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Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga – the dark sides of real-estate in Mumbai and of human behaviour.

January 15, 2023 18 comments

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga (2011) French title: Le dernier homme de la tour. Translated by Annick Le Goya.

Bombay, like a practitioner of yoga, was folding in on itself, as its centre moved from the south, where there was no room to grow, to this swamp land near the airport.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga is set in Mumbai, in the Vakola district near the airport, in a two towers apartment complex built in the 1970s.

Tower B, known as “Vishram Society” is like a vertical village of lower middle-class people. It’s also known as ‘cosmopolitan’ (i.e. ethnically and religiously mixed.) The various families have been living together in this building for years, they’ve raised children, grown old and have to share their private lives due to paper thin walls and building practicalities. Like in small town life, everybody knows everything about everyone and keeping a secret is illusory.

The Secretary [the concierge], not for the first time during his tenure, cursed the early – morning cat. This cat prowled the waste bins that the residents left out in the morning for Mary [The cleaning lady] to collect, in the process spilling beans, bones, and whisky bottles alike. So the residents of the building knew from the rubbish who was a vegetarian and who merely claimed to be one; who was a rum – man and who a gin – man; and who had bought a pornographic magazine when on holiday in Singapore.

What was I saying about secrets?

Now, in the ever growing and changing Mumbai, a property developer, Mr Shah, has set his eyes on two towers built in the 1970s. He wants to buy out all the current owners, demolish the towers and rebuild expensive condos on the land.

Mr Shah is ready to pay a hefty sum to all the owners based on the square meters of their apartment to encourage them to move out.

A useful note at the beginning of the book explains that Mr Shah’s offer is equivalent to $330,000 per family, in a country where the average per capita annual income in 2008 was around $800. So, if people accept Mr Shah’s offer, they become very rich and have enough money to relocate somewhere else.

Last important thing to know: Vishram Society is a Registered Co – operative Society. Not a jungle. If even one person says no that means that the Society cannot be demolished.

The novel shows the dirty methods used by property developers in Mumbai to put their hands on prime land, to throw working classes out of some neighbourhood to gentrify the area. In Mumbai, slums, older building and modern towers are near each other and this passage about a beach sums it up:

Here, in this beach in this posh northern suburb of Mumbai, half the sand was reserved for the rich, who defecated in their towers, the other half for slum dwellers, who did so near the waves. Residents of the slum that had encroached upon the beach were squatting by the water, defecating. An invisible line went down the middle of the beach like an electrified fence; beyond this line, the bankers, models, and film producers of Versova were engaged in tai – chi, yoga, or spot – jogging.

Builders have no qualms about bullying people into agreeing and they have special people to do it.

Every builder has one special man in his company. This man has no business card to hand out, no title, he is not even on the company payroll. But he is the builder’s left hand. He does what the builder’s right hand does not want to know about. If there is trouble, he contacts the police or the mafia. If there is money to be paid to a politician, he carries the bag. If someone’s knuckles have to be broken, he breaks them.

People in Vishram Society have heard stories about builders’ methods and swindles. They are cautious, they wonder where things could go and how they can be sure to get the money after they’ve signed the papers to sell their apartment.

Rather quickly, all the inhabitants agree to sell and the only one who doesn’t want to is Masterji, an old widower who refuses to leave the memories of his late wife and daughter behind. At least, that’s what he thinks his motives are.

This opportunity to get rich for the owners and to get richer for the promoter is like a bomb in a carefully built life balance between the inhabitants of the Vishram Society.

Last Man in Tower relates how Mr Shah manoeuvres to get what he wants. It also depicts how this tower-village copes with the one inhabitant who blocks their way to wealth.

Adiga’s book is cleverly done because it is not Manichean, the bad developer on one side and the poor old man on the other side. The greedy people and the virtuous one. Mr Shah intends to pay the money he promised, in the builder category, he’s not the worst one. But still. He counts on the neighbours to pressure Masterji into selling.

Masterji’s neighbours want the money, and most of them for good reasons: to provide for their son with Down’s syndrome after they die, to raise their children in a better neighbourhood, to help their grownup children to settle in life, to live a little and stop counting every penny.

And Masterji’s refusal is not just sentimental. There’s something else at stake here, someone who wants to stand up for himself when he wasn’t able to do it in this life, someone who sticks to his principle for the sake of them only.

Last Man in Tower is a dark tale, a book that shows how quickly people turn on each other when money is involved and circumstances push them to pick a side. We know that dark side of humans, we’ve witnessed it in wars and it’s the same mechanism at work here.

Adiga’s novel exposes the workings of the real estate market in Mumbai and digs into the dark corners of the human soul but it is also a vibrant picture of Mumbai and life in this sprawling city. The slums, the markets, the temples, the overcrowded public transports, the heat, the monsoon and the incredible pollution.

South Mumbai has the Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building, but the suburbs, built later, have their own Gothic style: for every evening, by six, pillars of hydro – benzene and sulphur dioxide rise high up from the roads, flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide join each other, swirls of unburnt kerosene, mixed illegally into the diesel, cackle like gargoyles, and a great roof of carbon monoxide closes over the structure. And this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light, every bridge and every tunnel during rush hour.

When I was reading, I thought it was a bit too long but now that I write about it I realize that the pace of the narration suits what the author had to show and say.

The book was published in 2011, wonder how the real-estate market is in Mumbai now.

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns – drama in the Appalachians

October 30, 2022 4 comments

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns (2020) French title: Les femmes n’ont pas d’histoire. Translated by Héloïse Esquié.

I received Shiner by Amy Jo Burns through my Kube subscription. It was serendipity to get a book set in the Appalachians just before my trip there. I read it during the summer and well, real life got in the way of blogging. (All for good reasons, though. Nothing to complain about.)

It’s a hard book to describe, for its bewildering setting, the story it tells about people who seem to live like their grand-parents and according to old-fashioned and self-made rules. So, to help you figure out Shiner‘s atmosphere, let’s hear Wren introduce her story:

Making good moonshine isn’t that different from telling a good story, and no one tells a story like a woman. She knows that legends and liquor are best spun from the back of a pickup truck after nightfall, just as she knows to tell a story slowly, the way whiskey drips through a sieve. Moonshine earned its name from spending its life concealed in the dark, and no one understands that fate more than I do.

Beyond these hills my people are known for the kick in their liquor and the poverty in their hearts. Overdoses, opioids, unemployment. Folks prefer us this way—dumb-mouthed with yellow teeth and cigarettes, dumb-minded with carboys of whiskey and broken-backed Bibles. But that’s not the real story. Here’s what hides behind the beauty line along West Virginia’s highways: a fear that God has forgotten us. We live in the wasteland that coal has built, where trains eat miles of track. Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday mornings and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants. Here’s what hides behind my beauty line: My father wasn’t just one of these men. He was the best.

[…] “It’s a true story,” I begin, roosting in the back of an old truck. “I swear it.”

