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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.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford – good fun, most welcome at the moment.

November 7, 2020 22 comments

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. (1945) French title: La poursuite de l’amour.

‘I don’t want to be a literary curiosity,’ said Linda. ‘I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation. I think it’s too dismal to have been born in 1911.’

I was looking for a book I was sure I’d enjoy and turned to The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. I had really fond memories of Christmas Pudding, its funny tone, Mitford’s witty prose, its eccentric characters and its entertaining plot.

In The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford takes us to Alconleigh, the Radlett’s family estate. The narrator is Fanny Wincham, a niece of the Radletts who spends her holiday at Alconleigh. Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie have seven children and Linda is the one closest in age to Fanny. They have a close relationship, built during the holidays at Alconleigh. Fanny tells us Linda’s story.

Raised by a father who uses his children as baits instead of foxes for fox hunting, the children are homeschooled under the supervision of a dubious French governess. The boys go to Oxford, the girls stay home since they don’t need education according to their father.

Uncle Matthew loathed clever females, but he considered that gentle-women ought, as well as being able to ride, to know French and play the piano.

Fanny’s mother had no inclination for motherhood and it was decided that little Fanny would be raised by Aunt Emily, Aunt Sadie’s sister and her mother’s sister as well. Aunt Emily had a more modern and conventional vision of girls’ education.

While Linda grew up with little structure and no formal education, Fanny went to school. She also led a quiet life with Aunt Emily who later remarried to Davey. Linda and Fanny grew up in a very different atmosphere.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.

The two cousins are quite opposite but their bond is solid. Linda is fanciful, her goal in life is to have a full romantic life. She’s a sort of Emma Bovary. No solid education, expecting Great Love and unable to settle for less and bear the quotidian. Fanny, who married a scholar named Alfred muses, comparing her life to Linda’s:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-racking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle. These are the components of marriage, the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining; Linda had been feeding upon honey-dew, and that is an incomparable diet.

We follow Linda in her pursuit of love and Nancy Mitford takes us on a vivid tour of the upper-class milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve read her biography on Wikipedia and it’s clear her own life, family and friends inspired her.

I don’t want to spoil the plot and tell too much about Linda’s love tribulations. You’ll have to discover by yourself what happens to her.

Linda is an attaching character with a dazzling personality. People are drawn to her, despite her lack of any useful competence. Even if she tries to do something by herself, she fails spectacularly, has no qualms about it and recounts her endeavours with disarming ingenuousness. Here she is, playing house:

‘But oh how dreadful it is, cooking, I mean. That oven – Christian puts things in and says: “Now you take it out in about half an hour.” I don’t dare tell him how terrified I am, and at the end of half an hour I summon up all my courage and open the oven, and there is that awful hot blast hitting one in the face. I don’t wonder people sometimes put their heads in and leave them in out of sheer misery. Oh, dear, and I wish you could have seen the Hoover running away with me, it suddenly took the bit between its teeth and made for the lift shaft. How I shrieked – Christian only just rescued me in time. I think housework is far more tiring and frightening than hunting is, no comparison, and yet after hunting we had eggs for tea and were made to rest for hours, but after housework people expect one to go on just as if nothing special had happened.’ She sighed.

I guess everything is a question of perspective and upbringing, right. (Athough I dislike vacuum cleaners too. They stink, they’re noisy and make you sweat. *shudders*) Linda seems perfect for partying and chatting with friends and nothing else.

Besides Linda’s story, I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love for the picture of the British upper-class in the 1920s and 1930s. Strangely, it made me think of Brexit. Nancy Mitford’s characters react like the upper-classes of the time and she discloses their view of the world. Uncle Matthew hates foreigners.

‘Frogs,’ he would say, ‘are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’

Like in The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, I sometimes felt in the book an ingrained distrust for non-English things. I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s just built-in certainty that the English civilization tops everything else and that there’s “us” and “them”. I’m not sure that 40 years in the EU are enough to erase that feeling from a people’s psyche. Just wondering if it helped the Leave side of the campaign, pushing the right buttons.

At some point, Linda ends up in France and Nancy Mitford writes:

She looked out of the window and saw chateaux, lime avenues, ponds, and villages exactly like those in the Bibliothèque Rose – she thought she must, at any moment, see Sophie in her white dress and unnaturally small black pumps cutting up goldfish, gorging herself on new bread and cream, or scratching the face of good, uncomplaining Paul.

Being a middle-aged French, I perfectly understand what she means. But what do non-French readers make of this quote nowadays? There were also a lot of French sentences or expressions in that part of the book. Mitford’s readership probably knew French well-enough to understand but what about now? There were no footnotes to help a modern reader. It’s not the first time I notice passages in French without any translation. It’s easy for me but how do other readers feel about it? Is there a rule in publishing that says that these passages shouldn’t be translated?

After these random observations, I’ll leave you with this quote about Paris, one that still rings true and makes me long for my Parisian escapades to wander in neighbourhoods and visit art exhibitions.

Paris in the early morning has a cheerful, bustling aspect, a promise of delicious things to come, a positive smell of coffee and croissants, quite peculiar to itself.

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara – Is there something strange in Otto’s neighborhood?

November 3, 2020 9 comments

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara. (2013, Brazil) Not available in English. French title: Les Nuits de laitue. Translated by Dominique Nédellec. Original title : Noites de Alface.

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara is a book I picked on a whim in a bookstore, because the cover caught my eyes and and also because Zulma is a good publisher. It sounded like a unique book, a clever blend of eccentricity, tenderness and mystery. And it is. Quirky is the best adjective I can come up with.

Ada and Otto had been married for fifty years when Ada died suddenly. They didn’t have any children and after half a century of constant companionship, care, animal documentaries, puzzles, cooking and ping-pong, Otto is on his own. They have lived in their neighborhood for ages and we soon get acquainted with their lovely and funny neighbors.

There’s Nico, who works at the local pharmacy and is obsessed with side effects of medications. He keeps reading all the explanatory leaflets and marvels at the oddest side effects he can find. There’s Aníbal, the crazy postman who sings at the top of his lungs and randomly delivers mail. There’s Iolanda and her crazy chihuahuas and Teresa the typist and her three dogs. And last but not least, there’s Mr Taniguchi, an old Japanese who believes that the war in the Pacific isn’t over. It’s an eccentric neighborhood where people look after each other.

Otto is trying to find a new normal without Ada, who was beloved in their community. She loved Milanese cauliflower dishes and she generously spread that love in her street, making random deliveries to her neighbors. When Otto started to suffer from insomnia, she cooked lettuce herbal tea, thinking it would help. It didn’t. Now Otto’s insomnias taste like lettuce and he hates any leafy vegetable.

Otto is a grumpy old man and he used to leave all the socializing to Ada. Now, he just wants to be left alone in his home and bury himself there until death comes and gets him. His neighbors have other things in mind and soon Otto suspects that they’re hiding something from him.

