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What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino

May 13, 2021 3 comments

What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino (1996) French title: J’ai tout entendu. Translated by Jean-Luc Defromont.

Another Kube pick for me: What the Deaf-Mute Heard by Dan Gearino. I’d never heard of it but I understand it was made into a successful Hallmark movie in 1997. I’m glad my book cover doesn’t display the film poster since I’d rather have original illustrations.

Back to the book.

Ten-years old Sammy Ayers is left behind at the Greyhound station in Barrington, Georgia. His mother is gone, he’s all alone and the station manager, Jenkins lets him sleep on a cot in a small room at the station. When it is clear that no one is going to claim this boy, Jenkins keeps him and in exchange for room and board, Sammy cleans the place. Between Lucille, the owner of the station’s diner and Jenkins, Sammy grows up in Barrington and becomes a local figure. Upon his arrival, out of self-protection, Sammy pretended that he couldn’t hear or speak. This is how he learns the whole town’s secrets.

As the narrator of the story, he relates his life and the event that took place twenty years ago, in 1966. He’s not 55-60 years old.

The town’s royalty are the Tynans. Alford Tynan was a legendary lawyer. His son Tolliver is a weasel who had an epiphany and became a preacher. In passing, Gearino makes cutting remarks on Southern preachers, their lack of mandatory education and sometimes lack of morals. Tolliver is all that. He’s respected because he has enough glibness to lead a lot of people to baptism. He hides his conniving crooked dealings and his greed under a Christian mask.

The town’s trash are the Thackers. Archibald is the patriarch of his extended family. He’s ambitious but knows how to play the race game in the South. He goes in to refuse collection and hides his business savvy under the cover of the black dummy. Play the stupid black man, use a white stooge as the front of your business and the whites will leave you alone.

Sammy hears everything and puts things together too. He has a grudge against Tolliver who bullied him in class. He knows who he is under his mask of respectability. He tells us about his revenge, his search for his mother and Jenkins’s history.

It was an enjoyable story full of the guilty pleasure you feel when a character gets the better on people who tolerate him and look down on him. I had a very nice time in Sammy’s company and the novel is built as a well-oiled machinery with good storytelling.

According to the comments I read on Goodreads, the movie stripped the book of all its edges to make it a very moral and wholesome story. I can’t tell you since I haven’t watched it but with the Hallmark tag, I suppose it’s true. Well, I prefer stories with complex characters.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Déjà Vu

May 12, 2021 4 comments

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017) French title: Le chant des revenants. Translated by Charles Recoursé.

This is a book I received in my monthly Kube subscription.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward takes us to a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. It’s owned by an African-American family. JoJo, 13 and his sister Kayla, 3, live with their maternal grandparents Mam and Pop. Their mother Leonie is a drug-addict and motherhood is only a second thought for her. Leonie married a white man, Michael, who is currently in prison. Michael’s parents are racist and never accepted Leonie as a daughter-in-law. They have never seen their grandchildren.

Mam is dying of cancer and Pop tries to hold everything together. JoJo has reached this pivotal age between childhood and adolescence when children appraise their parents and his parents’ value is down to zero. He even calls them by their first names. He understands he needs to grow up quickly. He does his best to help Pop, to take care of Kayla who relies on him and spend time with Mam.

After three years at Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitenciary, Michael is released on parole and Leonie decides to take her kids to a road trip accross the State to bring their father home.

Jesmyn Ward dives into this family’s past: their golden son Given was murdered at 18 by Michael’s cousin, Pop did time at Parchman too and Mam is a healer. Given’s death was masked as a hunting accident. Given visits Leonie when she’s high, both a soothing and a frightening figure in her life.

I know this book has won a lot of awards, that critics brought up comparisons to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner but honestly, I wasn’t blown away. I had a feeling of déjà vu that made me sigh with disappointment and weariness.

The structure of the book uses the several voices device. Like in Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult or Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan, narrators switch from one chapter to the other. It sounds more like fashion for contemporary fiction than an artistic choice and it made me long for a good old omniscient narrator.

The supranatural elements of the story didn’t agree with me either. The ghost of Given and the one of Richie, a young boy from Pop’s past, insinuate themselves in the livings’ lives. Both deaths have been masked into something else and the two boys don’t rest in peace. And it’s not new, I’m not fond of books with ghosts and haunted people.

The theme of the book itself isn’t really original. Maybe I’m just tired of Black/Indian/Aborigine children raised by worthless or absentee parents and who have to fend for themselves. There’s Blood by Tony Birch and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and now Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Each of these book is good in itself but reading the three within a year proved to be too much to me.

If you’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, I’ll be glad to discuss it with you in the comments.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult – Good reading time

May 1, 2021 12 comments

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (2014) French title: La tristesse des éléphants. Translated by Pierre Girard

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult was our Book Club read for April. It’s a tricky book to review because the risk of spoilers is very high and any hint at the key clue of the book could totally ruin the book for other readers.

So, I’ll go with a light summary of the plot. Jenna Metcalf is 13, she lives in New Hampshire with her grandmother. Jenna’s parents used to run a sanctuary for elephants and Alice’s researches were about grief among elephants. Her father Thomas has been in a psychiatric ward for ten years, since Jenna’s mother Alice disappeared during a fateful night. An elephant caretaker was killed by an elephant, Alice was wounded and she disappeared from the hospital. No one has heard of her since.

Jenna has Alice’s notebooks and she hopes that they hold clues that will help her find her mother. She can’t imagine that her mother left her behind. Her first investigations are online, tracking missing persons and looking for information about her mother and that night’s event. At some point, she decides that she needs help.

She hires Serenity Jones, a medium, in the hope to find out if her mother is dead or alive. Serenity is a gifted medium but she lost all credibility after a public mistake. She used to help the police find missing persons, dead or alive. But she became cocky, used her talents for money and fame and lost her touch. She reluctantly accepts to help Jenna.

Jenna also hires Virgil Stanhope, the cop who was on her mother’s case. He left the police force and now works as a PI, tracking unfaithful spouses. Jenna hopes that he will reopen the investigation and help her.

This unlikely trio teams up to look for Alice. That’s the basic plot. Now my opinion about the book.

The point of view alternates between Jenna, Serenity, Alice and Virgil. Jenna’s, Serenity’s and Virgil’s voices make the story move forward. They relate the current investigation and come back to their personal history, their mistakes and how they arrived at the point where they all met. Alice talks about her research, about the elephants, her life in Africa and her marriage to Thomas.

I enjoyed reading Leaving Time, I was looking forward to the next chapter and had an excellent reading time. The book was suspenseful, well-written and well-constructed. Maybe too well.

It’s flawless like a well-oiled machine, like a Hollywood blockbuster. I thought while I was reading, “I bet she has a degree in literature and studied creative writing.” Bingo, according to Wikipedia. You can feel it when you read. The characters are designed to have issues, our improbable trio of amateur sleuths have the conflicts you expect. Each character of the drama that happened ten years ago has a secret past and personal wounds. It’s as good as a TV series, and I say that without any contempt.

