A New York Christmas by Anne Perry (2014) French title: Un Noël à New York. Translated by Pascale Haas.
Something strange happens with recurring characters of crime fiction series. They become like long term colleagues or distant relatives. You see them getting married or divorced, become parents, have their children grow up and sometimes become grand-parents. You hear or see of their family. All this procures a sense of closeness, as if these characters were real, as if reading a new volume of the series was a mean to keep in touch with them. Isn’t that powerful of a writer to create such a bond between their readers and their characters?
That’s exactly how I feel about the characters of Anne Perry’s two series, the William Monk one and the Thomas Pitt one. A New York Christmas is a side volume of the Thomas Pitt series. It features his daughter Jemima, whose birth I remember from an early volume of the series. And my thought was “Wow, Jemima is already 23, I remember of her when she was born and when she was a child.” See? Exactly like friends or relatives you don’t see very often and it seems like their children grew up overnight when in truth you’re just getting older.
Well, we’re in 1904 and Jemima Pitt is now 23. She’s chaperoning a young bride, Delphinia on her trip from London to New York, where her fiancé is waiting for them. Delphinia will marry Brent Albright, a rich young man who belongs to a powerful family from New York. Delphinia’s father couldn’t accompany her for health reasons and her mother left them when she was a little girl. When Jemima and Delphinia arrive to New York, Brent’s older brother Harley embarks Jemima in an odd mission. He has heard that Delphinia’s mother was in town and they need to find her before she crashes the wedding ceremony and embarrasses her daughter and her future in-laws. But Jemima senses there’s more to the story of Delphinia’s mother than just someone who abandoned her child. Where is she and what were her reasons to leave everything behind?
For those who’s never read the Pitt series, you need to know that Thomas Pitt is a policeman who was educated as a gentleman and who married in a higher social class than his. Charlotte married him against her parents’ wishes. She was a feisty young woman who wouldn’t play by good society’s rules and wanted to use her brains. She is fascinated by her husband’s job and she always gets involved in her husband’s investigations, going to places a policeman couldn’t go. Jemima is her parents’ daughter, ie, she’s thrilled to help solving a little mystery.
Unfortunately, she’s not as savvy as she thinks and Harley might have ulterior motives…And that’s all I will tell you about the plot.
Let’s face it, it’s not the novella of the century but I still enjoyed it. I read it as quickly as you watch an entertaining film. It was what I was looking for when I picked it up and it met my expectations. Given the ending, I wonder if there will be a third series with a spinoff of the Pitt branch in New York. It might be nice to have a new source of comfort read.
PS: I put the two covers from the English and the French editions. They are not the same but look alike.
Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld (2011) French title: Triburbia. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.
Triburbia relates the quotidian of a group of fathers in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, New York. Tribeca was an industrial neighborhood until the 1970s. In the 1980s, artists started to live in lofts in this area as the rents were cheap. It then became a trendy place where a lot of influential people live.
Triburbia is a mosaic of stories about self-analysis, marriages and children, a sort of chick lit told from a male point of view. These fathers are writer, sound engineer, gangster, photographer, … Not blue collar, not white collar either, part of an undefined class I’ll call artistic. These men have jobs with flexible hours and meet for breakfast in a café after dropping the children to school. That’s how they met, actually, through their offspring going to the same school.
They all arrived in Tribeca before it was trendy and witnessed the gentrification of the neighborhood. They have the classic angst seen in chick lit: how’s my marriage doing? Shall cheat with M. X’s wife? How are my children compared to others? Am I getting old? Am I successful? Where did my dream go? They’re as vapid as the characters of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson.
What makes a big difference with chick lit though, is Greenfeld’s style. I read him in French, so I don’t have quotes but he has a knack for colorful and humorous descriptions. If you want to discover his style, have a look at Guy’s review, here.
Although Greenfeld gives a good picture of the gentrification process of Tribeca but I couldn’t muster a lot of interest for these self-absorbed men, their snotty daughters or their wives. They have unconventional professions, crave for success and despise people who have regular jobs, especially bankers, accountants and the like. (We’re in Manhattan, remember, so high paying job often involve working in the finance industry) Finance is too grown-up, not glamorous enough. I found them judgmental, snobbish and shallow. Having children is not a good enough reason to stop smoking pot or behaving like teenagers.
The book is divided in chapters whose titles are the address of the character who stars in it. It is a way to show how snobbish people are, the location of your loft matters. We discover this little microcosm, how people are linked to one another. The characters pop up from one chapter to the other as the reader makes the links between the members of this tribe. They are under pressure to be rich with an artistic job, which isn’t easy to achieve. These men don’t admire Hemingway and his Moveable Feast. They have no admiration for filthy poor but underestimated artists, they only have admiration for artists who are as rich as a hedge fund managers. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it: the liberty to create with the financial wealth of a yuppie job.
