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The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John – the waste of a relationship

November 3, 2019 9 comments

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John (1997) Not available in French. (Translation Tragedy)

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John is set in London, even if its author is Australian. I wonder why this novel needed to be in London, Sydney or Melbourne would have done the trick too. Well.

One night, when Nicola comes home after going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, her partner Jonathan tells her to come and sit down. The ominous “We need to talk” arrives and he coldly informs her that he wants her to leave their flat.

He considers that their relationship has run its course, he doesn’t want to live with her anymore, and since she can’t afford to buy him out, he will. He calmly explains that everything is settled, he’ll be gone for the weekend, implying she should be gone when he comes back. Meanwhile, he’ll stay in the spare room. Come Monday morning, a real estate agent will evaluate the flat’s worth.

Nicola is stunned, she never saw that one coming, she thought they were in a happy relationship. At first, she listens to him, flabbergasted. She thinks he doesn’t mean it. And she slowly realizes that yes, he’s serious and that she’ll have to leave her home.

We see Nicola stumble, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She’s obliged to move on. Her friend Susannah is outraged for her and tells her she can move in with her family as long as she needs it. The dialogues between Nicola and her friends, between Susannah and her husband Geoffrey introduce a bit of lightness in the sadness. We witness the end of a relationship, the crushing pain inflicted on Nicola by a cold Jonathan.

Soon, Nicola finds her backbone and demands answers. She wants to know what happened, since when he felt that way and she feels utterly betrayed that he never mentioned anything before he reached the point of making such a rash and final decision.

Nicola loves him deeply and he says he doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders what she did wrong and her self-worth crumbles quickly. Her heart is broken but so is her self-esteem. She feels unworthy and questions her judgment: how could she be so blind and misread him that much?

We see her holding on to her job, taking care of the painful details of separating her life from Jonathan’s and living through her heartache. Jonathan’s rash actions planted darts in her self at several points at the same time: her heart, her pride and her self-esteem.

Nicola lay under the bedclothes, hunched around her pain, despising herself.

She despised herself for her failure to oppose Jonathan’s frozen blankness with the tears and shrieks which would have expressed her true feelings. She despised herself for the mean little sarcasms which had been her only mode of attack—she despised herself even though these slights had found their petty targets, because the wounded pride to which they gave expression was—or ought to be—the least of her complaints. She believed that the wound Jonathan had dealt to her heart (her truly loving, trusting, faithful heart) was a more serious and honourable wound than that to her self-esteem. She supposed these two could be differentiated, and so long as they could, she had shown him nothing of the real pain she was suffering. In the face of his cast-iron indifference she was apparently as dumb and cold as he. She despised herself for this dumb coldness. She had never before so plainly been shown the difficulty, the near-impossibility, of speaking truly to an interlocutor who will not hear, but she knew one must attempt it nevertheless, and thus far she had failed even to make the attempt. She swore she would make it on the morrow, and at last, wretched, now, beyond tears, she slept.

But we also see Jonathan’s side and discover a man who made a decision thinking he was doing the right thing. But why doesn’t he feel more relieved or happier?

Madeleine St John vividly describes the end of a love affair. I felt Nicola’s pain and heard with horror all the hurtful words that Jonathan threw at her with perfect calm. As you can see in the previous quote, St John conveys Nicola’s sorrow and you cannot help but empathise with her.

As the story unfolds, we understand that Jonathan is clueless, unable to express his feelings properly, even to himself and whatever they are. At first, like Susannah, I thought he was a perfect rat and then I felt sorry for him.

Apart from watching the train wreck of Nicola and Jonathan’s relationship, I had fun with all the French words peppered in the text. Lots of French words. Without any footnote or translation. How do you deal with that? And, as usual, the only French character has an improbable name considering he’s young and we’re in 1997. After a young Jean-Paul in a book by Max Barry and a young Michel in Zadie Smith, now a young Jean-Claude. Writers, these are typical baby-boomers’ names.