I was absorbed and interested in Alice’s research about elephants. I was invested in the story, I was in New Hampshire with the characters and forgot where I was for a while. The ending threw me off.

Jodi Picoult will never be a genius of literature but it’s OK. She writes well and holds her reader’s attention. Sometimes we don’t need more, because entertainment and escapism are a precious commodity in today’s world.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – Gordon and his pride and prejudices

April 17, 2021 19 comments

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936) French title: Et Vive l’aspidistra!

The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell is my second read for the #1936Club co-hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Gordon Comstock lives in a boarding house in London. He’s almost thirty, works at a bookshop for two pounds a week and has declared war to the money-god. He barely survives on his wages.

He earns enough to support himself but has no money left after he pays for his essentials. He’s very proud and doesn’t accept any help from his friends. For example, his good friend Ravelston is rich and he’d rather not go to the pub than let Ravelston pay for a pint.

Gordon has a girlfriend, Rosemary, who also lives in a boarding house. Neither of them can invite someone of the other sex in their room. They are condemned to meet outside and stay outside since Gordon doesn’t have any money to invite Rosemary even to a tea-shop and of course, he won’t let her pay for them. As Orwell sarcastically points out:

It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money. The ‘never the time and the place’ motif is not made enough of in novels.

So, Gordon is sexually frustrated and Orwell has a go at the Nancy Mitfords of the world. It’s not easy to be in a relationship when you can’t invite your partner to your home or go anywhere.

Gordon used to have a ‘good job’ in an ad agency where he showed some talent as a copywriter. But he despises capitalism and doesn’t want anything to do with money making. He fancies himself as a poet, has published some pieces in several newspaper. He’s rather live off literature but when did poetry ever paid off?

The pretence was still kept up that Gordon was a struggling poet – the conventional poet-in-garret.

It also means a hungry poet. With principles. Strong enough to hate his ‘good job’, quit and take a lesser-paid but nobler job in a bookstore.

Gordon doesn’t want to succeed. At all. It would mean that the money-god won and he’s pig-headed to the point of stupidity. He’s prideful and won’t accept help. He’s prejudiced against the middle-class, represented by their aspidistras. He loathes the middle-class and doesn’t want to partake in their way-of-living.

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak – Strube’s ‘little man’ – the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B.B.C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate!

Aspidistra

He’s almost thirty and still thinks as a rebelling teenager, when you think you won’t have the same life as your parents and then reality catches up on you. Gordon has some growing up to do and I found him exasperating and immature.

It is true that Gordon has a point about capitalism and money as the goal for life.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.

So, he sticks to his principles even if they make him sink further into poverty. Orwell has a very graphic way to make the reader understand what it means to be poor, to count every penny. Soon, Gordon understands that he cut his income himself in order not to yield to the money-god only to be tied up to it by poverty.

Money again, always money! Lack of money means discomfort, means squalid worries, means shortage of tobacco, means ever-present consciousness of failure – above all, it means loneliness. How can you be anything but lonely on two quid a week?

Orwell shows how worrying about money takes all one’s mental space and Gordon realises that fighting the money-god is not as freeing as he thought it would be.

The devil of it is that the glow of renunciation never lasts. Life on two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success.

Orwell portrays a Gordon who wants to be noble but his going against the flow is counterproductive. He loves Rosemary (a saint, IMO, to be able to put up with him) but their relationship is in a dead-end because they can’t afford to get married. Well, at least, according to middle-class standards. Orwell hints that if they were working-class, they’d get married and see afterwards how they’d get by.

Gordon enjoys Ravelston’s company but he can never get past their difference of income and social class. Ravelston doesn’t mind but Gordon lets it become a barrier between them.

Gordon thinks he’s over the middle-class way of thinking but it’s hard to escape the mental frame in which you were raised into. He struggles to set free but the ties are strong and his refusal to go Dutch on meals with Rosemary or to let Ravelston pay his beer show that he’s not free from the middle-class minset.

It’s exactly the same for Ravelston who comes from the upper-classes and claims that he’s a socialist while he secretly dislikes poor people.

The truth was that in every moment of his life he was apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income. You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was poor.

He tries to play down his wealth but his social origin speaks up as soon as he’s caught off guard.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying mocks the English class system and its stultifying codes. It shows that it’s hard to change of social class, to shed one’s education and become someone else.

From the beginning to the end, Gordon got on my nerves. I was amazed at Rosemary’s patience with him and at Ravelston’s steady friendship. They don’t give up on him and he should be grateful for them. Disliking the main character doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book. Orwell gets his point through and shows the mechanism that changed the 1968 revolutionary students in what we call in France the “caviar left-wing”.

Something else. Each time I read a British book, I come across singularities that remind how not-British I am. In Barbara Pym, you’ve got all the subtle differences between churches and who goes to which. In several books, I noticed derogatory remarks against Welsh people and digs at Scotchmen.

‘Gordon’, ‘Colin’, ‘Malcolm’, ‘Donald’ – these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge, and the works of Barrie and Stevenson.

And somewhere else.

Mr McKechnie wasn’t a bad old stick. He was a Scotchman, of course, but Scottish is as Scottish does. At any rate he was reasonably free from avarice – his most distinctive trait seemed to be laziness.

I find this pretty harsh but what do I know, right?

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is well-worth reading, Orwell’s prose is witty, cutting sometimes but always excellent.

Highly recommended.

PS: Here’s Karen’s review.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – meet Prudence, the Harriet spinster.

April 4, 2021 19 comments

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953) French tile: Jane et Prudence.

After reading Ravage, I needed to read something nice, clean and proper and turned to Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym.

Jane and Prudence met in Oxford when Jane tutored Prudence. Despite their age difference, they remained good friends. After Oxford, Jane married Nicholas, a clergyman. They have a daughter, Flora who’s going to Oxford in the fall. Prudence does editing and secretarial work for Arthur Grampian, a professor. When the book opens, Jane is about to move to a new parish in the countryside, near London.

Prudence is twenty-nine, lives in London in a flat and works to support herself. She’s unmarried but has had several admirers in the past. She cleans up well, is charming but never managed to find a husband. She has a crush on her boss, Arthur Grampian. Jane hopes that Prudence forgets about married Arthur Grampian and finds a suitable candidate in her new parish.

Jane and Nicholas move into their new vicarage and through Jane’s eyes, we see how they settle down in their new life. Jane used to research seventeenth-century poets but abandoned any attempt at a career when she married Nicholas. And now, she always feels like a failure even if Nicholas seems to love her the way she is.

Jane is not cut out for being a clergyman’s wife, of what she thinks a clergyman’s wife should be. She can’t cook, she never can say the right thing at the right time, she can’t be bothered with parish work and she’s not very religious.

