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The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block – libraire and gentleman burglar

January 10, 2021 15 comments

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block. (2013) French title: Le voleur qui comptait les cuillères. Translated by Mona de Pracontal.

This is an impulse purchase from my last visit to a bookstore before Christmas. I’d never heard of Lawrence Block but the cover of the book winked at me and who doesn’t want to read a crime fiction book whose main character is a libraire/gentleman burglar?

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a bookseller in Manhattan. His life is split between running the shop, having lunches and drinks with his best friend Carolyn and breaking and entering into buildings at night upon clients’ stealing orders. In The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, a Mr Smith wants him to sneak an original copy of Fitzgerald’s short-story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button out the Galtonbrook Museum. Then Mr Smith wants a spoon with a portrait of Button Gwinnett who signed the United States Declaration of Independence for the state of Georgia. So, our Mr Smith is obsessed with buttons…

Meanwhile, Mrs Ostermaier is found dead in her brownstone. It looks like a burglar was disturbed by Mrs Ostermaier coming back early from her opera night. Ray, a police officer from the NYPD pays a visit to Bernie. He knows about his illegal occupations although Bernie swears that he has retired from burglaries. Ray takes Bernie to the crime scene to have a reformed burglar’s opinion. Bernie thinks that the theft is a smoke screen and that Mrs Ostermaier was murdered before the place was turned upside down to make it look like breaking and entering.

Block mixes two plot threads, the one about Mr Smith and his button collection and the one about Mrs Ostermeir’s death. Bernie and his sidekick Carolyn act as unofficial NYPD investigators. Lots of things are illegal and unorthodox in the story. Bernie gathers evidence with his burglar skills, looks closer into Mr Smith and Block dares to write a grand finale à la Poirot.

This is a gourmet and light crime fiction book. The dialogues are witty and laced with bookish and historical references or explanations. Bernie is erudite and he shares freely with the reader. The minor characters are well-drawn, even Bernie’s cat, Raffles. When she’s not involved in Bernie’s shenanigans Carolyn works at Poodle Factory and their friendship is a highlight of the book, with their daily drinks at the Bum Rap, their sleepover nights and confidences about their respective love lives. The clients of the bookstore add to the fun and New York itself is a presence in the novel.

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons is the 11th book of the Rhodenbarr series. Block is a prolific writer, with four different series: Matt Scudder, PI in New York, Bernie Rhodenbarr, libraire extraordinaire, Evan Tanner, secret agent and Keller, hitman. He has written under several pennames in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly books without recurring characters.

I enjoyed The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons and I recommend this series as lighthearted crime fiction, one of those books you read for entertainment, to cleanse your palate after a tough read or spend a few hours in oblivion, away from the news. I’d like to read more books by Lawrence Block but there are so many of them that a little help picking the good ones is welcome.

PS : The pink cover is the original edition. What was the publisher thinking? Self-sabotaging the book to have a tax write-off?

A New-York Christmas by Anne Perry

January 17, 2017 6 comments

A New York Christmas by Anne Perry (2014) French title: Un Noël à New York. Translated by Pascale Haas.

perry_christmasSomething strange happens with recurring characters of crime fiction series. They become like long term colleagues or distant relatives. You see them getting married or divorced, become parents, have their children grow up and sometimes become grand-parents. You hear or see of their family. All this procures a sense of closeness, as if these characters were real, as if reading a new volume of the series was a mean to keep in touch with them. Isn’t that powerful of a writer to create such a bond between their readers and their characters?

That’s exactly how I feel about the characters of Anne Perry’s two series, the William Monk one and the Thomas Pitt one. A New York Christmas is a side volume of the Thomas Pitt series. It features his daughter Jemima, whose birth I remember from an early volume of the series. And my thought was “Wow, Jemima is already 23, I remember of her when she was born and when she was a child.” See? Exactly like friends or relatives you don’t see very often and it seems like their children grew up overnight when in truth you’re just getting older.

perry_noelWell, we’re in 1904 and Jemima Pitt is now 23. She’s chaperoning a young bride, Delphinia on her trip from London to New York, where her fiancé is waiting for them. Delphinia will marry Brent Albright, a rich young man who belongs to a powerful family from New York. Delphinia’s father couldn’t accompany her for health reasons and her mother left them when she was a little girl. When Jemima and Delphinia arrive to New York, Brent’s older brother Harley embarks Jemima in an odd mission. He has heard that Delphinia’s mother was in town and they need to find her before she crashes the wedding ceremony and embarrasses her daughter and her future in-laws. But Jemima senses there’s more to the story of Delphinia’s mother than just someone who abandoned her child. Where is she and what were her reasons to leave everything behind?