Then I tell them that these woods can turn eerie or romantic, depending on the company you keep.

[…] The story of the snake handler’s daughter began when I’d just turned fifteen. I knew little then of the outside world my father kept from me. Ours is an oral civilization, I used to hear him say, and it’s dying. He blamed coal, he blamed heroin. He never blamed himself. He thought he had the only tales worth telling, and he never understood what my mother had run from all her life because she’d been born a woman—

The truth turns sour if it idles too long in our mouths. Stories, like bottles of shine, are meant to be given away.

This is a long excerpt of the first chapter of Shiner and it sums it up beautifully.

We’re in West Virginia, in the mountains and the nearest village is Trap. Three families live scattered in the woods. The Birds, Ivy and her family and the Sherrods.

The Bird family is composed of Ruby, Briar and their daughter Wren. She’s the narrator in this introduction and Briar is the snake- handler, gift that supposedly gives him a direct access to God. Ivy is Ruby’s best friend; she’s married to Ricky and then have four children. The Sherrods are moonshiners and the son Flynn was in school with Ruby, Ivy and Briar.

Briar is a preacher and his prestige comes from his surviving to a lightning and handling snakes. He keeps his wife and daughter captive in their cabin in the woods, away from civilization. Ivy stays close to her best friend that she swore to never leave behind. She’s the only visitor to this uncomfortable cabin and Wren follows school syllabi from Ivy’s son who is her age.

When Briar performs a miracle on Ivy, it sets in motion a series of events that will lead Wren to liberate herself from her father and discover all her family secrets.

Honestly, I don’t know what to think about this book. It’s well executed and beautifully written. But it’s another bleak story about a domineering and religious man who imposes on his wife and daughter to live off the grid, according to his own rules.

I have trouble with these books because I can never relate to this religious frenzy. I want to slap these men who imprison their families into narrow lives and don’t practice what they preach. I want to shout at their wives to take their kids and leave and stop being so gullible or down on their knees with admiration for their impostors of husbands.

Not very empathetic, I know. I had the same problem with Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson or with the ghosts in Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

I have a feeling of incredulity with these books. In a way they seem realistic enough not to require a suspension of belief and at the same time the families they describe seem so disconnected from mainstream life that they appear to be unrealistic. And here I am with very ambivalent feelings about Shiner, a remarkable novel I didn’t connect to as much as I would have expected.

Shiner is the story of modern Appalachia, and yes, there’s everything Ron Rash, Chris Offutt or David Joy talk about: a dying culture, a terrible problem with opioids and heroin, poverty after the mines closed, sickness after tap water was poisoned and the utter beauty of the woods. So, I have to consider that people like Ruby, Briar, Wren, Ivy and her family and the moonshiner Flynn are true-to-life characters.

And in that case, it makes me sad and angry towards several States and their politicians who accept that their constituents live like this. Has anyone read this? I’d love to discuss it with another reader.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – Thanks, Bénédicte!

October 29, 2022 23 comments

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2010) French title: Sur les ossements des morts. Translated by Margot Carlier.

The other day, Arti left a lovely comment on my post about Time Regained, thanking me for my Proust billets because they prodded him into finishing In Search of Lost Time. I could deliver the same message to Bénédicte, from Passage à L’Est, for prodding me into doing her Olga Tokarczuk Lecture Commune (French for readalong).

I was worried about finding another Herta Müller in Tokarczuk and I’m happy to report that I was wrong and that I loved Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

The narrator is Janina, an old spinster that people see as eccentric and dismiss as a nutcase. She’s sick, suffers from several chronic diseases but still walks around in the woods that surround her house on an isolated Polish plateau near the Czech border. She’s quite resourceful, considering her age and her condition. Stronger than she seems, even.

She’s rebellious, an animal lover who is outraged when animals are poorly treated. She hates hunting and poaching with fierceness. She reports crimes against animals to the police, writes letters which are promptly dismissed as coming from a crazy old lady. At the police station, they indulge her rants out of politeness but in their eyes, Janina has two major flaws: she’s old and she’s female.

She only has two neighbors who live all year long on the plateau and she nicknamed them Oddball and Big Foot. While Oddball is neat, Big Foot is dirty, untidy and a poacher. So, when Oddball wakes her up at night because he found Big Foot dead in his house, she’s not happy to go out and tidy thing up before the police comes.

That’s the first death. Others will follow, leading to police investigations.

It’s an odd and fascinating novel. It strays from the plot along with Janina’s thought process and yet remains on track as far as the murder investigations are concerned. Our narrator enrolls Dizzy and Oddball in investigating these deaths.

Meanwhile, we learn about Janina, her quirks and her life. I loved spending time with Janina as she’s so funny. She’s unconventional, always thinking out of the box, exercising her critical mind, describing her village, her country and the evolution of mores.

Janina doesn’t like her name and thus thinks nobody has the name they should have – hence the nicknames she gives to everyone around her. She’s obsessed with horoscopes and peppers her narration with bits like this one:

“He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde—that produces reserve.”

It went all over my head but I suppose that if someone tells you this with enough conviction, you’ll either believe them or think they’re crazy. Janina is convinced that all things in the world are arranged under a grand scheme that can be deciphered through astrology.

She goes to the village from time to time, especially to teach English to pupils at the elementary school. Her lessons are …err…unconventional. She kept in touch with a former student, Dizzy, who comes to see her once a week to chat and work on his translation of William Drake’s poems.

The teaching is one of her sources of income, the other one is watching the summer houses on the plateau during winter. She’s like a concierge. People know her. As long as you don’t hurt animals, she’ll welcome you into her house and share what she has with you. She draws people to her, making up a new family.

Janina is an unreliable narrator because she sees life through her own unusual lenses. She believes that animals are taking revenge and that the Deer killed Big Foot to punish him for hunting and poaching.

On top of the mysterious deaths, the everyday life of the village and the construction of an odd family around Janina, Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a philosophical novel. Janina muses over the meaning of life and the essence of the human condition. Her reflections about our need to classify things and actions two categories, “useful” or “useless” are spot on. Who decided who and what fits in each category and why useful is considered better as useless? Fascinating question.

Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is full of random questioning that challenge our way of thinking, all done through Janina’s offhanded comments and vision of the world. It’s deep without weighing on the reader. It’s not a lesson but you still make a pause on the page and think a little bit.

It also has a fairytale vibe due to the woods, the hunters, the deer and the mysterious deaths. It brings back Grimm and Perrault, something I’m not usually fond of. But here, Tokarczuk manages to mesh these dreamlike elements with reality. She does it masterfully.

I’ll end this billet with a word about translations.

I’ve read this novel in French and downloaded the kindle sample of the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It helped me find out what the nicknames were in English. Grand Pied became Big Foot, which I could have guessed but I have no clue how Matoga turned into Oddball.

I also noticed from the sample, that the English translation often has words in capital letters, something that isn’t included in the French translation. See:

A ce moment précis, la personne au téléphone se mit à débiter un tel flot de paroles que Matoga écarta le portable de son oreille en lui jetant un œil dégoûté. Puis nous avons appelé la police.Then the Person at the other end started gabbling at length, so Oddball held the phone away from his ear, casting it a look of distaste. Then we called the Police.

