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Killers of the Flower Moon. The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. – Made into a film by Martin Scorsese.

May 24, 2023 8 comments

Killers of the Flower Moon. The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017) French title: La note américaine. Translated by Cyril Gay.

My sister-in-law and I had put on Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann in our list of books for our yearlong readalong. And now that I’ve just read it, it’s all in the media everywhere since Martin Scorsese made it into a film with Leonardo di Caprio and Robert de Niro. After reading the book, I think it is the right director and the right cast for this film.

So, what’s it about? We’re here in an astonishing case of reality defeats fiction. With flying colors.

In the early 1970s, the Osage had been driven from their lands in Kansas onto a rocky, presumably worthless reservation in the northeastern Oklahoma, only to discover, decades later, that this land was sitting above some of the largest oil deposits in the United States. To obtain that oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage for leases and royalties. In the early twentieth century, each person on the tribal roll began receiving a quarterly check. The amount was initially for only a few dollars, but over time, as more oil was tapped, the dividends grew into the hundreds, then the thousands. And virtually, every year the payments increased, like the prairie creeks that join to form the wide, muddy Cimarron, until the tribe members had collectively accumulated millions and millions of dollars. (In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million, the equivalent today of more than $400 million.) The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.

I’d never heard of the oil boom in the Osage reservation in Oklahoma in the 1920s.

The book opens with Mollie Burkhart’s story. She’s an Osage lady happily married to Ernest Burkhart, a white man. Burkhart is one of William Hale’s nephews and he works for him.

William Hale was a powerful businessman in the Osage county, an advocate for law and order, a friend of the local politicians and many considered him as a great benefactor of the Osage county. The kind who has his fingers in many pies and knows how to make and break politicians’, judges’ and sheriffs’ careers. Since all these people are elected by people who can be influenced, it’s better not to ruffle Hale’s feathers.

Mollie is on the tribe roll, which means that she receives checks from the oil royalties and that she’s rich. In May 21st, 1921, Mollie’s sister Anna disappears and her body is found murdered. Another Osage, Charles Whitehorn, is murdered at the same time. Of course, the authorities aren’t really bothered by the violent death of two Indians.

Mollie has money and she hires private investigators to discover who murdered her sister. As the number of murders increases and the local sheriffs don’t make any progress, the young and ambitious John Edgar Hoover sends his agent Tom White on location. He’s to hire a team and find out who the murdered is.

This investigation is the golden opportunity that Hoover was waiting for to push for the creation of what is now known as the FBI.

Killers of the Flower Moon is an outstanding book. David Grann writes the stunning story of the Osage murders in this county. He writes his book as if it were crime fiction, only this time, everything is true and documented.

David Grann is a talented journalist who did thorough research. The chapters are gripping and I was is totally caught into the investigation. Violence, corruption, greed, ambition, he shows an Oklahoma rotten to the core. White people would do anything to con the Indians, to put their hands on their lands, their money and deprive them of everything.

The other side of the book is about the birth of the FBI, the beginning of Hoover’s power in Washington. And we know how powerful he became and what he made of his agency.

I won’t tell much about what happened back then because I don’t want to spoil your reading. I knew nothing about this piece of American history and I was hooked from the first chapter.

I was is aware of all the research involved and yet it didn’t feel like an essay. The book includes pictures of the main protagonists and seeing their faces and their families made this awful story even more upsetting. The things we humans are able to do to other humans for money will never ceaze to amaze me.

Grann illustrates perfectly how his country was built on violence, greed and thirst for fame and money and how its institutions were faulty from the start. It also shows the constant actions aimed at destroying the native peoples of the country. It makes me wonder how close we are to the definition of crime against humanity.

I am very impatient to watch Scorsese’s film. Until it is released, I really, really recommend David Grann’s book as it is brilliant, informative, and suspenseful. A fascinating read.

Proust reads and reading Proust

November 20, 2022 18 comments

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (1905) Original French title: Sur la lecture. Suivi de Journées de lecture.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (1931) French title: Proust. Translated by Edith Fournier.

Proust died on November 18th, 1922. The centenary of his death has been celebrated here with books, TV specials, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, exhibitions and so on. I meant to publish this billet on November 18th but life got in the way.

Days of Reading is a short essay by Proust, where he muses over the pleasure and the experience of reading.

As often, Proust shows his talent for a catching incipit.

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all:the days we spent with a favorite book. Translation by John Sturrock.

In the subsequent pages, he remembers the glorious hours he spent with books as a child. He wanted to be left alone with his books and not do anything else. I can relate to that.

His thoughts about finishing a book, the fact that we leave the characters on the last page to never “see” them again is relatable too. Who has never reached the end of a book thinking “That’s all? What will become of them now?”. He muses over our relationship with books, our connection to writers and how they lead us to beauty and intelligence. La lecture est une amitié, he says. And yes, reading is a friendship with books, authors and imaginary worlds.

While Proust talks about his love for reading in Days of Reading, Beckett writes about his response to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Beckett wrote Proust, his essay about In Search of Lost Time, in 1931, when he was only 25. Time Regained had only been published four years before in 1927. Beckett was an earlier adopter of Proust and it says something about his ability to understand modern literature and spot a breakthrough in literature, even if Proust wasn’t taken so seriously at the time.

Proust is not an academic essay, it’s the brilliant review of a book through the eyes a passionate reader. Beckett shares his experience with reading Proust and displays a deep knowledge of Proust’s work.

He gives very detailed and precise examples – he quotes from memory, a nightmare for the French translator of his essay because she needed to find the actual quotes in French…He shows a profound understanding of what Proust intended to do with his work and he was ahead of his time.

Beckett goes through all of Proust’s favourite themes: the force of habit, the importance of a setting, his fascination for the Guermantes, his passion for art (literature, painting, opera, music, theatre and architecture.) He has valid points about the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator.

And then come thoughts about memory, remembrance and our thought process. He gives his perception of how memories are triggered by sensations.

Proust is an impressive review of Proust’s masterpiece and it’s a tribute to Beckett’s intelligence as much as an ode to Proust. It’s an excellent companion book for any reader of La Recherche, as we have nicknamed In Search of Lost Time in French.

Proust reads and Beckett reads Proust. I missed the actual day of the centenary of Proust’s death but still decided to bake madeleines to celebrate this anniversary.

Contemporary and opposite essays : The Painter of Modern Life by Baudelaire and Walking by Thoreau

November 6, 2022 11 comments

The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire (1863) Original French title: Le peintre de la vie moderne.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (1862) French title: De la marche. Translated by Thierry Gillyboeuf.

I’m still doing The Non-Fiction Reader Challenge and I had picked books from the TBR for it.

Among my choices were The Painter of Modern Life by Charles Baudelaire and Walking by Henry David Thoreau. I had randomly decided to read them in September and October and actually did them within the same week.

