I For Isobel by Amy Witting

August 13, 2018 5 comments

I For Isobel by Amy Witting (1990) Not available in French.

I think I should create a “Guy Recommends” category on this blog because I have read and loved a lot of books recommended by our fellow blogger Guy Savage.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting is one of those and again, I read a book I loved.

It is an Australian book set in Sydney. It’s difficult to say exactly when but my guess is the 1930s. When I read Amy Witting’s biography on Wikipedia, I thought there were a lot details that were alike between Witting’s life and Isobel’s, the main character of this novella. And since, Amy Witting was born in 1918 and our character’s nineteen for the longest part of the book…

The book opens with a very sad sentence:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

We then get acquainted with Isobel who lives with parents who both despise her. Her mother is particularly nasty and bitter. She could do something for Isobel’s birthday, at least a cake or a little celebration but she doesn’t. She takes pleasure in torturing her daughter and refusing to acknowledge her birth day. Not celebrating a child’s birthday is particularly hard on them, it’s silently telling them that they don’t matter, that their birth was not a happy moment to remember. And that’s how Isobel feels about it.

Later, Isobel’s father’s death push them into poverty, mostly because her mother is too proud to ask for assistance and/or find work. She’s this kind of women, the ones who think they deserve better that what they have in life and refuse to accept circumstances that they judge beyond them.

Isobel feels awkward, like she never knows how to behave properly. Whatever she does, she gets scolded by her mother. She’s either “not enough” or “too much” but she never achieves to act in accordance with her mother’s expectations. She never knows what kind of response her attitude will trigger. She’s a brilliant child and she understands that her mother’s not right but she doesn’t know how to formulate it properly in her head.

The only moments when she’s perfectly happy is when she’s alone with her books and gone far away from her life thanks to the writers’ imagination. Books are her parallel universe, her safe haven:

Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last, and tonight particularly, she burrowed and snuggled and with a sigh of pleasure slid behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.

When she’s barely 18, her mother dies too and she starts to work at company in Sydney as a typist. Her aunt finds her a boarding house and settles her in her new life. New job, newfound freedom and new people to get used to, from the girls in the office to the other boarders. By chance, she meets students who are studying English and make her discover new writers.

Isobel has difficulties to interact with other people. She feels inadequate, thanks to her abusive upbringing. She lacks confidence, never knows how to behave or how to make small talk.

Isobel knew that what was tolerated in other people was not forgiven in her. She very much wished to know why this was so.

This is a coming of age novella, one where a young woman is slowly learning who she is and what she wants from life. She only knows that books will play a significant part it her life. She also feels like an outsider because of her love for books, at least until she meets this group of students who share her passion for reading.

I For Isobel is a very sensitive portrait of a young girl who was dealt with a bad set of cards. Her youth lacked of family love and her young adult self is unfinished because of that. An important part of a child’s usual education is missing: how to relate to others, how to grow confident in yourself thanks to the assurance that your parents love you unconditionally. She learns by trial and error but she has problems to come out of her shell, to live with others instead of just observing them through a self-built glass wall.

As a side, Witting also brings to life the Sydney of that time, the boarding house, the office work and small things about the working-class way-of-life.

It’s definitely I book I’d recommend to other readers. You’ll find other reviews by Guy here and by Lisa, here. This is another contribution to Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think that I For Isobel is available in French, so in the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

August 8, 2018 12 comments

The Dinner by Herman Koch. (2009) French title: Le dîner. Translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin.

I didn’t know what to expect with The Dinner by Hermann Koch. I only knew that it had been on my virtual TBR for a while after reading Guy’s review. (See here)

The Dinner is like a tragedy in five acts, from Aperitif to Digestif and from funny to horrible. Paul is our narrator. He’s married to Claire and they have a diner party at a fancy restaurant with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Claire and Paul have a 15 years old son, Michel. Serge and Babette have three children, Rick, Valérie and an adoptive son, Beau. Michel, Rick and Beau are around the same age.

Paul and Claire are not happy to spend their evening with Serge and Babette. Paul describes them as fake and boring and we soon discover that Serge is a famous and rising politician, that he’s going to run for prime minister in a few months.

Paul talks us through the evening. The Aperitif is hilarious with all the sarcastic comments he makes about the restaurant and Serge but there’s already something weird with Michel. With the Entrée come awkward and tense conversation between the two couples and more irritated remarks on the restaurant’s waiter. Memories of a weekend in Dordogne, France at Serge’s house pops up in Paul’s mind. He’s still funny, mocking and we know that Michel, Rick and Beau did something wrong.

