The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty – Murders and fly-fishing

January 22, 2020 Leave a comment

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith MacCafferty (2012). French title: Meurtres sur la Madison. Translated by Janique Jouin-De Laurens.

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith MacCafferty is a book published by Gallmeister in France and with a sticker that says that Craig Johnson found it marvelously entertaining. How could I resist?

The book opens with Rainbow Sam, a fly-fishing guide, whose client fishes a dead body instead of trout. The client generously throws up at the sight and Sam contacts the sheriff. We’re in the small town of Bridger, a fishing community on the Madison river, in Montana. The sheriff is a woman, Martha Ettinger. With her second-in-command Walt, their first task will be to identify the victim and answer the other question: is it an accident or a murder?

Meanwhile, Sean Stranahan, ex PI from Boston and current fly-fisherman/painter is hired by a singer, Vareda Lafayette, to follow her father’s footsteps on the Madison river. Her father has died a year before, loved travelling from New Orleans to Bridger for fly-fishing. He had marked the trout he had taken and Vareda would like Sean to fish them back, to honor her father. (Fishermen are weird, I know but so are bookworms). Soon Sean realizes that Vareda’s problems are more complicated that he imagined, that her brother who lives in the area is missing. Against his will, he will investigate his disappearance.

Martha and Sean follow their leads and eventually understand that their investigations overlap and join their forces. They will dive into the mudded waters of fly-fishing and its lucrative business. (and not, it’s not farfetched)

Keith MacCafferty sounds like a combination of William G Tapply and Craig Johnson. The law representatives are named Martha and Walt, probably a friendly allusion to Craig Johnson. Indeed, Johnson’s main character is named Walt Longmire and his late wife was named Martha. Sean Stranahan reminded me of Stoney Calhoun, Tapply’s fishing guide/detective.

I went to see Craig Johnson at a meeting in a bookstore and he said that sheriffs in Wyoming and Montana are often big guys because the staff of the police force is small, the territory is huge and they often are alone on a spot and can’t count on a quick backup if things go awry. They tend to be muscular and armed. So, deciding on a female sheriff in Montana for a main character is kind of daring.

I liked Martha, her hidden insecurities while she keeps up appearances and leads her investigation like a pro. Like Longmire, she has an Indian friend who helps her in her job. At the same event I mentioned before, Craig Johnson said that books set in Wyoming and Montana that have no Indian characters lack authenticity: there are several reservations in these States and Indians are part of the local population.

The other main character is Sean. He’s divorced, still wears the scars of his failed marriage and left Boston and his past behind to start afresh in Montana. He paints fishing scenes and Montana landscapes to make a living and put a PI sign on his door to differentiate himself from other newcomers. He never thought that someone would take it seriously and hire him, especially since he’s not licensed in Montana.

The Royal Wulf Murders is a lovely combination of beautiful landscapes, loveable characters and a well-oiled plot. I learnt new details about fly-fishing and could test whether I had assimilated some of John Gierach’s lessons from Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing. I want to know Sean and Martha better and see where their informal collaboration will lead them. The plot builds up slowly, probably because MacCafferty settles his characters for the upcoming series but the last third of the book accelerates and takes us to territories I had not anticipated.

I’ve been on a theatre binge

January 19, 2020 10 comments

It’s time to have a little chat about theatre as I’ve been on a theatre binge lately. I’ve seen four plays in a month.

The first one was Vie de Joseph Roulin by Pierre Michon, directed and played by Thierry Jolivet.

I’ve never read Pierre Michon but I know he’s a praised French writer. When I picked this play, I thought it would be the opportunity to discover a new author. The theme of the book is interesting: Joseph Roulin is the postman in Arles who befriended Van Gogh. (His portray is now at the Boston Art Museum) Michon explores the friendship between the two men, who were drinking companions at the local café. Roulin was not an educated man and knew nothing about art. Van Gogh was his friend and a painter, a poor one. He didn’t know he was living next to a genius and the text questions who gets to decide that an artist is good or not and when. That’s the idea and it’s a fascinating topic to explore.

