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20 Books of Summer #8 and #9 : two books I couldn’t finish

August 3, 2020 24 comments

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) French title: Neige. Translated by François Pérouse. // La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (2006) Not available in English.

I can’t say I got along with our two last Book Club reads, Snow by Orhan Pamuk and La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (Not available in English and a literal translation would be The Shutter Troopers) In both cases, I read around 120-150 pages before giving up, I think I’ve given them a fair chance.

Let’s start with Snow. The character Ka –sounds like he’s coming of a Dino Buzzati novel—arrives in the provincial town of Kars, in Turkey. It’s winter and snowing. He’s back in his country after living in Germany for a decade. He’s a published poet and he’s sent to Kars as a reporter to investigate the suspicious suicides of young girls in the area. It’s also where his former university classmate Ipek lives. He had a vague crush on her back then and now he thinks she could be marriage material.

I know that Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize of Literature and that Snow is a well-acclaimed novel. I just didn’t get along with it. I thought that the constant religious discussions were too long and boring and I found the relationship between Ka and Ipek implausible.

It’s the kind of book I should have liked and I’m sure it tells lots of interesting things about Turkey but I was really struggling. I asked the other Book Club members how they were doing with it and the one answer I got was that the last 200 pages were a little boring. Since the first 100 pages were already plenty boring to me, I made the decision to stop reading it. I couldn’t push through the 500 pages left. I was just bored.

It’s obviously a good book, just not one for me. Or perhaps I read it at the wrong time.

 

Now The Shutter Troopers. It’s SF, so really out of my comfort zone and I was apprehensive to tackle these 730 pages of hardcore SF, not even dystopian fiction. Think of Dune.

The first chapter threw me off. Humans are in a life-threatening wind tempest in a décor of rammed earth houses and Australian bush. The author is from Lyon and rammed earth houses are typical from the Dauphiné region, between Lyon and Grenoble. Since the landscape was made of red earth, spinifex, eucalypti and oaks, I thought about Australia. Images of my in-laws’ village clashed in my head with images of Uluru.

The structure of the book is unusual. The chapters go from XIX to I. The main characters are described in a glossary at the end of the book, something I’ve just discovered. The characters speak one after each other and are represented by Greek symbols. You never know who’s speaking unless you click on the symbol (ebook) or refer to the characters bookmark (paper book). The POV changes several times per chapter.

I have the ebook version and I hated clicking on the symbol because it broke my reading flow, so I stopped checking. (It would have been the same with the paperback anyway) I didn’t always know who was speaking and I spent the few chapters I read trying to understand what I was reading. French speaking readers will understand what I mean with this quote: “Les chrones les plus petits ont le volume d’un gorce. Les plus gros pourraient tenir dans la doline.”

I asked about La Horde du Contrevent to French readers on Twitter and got the same answers. It takes half of the book to really get into it; you have to read it in few sittings to really manage to enter into the book’s world and you need the book bookmark to follow who’s speaking but after 350 pages, it’s getting better. I also asked what it was about and the most accurate description was that it’s about a sort of rugby team who travels the Earth to find out where the wind comes from. It’s a spiritual quest.

The thing is, I don’t have the luxury to read 730 pages in one or two sittings, even on holiday. It got on my nerves not to be able to understand whose POV I was reading, even if the characters have distinct voices. I believe I would have recognized them in the end. But there are 23 troopers. How long would it have taken me to spot each character through their voice? Russian novels are piece of cake after that, believe me. Each trooper has a role in the team and it’s hard to assimilate as well since these roles are totally imaginary.

Call me conservative but I don’t think I should refer to a bookmark for the names of the characters when I’m reading. All this irritated me, got in the way of my immersion in Damasio’s world. And, honestly, it’s a pity. He’s insanely creative. His descriptions are precise, poetic and visual. He imagined a coherent world with rules and inhabitants and I’m sure that for some readers, it’s a wonderful journey. But Damasio is too verbose for my tastes. I put the book down for a few days, thinking I’d get back to it. I tried to resume reading and I was put-off by the style. I wasn’t interested in knowing what would become of them and I wasn’t intrigued enough to push through the discomfort of feeling totally disoriented.

La Horde du Contrevent won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2006, the Goncourt of SF. It’s rated 4.46 stars on Goodreads. My vision of it is only mine and says nothing about the quality of the book just that it wasn’t a good match for this reader.

This blog is not about reviewing books, it’s my reading journey, I share the good and the bad experiences.

20 Books of Summer #7 : Nada by Carmen Laforêt – Twelve months in the life of a young woman

July 31, 2020 24 comments

Nada by Carmen Laforêt (1944) French title: Nada. Translated by Marie-Madeleine Peignot and Mathilde Pomès. Revised by Maria Guzmán

While I’m off wandering and doing Literary Escapades, I’m still reading. This year, as part of Spanish Lit Month and 20 Books of Summer, I decided to read Nada by Carmen Laforet along with Vishy.

When Nada opens, eighteen-year old Andrea arrives to Barcelona to attend university and study literature. She’s an orphan and used to live with her cousin in the country. Now, she’s going to live with her maternal uncles, aunt and grandmother.

Her train is late and it’s night when she finally reaches the family apartment on Aribau Street. The grandmother opens the door and it’s as if Andrea falls into a horror movie: the apartment is dark, stuffed with old furniture, it’s dirty and dusty, the people living there look old, tired and menacing. The scene is striking and the reader wonders where Andrea enters. She’s led to the living-room, with her bed made on an old sofa. It’s as if she’s disturbing spiders and other creatures.

The reader knows right away that something’s not right in this household. Being poor doesn’t mean being filthy and there’s something disturbing about Andrea’s welcome.

