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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 #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.

 

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ – the pressure of traditions on young couples

June 20, 2020 13 comments

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017) French title: Reste avec moi. Translated by Josette Chicheportiche.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a Nigerian writer and her novel Stay With Me was our Book Club choice for May. (Yes, I’m late with writing this billet. I never seem to be able to write billets in the same order as I read books)

Yejide and Akin are still in university when they meet and fall in love. They get married quickly and are happy together. Unfortunately, four years after their wedding, Yejide isn’t pregnant yet. The young couple wouldn’t worry about it if Akin’s mother didn’t put pressure on them. As her eldest son, he must have children to keep his family’s lineage alive. Yejide sees all the specialists and medicine men she can, but to no avail. Life goes on until her mother-in-law brings to her house Akin’s second wife.

Stay With Me goes back and forth between the present (2008) and the past (the 1980s) where everything began. Yejide’s first reaction is intense jealousy towards Fumni, Akin’s second wife. She feels betrayed by her husband, by her mother-in-law. She’s against polygamy and never wanted to be an Iya, a first wife.

Yejide has lost her mother when she was little. Her father was close to her but she had to live with his other wives and their children and she never found her place in the household. She thought she had found a new family with Akin’s family and her mother-in-law’s behavior is hard to accept.

Things don’t go where you think they’re headed, with a cohabitation between the two wives and all the drama around it. I can’t tell you how the story develops without spoilers, so let’s keep it that way: it’s dark and unorthodox.

Stay With Me shows an educated young couple with a Western type of relationship who is powerless to resist the pressure put by family and tradition. Yejide owns her hairdressing salon and Akin works in a bank. They live in a rather big city. They are happy the way they are but they don’t dare to go against tradition. Fighting Akin’s mother’s wishes is rude and impossible to do.

I discovered a culture I knew nothing about. Akin’s younger brother, Dotun is married and has children but it’s not enough to appease their mother. Her first born must be a father, at any cost. There’s also strong beliefs in devils, various superstitions that weigh on people’s lives.

Stay With Me is narrated by Yejide but also by Akin, and it was interesting to see events from his side. We see the pressure put on their shoulders. Of course, when a couple doesn’t have children, the assumption is that the woman’s fertility is the cause of the absence of pregnancy. Akin’s mother can’t imagine that her son could be responsible for it.

Stay With Me also mentions politics in Nigeria in the 1980s. There was a military coup in 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida. It doesn’t impact Yejide’s and Akin’s lives more than any other Nigerian of the time. They are not involved in politics and it doesn’t interfere in their attempts to have children. I didn’t see the point of including these political events in the novel.

I thought that Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s book was poignant and that it is an important plea for more individual freedom in her country. We’re in 2020, the story takes place in the 1980s, I don’t know how mores have changed in almost 40 years but surely things have moved on.

I enjoyed traveling to Nigeria, reading about the food, the customs, life in Yejide’s salon and the time it takes to braid women’s hair. I liked Stay With Me well-enough but something’s missing and it prevented me from loving it. It’s still worth reading, though.

In French, Stay With Me is published by Charleston, a publisher I’d never heard of. After a bit of research, they publish romance, which might explain why I never came across them. The French translation is by Josette Chicheportiche who has just published a new translation of Gone With the Wind. It’s a chunkster, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle such a long book. So if you’ve read it and loved it, I need some encouragements here. 😊

For the anecdote, there’s a “battle” between Gallmeister, the publisher of the new translation and Folio, who republished its old translation. If Folio’s translation of Gone With the Wind is like their translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or A Rage In Harlem, I’m definitely team Gallmeister and I’ll be reading Chicheportiche’s translation.

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet – San Francisco Noir

May 23, 2020 6 comments

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (2013) French title: Petit traité de la fauche. Translated by Catherine Richard-Mas

Klinger didn’t waste a moment. His door, being the one that had impacted the light pole, was jammed. So, as they’d been robbing liquor stores with the top down, since they couldn’t figure out how to get it up, he tried to step up and out of the stolen sports car with dignity. But the remnants of the airbag entangled his legs, and he and his dignity spilled headlong into the street.

And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Klinger, the main protagonist of Snitch World by Jim Nisbet. He’s a middle-aged thug, a weird concept because people should grow out of being a thug.

He and his accomplice Chainbang have just robbed a liquor store. They are in a car accident in the middle of the street, the police, the firemen and the paramedics are on their way. Klinger takes his share and ditches Chainbang, disappearing into the night while his partner is getting arrested. That’s Klinger for you.