Unfortunately, Michon’s text is too bombastic for my taste. It could have been a vivid succession of scenes from the postman’s life and its interaction with the artist and his art. Jolivet chose to tell the text on a monotonous tone, like  rap music without the rhythm. Behind him, pictures of Van Gogh’s painting were projected on the wall.

Photo by Geoffrey Chantelot

It was supposed to be hypnotic, I guess it worked since I kept dozing off and so did my neighbor in the theatre. Such a waste of a good idea. The text and the direction were a lethal combo for me, I disliked both.

Fortunately, the second one was Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï by Fabcaro, directed by Paul Moulin and it was a blast.

How do you make a BD* into a theatre play? Paul Moulin did it marvelously. Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï is a man hunt in a dystopian world. A BD author, Fabcaro’s doppleganger, forgot his loyalty card at the supermarket. Before security takes him away, he runs away and becomes the most wanted man in France. Everything about this man hunt is absurd and huge fun. (For more details, see my previous billet here.)

Paul Moulin used a very efficient trick to transpose the BD into a play: it becomes the recording of a radio show. The actors are behind lecterns, with headsets and play the different roles as if they were recording it for the radio. On the side of the stage, actors do the sounds effects, again, as if they were recording.

It is an excellent way to transpose the atmosphere of the BD and it is hilarious. It lasts 50 minutes and the public had huge grins when they came out of the theatre. It was a wonderful moment and highly recommended to anyone and especially to teenagers, as it is a way to show them that theatre plays are not always stuffy Corneille affairs.

The next play I went to was Le Porteur d’Histoire written and directed by Alexis Michalik.

The title means The History Carrier and it was tagged as literary treasury hunt. How could I resist? It’s a contemporary play that won two Molière awards in 2014. The play opens on Martin Martin getting lost on his way to his father’s funeral. They were estranged and he never visited his father’s new house in the French Ardennes. When he takes care of his father’s belongings, he finds a mysterious notebook and an extraordinary quest will take him across continents and History.

It’s a wonderful text inspired by Alexandre Dumas and his compelling stories. I can’t tell much about the plot because it would spoil the story and the biggest charm of the play is to let yourself be taken away by the storytelling. It’s like a fairytale where some djinn takes you on a magic carpet to travel the world and live fascinating adventures. The text is an homage to the 19th century novels that were published in newspapers as feuilletons, with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter to push the reader to by the next newspaper. And it works.

The direction is a tour de force. The spectator is thrown in different places, in different times and follows the story with eagerness, wondering where it will take them to. It lasts more than one hour and a half and I was captivated from the beginning to the end. This is another the kind of play to take teenagers to, to give them the theatre bug.

The next play scheduled in my theatre subscription was Lewis versus Alice, adapted from Lewis Carroll by Macha Makeïeff. The play is a succession of scenes that alternate between key passages from Lewis Carroll’s works and moments of the writer’s life. Macha Makeïeff showed us how Carroll transposed some of his life’s traumatic experiences into literature. The show went back and forth between his literary world and his life, including his sad years at Rubgy, his questionable attachment to Alice Liddell and his work as a teacher. The play showed Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the man hidden behind his penname Lewis Carroll.

Lewis versus Alice is tagged as musical show but it’s not a musical. The cast of actors were French and English speaking natives, all speaking in both languages. Some passages were in English, repeated into French. There were songs and acrobatics. Among the cast was Rosemary Standley, the singer of Moriarty who sang two of their songs. The text used some excerpts from Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark. The staging was clever, taking us from Alice’s wonderland to England in the 19th century.

Photo by Pascal Victor

It was delightful and brightly played and well-served by excellent actors/dancers/singers/acrobats. It’s a joyful show, a wonderful homage to Carroll’s imaginary world and an attempt to better understand how this man ended up telling these stories.