Andrea will share the lives of her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncle Roman, her uncle Juan and his wife Gloria and their baby. The grandmother is a sweet and religious old lady who would sacrifice her well-being to maintain the peace. Angustias is a righteous spinster who warns Andrea against Gloria and wants to control her life. Juan is a would-be painter who can’t accept that he has no talent. He doesn’t make enough money to support his family. Roman is a talented musician, too lazy to make a good career out of it. In any case, we’re in 1944 and Barcelona is still recovering from the Civil War.

Andrea finds herself in the middle of the unhealthy ties between the family members. Angustias wants Andrea to be her pet but you don’t catch flies with vinegar. Andrea silently resists. Roman tries to attract her with honey, but she still feels ill at ease and perceives that he’s manipulative. Gloria concentrates all the violence of the family: Angustias hates her, Juan beats her and Roman desires her and belittles her. There are undercurrent of past events between the three.

Roman is a central character in the novel. He’s charismatic and cruel. He counts on his enigmatic personality to draw people in his nets. Other people are preys.

Andrea starts going to university and befriends Ena. Their friendship is a breath of fresh air for Andrea but also the source of torments. She’s too poor to fit with Ena’s family and she feels like an outsider in her circle of bohemian friends too.

From the very first pages, the reader feels that this experience in Barcelona will be crucial in Andrea’s life and that drama is inevitable.

Nada reminded me of Hello Sadness by Françoise Sagan, probably because both have young women as main characters and both were written when their authors were very young.

Andrea also sounded like an existentialist character. Sartre’s Nausea was published in 1938 and Camus’s Outsider in 1942. Like Meursault, Andrea is a bit aloof and her friend Ena notices it. She doesn’t fit into the usual young woman mold: she doesn’t wear make up, doesn’t think about boys and getting married. She’s not even passionate about her studies.

She’s floating on the sea of her life, trying to navigate around the violent outbursts at home, staying with her friends but not belonging. She doesn’t seem committed to anything. The young men who try to seduce her can’t find a grip to climb over her personal walls. They fail and fall like inexperienced climbers in front of a smooth rock face.

Sometimes Andrea cares about others, about Ena especially but she’s mostly indifferent about her relatives. She’s invaded by an overwhelming sadness at times and a depressing vision of life. Who can blame her, considering her circumstances?

Barcelona is a character in the book too. Andrea flees from the house and spends hours wandering in the city’s streets. The architecture and the weather leave marks on her moods.

Despite her apparent apathy, Andrea is a fighter. She resists all attempts at putting her on someone’s side. She fought for leaving the country to study in Barcelona. She silently stands up to Angustias. She won’t bend and she fights for her freewill. Nobody will take her freedom of thinking and even if in appearance, she doesn’t make a fuss about anything, her mind is her own.

Is this silent resistance the author’s vision of how to resist the Franco dictatorship? Staying safe and keeping one’s freewill must have been a challenge back then. Times must have been tough in Barcelona, a former bastion of the Republicans. Nada stays away from political issues and doesn’t delve on the war years but it’s underlying.

In the end, Nada tells twelve months in the life of a young woman and sounds like an existentialist coming-of-age novel.

Highly recommended.

Other reviews by Caroline and Jacqui.

Update: And reviews by RichardSusana and Claire

 

 

 

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 #4: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke – Breathtaking

July 12, 2020 6 comments

The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke (1986). French title: Le boogie des rêves perdus.

In the darkness of the tavern, with the soft glow of the mountain twilight through the blinds, I began to think about my boyhood South and the song I never finished in Angola. I had all the music in my mind and the runs that bled into each chord, but the lyrics were always wooden, and I couldn’t get all of the collective memory into a sliding blues. I called it “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” and I wanted it to contain all those private, inviolate things that a young boy saw and knew about while growing up in southern Louisiana in a more uncomplicated time.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is the second James Lee Burke I’ve read. (The other one is The Neon Rain, the first book of the Dave Robicheaux series)

When the book opens, we’re in 1962 and thirty-year old Iry Paret is about to leave the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. He’s on parole after a little more than two years in jail for manslaughter. He killed a man during a bar brawl. Iry is a gifted musician, he plays rural blues in bars. Now, he’s going back to his childhood home, where he’s not welcome.

It wasn’t going to be pleasant. Their genuine ex-convict was home, the family’s one failure, the bad-conduct dischargee from the army, the hillbilly guitar picker who embarrassed both of them just by his presence in the area.

His mother and sister died in 1945, his father is dying and his brother and sister aren’t too happy to see him again. Iry knows his stay in Louisiana will be short: he has applied to do his parole in Montana and work at his friend’s parents’ ranch. Buddy Riordan did time in Angola for marijuana possession. Buddy is a jazz pianist and music brought the two men together.

Buddy Riordan was working on a five-to-fifteen for possession of marijuana when I met him in Angola. He was a good jazz pianist, floating high on weed and the Gulf breeze and steady gigs at Joe Burton’s place in New Orleans, and then he got nailed in a men’s room with two reefers in his coat pocket. As a Yankee, he was prosecuted under a felony rather than a misdemeanor law, and the judge dropped the whole jailhouse on his head.

Buddy is already back in Montana when Iry drives across the country to get to the ranch. As soon as he arrives, they stop at a bar and Iry feels the hostility towards them. He soon learns that Buddy’s father, Frank, has made enemies in his county. Indeed, he lodged a complaint against the company who owns the local pulp mill because it doesn’t have a proper filter and pollutes the whole Missoula area. People are angry because the pulp mill might close and they’ll lose their job.

Iry finds himself guilty by association and the locals are determined to run him out. He’s in the middle of this feud when he needs to lie low and comply with the rules of his parole.

Neither Iry or Buddy are hardened criminals. Iry wants a chance at a new life while Buddy drives through his at full throttle with his head clouded by drugs and alcohol. He’s separated from his wife Beth, he rarely sees his two sons but not even his family manages to ground him. Buddy has a love-hate relationship with his father and doesn’t get along well with his grownup sister. He feels like a failure.