He loves to drink and steals to pay for his booze and spend nights in cheap hotels, in North Beach, San Francisco. Nisbet takes us to this city, which seems to have turned its back to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s to fully embrace the tech era. Klinger is old school, he doesn’t even own a mobile phone. Walking down the SF streets, he gets reacquainted with Frankie, a pick-pocketing artist who was just released from prison.

Living in the tech world is Phillip Wong, a genius in programming and designing phone apps. He’s been working night and day for a start-up founded by Marcie, a girl he has a crush on. After working himself into exhaustion, he finally understood that Marcie took advantage of him and he decided to hop off the train.

Klinger and Wong’s worlds collide when Klinger and Frankie pick Phillip as their mark and accost him on the street. Klinger distracts him, Frankie visits his pockets. Problem: Phillip fights back and both he and Frankie are unconscious on the pavement when Klinger scurries for cover.

The next morning, Klinger reads in the paper about the aggression and that one man is dead and the other is in the hospital. Who is dead and who is alive? He gets his answer quickly when Marcie knocks on his hotel door. She has geolocated Phillip’s phone and she wants it bad as it is the key to his latest IT developments.

Klinger can’t say no to Marcie’s money and embarks in a fatal journey.

This is Noir territory. San Francisco is used as an atmospheric background and rain pours down on Klinger, the same kind of rain Chandler describes in Los Angeles. Nisbet takes us on the rainy streets of San Francisco, from Tenderloin to North Beach. We visit shabby bars and decrepit hotels that could not survive COVID-19 health code regulations.

Nisbet has a great sense of humor, he makes fun of this new world we’re in, with phone owning our lives and all the various apps we use. Klinger is out of his depth in this tech-dominated world.

Professional robbers don’t pick coat pockets anymore, Nisbet tells us. Marcie and her kind pick at other people’s brain and pocket the money. But since it’s technology, it’s socially acceptable.

As his name suggests it: Klinger clings to his old ways and to life. He’s always been a drifter and his main goals are to avoid jail and to get enough money for booze, food and a dry place to sleep. He’s not a very pleasant character, probably because he’s lazy, selfish and has no loyalty. I guess we can sympathize with a criminal who lives by his own moral code, provided that he has a code and abides by it.

I was invested in the story and wondered how it would end. I enjoyed Nisbet’s style and the barbs against the tech world that transformed San Francisco into one of the most expensive cities of the USA.

Recommended.

QDP Day #3 : The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain

April 5, 2020 16 comments

The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain. (2018) Original French title: Les Infidèles

This is Day 3 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar and I’m a little late with my billet. Isolation or not, I’m still quite busy. Before diving into The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain, let me share Guy’s review of The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre and Andrew’s review of In the Name of Truth by Viveca Sten. Manue thanks Guy and Andrew for your participation to our virtual Quais du Polar. It was great to have you on board.

Now let’s go back to Dominique Sylvain and her great novel.

Alice Kléber runs the website lovalibi.com: she sells stories and alibis to people who cheat on their spouse. She fabricates fictitious seminars, night work sessions and other professional emergencies for people who need an excuse not to go home. She makes up excuses and provides her client with material evidences of the thing they were supposed to be at.

Alice lives in an isolated home in Burgundy and suffers from the aftershock of an aggression. She doesn’t feel safe and uses a lot of coping mechanisms. She’s also convinced she’ll die young and soon and it impact her way-of-life and her decision making process. Alice is single and very fond of her niece Salomé, a young journalist who works for TV24. She sees her as her heir and she feels close to her.

Problem: Salomé is found dead in a trash can near the hotel La Licorne, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. Salomé had decided to do a reportage on these unfaithful people, to understand why they do it and buy services to her aunt. Did that lead to her death? Does her boss at TV24 know something? Or is it someone from her personal life?

Commandant Barnier and his partner lieutenant Maze are in charge of the case. All the people around Salomé are under investigation. Is the murderer lurking in the shadows, ready to strike again?

Said in a few words, the plot is quite simple but the book stands out. Its flavor comes from Sylvain’s brand of writing and her knack for characters. She imagines unique characters. They have their quirks but are not caricatures. They sound real and interesting with their unusual profession or their singular personal lives.

Alice is special, with her questionable business. She seems tough but she’s not that much and howls for love. Her niece is very important to her and she longs to have someone who loves her and has her back. But Salomé isn’t the innocent and punchy young woman that her aunt wants her to be.