What’s next? Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. I expect it to be good as I’ve heard about the book and Eribon’s take on it. (It’s available in English under Returning to Reims.) I’m looking forward to it.

And guess what! There’s a new theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary and directed by Stéphane Freiss! I’d love to see it but it’s in Paris…

PS: Glossary for new Book Around the Corner’s readers: BD is a French acronym for Bande Dessinée. It is a generic word which covers comics and graphic novels.

Mrs Fletcher by Tom Perrotta – “U r my MILF” someone said to Eve

January 15, 2020 21 comments

Mrs Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (2017) French title: Mrs Fletcher ou les tribulations d’une MILF.

Mrs Fletcher by Tom Perrotta is a light novel about Eve and Brendan, a mother and her son at a crossroad in their lives. Eve is a forty-six-year-old divorcée whose only son is now going to college. We see her as Brendan moves out to his dorm and she comes back home with too much free time. And Brendan is now free to party as much as he wants.

Eve is the director of her town’s senior center. She has a successful career but discovers that she doesn’t have much of a social life. She decides to enroll at her community college and follow a night class, Gender and Society. There, she meets new people and is confronted to the question of gender and identity in the 21st century as their transgendered teacher tells them about her life journey.

At the same time Eve jump-starts her social life thanks to the new acquaintances she makes in college, her sex life is revived. She gets hit on in class and one night, she receives a text from a stranger: “U r my MILF”. Startled, she googles MILF and stumbles upon the amateur porn site milfateria.com. She starts clicking and coming back to it, again and again…

And, oh yeah, she’d also gone and gotten herself addicted to internet porn, not that that was anything to brag about. She understood that it was a little extreme, or maybe just premature, to call her problem an addiction—it had only been going on for a month or so—but what other label could you use when you did something every night, whether you wanted to or not? Tonight she knew she would go home and visit the Milfateria—it felt like a fact, not a choice—probably checking out the Lesbo MILFs, her current go-to category. Last week it was Blowjob MILFs—lots and lots of blowjobs—and the week before that had been a more eclectic period—spanking, threesomes, butt play—just to get a sense of what was out there.

Chapters alternate between Eve’s new life and Brendan’s experience in college. They take opposite directions. Brendan painfully learns that he behaves like a pig with women. He is also faced with the necessity to grow up and get out of his self-centered bubble.

Eve stops to be only a mother to reconquer the woman in her. Her discovery of pornography oddly emboldens her and fosters new fantasies. Brendan has visibility learnt sexuality and relationships to women in pornography and needs to make the journey towards respect. He needs to learn how to interact properly with girls.

Mrs Perrotta is a fun book to read and its humorous tone is deceptive. Behind Eve’s antics and Brendan’s blunders, there’s a fine description of our internet-based societies and a real look at people’s loneliness. Some tell their lives on Facebook and rub their happiness in other people’s face or, as Eve points out when she scrolls through her married friends live feed,

It had been a lot easier to be a loser back in the days before social media, when the world wasn’t quite so adept at rubbing it in your face, showing you all the fun you were missing out on in real time.

Mrs Perrotta questions the impact of pornography accessible to anyone, easy sex on Tinder and other aps. Perrotta is not judgemental, he just shows the consequences on his two characters, Eve and Brendan. It is also the turning point of the relationship between a mother and her son, now a young adult. As a parent, she also needs change from mothering a child to interacting with her adult son. It is a new time in a parent-child relationship, one that lasts until the balance shifts again and children take care of their ageing parents.

Besides Eve and Brendan, there’s a good collection of side characters in Mrs Fletcher, a group of people we are happy to follow in the novel. They are all confused in their own way and try to navigate our world as best they can.

I thought that the ending was a bit trite but, in the end, when I think about it, it’s realistic. Our real lives are not as fascinating as the ones in novels anyway.