For those who’s never read the Pitt series, you need to know that Thomas Pitt is a policeman who was educated as a gentleman and who married in a higher social class than his. Charlotte married him against her parents’ wishes. She was a feisty young woman who wouldn’t play by good society’s rules and wanted to use her brains. She is fascinated by her husband’s job and she always gets involved in her husband’s investigations, going to places a policeman couldn’t go. Jemima is her parents’ daughter, ie, she’s thrilled to help solving a little mystery.

Unfortunately, she’s not as savvy as she thinks and Harley might have ulterior motives…And that’s all I will tell you about the plot.

Let’s face it, it’s not the novella of the century but I still enjoyed it. I read it as quickly as you watch an entertaining film. It was what I was looking for when I picked it up and it met my expectations. Given the ending, I wonder if there will be a third series with a spinoff of the Pitt branch in New York. It might be nice to have a new source of comfort read.

PS: I put the two covers from the English and the French editions. They are not the same but look alike.

Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld

January 14, 2017 12 comments

Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld (2011) French title: Triburbia. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

greenfeld_triburbiaTriburbia relates the quotidian of a group of fathers in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, New York. Tribeca was an industrial neighborhood until the 1970s. In the 1980s, artists started to live in lofts in this area as the rents were cheap. It then became a trendy place where a lot of influential people live.

Triburbia is a mosaic of stories about self-analysis, marriages and children, a sort of chick lit told from a male point of view. These fathers are writer, sound engineer, gangster, photographer, … Not blue collar, not white collar either, part of an undefined class I’ll call artistic. These men have jobs with flexible hours and meet for breakfast in a café after dropping the children to school. That’s how they met, actually, through their offspring going to the same school.

They all arrived in Tribeca before it was trendy and witnessed the gentrification of the neighborhood. They have the classic angst seen in chick lit: how’s my marriage doing? Shall cheat with M. X’s wife? How are my children compared to others? Am I getting old? Am I successful? Where did my dream go? They’re as vapid as the characters of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson.

What makes a big difference with chick lit though, is Greenfeld’s style. I read him in French, so I don’t have quotes but he has a knack for colorful and humorous descriptions. If you want to discover his style, have a look at Guy’s review, here.

Although Greenfeld gives a good picture of the gentrification process of Tribeca but I couldn’t muster a lot of interest for these self-absorbed men, their snotty daughters or their wives. They have unconventional professions, crave for success and despise people who have regular jobs, especially bankers, accountants and the like. (We’re in Manhattan, remember, so high paying job often involve working in the finance industry) Finance is too grown-up, not glamorous enough. I found them judgmental, snobbish and shallow. Having children is not a good enough reason to stop smoking pot or behaving like teenagers.

The book is divided in chapters whose titles are the address of the character who stars in it. It is a way to show how snobbish people are, the location of your loft matters. We discover this little microcosm, how people are linked to one another. The characters pop up from one chapter to the other as the reader makes the links between the members of this tribe. They are under pressure to be rich with an artistic job, which isn’t easy to achieve. These men don’t admire Hemingway and his Moveable Feast. They have no admiration for filthy poor but underestimated artists, they only have admiration for artists who are as rich as a hedge fund managers. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it: the liberty to create with the financial wealth of a yuppie job.

In the end, this milieu is as codified and rigid as the bourgeoisie. The codes are different, that’s all. You must be rich but appear not to care about money. You must live as if common rules didn’t apply to you: it’s not a big deal if the children are late to school, or if you do drugs. You must live in a loft. They are supposed to be free of social codes but they just created new ones, the live-as-a-cool-and-successful-artistic-family code. The biggest difference with their bourgeois counterparts is that they don’t have trophy wives. These men have married women with successful careers, women who didn’t give up their jobs when their first child was born to become stay-at-home mothers and PTA wonders.