Salomé’s boss, Alexandre Le Goff has an unusual family, with his wife Dorine and her slightly handicapped brother Valentin living with them. They draw a lot of attention. Valentin works as a janitor at TV24 and has a crush on Salomé.

Even the cops are special. Instead of two cops with clashing personalities who need to work together anyway, Dominique Sylvain imagined a partnership between two men who are attracted to each other. Maze is stunning and openly gay. Barnier is married with a son, his marriage is in a bad shape and he doesn’t understand his sudden fascination for his colleague.

Dominique Sylvain has a wonderful writing voice. I enjoyed her descriptions of Burgundy, the dialogues between the characters and her original images in her prose. I wanted to know who had killed Salomé and I enjoyed the ride, like a gourmet in a good restaurant.

Unfortunately, Les Infidèles is not available in English but another of her books, Passage du désir has been translated as The Dark Angel. I recommend it warmly and my billet is here.

PS: Dominique Sylvain is from Lorraine and it slips into her writing when she says :

“Elle agrippe Alexandre aux épaules et le secoue comme s’il était un mirabellier plein de mirabelles bonnes à manger”.

She takes Alexandre by the shoulders and shakes him up as if he were a mirabellier tree full of mirabelles ready to be eaten.

The mirabellier tree is typical from Lorraine and produces mirabelles, small yellow plums that are very sweet and juicy.

QDP Days #2 : At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier – Discover Lyon in 1921 and the first CSI lab in the world

April 4, 2020 13 comments

At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier (2013) Original French title : La nuit, in extremis. Not available in English.

This is Day 2 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar.

Today is about At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier. It is the third instalment of a series set in Lyon, with professor Hugo Salacan and commissaire Kolvair as main characters.

We’re in 1921 and Anthelme Frachant gets out of prison. Commissaire Kolvair knew him from their war years and knows that he killed Bertail, another soldier and a friend of Kolvair’s. Kolvair suspects that he will kill again and decides to follow him. He takes a room in the same boarding house as Anthelme. During his first night there, Kolvair leaves his room in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by withdrawal symptoms and goes out in search of his next cocaine dose. Kolvair lost a leg in the Great War and suffers from phantom pain. He also has PTSD. Cocaine has become a coping mechanism and that night, it saves his life, in extremis. Indeed, while he was away, Anthelme slaughtered everyone in the boarding house.

Anthelme turns himself to the police and Kolvair finds him at the prison’s asylum. The question is Will Anthelme be judged for his crimes or will it be considered that he lacks criminal responsibility, due to mental illness? The alienist Bianca Serragio thinks that he is schizophrenic, an illness that doctors still investigate and try to define. Will she be able to convince Public Prosecutor Rocher that Anthelme cannot be hold accountable for his actions and that he must be placed in an asylum instead?

At night, in extremis is more a novel about Lyon, the 1920s than a true crime fiction novel. With the murderer known from the beginning and without any actual police investigation, the plot centers around the city, the times and the personal lives of the characters.

Lyon is where the cinema was born. It is also a scientific cluster for forensic science. Lyon had the first CSI lab in the world. Indeed, Edmond Locard (1877-1966) studied with Alexandre Lacassagne, a pioneer in forensic medicine. (See Lacassagne in action in my billet about The Rhône Murders by Coline Gatel) Both are from Lyon. In 1910, Locard set up the first CSI lab in the attic of the Palais de Justice in Lyon. He researched graphology, fingerprinting methods, ballistics and toxicology. He coined the Locard’s exchange principle, still used in today’s forensic science. His statement is that “Every contact leaves a trace”. His Traité de police scientifique is a seven-volume methodology of forensic science still in use in today’s CSI departments.

Kolvair believes in CSI and works with forensic scientists. Odile Bouhier evokes the famous lab in the attic. Her alienist, Bianca Serragio works at the Bron asylum, now known as Le Vinatier hospital. It was founded in 1877 and they still have some of the 19thC buildings and a big park. It’s also a reknown psychiatric hospital in France. Bianca Serragio is doing research in psychiatry, looking for ways to improve diagnosis and cures. The Rorschach test dates back to 1921 and Bianca believes it will help. Odile Bouhier depicts times of great scientific breakthroughs in criminology and psychiatrics.

This historical setting is interesting and piqued my curiosity. Since the crime plot was easily solved, the reader’s attention is focused on the characters’ personal lives.