I owe the fun reading time I spent with Mrs Perrotta to Guy whose review is here. Thanks Guy!!

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou – a trip to a Greek working class neighborhood

January 12, 2020 39 comments

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou (2010) French title: Ça va aller, tu vas voir. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou is our Book Club read for January. It’s a collection of short stories published in 2010 by a young Greek writer. According to the afterword from the French translator, Michel Volkovitch, most of the stories were actually written before 2008 and the subsequent Euro crisis in Greece.

All the stories are set in a blue-collar neighborhood of Athens. The characters are employees, factory workers, dockers or unemployed. They all struggle to survive in a world with a slow economy. Jobs are scarce, several characters have just been laid-off and they don’t have much hope to find something else soon. Even when they work, money is tight because they are in low-paid jobs (one works in an ice factory) and sometimes, their employer doesn’t have enough cash to pay everyone. They come home without pay.

Ikonòmou describes a country whose working class walks on the edge of a financial abyss. Several characters haven’t paid their rent for a few months, others couldn’t afford their mortgage. The ghost of eviction is at their door and steals their sleep. In several stories, the protagonists can’t sleep and invent various stratagems to keep insomnia at bay or survive the night. We all know how a small worry can become a huge issue after nightfall. They smoke, they stay on the stairs outside their building to monitor the street, they tell each other stories. A man talks to his spouse all night to lull her into sleep.

We see people who can’t afford food. We see a country where its senior citizens spend the night on the pavement in front of the community clinic because they want to be the first in the waiting line when the clinic opens the next day. A woman dies in the hospital because the person who brought her to the ER didn’t know her name and they couldn’t check whether she had insurance.

All the stories are bleak, the country seems to be about to crumble and indeed, it did a few years after Ikonòmou wrote these stories. Basic public services like drinkable tap water are not a sure thing.

We see a country with deep differences between the rich and the poor and no security net, which is common for a US reader but shocking for a European reader.

All the stories are bleak because of the characters’ circumstances but they are lit from inside by people’s love for each other. Spouses stay close, comfort and love each other. Friends take care of friends. Families try to help with small jobs or loans. The times are hard but the family unit stays strong and close-knit.

The people we meet here are breathless, holding their breath for what is yet to come or trying to catch their breath after another fortnight without wages. Their fear of tomorrow suffocates them. Some are hungry. A lot are nostalgic of the past. Most of them underwent forced changes in their lives: they had to move out of their house, to change of neighborhood, to accept a job only to make ends meet and pay the bills.

Men are raised to provide for their families and can’t anymore. They feel useless and it chips at their identity and maybe even at their sense of virility.

People have to survive and make the most of what they have. They live in the Piraeus neighborhood and Ikonòmou takes us there, in its street and by the sea.

Ikonòmou’s prose reflects his characters’ struggles. He alternates long and short paragraphs. Some sentences repeat themselves in a story, like thoughts are played on a loop in someone’s mind when they are sleepless with worry. The rhythm of the sentences mirrors the characters’ breathlessness, the way their financial worries choke them. Their hardship puts their sanity at stake. Ikonòmou shows a people beaten down by capitalism and a poor management of the country. They are bruised and battered by life but there’s still hope in love, friendship and solidarity.

Ikonòmou gives us a vivid picture of today’s Greece and I do recommend this collection of short stories.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth – what’s left of the American dream?

January 4, 2020 23 comments

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) French title: Pastorale américaine.

Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.

American Pastoral is the first volume of Philip Roth’s American trilogy, featuring Nathan Zuckerman as Roth’s doppelganger. I read them backward, starting with The Human Stain, then reading I Married a Communist and finishing with this one.

American Pastoral dissects the life of Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede because he was a tall blond teenager. He was the star of Weequahic High, the high school that Zuckerman attended in Newark. He excelled in sports and Zuckerman was friend with Jerry, the Swede’s younger brother.