What they didn’t understand about Buddy was that he had turned in his resignation a long time ago: an “I casually resign” letter written sometime in his teens when he started bumming freights across the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t have a beef or an issue; he just started clicking to his own rhythm and stepped over some kind of invisible line.

Iry inserts himself in Buddy’s life, working and living on the ranch, bonding with Frank and meeting Beth and the kids. Buddy is a bad influence on Iry and inadvertently thwarts Iry’s efforts to turn over a new leaf. They drink too much and Buddy does drugs. His temper is volatile and Iry never knows what he could get himself into.

Don’t misunderstand me, the two of them start thick as thieves but Iry wants to grow up and yearns for a chance at a new life. He’s not a saint but he’s trying. He needs to start believing that he deserves it. The Lost Get-Back Boogie is his journey to redemption, even if he seems like a “loser” most of the time, but he’s just a man who fought in the Korea war and came back with a Purple Heart and a bruised mind, a sensitive blues musician who can play any song after only hearing it and a person who wants a second chance at life. Who sets the parameters of the definition of “loser” anyway? He’s doing a lot of soul-searching and I hoped he would find his way back to a quieter life.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie also reflects on the DNA of America. Capitalism, violence, hard work and hope. Remember, we’re in the early 1960s and consumer society is the new norm. Here’s Iry driving home from Angola and observing the changes:

But as we neared New Orleans, the country began to change. Somebody had been busy in the last two years; it was no longer a rural section of the delta. Land-development signs stood along the highway, replacing the old ads for patent medicine and Purina feed, and great areas of marsh had been bulldozed out and covered with landfill for subdivision tracts. Mobile-home offices strung with colored flags sat on cinder blocks in the mud, with acres of waste in the background that were already marked into housing plots with surveyors’ stakes. The shopping-center boys had been hard at work, too. Pecan orchards and dairy barns had become Food City, Winn-Dixie, and Cash Discount.

Unbridled capitalism has the same effects in southern Louisiana as in Montana. It destroys landscapes and people for profit. Quickly. Very quickly.

Capitalism builds up on fear. We’re in 1962. The Great Depression is a fresh memory and people still have scars from that time. Unemployment is their greatest fear and they are ready to accept a lot from rogue companies as long as they have a job. Firms had a lot of leeway to use violence against workers who would protest. These men working at the pulp mill would rather turn against Frank Riordan than fight for the implementation of a proper filter at the pulp plant.

As the novel progresses, Iry discovers Montana and finds out the common points with southern Louisiana. He reflects on Montana’s history, one that also mirrors America’s history. It’s based on violence and the appropriation of the land to make money but also on the hope of immigrants. The country is built on violence and destruction. Slavery. Indians. The killing of buffalos in the 19thC. The destruction of rivers and trees in the name of progress in the 20thC. In Montana, the natural resources are wood. They have pulp mills. In Louisiana, the natural resources are oil. They have oil fields, and sugar mills.

Bonner was the Anaconda Company, a huge mill on the edge of the river that blew plumes of smoke that hung in the air for miles down the Blackfoot canyon. The town itself was made up of one street, lined with neat yards and shade trees and identical wood-frame houses. I hadn’t seen a company town outside of Louisiana and Mississippi, and though there was no stench of the sugar mill in the air or vision through a car window of Negroes walking from the sugar press to their wooden porches in the twilight with lunch pails in their hands, Bonner could have been snipped out of Iberia Parish and glued down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

The same causes have the same consequences. Underpaid workers work to destroy their own environment, barely survive and mortgage their children’s future. But who can judge them? They need to put food on the table.

Burke describes Montana people as rough. After all, they settled in a place with a hard climate and only the tougher survived.

“You don’t understand Montana people. They’ll hate your ass and treat you like sheep dip, but they come through when you’re in trouble. Wait and see what happens if you bust an axle back on a log road or get lost deer hunting.”

They do justice themselves with their rifles and their fists. Iry and Buddy get beaten up and threatened and the sheriff lets it slide. That’s the way justice is done around there. It’s something you guess in The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage too. Like Savage, Burke is never judgemental. He’s observant, that’s all.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is a very atmospheric book with incredible descriptions of Louisiana in the beginning and Montana later. Burke draws the portray of a man who’s fighting to crawl out of the hole he fell into. Music sustains him. Friendship too. In an interview I read in L’Amérique des écrivains, Burke says that it took nine years and 111 refusals to have The Lost Get-Back Boogie published by LSU Press. A big thank you to them for taking a chance on this marvelous piece of literature. Everything I love in a book is there: stellar style, great characters and a background of social commentary.

Very highly recommended.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is my fourth billet of my 20 Books of Summer series.

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.

 

Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

July 4, 2020 21 comments

Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) 1920 Not available in French.

This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

I’d never heard of O. Douglas before reading Ali’s post about Penny Plain for the 1920 Club. I decided it was a good book to have on hand for lockdown times or for days with little book concentration. I was happy to find it on my e-reader on a headachy Sunday.

Penny Plain is a romantic comedy set in Priorsford, Scotland, in 1920. Jean is 23 and lives with her brothers David, Jock and their adoptive brother Mohr in a rented house, The Rigs. Their parents are dead and Jean raises her brothers. She struggles to make ends meet. When the book opens, two events change her routine: David is leaving home to study in Oxford and Pamela Reston settles in Priorsford.

Pamela Reston is from English aristocracy. She’s almost forty, single and tired of her superficial socialite life. She decided to come to Priorsford to enjoy a simple life. Her brother, Lord Birdborough is in India. She calls him Birdy and they are close. In a nutshell, Pamela is having what we call now a mid-life crisis. Her arrival makes waves in Priorsford…

“I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very ‘twopence coloured’ she wants the ‘penny plain’ for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our ‘penny-plainness’—it jumps to the eye!