This Tribeca tribe questions their life choices and for the most, their career happened by chance. They had an opportunity, they seized it or drifted from their original dream to something else. They cheat on their partner but don’t necessary want a divorce. They realize that their couple may not be so great, that their family might be a façade. To me, they looked like a team of immature Peter Pans who think they are superior to others but have the same mid-life crisis as anyone.

Triburbia has good critics but I thought it was as futile as its characters. I always have trouble sympathizing with self-indulgent trendy-lefties who look down on non-artistic people. It’s a form of haughtiness that is not becoming. The gentrification process of the neighborhood was interesting to follow, as traditional shops are pushed to close or move out as rents increase. Greenfeld’s writing is the redeeming quality of the novel. He really nailed Tribeca’s inhabitants with a great sense of humor.

Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella

November 26, 2016 12 comments

Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. (2001) Not available in French.

“Diane thinks it’s a mid-life crisis,” Eddie said. “At least that’s what her therapist tells her. I can hardly tell anymore who’s doing the talking, whether it’s Diane or her therapist.” “Maybe it is a mid-life crisis,” Tommy said. “I admire you for having one. Guy like me, in the shape I’m in now, I can’t afford to have a mid-life crisis.”

stella_eddie_worldEddie Senta has a problem: he’s married to a successful corporate executive, Diane, whose biological clock is ticking. She wants a baby and Eddie, who already has a son from his first marriage, doesn’t want another kid. Diane keeps badgering him with motherhood and Eddie keeps resisting. On top of his problems at home, he’s questioning his professional future. Eddie leads a double professional life. By day, he works as a temp in offices to input data in IT systems. It’s a tedious job but he’s a model employee and temp agencies find him jobs regularly. By night, he breaks into office buildings to find cash and steal computers. His day-job is a smoke screen for his nightly activities and money wise the jobs complement each other. The days are dull but the nights provide the thrill he craves for.

But now, Eddie seriously thinks of quitting his work with the mob to please his wife and be a better role model for his son. The thrill of his illegal activities has also worn off. However, he wants to do a last score before explaining that he’s ready to leave this world. His friend Sarah has given him inside information about her office and the gold that her bosses keep there. She was assaulted by her boss and wants out. Eddie hesitates, his gut feeling says that this job might be dangerous. So here he is in a bar with his friend Tommy, who’s supposed to give him a hand with the job:

I’m waiting for a vote of confidence. Something to tell me to go for it.” “Like a sign from God or something?” Eddie shrugged. “Something like that.” “Because I do a mean Charlton Heston as Moses,” Tommy said. “You ever see me do that one?” He sucked in some air, furrowed his eyebrows and spoke in a deep Charlton Heston-like voice. “I am the Lord thy God. Go for it.” “Heston played Moses,” Eddie reminded him. “How about a voice in the night then? Because if that’s all you need, you got it right here. I’m not God or nothing. Let’s face it; I’m a nobody. But it is dark outside, and I do have a voice. I can sure use something right about now, if that counts for anything. I’m a guy in need of miracles. Trust me.”

Tommy is not the brightest bulb in the set and Eddie knows it. They’ve been friends since childhood and Eddie’s nothing but loyal. They both need the money and Eddie wants to help Sarah. They eventually go for it and find themselves involved in murders. Both the NYPD and FBI are investigating. Eddie’s world might collapse like a house of cards.

Eddie’s World mixes noir and mid-life crisis problems. It’s a daring move but it works, mostly because the humorous style ties the two plot strands together. We follow the murder case and wonder how things will turn out for Eddie. The crime fiction strand is well conducted and plausible. It follows the codes of noir: a man who goes for easy money and is confronted with something bigger than what he can manage. He feels that things could go wrong but a woman’s interests make him go for it anyway. The mob is involved, as is the FBI and the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Sometimes the FBI finds it convenient to forget moral rules. Sometimes the mob is more decent than expected.

And besides the crime strand, we have the mid-life crisis strand. We learn about Eddie’s qualms. Quitting his night job isn’t an easy decision to make because he doesn’t know if he’ll fit in his day work’s world.