Apart from this slight mishap only visible to a French reader, The Essence of Thing is book like the marmalade that Jonathan’s mother makes. It’s a good balance between the sassy conversations of the minor characters who rally around Nicola and the bitterness of the end of Nicola and Jonathan’s couple.

Highly recommended.

You can read Lisa’s review here.

This was my second book by Madeleine St John. The first one was The Women In Black and my billet is here.

It is also a contribution to Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

AusReadingMonth: Lexicon by Max Barry – “Words are weapons sharper than knives”

November 1, 2019 14 comments

Lexicon by Max Barry (2013) Not available in French.

Wil Parke is brutally kidnapped at Chicago airport. A mysterious team takes him to the lavatories and try to make him confess his true identity. He doesn’t know what this is all about. He’s a carpenter and his girlfriend is waiting for him at the arrivals. That’s all he knows. Things get violent quite fast and a man named Tom explains that their pursuants are “poets”, members of an organisation where leaders take the name of famous dead poets.

A mass killing happened a year before in Broken Hill, Australia. The whole population of the town was killed. Officially, it’s due to industrial leakage but the organisation knows that their agent Virginia Woolf went there with a weapon of mass destruction. She escaped and Wil is the only other survivor. He seems to be immune to the weapon. Problem 1: The weapon is still in Broken Hill and nobody can approach it without dying. Problem 2: Virginia Woolf is on the loose and she’s very dangerous. Poor Wil finds himself in the crossfire of two different factions among the poets and has to fight for his life.

Lexicon alternates chapters between the ongoing man hunt and Virginia Woolf’s story. Her name was Emily Duff. She was a sixteen-year old girl playing tricks on the streets in San Francisco when she was recruited to attend a special school near Washington DC. The school head is a poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her teachers are Lowell and Eliot. At the school, students learn the art of manipulating people’s minds. This is Emily’s epiphany:

But the truth was, she had just figured it out. Attention words. A single word wasn’t enough. Not even for a particular segment. The brain had defences, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funnelling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw new that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attack each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.

The poets master the art of “compromising” people, meaning that they take control over their minds and make them do what they want. Students learn languages, psychology and neuroscience. People are put into narrow segments, each segment reacts to certain words that make their mental walls collapse, enabling the poet to take over their mind. This is what it feels like:

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

Her mouth snapped closed. It happened before she realised what she was doing. The surprise was thet it felt like her decision. She really, genuinely wanted to be still. It was the words. Yeats, compromising her, she knew, but it didn’t feel like that at all. Her brain was spinning with rationalisations, reasons why she should definitely be still right new, why that was a really good move, and it was talking in her voice. She hadn’t known compromise was like this.

Frightening power, isn’t it?

What happened to Emily? Are Wil and Eliot right to be afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or should they be more concerned about Yeats, the director of the organisation? The two branches of the story converge in the end, giving the reader a whole picture of what happened. It is hard to give more details about the plot without giving away too much. This blog is spoiler free, so…

In Lexicon, Max Barry explores the power of language and how people can be manipulated. He imagines that the most lethal weapon is a word, a word so powerful that people die around it. The leaders of the organisation are poets because they are good with words. At their school, students have to learn to control their mind. They know they could be “compromised” and they know how to do it to others. They are taught to mask their feelings. Desires are unwanted, even basic ones like the desire to love and be loved. Desires are weaknesses and poets must keep their thoughts under a tight leash.

Emily is somehow resistant to it. She grew up cheating to survive and this instinct stays strong in her. Eliot never managed to tame his natural tendency to empathy. In the eyes of perfectly controlled Yeats, Eliot is weak. These two have one thing in common: they bend the rules because they don’t have the same ironclad control that the others have.

Lexicon plays with the idea of dominating people by feeding them words so well chosen that they target specific responses. Poets do what ill-intention press does, what social network can do, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us. The master idea behind the organisation is that if you manage to attach someone to his adequate psychological segment, you’ll know how to get to him.