It’s hard to describe Barbara’s novel. It’s fun, light and bubbly. At the same time, Otto’s pain is palpable. He lost his wife, his best friend and his window to the world. The quotidian needs to be reinvented without Ada and Otto holds on to small tasks and his notes-to-self are often amusing:

Il se leva et, en trainant des pieds, alla se brosser les dents et se laver le visage avec deux types de savons antibactériens –l’un éliminait 99.8% des bactéries et l’autre 99.7%. A eux deux, ils feraient donc mieux qu’exterminer les micro-organismes nocifs : sa peau afficherait un solde créditeur. He got up and, shuffling his feet, went to brush his teeth and wash his face with two different anti-germ soaps –one killed 99.8% of germs and the other 99.7% Between the two, they’ll do more than eliminate toxic micro-organisms: his skin would show a credit balance.

Vanessa Barbara takes us to each house and tells us about each neighbor, their past, their dreams and their goals. Meanwhile, a series of events make Otto suspicious. He doesn’t know if something’s wrong or if it’s just a conspiracy to bring him back among the living. And you’ll need to read the book to find out whether he’s right or wrong.

The Lettuce Nights is written in a witty tone, Otto making quirky remarks and remembering Ada’s habits with fondness. It’s a bit like The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Høeg as it has the same texture of fun, quirk and thoughtful musings on love, life and death. Jean-Pierre Bacri would make a perfect Otto as he rocks the combination of snarky and oddly fragile. Now that I think of it, it’d make a great French comedy film.

An entertaining read.

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa – Let’s play a game with book covers

October 25, 2020 19 comments

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa (2008) French title: Le restaurant de l’amour retrouvé. Translated from the Japanese by Myriam Dartois-Ako.

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa is a celebration of food and its healing powers. Rinko works as a cook in the city and when she comes home, she is shocked to discover that her boyfriend has cleaned up their apartment and left. The flat is totally empty and with no home and no boyfriend, Rinko decides to go back to her native village, a place she left behind ten years ago, when she was barely fifteen.

The shock is such that Rinko is speechless. Literally. She can’t speak anymore and has to communicate through notes. Her village is in the country and Rinko has a complicated relationship with her mother, Ruriko. Rinko is an illegitimate child and she doesn’t know who her father is. Her mother runs the local bar, financed by Neocon, a rich man who paid for the bar and covers Ruriko with presents. Rinko dislikes her mother and Neocon.

Ruriko accepts to lend money to Rinko, so that she can launch her own restaurant in the village. She calls it The Snail. It becomes a very special place, where Rinko only serves one table at a time, creating a special menu for the guests. Soon, her restaurant has the reputation to foster love and bring a happy-ever-after to the guests. Her success is immediate.

Said that way, it sounds cheesy but it’s not, at least for the first part of the book, the one I enjoyed the most. I immersed myself in Rinko’s world, made of an indifferent mother, a strange pet pig named Hermes after the luxury brand and that she has to look after, a gentle janitor, Kuma, who helps her clean and install the restaurant. I liked Rinko’s resilience and the feeling that it was a tale out-of-time and out-of-space.

I liked the pages about selecting the right produce and preparing food. I enjoyed reading about Rinko’s soul-searching venture through her restaurant. Cooking for her guests is a gift, a way for her to spread her love to others. Rinko nurses her broken heart in the kitchen, bringing happiness to her guests. Cooking is an act of love, her way to connect to others and belong to the world.

As long as I was reading about the restaurant, I was fine and invested in the story. I started to get bored when Ruriko’s story came into the mix. I won’t tell much because it’d spoil the story for other readers but I thought it was too much. Improbable family secrets are revealed and Rinko’s world is once again turned upside down.

I rarely do that, because I don’t think books should come with warning stickers, but the last part is not for vegan and vegetarian readers, and that’s all I’ll say.

For another opinion, here’s Vishy’s review. And Bookmaniac’s.

As always, I looked for the English language cover of the book. As usual, I found it lacking and went looking for covers in other languages. Let’s play a game. You’ve seen the French cover and here are six other covers from other languages, including the original Japanese.

I’ve read the book and I can tell you that the Asian covers are the best to represent the atmosphere of Rinko’s tale. Naïve drawing showing her in her village in the mountains, connecting to nature and the locals.

The French cover is OK, it’s faithful to the text, it shows the delicate beauty of the book. It’s different from the other Western covers, with its blue tone.

The Western covers are all the same deep red tones, not a color I associate with Japan but more with China. The Italian one is good as it represents Rinko cooking and it’s a major aspect of the book. The Spanish one is cheesy with the rice heart and the worst one is the American one. I truly wonder where it comes from and who had the idea of such an odd picture considering the book.

And what about you? Which covers would lead you to pick up The Restaurant of Love Regained from a display table in a bookstore?

Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 12 comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

20 Books of Summer #12: The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg – Adventure, banter and soul-searching

August 14, 2020 14 comments

The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (2010) English translation by Martin Aitken. French title: Les enfants des cornacs. French translation by Anne-Charlotte Struve

It’s not that one can’t take pleasure in seeing others make progress in life, especially when it’s your parents. But making progress isn’t enough on its own, one has also to consider in what direction such progress is progressing. And right now, as we sit here in front of all these newspapers clippings, Tilte and I share the thought that our mother and father seem to be progressing in giant evolutionary leaps towards at least eight years in prison.

Meet Peter and Tilte, the two main protagonists of The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg. The only narrator we’ll have is Peter. We’re on Finø island, the island they call Denmark’s Gran Canaria. Tilte and Peter are the youngest siblings among three children. Their brother Hans is older and remains on the mainland. Tilte is sixteen and Peter fourteen. They have a dog, Basker, named after The Hound of Baskerville. Let’s call them the Finø Team.

Their parents Konstantin and Clare are respectively the minister and the organist of a church on Finø. They are missing and their children are tracking them down. From the beginning, we understand that Peter’s parents are con artists and that they are probably working on a big scam to embezzle money. Contrary to the blurb on my paperback edition, I don’t want to say too much about the plot because Peter slowly unveils the extent of the issue.

The whole book is an adventure, a race against the clock. Will they find out on time what their parents are up to? Will they manage to prevent it and save their parents from themselves? They’re not the only interested party in this. The bishop of their church also wants to avoid a scandal and will do anything to find Konstantine and Clara before it’s too late. The police are after them too, because they want to put them in a children shelter until their parents are found.

Will the Finø Team escape their pursuants?

A paragraph here and there and we get to know this family and their quirks. Tilte has a formidable personality and a lot of sass. It’s encapsulated in her forewarning her mother before a parents-teacher meeting at school:

Mother, this evening the teachers will complain about me, and it’s because they feel squeezed by the breadth of my personality.