Without this timing, I don’t think I would have noticed that these two essays were published at the same time (1862 and 1863) or how opposite they are. I enjoyed both as they each speak to a different part of me. I read Baudelaire, excited about my next visit to Paris and its museums and I started Walking on a picnic break while hiking in the Estérel mountains.

Thoreau and Baudelaire were contemporaries but, according to their bios, couldn’t be more different. A nature lover vs a city-dweller. An American for whom civilization meant England vs a Frenchman. A man who lived in a cabin in the woods vs a dandy.

The Painter of Modern Life is a collection of essays about Baudelaire’s vision of art and Beauty.

He sees Beauty in art and here, he writes specifically about painting. He was an art critic, went to painting Salons and was deeply involved in the contemporary art world.

Baudelaire rejects the official art, what we call in French l’art pompier. Baudelaire argues that contemporary paintings shouldn’t picture Ancient Rome or Greece sceneries like Ingres but real life. He’s anti-Ingres and his Illness of Antiochus. Classic story, Ancient temple and clothes, you see the drift.

He says that what we consider classics now was contemporary art in their time, with their architecture and fashion. These works of arts stayed with us through the centuries because their contemporary side was only half of the artwork. The other half was that universal quality that makes us relate to them now. We see their fashion as historical information and their universal side speaks to us. Their beauty lies in a perfect combination of the two:

La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l’art, dont l’autre moitié est l’éternel et l’immuable.Modernity is made of transitory, of fleetingness and contingency; it’s half of art whose other half is eternity and permanence.

The actual painter of modern life of the title is Constantin Guys whom Baudelaire loved because his art captured the present. He painted what he saw, Paris and its life but also the Crimea War battlefields. Baudelaire uses Guys’ art to write an ode to modernity which consists in urban life, fashion, frivolity, artifice and make up.

Talk about someone totally opposite to a Thoreau who went to live in a cabin in the woods. Can you imagine Baudelaire in Walden? Not really, eh?

In Walking, Thoreau explains how walking is essential to his well-being. If I understood him properly, he tries to keep alive a link between us as part of the natural world and Nature.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Cheeky me immediately thought he wasn’t living in the Louisiana bayou rife with alligators or in the Great Dismal Swamp and its moccasin snakes.

He thinks we forget to turn to Nature as a source of beauty.

While almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to Nature. In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation, as in the case of the animals. How little appreciation of the beauty of the land- scape there is among us!

He wants us to retain our freedom of being, our untamed side and not to yield immediately to human laws. Walking is a way to ground oneself, to think freely, a moment to just be, leave other worldly occupations at rest. Being in communion with Nature is a way to reach a certain state of mind that opens people to their surroundings, to learning new things and simply be curious.

Thoreau sees the source of beauty in Nature while Baudelaire sees it in city life.

In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire explains that we should find beauty in our quotidian and to me, he opens the door to the Impressionist movement. He implies that it is noble to paint ballerinas and guinguettes.

And they will paint cities, their streets, their theatres, their parks and their people. I see paintings by Caillebotte as witnesses of life in the 19th century but I also see the permanence of human condition and that’s a bond between the people on the paintings and me. They reached Baudelaire’s goal to paint their modern life and create universal beauty.

But the Impressionists will also paint a lot outside. They’ll picture gardens in the country, people walking in fields, the light on the sea, the boating and all kind of outdoors activities.

Thoreau died in 1862. He might have enjoyed Monet’s research on light in Impression, soleil levant, in the Nymphéa series or on the Rouen Cathedral series as they capture beauty in the quotidian and in nature. There’s a quest here to paint the quiet beauty of a sunset on the Seine, on the Mediterranean or on the Channel.

I see in Thoreau’s walks a quiet time to refuel on one’s own, something he needed. It’s a way to collect one’s thoughts and be “in the moment”. And Baudelaire seems to praise all activities that will distract one from their thoughts. Thoreau enjoyed being with himself while Baudelaire’s to use modern life to run away from himself. I wonder where a conversation between the two would have taken them.

I think neither disposition is sustainable for the mainstream. Thoreau could afford to walk four hours a day to clear his head and think because he had no family obligations. He only had to earn his keep. Baudelaire could afford his whirlwind and dissolute Parisian life for the same reason.

But the rest of us, we have people who depend on us and jobs to keep. And we refuel as best we can and try to lift our heads from the daily grind and catch a sunset here and there. We steal moments to contemplate beauty in museums and during occasional hikes and live vicariously through Nature Writing books.

And now, with all the attempts at destroying beautiful paintings in the name of Nature, I’ll get Civil Disobedience and read from the source.

Bookstores, publishers and readers – everlasting love

October 31, 2022 14 comments

We, book lovers, are a different species.

We love to read, we love to read about reading, we love to read about people who run bookstores, we love to discover other people’s reading lists, we love to discuss our TBRs and self-imposed book-buying bans, we love to read about publishers, we love to talk about books, we love pictures of bookshelves, we love a good debate about the best way to organize the said bookshelves, we love visiting writers’ houses and we love to read about people going to bookstores.

Let’s own it: to non-readers, we’re weird.

Since I’m a proud card holder of the Weird Club, I had to read Our Riches by Kaouther Adimi – 2017. (Original French title: Nos richesses.)

Kaouther Adimi was born in Algeria in 1986 and she now lives in Paris. Her book Nos richesses has been translated into English under two different titles, Our Riches and A Bookshop in Algiers.

In 1936, Edmond Charlot, a French young man born in Algeria founded the bookshop Les Vraies richesses in downtown Algiers. Kaouther Adimi imagines that in 2017, Ryan, a young man gets an internship in Algiers that consists in tidying this old bookshop to turn it into a sandwich shop. That side of the story wasn’t very interesting: Ryan doesn’t read when he arrives and, no epiphany there, he still doesn’t read when his internship is over.

The most fascinating part of the book is the tribute to Edmond Charlot. This man was an incredible book lover, fostering talents and writers. He knew Albert Camus in Algiers and was his first publisher. He knew Mouloud Feraoun and Jean Giono. He published Albert Cossery and Emmanuel Roblès. He wanted to promote poets and authors from the Mediterranean. He had an incredible career as a libraire and as a publisher.

He was also a resistant, a promoter of literature and books for all, lending the books of his shop to his poorest clients. He published Le silence de la mer by Vercors during the war and L’armée des ombres by Joseph Kessel.

During WWII, he relocated in Paris, becoming a renowned publisher. He was inventive in the publishing industry but he was not a good enough businessman. He struggled with money, with paper procurement and never had enough working capital to weather all his business ups and downs. He went back to Algiers but had to move after Algeria became independent.

We owe him a lot. I’d never heard of him and I’m glad that Kaouther Adimi chose to write about him. It is important to know about men like him, who wanted people to be able to read, who wanted to spread the words of others, who believed in the power of books.

A healthy reminder. Read Lisa’s excellent review here.

The same Weird Club card played a new trick on me and I couldn’t resist buying Eloge des librairies (A Tribute to Bookshops) by Maël Renouard (2022) when I saw it on a display table in a bookstore in Montchat, Lyon.