Now I have a question for English literature specialists. I’m not a good reader of poetry, not even in French, so I don’t know well Anglophone poetry either. Of course, I know about Yeats, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and other poets mentioned in the book. What I don’t know is what their names trigger in a British or American mind. Is it normal that the dissident poet is TS Eliot? Does it mean something that the cold, unfeeling and repressed leader is named Yeats? For example, when Yeats-the character says this…

“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire. Yes, it’s funny.”

“You fucking what?”

“It’s required to maintain a defence against compromise. Desire is weakness. I’m sure I explained this.”

…does it make any sense compared to Yeats-the-real-poet? I’d be grateful for a little bit of insight. I’m afraid I missed some subtext.

Lexicon is the kind of dystopian fiction you want to have on a long plane journey. It’s a page-turner, it’s entertaining and it makes you think.

This is my fifth Max Barry after Company, about the absurdity of corporate life and management methods (anyone in HR should read it), Syrup, about marketing and the launch of a new soda on the market, Jennifer Government, about consumerism, Machine Man, about transhumanism. All books are dystopian fiction and work around an angle of our contemporary societies. My favourite ones are Company and Jennifer Government. A new novel, Providence is expected in March 2020.

For another review of Lexicon, read Guy’s here. Thanks again, Guy, for introducing me to Max Barry. I also read it as my participation to Brona’s AusReadingChallenge. It’ll last the whole month of November.

Address Unknown by K. Kressman Taylor – Brilliant

October 21, 2019 17 comments

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor. (1939) French title: Inconnu à cette adresse. Translator : No mentioned. (Grrr…)

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman Taylor is a slim epistolary novella. It is the correspondence between two friends, Max and Martin who are art traders and own a gallery together in America. They start writing to each other when Martin moves back to Germany with his wife in 1932.

Max is Jewish and their relationship gets strained when the Nazis take power in Germany. They slowly grow apart as Martin is swept over by the dictatorship in his country.

In a few exchange of letters from 1932 to 1934, Kathrine Kressman Taylor shows how things drift away, one small event after the other and how someone slowly turns his back to who he was as the politics around him indoctrinate him.

She demonstrates how a lethal ideology takes over the mind of a normal man, how he can be led to the unthinkable and how hard it is for a friend to witness this transformation.

This is a powerful read, wrapped up in a seemingly innocent correspondence but it says it all. Step by step, that’s how ordinary people got sucked into the horror. It was published in 1939. It was a warning to the world.

Highly recommended, especially to adolescents.

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 8 comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson – Another trip to Wyoming

October 9, 2019 9 comments

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson (2008) French title: Enfants de poussière. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson is my fourth trip to the fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. This is where Sheriff Walt Longmire is law enforcement. After his investigation in Philadelphia, he’s back in Durant, Wyoming, with his daughter Cady who is in PT after her accident.

His quiet routine is broken when the Dunningam brothers find a body by the road while they were baling grass. Longmire isn’t thrilled by the news…and not just because it interrups his diner:

“No matter what aspect of law enforcement with which you might be involved, there’s always one job you dread. I’m sure at the more complicated venues, it’s the terrorists, it’s serial killers, or it’s gang related, but for the western sheriff it’s always been the body dump. To the north, Sheridan County has two unsolved, and Natrona County to the south has five; up until twenty-eight minutes ago, we’d had none. There you stand by some numbered roadway with a victim, no ID, no crime scene, no suspects, nothing.

Not a great situation. The body is a young woman with Vietnamese features. She’s scantily clad, has no shoes and lays there without any information about her identity.

When Longmire’s team eventually finds out who she is, they discover that her name is Ho Thi Paquet and that she has a picture of Longmire with her. The photo dates back to 1967 when Longmire was in Vietnam as a marine inspector. He had befriended Mai Kim, a prostitute who worked at a bar full of American customers. This photo of him playing the piano with Mai Kim in the background brings back memories from the war.