But Pamela soon befriends the locals, especially Jean. In appearance, they are total opposite. Jean is the kind of virtuous character you only find in novels. She’s rather mousy and here she is, seen through Pamela’s eyes.

Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, “like a trout-stream in Connemara,” that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock,

(Trout fishing really follows me everywhere, eh?)

It’s a romantic comedy, there’s no great originality in the plot but the characters are well-drawn. Jean’s brothers are funny, especially Mohr, the little one, only aged seven. He’s full of mischief. The crew of servants is also quirky, even if they tend to speak with Scottish accent and that was a challenge for me. Sentences like this require a bit of attention:

He couldna veesit his folk at a wise-like hour in the evening because he was gaun to hev his denner, and he couldna get oot late because his leddy-wife wanted him to be at hame efter denner.

You can’t forget you’re in Scotland. Going to England seems like crossing a border and venturing into a foreign land. And what it is with Scotland and religious intricacies? Catherine Helen Spence mentions it in her Autobiography and it went over my head. Her family was Calvinist and it weighed on her vision of life. Jean’s aunt, who raised her, was also a Calvinist and was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed.

There are different churches in Priorsford and any newcomer must pick one. That’s already strange for a French for whom things are rather clear-cut. In the 1920s, you’re Catholic, maybe Protestant and there’s only one church of each. The real debate would have been between the churchgoers and the anti-clerical folks. Here, since there’s a wider offer of religious services, there are puzzling passages about the merits of a clergyman or the other, peppered with remarks like Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians. I read this and thought “?????”

This brings me to the other nice side of Penny Plain, O Douglas’s witty prose and clever observations. It counterbalances well the obviousness of the plot. It can be in descriptions of people:

Mrs. Jowett is a sweet woman, but to me she is like a vacuum cleaner. When I’ve talked to her for ten minutes my head feels like a cushion that has been cleaned—a sort of empty, yet swollen feeling.

Don’t we all know people like that whose conversation is one-sided and leaves you baffled? It’s also in little notes..

January is always a long, flat month: the Christmas festivities are over, the bills are waiting to be paid, the weather is very often of the dreariest, spring is yet far distant. With February, hope and the snowdrops begin to spring, but January is a month to be warstled through as best we can.

I’ve always felt like this about January. Some things don’t change, even a century later.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book, and with a little wave to Bill, I’d say a perfect one to listen to while driving a truck. I’ll leave you with a last oh-so-true little quote:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

 

 

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.

A Mirrors Greens in Spring by Selina Sen – New Delhi in the 1980s

June 10, 2020 16 comments

A Mirror Greens in Spring by Selina Sen (2007) French title: Après la mousson. Translated by Dominique Goy-Blanquet.

A Mirror Greens in Spring is an Indian book by Selina Sen. Set in New Delhi in the early 1980s, it focuses on the lives of two sisters, Chandrayee “Chhobi” and Sonali. We are in a Bengali household where the two young women live with their widowed mother and their grand-parents.

The grandfather is very nostalgic of his youth. He had to leave his hometown after the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s from Bangladesh and he chose to stay in India but he never truly healed and still feel in exile.

Chhobi is 25 and Sonali is 19. The two sisters have very different personalities, due to a different education. When Chhobi was a young girl, their father died and she stayed in a Catholic boarding school when Sonali went back to New Delhi with their mother.

Chhobi is more studious and loves history. She works for a magazine in Delhi and writes pieces about various historical places of the city. She wants to have a PhD in Indian history. She’s the serious one, taking care of her sister and behaving responsibly. As she’s already 25, their intrusive neighbour, Mrs Chatterjee, wonders why she doesn’t have any prospect of marriage yet. But Chhobi enjoys being single and doesn’t seem eager to get married. She’s intelligent, grounded and her good sense brings a good support to her family. Her boss, Rosemary, encourages her to follow her dreams and not give up for family reasons.

Sonali is the frivolous one. She’s gorgeous, spoilt and self-centred. Her only interests in life are clothes, jewels and parties. She’s naïve and since she’s so pretty, her grandmother, the real master of the house, hopes for a rich marriage. So, when Sonali sneaks out of the house to meet her wealthy boyfriend Sonny, her mother and grandmother turn a blind eye. The inevitable happens: Sonny’s family has already chosen someone else for their son…

The first part of the book is pretty standard. Two girls with opposite characters, a cautious one and a reckless one. I thought that the plot was a classic déjà-vu and I almost stopped reading. The second part moved past the jilted poor girl part of the plot and became more suspenseful and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it.

Overall, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring but I thought there were too many descriptions of places, flowers, dishes, saris and of the weather. It felt written for an international public who doesn’t live in India. The descriptions happened at odd moments, as if a tourist guide jack-in-the-box popped up to give details and it broke my reading flow. It did make me want to learn how to cook Bengali cuisine though, everything sounded delicious!

India is a complex country for foreigners and I didn’t get the Bengali vs Panjabi comments from the characters. Sonali got on my nerves because I have little patience for spoilt princesses. I rooted for Chhobi and hoped she wouldn’t sacrifice her dreams to take care of her vapid sister and support her family.

Selina Sen takes us to a cultured household who struggles to make ends meet. We see three generations of women and the toll that widowhood puts on the girls’ mother. The book is set at the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and I wonder why the author chose this time and place for her novel written in 2007. Politics has little to do with the story but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement appears in the plot. Selina Sen mentions the historical wounds that people still carry with them, the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, terrorism in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring for the sense of displacement, for taking me away from my home and drop me into another country, into another culture.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Meet Belinda, the clever spinster

April 19, 2020 26 comments

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950) French title: Comme une Gazelle apprivoisée.

Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog – something to love, that was the point.