I could totally relate to his first paragraph:

D’un grand nombre de mes livres, je peux dire, bien des années après, dans quelle librairie je me les suis procurés, et je m’en souviens comme je me souviens de la ville où je me trouvais, du jardin public ou du café où j’allais en lire les premières pages. For a lot of my books, I can tell, even years later, in which bookshop I bought them, and I remember that just as I remember in which city I was, or in which public park or café I went to read their first pages.

I will remember where I bought his book and that I read it in one sitting, during a lazy afternoon on the beach in an incredibly warm October month.

Maël Renouard is about my age and this tribute takes us with him in different cities and different countries, sharing with us his bookshops and book memories.

He mentions San Francisco Book and Co in Paris and this is where I bought Cards on a Table by Agatha Christie for the #1936 Club. It was the only shop open in Paris on this Sunday morning. It was February 2021, we were under COVID rules and we had just driven our daughter to her school in the Paris suburbs. It was eerie, to be in Paris in such circumstance, with empty streets, no noise, no cafés and consequently no toilets.

I’m a reader of fiction, I didn’t go to university to study literature or any “soft science”. I have no culture of academics, nights in libraries or doing research. I don’t know the names of respected historians, linguists, literary critics or sociologists unless they are in mainstream media. So, he lost me when he talks about fantastic discoveries in second-hand bookshops, books for his studies and research. I have no clue how rare or precious these old editions are.

I felt a bit left out and would have wanted to hear more about literature but he still makes me want to visit the bookstores he writes about, especially the ones in Paris and London. Bookstores are the beginning of the relationship with the books we buy there.

I could relate to the passages about holidays, taking a big pile of books, knowing you wouldn’t have time to read them all but needing to have a wide choice on hand, and eventually reading a book you bought on impulse in a local bookstore. I managed to tame this (a bit) with a Kindle, only to end up taking with me a pile of already-read books to catch up with billets…Unless I have restricted luggage due to flights or train travels, I always load a bag of books when I go on holiday.

Eloge des librairies is a lovely book for book lovers and even if Maël Renouard and I don’t read the same kind of books, we still share an infinite love for wandering into bookshops and making a permanent link between a book and the place where we bought it.

Catching up on billets: six in one

July 17, 2022 21 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson – not enough

July 2, 2022 22 comments

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1997) French title: Promenons-nous dans les bois. Translated by Karine Chaunac.

After a few of very busy weeks and weekends, I’m back! I kept on reading, so expect a burst of billets. Let’s start with 20 Books of Summer #1, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

In 1996, Bill Bryson moves back from England to America and settles in New Hampshire with his family. He’s near the Appalachian Trail (AT) and decides that he wants to hike this mythic trail. He starts his journey in Georgia with his old friend Stephen Katz. Both are rather inexperienced hikers, no athletes –Katz is overweight and a recovering alcoholic— and not fully prepared for their travels.

The book is a mix of chapters between their walking, their progression on the trail and how things go.

They’ll hike 870 miles before abandoning their project and it represents around 40% of the entire trail. Chapters alternate between Bryson and Katz’s adventures and facts about the AT, the mountains and the places they go to or through.

It’s readable, informative but quite superficial. In my opinion, Bryson was a bit condescending at times and lacked of self-deprecating humor. He wasn’t always kind to Katz and I found that a bit jarring.

They engage into a project that consists in hiking a long and tough trail for which they are unfit. Unless Bryson downplays his fitness for the sake of the narration. They aren’t trained for that but go for it anyway. I’m torn between awe (How gutsy!) and consternation (How imprudent!)

Each time they are out of the trail, they rush to fast food restaurants to gorge on soda, hamburgers, pies and other junk food. That’s so far away from a usual hiker’s way of life that I didn’t know what to think about this. Typically American? I can’t imagine reading about someone walking the Camino de Santiago and stopping at McDonald’s at any opportunity. Maybe I read too many nature writing books.

A Walk in the Woods was published in 1997 and felt quite dated sometimes. Obviously, there’s the technology part: they do it without GPS or cell phones and the maps they have aren’t always as useful as they should be.

But it is also a book of its time. It was written before climate change really became a hot topic and the awareness about nature wasn’t as important as it is now. Bryson gives information about the trail, the places they go through and describes the landscape but not with the reverence and gratefulness I expected from my 2022 perspective. Again, maybe I read too much nature writing.

But in the last 25 years, at least in France, hiking has developed tremendously. According to a survey ordered by the FFRandonnée (French Federation of Hiking), in 2021, 56% of French people had done at least one hike in the last twelve months. It has become a widespread hobby for people who want to find some quiet time in nature. It’s also linked to a trend to put our foot on the brake of our frantic consumer life. I didn’t find this in Bryson’s book, mostly because it was written in 1997 and we’ve changed since then.

On another aspect, I would have liked more introspection on Bryson’s side. How did this challenge affect him beyond the blisters, the wet clothes and the uncomfortable shelters? What did he get from it besides the satisfaction to deliver a new book to his publisher? One can’t go out of 870 miles of hiking in the woods without soul searching moments.

In other words, I expected more, probably because Pete Fromm and Rick Bass spoilt me with Indian Creek and The Book of Yaak. Now, if you know a book about the Appalachian trail that is closer to these books than to A Walk in the Woods, please leave a comment.

PS : the French title of A Walk in the Woods is Promenons-nous dans les bois.

It means “let’s walk in the woods” and comes from a nursery rhyme that says “Let’s walk in the woods as long as wolves aren’t there because if they were there, they would eat us”. Children stuff is scary, sometimes.

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm – A stay in the Idaho woods

June 5, 2022 17 comments

Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm (1993) French title: Indian Creek. Translated by Denis Lagae-Devoldère.

Pete Fromm was born in 1958 in Wisconsin and Indian Creek Chronicles are the memoir of the winter 1978-1979 that he spent on his own, in a tent in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho. The book opens on his first moments alone in his new lodgings:

Once the game warden left, the little tent we’d set up seemed even smaller. I stood in front of it, shivering at a gust I thought I felt running across my neck. Could this really be my home now? My home for the next seven months? For the entire winter? Alone? I glanced up at the river canyon’s steep, dark walls, already cutting off the mid-afternoon sun. Nothing lay beyond those walls of stone and tree but more of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I was alone, in its very heart.

The shadow of the canyon’s wall fell over me and I hurried away from it, into the sunlight remaining in the meadow. My steps rustled through the knee high grass and the breeze soughed through the towering firs and cedars hemming the small opening. The river’s whispering rush ran through it all, creating an insistent quiet that folded around me like a shroud.

I stopped at the phone pole the warden had said would link me to the outside. Yesterday we’d discovered the phone didn’t work. I picked it up anyway, listening to its blank silence, the voice of the rest of the world. With the receiver still against my ear I turned and looked back at the shadowed tent, far enough away now for perspective.

