My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.
After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.
So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.
My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.
All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.
You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:
|Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller.||And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.|
Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.
I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.
Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?
Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian (2012) Original French title: Dernier refrain à Ispahan.
I bought Dernier refrain à Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian at Quais du Polar last year. It is a crime fiction novel written by a Franco-Iranian author. Naïri Nahapétian left Iran in 1979 when she was 9 and when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. She came to France with her family and became a journalist. She goes back to Iran regularly and has started a crime fictions series set in Iran. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is the second book of this series.
The book opens with a crime. The singer Roxana is murdered in a theatre in Ispahan. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran and Roxana is back in her hometown after living for decades in the US. She was a very popular singer when the Shah was still in power and moved to California after the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. She was secretly working on a show with two other singers, Shadi and Nadia. There’s a good chance that her death is linked to this project.
Two recurring characters of the series become involved in solving the crime. The first one is Narek, a Franco-Iranian journalist who was staying in Iran for professional reasons. The second one is Mona. She was Roxana’s friend, they grew up in the same neighborhood and were good friends. Mona is a midwife and she operates a clinic who helps women with gynecological issues and everything around that. Her mission includes helping prostitutes.
The modus operandi of the murderer mirrors the lyrics of one of Roxana’s most famous song:
|Dans un royaume où les ignorants son trois, un homme a volé la voix des femmes. Il a emporté leur chant, semé des tulipes sur leur chemin ; et la joie s’en est allée.||In the kingdom where ignoramuses are kings, a man stole the women’s voices. He took away their singing, scattered tulips in their wake and joy deserted the place.|
This intrigues Mona and pushes her to dig further.
Out of the two characters, Mona has the strongest voice and is the most likeable. I found Narek a little thin. Mona raises her teenage daughter alone and doesn’t know if her husband is alive or not. He was summoned to the police station one day and never came back. Her work is her way to express her feminism and we discover the condition of women through her eyes. Her life in unconventional for her country and it’s not easy to keep living it. She’s a bit of an outsider, just like Anne Perry’s character Hester in her William Monk series. (Hester runs a shelter for prostitutes in Victorian England).
In his review about Three-Card Monte by Marco Malvaldi, Max from Pechorin’s Journal wrote something I totally agree with “Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do.” Dernier refrain à Ispahan belongs to the second category. The plot is suspenseful but the context of the murder and the setting were the most interesting parts. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is a window on the Iranian society and the condition of women. Naïri Nahapétian shows all the little things that are controlled to ensure that men are not in contact with women who are not their wife. I’ve always thought that the concept of hiding women not to trigger men’s lust was terribly offensive for men. The underlying idea is that they cannot interact with a woman without getting horny, as if they were only animals in heat. Isn’t that insulting?
Despite all its qualities, Dernier refrain à Ispahan remains a book written by a Western writer. Sure, Naïri Nahapétian gets the ins and outs of her country of origin. She knows Iran well, she understands its culture and I’m sure that what she writes is accurate. We do have a good sense of place, contrary to Alexis Aubenque’s rendition of Alaska. But her book is written for a French readership. It’s not the same as reading a translation of an Iranian book who was written for a local audience. It’s not as genuine and for me, it is French literature set in Iran and not Iranian literature. And that makes all the difference. So if you can recommend an contenporary Iranian novel, please leave a message in the comment section.
Recent political events pushed me to take this novel off the shelf. Tony from Tony’s Reading List had the same urge with Iraqi’s literature and you can find his review about Iraq +100 – Stories From a Century After the Invasion by Hassan Blasim, here. Reading books from these banned countries seems futile and yet, if literature weren’t powerful why would dictators always ban books?
Dernier refrain à Ispahan is not available in English. If someone’s interested in everyday life in Iran, there’s this wonderful film, Wadjda, about a girl who wants a bicycle even if girls are not allowed to have one. A good movie to show to our Western teenagers.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.
I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.
Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.
She musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.
Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.
Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.
She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?
In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.
Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:
Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.
Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.
It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.
‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.
Totally Captain Haddock, no?
Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.
Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. (1895) French title: L’Importance d’être constant.
Before visiting the Paris exhibit about Wilde and after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I turned to The Importance of Being Earnest, another landmark in Wilde’s field of masterpieces. I loved this play and I wish I could see a stage version.
I guess that a lot of readers know the story. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax. Her cousin is Algernon Moncrieff, who’s also Jack’s good friend. Jack created himself an alias for when he’s in town. When he’s in the country, he’s Jack, the serious guardian of Cecily Cardew. When he’s in town, he’s reckless Ernest who’s in love with Gwendolen. Algernon and Gwendolen both know him as Ernest. For his countryside family and friend, Ernest is Jack’s daredevil brother. Jack explains all this to Algernon who was about to get in the way of his marrying Gwendolen because he saw that Ernest’s cigarette case bore the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”
Jack decides it’s time to kill fictional Ernest and goes to his country home. At the same time, Algernon is intrigued by Cecily and rushes to Jack’s country home to meet her and arrives before Jack. He worms himself into Jack’s house and Cecily’s heart under the pretense of being…Ernest.