They rose to their feet and bowed their heads. Jane tried very hard to realise the Presence of God in the vicarage drawing-room, but failed, as usual, hearing through the silence only Mrs Glaze running water in the back kitchen to wash up the supper things.

With Flora leaving the nest, Jane reflects on her marriage and the passing of time:

Mild, kindly looks and spectacles, thought Jane; this was what it all came to in the end. The passion of those early days, the fragments of Donne and Marvell and Jane’s obscurer seventeenth-century poets, the objects of her abortive research, all these faded into mild, kindly looks and spectacles. There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more. When had that day been? Could she have noted it and mourned it if she had been more observant?

I felt sorry for Jane and her lack of career. This is not the life she would have chosen for herself. No wonder she feels like a failure. However, she never loses her sense of humour:

‘I’ve been such a failure as a clergyman’s wife,’ Jane lamented, ‘but at least, I don’t drink; that’s the only suitable thing about me.’

She’s invested in Prudence’s future and sets her up with Fabian, widower in her parish. They start seeing each other and the two ladies hope for marriage…

Life at the vicarage has this sepia set of characters with churchgoers and goody-two shoes. It describes life in the early 1950s, the food restrictions have only come to an end. There are several mentions of how much men need meat and eggs, hinting that it’s still rare. (Jane tends to think women need them too and I agree with her on principle) Nicholas mentions a can of something and Jane replies that it’s American food and that it’s not available anymore, reminding us of the American food program for Europe after WWII.

Barbara Pym has a wonderful sense of humour, as always. She describes all the little quibbles in the village, the gossip around the vicarage, the not-totally-sincere charity work and all the kind of village quirks you expect.

As in other books by Pym, she doesn’t praise married life too much. Prudence is 29 and, as one of her spinster friends points out, it’s time to make a choice: look for a husband (at any cost, I might say) or settle down as a contented and active spinster. Prudence is still undecided. Does she really want to be a wife and give up her independence? Pym describes Prudence’s life in London and it sounds a lot more fun than Jane’s life as a country clergyman’s wife. No wonder Prudence is in no hurry to tie the knot.

Jane and Prudence is loosely based on Emma by Jane Austen. There’s a direct allusion to it at the beginning of the novel:

Prudence disliked being called ‘Miss Bates’; if she resembled any character in fiction, it was certainly not poor silly Miss Bates.

I guess that Jane is Emma and Prudence is Harriet. Nicholas has Mr Knightley’s kindness and humour. Fabian is Frank Churchill and you’ll need to read the book to look for the other characters!

This was my fourth Barbara Pym after Excellent Women, about Mildred, the spitfire spinster, Some Tame Gazelle, featuring Belinda, the clever spinster, and The Sweet Dove Died with Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Other reviews by Jacqui here and by Simon here.

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage – it deserves to be rediscovered

March 14, 2021 8 comments

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage (1973) Not available in French

The worst scars don’t show at all, but you can learn to live with them. Believe me.

When I read The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, I went to Wikipedia to read his biography and discovered he’s been married to writer Elizabeth Savage. (1918-1989) I’d never heard of her –but would have I heard about her husband without Gallmeister? – and I got curious.

I am thankful for e-books and Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust because I could easily put my hands on The Last Night at the Ritz (1973) and The Girls from the Five Great Valleys (1976), her most famous novels. A woman of her time, Elizabeth Savage only started to write novels when she was 42, after her three children had grown up a bit, I suppose. I haven’t read The Girls from the Five Great Valleys yet.

The Last Night at the Ritz is set in Boston, at the end of the 1960s. The narrator of the book remains unnamed, so, we’ll call her the Narrator. She’s a middle-aged woman and she’s meeting with her fried Gay, her husband Len and her friend Wes for a luncheon at the Ritz. Gay and the Narrator have been friends since they were teenagers. They went to high school and college together. Gay and Len met in college as well.

We know from the start that there’s something final about this Last Night at the Ritz and Elizabeth takes us there in the last pages, building the suspense –you can’t help wondering what happened—and at the same time promenades us through the Narrator’s past and the present days issues.

The Narrator relates that luncheon, which turns into booking a room at the Ritz and attending a party organized by Len’s office. (Len works for a publisher, he’s an agent. Gay and the Narrator studied literature in school too but never made a career out of it.)

The Narrator is unreliable, and if the reader doesn’t guess it, she says it candidly: Nobody — except for Gay—has ever trusted me. And for good reason.

The Narrator comes back to her lifelong friendship with Gay. They are very different in their approach to life, Gay trying to tick all the right boxes and the Narrator doing whatever pleases her.

My poor friend: she is so good and so grave. And so vulnerable. She really thought she knew just how it’s done. First you work hard and thoughtfully and win all the prizes. Then you marry your true love and live passionately forever after. And your children call you blessed because simplicity and discipline and truth gird you in triple brass. It isn’t all that simple. You are going to say that I am jealous, and perhaps I am—it is an idea that I have entertained. But I think I love my friend, and I think I honor those fine and wholesome notions that she has. I just haven’t found them practical. In my book, it also takes a little laughter.

Gay sounds like a lady who behaves by the book, through discipline and a bit of blindness. The two girls had an unusual childhood. The Narrator lost her parents at a young age and was raised by an eccentric aunt. Gay was raised by her grand-parents, among a swarm of uncles. Her grand-mother was a literature teacher at university (like E. Savage’s mother) and the house was full of books. Her grand-father was a drunkard.

Having met the grandmother, I understood Gay’s passion for order; after I met the grandfather, I understood her passion for temperance

The Narrator comes back to Gay’s marriage to Len, her relationship with their children, especially the oldest, Charley. We learn about her first marriage to Barry, her pain after his death, her long affair with Wes and her marriage to Sam. While her time with Barry was tumultuous, her affair with Wes was limited since he wouldn’t leave his wife, she now is into a calm, mature and loving marriage with Sam.

Her flashbacks alternate with the day’s events. Len and Gay are worried about their son Charley, who’s in Canada, fleeing the Vietnam war. Len is obviously tense and the Narrator suspects he had bad news about something. Gay doesn’t approve of Wes, wondering if her friend is cheating on her husband Sam with him. The Narrator says that Sam should be here, that she should call him but she doesn’t and we only learn in the last pages why she doesn’t.

Gay and the Narrator are like oil and water and I wondered how their friendship lasted so long. The Narrator muses:

The fact of the matter is that what everyone is looking for is total acceptance and unqualified approval. Some one person in the world who feels that everything you do is right. Not someone who tries to be a good sport while you make the old mistakes.

Usually, we have this unconditional love from our parents, maybe from our siblings. Gay and the Narrator didn’t have this kind of love, and may have found it in their friendship. Perhaps this deep need is the cement of the relationship between these two very different women.