See how person and police have capital letters in the English translation and not in the French one? I wonder how it is in the original.

And have you seen the variety of covers?

I think that the Dutch one is very creepy. The French one conveys the dreamlike elements but totally neglects the fun of Janina’s mind. The English one is puzzling. The Polish one would be better with a deer on it as this animal is central in the book.

I love the Portuguese cover. It would have drawn be to the book if I’d seen it in a bookstore. It’s intriguing.

For other reviews, see Jacqui’s, Ali’s and Marina’s.

I had a wonderful time with Drive You Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and it will probably make my best-of-the-year list.

Which Olga Tokarczuk should I read next?

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?

Country Dark by Chris Offutt – In the Appalachian mountains, again.

May 26, 2022 5 comments

Country Dark by Chris Offutt (2018) French title: Nuits Appalaches. Translated by Anatole Pons-Reumaux.

I discovered Chris Offutt at Quais du Polar in 2019 and I knew I’d like his books. I started with Country Dark, published in 2018. I could have read it in English, I suppose, but Gallmeister editions are gorgeous enough to make me read in translation.

Country Dark starts in 1954. Tucker is 18, he’s back from the Korean war where he was decorated and learnt all kinds of surviving skills. He’s going back to Kentucky, where his roots are and decided to walk and hitchhike home through the Appalachian woods.

On his way home, he saves Rhonda from her uncle’s clutches just when he was going to sexually harass her. She’s only 15. Tucker helps her, makes sure that her uncle stays out of her life for good and buys the uncle’s car in the process. Rhonda and Tucker are now an item, two kids starting their adult life together.

1964. Tucker and Rhonda are married, with five children. They’re poor. Tucker works as a driver for a bootlegger, so, officially, he has no stable job. Hattie, the social worker who visits Rhonda from time to time isn’t really worried about the family. She provides help but sees that the children are loved and that their parents do their best.

Things take a dramatic turn when Hattie makes her rounds with her judgmental boss. The social services now threaten Tucker’s family and he turns to his survival skills to protect his wife and children.

I liked Tucker. He’s a solid guy with a lot of good sense, some of it acquired at home and some in the army. He’s intelligent, sober, hardworking and gentle. Chris Offutt pictures it in two paragraphs, when he describes a moment in Tucker’s trip home:

Tucker sought share and found a strip cast from the leg of a billboard encouraging him to buy shaving cream. He needed a shave, but didn’t figure a giant picture would convince him to spend money on something he could make from borax, oil, and chipped soap. He dropped his rucksack, opened a can of Libby’s Vienna sausages and ate them with saltine crackers. He used a church key to open a bottle of Ale-8, and drank half.

A katydid landed on his forearm and he admired its silky green body, serrated back legs, and delicate wings. They were prettier than a grasshopper and didn’t piss all over you like frogs did. The insect leaned backward and swelled itself, the thorax expanding, wings distending as if preparing for battle. Tucker nudged it away. He dropped the empty sausage can in a ditch blooming with milkweed and set off walking.

Tucker comes from a poor family from Kentucky. Chris Offutt describes people’s life in this area, how isolated they are from one another. It means that people need to take care of themselves. They are far away from a maternity ward when women give birth. They are far from the sheriff if something happens. Their job prospects are not good, some live during the week to work in the factories up north. Poverty means that kids have to help around the house.

Offutt’s novel progresses nicely, showing Tucker and Rhonda’s characters. His writing relays the importance of their natural environment on their lives. They are who they are because they were born and are living in the Appalachians.

The doctor from the social services sets everything in motion and puts Tucker in corner. He’s smart, acts coolly and selflessly. He’ll do anything to protect Rhonda and the kids.

Tucker’s only wealth is his wife and children. He has a lot of love to give to Rhonda and his children and his ambition in life is to live a peaceful life with his family, in his house on an Appalachian hill.

He’s different from men of his generation, I believe, because he’s not full of this toxic masculinity I associate with his time. He doesn’t need to show off his strength, to go to bars, to be violent or despise supposedly feminine tasks. He’s a good man and the reader understands his motivations and his actions.

In a way, Chris Offutt writes another answer to David Joy’s question For whom are you willing to lay down your life?

Highly recommended.

Crazy me, I’ll do 20 Books of Summer again #20booksofsummer22

May 22, 2022 39 comments

I’m crazy busy and yet, I plan on doing 20 Books of Summer again.

Cathy from 746Books is the mastermind behind this event. I could pick only 10 or 15 books but I wanted to have 20 books to choose from and then we’ll see how it goes.

I already have the books from my ongoing readalongs with my Book Club, my sister-in-law, my Proust Centenary event and my non-fiction challenge. That makes seven books.

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (USA)
  • Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro (Argentina)
  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Australia)
  • Dead at Daybreak by Deon Meyer (South Africa)
  • Fall Out by Paul Thomas (New Zealand)
  • Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (France)
  • Proust by Samuel Beckett (Ireland)

In August, I’ll be travelling to the USA, going through Washington DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve already read The Line That Held Us by David Joy and Country Dark by Chris Offutt. I love to read books about the place I’m visiting, so I’ll be reading:

  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (Louisiana)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (North Carolina)
  • Serena by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (North Carolina)
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Southern Region)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachians)
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos (Washington DC)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Southern Region)

That’s eight more books and some of them rather long. I also wanted to do Liz’s Larry McMurtry 2022 readalong as I’ve had Lonesome Dove on the shelf for a while. That’s two chunky books in a beautiful Gallmeister edition.

And then I’ve selected four novellas, to help me reach the 20 books with one-sitting reads:

  • Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (France)
  • A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi (Algeria)
  • The Miracles of Life by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
  • Adios Madrid by Pablo Ignacio Taibo II (Cuba)

I’m not sure I’ll make it but who doesn’t love a little challenge? I’m happy with my choices, a mix of countries, of crime, literary and non-fiction and of short and long books.

Have you read any of the books I picked? If yes, what shall I expect?

If you’re taking part to 20 Books of Summer too, leave the link to your post in the comment section, I love discovering what you’ll be up to.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné – a girl’s resilience

May 15, 2022 6 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala

April 13, 2022 3 comments

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala (2010) Original French title: Photo de groupe au bord du fleuve.

Group Photo by the River by Emmanuel Dongala is a book I received through my Kube subscription. It’s the tenth novel by this Congolese writer and chemist. I have to confess that I’d never heard of him before.

Group Photo by the River is set in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. Méréana is a divorcée who raises her two sons and her baby niece Lyra. She’s an orphan because her mother Tamara, Méréana’s sister died of AIDS. Méréana and Tamara were close and Méréana took care of her sister during her illness, causing a rift between her and her husband Tito. He started to go out a lot and when she demanded a condom before sex, he slapped her. She left him and now has to raise the children on her own, with the help of her Auntie Turia.