“And maybe I can’t fit into one or the other,” Eddie said. “I can’t give up the street stuff and do what my wife wants, which is to play ball with the office world, get a steady computer job, and take the Long Island Railroad every morning. And I can’t see myself running coffee errands for wiseguys I don’t respect. What’s that, like lost in the middle someplace? Definitely lost.”

His head is full of questions. Am I ready to settle with a normal life? How can I be a better father? Is my marriage salvageable? Do I want to make this marriage work? His hesitations could cost him more than what he bargained for.

Eddie’s World is good entertainment. I read  it thanks to Guy who reviewed it and gave it to me. Thanks Guy!

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin – A must-read

July 26, 2015 27 comments

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) French title: Face à l’homme blanc.

book_club_2For July, our Book Club had picked a collection of eight short stories by James Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man. Written between 1948 and 1965, these short stories were first published in magazines and totally blew me away. This is going to be one of my best reads for 2015. For those who wouldn’t know, James Baldwin is an African-American writer, born in Harlem in 1924. He was gay and struggled with the two prejudices of being black and gay in America. He left New York in 1948, settled in Paris and spent most of his later life in France. It’s important to know these biographical elements to understand his short stories. Here’s the list of the stories.

  • The Rockpile
  • The Outing
  • The Man child
  • Previous Condition
  • Sonny’s Blues
  • This Morning, This Evening, So Soon
  • Come Out the Wilderness
  • Going to Meet the Man

The Rockpile and The Outing feature the same characters, young black men in Harlem at the end of the 1940s. They show the life of the black community in Harlem, the codes, the importance of religion. If you’ve ever attended a service in Harlem or read a book by Chester Himes, this will ring a bell. Baldwin gives such a vivid picture of his neighborhood and of the complexity of being homosexual in this context.

After a moment, Johnnie moved and put his head on David’s shoulder. David put his arms around him. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened.

All the stories give us an insight of what it was to be black in America in that time. Some are set in the South, some in New York and one in Paris. This Morning, This Evening, So Soon is the most powerful story of the collection as it encapsulates all the others and dissects the condition of Afro-Americans. In this story, the narrator is black, American, from Harlem, living in Paris and on the verge of going home. He’s a successful singer, he’s married to a Swedish woman, Harriet and they have a son together, Paul. Baldwin uses the French word to describe Paul, he’s a métis, which means mixed-race.

It’s their last moments in Paris and the narrator is worried and wary. He remembers how life was for him back home and he’s afraid to go back. He’s been living in Paris for twelve years and he fears that he’s forgotten to behave like a black man in front of Whites in America. He explains that twelve years in Paris have liberated him from the ingrained attitude he used to take in front of a White. When his sister comes to Paris and gets acquainted with Harriet, it’s the first time she can speak to a white woman as her equal. He describes the proper attitude to have to stay out of trouble: a white person expects a Black to be stupid and respond with obsequiousness. Any attitude out of this line might be perceived as rebellious and the consequences of rebellion are too hard to tempt fate and not comply. Our narrator isn’t sure he can pull off the right attitude anymore.

In several stories, Baldwin also describes love relationships between Blacks and Whites and the prejudices attached to them. White men have preconceived ideas of black women: they don’t respect them and there’s this presumption of them being slutty. Black women may be tempted to date a white guy to climb the social ladder faster but it has a cost. The other way round, white women who would marry a black man have a tough life because it’s seen as degrading. In This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, the narrator is worried for his white wife Harriet. He wonders if she’ll be exposed to harsh racism for marrying him. They’ve lived peacefully in Paris, she doesn’t know what life will be in the USA.

The stories go from 1948 to 1965. The first stories are full of resignation. They show the discrimination against Blacks in housing, at work and the difficulty to step out of the comfort of Harlem. The black outsiders, the ones who try to make their life among the Whites are in survival mode and never really fit in. The last story, Going to Meet the Man was published in 1965. The fight for civil rights is ongoing and the Blacks stop submitting to fate. With this short story, we spend an uncomfortable time in the mind of a white policeman in a state of the Deep South. The Blacks are fighting for their rights; he starts having insomnia. He has more and more difficulty witnessing atrocities and taking part to the repression. Through him, we saw how racism is embedded in his mind since childhood.