The canvas walls closed off an area fourteen by sixteen feet. The wardens had told me that, bragging it up, making it sound spacious. On the phone, sitting at a college swimming pool, when I’d been accepting this job, it had sounded palatial.

Fromm explains that he went to the University of Missoula on impulse, after stumbling upon a brochure. He had been camping and hiking with his family but he was not familiar with the West. He read a lot about frontiermen, fur trapper and other mountain men. He knew about Hugh Glass through books like Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred and had loved The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr. He was definitely attracted to life in the woods and solitary exploits.

He was on the swimming team at college and when the program got canceled, he was angry and jumped on the opportunity to take on a job with the Fish and Game department in Idaho. His mission consisted of monitoring salmon eggs during a whole winter for a science experiment.

The mama bear in me had a surge of empathy for his poor mother, who had to live several months with the knowledge that her son was on his own, in the Rocky Mountains, in a tent, in winter with snow and temperatures dropping to -30°C, with roads closed and without a phone. The only comforting thought is that bears hibernate and wouldn’t be around.

Pete Fromm has a lot of humor and we follow his preparations for his trip. The warden gave him almost no guidance. His roommate Jeff Rader helped him pack. He had to decide upon which camping gear to take with him and buy his own food.

Imagine that when he went there, he didn’t know how to drive with a stick (The Fish & Game truck had one), he didn’t know how to use a rifle and he had never spent so much time in the wilderness on his own. He didn’t know the codes of his new environment as we understand it when the wardens leave after settling him in the woods:

The wardens climbed into their truck, ready to leave. ‘You’ll need about seven cords of firewood. Concentrate on that. You’ll have to get it all before the snow grounds your truck.

’ Though I didn’t want to ask, it seemed important. ‘What’s a cord?’

I thought “Wow. How can you be so bold as to go and live in the woods with so little knowledge of life in the wilderness?” I’m in awe for this mix of confidence and carefree attitude. I wish I were more like him.

He’s here to tell the story, so we know from the start that all is well that ends well, but still.

Pete Fromm writes about his experience and we see a young college guy become a mountain man in front of our eyes. The job of monitoring the salmon eggs lasts about fifteen minutes per day but must done daily. The goal is to ensure that the water around the egg farm is always running, so breaking the ice everyday in winter is a necessity.

With so little to do for his actual job, his quotidian is made of activities to ensure his daily life. He talks candidly about his months there, the mistakes he makes and various episodes that could have really taken a bad turn. Fortunately, he’s intelligent and fit, he understands what he did wrong and doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He must have had real frights sometimes, though.

He walks a lot in the woods, observes the wilderness around him. The wardens check on him once in a while, to bring him his mail. The visits don’t last long. He doesn’t hide that it was hard to adjust to the loneliness and he was glad when his roommate managed to come and visit him on a snowmobile.

I won’t tell any episodes of his stay at Indian Creek, you’ll have to discover them yourself. I’d rather write about the atmosphere of the book.

I’d already read his novel A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do and I found in Indian Creek the same steady voice as in his novel. His prose is lovely and progresses at the rhythmic and peaceful pace of a hiker. One word after the other, carefully chosen. One foot after the other, carefully put on the trail, so as not to stumble.

The quiet observation of nature pervades in his reflective thoughts and he shares with us moments in the wilderness that he was the only one to witness. He takes us far away from our daily lives and through his eyes, watch with awe the miracle of nature.

Very highly recommended.

Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami

January 26, 2022 33 comments

Novelist as a Vocation by Murakami Haruki (2015) French title: Profession romancier. Translated by Hélène Morita.

In Novelist as a Vocation, published in 2015, Haruki Murakami writes about his experience as a novelist. The book is composed of eleven chapters, the first six had been previously published in Monkey Business and the five others are new. In French, it is translated as Profession romancier, but I don’t think there’s an English translation of this collection of essays.

I used the title Novelist as a Vocation because it is included in my French copy of the book, under the original title in Japanese, shokugyõ toshite no shōsetsuka.

But Novelist as a Vocation isn’t the same as Profession romancier, which means Novelist as a profession. Between vocation and profession, in my opinion, stands the line between artist and craftsman. The Japanese title means Occupation: Novelist (Thanks Marina Sofia!), closer to the French title. Back to the book.

Murakami evokes several aspects of his life as a writer. How anybody can decide to write a book. How he had an epiphany at a baseball game –hence the cover of the book, I imagine—and how he decided to write a novel. His first success when he was thirty. He talks about literary prizes and says he doesn’t care he never won the Akutagawa prize. He’s still a hugely successful writer.

After these generalities, he dissects his writing life and his vision of talent. For him, being “original”, “new” will only be validated with time. Will a book become a classic? Is it really a revolution in literature the way the Beatles were a revolution in music? Time will tell if the public includes a novel in their modern classic pantheon or forgets it.

He gives recommendation to aspiring writers and describes his disciplined life. Write 400 signs per day. First draft. Re-read and correct. Second draft. Start again the process. His wife is his first reader and critic. He says he gives his best to each book and thus has no regret. He couldn’t have written them better at the time he wrote them. Sounds like a smart way to look at things.

His days are made of early rising, writing five to six hours and running for an hour. He insists on the importance of being fit to be a long-lasting writer. Your body must be an ally and not get in the way of your writing.

He gives us a glimpse at his school years and how he was bored in school. Books were his anchor and his solace.

The pages about his writing and the evolution of his style made me think that a reader should read his books in their order of publication. Each one was a step towards the writer he is now. He explains how, at the beginning of his writing career, he was unable to give names to his characters. He comes back to the first time he thought he could pull off a third person narrative.

He talks about his readers and the imaginary bond he feels between his words and the people who read them and receive them. However, he recommends to write for oneself and not for readers. A sign of success? For him, he’s happy when his books are read by people of different generations.

He also comes back to his moving to the USA, the reasons why he left Japan and his early successes in America. He had a plan to conquer the American market, one that included a good agent, a good translator and a willing publisher.

He’s very humble all the time, as if he weren’t that talented or as if the idea of writing came late and out of the blue.*

But between the lines you can sketch out a personality who stands out and doesn’t conform. He was born in 1949, it must have been hard not to conform in Japan, when he was young. He acknowledges that he didn’t follow standards, go to university, start a job in an office and get married. He got married first, opened a jazz bar with his wife and then got his degree. Then he started to write.

We guess that he’s someone who is an individual, who needs to do what he wants and live according to his own tune. Not a rebel or someone dangerous, more someone closer to the Western vision of individuality than to the Japanese culture of being one in a crowd. He is different and original compared to other Japanese men of his time.

He has a unique personality, backed up by a strong work ethic and a will to be successful, despite his apparent protests. This influences his books and that’s probably why they sound original. He doesn’t feel special but he is and so are his books.