In the end, this milieu is as codified and rigid as the bourgeoisie. The codes are different, that’s all. You must be rich but appear not to care about money. You must live as if common rules didn’t apply to you: it’s not a big deal if the children are late to school, or if you do drugs. You must live in a loft. They are supposed to be free of social codes but they just created new ones, the live-as-a-cool-and-successful-artistic-family code. The biggest difference with their bourgeois counterparts is that they don’t have trophy wives. These men have married women with successful careers, women who didn’t give up their jobs when their first child was born to become stay-at-home mothers and PTA wonders.
This Tribeca tribe questions their life choices and for the most, their career happened by chance. They had an opportunity, they seized it or drifted from their original dream to something else. They cheat on their partner but don’t necessary want a divorce. They realize that their couple may not be so great, that their family might be a façade. To me, they looked like a team of immature Peter Pans who think they are superior to others but have the same mid-life crisis as anyone.
Triburbia has good critics but I thought it was as futile as its characters. I always have trouble sympathizing with self-indulgent trendy-lefties who look down on non-artistic people. It’s a form of haughtiness that is not becoming. The gentrification process of the neighborhood was interesting to follow, as traditional shops are pushed to close or move out as rents increase. Greenfeld’s writing is the redeeming quality of the novel. He really nailed Tribeca’s inhabitants with a great sense of humor.
Kim at Reading Matters has a weekly rendezvous with another book blogger and guess what? This week, it’s me!
In this billet Kim asks a fellow blogger about three books that are special to them. If you want to discover mine, click here!
Thanks Kim, I’m honoured to be part of the Triple Choice Tuesday bloggers.
Let’s have a quick look at my 2016 reading year. I’m not much into reading statistics because numbers are for my office life, not my literary life. I’ll just say that I read 62 books in 2016, which is not much compared to other book bloggers but not so bad if you consider that I have a full time corporate executive job and a family. All this reading wouldn’t be possible without a wonderful husband, that’s for sure.
I have ended 2016 the way I started it: concerned about my growing TBR. Sure, I read 19 books out of it without including my Book Club reads that also qualified for it. But I got crime books at Quais du Polar, French Canadian books when I was in Québec in August, people lent me books and I got tempted here and there. Consequence: the TBR is higher in January 2017 than it was is January 2016. *Sigh* I’ll try to do better in 2017.
What where the highlights of my reading year?
Book I’d buy to all my friends if it were available in French.
The Hands. An Australian pastoral by Stephen Orr. It’s the story of farmers in a remote part of Australia. The painting of the land, the harshness of their lives and the family dynamics are extremely well-drawn. It stayed with me for the descriptions of the landscape, the curiosity about everyday life in such an isolated place and the characters.
The book that will make you understand what alcoholism does to your flesh and to your mind.
Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. It’s the book that was made into the eponymous film. It’s the meeting of two lost souls, a prostitute and an alcoholic. As a woman, I should have felt closer to Sera but in the end, I was drawn to Ben. It’s a book that stayed with me for its violence and its honesty and I’m looking forward to reading another one by him, Stripper Lessons.
Old book that best resonates with today’s society
Business Is Business by Octave Mirbeau. See how much Isidore Lechat sounds like some modern politicians in this incredible play that dates back to 1903. Isidore and Trump have definitely something in common.
Best of Guy’s recommendations.
In 2016, I read six books recommended by Guy and all of them were very good. I loved the Charlie Hardie series by Duane Swierczynski and I urge you to try them. I loved Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao, the story of a hitman who’s tired of his job and starts obsessing with architecture and I laughed out loud when I read Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. These aren’t famous books and that’s where Guy’s a genius: he’s able to find little gems like this in the forest of books put on the market. Guy, a publisher should hire you.
A classic that is even better than its reputation.
Best Sugar Without Cellulite Book
I didn’t have time to write a billet about it but I had a delightful reading journey with Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. I couldn’t put it down.
Best book blind date.
Le garçon by Marcus Malte is a book I read after a libraire set me up with it. What a ride! It won the prestigious Prix Femina, so I guess it will be translated in English.
Best book from my Québec reads.
The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. Discover the life of a neighborhood in French speaking Montreal.
Worst reading experience of the year.
A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais. It’s bleak, violent and lacks nuance and compares to The Passport by Herta Müller, a book I didn’t like either. At least I’m consistent
The billet you liked the most.
Here’s the billet that got the most likes and comments: Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s. I always hesitate to publish billets about the exhibitions I visit or book festivals I attend. Who cares about my life, really? But each time, these billets get lots of comments and likes. So I’ll keep writing about events as long as they are book related.
The billet you missed.