What’s the connection between Mai Kim and Ho Thi Paquet? Why did the victim come to Wyoming, apparently looking for Longmire?

The story goes back and forth in time, as Longmire reminisces his days in Vietnam, a particular investigation on drug trafficking and Mai Kim’s death. In a way, it reminded me of The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch and Walt Longmire both face an investigation that bring back their time in Vietnam. In both cases, they have a connection with the victim.

I enjoyed the fourth opus of the Longmire series. He’s good at picturing Wyoming and life in Durant. I was glad to hear about the recurring characters and what’s going on with their lives. There’s always a lot of humor in his text, like here in the name of the bar in Vietnam, the Fun Boy-Howdy Beau Coups Good Times Lounge. For French speaking readers, there’s no typo. Beau coups is not beaucoup misspelled. It mean good hookups.

Johnson keeps building his characters, showing Longmire in a new light. There’s his affectionate relationship with his daughter. He supports her during her PT, pushing her with her exercises and disclosing the functioning of their two people family, since Longmire’s wife and Cady’s mother Martha passed away.

Cady never gave up. It was a family trait, and in our tiny family, stories were the coinage of choice, a bartering in the aesthetic of information and the athletics of emotion, so I answered her.

His long-life friend Henry Standing Bear was also in Vietnam in 1967, even if it was in another unit. We know more about the two men’s friendship. I recently learnt that Henry is named after the Ponca Chief Standing Bear (1828-1908), a Native American Civil Rights leader. Chief Standing Bear recently had his statue inaugurated in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the US Capitol. He and Willa Cather represent the State of Nebraska.

Other billets about the Longmire series: The Cold Dish, Death Without Company, Kindness Goes Unpunished

PS: As always, Sophie Aslanides’s translation is impeccable.

Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon – All Along the Watchtower.

September 26, 2019 10 comments

Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon (1933) Original French title: L’homme de Londres.

L’homme de Londres by Georges Simenon was our Book Club choice for September. It is translated into English under the title Newhaven-Dieppe.

Louis Maloin works the night shift at the coastal train station in Dieppe, France. He’s a switchman, in charge of all the trains that liaise the actual Dieppe railway station and the ferry harbor. When the book opens, we’re with Maloin in his watchtower over the harbor and the ferry from Newhaven is about to disembark its passengers and goods. The arrival of passengers is organized in such a way that they cannot escape custom before going on land.

Maloin is looking out the window, observing the passengers who arrive. He has a privileged view on the ferries and trains that come in and out of the harbor.

He notices two men disembarking from the ferry. One of them, a man in a grey suit, swiftly gets around the line to customs with a suitcase in hand. Nobody had seen him but Maloin. The man goes to stand with the people who are on the quay, as if he were waiting for a passenger instead of having just stepped out of the ferry. Maloin is intrigued, wondering what kind of contraband the man carries in his suitcase. He doesn’t say anything, he too would try to avoid customs if he could.

Later that night, he sees the two men again and the one in the grey suit pushes the other into the sea while attempting to keep the suitcase. He fails. The other one falls into the water, drowns, taking the suitcase away with him.

Maloin witnesses everything and instead of going to the police, he dives into the harbor and fishes the suitcase. Back in the safety of his glass tower, he opens it and finds the equivalent of 540 000 francs in British pounds. He decides to keep the money and hide it in his closet in the tower.

The man in the grey suits stays in Dieppe. He and Maloin see each other in town. They both know about the suitcase and don’t act on it. The Englishman doesn’t confront Maloin and the latter almost wishes that he did.

Maloin doesn’t know what to do about the money but he never really thinks that he witnessed a murder, that this is ill-acquired money and that he should contact the authorities.

The hesitation of the two men will be fatal. Indeed, it leaves enough time for Inspector Molisson from Scotland Yard to arrive in Dieppe. He starts digging around. He knows the thief in the grey suit and he’s after the money. His presence will set the rest of the events into motion.

