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No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

June 12, 2014 10 comments

No Beast So Fierce (1973) by Edward Bunker. (1933-2005) French title: Aucune bête aussi féroce.

BunkerNo Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker is the second Humbook Guy gave me last Christmas. Born in 1933 in Hollywood, Edward Bunker had a rocky childhood and spent his youth in foster homes and reform schools. He was involved in criminal activities, mostly scheming robberies and extorting funds from pimps. He was caught several times, acquired quite a reputation and had spent 18 years in prison when he wrote his first novel No Beast So Fierce. I don’t usually linger on authors’ biographies when I write a billet but Bunker’s life experiences nourished his writing and the story of this novel.

When the book opens, Max Dembo is released on parole after eight years behind bars. The first part of the novel describes his first weeks of freedom. The second and third parts are about his subsequent offence. I don’t want to say a lot about the plot and the characters because it’s difficult to do so without spoilers. Max’s and Bunker’s childhood and adolescence have a lot in common. The difference between the two is that Bunker had a helping hand in the person of Mrs Wallis. Like Bunker, Max had a broken home, was in foster care and in reform school. He had to fend for himself when he was very young and he grew up like weed, without direction.

Bunker’s style is luminous, precise. It combines description of the action, glimpses of the environment and time in Max’s inner mind. No Beast So Fierce lets common people into the mind of a criminal. The criminal world raised Max. He grew up with a set of values given by the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, con artists and thieves.

I’d never had qualms about killing. My system of values came from the jungle of reform school and prison. I’d never heard anyone denounce killing on moral grounds. Violence was deemed by some to be “uncool” or “stupid”, but never evil or wrong.

He’s angry at society and while he’s determined to remain on the safest side of law when he goes out of prison, he quickly falls back into his old habit. He’s out of prison on parole and there’s no safety net.

I RODE off the prison property with sixty-five dollars, a cheap suit (ten years out of style), a set of khakis and change of underwear in a brown parcel, and a bus ticket to Los Angeles. A uniformed guard drove me to the depot and waited until I was on board.

Then he’s left to meet with his parole officer. Earlier this year, I read On Parole by Akira Yoshimura. I couldn’t help but compare the social net that awaited the two characters. In Japan, Kikutani has a social worker taking care of him and showing him around to adjust to the city. He’s led to a temporary room until he lands on his feet and couldn’t have been out of prison without a job. Society makes sure that material conditions are good enough to give the ex-convict a chance to a successful rehabilitation.

Here, in California, the social net isn’t very solid. Max’s parole officer is totally oblivious of the canyon lying between his values and Max’s. He fails to convince him to go and live in a halfway house until he gets on his feet. They can’t find a communication channel and his rigid mental posture leads Max into refusing the little help he proposes.

“Bend a little and I’ll bend a little. Just ask that I don’t commit any crimes, not that I live by your moral standards. If society demands that, society shouldn’t have put me in foster homes and reform schools and twisted me. And these last eight years. Shit, after that, nobody would be normal. Just understand my predicament. I don’t know anyone but ex-convicts, hustlers, and prostitutes. I don’t even feel comfortable around squarejohns. I like call girls instead of nice girls. I don’t need a Freudian explanation, which wouldn’t change the fact anyway. But because I prefer going to bed with a prostitute doesn’t mean I’m going to use an acetylene torch on a safe.”

His righteous parole officer can’t bend. Max will only bent a little. Well, you know what happens for the oak and the reed in the fable by Lafontaine. The reed bending adapts to the weather conditions, the oak is uprooted.

So Max is left to his own devices and must follow parole conditions:

There was a copy of the parole agreement I’d signed, and its conditions. They were standard—maintain suitable employment (what’s “suitable”?), make no address change and drive no automobile without written permission, no drinking, make no contract, borrow no money, avoid ex-felons and persons of ill repute, and heed the advice and counsel of the parole officer. Failure to comply with any condition was grounds for return to prison without notice or hearing.

