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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

June 14, 2017 14 comments

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald (2013) French title : La bibliothèque des cœurs cabossés. Translated from the Swedish by Carine Buy.

As mentioned in my previous billet about The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus, after reading A Cool Million and the said Duck Hunt, I was in dire need of a feel-good novel. So during a visit to a bookstore, I got myself The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.

The blurb is made for bookworms. Sara Lindqvist is twenty-eight years old and lives in Haninge, a small town in Sweden. She’s a book lover and started a correspondence with Amy, another booklover who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. They’ve been discussing books and life for two years when the bookshop where Sara works goes belly up. Amy convinces the now unemployed Sara to come and stay with her for a few weeks. Sara organizes her trip but when she arrives in Broken Wheel, it’s the day of Amy’s funeral. What to do now?

She decides to stay and gets acquainted with the villagers, an odd bunch of people who stayed in their declining hometown. Broken Wheel progressively lost its inhabitants, then its school and the buildings on Main Street have lost their luster. It’s now a sleepy town that will wake up with the arrival of this foreigner who decides to use Amy’s books to set up a bookstore on Main Street. Sara wants to use Amy’s library to convert Broken Wheel to literature.

Ahem.

Lucky me, I read this at a time when my tolerance for approximate prose and clichéd characters was exceptionally high. I’m so tired after work that I welcomed the reprieve. I finished it despite its 500 pages, its nice but unreal characters, the description of corn fields and the tepid plot. It says a lot about my fatigue.

Conclusion: Two years of correspondence between Sara and Amy and yet for me, nothing to write home about. I do enjoy fluffy books from time to time but this one wasn’t good enough. Good fluff is hard to write too.

Other review: Claire from Word by Word read it too and is more positive than I am about it. Her review is here.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 21 comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

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.

watson_frenchShe 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.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Not even good enough for a beach read

August 4, 2013 28 comments

Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson 2006. French title : Le diable vit à Notting Hill.

I don’t know what woke me up – I drank no alcohol last night, I observed the carb curfew, I had only one espresso during the day, plus I did a Pilates class and hours of gardening in the fresh air – but I’m definitely awake now. Wide awake.

Johnson_Notting_HellThis is the first paragraph of Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson. I know what you’re thinking: Why on earth did she pick this book? Well, I didn’t, I got it for my birthday. It’s not a book I would have chosen for myself but I decided to give it a go. We’re now in the South of France, for a couple of weeks of R&R by the sea. I’m exhausted by the last weeks at the office and I thought this would be the perfect time to read Notting Hell. My brain cells are frozen by fatigue and it sounded smart to not to waste good books on the first couple of days of reading at the beach. That’s why I went for this book that didn’t require many brain cells. Actually, it didn’t require brain cells at all and the few I had left threw a tantrum in my skull, urging me to abandon the book. I followed their lead after 80 pages of silliness, not with a capital S, that wouldn’t be big enough, but with a huge initial letter S like in the book of Kells.

The story is about rich families living around a private square in Notting Hill. They’re rich and they have problems. Every sentence mentions a brand of some sort, there are so many of them that I wondered if their marketing VPs paid the “writer” on their advertising budget. I have little patience with that kind of setting. The characters are thin, they have obvious professions; the husbands are bankers, the wives are a free-lance journalist specialised in deep articles such as the pros and cons of being flat-chested or, of course, stay-at-home mothers. Heaven forbid that the women have a job in a scientific field. Their main concern is who sleeps with whom around the square. They observe each other and gossip. Zzzzzzzzz.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some snobbish intellectual who only raves about Proust. I enjoy light reads too. But light doesn’t mean stupid. Now, my beach read is You Never Know With Women by James Hadley Chase (THANKS GUY) and I’m having a great time.

I’ll be back soon with a billet about the excellent Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

In Sydney, the Ladies’ Paradise is named Goode’s

March 21, 2013 35 comments

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. 1993.

