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Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

December 28, 2019 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 10, 2019 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – Splendid

December 8, 2019 17 comments

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934) Not available in French.

I downloaded Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville after reading Guy’s review and what a delight!

We’re in 1934. Jim Henderson is in his thirties, single, unemployed and lives in a boarding house. One day he receives a letter from the mysterious Edwin Carson, a wealthy collector of precious stones. Carson invites Henderson to a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim is a bit weary of this invitation that comes out of thin air but is not in a position to refuse a weekend of free food and accomodation. Then he realises that his good friend The Honorable Freddie Usher is also invited and they decide to carpool to Thrackley.

As they arrive to the gloomy house, they are welcomed by a creepy butler, Jacobson. Their unease increases when they understand that all the guests are rich and own jewels. All but Jim Henderson. He wonders why he was invited and he starts thinking that Carson has an ulterior motive: gathering this party is not just about enjoying each other’s company.

The weekend unfolds and after various peripeties, the mystery is solved and Jim learns about his past.

The summary is a classic murder book of the time. It has the same recipe as a book by Patricia Wentworth. The major difference is Melville’s sense of humour. I was hooked from the first pages by the lightness of his tone, the affectionate way he makes fun of his characters. The description of Henderson’s life at the boarding house was catchy and I couldn’t put the book down. Here are a few excerpts of Melville’s delightful prose:

The alarm clock at Mr. Henderson’s left ear gave a slight warning twitch and then went off with all its customary punctuality and power. It had not cost a great deal of money (to be exact, three shillings and eleven pence), but for all that it had a good bullying ring which could be calculated to waken most of Mrs. Bertram’s lodgers. Not, however, Mr. Henderson.

___

“Damn!” said Catherine Lady Stone, a member of the Council of the Society for the Purification of the English Language.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book but also a wonderful Gloomy-Winter-Day book that you associate with reading on a couch by the fireplace. It’s British classic crime in all its glory and it can’t get more British than that:

She suddenly shot from her chair and said loudly: “I can’t stand it another minute!” the effect was much the same as if a lorry-load of milk-cans had collided with a double-decker bus in the middle of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

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

September 22, 2019 12 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – Meet Mildred, the spitfire spinster.

April 7, 2019 37 comments

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) French title: Des femmes remarquables.

Our Book Club had picked Excellent Women by Barbara Pym for our March read and what fun it turned out to be.

The narrator of this little gem is Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-year-old Londoner. We’re in 1952, which means that Mildred should be married with children right now and she’s reaching her expiration date for the only career allowed to women at the time, wife and mother. She’s the daughter of a clergyman, her parents have passed away, leaving her a little money. She lives on her own in a flat. She’s involved in the church nearby and she’s friends with its single pastor, Julian Malory and his sister Winnifred. She used to have her friend Dora as a roommate but she moved out to take a teaching position elsewhere. Mildred’s little world is made of church activities, tea with church friends and the occasional meetings with Dora or her bachelor brother William.

Her tidy world is disturbed when the Napiers move into her apartment building. Helena Napier is a pretty young anthropologist and her husband Rockingham (Rocky) is in the military, coming back to England after being stationed in Italy. This couple is not like any of the people in Mildred’s usual social circle.

First, she meets with Helena and she opens Mildred to unthinkable ways-of-life. Ones where a woman has a man’s job, goes on missions abroad with male colleagues and is no homemaker. A world where the husband might compensate part of the housework himself.

The Napiers befriend Mildred and introduce her into their social circle. She goes to an anthropology convention to hear Helena and her partner Everard talk about their work. Mildred wonders if the two are lovers. Meanwhile, she’s getting friendly with Rocky, a charming young man who enjoys her company. The Napier marriage is sailing into stormy weather and Mildred is a good listener, sought out from both parties.

She’s just starting to get used to the upheavals brought by the Napiers when Mrs Allegra Gray, an attractive widow,  moves into the apartment above the Malories. Allegra is a newcomer who will worm herself into Julian and Winnifred’s lives, disturbing the balance of their friendship with Mildred.