It’s kind of hard to live in Los Angeles without a car; the city is not built for pedestrians and the underground is totally underdeveloped. He’s not allowed to drive a car and anyway, he’s not allowed to borrow money to buy one. He doesn’t have a job and by law, he has to tell his employer about his ex-convict status. He’s not directed to companies that are used to hiring ex-convicts (it is the case in the Yoshimura); he has to find a job by himself, say he’s just been out of prison and hope that his employer won’t mind hiring a thief on parole. Like these jobs are easy to find. What chances does he stand when he has no money and needs to pay for a hotel and food at least? And since Max has no family, no girlfriend, he turns to the only network he knows: the criminal network. The lack of empathy and communication skills of his only contact with the legal world can only lead to failure. He doesn’t stay on the right path for long and soon goes back to his old world. There, he knows the rules, he knows who he can trust and he has friends.

Being in Max’s head is not always comfortable. Being in Kikutani’s head was uncomfortable because I could feel he was unbalanced. Max is not unbalanced. He’s enraged against the society that mistreated him since childhood and he doesn’t want to follow its rules. He loves his freedom and lives by the only code he knows: the thief’s code. At times I felt compassion for him and at others I thought he was a lost cause. That said, I was very interested in his way of comprehending the world. It humbles you and shows that righteous condemnation will not ensure the rehabilitation of criminals. Incidentally, I talked about this book to a friend who’s a lawyer and discovered that in France, prisoners can’t be on parole; the system doesn’t exist and I wasn’t aware of that.

Among Max’s friends and help system are ex-convicts or wives of accomplices in crime. Max finds shelter in their homes, bringing a whiff of the underworld with him. He gives them money to help them raise their children. I felt sorry for them. They are victims of their social environment. The children grow up poor, with an absent father and a mother struggling to make ends meet. Shady characters crash at their house and they are in an unstable environment. What is their chance to have a better life? Who can show them another way to live? How can their parents’ fate not repeat with them?

No Beast So Fierce is an honest book. Bunker shows Max’s anger, pictures what the system made of him, pities him but doesn’t deny his responsibility in his actions. He never says that Max is a victim who doesn’t have a choice. He shows how his life story leads him to the choices he makes. Max is never hiding behind phony excuses to justify his actions.

It’s disgusting to behave stupidly, but doubly so while knowing it’s stupid in advance.

He made poor decisions and he went into crime with his eyes open. He also mentions the thrill it gives him (A tremor almost sexual passed through me as I anticipated the coming robbery.) and the rebel in him doesn’t want to bend. He’s a fascinating character but not one I’d want to be friend with.

I know it doesn’t show in this billet because I wanted to avoid spoilers but No Beast So Fierce is also a high-paced novel. The first part sets the décor and characters. The second part increases the pace and starts the action. The third part races to the denouement and it’s gripping. Quentin Tarantino loved No Beast So Fierce and hired Bunker to play Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs. I think I know why.

Many, many, many thanks to Guy for picking this book for me. I’d never heard of it and it’s a fantastic read.

Joyeux Noël and Happy Humbook!

December 25, 2013 22 comments

Hello everyone !

Mafalda_ChristmasI wish you all a Merry Christmas, or as we say here, Joyeux Noël. I hope you’re having a nice day with your families or if you’re far away from them, that you are among good friends. I still wonder about Christmas in places where it’s warm or even hot at that time of year. I can’t imagine spending Christmas by a swimming pool. Christmas is such an important time for children and memories of them stay with you and shape your idea of what a Christmas should be. For me Christmas goes with hot beverages, fires, cold, snow sometimes, mandarins, chocolate and short days. We have a tradition here in Lyon: the papillottes. It’s a chocolate wrapped in a shiny paper in which there is a message. Now, it’s a quote from a famous writer; lots of aphorisms by Oscar Wilde, JB Shaw, Jules Renard or Alphonse Allais. But it originally started at the end of the 18th Century when a young chocolate-maker in love with the girl living in his building but on an upper floor started to send her chocolates wrapped in billets doux. Lucky girl: chocolates and love letters all in one.