Newhaven-Dieppe can be easily read in one sitting. It’s one of the romans durs and Maloin is a strange character. Maloin’s motivations are hard to pinpoint. We never understand why he made that impulse decision to pick up the suitcase and not report the murder.

He’s married with two children and he has a stable job with the railroad company. We’re in 1933, the times are difficult and the family struggles to make ends meet. Is it because his wife comes from a wealthier family and because his brother-in-law looks down on him? Is it the shame he feels that his daughter Henriette has to work as a servant at the local butcher because her family needs the money?

Maloin doesn’t know himself why he acts that way. Simenon seems to tell us that we never know ourselves completely. The ending of the book and Maloin reminded me of Meursault, in L’Etranger by Albert Camus, although it was written decades later.

This is a very atmospheric novel. It is set in Dieppe, in winter. Simenon excels in the description of the foggy shores, the little town with its shops. The sea, the tides influence people’s lives. We see a bit of the life in the seaside town in winter, when the hotels and the casino are closed for the season. Only the locals are there, and the only strangers in town are the occasional salesmen and business men who come through Dieppe. Simenon describes the streets, the lights, the cafés and the local life with the fishermen and people picking up seafood at the shore. I didn’t know that trains rode like tramways between the main station and the ferries embankment in order to make a connection between ferries and rail. It worked for goods and passengers.

Simenon’s style is fluid and easy to read. I noticed that he used English words like banknotes, policemen and meeting instead of billet de banque, policiers or réunion when he was referring to something British. The French readership of the 1930s would have been less exposed to the English language than nowadays. How was this perceived?

I also picked a slightly misogynistic vibe. Poor Madame Maloin only gets a first name in the last minute, when Maloin finally acknowledges her as his equal. Otherwise, she’s just a wife, she has no other identity. I suppose it goes with the times.

Newhaven-Dieppe is a cleverly crafted novella about a man who acts out of character, doesn’t know why and wrecks his life. Noir is the color.

Highly recommended.

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie – Disappointing

September 22, 2019 12 comments

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (2013) French title: Sidney Chambers et l’ombre de la mort. Translated by Patrice Repusseau.

I have a rule for Book Around the Corner: write a billet about every book I read, even if I don’t finish it. I have a rather long backlog of billets and I see that I only have three months left to catch up before 2020 starts. Phew! Combine the rule and the backlog and you’ll have a quick-and-dirty billet about Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, a crime fiction book I couldn’t finish.

I’d never heard of Runcie but it is published by Babel Noir, a good reference for crime fiction and the cover called to me. It’s the first volume of the Grantchester mysteries, featuring the vicar Sidney Chambers. He plays amateur detective and feeds his friend inspector Georgie Keating with information. I see that there’s a TV series made out of it.

How can I say this? I was looking for a so-British cozy crime mystery, something that smelled of old spinsters, gossips and church ladies. Sidney Chambers is a thirty-two-year of vicar who has been appointed to the town of Grantchester. Runcie draws the setting, introduces us to his main character. At Stephen Staunton’s funeral, a woman approaches Chambers to speak with him privately. She was Staunton’s mistress and she doesn’t believe that he committed suicide. She asks the vicar to dig around, since he can go where the police are not welcome.

I started to get into the story, thought the plot was developing and suddenly, wham, bam, thank you reader, mystery is solved and now we’re off to a New Year’s Eve dinner party where jewelry is stolen. I thought “What?! That’s it?”

I tried to read further but I couldn’t find any interest in the plot or in the characters’ company. I thought that they were caricatures. I disliked the weepy hostess of the dinner party. Why did she have to be a blubbering mess because something happened in her house?

Long story short, I abandoned it and I was disappointed because I expected a light and entertaining read. Has anyone read this series or watched it TV version? Did I read it at the wrong time or was I not the only one unconvinced by Sidney Chambers?

PS: Don’t you think that the title sounds like Harry Potter?

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