Baldwin_Going_ManJames Baldwin describes people who live on edge. They live in fear. They are afraid of white people, of having the wrong attitude, of being seen as antagonistic in spite of them. In their mind eye, they constantly look over their shoulder, it’s like an instinct for survival. They have the impression that they live at the Whites’ mercy, that the law isn’t on their side. It’s like living in a dictatorship where the arbitrary is king. And yet, he’s not angry or rebellious. He’s analyzing with incredible lucidity and precision the damages done by racism on a psyche. The characters aren’t free. They are not free of being themselves when they go out of their neighborhood; they have to control themselves to fit in; they live with a strong and rooted fear. I’m white. I’ve never read any writer who could make you understand and feel so well what it is to be victim of racism and how deeply it affects the soul of the persons who are ostracized for the color of their skin.

Baldwin has a knack for psychological insight. He x-rays the black psyche and he manages to bring it to the reader, to make them see through other people’s eyes. I understood why James Brown’s singing Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud was a strong message. That is an accomplishment in itself. It is associated with a sensible analysis of the American and French societies and with a strong sense of place. Paris comes to life like in a book by René Fallet and New York is stunning as in Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos.

Blocks and squares and exclamation marks, stone and steel and glass as far as the eye could see; everything towering, lifting itself against though by no means into, heaven. The people, so surrounded by heights that they had lost any sense of what heights were, rather resembled, nevertheless, these gray rigidities and also resembled, in their frantic motion, people fleeing a burning town.

The factual and moving description of the indelible marks that racism carves on someone’s soul will certainly stay with me. It is set in the USA and it is about African-Americans. But France doesn’t have a spotless record. The narrator of This Morning, This Evening, So Soon who lives in Paris says that the North-Africans immigrants are his kindred spirits. And he was right at the time (1960, in the middle of the war in Algeria) and unfortunately, he would be right today. Because, let’s face it, Islamic terrorism feeds the temptation to condemn someone on their “Arabic” looks. Because the police control you more often when your face says your family has roots in North Africa. Because the frequency of these controls leave permanent damages on someone’s identity. Because snide comments of ordinary racism you hear in the office, in your friend or family circle sometimes or on the streets are like a rampant disease, ready to spread further. And let’s not forget how hard it is for Christiane Taubira to be a black and female minister of justice.

I think Going to Meet the Man is a must-read for white American readers. It is also a must-read for white Europeans. We all need to face our history and our everyday life attitude.

If you’re not convinced yet that it’s worth breaking a #TBR20 oath, here’s a last quote, a taste of Baldwin’s marvelous style. It’s about jazz music.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order in it as it hits the air. What is evoked on him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

They Read That Post And Rush To The Nearest Bookstore To Buy The Book

July 17, 2014 24 comments

The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle. 1989. French title: Midnight Examiner.

A long rectangular plaque on my desk bore my name, HOWARD HALLIDAY, lest I forget it amidst the many identities I assumed from week to week; since, as an economy measure, we never purchased outside material from anyone, our small staff had to write everything, and we all had many names, sometimes we even had the same names, but lately we’d tried to coordinate. I’d assigned each of us one letter of the alphabet from which to choose our noms de plume, and so far this month I’d been Howard Haggerd Halberd Hammertoe Harm Habana Hades Halston Handy Harley Hamon Heman Hence Hardman Hardon.

KotzwinklePlease Ladies and gentlemen, meet with Howard, our narrator. He’s the chief editor of Macho Man, Bottoms and Knockers. He works for the trashy Chameleon Publications which has a classy portfolio of papers and magazines also named The Midnight Examiner, Ladies Own Monthly, Young Nurses Romance, My Confession, Brides Tell All, Beauty Secrets, Prophecy, Real Detective and Teen Idol. As you can see, they cover the whole spectrum of gutter press from crime to teen angst through romance and beauty tricks.