From a blogging point of view, Christmas is also the day when willing copinautes exchange Humbook gifts. This year, we were five: Brian from Babbling Books, Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers, Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog plus Guy and I.

So here are the books Guy and I picked for Brian, Lisa and Stu.

For Lisa:

La première gorge de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules by Philippe Delerm. It exists in English but we thought you could try it in French in its Kindle version. It’s not fiction. It was a great success when it was published in France a few years ago. It’s a collection of short texts about the small pleasures of life. (The title means, The first sip of beer and other tiny pleasures) It reminds us that if we pay attention, we have lots of happy moments in our everyday life. It reflects the notion of pleasure that we have in French, a notion I have trouble translating into English.

For Stu:

All yours by Claudia Piñeiro. We wanted to find a book in translation, so here is an Argentinean book. Since you had enjoyed her Thursday Night Widows, we imagined you’d like this one too. I haven’t read it but Guy has and his review is here.

For Brian

The Plague by Albert Camus. No need to present Albert Camus. I’m looking forward to reading your review of it.

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. In this historical novel, Hugo brings to life the upheaval of the Chouans in Vendée in 1793.

We hope we’ve made good choices and will be reading your reviews of your Humbook gifts in 2014. I’m curious to discover what Lisa picked for Stu and vice versa.

Gary_White_DogGuy, you expected a Romain Gary last year, you’ll have one this year. 2014 will be the centenary of Gary’s birth. I have chosen White Dog. On paper, it has lots of ingredients that should interest you. It’s in California and in Paris, in 1968. It involves Gary’s life with Jean Seberg. It’s about a dog which needs to be reformed. It describes the political movements of the time from the inside through Seberg’s involvement with the Black Panthers. Cherry on the Christmas pudding: It has been made in to a film.

The other book I’ve picked for you is Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti. It’s a political crime fiction book set in the area I grew up in. I really hope I’ve made good choices.

I just have to wish you a happy reading and I leave you with a picture of a Christmas chimney.


cheminee

Christmas? Bah! Humbook they say : THE COME BACK

December 1, 2013 19 comments

Bah! Humbook, they say

 

Humbook

Hello dear copinautes!

December has arrived and Guy and I would like to invite you to another edition of the Humbook Christmas Gift event.  The idea is to virtually give another blogger two books as a Christmas present. It’s a way to exchange gifts in our virtual and international literary salon. So, let’s review the rules together.

  • Choose the copinaute you will give books to,
  • Leave a comment saying you’re in and giving the name of your copinaute,
  • On December 25th, publish a post in which you reveal to your copinaute the two books you have selected for them.
  • In 2014, each copinaute reads the books and reviews them.

In addition, Guy and I will choose one book for each participant and reveal our virtual books on Christmas Day as well.

For practical reasons, each participant shall purchase the books they receive and not the books they give. This is to avoid sending books abroad, experiencing delays in delivery or whatever other problem. This means that you need to pay attention to a few things when you pick a humbook for a copinaute: check out that it’s available in their language at a reasonable price.

FAQ, in French, Foire Aux Questions

What’s a copinaute ?

Copinaute is made of the word copain/copine (friend) and internaute (Internet surfer) Copinautes are friends who know each other through the Internet. Don’t look for it in the dictionary; it’s not in there…yet. I find this word lovely and very appropriate to our friendly little book blogging community.

What if the copinaute has already read the book before?

That’s a risk and part of the game. It happens when you offer books to bookworms! Good news: the book hasn’t been purchased yet. So, you just pick another one.

What if I don’t feel like reading the book I was given?

It can happen. But we don’t always like the books we pick for ourselves, so give your copinaute the benefit of the doubt. It may be a good surprise and a way to step out of your comfort zone. I’m sure your copinaute will avoid vampire stories if they know you’re not into fantasy.