Kolvair battles against demons inherited from the Great War and his liaison with Bianca is his safe place. Bianca has to fight for a field that needs recognition and being female doesn’t help. Forensic scientist Badou is orchestrating a hasty marriage of convenience because someone blackmails him, and threatens to reveals his homosexuality. His bride knows his sexual preferences and goes into this marriage with her eyes open. Professor Salacan’s children need extra-care, one has trisomy 21 and another is diabetic. This is how I learnt that in 1921, in Toronto, J.J.R. McLeod was conducting research and experiment on insulin.

Bouhier’s novel shows a city with a strong scientific community, but the novel felt unfinished, pieces are not stitched together well-enough. I had trouble remembering all the characters. There are too many of them for a 280 pages book. IMO, the writer should have either stuck with Kolvair and his PTSD or written a longer book, to give herself time to develop everyone’s personal lives and personalities.

It was a nice read for the local setting, the picture of Lyon in 1921. It spurred me to browse through several Wikipedia articles about Locard, Le Vinatier and other scientific facts and I always love to learn new things.

Many thanks to M. who gave me this book before moving back to America.

QDP Days #1 : Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh – Visit Melbourne and its police department

April 3, 2020 14 comments

Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh (2015) French title: L’affaire Isobel Vine Translated by Fabrice Pointeau.

This is Day 1 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar. Our beloved festival has been cancelled and we decided to post a billet about a book by an author invited to the festival. Marina’s first review is here. As far as I know, we have three other participants: Lizzy, Andrew and Guy. And maybe Max. I remind you that Pat, at South of Paris Books, read and reviewed the books short-listed for the Quais du Polar prize. The winner will be announced online today.

The festival has organised some online activities, go check them here. Here’s the program for April 3rd, the one for April 4th, and the one for April 5th. Now, let’s go back to Kingdom of the Strong by Tony Cavanaugh, who was invited to Quais du Polar in 2019, the year he signed my copy of his book. It seems a fitting book to illustrate Quais du Polar, Cavanaugh even mentions Lyon and its famous Edmond Locard, who was a pioneer of CSI. (more of that in an upcoming billet)

Kingdom of the Strong is an excellent cold-case crime fiction set in Melbourne. It won the Prix du Meilleur Polar awarded by readers of the publisher Points in France.

Burned out, Darian Richards resigned from the Melbourne police force four years ago and settled in an isolated cabin in Queensland. To Australian standards, it sounds like leaving the heart of civilisation to live as a recluse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, only with warmer weather. Poor Darian tries his hand at fishing but doesn’t have the skills of a Jim Harrison character.

So when his former boss and mentor, Copeland Walsh comes to take him out of retirement to work on twenty-five-year-old cold case, the death of Isobel Vine, he has mixed feelings. In appearances, Darian has no wish to jump back into action, in Melbourne or anywhere else but he cannot refuse anything to Walsh, a sort of father figure to him. And, burned out or not, he misses the job.

Copeland was offering more than a job. I’d been trying to fight it but having a hard time. I was remembering the buzz and the thrill of an incoming murder announcement. We lived for murder. It was exciting. In Victoria we’d have about a hundred a year, but we always wanted more. Give me two hundred, three hundred, give me a city of killings. The swirl of the eighth floor, the crews working Homicide, the buzz and the thrill, the oxygen that gets us moving. Eventually, over time, I was poisoned and burned out, unable to break free of the victims and their wraith-like murmurs of anguish fingering out like tentacles, reaching into my increasingly vodka-soaked mind as I kept searching for the very few killers, most notably The Train Rider, who slipped the net, stayed in the shadows, killing again and again or maybe retiring after one or two successful shots at it, leaving behind the plaintive sounds of the victims, calling for justice. Or calling out for me, at least, the guy who wanted to be perfect, Mr Hundred-Per-Cent, that’s how it seemed. I couldn’t deny, not after seeing the boss and hearing the war stories, that old feeling of camaraderie within the ranks of the crews of the eighth. The idea of going back to HQ, to solve a twenty-five-year-old killing, was giving me flutters of excitement.

Against his better judgement, he goes back to Melbourne, and demands his former partners Maria and Isosceles as a team. They start investigating Isobel’s death.

Isobel was in high school and involved with her English teacher, Brian Dunn. She had spent a year in Bolivia as an exchange student and upon Brian’s request had brought a “present from a friend”, drugs. The customs caught her at the Melbourne airport and the police was after her to get the names of her contacts.

Isobel was found dead, hung up with a man tie at her bedroom door, naked. The police concluded it was suicide, a sexual game with a deadly outcome. The night she died, there was a party at her flat and four young cops were among the guests. One of them, Nick Racine is now a serious contender for the position of Police Commissioner in Melbourne. The Premier of Victoria wants to make sure they endorse someone with a clean past.