For April, our Book Club chose to read Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, thanks to Jacqui’s recommendation. It is my second Pym after Excellent Women. What a delightful read it was!

We are in a little village in England, probably in the 1930s, as it’s before WWII et rather far from WWI.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are two spinsters, both over 50. They live together near the vicarage. Harriet is the most outgoing of the two. She’s friendly, cheerful and loves to socialize. Her pleasure in life is to take care of the curates of the village. She loves to have people at diner and share good food. She gets along well with Count Bianco, who regularly proposes to her and gets refused.

Belinda, our narrator, is quiet and has been in love Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve for thirty years. They met at college, bonded over poetry and she was heartbroken when he married Agatha instead of her. She now lives with her unrequited love and gets a bit bullied by Henry’s wife.

Some Tame Gazelle tells the story of the village over the span of a few months during which several events occurred. A new curate arrived, much to Harriet’s delight. Agatha went away to heal her rheumatism, freeing Belinda from her looming presence. An old friend from college, Dr Parnell came to stay at the vicarage with his colleague Mr Mold. This setting reminded Belinda of their youth. And then Agatha came back, accompanied by Bishop Theodore Grope, in charge of a diocese in Africa. All these visits and arrivals disturbed the usual course of Harriet’s and Belinda’s lives.

Harriet is bubbly and seems to have decided to make as much as possible of her life, within the constraints of country life. She enjoys nice and fashionable clothes, she cares for good food and good company. Pym says about her that Harriet was still attractive in a fat Teutonic way.

Belinda tries not to delve into the past and succumb to melancholy but living so close to Henry is like constantly pouring salt in a wound that never has time to heal to be painless at last.

Belinda is humble, probably because she doesn’t think of herself as loveable and worth of any attention after being rejected by Henry. Besides, Harriett always shines more in company and Agatha picks at her, chopping at her self-esteem.

Henry is a disagreeable pompous man but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s not fit for the life of a clergyman and I wondered how he came to this career, suspecting that Agatha roped him into it, as she is the daughter of a bishop. Henry seems only interested in poetry, a love he shares with Belinda. His sermons are full of literary references that fly over his parishioners’ heads:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. He began at the seventeenth century. Belinda reflected that if he had gone back any further, the sermon would have assumed Elizabethan proportions.

He neglects his duties as a clergyman and it’s hard to say whether he’s lazy or simply can’t be bothered with them because he doesn’t have the calling that should go with his position. He lacks the necessary people skills, the empathy and the ability to find the right comforting words at the right time. He sounds selfish and irritable but I thought it might come a deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He sounds like he wishes he has married Belinda.

Under Pym’s writing, Belinda is a delightful middle-aged lady who casts a lucid and funny look at her life and her fellow villagers. She sees a lot and is quite astute in her perception of people and the meaning behind their actions. She’s benevolent, sees the good in people and tolerates their little flaws and quirks as everyone has theirs. She’s not blind about Henry’s shortcomings but loves him anyway.

Men in Some Tame Gazelle aren’t great people. They see women and wives as convenient co-workers and caretakers for old age. A most distinctive skill for a woman is her ability to knit a good pair of socks, well-shaped and of the right size. Dear, no wonder Harriet stays single. Dr Parnell sums it up in a blunt statement: After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.’ A way to a man’s heart is his stomach and his well-socked feet.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Belinda and Henry. They seemed well-suited for each other and Belinda’s life is a waste of her talents. She could have been so much more but her crushed hopes put her in a shell she never went out of. And Henry is probably living the wrong life, with a career that was not his calling.

A Tame Gazelle is a great study of characters, being in Belinda’s head was charming. Pym also shows a society full of social constraints, of etiquette and habits. We see it in passing when Belinda muses “Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.” How can there be a rule about when to think about poetry?

As a French, I also had a lot of fun with the food. It is of much importance to Harriet’s well-being and Pym shares about the various menus. I wondered what sardine eggs, cauliflower cheese, a tin of tongue, potato cakes, Belgian buns, trifles and rissoles could be. And I found this discussion most puzzling:

What meat did you order?’ ‘Mutton,’ said Belinda absently. ‘But we haven’t any red-currant jelly,’ said Harriet. ‘One of us will have to go out tomorrow morning and get some. Mutton’s so uninteresting without it.’

What has mutton to do with red-currant jelly?

Theatre : Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary, a stage version by and with Stéphane Freiss

March 29, 2020 12 comments

Avec l’amour maternel, la vie vous fait à l’aube une promesse qu’elle ne tient jamais.

In your mother’s love, life makes you a promise at the dawn of life that it will never keep. (Translated by John Markham Beach)

End of February, I spent a weekend in Paris and went to the Théâtre de Poche Montparnasse to see a theatre version of Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary. This is the second time I’ve seen this novel made into a play. The first version was by Bruno Abraham-Kremer and my billet about it is here.

Gary wrote Promise at Dawn when he was in his forties and more than a memoir, it is an homage to his overbearing Jewish mother. It has also the insight of a man who has lived several lives, had time mull over his childhood. It’s a beautiful tribute to his mother but there’s no hiding from the scars he carries from her overwhelming love. He also wrote Promise at Dawn at a crossroad of his life, he had just met and fallen in love with Jean Seberg. His married life with Lesley Blanch was about to end, just as his career as a diplomat.

Mina was quite a character, full of ambition for her son. She emigrated from Vilnius to Nice, worked hard to raise him and breathed all kind of crazy ambitions into her son’s ears. She loved France. He was to be a great Frenchman. A poet, a writer, a musician, ambassador of France, a war hero. He was destined to grandeur, she knew it, they just had to find in which field he would be famous in. Dance? Music? They settled for literature. And of course, he was to be a great lover.