The rest is a series of hilarious qui proquos mixed with witty lines while sending catty remarks to the London literary milieu and joyfully trampling over an institution, marriage. This is a gem of a play that thrives on irony and good words. It has this kind of biting humour I enjoy. It’s everywhere, even in the names of the characters: Jack chooses to call himself Ernest where he definitely does not behave earnestly. Algernon is actually Swinburne’s first name, something I would have never noticed without attending the exhibition. For me Algernon is a weird name that reminds me of Molière’s characters. (Like Argan or Arnolphe)
In appearance, the plot doesn’t lead into mentioning Victorian literature, literary critics or censorship. And yet Wilde manages to throw piques here and there in the dialogues. Here we have a clear reference to Victorian triple Deckers…
I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.
Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
…and remember how Trollope and Wilde were on the same painting A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith? The plot itself with the revelation of one of the character’s identity through a mind-blowing series of coincidences reminded me of sensation novels or of early Thomas Hardy’s novels. After this little pat at successful novels, Wilde just dismisses their literary value around the corner of an offhand sentence:
Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.
And after implying that people aren’t reading the good stuff because these books are not listed on the approved TBR recommendations, he throws a last punch to the literary milieu with this statement on literary criticism:
Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.
I bet these lines have made teeth grind. Then he’s playing darts with his words and targets another institution, marriage. It is shown as a nasty affair that has nothing to do with love. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell explains:
To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen doesn’t make Algernon gush. Congratulations are not the first thing that comes to his mind and his vision of marriage doesn’t rhyme with bliss:
I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
He goes even farther when he talks about what we’d call today public display of affection. (Well, at least in English, there’s no French expression for that.)
That sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.
For Algernon, love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage. Well, until Cecily comes along. Women are a bit foolish in Wilde’s play. Gwendolen and Cecily are both enamoured with the idea of loving someone named Ernest. This name is conductive to their love. Why Ernest? Apart from the wordplay with earnest, is there anything else behind the name?
I loved The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s so good it seemed like a giant quote from a fictional French playwright who’d be a fusion between Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Molière for the comedy, the humour and the criticism of society’s flaws and Marivaux and Musset for the tricks on identities and the play with sentiments. The tone of the play and the plot itself bring me back to French theatre but with sentences like I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them, don’t you feel like you’ve crossed the Channel?
A word about the French translation. I’ve read this in English but I’ve checked the French editions. The one in the Cahiers Rouges collection by Grasset sounds good. Ernest becomes Constant, which is the French translation of earnest. The wordplay is maintained in French, which is not always that easy to do. For readers who are either French and practising their English or English-speaking natives who want to practice their French, Flamarion has a bi-language edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this last quote with you.
I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
Some politicians have taken the matter in their own hands and put the fools out of the shelves to liberate us from all this annoying cleverness. Please guys, don’t bother on our account, we rather liked the intelligent ones.
Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry (2011) French title : La fin justifie les moyens. Translated by Florence Bertrand
Acceptable Loss is the eighteenth volume of the Monk series created by Anne Perry. I’ve read them all, they’re part of my comfort reading diet. Set in London in the second part of the 19th century, the main characters are Monk, his wife Hester and their friend Sir Oliver Rathbone. Monk has lost part of his memory in a cab accident years before. Hester used to be a nurse in the Crimea war and she now manages a clinic that helps prostitutes. Sir Rathbone is a famous barrister.
In the previous volume, they had solved an ugly case of children prostitution. Monk is now commander of the River Police. He’s called to the banks of the river Thames when Orrie Jones finds the body of Mickey Parfitt in the water. Monk thinks he’s been murdered, which is confirmed by the legist. Worse: Parfitt was strangled with a knotted expensive silk scarf. The murder was premeditated. Parfitt owned a ship moored nearby on the river Thames and it was used as a secret club for members of the good society. Parfitt provided these gentlemen with sex shows involving little boys.
Monk is horrified by this traffic. On the one hand, he’s not keen on finding the murdered as he thinks Parfitt deserved his fate. On the other hand, this is the second case involving children trade and the last one was somehow unfinished. He wants to find out who financed Parfitt, helped him set up the boat and brought new clients. Parfitt didn’t have the means or the connections to start this business on his own.
Monk investigates, Hester meddles and Rathbone is in a difficult position as his father-in-law might be involved in this nasty business.
Acceptable Loss met my expectations. I picked it to be entertained the way you watch a film. Mission accomplished. Anne Perry manages to renew herself and to keep things interesting for her long time readers. I’ll read the next one when I need comfort read.
Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. (2001) Not available in French.
“Diane thinks it’s a mid-life crisis,” Eddie said. “At least that’s what her therapist tells her. I can hardly tell anymore who’s doing the talking, whether it’s Diane or her therapist.” “Maybe it is a mid-life crisis,” Tommy said. “I admire you for having one. Guy like me, in the shape I’m in now, I can’t afford to have a mid-life crisis.”