Darian is in charge of re-opening the Isobel Vine investigation with the purpose to prove once for all, that Nick Racine has nothing to do with her death and that his nomination as Police Commissioner is possible.

They start digging and poking around everyone’s past. They meet with Isobel’s boyfriend, her teacher and the guests of that last fateful party. They stir up bad memories, things that people would rather leave buried now that they have moved on. They do their best to piece together Isobel’s life and see what happened to her.

Tony Cavanaugh is a screenwriter and his novel benefits from it. It’s very cinematographic, it’s fast paced, with a lot of twists and turns. Sometimes, I thought that one or two plot devices were a bit farfetched and now I wish I could ask Tony Cavanaugh if he invented them or if he read about it in newspapers as sometimes reality surpasses fiction.

The narration alternates between the past and the present, letting the reader peek into Isobel’s life. Cavanaugh uses an omniscient narrator for all the characters except Darian. He speaks at the first person. The cast of characters was well drawn and Darian and Maria make a great pair.

He’s like a lone wolf PI, responding to his own moral code and said moral code is not always in line with legality. He’s a man scarred by his years in the police force, to the point that every street in Melbourne reminds him of a case. It spoils his pleasure of strolling in the city. He only sees the ghost of investigations past. You see that both the French and English covers show a lonely PI with a gun and the Melbourne skyline. I prefer the English cover.

Maria is a spitfire and her boyfriend used to be a big shot in the Melbourne crime community. It’s at odds with her job and she’s always afraid that his former life is not completely over and that his criminal endeavours put stains on her career in the police force. She and Darian make a great team. Helped by Isosceles’s uncanny ability to unearth information about people, they dive into this investigation head on and don’t hesitate to ruffle feathers in the process.

Cavanaugh take us in Melbourne’s back-alleys, in the corridors of the police force where well-established cops feel that they now are on a hot seat. Will they get out of it unscathed? Will they manage to find out what happened to Isobel, twenty-five years ago?

Read the book and find out. It’s an entertaining read, one that will virtually take you out of lockdown. It will take your mind off epidemic thoughts and wash away the virus of anxiety that eats at us, despite our best efforts. Recommended.

A little word about French stuff in this book. I love noting them down.

I mentioned Edmond Locard earlier but several other odd references to French things pop in Cavanaugh’s novel and it was unexpected.

Maria listens to Les Négresses Vertes.

There’s a funny explanation of Voilà! I paraphrase since I have the book in French translation: Cavanaugh says it seems to mean anything from take this to the cat is dead. Well observed, I’d say.

And then when the characters go to a -stuffy- French restaurant in Melbourne, the French waiter is named Jean-Paul. What is it with Australian writers and the name Jean-Paul? Is there an Australian reader out there who can spot the French textbook with a character named Jean-Paul? There must be one. I have no intention to write a book, but I promise that if I ever change my mind, I won’t name the British characters and their dog, Brian, Jenny and Cheeky.

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?

Termination by Petros Markaris – the trilogy about the Greek crisis

March 4, 2020 16 comments

Termination by Petros Markaris. (2011) French title: Le Justicier d’Athènes. Translated by Michel Volkovitch.

As far as I know, Le Justicier d’Athènes by Petros Markaris is not available in English. According to Wikipedia, the original Greek title of this book is Peraíosi, a word that Googles translate into Termination. I don’t know what the English title of this book would be, so we’ll use Termination. The French publisher chose to entitle it Athens’s Righter of Wrongs.

Termination belongs to the Kostas Haritos crime fiction series, and within this series, it is included in a trilogy about the 2010 Greek financial crisis. Each book exposes one angle of the Greek collapse. The first one, Liquidations à la Grecque (Overdue Loans), is about the banking system. The second one, Le Justicier d’Athènes (Termination) is about tax collection. The third one Pain, Education, Liberté (Bread, Education and Freedom) is about politics. There’s a conclusion in Epilogue meurtrier, a book I haven’t read yet.

So Termination is about taxes: Haritos has to investigate a murder and attempted murders of rich people who maneuvered to escape taxes or simply don’t pay them. And the Greek administration doesn’t put a lot of energy into recovering the money. We’ve all heard about that in the newspapers. Markaris imagines a murderer who threatens tax evaders and does not hesitate to kill if they don’t pay their bill to the Greek State. He substitutes himself to the tax administration agents and has his own way to collect the cash.

The plot is interesting and the reader does want to know who set up this unorthodox recovery agency but the most important part of the book isn’t there. Once again, crime fiction is a window to a country’s backyard.