Besides her life story, the Narrator comments on the changes in Boston. She obviously loves the city very much. The town destroys older building to build brand new skyscrapers. Old shops disappear, downtown neighborhoods aren’t as safe as before at night. She describes hippies on the street and a new way-of-life emerging from the 1960s. We’re in the Mad Men era, here.

Despite her flaws, and maybe because she owns them with gusto, I couldn’t help liking the Narrator. She lives with her mistakes and losses and doesn’t wallow, not because it’s the right thing to do (You know, the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) but because it doesn’t make sense to wallow. As she points out, if you sulk your life away, who has won? I liked her attitude, even if she sounds careless sometimes.

She also accepts other people’s flaws and doesn’t judge them for being human. I think she’s a bit jealous of Gay, of her landing Len and having children but deep down she knows she wasn’t cut-out of that kind of life and had she been in Gay’s place, things wouldn’t have turned the same way. She has the kind of lucidity I am drawn to.

And last but not least, who wouldn’t like someone who thinks that It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.

Highly recommended, especially to readers who enjoyed The Eastern Parade by Richard Yates.

PS: This is not available in French. Hence the Translation Tragedy Tag and Category.

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison – drugs, alcohol, ecotage and road trip

February 7, 2021 13 comments

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison (1973) French title: Un bon jour pour mourir. Translated by Sara Oudin

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison opens in Key West, Florida. Two young men meet in a bar. One, the narrator, is in Florida on a fishing trip and the other ended up there after a tour of duty in Vietnam. During a drunken night, they conceive the crazy plan of driving west, buying a case of dynamite and destroy a dam on the Grand Canyon that they heard was under construction

On their way, they go through Tim’s hometown to fetch Sylvia, Tim’s ex-girlfriend. Sylvia goes along because she still hopes that Tim will change his mind and come back to the white-picket-fence dream she still entertains.

Follows a memorable road trip of three young people who don’t want to conform anymore. The narrator, an aspiring poet, was thrown out of his wife and child’s lives because she felt he was impossible to live with. He was probably not ready to bend to the routine life that children need. The booze he consumes didn’t help his case but he has an incredible capacity to wax poetry over trout fishing in mountain streams.

Tim is damaged by the Vietnam War and bonds with the narrator over fishing. They are both passionate fishermen. Tim has nightmares from the war and struggles to readjust to civilian life.

Sylvia finds herself in the middle of them, still in love with Tim but the narrator is soon growing on her. She tries to keep Tim out of trouble and ends up disappointed.

There is no way this is going to end well. 

When I started to read A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison, I had a sense of déjà vu. A road trip with three damaged young people driving west, with music, drugs and booze, passionate with fishing in the wilderness and on a mission to dynamite a dam on the Grand Canyon. It sounded like a merger between On the Road by Kerouac (1957), Trout Fishing in America by Brautigan (1967), The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) and Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987). I’m almost sorry Abbey didn’t publish his book in 1977, it would have made a one-per-decade road trip book series.

Although the article about ecotage on Wikipedia states that the concept was popularized by Abbey’s book, Harrison wrote A Good Day to Die before The Monkey Wrench Gang, and according to the foreword by François Busnel in my copy, Harrison’s book influenced Abbey. 

I suppose that Jim Harrison put a bit of himself in A Good Day to Die. I know from McGuane’s Outside Chance that he and Harrison went fishing in Key West. And the narrator comes from Michigan and his knowledge of fishing in Montana and Wyoming comes from Harrison’s experience too. 

I know A Good Day to Die is an excellent book but since I read the ecotage/drunken poets/fishing gurus road trips out of order, the feeling of déjà vu tainted my reading. To be honest, I’m not a huge Kerouac fan. I loved Abbey for his playfulness. His characters are quirky, borderline crazy and he has a wicked sense of humor. As much as I love Jim Harrison, I didn’t enjoy A Good Day to Die as much as The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Still, the message is there. We’re in 1973 and Harrison worries about huge construction projects, wild deforestation and sprawling towns that disfigure the landscape, destroy ecosystems and ruin the environment. Maybe we should have paid more attention to these counterculture books at the time.

Fuck America. Bronsky’s Confession by Edgar Hilsenrath – Bandini on steroids

January 30, 2021 11 comments

Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath (1980) French title: Fuck America. Translated by Jörg Stickan.

Last time I visited a bookstore, I thought I’d browse through the German literature shelf and see if I could find a book that wasn’t about WWII and wasn’t too depressing. Sometimes it seems that only those make it into French translation. Fuck America by Edgar Hilsenrath caught my eye for its bold title and its colorful cover.

The book opens on a prologue: letters exchanged between Nathan Bronsky and the American consul in Germany. After Kristallnacht, Nathan Bronsky, a Jew who lives in Halle an der Saale, wants to emigrate to the USA with his family. The consul answers that it will take several years.

Then we’re in New York in 1953. Jakob Bronsky, Nathan’s son has been in America for a year. He lives in a boarding house and spends his nights at the emigrant cafeteria on Broadway and 86th. It’s open all night long, coffee is cheap and Bronsky stays there to write his great novel, The Wanker.

We follow Bronsky in his daily life, where he alternates odd jobs to save enough money to live off this cash for a while and write other chapters. He describes all his tricks to take the bus without paying and to make his money last longer. He steals a bit of coffee and some eggs in the communal kitchen at the boarding house. He eats in restaurants and leaves without paying, escaping through the bathroom windows.

Bronsky lives in a poor neighborhood, full of emigrants, prostitutes and bums. He associates with street smart emigrants or bums and follow them in small scheme to swindle money while on their jobs. Small tricks, not too risky, not too illegal. Just poor guys who turn the tables on those who try to exploit them.

Bronsky is not a good emigrant. He writes in German and has no intention of ever writing in English. He doesn’t feel at ease in the American society. He doesn’t want to become an American because he doesn’t buy the American dream. He doesn’t want to work hard and become rich. He doesn’t subscribe to consumer society, to the need to show off, to earn more to buy more.

Then the book turns into a confession and we learn what happened to the Bronsky family between 1939 and 1952 and how he arrived in America. I understand that Jakob Bronsky’s life is based on Hilsenrath’s. And that part is not so funny.

Bronsky is a Jewish Bandini merged with a sober Bukowski and a Portnoy born in 1926 Germany. He’s offensive. The dialogues are crude, absurd and hilarious. He’s obsessed with sex, obsessed with writing. He has a wicked sense of humor and he points out the foibles and prejudices of the American way of life. The passages when he does odd jobs are funny and vivid. Jakob is not a bad guy. He does what he can to survive and write his novel, trying to expurge from his sytem the burden of his war memories. He’s a survivor of the Holocaust and we tend to forget it because of the dark humor instilled in the book.

So, OK, I didn’t manage to read a German book that doesn’t talk about WWII but I sure want to read more by Hilsenrath.

Mister Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie – Québec City in the 1980s and Lady Oscar

January 24, 2021 11 comments

Mr Roger and Me by Marie-Renée Lavoie (2010) Original French Canadian title: La petite et le vieux.