With American Pastoral, Roth digs into a mine that has three lodes. The closest to the surface is the Swede’s life and personal tragedy, from Weequahic High star athlete to father of a terrorist. Just underneath is the rise and fall of Newark as a city, from a big industrial center to a poor city gangrened by violence. And the deepest vein is America’s history and the end of the American dream that, according to Roth, died with the Vietnam war and the Watergate.

The Swede is the personification of the American pastoral, the story the country sells to itself and to its newcomers. He’s the son of a Jew who had a small glove business. He was jock and his high school’s star. He enrolled in the Marines during WWII. He married Dawn, a Catholic girl who was elected Miss New Jersey. He grew his glove business into a multinational and became rich. He moved to Old Rimrock, right in Republican county. He did everything he could to be all-American, a WASP.

As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grandfather to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest high flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.

Somewhere along the way, the narrative went wrong. As Jerry bluntly sums it up to Zuckerman:

You should have seen them. Knockout couple. The two of them all smiles on their outward trip into the USA. She’s post-Catholic, he’s post-Jewish, together they’re going to go out there to Old Rimrock to raise little post-toasties. Instead they get that fucking kid.

That fucking kid is Merry, the Swede and Dawn’s daughter who put a bomb into Old Rimrock general store and killed one person to protest against the Vietnam war. She went underground and left a hole in their parents’ lives. Dawn collapsed and the Swede held on, with questions gnawing at him under the surface. Where was she? Where did it go wrong? How did his little girl become this monster? Could they have prevented it? What did they miss? Were they instrumental to her rage? All questions with no real answers.

Merry is the personification of the end of the American dream.

The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.

The Swede rehashes Merry’s formative years until this fateful year of 1968 when she bombed the store and when Newark experienced the worst riots of its history. The Swede saved his business but the city never recovered from this destruction. He didn’t save his daughter from self-destruction.

With the Swede’s story, we also witness the change in the American (and Western) economies: it’s more profitable to make gloves or other goods abroad and the deindustrialization of Newark begins. The city’s economy collapses and poverty and violence take hold of its streets.

And last, beneath the surface of the Swede’s tragedy, Roth tells us that the Vietnam war and the Nixon debacle put an end to the American dream. The years after that were about keeping up appearances.

I thought that the construction of the book was puzzling. We start in 1995 with a journey into the past. First, Zuckerman has lunch with the Swede, who wants him to write about his father’s life. Like the boy he was, Zuckerman is in awe to meet with his childhood hero.

Then we’re at the 50 years anniversary of Weequahic High 1945 class. That’s Zuckerman’s year. When I was reading this part, I was thinking of Time Regained and then Roth mentioned Proust’s madeleine himself. Roth borrows a lot to Proust in American Pastoral. A dinner at the Swede’s, with their parents and their friends takes several chapters and looks like a party at the Duchesse de Guermantes. Roth describes the discussions and goes behind the scenes to disclose what is behind appearances.

Then we dive into the Swede’s tragic life and never come back to the present. The book seems like it’s standing on the edge of an abyss and we’re left there, scrambling to remember the beginning and what Zuckerman learnt about the Swede’s life to fill the dots and come back to present times. It felt strange.

My brain can see that it’s a deep and fascinating book. It raises questions about America and offers a line of analysis. But I can’t say I had a lot of pleasure reading it. Some passages were boring and I struggled to stay interested in the Swede’s inner turmoil, Merry’s stuttering or Dawn’s conflicting feelings about her beauty. There were too many details about glove making, which had a purpose, mainly to show how industry turned from a semi-artisanal business to mass production in low cost countries.

It’s not my favorite Roth, maybe because I missed his humor. It’s barely present in American Pastoral as soon as the high school reunion is over. And I love Roth’s sense of humor.

I’d still recommend it because Roth develops a vision of America that is worth reading about.