St_John*Sheepish*. Before starting Book Around The Corner, to me, Australia meant kangaroos, sun and INXS. Starting from nearly zero, my knowledge of the country and its literature could only improve. After reading Lisa’s review about The Women In Black, I decided I wanted to read it too and it soon joined other friends on the TBR.

The Women in Black are the salespersons at Goode’s, a department store in Sydney that can be compared to the Galeries Lafayette. They wear black clothes provided by the store. We’re in the 1950s, and we follow a group of sales clerks in the Ladies’ Frocks Department and the Model Gowns areas during a few weeks around Christmas.

Fay is 30 and still single. Patty has been married to Frank for ten years and still works since they don’t have children. Frank was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate. Poor Patty. Magda is an immigrant from Slovenia married to a Hungarian immigrant Stefan; she works for the Model Gowns Department and feels slightly superior. Lisa is about 18 and works at Goode’s as a temp while she’s waiting for the results of her Leaving Certificate. The novel is split into fifty-five very short chapters, sharp like scenes in a sitcom. (Fifty-five? Does the novel happen in 1955?) It has the same upbeat feeling as the Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.

For me, reading this was puzzling at times. Most of all, it’s strange to read a story around Christmas time where the characters complain about heat, go to the beach, want a bathing suit as a Christmas gift and wait for results to their exams. Try to buy a bikini in December in France. I had to research Australia on Wikipedia when the prices were mentioned in £; I was sure the money was AUD so, what was that? I discovered they changed from £ to AUD in 1966. Good to know, I like to go to bed less stupid than I got up. Then, there were the sizes of clothes!

Patty Williams’s frock was an SSW as we know, whereas Fay Baines was an SW, but Miss Jacobs was a perfect OSW, especially around the bust.

What? This sentence left me guessing the women’s figures from slimmest to fattest. I also assumed that the Leaving Certificate is the Australian equivalent to the French baccalauréat.

Another interesting aspect was the attitude toward European immigrants. Well, not all of them, Continentals. I’ve never heard that word used in other circumstances than followed by breakfast. I suppose it covers immigrants from Europe that are neither British nor Irish. They live in different neighbourhoods, eat different food and don’t expect to marry outside of their community. Except for Rudi, Madga and Stefan’s friend, who wants to marry a real Australian girl.

I don’t know Madeleine St John, but I’m sure of one thing: she speaks French. Stefan, Rudi and Magda used to communicate in French before switching to English after they immigrated to Australia. Their English is tainted with mistakes Francophones make when they speak English, like “I am enchanted to meet you” or “I can recommend the chocolate pudding here, it is formidable.” Formidable sounds like a faux ami; in French, it means fantastic, not dreadful, unless you also use formidable while meaning awesome? Madga often includes French words and expressions in her sentences although I suspect it is more out of snobbery. After all, she works in the Haute Couture section of the store, she needs to have class! However Ms St John uses French words or references in her descriptions, as in “Up here, all was luxe, calme et volupté, with nice pink lights and pink-tinted mirrors which made you look just lovely, and the thick grey silence underfoot of finest Axminster.” Luxe, calme et volupté comes from a poem by Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage.

The novel speaks about another era, at least for Australia and other Western countries. Lisa’s father doesn’t want her to go to university, even if she has stunning grades and a full scholarship. She’s a girl, what’s the point? Here is Patty’s doctor about her childlessness:

The physician regarded his patient with some despair. It was too bad. Here was a woman well into her childbearing years with no baby to nurse: it was entirely unnatural. She had lost all her bloom and was therefore not likely to attract another man who might accomplish the necessary so if her husband failed to come up to scratch her life would be wasted. It was too bad, it really was.

What is she? A cow?

The department store closes at mid-day on Saturdays and all the shops are closed during the weekend. Sydney is a dead city until Monday. We forget that there were times when you couldn’t shop on Saturday afternoons. Patty will stop working if she can prove her usefulness and get pregnant. Rudi is always happy and the reader can only suspect that he’s seen so horrible things before leaving Hungary for Australia that he’s grateful to just be alive and free. Other problems are mere inconveniences.