Their publisher, Nathan Feingold loves to play with his blowgun so much that nobody dares to enter his office until sure that the coast is clear. After all, he shoots poisonous darts. Fernando, the art director paints bikinis on pictures before publication, to differentiate Bottoms and Knockers from the competition: no way they’re selling nude bodies. Hip O’Hopp is the editor of The Midnight Examiner and showers his colleagues with improbable writing requests such as “Can you do a story for me about a woman who gives birth to puppies?” The other editors there are Hattie Flyer, in charge of romance orientated titles and Amber Adams, specialised in beauty topics, Celia Lyndhurst the writer of detective stories. The team wouldn’t be full without Siggy Blomberg, the publicist; he sells advertising space in the papers and always ends up with dubious ads about expending your breasts or other magical creams and utensils. And let’s not talk about the lengths he has to go to collect the payment of the ads from shady companies. They’re a crazy bunch breathing trash articles all the time and it shows in Kotwinkle’s style as they spout crazy headlines at Mach speed like Our Sister Has Two Heads But We Love Her.

That’s for the crazy environment. At the beginning of the book, they hire a new editor, Mr Crumpaker who will be in charge of Nathan’s new project, a religious paper named Prophecy. The job interview is absolutely hilarious. Things move to full speed when Mitzi Mouse, one of Chameleon Publications’ models, shoots at a guy from the mafia, Tony Baloney. She has now the bad guys after her and the whole team with stick together and help her.

It’s a fast pace road trip in a New York cab and a track race against the bad guys. And I will say no more.

The Midnight Examiner doesn’t have a strong plot but what a fun read! It’s a light read as I love them: well-written, full of quirky characters and a page turner. Chameleon Publications is quite a circus and a lot of the fun comes from the description of the daily job of these “journalists”. Howard has a crazy sense of humour and I’ll let you discover by yourselves what kind of unbelievable weapons they picked to fight against gangsters. I was about to tag it in the Literary UFO category when I realised how apt it is for the author of…E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Rush to the nearest bookstore, buy it and have fun.

PS: In French, a headline is a manchette.

New York, New York

July 6, 2014 33 comments

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. 1925 Translated into French by Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.

Dos_Passos_Manhattan_TransferI loved Manhattan Transfer. It’s a gorgeous, unusual piece of literature. Dos Passos portrays New York from around 1900 till 1925. He uses the interwoven lives of a series of characters to do so, but the real star of the book is New York. I didn’t try to read Manhattan Transfer in English, I already had an old copy in French at home. It was a wise decision, I doubt I’m able to read that kind of novel in the original. The problem now is that I don’t have quotes unless they come from the first pages of the books, the ones available as sample on Amazon. It’s really frustrating as the prose is gorgeous and the snapshots of the city extraordinary.

I don’t know how to write about Manhattan Transfer, to make you want to read it right away. I could pick one character or the other and tell you about them. It wouldn’t be enough and it wouldn’t do justice to the book. Dos Passos takes us through a gallery of characters and lives. They get lucky and rich. They had the financial world in their hands and lost their magic. They’re struggling journalists, party boys in the bubbling 1920s, simple employees, actresses, hobos and drunkards. They’re immigrants, workers going on strike, or waiters. You could see it as a journey in a maze but I didn’t. Reading this is like spending an evening flipping through channels on TV and picking five minutes of a program here and there, switching from one to the other, not exactly following thoroughly any of them but grasping enough of the content to understand the main thread. More importantly, these characters are New York’s inhabitants. They give the city its soul, its liveliness, its backbone. We follow them and explore the city with its parks, avenues, harbour, and theatres. We see the glitter and the dark places. We see the shops, the milkman, the cafés and the fancy hotels. We feel the energy, the bustle on sidewalks, the lines of cabs, the traffic and we hear the noise. We hop on the highline, on trains and on ferries. We see the impact of its unique architecture on the atmosphere, the way it plays with the light on the streets. We stroll in Central Park, visit Broadway, linger in Battery Park. Each chapter of the book starts with a vignette about New York. This is the one of the second chapter, Metropolis

There were Babylon and Nineveh; they were built of brick. Athens was gold marble colums. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Golden Horn…Steel, glass, tile, concrete will be the material of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the millionwindowed buildinigs will jut glittering, pyramid on pyramid like the white cloudhead above a thunderstorm.