The Main Course reveals more bits of Paul and Claire’s life and we start seeing the children under a new and terrifying light. It’s clear that Michel and Rick did something unforgivable. Dessert is when everything unravels and Digestif just pushes the story to an end.

I won’t tell more about the plot otherwise I’d ruin another reader’s fun. Paul is a very unreliable narrator. Someone we like at the beginning of the book before realizing how horrible he is. In a way, The Dinner reminded me of Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton.  (another recommendation from Guy, btw)

The reader starts rooting for Paul and Claire who sound like a happy and stable couple. Serge and Babette seem as ridiculous as Paul wants us to see them. And then our loyalty shifts. It’s a rollercoaster trip with lots of ups and downs, and the nausea at the end too.

Koch leads the show with maestro. Everything is perfectly orchestrated and I think it’d make a wonderful theatre play. Paul’s caustic tone and propensity to digress is funny and full of clues about who he is. It starts with good-hearted laugh and ends with a forced laugh but there’s a lot of humor in The Dinner.

I thought that Koch was quite hard on his fellow Dutch citizen. He openly makes fun of fancy Dutch restaurants. He also has hard words about Dutch people who bought a house in Dordogne (or in Ardèche) and destabilized the real estate market, resulting in a rise in prices that makes it expensive for the locals to settle down. (The same thing could be said about British people, btw) He also exposes how ambiguous the French locals may feel about the Dutch tourists invading campsites with their caravans full of Dutch food to avoid buying anything locally.

I also wondered about the characters’ names. They sound so French that I thought the translator changed them. But I downloaded a sample of the English edition and they are still named the same. So why? Claire is actually short for Marie-Claire. Babette is a nickname for Elisabeth. Serge and Paul are very common and could be Dutch too but Michel is clearly French. And all the French Michels I know or have heard of were born between 1920 and 1960. Think: Michel Berger, Michel Blanc, Michel Platini, Michel Houellebecq, Michel Foucault, Michel Legrand, Michel Rocard…So it was hard for me to picture an adolescent named Michel. Sorry. But that’s on me, it probably wouldn’t affect another reader.

Do I recommend The Dinner to other readers? Yes. It’s a good summer read. It’s also a good Book Club read because it provides a lot a material for plot discussion and also a debate about the moral dilemma imbedded in the story.

Other reviews: Lisa’s and Marina Sofia’s.

The Dry by Jane Harper

July 31, 2018 11 comments

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016) French title: Canicule.

After reading the second volume of Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series (see my billet), I decided to read the first one as well. Good for me because The Dry was even better than Force of Nature.

The main character is Aaron Falk, a federal police officer working in the financial division. He’s usually after white collar criminals. When the book opens, Aaron Falk is in Melbourne and he’s about to go back to his hometown Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, his wife Karen and their son Billy.

Kiewarra is a rural town, Luke was a farmer and all farmers are struggling to survive because of a terrible drought. The town is dying, the lack of income from the farmers affect the local shops and this drought seems endless. Luke was apparently at the end of his rope and killed himself and his family. Only baby Charlotte escaped the slaughter.

Falk hasn’t been home for twenty years and he goes back reluctantly. When he’s at the funeral, a picture of Luke, him, Gretchen and Ellie appears in a slide show. It brings back the year when he was 16, the year Ellie was found dead in the river, the year he was wrongly accused of the murder, the year his father and he had to leave town and settle in Melbourne.

After the funeral, Luke’s parents, Barb and Gerry come and talk to Falk. They want him to investigate Luke’s death, they don’t believe that their son committed suicide. Barb wants Falk to investigate Luke’s finances, to see whether he was so close to bankruptcy that he’d kill his family. Gerry wants to know whether it has anything to do with the unsolved mystery of Ellie’s death. Indeed, when she died, a piece of paper with FALK written in her handwriting was found in her pocket. Why? Aaron didn’t have a witness to confirm his alibi and Luke and he decided to lie about where we were and be each other’s alibi. They said they were together. Gerry knows they were lying and now he wonders if his son killed Ellie back in the day.

Aaron agrees to investigate and takes a few days off. He’d love to go back home, to his orderly life in Melbourne. But he stays because of all the good times he spent at the Hadlers’ when he was a kid, for all the warmth and affection Barb gave him freely, something he needed, having lost his mother at birth.