I am not a die-hard Murakami fan. I loved South of the Border, West of the Sun and Kafka on the Shore (pre-blog). I wasn’t too fond of Norwegian Wood and couldn’t finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Incidentally, my billet titles are all related to music: Teen without spirit for Norwegian Wood, She moves him in mysterious ways for South of the Border, West of the Sun and lastly The wind-up bird never sang to me for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. (obviously)

After reading Profession romancier, I feel like trying another of his books and thanks to Marina’s post about Sputnik Sweetheart, I picked this one as my next Murakami.

This contributes to two blogging events, Japanese Lit Challenge 15 hosted by Meredith and Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by Shellyrae.

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona – a biography

March 7, 2021 24 comments

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of Woman in Black by Dominique Bona (2000) Original French title: Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir. 

Berthe Morisot – The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona was our Book Club read for February. It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I was looking forward to reading it as it was a great opportunity to dive into the artistic Paris of the 19th century.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in a bourgeois family. Her father was a préfet, a civil servant and her mother was a lot younger than her husband but it was a love marriage. She had two sisters, Yves and Edma and a younger brother Tiburce. The three girls were close in age but Berthe was tight with Edma.

Madame Morisot had a lot to do with her daughters’ upbringing. She was the great-niece of Fragonard and was instrumental in Berthe and Edma’s painting lessons. She allowed them to devote a lot of time to painting, understood that her daughters were gifted and accepted that painting wasn’t just a hobby for them. She didn’t sacrifice their passion on the autel of bourgeois thinking. We owe her for Morisot’s paintings. Paul Claudel wasn’t as understanding.

Edma and Berthe followed different paths. Edma got married and gave up painting. Berthe kept on painting and married Eugène Manet, Edouard’s brother, in 1875. He always supported her career and helped organize exhibitions.

Dominique Bona places Berthe Morisot in her time, among her friends. And what a group of friends she had! Fantin-Latour, Puvis de Chavanne, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Mallarmé. She was an early impressionist, she remained faithful to her group and kept on working on her talent, following her path. Manet influenced her painting, especially at the beginning. They worked a lot together and she influenced him too. They had a close relationship.

Bona’s biography is chronological and shows Morisot’s personal and professional life. We see who were her teachers, her friends, where she painted and the history of the Impressionist exhibitions.

Morisot’s life is fantastic material for a book. She was the only female painter in a group of artists who revolutionized painting in a Paris. And yet, this biography is a disappointment. The style is flat, flat, flat to the point of boredom. I expected better from a member of the Académie Française.

In my opinion, Bona failed to bring the Paris of that time to life. I would have liked better descriptions of the ambiance, of the places these painters spent time in and more context about what was happening at the same time in politics, literature and science. I would have liked her to show in which society the Impressionist movement happened.

But the worst is the “secret of the woman in black” angle. It grated on my feminist sensibilities.

In the first chapters, Bona describes how many paintings of Morisot Edouard Manet did, points out that she was his most frequent model and hints that he was in love with her. She also hints that Morisot was in love with him. The last chapter of the book comments on the fact that the correspondence between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet is nowhere to be found. That’s suspicious and would mean that they exchanged love letters. Well, ok. Maybe they were lovers. Maybe she loved him and it was unrequited love. Who knows? And more importantly, what does it matter? I can’t help wondering: if Bona had written Edouard Manet’s biography, would she have chosen this angle? Would the title be, Edouard Manet. The secret of the man with the beard? Probably not. It seems to me that women artists with close relationship with other artists are always seen as their sidekick. You know, like Camille Claudel. They are mentioned in relation to their male friend or partner.

And then, there’s this passage, page 205, that left me stunned, stricken by its sheer stupidity. (Sorry if the translation is terrible, I’m not fluent in astrological terms. I barely know them in French.)

Car Berthe ne sait peindre que ce qu’elle ressent, elle exprime ce qu’elle est. Or, qui est-elle sinon cette fille née sous un signe de Terre –Capricorne—mais qu’anime un fort ascendant d’Eau—Cancer. Son thème astral, selon les spécialistes, conjugue un Soleil en Capricorne—une forte ambition, apte à se réaliser—et une Lune en Balance conjointe à Mars –qui souligne les valeurs instinctives et de puissantes aspirations affectives. Les astres qui l’ont vue naître sont propices à une personnalité douloureuse et conflictuelle, qui est à la fois Ambition et Féminité ; mais aussi Passion et Colère. Conflit permanent entre la Terre et l’Eau –la réalisation concrète de soi et les appels lancinants d’une sensibilité exacerbée—, Berthe Morisot est très différente de l’univers qu’elle peint, des toiles aux tons joyeux et calmes, où irradie le bonheur. Les experts en astrologie complètent leur analyse en opposant la position de Neptune en Verseau (ces deux planètes de la sensibilité renforcent l’influence de la Lune, déjà importante dans le signe) et celle de Saturne en Sagittaire (autre moteur de la réalisation de soi.)

Berthe only paints what she feels. She expresses what she is. And who is she but his girl born under an earth sign –Capricorn—but animated by a strong water ascendant –Cancer. Her birth chart, according to specialists, mixes Sun with Capricorn—a strong ambition, likely to be fulfilled – and Moon with Libra, along with Mars—which underlines strong instinctive values and powerful emotional aspirations. The stars she was born under are liable to lead to a painful and conflictual personality, which is both Ambition and Femineity but also Passion and Anger. Berthe Morisot is a permanent conflict between Earth and Water – concrete self-actualization and the nagging calls from an exaggerated sensitivity. She’s very different from the world she paints, pictures with joyful and soothing tones, irradiating with happiness. Experts in astrology back up their analysis in opposing the position of Neptune in Aquarius (these two planets of sensitivity strengthen the influence of the Moon, already important in the sign) to that of Saturn in Sagittarius (another push towards self-actualization.)

See the astrological mumbo jumbo? First, it’s contradictory. How can she paint what she feels and then be very different from her paintings? Second, it’s more that stupid, it’s insulting for this extraordinary artist.

And again, I wonder: would anyone write something like this about Manet? Who would use astrology to describe a male’s artist style? Would anyone call Renoir a “boy”? Who would make Monet’s sensitivity sound like a flaw?

Just typing the quote made me angry. I see Berthe Morisot as a strong woman. She kept on painting despite the difficulties. She was gifted, smart enough to pursue her career without making any waves and yet never giving up her line of work. She didn’t marry young as it was customary in her social class. She chose herself a partner who understood her, supported her and helped her career. She was in the center of one of the most important painting movement of the century. She had her own style, she never wavered. Berthe Morisot deserves better that this astrological analysis.

My only regret is that I didn’t read this biography before going to the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019. I would have appreciated it more. And now, I want to rush to the Musée d’Orsay, see again all the Impressionists’ paintings there but of course, it’s closed at the moment.

A Summer With Proust – “Reading is a friendship”

January 31, 2021 24 comments

A Summer With Proust by Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. (2014) Not available in English. Original French title: Un été avec Proust.

La lecture est une amitié.