I’d like to draw your attention to The Great Depression. America 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel. It is an excerpt of Claudel’s correspondence as the ambassador of France in Washington from 1927 to 1932. I know, it’s in French but there might be similar books in your language. It’s focused on economics and it was really enlightening. Lots of current issues and proposed solutions existed already and it was fascinating to put things in perspective.
That’s all folks! You can find another overview of my reading year in my Reading Bingo 2016 billet. 2016 was another great reading year and I expect 2017 to be at least as good. I don’t have plans but I will continue to work on the TBR.
I really want to thank all the visitors, commenters and “likers” of Book Around The Corner. It’s a pleasure to share my thoughts with you and interact with other readers. I’m always amazed that you’re willing to spend some of your free time reading me. I’ll try to be better at reading your blogs; I owe several of my best reading experience to other bloggers and that’s a great side of book blogging. And last, if any of you comes to Lyon, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Cheers to a wonderful 2017 reading year!
I wish you and all your beloved ones a Happy New Year and as we traditionally say in France, I wish you a good health. A French won’t wish you a Happy New Year before the time has come. It’s a sort of superstition, I suppose. What if something happens? (I would never throw a baby shower either, to afraid to jinx something and attract back luck. I’ve never heard of receiving presents before the baby is born.)
But now we’re officially in 2017, so it’s safe to wish you the best and hope that the world will be a better place because let’s face it, 2016 wasn’t a great year on that front.
Thank you to all readers and commenters for spending my 2016 reading year with me. I’ll post a best of 2016 list later, I can’t publish it before the year is over. What if I read a masterpiece right the last week of December and my best-of list is already published. 🙂
I have no plans for 2017, except to limit my TBR. I wonder of it’s just wishful thinking or one of those January good resolutions. Time will tell.
The Christmas Tree by Jennifer Johnston (1981) French title: Un Noël blanc. Translated by Arlette Stroumza
Winter 1980. Constance Keating is 45 and dying. After hearing about her cancer, she left her flat and her job in London to come back to her childhood home in Dublin. Her parents are dead and she and her sister Bibi had decided to sell the house but now it will be Constance’s last home. It’s almost Christmas and Constance wants a Christmas tree to recreate the atmosphere of happier times.
I was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house. The fresh smell of pine needles in the winter room; the excitement of unwrapping the sparkling glass ornaments from the tissue paper in which they had been so carefully packed eleven months before; the warm waxy smell as the tin corkscrew candles flicker for the first time in their scalloped holders. Those early days of the tree were almost better than Christmas itself, which never came up to anyone’s expectations. I must pull myself together and get a tree, something manageable, something I can cope with on my own, something that will cause no anxiety to Bibi. The latter, of course, may not be possible. I will use electric lights, not candles. I will assure her of that.
Yes, I must get a tree.
All that is left
Constance comes from a bourgeois family from Dublin. Her parents were a socialite couple, living separate lives but staying together. Constance doesn’t know if they loved each other or only tolerated each other. But in Ireland at the time, did they have another choice than staying married? Bibi followed their parents’ footsteps. She married well, popped four children and lives the bourgeois life, with all the narrow-mindedness you can imagine.
Constance has always been a free spirit. She refused to make the comfortable choice and marry Bill, who became a doctor. She decided to leave her Irish life behind and start fresh in London. She wanted to become a writer. It didn’t turn as well as she hoped but she stayed in London, took a job and never married. She remained faithful to her lust from freedom. Then she decided to have a baby and had a holiday fling to get pregnant. Her lover was Jacob Weinberg, a Jew from Poland who emigrated to Great Britain after WWII. Even her choice of lover is unconventional.
Her little girl is now nine months old and going to lose her mother. Constance writes to Jacob, to tell him about his daughter, about her upcoming death and asks him to come and get his daughter. Will the letter reach him on time? Will he come?
Constance and Bibi obviously don’t see life through the same lenses. Bibi does her duty to Constance. She takes care of her little girl, makes sure that she’s fed and well but it’s cold as a duty. She doesn’t understand Constance at all, why she doesn’t want to stay in a hospital and do treatments to prolong her life. But Constance doesn’t want to go through unnecessary painful treatments. She wants to let cancer run its course and die at home.
Bill, her former beau, comes regularly as a doctor and as a friend and accepted her decision. He would have liked for her to go to the hospital but he respects her decision. Bibi doesn’t let go and it might not be out of love. It is hard to figure out her feelings and her opinion. On the one hand, she’s upset that Constance doesn’t follow the rules and because she can’t pass on the problem to the doctors and nurses. It’s convenient. On the other hand, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: Constance is dying. Is it because losing her sister after losing her parents is too much to bear? Or is it only some obnoxious stubbornness to accept the evidence? She keeps telling Constance that she’ll get better.