Luckily, Raco, the newly appointed police chief of Kiewarra thinks that the Clyde police force in charge of the case was all too happy to file it as a suicide. For Raco, details don’t add up. The way Karen was found sprawled in the hallway of their house, the way Billy was killed after what looks like a chase in his bedroom, the way Luke’s body was lying in his truck. And why spare baby Charlotte? And why use different cartridges than the usual?

Raco and Aaron join their forces to start an unofficial investigation. Did Luke killed his wife and son before turning his shotgun against himself? If he didn’t, why were they murdered and has the killing anything to do with Ellie’s death?

Aaron’s presence in Kiewarra is not welcome and his coming back stirs hatred and brings back old secrets. What happened to Luke and his family? What happened to Ellie? Will this new drama allow Falk to have some closure about the terrible events that changed his life?

I loved The Dry. Jane Harper created an atmospheric novel. It shows a small town with secrets and festering hatred, a town where news travel fast, where strangers remain strangers for years, where things remain under wraps because they all need each other at a time or another, so why stir trouble and risk being an outcast and out of the town’s support system? The drought exacerbates everything because this rural community suffers from the lack of water and farmers risk to lose their farm. Things could blow up any time.

Highly recommended.

PS: Follow up of my Australian English chronicles. On Goodreads, a question about The Dry was “What is a ute and what is a huntsman” I’m happy to report I know what they are and that I have passed a new stage with pokie, arvo, aggro and ammo. 😊 Unfortunately, I don’t understand why the book is entitled The Dry and not The Drought. Any help with that?

This also qualifies for the AWW Challenge. See here.

Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik

July 22, 2018 4 comments

Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik (2017) Original French title: Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre.

In 2017, two novelists published a novel about Romain Gary and his childhood in Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania). The first one was Romain Gary Goes to War by Laurent Seksik and the second one was A Certain Mr Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. I have read both and already wrote a billet about the Désérable.

And now it’s time to discuss Romain Gary Goes to War, a biographical novel where Laurent Seksik imagines twenty-four hours in the life of young Romain Gary in his last year in Wilno. There is no accurate information about these events, nothing precise enough to lead a journalistic enquiry. The only things we know came from Gary and he was an unreliable narrator of his own past.

Seksik imagines these moments and we need to keep this in mind while we read his novel.

During the first part of the book, we’re on January 26th, 1925. Romain Gary was still named Roman Kacew. He’s almost eleven and living in the Jewish ghetto of Wilno. His father Arieh Kacew is a furrier by trade. He has just left his wife Mina and his son Roman to go and live with his pregnant mistress. Mina is thinking about emigrating to France. She’s barely scraping by and she wants more for her son.

January 26th is when Arieh plucks up the courage to tell his son that he’s going to be a father. This destroys any hope that young Roman could have had to see his parents reunited. It also means less money for Mina and him. Seksik makes up a believable Arieh, someone who wanted a serene domestic life and couldn’t live with Mina anymore. He wanted a gentle journey through life and she was a roller-coaster. Under Seksik’s pen, Mina comes to life, a character with a strong personality, someone difficult to live with, someone larger than life and consistent with the way Gary portrays her in Promise at Dawn.

Seksik gives life to the ghetto in Wilno, conjures up Roman’s extended family on his father’s side. They were religious, contrary to Mina. He shows us an intelligent young boy who wants to be close to his father, who lives with a formidable and trying mother whose moods are unpredictable. He pictures a young boy who’s clever, shy, in love with a classmate and tries to navigate in his current stormy waters.

On January 27th, 1925 Mina’s hat chop closes down. She’s bankrupt and she now has nothing to lose. She needs to start over. Her decision is made, emigration it will be and her son will be a great man.

The epilogue of the book is set in Wilno in 1943. The Jerusalem of the East that counted 60 000 Jews in 1941 has only a few thousands now. The Nazis have destroyed the ghetto and assassinated its inhabitants. Roman Kacew has lost his family.

Seksik recreates two days that will be decisive in young Roman’s future. He’s losing his father, his mother loses her business and he’s going to lose his quotidian.

From a literary point of view, I don’t think that Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre brings much. The style is fine but not brilliant and even if lots of details sound accurate, the inner thoughts of the characters are pure imagination. It is a good book to get a feeling of where Gary came from and also to deconstruct the myth he built around his father’s identity. All his life, he wanted the world to believe that he was a hidden son of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. His biographs demonstrated that it was not possible. He had repudiated Arieh Kacew, either because he wasn’t flamboyant enough or to avoid thinking and talking about his assassination by the Nazis.