(Reading is a friendship)

Marcel Proust

In 2013, to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Un amour de Swann by Marcel Proust (Swann’s Way, in English translation), France Inter broadcasted a series of moments entitled A summer with Proust.

Several Proust specialists talked about a side of A la Recherche du temps perdu. (In Search of Lost Time) In French, this masterpiece’s pet name is La Recherche. The panel was composed of Antoine Compagnon, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Erman, Adrien Goetz, Nicolas Grimaldi, Julia Kristeva, Jérôme Prieur and Jean-Yves Tadié. They are teachers, philosophers, writers, essayists, film-makers or historians, all Proust lovers.

Each of them has a section in the book and writes about Proust or something in La Recherche. The topics are various: Time, characters, love, imagination, places, Proust and philosophers and arts. All chapters are structured the same way: a quote, a short introduction, an essay and a longer quote to illustrate the essay. They make Proust easy and the burin of their love for Proust chips away the ivory tower where this monument of literature has been locked into. They demystify Proust, the author of a literary cathedral.

This team of writers knows La Recherche in and out and addresses all readers with maestro. I imagine that the newcomer will want to start reading Proust after this appetizer. The Proust reader will experience a mise en abyme, living the madeleine episode while reading about reading Proust.

I opened this billet with a quote by Proust stating that La lecture est une amitié and this is exactly how I feel about literature in general and Proust in particular. Like the writers of A Summer With Proust, I have a long and standing friendship with La Recherche. Of course, I’m far from being as literate as they are about Proust but reading A Summer With Proust is like receiving a letter full of news from old friends who would live on another continent.

I discovered Proust when I was in high school. I read it slowly, La Recherche is not a book you devour and it required a lot of attention. This slow rhythm mixed with the presence of characters coming in and out of the pages all along the volumes is such that the characters and events stay with you. I started to read it again as an adult. (See my Reading Proust page) and I got reacquainted with a world I had not forgotten.

Like all readers I have experienced this: I read a book I enjoy immensely and a few months later, I don’t really remember it, its plot or its characters. For my memory and my senses, some books are like the rain of a summer storm. I get drenched, I get dry and I move on. Lots of rain and pleasure at the time I read, but most of the flow is flushed from my memory. Storms don’t help with groundwater, moderate rains do.

La Recherche is not a storm, it’s a long, persistent and warm drizzle. It reached my bones, penetrated my memory the first time I read it and settled in me. I developed a familiarity with the characters of La Recherche and I can only compare it to crime fiction series, with their recurring character. When you open a new volume of the series, you’re on familiar grounds, happy to spend some more time with the lead character. When I started A Summer With Proust, I re-connected to Proust’s world immediately, like you do when you meet up with good friends, even if you haven’t seen them for a long time. The reconnection is instantaneous. 

In La Recherche, Proust is the master of all masters. He wrote a book about the power of imagination, about memory and its effect on us. Through the power of his memories, his literary skills and his intelligence, he wrote a masterpiece that dissects the workings of memories and sensorial experiences on our beings and at the same time imprints himself and his lost world in our souls and memories. His experience helps us understand our experience.

Proust left us keys to enter into our memories, analyze our feelings and enjoy little moments in life. For he is also the writer who dissects small moments, sees the beauty in them and tells us that beauty is within our reach if we pay enough attention.

In other words, it’s good to be friends with La Recherche, a book that gives its friendship freely to readers who seek for it.

Voices of Freedom: militant writers in the 19th Century by Michel Winock – France between 1815 and 1885.

December 16, 2020 22 comments

Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC century by Michel Winock (2001) Not available in English. Original French title: Les Voix de la liberté. Les écrivains engagés au XIXème siècle.

After reading an anthology of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs From Beyon the Grave, I decided to finally pick from my shelves Winock’s Voices of Freedom. Militant writers in the 19thC. It’s a 600 pages essay that describes how writers fought for the freedom of speech in France from 1815 to 1885.

It goes from the fall of Napoléon to the death of Victor Hugo. Since several of you liked the timeline I included in my Chateaubriand billet, here’s a new one with political regimes in France from the birth of Chateaubriand to the death of Victor Hugo. I chose these two writers because they have been involved in public life during their whole career. Chateaubriand was well-respected and Hugo wanted to be Chateaubriand or nothing.

Years

Political Regime

Leader

Events

Chateaubriand’s

age

Hugo’s age

1768-1792

Monarchy.

King Louis XV

King Louis XVI

1789-1799: French Revolution

0-24

Not born

1792-1804

First Republic

Various

Napoléon

1792-1802 Revolutionary wars

24-36

Born in 1802

1804-1815

Empire

Napoléon

1803-1815

Napoleonic wars

36-47

2-13

1815-1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Louis Philippe

King Charles X

 

47-62

13-28

07/1830

Constitutional Monarchy

King Charles X

July Revolution

62

28

08/1830-02/1848

July Monarchy

Louis-Philippe

 

62-80

28-46

02/1848

Second Republic

Lamartine

Abolition of slavery

80

46

12/1848-12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

12/1848 : Louis Napoléon Bonaparte is elected President

Dead

46

12/1851

Second Republic

Louis Napoléon Bonaparte

Coup d’état

Dead

49

1852-1870

Second Empire

Napoléon III

 

Dead

50-68

09/1870

Fall of the Second Empire

Third Republic

 

War with Prussia

France loses Alsace-Moselle terrirories

Dead

68

1871-1885

Third Republic

(1870-1940)

 

1871 Commune de Paris

Dead

69-83

It’s not going to be easy to sum up this book and I’ll concentrate on my reaction to it.

Winock’s angle in his essay is the fight for the freedom of speech and for free press but he ends up writing up 70 years of public life in France. He takes the word “écrivain” (writer) is a broad sense, including literary writers (Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand), historians (Michelet), political science writers (Tocqueville, Guizot, Quinet, Prévost-Paradol), theology and religion thinkers (Renan, Veuillot), journalists (all of them!), social writers (Flora Tristan) and “socialist” theorists (Proudhon, Saint-Simon). Let’s use the anachronistic term “intellectuals” to embrace them in one word.

It tells so much about where France comes from and explains our vision of a secular State, our attachment to political and religious caricatures and our idea of freedom of speech as a cardinal value of the republic.

Winock takes us through the political battles, revolutions and theories that involved writers between 1815 and 1885. These are fascinating 70 years. The country had to recover from the Revolution and the Empire, political thinkers and writers started to research the revolutionary years and assess these years and especially the Terror. What good did the Revolution do? They all agree upon one thing: going back to the old absolute monarchy isn’t possible. The French society has changed too much.

During these years, intellectuals researched and wrote about the best regime for the country. Parliamentary monarchy? Empire? Republic? Various strong currents pulled or pushed one way or the other and the Catholic church meddled in the discussion. Monarchy and religion go hand in hand. For the monarchists, the country must be catholic and the power in place an alliance between church and politics. (The Pope Pie IX played a role too) In opposition to the monarchists, how strong political currents developed under the “secular” banner, to keep faith and religion private and out of public affairs. Tocqueville travels to America and comes back with ideas. There were a lot of debate about voting and which citizen should qualify to vote. 