We follow Constance’s last weeks in her parents’ home, a house that brings back childhood memories. She also feels the urge to write again. We learn more about her, her life and her family. Constance is a strong independent woman who chose to go against conventions to remain true to herself. She’s not one to compromise and let age and society eat at her resolve. She chose to have a child by herself, a scandal for her family. She even chose an improper lover to father her child, a Jew, a foreigner.
Constance never connected with her family. Bibi and Constance’s mindsets are too different. Their mother never understood why she left for London. Perhaps it questioned too much her own reasons to stay in an unsatisfactory marriage. And their father did his best to escape from family life, from spending time with the three females of his life. Would he have been different if he had had a son? Constance wonders.
I liked Constance for her courage. She remained true to herself, resisted peer pressure even if it came with costs. She had to emigrate, she was estranged from her family. She went against people’s expectations and lived with her decisions. It’s the mark of a true free spirit. To hell with propriety even if it can be selfish sometimes. She never wonders if her conduct exposed her mother and sister to gossip or if Bill was heartbroken when she left.
It should be a sad novel but it’s not. It has the musicality of a piano piece in Minor. I’ve read it in French, so I don’t have any other quote to share. The translation is smooth and it reflects Johnston’s prose. It’s like one of those films with flash backs in black and white family films showing a character’s past. We see vignettes of Constance as a girl, as a young woman and as Jacob’s lover. The narrative alternates between present and past, between first person narration and an omniscient narrator. It reflects Constance’s mind. She drifts to sleep. She medicates herself with alcohol and painkillers. She’s weak and the switch of point of views, the back and forth between the present and the past wonderfully create the illusion that we are with Constance, in her mind, in her room and in the last days of her life.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas. For readers who celebrate this holiday, I hope you’re somewhere safe and surrounded by friends and family. For readers who don’t have Christmas as a tradition, I send you my best wishes for this day anyway. In the media and in shopping malls, Christmas has turned into a giant consuming fest. On a more private level, I think it’s still a moment of year to be with family and friends. It remains linked to childhood and, I hope, it relates to happy and innocent times.
I’m not religious but Christmas is also a time to be generous and open to others. In France, we have a charity named Les Restos du Coeur. It was founded in 1985 by an artist, Coluche. He wanted to do something to feed the poor and decided on opening restaurants. Today it distributes 132.5 million meals and started a lot of different actions to help people in need. From the start, this charity has been supported by artists, especially by singers and actors who organize a huge concert every winter. For a few years now, writers have donated short stories to put together an annual collection whose profit goes to Les Restos du Coeur. I have the 2016 edition and in the foreword, it says that in 2014, 1.4 million of meals were distributed thanks to this book. And since each book brings in four free meals, I let you do the math and imagine how many books were sold.
The collections are named 13 à table, which means 13 people around the table. Actually, twelve writers participate. I guess the thirteenth shadow participant is the reader or the beneficiay of the meals. In the 2016 collection, the common theme was siblings. The writers are Françoise Bourdin, Michel Bussi, Maxime Chattam, Stéphane De Groodt, François d’Epenoux, Karine Giebel, Douglas Kennedy, Alexandra Lapierre, Agnès Ledig, Nadine Monfils, Romain Puértolas and Bernard Werber. Most of them I’d never read. All are francophone writers except for Douglas Kennedy. He’s American and he’s more successful here than in his own country, it makes sense to find him here.
These stories explore relationships between siblings or the feelings about only children. Love, jealousy, longing for brothers or sisters and complicity. They show the power of this unique link between people who share the same parents.
The best short stories in the collection were the ones by Michel Bussi and Maxime Chattam. Both of them are dark and I can’t tell much about them without spoiling them. These are two crime fiction writers and both stories reach a certain level of perversity.
Françoise Bourdin tells a story about two very different brothers, one wealthy and bourgeois, the other more rebel and bohemian. Both are middle-aged. They see each other regularly and the bourgeois one tends to think his brother is a bit of a mooch…until he sees he helps him out too, just not on a financial level.
In Aleyna, Karine Giebel chose to explore the implacable law imposed to sisters by older brothers into some cultures. Here it is the Turkish community and the need for a girl to be pure and ready for imposed marriages. According to the UN, 5000 women die each year in the name of honor.
Douglas Kennedy wrote a story about a man who confide in his aunt only to get slapped in the face when he realizes he played right into the unknown and unhealthy relationship his aunt has with her brother, this man’s father.
I don’t know how I missed Nadine Monfils as a writer. She’s Belgian and has already 60 novels under her belt, most of them crime fiction. Her story La robe bleue is a bit Noir but not on the crime side.
It was a very enjoyable collection to read. On this day of grande bouffe et petits cadeaux (big meals and small gifts) as Renaud sings sarcastically in his song Hexagone, I thought it was the right time to pause for a moment and remember that not everyone spends a cozy Christmas day with a full belly.