Termination, like the Ikonòmou I read recently, pictures the despair and the struggles of the Greek people. The book opens on a triple suicide: three old ladies took their own lives because they didn’t have enough money to survive and didn’t want to burden their families. There will be two other deaths like this, people committing suicide because they had lost faith in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if Markaris had picked these stories in the newspapers.

In Haritos’s family, the daughter Katerina is seriously contemplating to leave her husband behind and go abroad to find a job. She’s a lawyer and her husband Pharis is a doctor in one of Athens’ public hospitals. They don’t have any children yet but he doesn’t earn enough money to support them both and she can’t find a paid job in her field in Greece. Their parents help them with the groceries, and, like in the Ikonòmou, we see that the family unit is tightknit and people help each other.

Yound people start emigrating again and it depresses Haritos as it reminds him of old days:

« Nous voilà revenus au temps de l’émigration. » me dis-je. L’homme partait d’abord en Allemagne, trouvait du boulot, s’installait puis faisait venir sa femme. Les enfants restaient avec les grands-parents. Et avant cette époque des Gastarbeiter, même chose. L’homme s’exilait en Amérique et en Australie, puis sa famille le rejoignait. Dans le cas de Katerina, c’est la femme qui s’exile mais peu importe. Ce qui compte, c’est que nous sommes revenus au point de départ. Nous faisons un bout de chemin, et après quelques années, tout repart de zéro. Nous n’arrivons jamais à garder le terrain gagné. Nous faisons toujours marche arrière et ça recommence. Heureusement, Phanis et Katerina n’ont pas d’enfants, que nous aurions eu à élever. On se console comme on peut. “We are back to the emigration days”

The man left for Germany first, found a job, settled there and made his wife come to. The children stayed behind with the grandparents. And before this time of Gastarbeiter, same thing. The man would exile himself in America and Australia and his family would join him there. In Katerina’s case, it is the wife who exiles herself but whatever. What matters is that we are back to square one. We move forward and after a few years, things start over again. We never manage to hold on what whatever progress we’ve made. We always go back and start all over again. Fortunately, Katerina and Phanis don’t have any children, that we would have had to raise. You got to find solace where you can.

Sobering.

Markaris portrays a country where politicians are corrupt and let influential people “forget” about their tax obligations, where tax evasion is a national sport for the rich and where the tax administration turns a blind eye to overdue taxes or false declarations. I don’t know the details about the Greek-EU crisis –I heard there’s a good film about it, Adults in the Room by Costa Gavras—but Markaris gives a good idea of its effects on common people.

Now, despite its dark topics, Termination isn’t grim, thanks to Markaris’s sense of humor. Athens is still a giant traffic jam, most of the time and Haritos spends hours maneuvering his SEAT on its busy streets. Athens is also the theatre of constant demonstrations, people protesting against the hardship. Here’s a funny scene from the book:

Quand nous approchons de l’avenue Patission, la circulation reprend, accompagnée d’une clameur venant de Polytechnique. En débouchant sur la place Omonia, on croit quitter le désert du Sahara pour la forêt amazonienne. Les voitures tournent en rond, klaxonnent frénétiquement, les conducteurs cherchent désespérément une sortir. Au centre de la place, des touristes en rade avec leurs bagages contemplent le chaos, terrifiés. Ils ne comprennent visiblement pas comment, partis pour les Cyclades, ils ont atterri dans cette jungle.

– Des Allemands, sans doute.

– Comment le sais-tu ?

– Les Français et les Italiens sont plus habitués. Les Allemands sont tout de suite perdus. Ils croient qu’on va les bouffer. Ils n’ont pas compris que nous autres, nous ne bouffons pas les étrangers. Nous nous bouffons entre nous.

When we reach Patission avenue, the traffic resumes, along with a clamor coming from Polytechnic. When you arrived on plaza Omonia, you’d think you’d just left the Sahara Desert to enter the Amazonian forest. The cars were going in circles, honking their horn at anyone, the drivers desperately looking for a way out. In the middle of the plaza, tourists left there with their luggage are contemplating the chaos, terrified. They really don’t understand how they ended up in this jungle on their way to the Cyclades.

– Germans, without any doubt.

– How do you know?

– The French and the Italians are used to it. The Germans always feel lost. They believe we’re going to eat them. They haven’t understood that us Greek don’t eat foreigners. We eat each other.

Don’t we French know everything about strikes, demonstrations and street chaos!