Méréana was a brilliant student in high school when she got pregnant by Tito and dropped out of school. Now, she’s barely making ends meet and she needs money to go back to school and get a degree in IT . She knows she’ll have a better paying job.

This is how she found herself by the road, breaking rocks to make bags of gravel. She works with a group of women and they sell their bags to middlemen who supply construction contractors. It’s an exhausting job, outside, in the sun and with low selling prices.

One day, they learn that the sale prices that the middlemen have with the construction contractors skyrocketted because a lot of gravel is needed to build the new national airport. The ladies want a part o this profit and decide to stick together and ask for a higher price, even if it means that they won’t sell their bags right away.

The novel is about this fight for a decent income and for a decent life. This group of eight women will get organized to improve their daily life. They choose Méréana as their representative because she’s the most educated of them.

We follow their struggle, their actions and their doubts. Dongala has two goals with this novel: he wants to write a feminist book and an homage to Congolese women and he denounces the corruption of the power in the Republic of Congo and the hypocrisy around grand shows designed to appease international institutions.

This is a country where you can get poisoned for speaking up and imprisoned for nothing. Demonstrations are repressed with guns and real bullets. Méréana goes to a ministry and she berates herself because she forgot to tell someone where she was going. And in this country, you need people know you’ve been to a public office in case you just vanish into thin air and never come back.

Dongala shows us the condition of women in Africa through his characters’ life stories. They include rapes during the civil war, repudiations, expulsions from their home after their husband died, accusations of sorcery and agreement with fetishes and losing their son after the power in place kidnapped and killed them. One of them is a second office, a mistress, and there is an outstanding scene in the book where she’s in a bar at the same time as her lover’s wife and they have a verbal fight over him through karaoke. Brilliant.

Dongala points out the impacts of traditional beliefs and customs on the condition of women. Ignorance and fear of otherworldly creatures pushes villagers to act inhumanly. Family traditions allow brothers and envious sisters-in-law to strip a widow of her home, her business and her belongings. Nothing is done to stop them.

The author depicts husbands and fathers who are violent, unfaithful, lazy and cowards but not all his male characters are that way. Armando the taximan and brother to one of the women of the group provides them with free rides and contributes to their fight. One of ladies explains how her husband who had a fatal illness provided for her after his death by playing on the fear of fetishes. They built a scam to make people believe that she was protected by a powerful fetish and that people should leave her alone. It was his way of taking care of her after his death, she kept their home.

Group Photo by the River is a very attaching novel and Dongala manages to balance the militant side of his book with moving the plot forward and describing the women’s fight. As a reader, you root for Méréana and her friends and hope they will get what they want.

It would make a wonderful film and I truly don’t understand why it is not translated into English. What can I say, that’s another Translation Tragedy.

For another take on this book, see Nathalie’s, at her blog Chez Mark et Marcel. (Mark Twain and Marcel Proust)

The Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito – Italia Reading Challenge

February 8, 2022 15 comments

A Day Will Come by Giulia Caminito (2019) French title: Un jour viendra. Translated from the Italian by Laura Brignon.

In A Day Will Come, Giulia Caminito takes us to Serra de’ Conti, a village in the Marche region in Italy. Nicola and Lupo are the two surviving sons of the poor baker of the village, Luigi Ceresa. They have two sisters, Nella, who becomes a nun and Adelaide, who dies in young age. The boys are close in age and Nicola is under Lupo’s protection because he’s too fragile and afraid of everything. Together with a pet wolf, they are a close-knit unit to face the world. Their parents are absentees at best, violent sometimes.

Lupo will do Nicola’s chores to allow him to learn how to read and get an education. Nicola loves to read and write and becomes the erudite of the duo. Lupo is more into action and he finds a good outlet for his energy in the Anarchist groups that spread their ideas in the country. The peasants were mostly sharecroppers, for the convent and for other landowners. This system was very inegalitarian and the peasants were open to Anarchism that promised to erase it.

Their village of Serra de’ Conti has a convent with Clarisse sisters. Their abbess is Sister Clara, a woman who became a nun after she was kidnaped in Sudan, her native country. The convent plays a steady role in the villagers’ lives, with work, shelter, help. And music. Sister Clara plays beautifully and the villagers can hear her play. The boys’ sister, Nella is there, against her will. She got pregnant out of wedlock and her father put her in the convent and took the baby.

Through Nicola and Lupo’s story, Giulia Caminito dives into the history of this corner of Italy and shows how politics and decisions made at national level drizzle and affect people’s lives even in remote villages.

The boys were born in the early 1890s, only twenty years after the independence of Italy, won over the Austrians. It also meant that the young State has to incorporate papal territories in the new country. The fate of the convent in Serra de’Conti reflects this evolution: the church land and properties are taken over. The Anarchist movements were strong, leading to the Red Week in Ancona (CHECk), the nearest city to Serra de’ Conti.

The Great War is another shock and I discovered battles between the Italian and the Austrian troops. I know more about the battles set in France than about the ones abroad. They were just as abominable.

The Great War washed away the Anarchist movements and the brothers’ illusions. The Spanish influenza was another tide over the Great War one. The country landed in the 1920s and Mussolini took over.

I see Nicola and Lupo as a modern and peasant version of Romulus and Remus. One is word and the other is action. They are the people who are the foundation of the new Italy. They are inseparable and they have a wolf pet who protects them and Lupo, whose name means wolf, is Nicola’s protector.

In a note at the end of the book, the author explains that her grand-mother came from this village of Serra de’Conti. The characters of this novel are based on real people. Her great-grand-father, Nicola Ugolini, was one of the Anarchists of the Marche region and Giulia Caminito dug into the archives of the movement, its roots and its actions. The participants really believed they would lead to happy changes for the people. Sister Clara really existed under the name of Zeinab Alif who, in real life, became Sister Maria Giuseppina Benvenuti.

Gallmeister, the publisher, included a note about the historical landmarks that are spread into the novel. It was very useful but I think that this note would be better as a foreword as it contains no spoilers but gives useful pointers to understand the historical references of the book.

Like Betty by Tiffany McDaniel, A Day Will Come is based on the author’s family story. There’s no way to know what’s true and what isn’t and honestly, I don’t care. I enjoyed Caminito’s book for its unusual characters, for the light it sheds on a specific moment in the history of the Marche and for the poetry of her writing.

Translation Tragedy, sadly. This is another contribution to Diana’s Italia Reading Challenge.

Taqawan by Eric Plamondon – 1981 on the Mi’gmaq reservation in Gaspesia

January 19, 2022 17 comments

Taqawan by Eric Plamondon (2017). Not available in English.

Au Québec, on a tous du sang indien. Si ce n’est pas dans les veines, c’est sur les mains.In Québec, we all have Indian blood. If it’s not in our veins, it’s on our hands.

Eric Plamondon is a Québecois writer but I don’t think that his book is translated into English. I will never understand why Canadian books are not available in the two official languages of the country. I received his novella Taqawan through my Kube subscription.