J’étais parvenue à me convaincre que j’étais un garçon et je tenais à ce qu’on m’appelle Joe. J’aurais aimé Oscar, comme mon personnage de dessins animés préféré mais, à l’époque, Oscar était le squelette des classes de biologie et un nouveau type de balai révolutionnaire. Alors je me contentais de Joe, même si sa syllabe en cul-de poule sonnait comme une banale exclamation. Quand on évitait de penser aux Dalton, ça pouvait faire sérieux.

I had managed to convince myself that I was a boy and I wanted people to call me Joe. I would have preferred Oscar, like my favorite anime character, but at the time, Oscar was the name of skeletons in biology classes and a new type of revolutionary broom. I settled with Joe, even if its pouting syllable sounded like an ordinary exclamation. If you didn’t think about the Daltons, Joe could be a serious name. (my translation)

This is Hélène speaking. She’s the heroine of La petite et le vieux by Marie-Renée Lavoie. Hélène is an adult now and she remembers her life when she was eight-year-old. We’re in a working-class neighbourhood in Québec City, in the 1980s. Hélène is obsessed with Lady Oscar, the Japanese anime set in France just before the French Revolution.

I’m not sure English-speaking readers know about Lady Oscar anime. It is based on the manga The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda. According to Wikipedia, the anime was broadcasted in Québec and in France in 1986 and I remember seeing it on the French TV. In this series, Lady Oscar is a woman, educated as a boy by a father who was tired of having only daughters. Her military education helps her join the royal guard and, dressed as a man, she becomes Oscar who protects the young Marie-Antoinette. With her best friend André, they live all kinds of dangerous adventures.

So, our heroine Hélène wants to be like Lady Oscar. She wishes she were a boy and when in difficulty, she always wonders “What would Lady Oscar do?”

Hélène lives with her parents and her sisters Margot and Catherine. She’s in a loving home but her parents struggle financially. It’s hard to make ends meet. Her father is a middle-school teacher, a job he doesn’t do by choice and it weighs on him. Hélène decides to help her parents and gets odd jobs like distributing newspapers or serving drinks at bingo afternoons.

Then Mr Roger moves into her neighbourhood. He’s Hélène’s polar opposite. He’s old, grumpy and always talking about his upcoming death. He drinks too much. He’s lonely and at odds with his family. And yet, they strike an odd friendship and become daily companions.

Through Hélène’s eyes, we see the life of her neighborhood and the Québec society of the time. It’s the life of a child who accidentally discovers how poor one of her classmates is and who talks about her school life. She’s hardworking, running around the neighborhood before dawn with her newspapers. She thinks she’s on her own but we understand that some adults watch her.

Hélène describes her family life, her father’s struggles with his job, her mother’s planed meals and all kinds of everyday life’s events. She sees the world through Lady Oscar lenses and keeps her innocence because she’s too young to know much about the world. And yet, event after event, she gets a greater picture of the world around her and we understand that her home life is not as easy as she thinks it is. I wonder how much of Lavoie is in Hélène as she was born in 1974 and grew up in the Limoilou neighborhood in Québec city.

The quote at the beginning of the novel comes from The Kites, by Romain Gary: « Rien ne vaut la peine d’être vécu qui n’est pas d’abord une œuvre d’imagination ou alors la mer de serait plus que de l’eau salée… ». (“Nothing is worth living that is not first a work of imagination, otherwise the sea would only be salted water…”)

Hélène’s imagination works around Lady Oscar and her adventures. The anime seeps into her life, enticing her to see things through her own glasses and to be brave, to take chances. Hélène comes to life thanks to a lively and poetic prose and her unique view of the world. Although the Gary quote comes from The Kites, La petite et le vieux compares better to La vie devant soi and the relationship between young Momo and old Madame Rosa.

I don’t know how Wayne Grady translated French Canadian into English. As always, I enjoyed the specific expressions and Marie-Renée Lavoie’s style is sensitive and imaginative.

It also reminded me of Michel Tremblay and the Mont-Royal series set in Montreal in the 1940s for its child characters, its working-class neighborhood and the darkness under the apparent lightness of the children’s views of the world.

La petite et le vieux is a lovely novel. It’s not a postcard picture of Hélène’s childhood but a realistic one. It’s a Doisneau vision of a neighborhood, with Hélène catching the beauty where it is and bringing joy with her irony and positive thinking.

A great read if you’re looking for a book that will take you somewhere else and won’t wear you out with its grimness.

PS: I prefer the Québec cover to the English one. What about you? 

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark – an intelligent comedy about a community doomed to disappear.

January 20, 2021 37 comments

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark (1959) Not available in French (sadly)

This week is Bill’s AWW Gen 3, which means Australian Women Writers from Generation 3 and their books published between 1919 and 1960. See Bill’s explanations here

Since I don’t know much about Australian literature, Bill kindly made me a list of books that met the GEN 3 criteria. After checking out which ones were available on the kindle, I settled on Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark.

Great choice, if you want to know.

Eleanor Dark introduces us to the inhabitants of Lantana Lane, set in Dillillibill, a rural area of Queensland, the tropical part of Australia. They have small farms and mostly grow pineapples on their land that is not occupied by the sprawling lantana weed.

In this district it may be said with little exaggeration that if you are not looking at pineapples, you are looking at lantana.

You know what pineapples look like and this is lantana, a thick bush of weed:

Dark calls her characters the Anachronisms because they like farming and their small farms are against the flow of progress. Farming isn’t a well-esteemed profession.

We are not affluent people in the Lane. As primary producers we are, of course, frequently described by our legislators as The Backbone of the Nation, but we do not feel that this title, honourable as it is, really helps us much.

This hasn’t changed much over the last decades, has it? They work a lot and their income is uncertain and low. As Dark cheekily points out the three sections of the community which always keep on working whatever happens (namely, farmers, artists and housewives), are liable to get trampled on. Note the little feminist pique and the spotlight on housewives.

Only a few of farmers were actually born in Lantana Lane, several came from the city to live their dream of farming. We get to meet everyone, the adults, the children, the dogs, the utes and another weird vehicle named Kelly and finally Nelson, the communal kookaburra.

Each chapter is a vignette that either describes a family and their history, a special episode in their lives or a specificity of this part of Queensland. And what characters they are!

Cunning Uncle Cuth manages to stay with his nephew Joe without taking on a workload. Herbie Bassett let his contemplative nature loose after his wife died for there is no need to work for the material world when you can unclutter your life and enjoy gazing at nature. Gwinny Bell is a force of nature, a master at organization and obviously a superior intelligence. As the omniscient narrator points out, her skills are wasted in Lantana Lane.