All these details just show you how much I enjoyed reading The Women in Black. I needed a light and funny read after Under the Volcano and I got a good one. Thanks Lisa. I’ll read That Deadman Dance that you virtually gave me for Christmas in a few weeks.

You can find another review HERE, in French, from a French blogger who now lives in Australia.

Don’t they have coils in Sweden?

February 16, 2013 24 comments

Familjegraven by Katarina Mazetti 2005. French title: Le caveau de famille. Not available in English.

Mazetti_Caveau_FamilleFamily Grave is the sequel of Benny and Shrimp, a book I read almost two years ago. I wouldn’t have bought the sequel as these are usually disappointing unless the initial literary project was to write something in several volumes. Otherwise, once the pleasure of discovering a new set of characters and a new environment is gone, the sequel lacks the freshness of first impressions. In this case, my in-law lent me the book and I read it in two settings. It’s short, entertaining and does not really engage a lot of brain cells. Just look at the categories I chose; this is not a criticism, just a statement.

Mazetti’s characters are Benny, a farmer who struggles to keep his farm afloat by himself and Dérirée, who is a librarian and a city girl. They meet in the cemetery since Benny’s mother’s grave is beside Dérirée’s husband’s grave. They have nothing in common but still fall in love. In the sequel, we follow their improbable love story as they become parents. In this kind of book, with that kind of blurb, it can be anything from extremely corny to extremely funny and witty. Only the skills of the writer can make a difference. Perhaps it is, in a way, more difficult to write excellent fluffy books following well-battered paths than it is to write a book about yourself and your relationship with your mother.

But back to Benny and Désirée. Things weren’t easy between them in the first volume, they don’t improve in the second. It’s still written in the same light and funny tone as Benny and Shrimp and the details are rather realistic. Katarina Mazetti describes with a rather good accuracy the life of parents who both work and have several children under four years old. You live on a binary mode: Parent-Employee-Parent-Employee…Sometimes the man or the woman in you pops up provided that you haven’t fallen asleep before it can even happen. So it’s full of details that non-parents may have a hard time believing but that are still true. The huge piles of laundry, the illness that always occur at the worst moment, the desperate need to find someone to watch them when they’re ill and you need to work, the holidays that aren’t unwinding, the relief when it’s time for their nap or the constant run against to clock to get everything done and respect their need for meals and naps at fixed hours. Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderful moments with small children when you help them acquire new skills and cuddle them. These moments get enough advertising; it’s nice to have someone showing the other side of parenthood.

Mazetti_tomba_famigliaThe only detail I had difficulties to swallow is that Désirée keeps on getting pregnant by accident. Don’t they have coils in Sweden? This is the 21st century and I have a hard time imagining it can happen to such an educated woman as Désirée.

The most interesting aspect of the book is about Benny and his farm. Katarina Mazetti’s husband is a farmer, so she knows how it works. Benny works all the time, doesn’t earn enough to support a family, struggles with EU paperwork and Désirée isn’t very optimistic about the future of agriculture in Sweden. Money is tight and farms disappear. Benny is the last one milking cows in his neighbourhood. His character, although a bit of a caricature, still rings true. I’m not saying that all farmers act like Benny but more that they encounter the same kind of troubles in their work.

This novel doesn’t pretend to be a masterpiece; it isn’t but it’s a good light read if you need one. It came as a nice distraction to Marcel’s claustrophic behaviour to Albertine.

A word about the covers. The French one is rather corny and the red heart is a link to the cover of the first volume. I think that the Italian one is awful and the book doesn’t deserve such a pink syrupy cover. Again, it’s a book marketed for women and we can’t escape pink. And those ridiculous butterflies! It has nothing to do with the book…

What can I say, I’m a city girl

December 15, 2012 16 comments

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimbal 2010. French title: Une vie pleine. Mon histoire d’amour avec un homme et une ferme.