Taqawan takes the reader back to the month of June 1981, to the Indian reservation La Restigouche in the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec. The indigenous nation living on this reservation are the Micmac, or Mi’gmaq.

When the book opens, Océane, a Mi’gmaq teenager is on her way back to the reservation at the end on her school day. She goes to an English-speaking school in New Brunswick. She’s on the school bus when it is stopped on the Van Horne bridge that separates Québec from New Brunswick.

Understanding that the police are blocking the entry to the reservation, she slips out of the bus and despite the danger climbs down from the bridge to the ground to go home.

What follows that night is a violent police intervention related to the “salmon war” between the white Québec authorities and the Mi’gmaq nation. The Québec government has set new rules to issue fishing permits for salmon and these rules are unfathomable for a Native Canadian. They don’t want to abide by them because they simply don’t understand them. 300 policemen of the Sécurité of Québec are sent on the reservation to confiscate the fishermen’s nets.

In the middle of the mayhem where the police force abuse of their power, beat several Mi’gmaqs, arrest them without cause, three policemen rape Océane in the woods and left her there to her own devices. Yves, a former ranger who lives in a cabin in the woods finds her, brings her home and seeks for help. Beyond the basic human reaction to help someone in distress, Yves holds a grudge against the local authorities. He quit his job as a ranger because he didn’t approve of the treatment of the Mi’gmaqs and he didn’t want to lend a hand to the police, as required by his hierarchy.

Yves knows William, a Mi’gmaq who also lives in the woods. Together and with the help of Caroline, Yves’s former lover, they will help and protect Océane, putting their own safety at risk.

In the thread of Océane’s story, Plamondon inserts vignettes from the past and from the present politics. The images of the past go back to the importance of salmon for the Mi’gmaqs, to the help the Mi’gmaqs provided to the European first settlers. They wouldn’t have survived without their help. There are passages about fishing and Mi’gmaq culture and these short chapters give a historical context to the book and remind the white Québécois what they owe to native peoples.

The other set of vignettes comes back to the political context of the time and how the fight between Québec and the federal government ricocheted and impacted the daily life of the Mi’gmaq community. The issue of the salmon fishing rights is a pawn in the war between René Lévesque at the head Québec and the Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. We’re just the year after the 1980 referendum for the independence of Québec, lost by the partisans of Québec sovereignty.

Plamondon draws a severe picture of the Québec government, of the racism and violence of the Sécurité of Québec (we’re far, far away from Inspector Gamache’s gentleness) and of the treatment of indigenous nations in Canada. I understood that William, the oldest Indian character, has been in one of those despicable residential schools. But remember, the book is set in 1981.

Percé, Gaspésie.

On a lighter note, as usual when reading Québec literature, I had fun tracking down the funny words and expressions. I still don’t understand why we don’t use the same gender for some words between France and Québec. Why say son jeep (masculine, Québec) and not sa jeep (feminine, France), since the word car (voiture) is feminine. Maybe it’s because Québécois say char for voiture and char is masculine? Same for job. Why say une job and not un job since all the French words for job are masculine? (un travail, un emploi, un métier.)

I also love hearing the English under their French and chuckled when I saw Heille, man, a Gallicized version of Hey, man. The most endearing is when both French and Québécois use an English word in their French and France gets it wrong. Québécois use the appropriate English word choke for the device used to start a car when the French say un starter!

I need to read more Québec litterature, it’s often really enjoyable. It’s a pity that Taqawan isn’t translated into English and it goes in the Translation Tragedy category. It’s available in German, if that helps. Another good score for Kube!

PS: Remember my billet about The Grey Ghost Murders by Keith McCafferty where I discovered the existence of antique fishing flies? Well, Plamondon says that the oldest drawing of fly-fishing dates back to Ancient Egypt, fourteen centuries BC. I should start a “fun facts about fishing” category.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Highly recommended

December 19, 2021 19 comments

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (2020) French title: Betty. Translated by François Happe.

No matter how beautiful the pasture, it is the freedom to choose that makes the difference between a life lived and a life had.

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is our Book Club choice for December and the proof that one should never write their best-of-the-year post before the year is truly ended. What a book.

Betty Carpenter was born in 1954 in a dry claw-foot bathtub in Arkansas. She’s the sixth child of a family of eight children. Her parents were a mixed couple, her father Landon was Cherokee and her mother Alka was white.

Betty is our narrator and she tells us her family’s story from 1909, her father’s birth to 1973, the year he died. Her parents were dirt poor and after a few years of moving around, they settled in an abandoned house lent by a friend in Breathed, Ohio. It was Leland’s hometown. They lived off the land, off the medicine Landon could concoct and off odd jobs. They were dirt-poor.

The first part of the book covers the 1908-1961 years. It’s shorter because Betty doesn’t have her own memories of these years but it’s an important part to root the family tree in its history. Landon’s Cherokee roots mean that he comes from a culture with a matriarchal tradition and a history of violence as his elders hid in the wilderness to avoid deportation to Oklahoma. Alka comes from a Bible abiding family with a history of domestic violence and no respect for women.

Alka and Landon have eight children: Leland, Fraya, Yarrow, Waconda, Flossie, Betty, Trustin and Lint. Yarrow and Waconda died before they were two. Betty’s story is centered around her and her sisters Fraya and Flossie. They father told her:

“In different native tribes, the Three Sisters represent the three most important crops. Maize, beans, and squash. The crops grow together as sisters. The oldest is maize. She grows the tallest, supportin’ the vines of her younger sisters. The middle sister is beans. She gives nitrogen and nutrition to the soil, which allows her sisters to grow resilient and strong. The youngest is squash. She is the protector of her sisters. She stretches her leaves to shade the ground and fight off weeds. It is squash’s vines which tie the Three Sisters together in a bond that is the strongest of all. This was how I knew I’d have three daughters, even after Waconda died. Fraya’s the corn. Flossie is the beans. And you, Betty, are squash. You must protect your sisters as squash protects the corn and beans.”

A tall order for Betty, who becomes the custodian of the family stories. Her mother tells her about her personal tragedy. She witnesses Fraya’s horrible fate and the two sisters share Fraya’s secret. She knows about Flossie’s dirty secrets too. A resilient child, Betty understands that women and men don’t have the same opportunities in life.

I realized then that pants and skirts, like gender itself, were not seen as equal in our society. To wear pants was to be dressed for power. But to wear a skirt was to be dressed to wash the dishes.

Betty is an ode to generation of women who had to live through discrimination due to their race, their gender or their social status. And sometimes the three at the same time, like Betty who was ostracized and bullied in school because of her Cherokee physique, her poverty and her gender. Telling Alka’s, Fraya’s and Flossie’s tragic lives is a way to keep them alive and tell the world that their lives mattered. The three of them were captive of a man around them, their father, their brother or their husband. Alka explains to Betty:

“My mother used to have figurines,” Mom said as she lifted her chin as high as it would go as she added another layer of lotion to her neck and collarbone. “All of the female figurines you could take apart because they were boxes or bowls. They all held somethin’. In their skirts, in their bodies, they all held somethin’. None of the male figurines held anything. They were solid. You couldn’t put anything in and you couldn’t take anything out. I suppose if you think about it long enough, you’ll see why this is like real life.”