She smothered him with love. She was never afraid to tell the whole world how famous her child would be. He had bad grades in math? She thought that his teacher misunderstood him. She was embarrassing and touching. She jeopardized her health for him, never complaining and he gradually discovered the sacrifices she made for him. She was a force to be reckoned with, a long-lasting fire that fueled her son his whole life.

Freiss decided upon a very sober direction. He was alone on stage. After a quick introduction to the text and his love for it, the show started. Made of literal passages from the novel carefully stitched together, the whole play focuses on the relationship between Gary and his mother Mina. Other parts of the novel are set aside, it was wise not to try to embrace it all.

Photo by Pascal Victor / ArtComPress

Freiss is Gary’s voice, turning into his mother sometimes to replay the dialogues between mother and son. There are excerpts here, in this YouTube video.  Freiss shows how Mina shaped her son, built him up, supported him, challenged him and love him enough to dare anything.

We hear Gary’s distinctive literary voice. He has this incredible sense of humor, slightly self-deprecating and pointing out the world’s absurdities, the kind of humor you find in Philip Roth’s work. Freiss adopted the appropriate ironic tone and switched to tender and emotional in the blink of an eye.

It’s an excellent ode to mothers and to literature. I’m happy I had the chance to see the play before the current lockdown. The theatre was full and probably full of Gary book lovers. Memoirs translate well into plays. The theatre version of Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen was incredible. I’ve also seen an adaptation of Retour à Reims by Didier Eribon, where this sociologist comes back to his hometown and blue-collar family. The direction was less intimist but lively and powerful.

The opening quote explains the title of Gary’s memoir. For a better vision of his writing, I leave you with the entire paragraph around this quote. It’s translated by John Markham Beach and he took a bit of license with the text. Since this translation dates back to 1961, there’s good chance that Gary read it and approved of it.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey – Crime fiction, cinema and urban violence

March 27, 2020 6 comments

Gone to Ground by John Harvey (2007) French title: Traquer les ombres. Translated by Mathilde Martin.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey is a crime fiction novel set in Cambridge and Nottingham. I didn’t know this writer and bought it at Quais du Polar, attracted by the cover and the publisher. (You can’t go wrong with Rivages Noir) After a quick read of his biography on Wikipedia, I see that John Harvay has written more that 100 books and his best known for his Charlie Resnick series. Have you ever read this series? Is it good?

Gone to Ground is a standalone novel, though. In this one,  Inspector Will Grayson and his partner Helen Walker have to investigate the murder of Stephen Bryan. His murderer beat him to death in his bathroom. There’s no trace of someone breaking in. Grayson and Walker will follow several leads at the same time. Bryan was gay and had just broken up with his last partner, Mark. Is it a homophobic crime? Did Mark not take the breakup well and kill Stephen?

Is it work related? Indeed, Stephen was working on the biography of Stella Leonard. She died in the 1930s and belonged to a rich and powerful family. They don’t want to hear about this bio. Is there something to hide in Stella’s past?

We follow the investigation as the two inspectors try to find out what happened to Stephen Bryan. I have to say that I didn’t expect the ending. Harvey knows Cambridge and Nottingham pretty well and Gone to Ground has a good sense of place. The writing is fluid, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention.

The police team is a bit too staged, in my opinion. The contrast between Will Grayson and Helen Walker is convenient to feed the narration. Grayson is married to Lorraine and they have two children, a toddler and a baby. They have just moved out of the city to live in a house and the commute weighs on Grayson’s days. Helen Walker is single, lives in the city and has a complicated love life. The two have a solid friendship, though and manage to have real discussions.

To be honest, Grayson’s misogynistic side annoyed me. We’re in 2007 and he’s fighting with his wife because she wants to work instead of staying at home to take care of their children? I wanted to tell him “If you think it’s so enviable, why don’t YOU be a stay-at-home father and your wife will have her career?” Helen sides with Lorraine and talks him into accepting the idea that his wife will go back to work. Thanks Helen, for getting through to him.

Despite this minor annoying trait, Gone to Ground was entertaining, a good story to take your mind off something else and we seem to be in dire need of this kind of books now.

PS: I include the covers of the French and English versions of the book. Same book, totally different vibe. Both are accurate. The French one puts the stress on the cinema thread, the story about Stella, the 1930s actress. The English one shows the homophobic violence in Nottingham, which is another side of the story. I find the difference between the two editions absolutely fascinating and I wonder what made each publisher choose this cover instead of another one.

PPS: John Harvey is British, I wonder why it’s written ‘translated from the American’ in my book, just like I wonder how Folio could write on the back cover of The Guards (upcoming billet), that its author Ken Bruen, an Irishman from Galway, is one the most talented British writer of his generation. *sigh*

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?

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage – rush for it.

March 10, 2020 17 comments

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967) French title: Le pouvoir du chien. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down the first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was surprisingly little blood. In a few moments, the testicles exploded like huge popcorn. Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. “Mountain oysters,” Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they’d do well to eat them, themselves.

Phil’s brother George, who did the roping, blushed at the suggestion, especially since it was made before the hired men. George was a stocky, humorless, decent man, and Phil liked to get his goat. Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!

No one wore gloves for such delicate jobs as castrating, but they wore gloves for almost all other jobs to protect their hands against rope burns, splinters, cuts, blisters. They wore gloves roping, fencing, branding, pitching hay out to cattle, even simply riding, running horses or trailing cattle. All of them, that is, except Phil. He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves. His hands were dry, powerful, lean.

This is the opening page of The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage and it sets up the place (a ranch), the two main characters (Phil and George), their relationship (they’re brothers) and this simple scene of ranch life, the castrating, reveals a lot about each brother’s temper.

We are in the 1920s, in Montana. Phil and George run the family ranch and they’re among the wealthiest families in the state. They’re bachelors, Phil is forty and George is thirty-eight. Phil is brighter than George and he’s a complex man. He’s outspoken and rash, always voicing things that would be polite not to mention. He’s the total opposite of political correctness and refuses to play social games. George’s mind is slower but he’s more sensitive to other people’s needs and feelings. See in this paragraph, how Phil purposely hints at sex, knowing George will be ill-at-ease.