The descriptions of the city are marvellous. Dos Passos is like a painter who’d use words instead of brushes. I’ve been to New York a couple of months ago and I’m so glad I read Manhattan Transfer after this trip, while I had the geography in mind, while the images were fresh in my mind. Dos Passos captures the essence of the city. In New York, sometimes buildings seem to have been thrown together by a playful giant. There’s no unity in height, size or materials. Skyscrapers can be neighbours with a church. I was surprised that the DNA of the 21st century city was already there at the beginning of the 20th century. Employees already had lunch in the cemetery in the financial district and lawyers were already suggesting victims to sue companies after an accident and they were already getting paid in percentage of the settlement they’d get. The moments we pick in the characters lives tell us about the society they live in: their vision of marriage, their ambitions, their reaction to WWI, the strikes and the arrival of prohibition. It’s consistent with Fitzgerald’s Tales From the Jazz Age. (highly recommended, btw)

I’m not going to discuss the place of Manhattan Transfer in the history of literature. I know it’s a modernist novel, it uses the stream-of-consciousness method (although I don’t understand where) but I’m not qualified to start a discussion about this. What will stay with me is how the little vignettes, the descriptions of fleeting moments and the characters bring New York to life.

Here’s another review by James at The Frugal Chariot and an excellent one by Max here at Pechorin’s Journal

No French toast from me to Breakfast at Tiffany’s

May 24, 2014 29 comments

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. 1958. French title: Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany.

Our Book Club picked two books for May, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. I’ve finished Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a collection composed of a novella and three short stories.

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • House of Flowers
  • A Diamond Guitar
  • A Christmas Memory.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisBreakfast at Tiffany’s is the novella and most famous story of the collection. We’re in 1943, in New York and “Fred” is our narrator. He lives in the East Seventies and Holly Golightly is one of the tenants in the same brownstone. She names him Fred after her beloved brother and we will not know his real name. Fred is an aspiring writer and he’s soon fascinated by Holly. She’s 18 or 19 and she’s a free mind. She smokes, drinks and has a liberated sex life. She doesn’t work but wants to live the good life; breakfast at Tiffany’s is her dream. Her life is made of men, partying and strange visits to prison. Fred is her friend and nothing more and he loves to gravitate around her colourful friends and live vicariously through her. That’s for an overview of the plot.

I didn’t like this novella very much. Part of it is due to the poor French translation I read and I’ve already discussed it in My recent bad luck with translations. But more importantly, I was disappointed. I haven’t seen the film and didn’t know anything about the plot but the cover of the book is misleading. They look more like James Bond and one of his girls than like a poor lost girl playing socialite and befriending a pathetic aspiring writer, don’t they? To be honest, I’m a bit fed up with men fawning on eccentric women and women playing the eccentric to have men at their feet. Holly is a fake and the men around her totally buy it. They have no spine and behave like love-sick puppies. Even years after her disappearance from their life, the narrator and his barman friend Joe Bell still think about her and would run to the other side of the world if they could locate her. Of course, Holly is pretty, that’s a prerequisite since only pretty women can afford her brand of behaviour. Capote attempts to give Holly a bit of substance with her unusual past. He tries to instil fragility in her character but I still found her vapid. She’s partying, flirting and surviving on men while Fred plays the gentleman and in a way slips into the role of the older brother that his adopted name designated for him. In a nutshell, the characters seemed a bit too clichéd for my taste.

I liked the three short-stories a lot more and the translation was not as flawed as the one of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the same translator though. Perhaps by the time I reached the short stories I had gained a virtual armour against translation hazards. The three stories are very different from one another. House of Flowers is located in Haiti and relates the fate of a prostitute who leaves her brothel to get married. A Diamond Guitar is about Mr Schaeffer who’s serving a life-sentence in a prison-farm. He has found his routine in prison and it is disturbed by the arrival of a fellow prisoner from Cuba, Tico Feo. He has a guitar and Mr Schaeffer is drawn to his personality. What consequences will it have? In A Christmas Memory, a man describes his last Christmas with an older relative. He was seven, she was over sixty and they were friends. They always baked specific cakes for Christmas together and he remembers the process of this special baking day. These three stories were original in their themes and their characters and the last one was really lovely.

That said, I’m far from enraptured by this book and I’m now joining Ernest Hemingway in Paris with A Moveable Feast. I hope it will turn out in a reading feast.

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