I loved Excellent Women and especially Mildred. You expect the classic spinster having an ill-fated romance with a married scoundrel. And that’s where Barbara Pym turns all the tables on the reader and chooses a totally different path. She wrote a comedy with lots of references to classics with female protagonists. Mildred is not Emma Bovary and Rockingham is no Rodolphe.

Mildred is well-appreciated for her good sense and often helps friends and acquaintances. She is more sense than sensibility. She’s not secretly in love with Father Julian Malory. She’s not a doormat or a wallflower. She’s not a cliché. She doesn’t fall in love with roguish Rockingham, she’s not a Catherine Sloper either. She keeps her wits and when she finds herself in the middle of everyone’s drama, she keeps calm and takes action.

From the first page, Pym sets the tone as Mildred tells us:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Doesn’t that remind you of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Pym will later insist on distancing her heroin from others famous ones.

She [Mrs Napier] was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

I’ve always thought of Jane Eyre as a spineless doormat anyway. I’m team Mildred.

Mildred is what Emma Wodehouse would have become if she had not married Mr Knightley. She enjoys her independence. Like Emma, she doesn’t see marriage as her lifegoal. It’s not a necessity as she has enough money on her own. She doesn’t see the point of becoming a man’s glorified maid. Mildred is not Charlotte Lucas. I loved that she refused to go to Everard’s place for diner when she discovered she’d have to cook it first. For the next invitation, he managed to find someone else to do the cooking. Go Mildred! She points out:

And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden?

Mildred is not actively looking for love but if it came her way, she’d probably change her mind. She doesn’t want a man to choose her as a partner because she’s practical, organized or would be a good housewife. Like a useful farm animal. Her parents are dead, she’s financially independent and she has a room of her own. Despite being a clergyman’s daughter, she feels closer to a Virginia than to a Jane:

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She might not be an anthropologist like Helena but she’s quite modern under her conservative shell and I loved her for that. I had a delightful time in her company. She’s fun to be with, like here at a diner table:

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?

She’s sensible and witty. Pym created a protagonist with a quick mouth, a wonderful sense of observation and a healthy dose of self-deprecating sense of humour. (I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to.) Her quick wit and sarcastic tone are refreshing. She doesn’t want to impose her way of life to anyone, she doesn’t judge other people’s lifestyle and in that she differs greatly from your usual churchy protagonist. Mildred remarks Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. Isn’t she delightful?

Excellent Women is a laugh-out-loud comedy and with Mildred, the reader is in excellent company. Very highly recommended.

Other reviews: Read Jacqui’s here and Kaggsy’s here

I can’t resist adding a last quote, a last taste of Mildred’s oh-so-British sense of humour.

I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.

Theatre : a crime fiction vaudeville and a musical fantasy

February 24, 2019 8 comments

I just love going to the theatre. There’s something incredible about seeing actors perform live and imagine all the practice, constant organization and talent to direct a play and be on stage night after night. I have a subscription to the Théâtre des Célestins in Lyon but I also go to other theatres when I have the chance.

 

I had the opportunity to go to Paris and stay a night. I booked a seat at the Théâtre Le Palace to go and see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. (2016) translated into French as Le gros diamant du Prince Ludwig. This comedy originally created in London won the Molière prize for Best Comedy in 2018.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a crime-fiction vaudeville. Yes, this genre exists. Its playwrights have also written The Play That Goes Wrong, a disaster whodunnit I had the pleasure to see at the Théâtre Saint-Georges, also in Paris. At the time, it helped me realize what a well-oiled machine a theatre play must be.