Seksik takes time to describe Wilno, its ghetto and the Ashkenazi Jewish community’s everyday life. It’s like a reportage with virtual reality showing you a reconstruction of the pyramids or Pompei. And this part was interesting because it takes the reader into Gary’s world and it helps to understand his work. I thought about this book when I reread The Kites a few months later.

It’s remarkable to see that a few months after Romain Gary s’en va-t-en guerre went out, François-Henri Désérable published Un certain Monsieur Piekielny. Both books are about Gary’s childhood in Wilno. Both books are a way to remember what happened in Wilno, how a whole community was exterminated, how the Nazis changed this city forever. It was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.

Out of the two books, the Désérable is the definitely the best. It’s more elegant, deeper with a delicate lightness. It’s more moving in the sense that the connection between the reader and the book is more emotional. The parts between his actual search for M. Piekielny and the ones where his imagination wanders are more clearly cut. Seksik’s books gives us to see Wilno and young Roman but it doesn’t say anything about his relationship with Gary’s literature. Désérable writes a mix between an enquiry, a personal quest and an ode to a man who is part of our literary Pantheon.

Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

July 21, 2018 35 comments

Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) / A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (2017)

I’m flying to Australia in a few days and I have SEVEN unwritten billets about books I’ve read. I’m going to write short posts about them mostly because I don’t want to go on holiday and leave a backlog of billets behind. Work has been in the way of my writing and updating my blog.

The first book I’d like to talk about is Down Under. Travels in a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson. I have read it in French and since “Down Under” is a bit tricky to translate, it’s become “Nos voisins du dessous”. Bill Bryson tells us all about a road trip he made in Australia in 2000. I enjoyed the tone of his book and its content. It’s a good mix of personal experience and everyday life during his roadtrip, fun facts about Australia but also serious historical information and informative descriptions of nature, and especially the fauna.

It’s told with a healthy sense of humour, by someone who comes from Iowa, has lived in Great Britain and loves Australia. When he makes fun of Australians, it’s always with affection.

Here’s a sample of his easy-going prose, a story-telling tone that catches the reader’s attention.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered by sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name) It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonesfish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you by actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

Well, our plane tickets are nonrefundable, so I guess we’ll just have to be prudent, eh?

I read his book partly at home and partly during a work trip while waiting at the airport. My constant giggling forced me to read passages to my colleagues or they would have thought I was nuts.

His trip includes a stay in Sydney, a visit to Camberra, Melbourne, some time in Queensland and some time in the Northern Territory. It was a pleasure to follow him, learn about the places he was visiting, discover mundane everyday life details and learn about the history of Australia.

Bill Bryson points out how little we hear about Australia in our respective countries. What is true for him in America is also true for me in France.

And this came back as a boomerang when I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. I had read an enthusiastic review by Lisa (see here) and since I love to read books about road trips, I thought it could be a good place to start with Carey.

I began reading it full of expectations and was soon stuck with it. I knew the words I was reading but didn’t understand what I was reading. I was totally missing the subtext. I was seriously rethinking my English abilities (and Australian English can be challenging) when I read Kim’s review. (see here)

She says “I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well.”

And it was like a lightbulb! The Australianness that had enhanced the experience for Lisa and Kim totally lost me. See here:

The sonny was named Titch although he was sometimes Zac which was what they called a sixpence and a zac was therefore half a shilling or half a bob, which was, of course, his father’s name.

I don’t think you can expect a French reader to understand that kind of sentence. I also had to google Holden because I didn’t know what it was and there were lots of random details like this that left me dumbfounded.

It was indeed a long way from my home and I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again after spending time in Australia… That’ll be a test: did I catch enough Australianness to understand Peter Carey?

Book Club 2018-2019 : The List

July 21, 2018 18 comments

It’s that time of the year again.

Our Book Club has picked up 12 books for the next twelvemonth. We changed our ways this year and we picked countries and then tried to find one book per country. I’m happy with this new list as it will allow us to travel a bit around the world. We’re missing a book from Africa, though. Next year we’ll have to rectify that.