A while ago, I read Le mec de la tombe d’à côté by Katarina Mazetti, a nice little novel about a Swedish city girl falling in love with a farmer. So someone lent me The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, which is in appearance, the same kind of book. Except that Katarina Mazetti is a writer creating a funny story while Mrs Kimball relates her life. Kristin Kimball was journalist, working in New York and she was sent on an assignment in a farm in Pennsylvania. Mark grows organic vegetables and raises animals. They fall in love, she leaves New York to start a new life with him on a decrepit farm. She wrote a book about their first year together.

That’s for the story. I could be fine with it. After all, I had already read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.

Before writing more about The Dirty Life, I have to say a few words about myself. I grew up in an urban environment. My first encounter with country life was when I was seventeen. That summer, I had signed up for a three weeks stay in a German family and ended up in a farm in Bayern. The farmer there thought that t-shirts were optional pieces of clothing, went around the place bare chested in tiny shorts, scratching his behind. The couple were very nice to me but I can’t say I enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night and stand in the barn in my nightgown to watch the cow calve. No epiphany there. My idea of a perfect location for a home is How far is it from the bakery and from the cinema? Although this is not a life for me, I have a deep respect for farmers, they work really hard and they love their job, otherwise they’d quit. I also cook mostly from produce, we compost part of our food scraps, so I know what vegetables and fruit look like before they’re in cans or in frozen pieces. In addition, I believe in moderation in every thing and I have trouble getting along with extremists of all sides because black and white situations are just too simplistic for me. Now that I’ve written a long disclaimer, let me tell you my opinion about The Dirty Life.

Mrs Kimball and I started off on the wrong foot right from the first pages when she describes her first encounter with Mark:

I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can’t believe I drove all this way to hoe brocoli for this dude.

Then a few pages later you have:

Michael [a farm employee] handed me a hard-toothed rake, and we set off in adjacent rows. Penn State was just down the road, and Michael, a film major, had graduated that spring. He’d begun volunteering weekends at Mark’s farm to see if, as he put it, hard work would make him a man.

Kimball_Vie_pleine_HardI can deduct from these quotes that cerebral men are not real men but only ersatz and that being a real man means working with your hands. Hard work at university or in the office doesn’t make a man of you. I frowned. Old clichés don’t apply only to women. I could have forgiven her that gratuitous comments if she hadn’t nailed them a few pages later when she says she wishes to every woman that she finds a man with a body fit by hard work and not by working out at the gym. Well, Mrs Kimball, there’s no accounting for taste but I rather like living with a graduate of the French equivalent of an Ivy League school who wears business suits to go to work and doesn’t come home caked with mud or stinking cow dunk. I can live without the farming muscles. Who does she think she is?

As expected, she describes with lots of details her experience with farming. I skipped lots of pages of descriptions of vegetables, milk, the colour of butter and other edifying explanations. To be fair, she doesn’t hide that it’s exhausting and that it takes their whole days. But I’m a bit suspicious about the rosy description of her neighbourhood: what? All are perfectly friendly, no one’s nosy, no one’s eyeing suspiciously the newcomers and their crazy project?

Because, I haven’t told you everything yet. They start farming but Mark is an extremist: no tractor, no chemical products. He doesn’t want plastic anywhere, had a phase of living without electricity and doesn’t own a car. He rides a bike. I’m all for organic agriculture and being cautious with technology but really, was horsedrawn farming absolutely necessary?

Of course, she glorifies farm work, sometimes in a strange way. The slaughtering of animals doesn’t bother her but ploughing does, she finds it violent to the Earth. (obscene is the word used by the translator) That puzzled me. What surprised me too is how little regulation there seem to be in America. In France, you can’t slaughter a pig or a calf in your backyard; you need to bring them to the slaughterhouse. And is putting a horse to sleep with a gun authorised?