Alka, like Hattie in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, due to her own issue, isn’t equipped to mother so many children. As often in this case, the oldest daughter steps up and helps. But contrary to Hattie’s children, Alka’s children had their father. He’s the glue of the family. The one who heals with plants, teaches through gardening and relies on nature to help his children see the beauty around them instead of focusing on their misery. He loves his children and he mothers their bodies and their souls. He has stories about everything to turn a magic and poetic camera on the harsh reality of their lives.

I realized then that not only did Dad need us to believe his stories, we needed to believe them as well. To believe in unripe stars and eagles able to do extraordinary things. What it boiled down to was a frenzied hope that there was more to life than the reality around us. Only then could we claim a destiny we did not feel cursed to.

And the admirable outcome is that she’s able to say: Through his stories, I waltzed across the sun without burning my feet.

He’s a deeply caring man, one who is invested in his children’s life and education, who has no expectations of them, except to become what they want. Sons or daughters, it doesn’t matter. Intelligent, troubled, impaired or shallow, he loves them equally and is the real glue of the family.

Betty is emotional, tragic, violent, poetic, lyric, resilient and empowering.

Betty is actually Tiffany McDaniel’s mother and the author writes a beautiful ode to her lineage of strong women and an even more beautiful one to her grandfather, a man she never knew but was unusual in his generation for thinking that his daughters could be more than wives and mothers.

Betty is as much a tribute to Landon Carperter as the story of the Carpenter women. Betty says:

“Growin’ up,” I said, “I felt like I had sheets of paper stuck to my skin. Written on these sheets were words I’d been called. Pow-wow Polly, Tomahawk Kid, Pocahontas, half-breed, Injun Squaw. I began to define myself and my existence by everything I was told I was, which was that I was nothing. Because of this, the road of my life narrowed into a path of darkness until the path itself flooded and became a swamp I struggled to walk through.

“I would have spent my whole life walkin’ this swamp had it not been for my father. It was Dad who planted trees along the edge of the swamp. In the trees’ branches, he hung light for me to see through the darkness. Every word he spoke to me grew fruit in between this light. Fruit which ripened into sponges. When these sponges fell from the branches into the swamp, they drank in the water until I was standin’ in only the mud that was left. When I looked down, I saw my feet for the first time in years. Holdin’ my feet were hands, their fingers curled up around my soles. These hands were familiar to me. Garden dirt under the fingernails. How could I not know they were the hands of my father?

“When I took a step forward, the hands took it with me. I realized then that the whole time I thought I’d been walking alone, my father had been with me. Supportin’ me. Steadyin’ me. Protectin’ me, best he could. I knew I had to be strong enough to stand on my own two feet. I had to step out of my father’s hands and pull myself up out of the mud. I thought I would be scared to walk the rest of my life without him, but I know I’ll never really be without him because each step I take, I see his handprints in the footprints I leave behind.”

Isn’t this what parenthood is all about? Steadying feet and hanging lanterns along the path to adulthood?

Highly recommended.

PS : The original cover of the book (kept for the French edition too) is based on an Afghan crocheted by Betty. The UK paperback edition features a picture of Betty as a child. More pictures here, on Tiffany McDaniel’s website.

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury – Born to be wild

November 28, 2021 13 comments

The Wild Inside by Jamey Bradbury (2018) French title Sauvage. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Jamey Bradbury was born in 1979 in the Midwest and Alaska has been her home for fifteen years. The Wild Inside is her debut novel.

Tracy is seventeen years old and lives in Alaska with her younger brother Scott and her father Bill. Her mom died about a year ago and the three of them had to adjust and go on with their lives as best as they can. Bill is a musher, he used to compete in the Iditarod race and his wife was his partner in this. She helped preparing and training the dogs. Everything fell apart when she died. Bill had to find other ways to support his family, to raise his children alone and to cope with his grief.

This is the background story of Tracy. High school is not her cup of tea. She loves nothing more than hunting and racing with her dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. She sets traps in the forest to catch animals. She stays outdoor for hours, with her sleigh and her dogs. It is vital for her. She’s restless if she can’t hike in the forest everyday. She competes in the Junior Iditarod and she’s passionate about her sport.

Like her mother, Tracy has a special way to connect with animals and the wilderness around her. She relies on instinct, on a unique way to plug her brain to the nature around her, to be attuned to it the way animals are.

Tracy struggles with this new life. She misses her mother and even more since she was the only one who knew and understood Tracy’s gift. She doesn’t like her father’s choices: she wants to compete again, to train the dogs but they can’t afford to hire staff to take over her mother’s workload. Bill doesn’t want her to spend so much time in the wilderness hunting with the dogs. Whatever. Tracy will wait for him to sleep like a log to go out at night.

Tracy’s life changes when a man attacks her in the forest and she wakes up with blood on her. She’s certain that she has fatally injured him. Actually, Tom Hatch, her victim came to their house and her father took him to the ER. She knows he has survived but does he know that she kept his backpack with all his money? Will he come back for her? This possibility is constantly on her mind, fear impairing her thought process.

A short while later, a young man arrives at their property. Jesse saw the ad that Bill put up to rent a cabin on their land, in order to make a bit of money. Jesse proposes to trade work against rent and utilities. He soon makes himself indispensable to Bill and is a game changer in the family’s dynamics.

The Wild Inside is part thriller, part horror, part coming-of-age novel, a risky mix that Jamey Bradbury pulls off with the ease of an experienced writer. We wonder if Tracy is really in danger or if she’s so stressed about Tom Hatch that she makes up problems where there aren’t. I won’t say anything about the horror element as it would spoil the novel for a new reader. It was disturbing and unsettling, I didn’t know what to do with what I was reading. Jamey Bradbury kept me on my toes.

And along with the thriller/horror side, she manages to explore the quest of identity of the characters. Bill is trying to build a new life without his wife. Scott doesn’t find a comfortable place between his sister and his father as he doesn’t share their love for the outdoors. Tracy struggles to understand who she is, how to handle her gift. Her attraction to Jesse leads to an unsuspected surprise. Who is he? Where does he really come from and what brought him to Alaska?

The décor of the book is the incredible beauty of Alaska. I know that writers don’t have to write about something they know to picture it properly. However, I think that life in extreme conditions like Alaska or Wyoming winters are best described by writers who actually live there. They have a sense of the place, a knowledge of the climate and the wilderness that runs in their blood and seeps on the page. Jamey Bradbury makes you armchair travel to Alaska with Tracy and her dogs.