I’m not at home for Christmas, how am I supposed to post a billet that day?

If your blog is on WP, you can write it earlier and schedule it for Christmas. I suppose the same option exists on other blog platforms.

How long does the copinaute have to read the books?

You have all 2014 to read them. No pressure of any kind, reading is a pleasure, not a duty.

If you have any other question, just ask in the comment section or on Twitter (@Bookaround). All the questions are welcome. Check on Guy’s blog for more information.

I do hope you are tempted to join us. I’m looking forward to hearing from you in the comment section.

Cheers!

Emma

Merry Christmas! Humbook! They say

December 25, 2012 34 comments

Dear Copinautes,

I wish you all a Merry Christmas from France. For New Year’s wishes, you’ll have to wait for my first post for 2013. In France, we don’t wish a Happy New Year in advance.

Many thanks to regular readers and commenters for your steady reading of my rambling, babbling, prattling or whatever word suits best to my billets. Thanks to readers who don’t dare to comment but click on the Like button to say “Hi, I’ve been there”, it’s much appreciated. I’m still surprised you devote part of your precious free time to read Book Around The Corner.

Now, don’t forget today is the day for our virtual exchange gifts, the most famous Humbook event.

Humbook

Follow the links to check on the participants’ blogs to discover what they picked for each other and of course, have a look at Guy’s entry. As promised, Guy and I picked one additional book for each participant:

For Lisa, from ANZ Lit Lovers: The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis. Its feminist side should suit you and the descriptions of the Greek countryside are gorgeous.

For Tony, from Tony’s Reading List : Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac. Here you are, Tony, Balzac is waiting for you!

For Himadri, from The Argumentative Old Git: Novel With Cocaine by M. Agueev. Some said it was written by Nabokov. Give us your opinion about that.

For Brian, from Babbling Books: Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson. Historical and thought-provoking; it sounded right in your alley.

For Stu, from Winston’s Dad Blog : The Pets by Bragi Olafsson Funny and non-English, isn’t it the definition of great book for you?

For Sue, from Whispering Gums: Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar

We’ll be checking out your blogs to read the reviews but it’s nice if you leave a link here, in the comments. As mentioned in our previous entry, we also picked two books for Tom, from A Common Reader and they are:

  • A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée
  • The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante.

We’ve also picked two books for Leroy, who doesn’t have a blog (yet?) but will review the books anyway and I’ll publish his thoughts as guest posts here. It was tricky to find ideas, I realize I’m blind without a blog to refer to and also because Leroy is really well read. So, I hope you haven’t read these two ones, Leroy, and that you will enjoy them:

  • In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson. It’s on Max’s best reads of the year and it will be on mine too.
  • The Chatelet Apprentice: The First Nicolas Le Floch Investigation by Jean-Francois Parot. It’s crime fiction in Paris in the 18th century. Refreshing and entertaining.

Don’t forget to send me you reviews for publication!

Last but not least, I picked two books for Guy. Thanks Guy for sharing the organization of this little literary event with me, many thanks for all the comments you left, for the support and exchanges along the year. You almost got your first Romain Gary this year. I was about to give you White Dog because it has lots of things you’d enjoy (A dog, L.A. and cinema, first hand info on the Black Panthers and their movement.), but I wasn’t sure of the translation; I thought it might have been bowdlerized for the American public. So, I went for two books you’ve heard of but haven’t read:

  • Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac. A new film version with Audrey Tautou has just been released. As you’re fond of watching films versions of books, I thought you’d enjoy this one.
  • The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas. She’s someone you’ll like, I think. And it’s the first one of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg, so if you like her, there’s more for you to enjoy later.

That’s all, folks! I had fun with this event. I’m curious to find out what you chose for each other and I’m looking forward to reading the reviews in 2013. I hope you’ll enjoy your gifts, that you’ll discover new writers. Now I’m curious to discover what my virtual gifts are!

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