I loved Aunt Isabelle, the older Parisian aunt of the Griffiths, who arrives unannounced, eager to live the pioneer life. Our communal aunt is an active, vivacious and extremely voluble lady of sixty-eight., says the Narrator, in the chapter Our New Australian. I loved her silly but kind behaviour. Her speech is laced with French mistakes in her English and French expressions (All accurate, btw. I seize the opportunity to tell my kind English speaking readers that the endearment mon petit chou refers to a little cream puff and not a little cabbage.) The most noticeable clue of her assimilation as a true Australian is that she will cry gladly: “Eh bien, we shall have a nice cupper, isn’t it?” Tea addict.

I laughed at loud when I read the chapter entitled Sweet and Low, about young Tony Griffith, his fife and his parents’ outhouse. I followed Tim and Biddy’s endeavours to grow things on their land and slowly take into account their neighbour’s agricultural recommendations.

The Dog of my Aunt is about Lantana Lane’s barmy characters, Aunt Isabelle’s arrival and her friendship with Ken Mulliner and I felt I was reading a written version of a Loony Tunes episode. Eleanor Dark has such a funny and vivid description of Aunt Isabelle’s travels to Dillillibill, her arrival at top speed on a Kelly driven by a wild Ken Mulliner that you can’t help chuckling.

Between the chapters about the people, Eleanor Dark inserted chapters about the place. There’s one about lantana and pineapples, one about the climate and cyclones, one about the serpents and one about the kookaburras and Nelson in particular. I wonder where the chapter about spiders went.

We understand that this tightknit community is in danger. The authorities are taking measurements to built a deviation, a bitumen road that will put them on the map. Pesticides invade agriculture, the trend is to create big farms. Eleanor Dark has her doubts about all these new methods and wonders what they will do to nature.

But this is a labour-saving age, and chipping is now almost obsolete. The reason is, of course, that Science has come to the rescue with a spray. The immediate and visible effect of this upon the weeds is devastating, though what its ultimate, and less conspicuous effects upon all sort of other things may prove to be, we must leave to learned research workers of the future.

Well, unfortunately, now, we know.

Eleanor Dark has a great sense of humour and Lantana Lane is a comedy. She mixes irony and humorous observations. She has knack for comedy of situation. She writes in a lively prose, a playful tone, shows an incredible sense of place and a wonderful tendency to poke fun at her characters. She points out their little flaws with affection and pictures how the community adapts and accepts everyone’s eccentricities. But behind the comedy, the reader knows that this way-of-living is condemned.

As usual, reading classic Australian lit is educational, vocabulary-wise. I had to research lantana, paw-paw, Bopple-Nut, pullet (although, being French and given the context, I’d guessed it was the old English for poulet) and all kinds of other funny ringing ones (flibbertigibbet, humdinger, flapdoodle…)

Visiting Lantana Lane was a great trip to Queensland, a journey I highly recommend for Dark’s succulent prose. For another take at Lantana Lane, read Lisa’s review here.

Note for French readers: Sorry, but it’s not available in French.

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

January 17, 2021 9 comments

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (2015) French title: Les étoiles s’éteignent à l’aube. Translated by Christine Raguet.

A couple of months back, I gifted myself with a Kube subscription. I described my reading tastes, chose an independent libraire (of course, I selected Charlotte, whose bookstore is named La vie devant soiLife Before Us) to pick me a monthly read. I love book blind dates.

Medecine Walk by Richard Wagamese was the first book I received through this monthly subscription and Charlotte was spot on. Wagamese (1955-2017) is a Canadian indigenous writer, from the Ojibwe nation.

Medecine Walk takes us to British Columbia, the cold part of the state. Franklin (Frank) Starlight is sixteen. He doesn’t know who his mother is and his contacts with his father have been scarce and disastrous. Eldon is an alcoholic who works to pay his booze and otherwise lives in squalor.

Frank was raised on a small farm by The Old Man. He doesn’t know how he’s connected to him but this man took him in and raised him as his son. Franklin is a quiet boy, hardworking and attuned to the majestic nature around him. He loves solitary travels in the woods and knows how to survive in the wilderness. He never made friends in school, was called Injun too many times and dropped out of school as soon as he could.

He’s quite content with his life when his father Eldon asks him to come and visit him. Frank goes reluctantly and learns that his father is dying. Alcohol got the better of him and now he wants to go and die like a warrior, sitting facing east. He has a spot in mind and wants Frank to take him there.

This cathartic journey will be an opportunity for Eldon to reveal his past to his son, give him some clues about where he comes from and who The Old Man is. For Frank, this difficult walk with his suffering father is his chance to reconnect to his past, to patch up the foundations of his soul that were fractured by his unknown origins and be stronger for the future.

When I pick up pieces of Eldon’s story to build a timeline in my head, I come to the conclusion that Frank was born around 1960, so, about the same as Wagamese. Frank doesn’t know much about his biological parents, and that’s a big issue. Eldon doesn’t talk much and The Old Man always thought it wasn’t his story to tell, leaving a young boy wondering about his mother, instinctively looking for her around him. Eldon starts talking when he doesn’t have a choice, when taking his memories with him in the grave would end up erasing his presence on Earth. After all, after we’re gone, we only survive in others’ memories.

Eldon’s story is sad but Frank holds his own and doesn’t accept his father’s circumstances as valid excuses. At least, not readily. He can’t help thinking that you always have a choice and that Eldon took the easy route, leaving his son in someone else’s care and using his addiction as an excuse not to step up. Of course, things are always more complicated than that but Frank is only sixteen.

The truth is Eldon himself doesn’t know much about his lineage. His surname is Starlight and he doesn’t know where it comes from. He feels not uprooted but “unrooted”. To be uprooted would mean he had roots in the first place but although he knew his parents, he doesn’t know much about Ojibwe traditions. He’s in a strange limbo, the whites see him as an Indian and he doesn’t belong to an Ojibwe community. It’s hard to build a strong backbone in these conditions. Although Eldon didn’t go to a boarding school for Indigenous people, I couldn’t help thinking that his not knowing about his family’s history was the direct consequence of the Canadian indigenous people policies.

As a reader, I was happy that Frank got the clues about his past when he was young enough to patch up his inner holes. He has a chance to mend himself and move on. I liked that he listened to his father but that he was smart enough to keep his critical mind. I closed the book thinking he’s be alright.

Medicine Walk is a good reading companion to The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert and Eldon’s life reminded me of stories by Annie Proulx.

Highly recommended. Thank you, Charlotte!

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert – tragedy strikes in Washington state

January 12, 2021 11 comments

The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert (2014) French title: L’heure de plomb. Translated by François Happe.

For Matt Lawson, the hero of Bruce Holbert’s novel, this hour of Lead mentioned in Emily Dickinson’s poem happens in November 1918. He’s at school with his twin brother Luke and they have to go home during an intense snow storm. They leave school but soon realize they will not make it home and decide to go back to school until the weather improves. Their school mistress Linda Jefferson spots them and brings them home but despite her best effort, it’s too late for Luke. He dies of hypothermia.