These seventy years also see the industrial revolution settle in France and modern capitalism building lasting roots. Writers start to pay attention to the poor: Victor Hugo writes Les Misérables; in spite of him, Eugène Sue becomes the champion of the destitute with his Mysteries of Paris and Zola too, with L’Assomoir or Germinal.

Feminism finds voices in Flora Tristan, George Sand and Louise Michel.

Newpapers bloom or survive, according to the times and how tight the power in place takes the reins of freedom of speech. Newpapers may need an approval before publication or not. Books and articles are published abroad, mostly in Belgium and Switzerland and cross borders secretly. Napoléon III was especially ferocious against freedom of speech. For example, the newspaper La Lanterne crossed the border between Belgium and France hidden in Napoléon III busts. They got busted when one of the sculptures broke at the border and the smuggling was discovered.

In parallel to political thinking, technical and social progress improve the people’s access to newspapers. At the beginning of the century, political opinions traveled through songs written by political singers like Béranger, who was a huge star at the time. There were also reading cabinets, where readers could borrow papers and read. Between 1815 and 1885, more and more children went to school. In 1832, 53% of twenty-year olds couldn’t read. Their number dropped to 8.5% in 1892. The press soared, as Maupassant describes it in Bel Ami and technical progress in printing and assembling articles for print concurred to its growth.

The book is a vivid rendition of these years, moving from one writer to the other, showing their personal development and the course of their thinking. Lamartine was instrumental to the Second Republic. Balzac had ideas that were really backward and Winock points out that his books had the opposite result to what he expected. Flaubert stayed away from politics but stirred some trouble with Madame Bovary. Stendhal wanted to be consul in Italy. We see Constant, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Vallès, Sand and many other writers and their position on events.

Victor Hugo is truly a monument of the century. Romanticism applied to theatre plays (the battle of Hernani) fought against the theatre rules imposed by classicism (Corneille, Racine) It was an oblique way to champion the Revolution and its ideals. Hugo led that battle. His exile in Guernsey for as long as Napoléon III was in power increased his prestige. Like Chateaubriand, he didn’t change sides when it was convenient. Les Misérables was a literary bomb and what I discovered about his political views warmed me to him as a man and a thinker. Already dreaming of the United States of Europe in the 1880s! He was always on the side of the poor and that endeared me to him.

I loved this journey among militant writers in the 19th century. It showed me how hard earned is our current freedom of speech, why our streets have these names, where our contemporary vision of the republic stems from. These seventy years are a cauldron of thoughts, of theories that founded our modern society. It’s the development of today’s capitalism, the roots of communism and socialism, the birth of social thinking (unions, benefits for the poor, solidarity between the haves and the have nots), the political development that discarded monarchy forever and settled on republic for the country and the real beginning of education for the masses and mass communication through newspapers.

A fascinating read. Now I need to read Les Misérables, Bel Ami and Les Mystères de Paris.

20 Books of Summer #15: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou – An ode to James Baldwin

September 6, 2020 12 comments

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou. (2007) Original French title: Lettre à Jimmy.

Alain Manbanckou wrote Letter to Jimmy in 2007, for the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. It is an essay, a letter to a writer and a man he admires immensely, someone he feels close to. You don’t see it in the English translation but this letter is written with “tu” and not “vous”. It’s a letter addressed to Jimmy, not James, a “tu”, not a “vous”.

Mabanckou says it all started with a picture of Baldwin that he bought in Paris at a bouquinist on the banks of the Seine. It was in the late 80s, which means that Mabanckou was in his twenties. You can say that Baldwin influenced him early in his life.

Letter to Jimmy takes the reader on a journey through Baldwin’s life, his literary work and his essays. Manbanckou explains where Baldwin came from and how it influenced his thinking. He never knew his biological father and was raised by David Baldwin, a preacher who wanted his son to be a preacher too. This will be the material for Go Tell it on the Mountain (La Conversion, in its French translation)

Baldwin was born in 1924 and David Baldwin’s mother lived with them and she was a former slave.

N’importe quel Noir américain est attaché à l’histoire de l’esclavage. Sauf que Barbara Ann Baldwin est là, et l’histoire se lit non pas dans les manuels, mais dans les yeux baissés de la vieille femme.

Any Afro-American is linked to the history of slavery. Except that Barbara Ann Baldwin is here and history is not in school text books but in the old woman’s downcast eyes.

To James Baldwin, the history of slavery was in front of him when he was growing up. His father hated white people. James Baldwin will not follow this road because his white teacher noticed his intelligence and took him under her wing. (What we owe to primary school teachers! Thinking of Camus here.)

We follow Baldwin to Paris, we see his own thinking develop and set free from his influences like Richard Wright. Mabanckou explains how Baldwin wanted out of the Black Writer box. He didn’t want to write books only about the condition of Afro-Americans or with black characters. Giovanni’s Room is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a black writer but it doesn’t mean he must write only about black characters.

We go back to the USA and see Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Mabanckou branches out and reflects on the fight against colonialism that Africans went through. He also broadens the issue and reflects on being black in France. This section of the book complement Christiane Taubira’s Slavery Explained to My Daughter. They are in agreement.

James Baldwin in 1969 by Alan Warren. From Wikipedia

Mabanckou pictures very well Baldwin’s unique standpoint. His brand of opposition lies in healthy indignation. Hatred and systematic opposition are not constructive. They burn bridges and leave ashes. Angelism is another pitfall. It’s cowardice and Baldwin’s essays are not gentle. They are documented punches aimed at facing the truth and moving forward. This is also Taubira’s approach and one I can relate to.

In the end, Baldwin shaped Mabanckou’s mind. He found in him someone who was brave enough not to take the easiest route, to stand up for himself and had humanism as a guiding light. Baldwin came out and wrote about homosexuality in 1956. He fought for civil rights and never fell for violent theories. He never let his personal experience foster hatred. His bright intelligence and insight meant a clean, direct and nuanced thinking.

We are in dear need of nuanced thinking these days, so reading Letter to Jimmy is a way to remember that such thinkers exist and that, alas, what Baldwin wrote is still accurate. Besides Go Tell It to the Mountain, I’ve also written billets about If Beale Street Street Could Talk and Going To Meet the Man. My next one will be Giovanni’s Room. 

PS: Letter to Jimmy opens with a foreword featuring Mabanckou lying on Santa Monica State Beach and feeling Baldwin’s presence. I know I’m obsessed, but it sounds like the incipit of Promise at Dawn, especially in French since Gary lies on the sand on a beach in Big Sur, which is not translated as such in English.

20 Books of Summer #6: Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira – Educational and thoughtprovoking

July 19, 2020 11 comments

Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira (2002 – revised in 2015) Original French title: L’esclavage raconté à ma fille.