Kimball_Vie_plein_1018I finished this book out of respect for the person who lent it to me. I can’t wait to discuss it with her. As you now know it, I didn’t like The Dirty Life neither in substance nor in form. Barbara Kingsolver honestly shared her experience of farming with her reader. It was an interesting and intelligent narration. Here, I found the tone patronizing.  I’m married to a man who spent his adolescence making up fake homework to avoid being enrolled to farm work by his father, I don’t find farming glamorous. I don’t envy her, I don’t think her life is fuller than mine. If living from farming was that fantastic, can you explain to me why all these people left the country to take a job in factories and in cities in the 20th Century?

PS: I have a copy published by France Loisirs, that’s right in their alley. But I discovered that 10:18 published it as well and I’m disappointed that my favourite publisher picked this book for their collection.

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

September 11, 2012 28 comments

Fall Girl by Toni Jordan 2010 Not available in French.

I heard about Fall Girl on Lisa’s blog a while ago and I’m always grateful when someone discovers good quality light and entertaining books. I like to have some on the shelves whenever I want distraction. And didn’t I need distraction after reading Bord de Mer by Véronique Olmi!  Frequent readers of this blog will notice that I’m terribly late to write this billet as I’ve read the book back in mid-August. In a way it’s an interesting situation since it’s a light book and it shows how much of the book stayed with me.

Della is a member of a family of con artists. The whole family is in the conning business. Her father, her brothers, her uncle, aunt and cousins all work together as a team. When the book opens, she’s all dressed up to her new assignment. This time, billionaire Daniel Metcalf is her prey; his foundation grants money to scientist to carrying on researches. He doesn’t mind investing is crazy projects. So Della now needs to look and sound like skilled scientist to persuade him to give her money to prove there still are Tasmanian tigers in Australia and more precisely in the Wilsons Promontory National Park near Melbourne. She decided this scheme after reading an article about him and his remembrance of seeing a Tasmanian tiger as a child. The problem is that Tasmanian tigers are thought extinct since the 20thC…

Daniel asks to meet her at her office at the university she’s supposed to teach at. She can’t refuse and the organization of the fake office is a funny read. After that, Daniel asks to participate to the researches in the park. The whole escapade is organized in haste and starts quite well but Della thinks something is off, that Daniel looks suspicious. She wonders if he’s lying to her. And the reader wonders who’s conning who.

It’s an entertaining book, seeing all the details of the schemes and the lengths Della and her family are willing to go to get money is really funny. Della’s family put a lot of work into it, much more than they would if they earned money with a regular job. Their whole life is shadowy, made of flights, erasing traces not to be caught. Della never went to school to be as little noticeable as possible. They live in a closed circle, only trusting another family. They sort of live in a parallel world just for the thrill of the cases, the supposedly freedom linked to that bohemian situation.

But Della is at a turning point: does she want to keep on doing this “job” as it is the only occupation she knows? Doesn’t she long for a “normal” life? What used to be glamorous doesn’t seem that much fun these days and the money isn’t flowing into the house. With new technologies, it becomes more and more difficult to set up people as it is easier for them to check references and stories. We follow how her job goes on and also share her doubts about her life.

It seems to me that Toni Jordan had a lot of fun writing this story and describing this strange family living in a house in Cumberland Street which is full of hides, gadgets and secret way-outs. It’s a house which enchants children (Aren’t all children attracted to secret passages?) but doesn’t appeal that much to grown-ups who see it under the cold light of adulthood. The passages only mean that the inhabitants of the house need a quick way to escape and avoid prision. She also researched con artists before writing this book. It’s a life I can’t understand as I’m too honest and lazy to see the draw. For me, telling the truth remains the easiest way, at least you don’t have to keep track of all you’ve invented to remain consistent. (Like Seymour in Elliot Allagash, by the way). It’s fun to read in a book though.

PS: Lisa also interviewed Toni Jordan and you can read her post here.

My edition is a UK one and the cover is appalling, again. The flowery wall-paper behind the picture of that girl is ugly.

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