It is a pity that Termination isn’t available in English. It’s not an outstanding book as far as crime fiction technique is concerned but it’s a good alliance between a crime plot and social criticism, which is also why I enjoy reading crime fiction.

Recommended.

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

January 22, 2020 12 comments

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.

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 43 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.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

December 28, 2019 9 comments

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (2014) French title: Funny Girl. Translated by Christine Barbaste

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby opens on a pageant contest in Blackpool, UK. We are in the early 60s and Barbara Parker becomes Miss Blackpool. She ended up in this competition after her aunt suggested it. As soon as Barbara realizes that being Miss Blackpool means a whole year of service as a ribbon cutter to the city of Blackpool, she steps out and refuses her title.

Barbara is a fan of I Love Lucy and she wants to be like Lucille Ball, to make people laugh. She leaves Blackpool to go to London and becomes Sophie Straw. Her agent helps her find auditions even if he thinks she has better chances as a model than as an actress.

One of her auditions takes her to the BBC where the director Dennis Maxwell-Bishop is looking for an actress for a new TV show. The screenwriters are the duo Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner who were successful with a previous radio show. Clive Richardson will play the male character of this new venture, a sitcom about a couple and their domestic life. Tony and Bill struggle with the scenario, they cannot make the characters sound genuine.

Sophie arrives for the audition and boldly challenges them. She has charisma, a mix of innocence and ambition. She’s a natural comic. Her personality and suggestions are inspiring to Bill and Tony. The four of them make a great team, their working together boosts their creativity.

The adventure of the TV series Barbara (and Jim) can start.

Funny Girl is centered around Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill’s lives. Clive is present too, but not as much as the others.

Tony and Bill are both homosexual. They met after they were caught by the police as it was still a criminal offense at the time.  Tony chooses security, marries June and lives a middle-class life. Bill remains true to himself and is involved with the London gay scene.

Dennis is married to Edith, who works for a publisher. She’s at ease with the literary world and her friends have no respect for Dennis’s job. It creates frictions in their couple.

Barbara/Sophie loves her job and her life. Hornby created a lively character, class-conscious and hardworking. Success doesn’t change her. Sure, she can afford a different lifestyle but she never becomes snotty. She’s a very loveable character who learns to navigate in her new environment.

We follow the seasons of Barbara (and Jim) and they give rhythm to the characters’ lives. Nick Hornby ambitions to bring back London in the 60s, the change in the British society and how it is reflected in TV shows. It’s a quick and entertaining read about a turning point in the country: more personal freedom, first commercial TV, end of criminalization of homosexuality, music…It’s also the clash between “classic culture” and “pop culture”, with intellectual looking down on TV producers and even more on comedy shows. Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill belong to the pioneers of television series, a genre that is currently thriving.

I imagine that if you’re British and old enough to have known that time, it must be a wonderful trip down memory lane. For me, it was a fun read but nothing more.

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb – Mystery in the countryside, US mode

December 22, 2019 4 comments

Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb (2014) French title: Meurtres à Willow Pond. Translated by Laurent Bury

I swear that when I purchased Lightning Strikes by Ned Crabb, I was drawn to it because of its classic British crime vibe in an American setting. Indeed, it is set in a country lodge in Maine, a sort of US equivalent of the country house in England. A murder occurs and the murderer is among the family and guests. See what I mean with the “classic British crime vibe”? The fact that the lodge is specialized in fishing trips with two family members as renown fishing guides is incidental and has nothing to do with reading William G. Tapply or John Gierach. That said, Ned Crabb put as much care and craft in the plot and in the characters as Gierach in making his flies.

The book opens on Alicia and Six Godwin, retired university teachers, who live on their compound on Winsokkett Pond. They love books and fishing and live for them. They are the happiest with a book in their hands on their porch or on the water with their fishing rod. They have a good marriage, with a warm complicity and the reader likes them immediately.

They are related to Iphigeny Seldon, “Gene” who owns and runs Cedar Lodge, a famous upscale fishing lodge on Willow Pond. Gene is over seventy, she runs everything in a military way. She’s loud, insensitive and relishes in the power she has as the master of Cedar Lodge. She’s a spinster and after her brother and sister-in-law’s accidental death, she took over Cedar Lodge and operates it with her nephews and niece.

Brad Seldon is her oldest nephew. He’s 48, an alcoholic, a celebrated fishing guide whose reputation makes guests book their vacation at Cedar Lodge. He’s married to Renée, who is ten years younger than him. Their marriage has been dead for a while but Renée doesn’t want a divorce if she can’t get a nice settlement, one that Brad can’t afford without his inheritance. And Gene holds the purse strings, if Gene-the-tomboy ever had a purse.