Isn’t that the most wonderful way to explain mischief in the classroom? (This is something that Arturo Bandini, Fante’s recurring character, could say)

Peter is an odd but refreshing narrator. He’s obsessed with soccer and I have to admit some of his soccer comparisons flew over my head as I know nothing of the rules of the game. He’s also heartbroken because his girlfriend Conny left Finø to become an actress. He’s a thoughtful teenage boy, observant and looking at the world with his own lenses and always at odd angles. He’s a lonely soul, reflective and sharing his thoughts about life.

Peter Høeg created a gallery of characters with odd names and weird biographies. For example, you’ve got Count Rickardt Three Lions, Anafalbia Borderrud or Leonora Ticklepalate. Adults will either help or chase after the children. There are many twists-and-turns in the book and a solid suspension of belief is necessary to enjoy the ride. The tone of the book is light and fun, like a continuous banter.

It’s something between The Fabulous Five, The Goonies and Scoobidoo, if these referred to Nietzsche and discoursed on loneliness. It’s full of humor and it made me chuckle and smile.

There’s a school of philosophy that has established itself on Finø and elsewhere in Denmark that believes that blondes with plunging necklines to be warm-hearted, though empty-headed. The woman in front of me dispels that theory at once. She’s as cool as a refrigerator and her aura suggests she is continually processing information at high speed.

The constant banter and detours to say something was tiring sometimes. It’s fun but too much fun kills the fun. Here’s another sample of the book’s tone:

Among Danes at large, even on Finø, a great many people, adults and youngsters alike, though perhaps especially the former, hold the opinion that of all the humiliations and insults to which they have been subjected, life is by far the worst. This doesn’t apply to the residents of Big Hill. Not one of them has escaped losing everything in the world, and for that reason, they seem to recognize that once a year, at least, one perhaps ought to be slightly glad to be alive.

It’s fun but it makes you long for Hemingway’s style.

However, soulful passages are inserted in the fun. Tilte explains that their parents are elephant keepers without knowing it.

She means that Mother and Father have something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control.

In his offhand tone, Peter muses over various deep topics: parenthood, loneliness, dreams, love, family and one’s expectations. It complements the cartoonesque side of the book and provides nice breaks in the chase.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children is an unusual book and I can’t decide whether I find it entertaining or irritating, light or deep. Perhaps it’s a little of everything.

It’s not for every reader, I found it tiring at times but still enjoyed the ride.

20 Books of Summer #8 and #9 : two books I couldn’t finish

August 3, 2020 25 comments

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) French title: Neige. Translated by François Pérouse. // La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (2006) Not available in English.

I can’t say I got along with our two last Book Club reads, Snow by Orhan Pamuk and La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (Not available in English and a literal translation would be The Shutter Troopers) In both cases, I read around 120-150 pages before giving up, I think I’ve given them a fair chance.

Let’s start with Snow. The character Ka –sounds like he’s coming of a Dino Buzzati novel—arrives in the provincial town of Kars, in Turkey. It’s winter and snowing. He’s back in his country after living in Germany for a decade. He’s a published poet and he’s sent to Kars as a reporter to investigate the suspicious suicides of young girls in the area. It’s also where his former university classmate Ipek lives. He had a vague crush on her back then and now he thinks she could be marriage material.

I know that Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize of Literature and that Snow is a well-acclaimed novel. I just didn’t get along with it. I thought that the constant religious discussions were too long and boring and I found the relationship between Ka and Ipek implausible.

It’s the kind of book I should have liked and I’m sure it tells lots of interesting things about Turkey but I was really struggling. I asked the other Book Club members how they were doing with it and the one answer I got was that the last 200 pages were a little boring. Since the first 100 pages were already plenty boring to me, I made the decision to stop reading it. I couldn’t push through the 500 pages left. I was just bored.

It’s obviously a good book, just not one for me. Or perhaps I read it at the wrong time.

 

Now The Shutter Troopers. It’s SF, so really out of my comfort zone and I was apprehensive to tackle these 730 pages of hardcore SF, not even dystopian fiction. Think of Dune.

The first chapter threw me off. Humans are in a life-threatening wind tempest in a décor of rammed earth houses and Australian bush. The author is from Lyon and rammed earth houses are typical from the Dauphiné region, between Lyon and Grenoble. Since the landscape was made of red earth, spinifex, eucalypti and oaks, I thought about Australia. Images of my in-laws’ village clashed in my head with images of Uluru.

The structure of the book is unusual. The chapters go from XIX to I. The main characters are described in a glossary at the end of the book, something I’ve just discovered. The characters speak one after each other and are represented by Greek symbols. You never know who’s speaking unless you click on the symbol (ebook) or refer to the characters bookmark (paper book). The POV changes several times per chapter.

I have the ebook version and I hated clicking on the symbol because it broke my reading flow, so I stopped checking. (It would have been the same with the paperback anyway) I didn’t always know who was speaking and I spent the few chapters I read trying to understand what I was reading. French speaking readers will understand what I mean with this quote: “Les chrones les plus petits ont le volume d’un gorce. Les plus gros pourraient tenir dans la doline.”

I asked about La Horde du Contrevent to French readers on Twitter and got the same answers. It takes half of the book to really get into it; you have to read it in few sittings to really manage to enter into the book’s world and you need the book bookmark to follow who’s speaking but after 350 pages, it’s getting better. I also asked what it was about and the most accurate description was that it’s about a sort of rugby team who travels the Earth to find out where the wind comes from. It’s a spiritual quest.

The thing is, I don’t have the luxury to read 730 pages in one or two sittings, even on holiday. It got on my nerves not to be able to understand whose POV I was reading, even if the characters have distinct voices. I believe I would have recognized them in the end. But there are 23 troopers. How long would it have taken me to spot each character through their voice? Russian novels are piece of cake after that, believe me. Each trooper has a role in the team and it’s hard to assimilate as well since these roles are totally imaginary.

Call me conservative but I don’t think I should refer to a bookmark for the names of the characters when I’m reading. All this irritated me, got in the way of my immersion in Damasio’s world. And, honestly, it’s a pity. He’s insanely creative. His descriptions are precise, poetic and visual. He imagined a coherent world with rules and inhabitants and I’m sure that for some readers, it’s a wonderful journey. But Damasio is too verbose for my tastes. I put the book down for a few days, thinking I’d get back to it. I tried to resume reading and I was put-off by the style. I wasn’t interested in knowing what would become of them and I wasn’t intrigued enough to push through the discomfort of feeling totally disoriented.

La Horde du Contrevent won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2006, the Goncourt of SF. It’s rated 4.46 stars on Goodreads. My vision of it is only mine and says nothing about the quality of the book just that it wasn’t a good match for this reader.

This blog is not about reviewing books, it’s my reading journey, I share the good and the bad experiences.