Phil loves ranch life and lives it the rough way. It’s described in this paragraph through the gloves thing, a detail that will have a capital importance at the end of the book. Phil washes in the stream near the house, summer and winter. He doesn’t wear gloves, loves to ride and partake in all kind of physical activities. He also doesn’t like changes in his life. He’s a great admirer of a long-dead cowboy, Bronco Henry. He keeps mentioning how Bronco Henry did this or that. Phil is a bit nostalgic about the old days, when Bronco Henry was alive and part of the ranch staff.

Phil and George’s parents have moved out to Salt Lake City, leaving the ranch to their sons. Nothing has changed in the house and the brothers still sleep in their twin beds in their childhood bedroom. Phil is perfectly happy that way and George seems to be too.

In nearest town, Beech, Rose Gordon and her son Peter make ends meet by running an inn after her husband John died. John was a doctor but he never managed to build a good practice in Beech, there’s not enough solvent patients for it. Peter is a clever child, interested in medicine and always buried in books. He’s now a teenager and wants to study medicine. He’s an outsider at school and he’s violently bullied but soldiers on and never complains.

Phil and George go to Rose’s inn during their trip to town to sell and ship off their cattle. George and Rose start talking and much to Phil’s dismay, George marries Rose. She moves into the ranch house and Peter stays away at school.

As you can imagine, Phil isn’t happy about these new circumstances. Thomas Savage is an extraordinary writer who weaves a story, thread after thread, knot after knot until you get the whole tapestry at the last page. It’s also built like Noir, with a growing tension stemming from this lockup situation.

Charismatic and older brother Phil rules everything on the ranch, manages the hands and takes a lot of space with his cocky attitude. Rose cannot find her place her new home, she knows that Phil wants her gone and she’s under his watchful eyes and it makes her extremely nervous. George is mostly oblivious, he’s like a horse with blinders because he’s not quick enough to pick on the tension. He thinks that things will get better by themselves, he cannot imagine that his brother could be mean to his wife.

Then Peter comes live on the ranch for the summer and it adds another weight to the relationships’ scale and throws it off balance.

From the beginning, Thomas Savage drops hints about Phil. His parents acknowledge that they know but we don’t know what they refer to. He’s a complex character. He’s mean the way teenagers can be: he says whatever he wants without thinking of the consequences, he teases people, he observes their flaws and swoops down on them and he exposes people’s pretenses. Phil’s development seems stuck at teenager stage.

George is a grownup and a good man. He and Rose have a solid and healthy relationship. They want each other for companionship. She brings him out of his shell and she found a safe harbor in him. He has found someone to talk to and someone who doesn’t compare him to his outspoken and sharp brother and find him lacking.

Thomas Savage (1915-2003) grew up on a ranch in Montana. He knows the landscape and the local way-of-life. He’s worked as a ranch hand before being a university teacher and a full-time writer. It’s palpable in his writing. The setting contributes to the story and its atmosphere. He doesn’t romanticize a rancher’s life. The hands are all unmarries because they have to live on the premises and couldn’t support a family anyway. It’s a life made of hard work during the week, entertainment in town during the weekend and dreams of buying clothes and fancy gloves in catalogues. They live in closer quarters, isolated from the outside world and it fuels the story too.

The tension builds up until the very last pages. It’s remarkable, everything falls into place and all the clues dropped here and there come back to you. The characters are well-developed and I was rooting for Rose and George to find a way to live side-by-side with Phil.

Highly recommended.

Strangers by Yamada – Japanese Literature Challenge

March 1, 2020 22 comments

Strangers by Yamada (1987) French title: Présences d’un été. Translated by Annick Laurent

I read Strangers by Yamada in January for Japanese Literature Challenge. I’m lucky that Meredith extended the reading time up to March. My late billet is still in. Phew!

Strangers is set in Tokyo, during a summer in the 1980s. Harada, a rather famous TV scriptwriter, is forty-seven, recently divorced and has moved into an apartment in an office complex. The building empties at night and he thinks he’s the only one actually living in this tower. He’s estranged from his grownup son, his parents are dead and he doesn’t have many friends. In other words, he’s lonely.

Two things happen during that summer. First, he meets Kei, an accountant who lives in the building too. He thought he was alone there after working hours but he’s not, he has a neighbor. They soon get acquainted and start an affair.

Then, feeling a bit off-kilter after his divorce, struggling a little to adapt to his newfound singlehood, Harada decides to go back to Asakusa, the Tokyo neighborhood he grew up in. He wants to see his childhood house again. When he arrives there, he meets with the new tenants, who look a lot like his long dead parents and welcome him into their home.

How will Harada’s relationship with Kei evolve? Who are the people who live in his childhood home? Harada is a middle-aged man who has to reassess his life after his divorce. His career is successful but not totally fulfilling. His marriage fell apart and he has no contact with his son. He feels adrift and tries to go back to his roots and to find comfort in Kei. I enjoyed the novel’s nostalgic tone and the blanket of melancholy that settles on Harada’s shoulders. He wants to go back to a happy place and looks for it in his childhood memories. But how destructive is it?

Telling more would spoil the novel for potential readers, so I won’t go further in its description. I’ll just say that the ending was a surprise and that it’s not the kind of books I usually read but I liked it anyway. Yamada describes Tokyo with fondness and the city becomes an important part of this atmospheric story. Harada’s visits to Asakusa, the descriptions of the area, its shops and restaurants give a good vision of the neighborhood, a foot in the past, and a foot in the present. And the story progresses towards a strange ending.

Highly recommended.