At home, at their farm, their father Ed leaves the comfort of the house to go and look for them. He gets lost in the blizzard and doesn’t come back; his wife Helen won’t even find his body.

Matt is fourteen when this tragedy strikes. His father and his brother are dead, his mother is walled up in her grief and he’s the only man to run the farm. Luke was the bright and sociable twin. Matt is the quiet and slower one.

Now he lives in a silent household. Neither Helen or him know how to verbalize their grief and talk about their emotions. Stocked emotions erupts in fits of violence and Matt’s love finds an outlet in his dog and his horse.

Matt starts working hard on the farm, lives besides his mother and on Sundays, he drives the carriage around, looking for his father’s body. This is how he meets and falls in love with Wendy. He doesn’t have the social codes for courting her. His ways are unusual, weird even. He frightens her and she rejects him, his second tragedy.

The Hour of Lead is Matt’s story, the life of a man who lives in a remote part in the east of Washington state. We come across other people from the area, as they come in and out of Matt’s life: Wendy and her family, Linda Jefferson and her son Lucky, the Jarms family.

It is a story of the West with people branded by the climate and the wilderness around them. They don’t say much, they act. Matt is weaned of human love when Luke and his father die. He never recovers emotionally and doesn’t know how to express his feelings. Things are not better in the Jarms household.

We are among people who yearn for love and don’t know how to share it, to show it or keep it. In this novel, women are hard, cold and don’t spread a lot of love. Matt’s mother has no interest in her son. Linda’s ways with Lucky are possessive and unhealthy. Wendy has a hard time connecting with her children.

We also witness the taming of the wilderness around them. A barrage domesticates the river. Roads are built and distances are covered more easily. The third generation, Wendy’s children seem more adjusted as if the taming of the nature also put a lid on their wildest instincts.

The Hour of Lead is a compelling story. Matt is a tough man who lost his twin at fourteen, lost himself in the process, became a hard worker to keep his sanity. He loves deeply and is devoted to the people he loves. Holbert could have changed Matt into a drunk but he drew a character who doesn’t drink much since his drug of choice for escapism is sheer physical exhaustion through brutal manual labor.

Matt’s journey in life is one of redemption, a slow walk towards inner peace with a constant care to protect others from his demons. It’s a very atmospheric novel that shows in the background how tough the life was in this part of the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym – meet Leonora, the manipulative spinster

December 13, 2020 7 comments

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (1978) French title: La douce colombe est morte.

‘Life is cruel and we do terrible things to each other.’ ‘Yes, that’s the worst of it.’

My reading of The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym was sandwiched between fluffy Patricia Brent, Spinster by HG Jenkins and nightmarish The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower. Writing this billet after the others makes me realize that The Sweet Dove Died is a middle ground between the two.

Humphrey is a widower who has taken his orphaned nephew James under his wings. James is in his twenties and has started to work at Humphrey’s antique shop. His uncle is showing him the ropes, James works with him but has no artistic background, no real interest in the industry. It’s easy, that’s all. (James was not yet sure what he wanted from life, and had so far tended to avoid violent extremes of any kind.)

Humphrey and James meet Leonora at an antique book sale. She’s a middle-aged single woman. She’s attractive, old-fashioned, enamored with the Victorian era and the three strike an odd relationship. Humphrey hopes to woo her and win her over. On paper, she’s perfect for him and he’s perfect for her.

The problem is Leonora is attracted to James, who is charming and extremely handsome. She doesn’t act on it but she takes up all his attention.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, to avoid spoilers. It is an interesting story to read as Leonora is a mix between a praying mantis and a pretty poisonous mushroom. Under her fragile appearance (“At the last minute she slipped a bottle of smelling salts into her bag – one never knew, there might be unpleasantness.”) is a cold hard and egoistic woman. She’s ageing, lonely and James is a satisfying toy to have:

Sometimes it seemed almost as if she had created him herself – the beautiful young man with whom people were always falling in love and who yet remained inexplicably and deeply devoted to her, a woman so much older than he was.

Leonora stages her life, her décor, her clothes and is performing as soon as someone might watch her. (She herself preferred crème de menthe; she had changed into a green chiffon dress which gave her a feeling for that drink.) She loves being the center of attention. It wouldn’t be an issue if she didn’t start manipulating James’ life to secure his attention.

And James in all this? Contrary to Clemency in The Catherine Wheel, he never stood a chance against Leonora or other people who want his attentions. He’s got a weak mind, doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s not sure about his sexuality either. He goes with the flow because it’s easy.

Leonora is always put together and her old-fashioned vibe suits him. For example, Leonora wears gloves. In the summer. In 1978. And like Jenkins’s characters in Patricia Brent, Spinster, she thinks that Tea is a panacea for all ills and a liquid for all hours. She likes Victoriana antiques and loves Tennyson’s poetry. (I’m not British, I’ve never studied British poetry but to me, Tennyson is Miss Silver’s favorite poet and he’s associated to old ladies who love to knit sweaters for their armful of grand-nephews or nieces. What does Tennyson evoke to a British reader?)

James is a pawn between several characters in the book. All are charmed because he’s very handsome, polite, kind and never makes a fuss about anything. He got on my nerves because I get irritated by spineless characters. While reading The Catherine Wheel, I was desperate to see Clemency fall into Christian’s net, I wanted her mind to win and set her free. Here, I was watching James be a toy and I never pitied him because he was weak from the start and rather happy to go with the flow and not have to make any decision by himself. It’s not really charitable of me, but I thought he deserved his fate.

The Sweet Dove Died could be as suffocating as The Catherine Wheel but it’s not, thanks to Pym’s constant and light sense of humor. She deflates the tension with amusing remarks (The young waiters darted about, responding with charming politeness to the halting holiday Italian some of the diners felt obliged to practise on them.) or with Humphrey’s clumsy attempts at wooing Leonora.

The Sweet Dove Died is an odd tale, very different from the other Pyms I’ve read. Excellent Women starred Mildred, the spitfire spinster. Some Tame Gazelle was all about Belinda, the clever spinster. The Sweet Dove Died pictures Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Three unmarried women who have a different reaction to their spouseless status. Mildred decides that she’s better off without a husband, Belinda accepts to live with her unrequited love for Henry. Leonora decides she wants James as a companion and that the end justifies the means.

Highly recommended.

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower – toxic relationship at its finest

December 5, 2020 23 comments

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower (1960) Not available in French. 

“I felt as if something was killing me. The pressure of his personality.”

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower is set in London in the 1950s. Clemency James, 25, is from Sydney and is in London to study for the bar by correspondence. (Why couldn’t she stay in Australia if she were to study by correspondence anyway is a mystery to me) She has a room in a boarding house, where she shares a bathroom and a kitchen with other tenants. Her room is her safe harbor, her place to study, work and teach. Indeed, her life is split between studying, giving French lessons, tending to her domestic duties and meeting with her friends until Christian Roland and his so-called wife Olive move into the boarding house.

