees the scene as fast as she can.

Cody is 18 and recently reconnected with Vic. He is raised by his single mother who struggles with mental illness. His daily support system consists in Hank Hammer, former MMA champion and Cody’s MMA coach at a local gym.

Cody’s only goal is to become a MMA champion and he’s on the right track to achieve it. The kid is gifted and already participates to underground MMA fights in Mexico, all organized by the owner of the gym he trains at. That’s how Cody got involved in drug trafficking, thinking he was carrying steroids across the Mexican-American border.

Cody is young, idealistic and single-minded. He wants to be an MMA champion and go to Las Vegas to be casted in an MMA TV reality show. After Cody takes Angel to Hank’s trailer, the most sensible thing to do seems to leave Arizona and get Cody to Las Vegas on time for the show.

Our trio of misfits engages into a perilous road trip with a dangerous team of hitmen hot on their trail. Angel, Hank and Cody have all been thrown into the sea of life and have banged themselves on rocky shores. There’s a terrifying scene in My Absolute Darling where Turtle and Jacob are snatched by the rising tide of the Pacific Ocean and struggle for their life. That’s how I imagined Angel, Hank and Cody: taken away by events with no control over what happened to them and coming out of it bruised and battered.

Angel used to be a porn star, famous enough that people could recognize her on the street and that puts her in danger. She has to live with the memories of her former life and how it went to hell. Hank keeps Cody safe and straight and acts as his substitute father. He has a poor health, consequence of too many punches and concussions. Taking care of Cody gives him a purpose and it’s a win-win situation. Cody had a tough childhood with a mother unfit to raise him and forcing him to grow up and take responsibilities at a young age. Hank is his anchor.

And now, the three of them stick together for the better and the worse and despite Angel’s gut feeling that she’s better cut them loose.

Christa Faust’s style is punchy and catchy. (no pun intended) Choke Hold will appeal to readers who enjoyed Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller. Angel is the same kind of kickass heroin, full of sass, of resources and of courage. Faust spent a decade working in peep-shows and for the porn industry. She knows her stuff and her Angel sounds real. Choke Hold is the sequel to Money Shot and while I still enjoyed Choke Hold, I think it’s better to read them in the right order.

Recommended to crime fiction lovers and readers of Virginie Despentes. (In France, published by Gallmeister)

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – it will leave you breathless

September 15, 2019 17 comments

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) French title: My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent was at Quais du Polar in 2018 although My Absolute Darling is not crime fiction. After reading it, I understand why he was invited: this is a novel that walks on the thin line between literary fiction and thriller.

Turtle Alveston is fourteen and lives in an isolated cabin on the Northern California coast with her father Martin. Her paternal grandfather drinks himself to death in a trailer in the backyard. Martin is a survivalist. He believes that the world is going to collapse, he doesn’t trust the system and trains his daughter to prepare for the end of the world. He’s also abusive and a totally unfit parent.

When the book opens, it’s Spring and Turtle is in her last year of middle school. She does her best to keep everyone at arm’s length. She doesn’t engage with other students, donning a coat of aggressivity to push everyone away. Her English teacher Anna isn’t giving up though. Turtle fails at her spelling tests and Anna pokes at Turtle, feeling that things aren’t right at home.

Martin is a lunatic with his frightening theories, a sort of guru with only one attendant to his cult: his daughter. Martin is a damaged man, intelligent, charismatic and powerful. He’s controlling and uses every means in his possession to nail his power over his daughter. He manipulates her with love, he threatens her and he’s violent, verbally and physically. He beats her up and assaults her. Martin loves his daughter in a very sick way, he calls her my absolute darling. He wants to own her. He leaves nothing out to ensure that she doesn’t venture outside of the cocoon he has created for her. Except that his cocoon isn’t soft and nurturing, its walls are made of sea urchin.

Turtle’s mother is dead, her grandpa cares about her but is too deep in his drunkard hole to take action. Martin does everything he can to keep Turtle under his spell. He’s her dad, her only parent, her only figure of authority. They are isolated and she doesn’t know anything else.

Turtle finds solace in the nature around her house. She’s tough, knows how to live off the land, how to avoid dangers, how to build a fire, how to orientate herself in the wilderness. Martin and her grandpa taught her these skills. She’s an expert with guns, Martin makes her practice all the time. She is a warrior, accumulating a lot of survival skills and inner strength.

Fourteen is a pivotal age. Puberty hits. Children start to take their independence, of mind and of action. They start to hike the awkward trail to adulthood and parents do not control as much as before what they are exposed to and who they are in contact with. Their own social circle starts to be more important than the family one. Parents stop to be heroes who know everything and are always right and become mere humans. It’s the age where Martin’s control over Turtle is meant to slip and this father is not about to accept it. He can’t let her go.

Several events arrive in a short time span. Anna is more insistent in her follow-up. Turtle rescues Brett and Jacob, two teenagers from the local high school who went hiking and got lost. The outside world makes a dent in Turtle’s shell and begins to get to her. Martin taught her skills to cope with the end of the world and to be self-reliant. She will use these skills to claw herself out of her abusive father’s large paws. She will use them to put an end to her world.

And we, readers, follow her, silent witnesses to all her failings, her strength and her inner pep talks.

She thinks, you will trust in your discipline and your courage and you will never leave them and never abandon them and you will be stronger, grim and courageous and hard, and you will never sit as he sits, looking at your life as he looks at it, you will be strong and pure and cold for the rest of your goddamn life and these are lessons you will never forget.

We are rooting for her. We are horrified by her home situation and we watch her looking for her way out, trying to get out of the mental maze where her father holds her prisoner. She’s like a princess, hostage of a dark prince, except that this princess doesn’t wait idly for her knight to rescue her. She’s been raised to think that one can only count of themselves. Fortunately. And in a sense, she’s right. Where are the adults in this story?

My Absolute Darling is Tallent’s debut novel and it is truly extraordinary. He manages to insinuate himself into the mind of a fourteen-year-old abused girl. We are in Turtle’s mind, seeing the world through the distorting glasses she wears, courtesy of her father’s twisted education.

The novel holds together in every aspect. It’s built like a psychological thriller but it isn’t one. Things happen, one at a time, each one adding a brick to the story, pushing it forward, building up suspense and threat. Some scenes are extremely intense and disturbing, some at home with Martin and some in the wilderness, along the shore. Turtle’s life is surrounded with dangers, at home and outside. She has no real safe place.

Gabriel Tallent shows us how hard it is to go out of an abusive relationship and even more when it is a parent/child one. Turtle loves Martin and hates him at the same time. He loves her and is the one who hurts her the most. In an interview, Tallent says he used the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator in The Captive to draw Martin. (See my billet here about The Captive. It’s entitled Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.) I can see how Proust could be helpful.

There is no attempt at psychology or psychiatry in My Absolute Darling. Tallent never tries to put a medical name on Martin’s behavior. We only understand that he had a destructive relationship with his own father. Tallent doesn’t dig further, it’s not his purpose. He focuses on Turtle and we really want her to succeed and climb out of this dark world to join ours. Even if we are destroying nature at a frightening speed and if this world is imperfect.

My Absolute Darling is an excellent book, unbearable to read at time. I had to put it down sometimes, to reconnect to my surroundings because I was too far away with Turtle and her bad place. I had to bring my mind back from that hellish cabin in Northern California. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that we are in the presence of a very gifted writer.

Highly recommended. Of course, in France, it’s published by Gallmeister.n

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