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence – Austenian, feminist and progressist

February 9, 2020 22 comments

Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence (1865) Not available in French

According to Wikipedia, Miles Franklin called Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), the Greatest Australian Woman. And after reading her biography, I can understand why. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to Australia when she was 14, after her family lost their fortune.

She became a journalist and a writer. She was the first woman to compete in a political election in Adelaide. She was a social activist and worked to  improve the quotidian of children living in institutions. She never married but raised orphaned children. Her plate on her birth house in Melrose, Scotland, says it all.

Mr Hogarth’s Will is her most famous novel. When the book opens, we’re in a solicitor’s office in Scotland. Mr Hogarth, a bachelor who raised his late sister’s daughters, Jane and Elsie, has just passed away. He was a gentleman with an estate in Scotland, not very far from Edinburg. He raised the girls as if they were boys, not because he’d wished they’re were boys but because he thought that a boy’s education was a lot more useful in life than a woman’s and that society shouldn’t waste half of its brain power.

When the solicitor unveils the stipulations of Mr Hogarth’s will, everyone is in shock. Jane and Elsie are left with almost nothing, because their uncle wanted them to use their skills to provide for themselves. He was certain that their education was enough to help them find a well-paid job.

His fortune and his estate go to his son, Francis Hogarth, a man in his early thirties that nobody has ever heard of. Mr Hogarth got secretly married in his youth and provided for his son and made sure that he became a sensible adult. Francis had been working as a bank clerk for 18 years when his father died. The will stipulates that Francis cannot help his cousins and cannot marry one of them, unless his inheritance goes to charities.

That’s the setting. What will Jane, Elsie and Francis become after this twist of fate? I’m not going to give away too much of the plot because it’s such a pleasure to follow Jane, Elsie and Francis in their endeavors.

Spence put elements from her own experience in the book and uses it to push her social and political ideas. The girls go and live with a former launderess Peggy Walker. She used to work for Mr Hogarth and now raises her sister’s children. She spent several years in a station in Australia and opens Jane and Elsie to the possibilities offered by life in the colonies. She’s a window to Australia.

Francis Hogarth is a good man, who is embarrassed by all the money he inherited. He would like to help his cousins but he can’t. He and Jane develop a good relationship, as he enjoys her conversation and her intelligence. He had to earn a living before getting all his money, and knows the value of hard work and well-earned money. He will experiment new things in his estate, to better the lives of the labourers on his land.

Elsie is prettier than Jane, more feminine too. She’s more likely to make an advantageous marriage. In appearance, she’s more fragile than Jane and relies on her older sister. She’l make a living as a milliner.

Of course, Jane can’t find a job in Edinburg because nobody wants to hire a woman even if she has the skills to be a bank clerk like Francis. Finding a job as a governess seems tricky since she can’t play the piano, embroider or paint. She eventually finds one with the Philipps, a Scottish family who got rich in Australia and is now back in the old country and lives in London.

Spence mixes a set of characters who have lived in Scotland all their lives and some who have lived in Scotland and in Australia. It allows her to compare the two ways of life and advertise life in the colonies. Through her characters, she discusses a lot of topics but I think that the most important point she’s making are that people should be judged according to their own value and accomplishments and not according to their birth.

Indeed, Jane and Elsie never look down on people who were not born in their social class and don’t hesitate to live with Peggy Walker or ask Miss Thomson’s for advice. They respect people who have a good work ethic, common sense and do their best with the cards they were given. And, according to Spence, Australia offers that kind of possibilities.

Spencer also insists on education as a mean to develop one’s skills and reach one’s potential. What’s the use of an education centered on arts and crafts? It’s a beautiful companion to other skills –Francis Hogarth is a well-read man—but how useful is it to find work? Why not help poor but capable young men to better themselves through a good education that gives them access to better paid professions? That’s what Jane does with Tom, one of Peggy Walker’s nephews. The social canvas is brand new in Australia, Spence says that capable people have better chances at succeeding there than in Scotland.

Reminder: this book was published in 1865. She was such a modern thinker.

Mr Hogarth’s Will isn’t just about giving a forum to Spence’s ideas. It is also a wonderful Austenian novel with lovely characters. Jane and Elsie have something of Elinor and Marianne and of Jane and Elizabeth. Francis Hogarth could have been friends with Mr Knightley. There’s a Miss Philipps who could be Miss Bingley’s offspring. I had a soft spot for Mr Philipps, an affectionate man who gives a real shot at fatherhood and has quite a modern way to interact with his children. He seemed to be a better version of Mr Bennet.

So, many, many, many thanks to Lisa, for reviewing this book. I would never have read this without her and I had a wonderful reading time in Jane, Elsie and Francis’s company. Thankfully, I am able to read books in English because this is not available in French. What a Translation Tragedy.

I wonder why this wasn’t transalted at the time it was published. Did the political and feminist tone of Mr Hogarth’s Will rubbed the male French publishers of the 19thC the wrong way? I’ve read five books of the 19thC whose main theme is the fate of women without a fortune or who are unmarried. I’ve read The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888), Miss McKenzie by Anthony Trollope (1865), The Odd Women by George Gissing (1893), The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1883) and Mr Hogarth’s Will.

Out of the five, only the Trollope is available in French, because, well, it’s Trollope and still, the translation dates back to 2010!!! I’m a bit suspicious. Isn’t that a strange coincidence that these novels who question the place given to women in the British society were not made available to the French public? I think that the French society of the 19thC was a chauvinist society and that it lasted decades into the 20thC. The French 19thC had many women leading literary salons but no prominent female writer except George Sand. At least, no published ones, because, who knows how much talent was wasted? Is it farfetched to think that these British and Australian novels were questioning the established order regarding the roles of men and women and thus were judged too controversial for translation?

Update on April 26, 2020. I’ve decided to join the Australian Women Writer Challenge for 2020. This is my first contribution. 

AWW_2020

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