Set in Minneapolis in 1958, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery has a rather simple plot. The Prince Ludwig of Hungary is coming to Minneapolis to retrieve the big diamond he left in the custody of the city’s bank. The perspective of this huge diamond whets the appetite of the local criminals, confirmed or amateur. Take Mitch, who escapes from prison with Cooper in order to steal this priceless diamond. His first stop in Minneapolis is for his lover Caprice, the daughter of the bank’s director. She’s a crook who lives off her charms, not as a hooker but more as a kept woman. When Mitch arrives, she had just sunk her claws into a new prey, Dave. He’s a lowly pick-pocket whose mother Ruth works as a teller at the bank but she thinks he’s rich and has a bright future.

Imagine a play where Dalton-like characters try to rob a bank. Ruth looks like a provincial Marylin Monroe. She and Caprice are the femmes fatales of the play, Ruth using of her charms on the bank security team and Caprice manipulating Mitch, Dave and her father’s long-life intern.

The whole thing is farcical with all the usual tricks of a laugh-out-loud comedy. The production was innovative, especially for the scene where Mitch, Cooper, Caprice and Dave are in the ventilation ducts, trying to find out where the strongroom is. It’s fast-paced, funny, full of mistaken identities and people hiding in faulty fold-up beds and cupboards. It respects the codes of crime fiction with the guy embarked in criminal activities for the sake of a woman (Dave), a hardened criminal on the run, ready for anything except failure and going back to jail. (Mitch) The parallel work of two femme fatales from two different generations, middle-aged Ruth and young Caprice, keeps the action going. You never get bored with this entertaining play, its twists and turns and characters that are so stupid that they are hilarious.

Highly recommended if you’re looking for an evening of fun. It’s still on at the Théâtre Le Palace in Paris and it’s on tour in Ireland and the UK. It’s appropriate for children too.

The week after, I booked seats to see Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat by and with Ivan Gouillon, produced by the Théâtre Comédie Odéon in Lyon. (I looked it up, there are more than fifty theatres in the Lyon area).

According to its program, Life Is a Bathroom and I Am a Boat is a musical fantasy. Accompanied by a pianist, Igor the Magnificent tells his story as an artist on transatlantic cruises, starting with how he survived the Titanic shipwreck. Our mythomaniac but friendly narrator takes us through the twentieth century, mentioning Proust, Churchill, Fitzgerald and others. He seems to have survived all the great shipwrecks of the century, befriended people who became famous and unintentionally inspired masterpieces and political events. I bet you didn’t know that The Great Gatsby was meant to be The Great Igor but since Igor and Fitzgerald had fall-out, Fitzgerald eventually changed the character’s name. The whole show is like this, taking us down memory lane with a pleasant character who obviously lies but is still charming. There are a lot of famous songs in the show illustrating the times Igor is telling us about. They are standards the public knows well and we spend quite a pleasant evening in Igor’s company. He’s a cabaret artist, mixing singing and comedy.

It’s a feel-good show. Igor’s story is unrealistic and his adventures are deliciously farfetched. He’s probably nothing more than a bathroom singer who dreams a little too much. But he takes us with him on this fanciful journey, leaving our worried at the theatre door to sing along with him.

Next theatre episode will be: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Half Life by Roopa Farooki – A lovely journey back to full life.

December 16, 2018 6 comments

Half Life by Roopa Farooki (2010) French title: Le Temps des vrais bonheurs. Translated by Jérémy Oriol.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. Those were the words which finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her ground-floor Victorian flat in Bethnal Green, and keep on walking. One step at a time, one foot, and then the other, her inappropriately flimsy sandals flip-flopping on the damp east London streets; she avoids the dank, brown puddles, the foil glint of the takeaway containers glistening with the vibrant slime of sweet and sour sauce, the mottled banana skin left on the pavement like a practical joke, but otherwise walks in straight line. One foot, and then the other. Toe to heel to toe to heel. Flip-flop. She knows exactly where she is going, and even though she could have carried everything she needs in her dressing-gown pocket – her credit card, her passport, her phone – she has taken her handbag instead, and she has paused in her escape long enough to dress in jeans, a T-shirt and even a jacket. Just for show. So that people won’t think that she is a madwoman who has walked out on her marriage and her marital home in the middle of breakfast, with her half-eaten porridge congealing in the bowl, with her tea cooling on the counter top. So that she won’t think so either. So she can turn up at the airport looking like anyone else, hand over her credit card, and run back to the city she had run away from in the first place.