20 Books of Summer #7 : Nada by Carmen Laforêt – Twelve months in the life of a young woman

July 31, 2020 27 comments

Nada by Carmen Laforêt (1944) French title: Nada. Translated by Marie-Madeleine Peignot and Mathilde Pomès. Revised by Maria Guzmán

While I’m off wandering and doing Literary Escapades, I’m still reading. This year, as part of Spanish Lit Month and 20 Books of Summer, I decided to read Nada by Carmen Laforet along with Vishy.

When Nada opens, eighteen-year old Andrea arrives to Barcelona to attend university and study literature. She’s an orphan and used to live with her cousin in the country. Now, she’s going to live with her maternal uncles, aunt and grandmother.

Her train is late and it’s night when she finally reaches the family apartment on Aribau Street. The grandmother opens the door and it’s as if Andrea falls into a horror movie: the apartment is dark, stuffed with old furniture, it’s dirty and dusty, the people living there look old, tired and menacing. The scene is striking and the reader wonders where Andrea enters. She’s led to the living-room, with her bed made on an old sofa. It’s as if she’s disturbing spiders and other creatures.

The reader knows right away that something’s not right in this household. Being poor doesn’t mean being filthy and there’s something disturbing about Andrea’s welcome.

Andrea will share the lives of her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncle Roman, her uncle Juan and his wife Gloria and their baby. The grandmother is a sweet and religious old lady who would sacrifice her well-being to maintain the peace. Angustias is a righteous spinster who warns Andrea against Gloria and wants to control her life. Juan is a would-be painter who can’t accept that he has no talent. He doesn’t make enough money to support his family. Roman is a talented musician, too lazy to make a good career out of it. In any case, we’re in 1944 and Barcelona is still recovering from the Civil War.

Andrea finds herself in the middle of the unhealthy ties between the family members. Angustias wants Andrea to be her pet but you don’t catch flies with vinegar. Andrea silently resists. Roman tries to attract her with honey, but she still feels ill at ease and perceives that he’s manipulative. Gloria concentrates all the violence of the family: Angustias hates her, Juan beats her and Roman desires her and belittles her. There are undercurrent of past events between the three.

Roman is a central character in the novel. He’s charismatic and cruel. He counts on his enigmatic personality to draw people in his nets. Other people are preys.

Andrea starts going to university and befriends Ena. Their friendship is a breath of fresh air for Andrea but also the source of torments. She’s too poor to fit with Ena’s family and she feels like an outsider in her circle of bohemian friends too.

From the very first pages, the reader feels that this experience in Barcelona will be crucial in Andrea’s life and that drama is inevitable.

Nada reminded me of Hello Sadness by Françoise Sagan, probably because both have young women as main characters and both were written when their authors were very young.

Andrea also sounded like an existentialist character. Sartre’s Nausea was published in 1938 and Camus’s Outsider in 1942. Like Meursault, Andrea is a bit aloof and her friend Ena notices it. She doesn’t fit into the usual young woman mold: she doesn’t wear make up, doesn’t think about boys and getting married. She’s not even passionate about her studies.

She’s floating on the sea of her life, trying to navigate around the violent outbursts at home, staying with her friends but not belonging. She doesn’t seem committed to anything. The young men who try to seduce her can’t find a grip to climb over her personal walls. They fail and fall like inexperienced climbers in front of a smooth rock face.

Sometimes Andrea cares about others, about Ena especially but she’s mostly indifferent about her relatives. She’s invaded by an overwhelming sadness at times and a depressing vision of life. Who can blame her, considering her circumstances?

Barcelona is a character in the book too. Andrea flees from the house and spends hours wandering in the city’s streets. The architecture and the weather leave marks on her moods.

Despite her apparent apathy, Andrea is a fighter. She resists all attempts at putting her on someone’s side. She fought for leaving the country to study in Barcelona. She silently stands up to Angustias. She won’t bend and she fights for her freewill. Nobody will take her freedom of thinking and even if in appearance, she doesn’t make a fuss about anything, her mind is her own.

Is this silent resistance the author’s vision of how to resist the Franco dictatorship? Staying safe and keeping one’s freewill must have been a challenge back then. Times must have been tough in Barcelona, a former bastion of the Republicans. Nada stays away from political issues and doesn’t delve on the war years but it’s underlying.

In the end, Nada tells twelve months in the life of a young woman and sounds like an existentialist coming-of-age novel.

Highly recommended.

Other reviews by Caroline and Jacqui.

Update: And reviews by RichardSusana and Claire

 

 

 

20 Books of Summer #5: The Overstory by Richard Powers – a book tree

July 14, 2020 10 comments

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) French title: L’Arbre-monde. Translated by Serge Chauvin.

I decided to read The Overstory by Richard Powers after reading his interview in the review America where he talked about the fascinating world of trees and made me look at them in a different angle. I thought I’d give his sequoia novel a try.

The Overstory is a Sagrada Família book. Built like a cathedral with precise blueprints and with trees as pillars. Like a tree, it has four parts, Roots, Trunc, Crown and Seeds.

In the Roots part, we meet nine characters, Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Ray, Dorothy, Douglas, Neelay, Patricia and Olivia. Each has a tree totem. They come from California, the Midwest or the West. All have a relationship with trees and forests. It comes from their childhood or they have a revelation later. They come from different backgrounds, two of them have immigrant parents. It’s hard to say how old they are but they’re born between the 1940s and the 1960s. Some will keep a remote relationship with trees. Some will turn into green activists or even eco-warriors. One is a scientist devoted to the cause of biodiversity. All are convinced that old forests are precious and need to be protected.

The Trunc part is where some of the roots meet and live together for a while. Crown sees them live apart, make their own way in life. And Seeds is their legacy. The structure of the book is rather clear-cut and it is intentional, Powers is too gifted for it to be random clumsiness.

I enjoyed Roots, learning about the characters, knowing they’d interact somewhere in the future. I liked the Trunc part but was a bit disappointed with the rest. I learnt things about the destruction of trees, either because of bugs or through the cutting for woods. I heard the argument about giving trees the status of a legal body. Lawyers can represent their interests in court, then. I was fascinated by the description of the workings of the ecosystem around the roots of the trees. They live in harmony with other living creatures, animals or plants. Scientist are only unearthing the complexity of the communication system between trees. Since trees don’t move and don’t interact with us, we forget they’re living creatures. And Powers points out, Noah only took animals and humans on his ark. I got it and it’s a valid argument.

We think with our times. When people fought against slavery, for women’s rights, for the independence of colonies, a lot of their contemporaries thought they were extremist and nuts. They were ahead of their time and now their vision is the norm. Did we make the same mistake with environmental activists since the 1960s?