The Wild Inside came with my Kube subscription and I’ve never read anything like it. I had to put it down because I felt spooked by what I was reading. I was so unsettled at times that I almost abandoned it but I couldn’t. I had to know how things would end. One of my friends read it too and had the same reading experience. Unease, compulsion to finish and awe. What a book!

Chances Are…by Richard Russo – friendship at Martha’s Vineyard

November 7, 2021 8 comments

Chances Are… by Richard Russo (2019) French title: Retour à Martha’s Vineyard. Translated by Jean Esch.

For our October read, our Book Club had chosen Chances Are…by Richard Russo. It’s not my first Russo, I’ve already read Empire Falls (pre-blog) and Straight Man and I have fond memories of them.

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey have known each other since college. They are now in their sixties and Lincoln is about to sell the house he inherited from his mother in Martha’s Vineyard. Before selling it, he invites his college friends for a last weekend there, in this house and place where they spent the Memorial Day weekend after graduation in 1971.

Lincoln married his college girlfriend, Anita. They have six children, he works in real estate, she’s a lawyer and they make a comfortable income, even if the 2008 crisis rocked Lincoln’s boat.

Teddy works for an endangered publishing house attached to a university. It is specialized in religious books and it was under the patronage of the dean, Theresa. Now that Teresa has taken a better position at another university, Teddy knows that his job is at stake. Teddy never married and none of his friends has ever seen him in a long-term relationship.

Mickey is a musician. He has a rock band and he spends his life on tour. He’s single, dresses like a rocker and acts as if he refuses to get old.

In college, the three of them bonded as children from the working or middle class thrown with students from the upper classes. They worked at the Theta House as servers and washer-up and it is where they watched on TV the Draft Lottery for the Vietnam war on December 1st, 1969.

Mickey was number 9, Lincoln’s number was in the middle and Teddy was 362. Chances were that Mickey would go to Vietnam, Teddy wouldn’t and Lincoln could hope that the war would be over before his day came. They had respite until they graduated in 1971, since they could finish school first.

At university, the three young men saw themselves as the Three Musketeers and their D’Artagnan was Jacy. She was a member of the Theta House, a rich girl who wanted to be free from her social class constraints. The three boys were in love with her but none of them made a move and they remained friends.

At the moment of the Memorial Day weekend in 1971, Jacy was half-heartedly engaged to a young man from her social class. Mickey was about to get shipped to Vietnam. Teddy was undecided and Lincoln was with Anita who knew how to steer her boyfriends into the direction of her life plans.

Jacy disappeared at the end of this fateful weekend and none of them knows what happened to her. That weekend was their last weekend together, before starting their adult life and it ended with an enigma. When they meet again in Martha’s Vineyard all those years later, they still wonder what happened. Jacy’s shadow hovers over them and they wish they knew for sure what had become of her.

Back at Martha’s Vineyard where their adult life abruptly started, everything brings back old memories and pushes them to find closure. They reminisce their past, they probe their memories and the facts, to reflect on their lives. Lincoln starts digging as a sleuth. Teddy re-visits places and fights against a massive anxiety attack. And Mickey brings the fun and their youth because in appearance, he remained the same.

The reader learns about their childhood and the mark their education left on them. The chapters alternate between Lincoln’s and Teddy’s voices, until Mickey finally adds his voice to the choir. The reader discovers bits and pieces of their lives and the fault line that Jacy’s disappearance left on their souls. Lincoln is as fragile as his two friends but Anita’s steady presence keeps him standing, like a prop for a plant. Teddy suffers from severe anxiety crises. Mickey never went to war and fled to Canada instead. He seems carefree, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person, but is it true?

Chances Are…explores the paths of three men whose lives were impacted by odds. Working and meeting at the Theta House when they came from different States and different background. Striking a friendship with Jacy. The Vietnam Lottery. For Lincoln, meeting Anita.

The novel also questions the nature of friendship. They never addressed the fact that they were all in love with Jacy. They didn’t want to break the fragile balance of their friendship. Did she have feelings for one of them? Was it better to keep wondering who was her favorite?

And a last question, do we really know our friends? The three of them kept secrets that none of them suspected. They rarely meet in person because they live far from each other. It’s easy to keep up appearances when contacts are not frequent. Do they still know each other? If they met now, would they become friends?

This last weekend in the Martha’s Vineyard house will break all the walls and leave them naked in front of the truth.

The antidote to bleakness – comfort books.

October 23, 2021 29 comments

As mentioned in my previous billet B Is For Bleak: the bleak fest continues in Oktober, I tried to mitigate the effect of bleak reads and plays with comfort books.

The first one was The Stationery Shop by Ogawa Ito. (2016. translated by Myriam Dartois-Ako).

I had already read another of her novels, The Restaurant of Love Regained and I knew I’d be reading something soft and uplifting.

In The Stationery Shop, Hatoko is 25, she’s back in her native town of Kamakura to take over the family business after her grandmother passed away. Hatoko inherited a stationary shop and has to replace her grandmother as a public letter-writer.

We follow her as she settles into her new life, meets people in the neighborhood, connects with clients and learns about her past. I knew nothing bad would happen and that Hatoko’s life would improve as she made peace with her past and built her future. It didn’t disappoint on that part.

However, The Stationery Shop has the same backbone as The Restaurant of Love Regained and the parallels are striking. A young woman comes back to her hometown or village. She’s lonely. She has unsolved issues with the woman who raised her, mother or grandmother. She starts or runs a business based on Japanese traditions. She knows a craft deeply embedded in Japanese customs, cuisine for one, calligraphy for the other. She connects to her Japanese roots through this craft, one that is turned towards others and aims at making her customers happy with a meal or with the right letter for an event or to a dear one. While she applies her craft as a balm to her customers’ souls, she finds her inner peace. It bothered me to find out that the two books had the same structure.

Ogawa Ito gives a lot of details about Japanese calligraphy. To be honest, I don’t know enough about Japan and its tradition to catch on all the calligraphy explanations and details about the writing, the quill, the choice of paper, of stamps…I missed a layer of knowledge and all these details bored me, which is even worse than getting emotional over a bleak play. So, the comfort book wasn’t that comforting, I thought it was a bit slow and dull. A bit goodie-two-shoes too, you know, a novel aimed at spreading love and good feelings.

The next time I turned to a different kind of comfort read, crime fiction set in Montana, with The Grey Ghosts Murders by Keith McCafferty. (2013. Translated by Janique Jouin-de Laurens)

I’d already read the first volume of the series, The Royal Wulff Murders and had enjoyed it. I expected entertainment and a reprieve from emotional books.

It’s crime fiction, so, of course, there are terrible deaths and corrupt politicians like everywhere else, and it doesn’t qualify as a fluffy feel-good novel but the context is positively endearing.

No stiff in dirty back alleys like in a Connelly novel. No, you’re in the wild part of Montana. The police and the medical examiner have to hike to go to the body, only to discover that bears messed up with the evidences and that their pepper spray is damned handy when they get too close to a mamma bear and her cubs while on the job.