Here’s the list:

 

Month English title French title Writer # pages Country Year of publication
August The Secret River Sarah Thornhill Kate Grenville 310 Australia 2007
September Not found in English Son Royaume Han Han 250 China 2015
October The Ice Princess La princesse des glaces Camilla Läckberg 381 Sweden 2004
November Not found in English Canicule Jean Vautrin 331 France 1982
December Deal Souls Les âmes mortes Gogol 477 Russia 1842
January Not found in English Le poids des secrets Aki Shimazaki 500 Japan 2010
February Pavane for  a Dead Princess Pavane pour une infante défunte Min-kyu Park 325 Korea 2014
March Excellent Women Des femmes remarquables Barbara Pym 252 Great Britain 1952
April Geek Love Un amour de monstres Katherine Dunn 442 USA 1989
May The Tapestries Le brodeur de Huê Kien Nguyen 383 Vietnam 2001
June House of Splendid Isolation La maison du splendide isolement Edna O’Brien 284 Irlande 1994
July A World for Julius Un monde pour Julius Alfredo Bryce Echenique 497 Peru 1970

The book that opens the new season is The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

I find the Gogol a bit daunting, so if you’ve read it, please tell me how it was. I need a bit of reassurance. I’m looking forward to reading my first Barbara Pym. I’ve heard a lot of good things about her from other bloggers. Edna O’Brien has been on my mental TBR for a while, it’s an opportunity to finally read something by her. I’ve already read Tarzan’s Tonsillitis by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique and I’m glad to read another book by him.

We have two crime fiction books, one by Camilla Läckberg and one by Jean Vautrin. Let’s hope that the Läckberg is better than the Indridason I’ve read. I’m a bit wary of too-famous-for-their-own-good Nordic crime fiction writers. I couldn’t find an English translation of the Vautrin, let me know if there’s one.

And the books for Vietnam, Korea, China and the USA are new-to-me writers. I don’t know what to expect.

As usual, if anyone wants to join us and read one of these books along with us, feel free to do so. There’s no rule, just post your review the right month and let me know about it. And if you’ve read any of those books, what did you think about them?

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

July 16, 2018 12 comments

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017) French title: Sauvage

Force of Nature is the second volume of the Aaron Falk crime fiction series by Jane Harper. Five men and five women from the company BaileyTennants are sent on a company retreat in the Giralang Ranges. The two groups have to hike during several days, looking for banners, going from one campsite to the other until they make it to the arrival.

The problem is…only four women come back and Alice Russel has disappeared. Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are worried about this because Alice was the whistleblower in the case they’re working on. Daniel and Jill Bailey, the managers and owners of this family business are involved in money laundering for wider criminal networks. Falk and Carmen are only cogs in a giant investigation and they were about getting crucial documents from Alice about the Baileys’ business.

Does her disappearance have anything to do with their case?

Jane Harper weaves a masterful net of relationships between the women. They are mismatched. The group leader is Jill Bailey, as a member of senior management. Alice Russel, the one who disappeared is here with her assistant Bree McKenzie. Lauren Shaw went to a special boarding school with Alice Russell and they’ve known each other for thirty years. The last participant is Beth McKenzie, Bree’s twin sister.

All have a specific relationship with Alice. Alice is known as an ice queen bitch, so the others might have her reasons to wish for her disappearance. Jill muses:

Being around Alice was like owning an aggressive breed of dog. Loyal when it suited, but you had to stay on your toes.

There’s some resentment between her and Lauren, she tends to bully Beth. Jill’s side business in the firm is threatened by Alice’s interactions with the police. The book is constructed in such a way that the reader alternates between following the police investigation and the rangers’ researches to find Alice in the bush and following the women’s hike and discover how things went wrong. At the beginning, the device bothered me a bit but it proved excellent because it broke the monotony of the investigation and broke the palpable tension I felt when I was following the women’s hike. The bushland setting contributes to the tension of the story as it is rife with dangers. In a way, it talks to our deepest fear, the ones we heard of in fairy tales when we were little, the fear to get lost in the forest.

It was strange, Jill thought, how much the bushland started to look alike. Twice she’d spotted something – once a stump, the other time a fallen tree – which she was sure she remembered from earlier. It was like walking in a semi-constant sense of déjà vu.

The bushland is another character, it’s not human but it sure helps move the plot forward and add on the feeling of urgency and of threat.

It’s a clever crime fiction novel, one I’d recommend as a summer read. Harper’s style is efficient, to the point but not very literary. There are better crime fiction books than this one, as far as literature is concerned. However, it’s an excellent reading time.

On last note, I bought a copy in the original and it gave me another opportunity to work on my spoken Australian English, after Anita Heiss and Marie Munkara. And I am puzzled by the Australian habit to shorter words like bikie or barbie. I’m getting used to the short words with an “ie” as a suffix though. However, I had to google spag bol because I couldn’t figure out what they were eating. (It doesn’t help that visually, bol is bowl in French)

Force of Nature is another contribution to the Australian Women Writer Challenge.

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