Powers says you don’t change people’s minds with rational thinking, that humans aren’t wired that way. You might change their minds with a good story. I think he’s right. The Overstory is not like The Monkey-Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey even if some parts reminded me of the Gang. It’s less abrasive in it’s form, more consensual and more likely to reach readers with moderate thinking.

Back to the Sagrada Família book. I have mixed feelings about The Overstory. Powers’s writing is incredibly poetic and his sentences rustle like leaves in a quiet forest. The tree metaphor is everywhere. I suppose that it needed to be that long (730 pages) to mirror the longevity of the old trees it sings about. I had the feeling that things were coming along smoothly, that important facts were sown in a poetic vision of forests and trees.

I was captivated and bored. I wasn’t really receptive to some farfetched communication channel between trees and one of the characters, Olivia. I am wary of people with callings. I’m with James Lee Burke when he writes “I’ve had some experience with people who are always trying to right the world by wiping out large portions of it. They all have the same idea about sacrifices, but it’s always somebody else’s ass that gets burned.”

Everything is well orchestrated, like a symphony. Each character plays its own instrument, has its part and they are in perfect sync. It doesn’t mean that the characters are saints. They are adrift, mean sometimes and not always good spouses or parents. They try to raise awareness but symphonies are barely heard in the world of pop-music.

The Overstory is a majestic symphony. I acknowledge it’s beautiful just like I do when I hear classical music. But symphonies never manage to move me the way blues does. The Overstory didn’t tug at my emotions as much as The Book of Yack by Rick Bass did.

I’m curious about other readers’ responses to this book. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

20 Books of Summer #4: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke – Breathtaking

July 12, 2020 6 comments

The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke (1986). French title: Le boogie des rêves perdus.

In the darkness of the tavern, with the soft glow of the mountain twilight through the blinds, I began to think about my boyhood South and the song I never finished in Angola. I had all the music in my mind and the runs that bled into each chord, but the lyrics were always wooden, and I couldn’t get all of the collective memory into a sliding blues. I called it “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” and I wanted it to contain all those private, inviolate things that a young boy saw and knew about while growing up in southern Louisiana in a more uncomplicated time.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is the second James Lee Burke I’ve read. (The other one is The Neon Rain, the first book of the Dave Robicheaux series)

When the book opens, we’re in 1962 and thirty-year old Iry Paret is about to leave the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. He’s on parole after a little more than two years in jail for manslaughter. He killed a man during a bar brawl. Iry is a gifted musician, he plays rural blues in bars. Now, he’s going back to his childhood home, where he’s not welcome.

It wasn’t going to be pleasant. Their genuine ex-convict was home, the family’s one failure, the bad-conduct dischargee from the army, the hillbilly guitar picker who embarrassed both of them just by his presence in the area.

His mother and sister died in 1945, his father is dying and his brother and sister aren’t too happy to see him again. Iry knows his stay in Louisiana will be short: he has applied to do his parole in Montana and work at his friend’s parents’ ranch. Buddy Riordan did time in Angola for marijuana possession. Buddy is a jazz pianist and music brought the two men together.

Buddy Riordan was working on a five-to-fifteen for possession of marijuana when I met him in Angola. He was a good jazz pianist, floating high on weed and the Gulf breeze and steady gigs at Joe Burton’s place in New Orleans, and then he got nailed in a men’s room with two reefers in his coat pocket. As a Yankee, he was prosecuted under a felony rather than a misdemeanor law, and the judge dropped the whole jailhouse on his head.

Buddy is already back in Montana when Iry drives across the country to get to the ranch. As soon as he arrives, they stop at a bar and Iry feels the hostility towards them. He soon learns that Buddy’s father, Frank, has made enemies in his county. Indeed, he lodged a complaint against the company who owns the local pulp mill because it doesn’t have a proper filter and pollutes the whole Missoula area. People are angry because the pulp mill might close and they’ll lose their job.

Iry finds himself guilty by association and the locals are determined to run him out. He’s in the middle of this feud when he needs to lie low and comply with the rules of his parole.

Neither Iry or Buddy are hardened criminals. Iry wants a chance at a new life while Buddy drives through his at full throttle with his head clouded by drugs and alcohol. He’s separated from his wife Beth, he rarely sees his two sons but not even his family manages to ground him. Buddy has a love-hate relationship with his father and doesn’t get along well with his grownup sister. He feels like a failure.

What they didn’t understand about Buddy was that he had turned in his resignation a long time ago: an “I casually resign” letter written sometime in his teens when he started bumming freights across the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t have a beef or an issue; he just started clicking to his own rhythm and stepped over some kind of invisible line.

Iry inserts himself in Buddy’s life, working and living on the ranch, bonding with Frank and meeting Beth and the kids. Buddy is a bad influence on Iry and inadvertently thwarts Iry’s efforts to turn over a new leaf. They drink too much and Buddy does drugs. His temper is volatile and Iry never knows what he could get himself into.

Don’t misunderstand me, the two of them start thick as thieves but Iry wants to grow up and yearns for a chance at a new life. He’s not a saint but he’s trying. He needs to start believing that he deserves it. The Lost Get-Back Boogie is his journey to redemption, even if he seems like a “loser” most of the time, but he’s just a man who fought in the Korea war and came back with a Purple Heart and a bruised mind, a sensitive blues musician who can play any song after only hearing it and a person who wants a second chance at life. Who sets the parameters of the definition of “loser” anyway? He’s doing a lot of soul-searching and I hoped he would find his way back to a quieter life.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie also reflects on the DNA of America. Capitalism, violence, hard work and hope. Remember, we’re in the early 1960s and consumer society is the new norm. Here’s Iry driving home from Angola and observing the changes:

But as we neared New Orleans, the country began to change. Somebody had been busy in the last two years; it was no longer a rural section of the delta. Land-development signs stood along the highway, replacing the old ads for patent medicine and Purina feed, and great areas of marsh had been bulldozed out and covered with landfill for subdivision tracts. Mobile-home offices strung with colored flags sat on cinder blocks in the mud, with acres of waste in the background that were already marked into housing plots with surveyors’ stakes. The shopping-center boys had been hard at work, too. Pecan orchards and dairy barns had become Food City, Winn-Dixie, and Cash Discount.

Unbridled capitalism has the same effects in southern Louisiana as in Montana. It destroys landscapes and people for profit. Quickly. Very quickly.

Capitalism builds up on fear. We’re in 1962. The Great Depression is a fresh memory and people still have scars from that time. Unemployment is their greatest fear and they are ready to accept a lot from rogue companies as long as they have a job. Firms had a lot of leeway to use violence against workers who would protest. These men working at the pulp mill would rather turn against Frank Riordan than fight for the implementation of a proper filter at the pulp plant.