About reading, a quote by Margaret Atwood

January 3, 2020 12 comments

In A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing published in the magazine America, Margaret Atwood writes:

A book is a voice in your ear; the message is –while you are reading it –for you alone. Reading a book is surely the most intimate experience we can have of the inside of another human being’s mind. Writer, book, and reader –in this triangle, the book is the messenger. And all three are part of one act of creation, as the composer, the player of the symphony, and the listener are all participants in it. The reader is the musician of the book.

As for the writer, his or her part is done when the book goes out into the world; it is the book that will then live or die, and what happens to the writer is at that point immaterial, from the point of view of the book.

I agree with her about the intimacy of reading. Besides going to places I’ll never see in real life, being in someone else’s mind is the most fascinating experience of reading. Sometimes it’s a terrifying place to be, sometimes it’s comforting in a ah-you-too? kind of way and sometimes it’s eye-opening.

Her last paragraph about the writer’s role after the book is published? It probably explains why I rarely read interviews of writers about their books, especially when they are on tour to promote their new one.

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel – Superb and surprising

January 2, 2020 28 comments

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel (2005) Original French title: La petite fille de Monsieur Linh

Before writing anything about Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel, let’s talk about the French and English titles. In French, it is La petite fille de Monsieur Linh. Since there is no hyphen between “petite” and “fille”, it means Monsieur Linh’s little girl and not Monsieur Linh’s granddaughter. The English publisher chose Monsieur Linh and His Child and I wonder why they picked “child” instead of “little girl”. But back to the book.

Monsieur Linh is an immigrant from Vietnam, probably one of the boat people. We never know exactly where he comes from. He left his home after his family was attacked. He’s an old man and he’s disoriented by his journey. He arrives in France and everything is strange: the language, the food, the city, the smells. He is sent to a refugee center where there are other families from his country. An interpreter comes from time to time to talk to him and help him out with the administrative duties.

He settles into a routine, goes to the park nearby and becomes friends with a widower, Monsieur Bark. They can’t talk to each other with words because one is a native French speaker and the other only knows his mother tongue. But somehow, they speak the same language of sadness and loneliness. Monsieur Linh has left his country and his family is dead. Monsieur Bark mourns his wife and doesn’t have any children. Their common need for company brings them together on this bench morning after morning. Somehow, they communicate and bring each other some much needed warmth.

All along the text, Monsieur Linh has his little girl with him. He travelled with her, never left her alone and he dotes on her. She’s his link to his country, to his past and his family.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is a perfect novella, as striking as Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman-Taylor although their theme is different. They have the same way of building a story up to an unimaginable denouement. And in both books, the clues that lead to the ending are scattered along the pages, the reader just overlooks them. The construction of this tale is perfectly executed.

The other outstanding quality of Claudel’s novella is his compassionate tone. We are in Monsieur Linh’s head and we witness his puzzlement with his new life. He seems to have arrived in Calais or Dunkirk. He’s cold, the city smells, there are a lot of automobiles everywhere. The food is strange, except when his fellow refugees feed him at the center. He doesn’t know what to do anymore and his only goal in life is to take care of his little girl. Although he’s traumatized by the war and his journey to France, he won’t let go because she needs him.

Philippe Claudel imagines Monsieur Linh’s feeling and makes the reader “experience” the pain of being a war refugee. It means leaving a country without preparation and without a real will to emigrate. It’s not a choice, it is imposed on him by dreadful circumstances. The reader feels empathy for these refugees.

I remember the arrival of boat people refugees when I was a child. For us, it meant changing from a tall grumpy French dentist with huge paws and no patience for children fears to a tiny Vietnamese dentist with agile embroiderer hands and a calming presence. I can tell you that his customer base grew quickly.

Not surprisingly, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is taught in middle school. It’s short, easy to read and has obvious qualities to build the character of tomorrow’s citizen.

Very highly recommended. Lisa also reviewed it here.

PS: Sorry to be blunt, but the cover of the English edition is ugly. There’s no other word for it.

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