I bought Slavery Explained to My Daughter by Christiane Taubira at the temporary bookshop set up in the Musée d’Orsay at the end of the exhibition Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse.

Christiane Taubira is a French politician who was, among other political achievements, Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016. She a literature lover and a feminist, as mentioned in my billet here.

As you can see it on the cover of the book, she’s a black woman. She was born in Cayenne, in French Guiana, one of the French overseas departments. And yes, Cayenne is where Dreyfus was deported, in a penal colony. Taubira was deputy of French Guiana from 1993 to 2012.

She has always fought against racism and for France to deal with its history as a slave state. During her mandate she pushed for a law about slavery. The Loi n°2001-434 was promulgated on May 13th, 2001.

In its first article, the law states that France acknowledges that the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean and in the Indian Ocean and slavery perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas, in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and in Europe and against Africans, indigenous people, Indians and Madagascans is a crime against humanity.

The second article imposes that the history of the slave trade and of slavery be taught in schools with sufficient details and taking into account historical sources from Europe and from Africa, America and the Caribbean.

The third article says that France will push the Council of Europe, the UN and other international organizations to acknowledge the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity too. France must also push for a common date to commemorate the abolition of slave trade and slavery.

No wonder Taubira’s favorite author is Toni Morrison. Slavery Explained to My Daughter reflects who she is: combative, passionate, factual and non-violent. As a French, she mostly pays attention France’s history. Through the exchange with her daughter, I learnt or reread about historical facts but what I liked the most is her views on the matter.

She says that a formal and legal acknowledgment of the crime is a necessity, a ground to build the future.

She also says that Europe fabricated false reasonings to justify their crime and that even then, people knew it was not right but clung to their arguments to ease their conscience and keep making money or annexing countries. So, saying it was legal at the time is not a valid argument to brush off the matter and not look at the facts as crimes.

She’s against financial reparations because it would sell her ancestors a second time and it would be a nightmare to organize. How much should be paid and to whom? For her, the only way to compensate now is to put money into programs that will guarantee that the descendants of former slaves and white people have equal opportunities in life. I’m with her. Compensation through investing in the future, that sounds fair to me.

Besides the European side of the issue, she also stresses on slaves’ side. She puts forward slaves who fought against their condition and also reminds us of the new culture that uprooted people created to survive. She takes pride in her ancestry and shares it with the reader.

I thought that Slavery Explained to My Daughter was an intelligent book. The facts and the emotions are there. It’s educational, optimistic but also realistic. There is still a lot to do. It will require a lot of education and political goodwill. I wish my kids studied this book in school.

This was another read for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

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

May 8, 2020 11 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.

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane

March 22, 2020 13 comments

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane (1991) French title: Outsider. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Thomas McGuane was born in 1939 in Michigan. He’s a scriptwriter, a novelist and a non-fiction writer. He lives on a ranch in Montana. An Outside Chance is a collection of “sport essays”. The themes of the essays are all about outdoors activities.

Frequent Book Around the Corner (BAtC) Reader, rolling their eyes – Oh dear, another book about fly-fishing

Emma – Well, yes there were fishing stories. Fishing in the ocean in the Keys, fishing in ponds in Michigan, fishing in Montana, British Columbia, boho fishing in San Francisco, fishing with wife and son, with wife’s grandfather and with Jim Harrison.

Frequent BAtC Reader – Is it a Gallmeister book?

Emma – No. It’s published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. However, it’s totally Gallmeister’s kind of books.

Now that we’ve had this little discussion, let’s go back to An Outside Chance. Thomas McGuane writes beautifully and I’m sorry that I have no quote to share because I read it in French translation and it’s not available on kindle. Usually, I download a sample from the kindle store and find quotes that fit my billet in the first pages. It seems like An Outside Chance is OOP in English but I’ll put quotes in French at the end of my billet for readers who can read French.

Besides the fishing, McGuane tells us about the time he bought a motorbike, his special boat, a Meadow Lark. He writes about his childhood and his youth and how he made pocket money by fetching, refurbishing and reselling golf balls near his hometown golf course. McGuane was also a rodeo champion, so a few stories are about rodeo, horses and people living off the rodeo business. He’s also a hunter and the story about antelope hunting was a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas McGuane describes nature with the words of a true nature lover. (1)  He makes you want to rush to Montana and see the Absaroka mountains, the Big Hole River and the landscapes. He drops hits of his personal life here and there. He got divorced, he son grows up, his parents die. He seems to find solace in physical activities and the slower pace of nature. Wilderness refuels him and he gives back a bit of this energy in his essays. He’s reflective and calm but never romanticizes nature. It is not always a place fit for humans. It’s often hard, unrelenting and dangerous, a place where a small mistake can be fatal.

I find his kind of writers fascinating. Have a look at his bio on Wikipedia. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Only an American writer can these three things at the same time. It seems to me that French writers are always teachers, journalists or scriptwriters. They have little experience besides their Parisian world. I know no French writer who has been a policeman, a university teacher, a carpenter, a cowboy and a professional fisherman like Craig Johnson. Or they don’t say it because it’s not consistent with the image of what a writer should be. France is also not a country where your career path can easily take U-turns and still be on a good path, it’s getting better, though.

Writers like Thomas McGuane have studied literature in excellent universities and worked blue-collar jobs. They bring their academic knowledge into their outdoors activities. McGuane can see a parallel between fly-fishing and Camus. (2) He has a way to make more of his hikes in the Montana wilderness. He has words to describe them, to share his experience with us and take us there for a while. He’s far from the intellectual writer and his essays brings to us a world we’d never hear of.

Sometimes I thought he must be hard man to live with, since he has a propensity to take risks. Fishing when the sea is rough. Looking for a boat he can’t really afford. Buying a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Hiking in the heart of the Montana winter. Purchasing a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. Competing in rodeos, in contests involving bulls. What a rollercoaster it must be to have such a spouse! As far as I’m concerned, rollercoasters make me queasy.

While I skipped some pages because I couldn’t take anymore fly-fishing stories, I enjoyed McGuane soothing prose. I now want to read his fiction and have Keep the Change on the shelf.


 

(1) « Je laisse la Land Rover près d’un bosquet d’épineux. La campagne ouverte s’étend selon un entrelacs de pentes qui descendent des collines basses précédent les Crazy Mountains. Du plateau où je me trouve, j’aperçois au sud la chaîne des monts Absaroka déjà enneigés. Le temps est un peu à l’orage, des panaches de neige tourbillonnent dans les cols les plus élevés. Mais ici, en bas, le soleil joue autour de nous. »

(2) « Face à un cours d’eau inédit, je me demande toujours si je vais pêcher avec une nymphe ou pas. En tout cas, on n’attaque pas la truite de front sans réfléchir. Camus a dit que la seule question digne de réflexion est celle du suicide. Ce qui me fait penser au problème de la nymphe. »

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