As the novel progresses, Iry discovers Montana and finds out the common points with southern Louisiana. He reflects on Montana’s history, one that also mirrors America’s history. It’s based on violence and the appropriation of the land to make money but also on the hope of immigrants. The country is built on violence and destruction. Slavery. Indians. The killing of buffalos in the 19thC. The destruction of rivers and trees in the name of progress in the 20thC. In Montana, the natural resources are wood. They have pulp mills. In Louisiana, the natural resources are oil. They have oil fields, and sugar mills.

Bonner was the Anaconda Company, a huge mill on the edge of the river that blew plumes of smoke that hung in the air for miles down the Blackfoot canyon. The town itself was made up of one street, lined with neat yards and shade trees and identical wood-frame houses. I hadn’t seen a company town outside of Louisiana and Mississippi, and though there was no stench of the sugar mill in the air or vision through a car window of Negroes walking from the sugar press to their wooden porches in the twilight with lunch pails in their hands, Bonner could have been snipped out of Iberia Parish and glued down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

The same causes have the same consequences. Underpaid workers work to destroy their own environment, barely survive and mortgage their children’s future. But who can judge them? They need to put food on the table.

Burke describes Montana people as rough. After all, they settled in a place with a hard climate and only the tougher survived.

“You don’t understand Montana people. They’ll hate your ass and treat you like sheep dip, but they come through when you’re in trouble. Wait and see what happens if you bust an axle back on a log road or get lost deer hunting.”

They do justice themselves with their rifles and their fists. Iry and Buddy get beaten up and threatened and the sheriff lets it slide. That’s the way justice is done around there. It’s something you guess in The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage too. Like Savage, Burke is never judgemental. He’s observant, that’s all.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is a very atmospheric book with incredible descriptions of Louisiana in the beginning and Montana later. Burke draws the portray of a man who’s fighting to crawl out of the hole he fell into. Music sustains him. Friendship too. In an interview I read in L’Amérique des écrivains, Burke says that it took nine years and 111 refusals to have The Lost Get-Back Boogie published by LSU Press. A big thank you to them for taking a chance on this marvelous piece of literature. Everything I love in a book is there: stellar style, great characters and a background of social commentary.

Very highly recommended.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is my fourth billet of my 20 Books of Summer series.

20 Books of Summer #3: Blood by Tony Birch – Indigenous Literature Week

July 7, 2020 14 comments

Blood by Tony Birch (2011) French title : Du même sang. Translated by Antoine Bargel.

Tony Birch is an Australian Indigenous writer. His debut novel Blood is my third 20 Books of Summer billet and my contribution to Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week. Lisa hosts this event to help readers discover Indigenous Literature, mostly from Australia and New Zealand. If you want to know more, here’s her post that describes the event and gives book recommendations.

In Blood, Tony Birch introduces us to Jesse and Rachel who live with their useless mother, Gwen. She works where and when she can and she’s constantly attracted to bad boys with criminal streaks and has no motherly instinct.

Jesse (13) and Rachel (8) almost never go to school. They move too much, living in abandoned farmhouses, in trailers, in shitty flats. Their mother leaves them on their own and the telly is their baby-sitter. They watch a lot of crime shows and films they’re too young to see. Gwen shows no real affection to her children. She’s always on the run.

The children know nothing about a normal life and a normal childhood. They stick together and their deepest fear is to be picked up by social services and to be sent to different foster homes. Jesse feels responsible for his sister, they made a blood pact to always help each other. Gwen is the major source of their issues.

We’d always been on the move, shifting from one place to another, usually because she’d done the dirty on someone, or she was chasing some fella she’d fallen for. And when Gwen fell for a bloke, she had to have him.

Once she shacks up with Jon, an ex-convict. Due to his past, he can’t find a job, stays home and starts to take care of the house and the kids. He’s determined to stay on the wagon and to turn his back to his former life. He sticks to it, cooks, cleans up the house, takes the children to school. They start to have a routine but this life becomes too homely for Gwen, Jon lost his edge and she kicks him out. The children lose a caring adult and are back to square one.

Gwen leaves them behind at her estranged father’s house. Jesse and Rachel have never met him and the improbable trio finds their way together. Stability is around the corner when Gwen shows up again and takes the kids away. Now she’s with Ray and this one is a real criminal. Jesse quickly realises that this man is very dangerous. He starts thinking about running away with Rachel and his hatred for his mother grows.

We know from the beginning that something terrible has happened. Jesse, the only narrator in the book, rings true. He takes us through his life up to the present. The story is suspenseful, breathtaking and heartbreaking. I was hooked from the first pages, mentally cheering the children, dreading for their future and cursing Gwen’s idiotic and shameful behaviour. It’s bleak but Jesse never gives up.

It sounds like American Darling by Gabriel Tallent. I rooted for Jesse and Rachel like I did for Tallent’s Turtle. I wish that Turtle and Jesse could meet, bond and share their mad survival skills. Both Tallent and Birch are gifted storytellers, embarking us on a journey in these kids’ lives. Blood isn’t as emotionally scarring as American Darling but it still made me angry on behalf of Jesse and Rachel.

Blood is on this thin line between literary fiction and crime fiction. (Gabriel Tallent was invited to Quais du Polar, btw.) We see children put on the path of violent criminals by their worthless mother. We wonder where social services are and how children can live under the radar like this. No institution worries when they don’t come back to school. No social worker ever shows up at their house. The world of adults constantly fails them, up to the point that Jesse and Rachel take matters in their own hands.

Blood is a compelling read that will stay with me and I highly recommend it. Many thanks to Lisa for reviewing books by Tony Birch. I knew of him when I visited the bookshop Readings in Melbourne and Blood was among the books I brought back to France.

 

Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

July 4, 2020 21 comments

Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) 1920 Not available in French.

This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

I’d never heard of O. Douglas before reading Ali’s post about Penny Plain for the 1920 Club. I decided it was a good book to have on hand for lockdown times or for days with little book concentration. I was happy to find it on my e-reader on a headachy Sunday.

Penny Plain is a romantic comedy set in Priorsford, Scotland, in 1920. Jean is 23 and lives with her brothers David, Jock and their adoptive brother Mohr in a rented house, The Rigs. Their parents are dead and Jean raises her brothers. She struggles to make ends meet. When the book opens, two events change her routine: David is leaving home to study in Oxford and Pamela Reston settles in Priorsford.

Pamela Reston is from English aristocracy. She’s almost forty, single and tired of her superficial socialite life. She decided to come to Priorsford to enjoy a simple life. Her brother, Lord Birdborough is in India. She calls him Birdy and they are close. In a nutshell, Pamela is having what we call now a mid-life crisis. Her arrival makes waves in Priorsford…

“I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very ‘twopence coloured’ she wants the ‘penny plain’ for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our ‘penny-plainness’—it jumps to the eye!

But Pamela soon befriends the locals, especially Jean. In appearance, they are total opposite. Jean is the kind of virtuous character you only find in novels. She’s rather mousy and here she is, seen through Pamela’s eyes.

Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, “like a trout-stream in Connemara,” that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock,

(Trout fishing really follows me everywhere, eh?)

It’s a romantic comedy, there’s no great originality in the plot but the characters are well-drawn. Jean’s brothers are funny, especially Mohr, the little one, only aged seven. He’s full of mischief. The crew of servants is also quirky, even if they tend to speak with Scottish accent and that was a challenge for me. Sentences like this require a bit of attention:

He couldna veesit his folk at a wise-like hour in the evening because he was gaun to hev his denner, and he couldna get oot late because his leddy-wife wanted him to be at hame efter denner.

You can’t forget you’re in Scotland. Going to England seems like crossing a border and venturing into a foreign land. And what it is with Scotland and religious intricacies? Catherine Helen Spence mentions it in her Autobiography and it went over my head. Her family was Calvinist and it weighed on her vision of life. Jean’s aunt, who raised her, was also a Calvinist and was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed.

There are different churches in Priorsford and any newcomer must pick one. That’s already strange for a French for whom things are rather clear-cut. In the 1920s, you’re Catholic, maybe Protestant and there’s only one church of each. The real debate would have been between the churchgoers and the anti-clerical folks. Here, since there’s a wider offer of religious services, there are puzzling passages about the merits of a clergyman or the other, peppered with remarks like Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians. I read this and thought “?????”

This brings me to the other nice side of Penny Plain, O Douglas’s witty prose and clever observations. It counterbalances well the obviousness of the plot. It can be in descriptions of people:

Mrs. Jowett is a sweet woman, but to me she is like a vacuum cleaner. When I’ve talked to her for ten minutes my head feels like a cushion that has been cleaned—a sort of empty, yet swollen feeling.

Don’t we all know people like that whose conversation is one-sided and leaves you baffled? It’s also in little notes..

January is always a long, flat month: the Christmas festivities are over, the bills are waiting to be paid, the weather is very often of the dreariest, spring is yet far distant. With February, hope and the snowdrops begin to spring, but January is a month to be warstled through as best we can.

I’ve always felt like this about January. Some things don’t change, even a century later.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book, and with a little wave to Bill, I’d say a perfect one to listen to while driving a truck. I’ll leave you with a last oh-so-true little quote:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

 

 

A Mirrors Greens in Spring by Selina Sen – New Delhi in the 1980s

June 10, 2020 19 comments

A Mirror Greens in Spring by Selina Sen (2007) French title: Après la mousson. Translated by Dominique Goy-Blanquet.

A Mirror Greens in Spring is an Indian book by Selina Sen. Set in New Delhi in the early 1980s, it focuses on the lives of two sisters, Chandrayee “Chhobi” and Sonali. We are in a Bengali household where the two young women live with their widowed mother and their grand-parents.

The grandfather is very nostalgic of his youth. He had to leave his hometown after the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s from Bangladesh and he chose to stay in India but he never truly healed and still feel in exile.

Chhobi is 25 and Sonali is 19. The two sisters have very different personalities, due to a different education. When Chhobi was a young girl, their father died and she stayed in a Catholic boarding school when Sonali went back to New Delhi with their mother.

Chhobi is more studious and loves history. She works for a magazine in Delhi and writes pieces about various historical places of the city. She wants to have a PhD in Indian history. She’s the serious one, taking care of her sister and behaving responsibly. As she’s already 25, their intrusive neighbour, Mrs Chatterjee, wonders why she doesn’t have any prospect of marriage yet. But Chhobi enjoys being single and doesn’t seem eager to get married. She’s intelligent, grounded and her good sense brings a good support to her family. Her boss, Rosemary, encourages her to follow her dreams and not give up for family reasons.

Sonali is the frivolous one. She’s gorgeous, spoilt and self-centred. Her only interests in life are clothes, jewels and parties. She’s naïve and since she’s so pretty, her grandmother, the real master of the house, hopes for a rich marriage. So, when Sonali sneaks out of the house to meet her wealthy boyfriend Sonny, her mother and grandmother turn a blind eye. The inevitable happens: Sonny’s family has already chosen someone else for their son…

The first part of the book is pretty standard. Two girls with opposite characters, a cautious one and a reckless one. I thought that the plot was a classic déjà-vu and I almost stopped reading. The second part moved past the jilted poor girl part of the plot and became more suspenseful and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it.

Overall, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring but I thought there were too many descriptions of places, flowers, dishes, saris and of the weather. It felt written for an international public who doesn’t live in India. The descriptions happened at odd moments, as if a tourist guide jack-in-the-box popped up to give details and it broke my reading flow. It did make me want to learn how to cook Bengali cuisine though, everything sounded delicious!

India is a complex country for foreigners and I didn’t get the Bengali vs Panjabi comments from the characters. Sonali got on my nerves because I have little patience for spoilt princesses. I rooted for Chhobi and hoped she wouldn’t sacrifice her dreams to take care of her vapid sister and support her family.

Selina Sen takes us to a cultured household who struggles to make ends meet. We see three generations of women and the toll that widowhood puts on the girls’ mother. The book is set at the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and I wonder why the author chose this time and place for her novel written in 2007. Politics has little to do with the story but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement appears in the plot. Selina Sen mentions the historical wounds that people still carry with them, the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, terrorism in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring for the sense of displacement, for taking me away from my home and drop me into another country, into another culture.

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa – a missed opportunity

March 17, 2020 9 comments

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa (2017). French title: La mère de tous les cochons. Translated by Benoîte Dauvergne.

Mother of All Pigs by Malu Halasa was our Book Club choice for February. (Yes, I’m late again with the billet). Set in Jordan, it features the Sabas, a Christian family who lives in the suburbs of Amman. They all live under the same roof. We follow Hussein and his wife Laila, Mother Fadhma, Hussein’s step mother and Samira, Hussein’s step sister. Muna, a cousin from the family branch who emigrated to the USA, is coming over for a vacation. We also get to know Abu Za’atar, Mother Fadhma’s brother and one of the richest entrepreneurs in town. He’s a master as smuggling merchandises across borders.

Hussein runs a butcher’s shop and sells pork. Abu Za’atar perceived that it would be a big competitive advantage to sell pork to Christian families and be the only one to do it. They imported oum al-khanaazeer, the Mother of all pigs through the black market and she was the sow they use to breed piglets. Hussein and Abu Za’atar run the farm together and make the chops, ham, etc. that they need for the butcher’s shop.

With the war in Syria, there are a lot of refugees in Jordan and their settling in Hussein’s town changes the fragile dynamics between the communities. Hussein had a consensus on opening hours: a time for Jewish customers, a time for Muslims and a time for Christians. Everyone can buy what they want without seeing each other. This consensus is shattered by radical Muslims coming from abroad and fed by ISIS.