The opening paragraph of Half Life by Roopa Farooki has in itself most of the key elements of her novel. This is Aruna’s point of view.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home is a verse of a poem by a minor Bengali poet, Hari Hassan. Hassan is dying in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur and reflects on his life. His last wish is to see his estranged son one last time. Hassan looks back on his love life, on past friendships and on the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. He and his best friend weren’t on the same side. He will be the second voice of Half Life.

Aruna read this verse in a collection of poems by Hassan that her childhood friend turned lover gave her. Jazz, that’s his name, lives in Singapore and will be the third voice of Half Life.

Aruna has been in London for two years after she fled from Singapore, leaving Jazz behind, never looking back, never contacting him again. She got married to Patrick, a doctor who works in a local hospital. She’s bipolar and struggles with her illness. Her tone is rather detached, as if she goes with the flow of her life without being truly engaged in it. Her description of her relationship with Patrick is quite harsh and I pitied him a bit. But is Aruna a reliable character? Is Patrick as oblivious as she thinks?

Jazz has stayed in Singapore, has a new girlfriend and tries to move on from Aruna. He doesn’t speak to his father Hari Hassan anymore and doesn’t know he’s dying in Kuala Lumpur. Aruna’s departure was brutal after they discovered a disturbing fact about Jazz and her. They grew up together, their parents living in the same neighborhood, two Bengali kids in school, looking alike and linked by a strong bond. Their relationship moved from deep friendship to lovers. Until a family secret shattered their love bubble.

And then Aruna left. Abruptly. Just like she does this very morning in London, leaving her husband, their flat and their life behind in the middle of breakfast. It’s time to go back to Singapore, see Jazz again and look for the answers behind the secret they discovered. It’s time to stop hiding, to learn the truth to finally heal.

The good part of writing billets about books I read a few months ago is to assess what stayed with me. If I don’t read my notes or reread passages of Half Life by Roopa Farooki, I’m left with a bittersweet impression of a main character, Aruna who goes on a few days journey to put together the puzzle of her identity and her life. It will take her three days and three nights.

I didn’t like her very much at the beginning, I thought she was cruel to others and quite selfish. But maybe she felt so bad that all her strength was used to keep living her everyday life, work, interact with Patrick, his family and friends. Perhaps it consumed all her energy and left nothing to reach out to other human beings around her. Nothing left to give. Selfishness in survival mode.

Jazz and Hassan need closure. Jazz does to move on, to have Aruna in his life as a friend and not as a partner. Hassan wants to die in peace and reconcile with his son and his best friend.

Half Life is what these three characters have been living. Hassan has forever been cut in half after the civil war that brought the creation of Bangladesh. His former life was in Pakistan. His heart was in Bangladesh. Aruna and Jazz cannot live a full life without a new foundation to their relationship. They have to move back to friendship because they need each other. Without this, they only engage half way in their life and current relationships. It’s time Aruna gives more credit to her feelings for Patrick. (In a way, she reminds me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover.) It’s time that Jazz invests in his relationship to June. Their partners deserve it. Half life also refers to geography. For the three characters, half of their life is in another country.

I enjoyed the setting, the descriptions of Singapore and of Aruna and Jazz’s childhoods. It brought me to places I’ve never been to. Farooki’s writing is fluid, with a pleasant melody, one that stays with you and makes you remember fondly of this unusual story and its engaging characters.

PS: According to her biography on Wikipedia, Roopa Farooki has moved from corporate finance and advertising to literature, a brave and radical change of career that she can be proud of.

PPS : I’m sorry but again, I prefer the French cover to the Anglo-Saxon one.

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