Eddie Senta has a problem: he’s married to a successful corporate executive, Diane, whose biological clock is ticking. She wants a baby and Eddie, who already has a son from his first marriage, doesn’t want another kid. Diane keeps badgering him with motherhood and Eddie keeps resisting. On top of his problems at home, he’s questioning his professional future. Eddie leads a double professional life. By day, he works as a temp in offices to input data in IT systems. It’s a tedious job but he’s a model employee and temp agencies find him jobs regularly. By night, he breaks into office buildings to find cash and steal computers. His day-job is a smoke screen for his nightly activities and money wise the jobs complement each other. The days are dull but the nights provide the thrill he craves for.
But now, Eddie seriously thinks of quitting his work with the mob to please his wife and be a better role model for his son. The thrill of his illegal activities has also worn off. However, he wants to do a last score before explaining that he’s ready to leave this world. His friend Sarah has given him inside information about her office and the gold that her bosses keep there. She was assaulted by her boss and wants out. Eddie hesitates, his gut feeling says that this job might be dangerous. So here he is in a bar with his friend Tommy, who’s supposed to give him a hand with the job:
I’m waiting for a vote of confidence. Something to tell me to go for it.” “Like a sign from God or something?” Eddie shrugged. “Something like that.” “Because I do a mean Charlton Heston as Moses,” Tommy said. “You ever see me do that one?” He sucked in some air, furrowed his eyebrows and spoke in a deep Charlton Heston-like voice. “I am the Lord thy God. Go for it.” “Heston played Moses,” Eddie reminded him. “How about a voice in the night then? Because if that’s all you need, you got it right here. I’m not God or nothing. Let’s face it; I’m a nobody. But it is dark outside, and I do have a voice. I can sure use something right about now, if that counts for anything. I’m a guy in need of miracles. Trust me.”
Tommy is not the brightest bulb in the set and Eddie knows it. They’ve been friends since childhood and Eddie’s nothing but loyal. They both need the money and Eddie wants to help Sarah. They eventually go for it and find themselves involved in murders. Both the NYPD and FBI are investigating. Eddie’s world might collapse like a house of cards.
Eddie’s World mixes noir and mid-life crisis problems. It’s a daring move but it works, mostly because the humorous style ties the two plot strands together. We follow the murder case and wonder how things will turn out for Eddie. The crime fiction strand is well conducted and plausible. It follows the codes of noir: a man who goes for easy money and is confronted with something bigger than what he can manage. He feels that things could go wrong but a woman’s interests make him go for it anyway. The mob is involved, as is the FBI and the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Sometimes the FBI finds it convenient to forget moral rules. Sometimes the mob is more decent than expected.
And besides the crime strand, we have the mid-life crisis strand. We learn about Eddie’s qualms. Quitting his night job isn’t an easy decision to make because he doesn’t know if he’ll fit in his day work’s world.
“And maybe I can’t fit into one or the other,” Eddie said. “I can’t give up the street stuff and do what my wife wants, which is to play ball with the office world, get a steady computer job, and take the Long Island Railroad every morning. And I can’t see myself running coffee errands for wiseguys I don’t respect. What’s that, like lost in the middle someplace? Definitely lost.”
His head is full of questions. Am I ready to settle with a normal life? How can I be a better father? Is my marriage salvageable? Do I want to make this marriage work? His hesitations could cost him more than what he bargained for.
Eddie’s World is good entertainment. I read it thanks to Guy who reviewed it and gave it to me. Thanks Guy!
The Firemaker by Peter May (1999) French title : Meurtres à Pékin. Translated by Ariane Bataille.
The Firemaker our Book Club read for August, so yes, I might be a little late with the billet. It’s going to be a quick one as well because I have a rather long list of upcoming billets and frankly, The Firemaker is not a book that pushes me to write a long, deep or even gushing billet. It’s honest Beach and Public Transport reading but nothing more.
It’s the first instalment of Peter May’s series in China. Dr Margaret Campbell is a medical examiner in Chicago and she arrives in Beijing to give lectures about her job to Chinese students. Li Yan has just been promoted as Deputy Section Chief in the Beijing police department. He accidentally meets Margaret on his way to his job interview and they start on the wrong footing.
The same day, three bodies are found dead in three different places of the city. The only common point between the three is a cigarette butt near the corpses.
Follows an investigation to discover who’s guilty of these murders. Margaret and Li are obliged to work together. She makes mistake after mistake in her interactions with Chinese people. Margaret and Li are madly attracted to each other but cannot really act on it. They get scientific results of sample analysis in record time, the cells don’t even have the time to multiply that they already have the report. Such performance sounds rather unrealistic.
It’s basically an American NCIS based in Beijing. It’s an easy read and I read it till the end but it’s rather stereotyped. The scientist imposed to the cop as a partner. A pair forced to work together that ends up falling in lust and then in love. Pointing out cultural differences. An American woman who doesn’t take time to read anything about the country she’s going to and offends everyone with her ignorance. A woman who flew to China to avoid her painful past. A man whose family has been hurt by the Cultural Revolution. Cardboard descriptions of Beijing. Some cultural nail polish to spice it up. And poof, 500 pages.
All in all, nothing to write home about. It could have been a lot better because the synopsis is a truly great idea. The problem is that it lacks finesse in characterization but it’s still a decent Beach & Public Transport book.
There’s a recent review in French by Bookmaniac here