Through Mother Fadhma, Laila and Samira, Malu Halasa explores the fate of women in Jordan. The old Mother Fadhma has been exploited all her life. She has raised twelve children, not all her own. She was treated as a commodity by her family and of course, couldn’t choose her husband. Of all of her children, only Hussein and Samira remained in Jordan. The others have all immigrated to America and rarely come to visit. Mother Fadhma made a lot of sacrifices and her lifer never belonged to her.

Laila didn’t choose Hussein as a husband but considers herself lucky that he encourages her to keep working as a teacher. She had ambitions but they were trampled by real life: small town, three children, a teacher job and a husband who does his best to make enough money to support his family.

Samira is single and she found a new meaning in her life: she joined a group of women who help Syrian women refugees who suffered from the war. She secretly goes to political meetings and hangs out with women who help her win a bit of freedom.

And Muna, the American cousin? She arrives in Jordan to see how life is near the Syrian border. She has no idea of the actual culture of her father’s country: she brings clothes to Samira and Laila that they will never wear because they’re inappropriate in Jordan. I wondered what she was doing there, except being a plot instrument, the candid eye, the pretext to explain to Western readers things that are obvious for the locals.

I had high hopes for Mother of All Pigs. I was curious about this story of the only butcher selling pork in the area and about the women’s fates.

I was disappointed and struggled to finish it. Apparently, The New York Times reviewed it and said “’It has always been the same ― what men enjoy, women endure.’ So says a character in this microcosmic portrait of the contemporary Middle East, where the generational shifts among the members of one Jordanian clan showcase a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline. Halasa’s pungently witty novel contrasts the ways in which the women of the Sabas family embrace or push back against tradition.”

It’s true even if I obviously missed the pungent and witty part. The structure and writing didn’t do it for me. It was too much of a patchwork and I never engaged with the Sabas the way I did with the families in Naguib Mahfouz’s books. I never managed to understand what the writer really wanted to say. The novel seemed to be too much of a patchwork and I saw the small pieces, found them lacking and never managed to sew them together in a way that showed me a coherent story and picture. And I hated the chapters with the sow’s stream-of-consciousness. What was the point of that?

Malu Halasa is American, and like Muna, has a Jordanian father and a Filipino mother. She doesn’t live in Jordan and the reader feels it. She has probably been there quite a lot but not enough to sound like a local writer. I also felt that her novel, written in English was intended for Western readers. In the end, it doesn’t have the same authenticity as a book written by a Jordan writer.

For me it was a missed opportunity.

PS: I’m not sure I understand the English cover. Who is that supposed to be? Samira?

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage – rush for it.

March 10, 2020 17 comments

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967) French title: Le pouvoir du chien. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down the first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments, the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. “Mountain oysters,” Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they’d do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil’s brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

This is the opening page of The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage and it sets up the place (a ranch), the two main characters (Phil and George), their relationship (they’re brothers) and this simple scene of ranch life, the castrating, reveals a lot about each brother’s temper.

We are in the 1920s, in Montana. Phil and George run the family ranch and they’re among the wealthiest families in the state. They’re bachelors, Phil is forty and George is thirty-eight. Phil is brighter than George and he’s a complex man. He’s outspoken and rash, always voicing things that would be polite not to mention. He’s the total opposite of political correctness and refuses to play social games. George’s mind is slower but he’s more sensitive to other people’s needs and feelings. See in this paragraph, how Phil purposely hints at sex, knowing George will be ill-at-ease.

Phil loves ranch life and lives it the rough way. It’s described in this paragraph through the gloves thing, a detail that will have a capital importance at the end of the book. Phil washes in the stream near the house, summer and winter. He doesn’t wear gloves, loves to ride and partake in all kind of physical activities. He also doesn’t like changes in his life. He’s a great admirer of a long-dead cowboy, Bronco Henry. He keeps mentioning how Bronco Henry did this or that. Phil is a bit nostalgic about the old days, when Bronco Henry was alive and part of the ranch staff.

Phil and George’s parents have moved out to Salt Lake City, leaving the ranch to their sons. Nothing has changed in the house and the brothers still sleep in their twin beds in their childhood bedroom. Phil is perfectly happy that way and George seems to be too.

In nearest town, Beech, Rose Gordon and her son Peter make ends meet by running an inn after her husband John died. John was a doctor but he never managed to build a good practice in Beech, there’s not enough solvent patients for it. Peter is a clever child, interested in medicine and always buried in books. He’s now a teenager and wants to study medicine. He’s an outsider at school and he’s violently bullied but soldiers on and never complains.

Phil and George go to Rose’s inn during their trip to town to sell and ship off their cattle. George and Rose start talking and much to Phil’s dismay, George marries Rose. She moves into the ranch house and Peter stays away at school.

As you can imagine, Phil isn’t happy about these new circumstances. Thomas Savage is an extraordinary writer who weaves a story, thread after thread, knot after knot until you get the whole tapestry at the last page. It’s also built like Noir, with a growing tension stemming from this lockup situation.

Charismatic and older brother Phil rules everything on the ranch, manages the hands and takes a lot of space with his cocky attitude. Rose cannot find her place her new home, she knows that Phil wants her gone and she’s under his watchful eyes and it makes her extremely nervous. George is mostly oblivious, he’s like a horse with blinders because he’s not quick enough to pick on the tension. He thinks that things will get better by themselves, he cannot imagine that his brother could be mean to his wife.

Then Peter comes live on the ranch for the summer and it adds another weight to the relationships’ scale and throws it off balance.

From the beginning, Thomas Savage drops hints about Phil. His parents acknowledge that they know but we don’t know what they refer to. He’s a complex character. He’s mean the way teenagers can be: he says whatever he wants without thinking of the consequences, he teases people, he observes their flaws and swoops down on them and he exposes people’s pretenses. Phil’s development seems stuck at teenager stage.

George is a grownup and a good man. He and Rose have a solid and healthy relationship. They want each other for companionship. She brings him out of his shell and she found a safe harbor in him. He has found someone to talk to and someone who doesn’t compare him to his outspoken and sharp brother and find him lacking.

Thomas Savage (1915-2003) grew up on a ranch in Montana. He knows the landscape and the local way-of-life. He’s worked as a ranch hand before being a university teacher and a full-time writer. It’s palpable in his writing. The setting contributes to the story and its atmosphere. He doesn’t romanticize a rancher’s life. The hands are all unmarries because they have to live on the premises and couldn’t support a family anyway. It’s a life made of hard work during the week, entertainment in town during the weekend and dreams of buying clothes and fancy gloves in catalogues. They live in closer quarters, isolated from the outside world and it fuels the story too.

The tension builds up until the very last pages. It’s remarkable, everything falls into place and all the clues dropped here and there come back to you. The characters are well-developed and I was rooting for Rose and George to find a way to live side-by-side with Phil.

Highly recommended.

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