They’re an odd couple, Olive is a lot older than Christian and she left her husband to follow him to a strange life in London. Christian is handsome, tortured and uses twisted ways to take people over. He’s full of unrealistic dreams like becoming a star actor at the Comédie Française in Paris when he’s not French and doesn’t even speak the language fluently. But he’s certain that he’s entitled to a higher standard of living and that being poor is totally unfair to him.

At the beginning, Clemency isn’t particularly interested in befriending them but Christian and Olive worm themselves into her life. Christian manipulates her into giving him free French lessons. Olive is especially friendly and diffident. Clemency is more and more drawn to Christian in spite of her and he pursues her relentlessly. Olive is consumed by jealousy –according to Chrisitian—and the reader never knows whether she’ll surrender or turn violent or whether it’s all in Christian’s imagination because he wants to live in a world where women fight over him.

The whole novel is told by Clemency and it is the slow destruction of a young lady who thought herself strong enough to get close to Christian’s flame without burning her wings and fails spectacularly.

It’s the tale of a neurotic relationship based on a fight between two minds. Clemency’s mind is determined not to be conquered and it acts as a red flag to Christian’s mind, pushing him to use every trick that his sick mind makes up to win her over. It’s not the assault of a lover consumed by love. It’s the assault of a deranged and narcistic man who wants to conquer and bask into Clemency’s surrender.

I looked it up, “the Catherine Wheel or breaking wheel is an instrument of tortuous execution originally associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria”. This is exactly what Christian –funny name for a character who uses a mental instrument of torture compared to one used to execute Christians— is doing to Clemency. He’s killing her free will, her independence of mind. He tries to cut her from her friends. He embarks her in his journey towards self-destruction and madness. He lies, he cheats, he drinks, he believes in the wildest and most unrealistic schemes, like the one about Paris.

All in fair in love and war? For Clemency, all is unfair in this story but she’s not necessarily a likeable character. She seems untethered, detached from everything and living like a fish out of the water. I wanted to shake her up and seeing her so passive, even at the beginning, before she got drunk on Christian, got on my nerves.

Reading this was a mini Catherine wheel to me. I abandoned the book twice before eventually finishing it. I started to write my billet about why I had given up on it and realized that I’d already invested enough time in it and I needed to read it entirely to write this billet.

I didn’t like to read about Clemency’s destruction even if I wasn’t invested in the characters. I have no patience for tortured relationships (hence my profound dislike of Wuthering Heights) but here, I couldn’t help thinking that I was witnessing the appropriation of one’s mind by another person, that it happens in real life and that the writer was describing a frightening mechanism.

We’ve all known people whose behavior changed drastically after they started seeing or befriending someone new. We’ve seen people giving their money, losing their good sense over someone or acting against their best interest. This is what Harrower’s book is about. The mechanism of the relationship between Clemency and Christian is applied to a love relationship in this novel. It could also be between friends or family members.

Harrower’s tour de force lies in the minutia of her description. Christian’s manipulation is gradual, and described with such an accuracy that made me want to put the book down and stop reading. To breathe. And exhale my frustration because Clemency was too passive and Christian so ridiculous in his dreams that I couldn’t care less about his childish but destructive machinations.

The pun is easy, but it’s been a harrowing book for this reader. I’ll recommend it for its excellent style, the quality of its execution but you need to be in the mood for twisted relationships before immersing yourself in such a difficult tale.

I very highly recommend Guy’s excellent review of The Catherine Wheel.

This is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer challenge.

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage – 30 years in Grayling, Montana

November 11, 2020 2 comments

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage (1988) French title: Rue du Pacifique. Translated by Pierre Furlan.

And we’re back in Montana with a novel by Thomas Savage, The Corner of Rife and Pacific. Savage’s earlier novel, The Power of the Dog was part of the Read-the-West readalong that I did with my sister-in-law. We decided to go for another year of reading books together. In September, we read the excellent Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer and our choice for October was The Corner of Rife and Pacific. In November, we’re reading The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert.

In The Corner of Rife and Pacific, Thomas Savage takes us to Grayling, Montana. A quick search on Wikipedia shows that there’s no Grayling in Montana but that Grayling, Michigan is where Jim Harrison was born.

When the book opens, we’re in 1890, the town of Grayling is officially founded and Mr Rife is its first mayor. He’ll become a street name. Two families were present at the ceremony, the Metlens and the Connors who arrived from California in the 1880s. They’re Pacific.

An omniscient narrator with a storyteller voice starts to tell us the story of these two families, with the Metlen in the foreground and the Connors in the background. John Metlen and his wife Lizzie settled in Grayling on a ranch. Later, they also had a hotel in town. The Connors settled in town and became bankers.

We follow the Metlens from 1890 to 1920, from the foundation of the town to its thirtieth anniversary. The local aristocracy is made of the families who were there when the town was founded, recreating a system of class inherited from the old world.

Besides the Metlen family’s story, we witness the world change during these years and it comes to Grayling too. Advertising, phones, cars, new technologies appear, but that would be the same for any novel set in that time. The two families don’t have the same vision of life, the Metlens want to live decently and peacefully besides the Shoshones tribes. The Connors are ambitious moneymakers and support the removal of the native Americans from their land.

Thomas Savage describes the foundation of a pioneer mythology. The locals celebrate the foundation of their city and reinvent their past. They do a carnival where women come dressed up in “old time” costumes, which means that they wear their mothers’ clothes. They do rodeos. Amateurs go on stage and play historical moments of the pioneer history. They don’t embarrass themselves with historical accuracy, taking in all that looks old.

Savage says that the locals have lost part of their past because it stayed back in Europe with the families left behind when the first family member came and settled in Montana. These towns with no history, no past have to create their own history, to have common grounds and strengthen their roots. We all need to know where we come from and the community of Grayling builds their own legend and roots. It’s based on a certain idea of masculinity, the myth of the cowboy and of the pioneers.

John Melten and his son Zack don’t fit well in this idea of masculinity. Lizzie says John is a dreamer and a poet. They have a balanced relationship and John relies on her for moral support. She’s also a good listener, a sounding board. Zack isn’t fond of hunting, horse-riding or any other outdoorsy activities. He’s intelligent and into science and communications technologies. His parents support his endeavors and he’s not pressured to run the ranch or take over the hotel. They seem a bit eccentric among the others or simply ahead of their time.

Thomas Savage was born in 1915 in Salt Lake City and was raised on a ranch in Montana. John Melten and his wife Lizzie have common traits with the Phil and George’s parents in The Power of the Dog. I wonder if The Corner of Rife and Pacific is not also a quiet tribute to Savage’s family and his Western roots.

I think that The Power of the Dog is a better book than The Corner of Rife and Pacific but it is still an easy and enjoying read.

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