The main character, Sean Callahan shares his time between working as a fishing guide, painting Montana landscapes for tourists and playing amateur sleuth. Beside the murders, a group of fishermen who purchased a cabin together for their fishing holidays, ask him to investigate a theft: two of their antique fishing flies were stolen from their display cases. They were mounted by famous fishermen who invented these flies, a breakthrough in fly-fishing techniques. It’s as serious as stealing Dumbledore’s wand and yet, it’s funny to think that somewhere, there’s a parallel world where fishermen collect antique flies.

Sean helps with the murders investigation and researches thoroughly the person who had the idea to steal antique fishing flies.

Sean is quirky character, with a tender heart and he falls in love too easily, with the wrong women. He has a touchy relationship with Martha, the sheriff. He has decided to settle in Montana for good and we understand why, with all the attaching second characters in the book.

This comfort read totally worked because, to me, it’s exotic and took me far away from the previous book. It did the job and I’ll get the third volume on the shelf for future comfort read. It’s like having a Louise Penny on the ready.

That was before I read Sandrine Collette. After that one, I needed a solid pick-me-up and decided to take the safest option with guaranteed HEA.

I read Beauty and the Beast, the 1740 original tale by Madame de Villeneuve. The story was consistent with the children version I’d read before. The Disney movie and the film by Cocteau are based on a later version of the story, written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont.

Compared to this well-known version, the original has an additional part in which Madame de Villeneuve describes the war between the fairies and explains how the prince fell under a magic spell and why Beauty ended up with her father’s family. Interesting and relaxing.

Now my reading has come back to its usual mix of easy, challenging and entertaining books, like Richard Russo, Michael Connelly and Balzac.

What kind of books do you turn to after a challenging or emotional read?

B is for bleak : the bleak fest continues in Oktober

October 17, 2021 29 comments

As I said the discussion about Slobozia by Liliana Lazar, I’ve been in bleak book festival. That’s unintentional but still. For September, our Book Club picked Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-Sook. I read it after the Lazar but also after the Norek set in the Jungle in Calais, the camp for illegal migrants who want to cross the Channel and emigrate to the UK.

Please Look After Mom is a Korean novel. Published in 2008, it relates the literal loss of a mother who vanished in a metro station in Seoul. She was in the city to visit her children with her husband, they got separated in a crowded station and they couldn’t find her anymore. She doesn’t know how to read and she has a degenerative illness that confuses her. In other words, she was ill-equipped to find her way to her son’s house.

The novel has several voices as her family look for her. Her eldest daughter, Chi-hon is a famous writer. She knew about her mother illiteracy and about her disabling headaches but didn’t do anything to force her to go and see a doctor. We hear her eldest son, Hyong-chol, who bore a lot of responsibilities due to his status of first born. Her husband is almost surprised to discover that he misses her, she was his servant and a constant fixture in his life. And we hear from her, although we never know where she is.

Please Look After Mom is sad because hardly no one knows Mom’s name. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother but not often a woman. Her family realizes that they never knew who she was as a woman. They discover after her disappearance that, unbeknownst to them, she did have a life as a woman: a friend (lover?), charity work or reading lessons.

I suppose this mother is also the symbol of her generation of women: the uneducated peasant ones who worked hard, served their husbands and children, had no personal lives and saw their children move to the city after they went to school and got better jobs.

From a literary standpoint, I wasn’t too keen on the style, especially the chapters narrated with “you” all the time.

The next bleak book was Black Tears on the Earth by Sandrine Collette. (The original French title is Les larmes noires sur la terre) Phew. How bleak and desperate. It’s dystopian fiction, we’re in something like 2030.

Moe left her native Tahiti behind to follow Rodolphe to France. Their relationship disintegrates quickly. After her baby was born, she decides to leave him and as she fails to find a job, the social services take her to a place called La Casse. (The Breaker’s Yard) In this camp, the authorities park poor people and make them live in broken cars.

The cars are arranged in blocks of six vehicles and Moe is assigned to a Peugeot 308. (For non-European readers, it’s smaller than a Toyota Camry) She meets the other five ladies of her block, Ada, Poule, Nini-peau-de-chien, Jaja and Marie-Thé. Under the protection of Ada, they share their resources, protect and take care of each other and try to keep on living as best as they can.

The camp is like the Jungle in Calais described by Olivier Norek. Dangerous, hopeless and dirty. The passing fee to get out is so high that nobody can afford it. There are guards to ensure that nobody escapes. Moe has to do something to get her son out of here and give him a better life. For him she’ll take all the risks and bear all the humiliations possible.

I can’t tell you how hard it was. I wanted to stop reading and yet I didn’t feel that much empathy for Moe. The hopelessness weighed on me and as always in dystopian fiction, it’s reality pushed a little further and it is unsettling. Sandrine Collette writes really well, as I’d already noticed when I read her book Il reste la poussière. It’s a good piece of literature but you need to brace yourself for it.

The worst was yet to come with the British theatre play Love by Alexander Zeldin. The cast was British, with subtitles and composed of excellent actors: Amelda Brown, Naby Dakhli, Janet Etuk, Oliver Finnegan, Amelia Finnegan in alternance with Grace Willoughby, Joel MacCormack, Hind Swareldahab and Daniel York Loh.

The setting is a temporary shelter that belongs to the social services. People are placed there while waiting for a council flat. Colin has been there with his ageing mother Barbara for twelve months. They share a room, she’s incontinent and they hope against hope for new lodgings. A family of four has just arrived: Dean and his children Paige and Jason and his new companion Emma, who is pregnant. They were evicted and need a council flat. Dean soon learns that he lost his social benefits because he missed an appointment at the work center the day they were evicted. The other residents are two immigrants who are also waiting for a better place to stay.

We see their hardship, the simmering violence, the difficulty to live together, share a common room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilets. But there’s also burgeoning solidarity and a good dose of tolerance, empathy and politeness. They manage to retain their humanity.

The direction was excellent and the actors felt so real that we went out of the theatre with leaded shoes. Contrary to the Collette, this is not dystopian fiction. We did empathize with them. A lot. We also knew that the play was realistic and I read afterwards that it was based on true stories, that Alexander Zeldin has spent two years meeting with residents of these shelters.

That such circumstances last several months in our rich societies is a scandal per se. Art and literature always do that for you, they turn statistics into flesh and blood characters and make you acknowledge them and their problems. You can’t turn a blind eye or decide to forget that they exist. You have to face the fact that there are children like Paige, who don’t have enough for dinner, who rehearse the school play in a communal room among strangers and who need to share their space with them. It was emotional and bleak but not totally hopeless. The love between the characters still persisted and brought a timid ray of sunshine.

The Collette and the play by Zeldin both portrayed a hard society, one who thinks of poor people as delinquents and doesn’t want to see them or take care of them.

I could have drowned all this Oktober bleakness in beer but I don’t like beer. As any respecting book fiend, I picked other books to balance the acid pH of this bleakness. I chose comfort books and the billet about the antidote is upcoming. Stay tuned! 😊

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