Merill Beauchamp is Brad’s sister. She’s 45, addicted to cocaine and is the other fishing guide asset of Cedar Lodge. She’s married to Huntley Beauchamp, a crook. Their marriage is a sham, they both want out but, guess what, Beauchamp won’t let go without a nice settlement. Now Merrill is involved with Bruno Gabreau, a French fellow fishing guide and she really wants a divorce but she can’t have it unless she puts her hands on her inheritance.

Kipper is the third Seldon sibling. He works in managing Cedar Lodge and he’s the only one who has a decent relationship with Gene. He’s 40, gay and has a relationship with Cedar Lodge’s cook, a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Lemaire. His lover is tired of living out in the woods in Maine and wants to open a restaurant in New York. Kipper is all for it but he needs his inheritance to fund the restaurant.

Beauchamp is Cedar Lodge’s financial advisor and he embezzled money. He’s afraid that Gene will find out. He took measures against it, mostly to have people temper with the books and hide the missing money. But now he’s not sure that he didn’t put himself in the hands of gangsters and brought them to Cedar Lodge.

They all hate Gene. They all need money. They all contemplate murder. And now Gene organized a family weekend to tell them that she changed her will. They all converge to Cedar Lodge for this family reunion. So, when Gene dies during a thunder night at the lodge, there are plenty of suspects.

Lightning Strikes merges Nature Writing with Crime Fiction, the two wrapped in a light touch of humor. There are beautiful descriptions of the nature around the lodge and the Godwins’ compound. In that respect, it’s very similar to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Lightning Strikes has the same slow-life tempo as any Nature Writing book, despite all the twists and turns of the story.

The well-oiled mechanism of the classic whodunnit is there too. We are both on familiar and unfamiliar grounds. The minor characters are excellent too: the old playboy who wants to marry Gene as a retirement plan, the pseudo-British guests, Tory and Nelson, a couple of tourists who aren’t at the lodge only to fish trout. The sheriff team is not used to dealing with murders like this. Sheriff Doucette (which, for a French, equals to reading Sheriff Sweetie) is not sure about what to do and Crabb opens a window to the team’s dynamics. These interactions are delightful too. And the Godwins play the sheriff’s assistants and love it.

It’s not a highly memorable book but, like Weekend at Thrackley, it’s entertaining.

It’s a Gallmeister book, and as always, the translator is excellent. I loved how he transcribed the American way of saying Beauchamp, because I never would have guessed it was Bi-tcheum.

 

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent – The Famous Five in the corporate world

December 10, 2019 9 comments

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day by Enid Blyton/Bruno Vincent. (2018) French title: Le Club des Cinq part en séminaire. Translated and adapted by Anne-Laure Estèves.

I belong to a generation who fell in love with crime fiction by reading The Famous Five (in French, Le Club des Cinq), Nancy Drew (in French, Alice), Fantômette, a French series with a female super-hero, The Secret Seven (in French, Le Clan des Sept) and Les Six Compagnons, a French series set in Lyon. I remember devouring these books and requesting frequent trips to the library.

These are wonderful reading memories, books that led me to Agatha Christie and many other crime fiction writers.

So, when I saw Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, just before going to one of those myself, I couldn’t resist the impulse to discover how the Famous Five would deal with modern management techniques. It’s a small vintage publication that plays well on the nostalgia felt by readers like me. They replicated the original feel of the covers, the illustrations inside. The translation technique is the same as well: everything is adapted to the French setting, the theme song, the metro and train rides, the food. That’s what translators used to do and sometimes not only for children literature.

Our five friends Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timothy (respectively in French, François, Claude, Mick, Annie and Dagobert) work for the same firm –well, not Timmy, obviously—and are going on a strategy away day. They go to Normandy, in a remote farm and are welcome by consultants who are going to manage the various activities of the day. We found there all the common team building techniques that everyone working in the corporate world at a management position has experienced. The relaxation consultant, the blind-you-teammate-and-make-them-reach-point-A-to-point-B-without-bumping-into-objects, the post-its moments to note down ideas, the personality tests whose result will help you know who you are and help you communicate efficiently with colleagues and team members and the inevitable race in the woods to bring flags home.

All of it is described quickly and accurately as we see our childhood fictional friends navigate the corporate sea. It’s not the book of the year but it’s a nice journey-into-the past experience laced with a healthy dose of self-mockery. It reminds you that management techniques are useful but one needs to keep their critical mind and use them wisely.

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