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Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar – and before, their mothers

December 18, 2019 7 comments

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar (1981) Original French title: Fatima ou les Algériennes au square.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au Square by Leïla Sebbar is not available in English and it’s a shame. Set in La Courneuve in end of the 1970s, this novella describes the lives of immigrants from North Africa in the suburbs around Paris.

Fatima and her husband belong to the first generation of immigrants from Algeria. They came for work and they intend to go back to the country. Meanwhile, the children grow up in France, go to school and are on the bridge between two worlds. They want to be as French as the others but at home, they are summoned to be Algerian, Muslim and to remind themselves that their country is Algeria.

Dalila is the oldest daughter and she loves sitting by her mother on the bench at the square near their apartment building. The women meet at the square and share news about friends and relatives. From one afternoon to the other, it’s like a feuilleton for Dalila. Sometimes she dares to ask about someone in particular. The Algerian ladies stick together and never really learn French. They often come from poor villages and are illiterate. These meetings at the square are their network and support system.

In her novella, Leïla Sebbar perfectly describes the life of this first generation of immigrants. They struggle with the language and their children learn it quicker than them. Their mastering the language reverses a bit the power in the family. The parents cannot talk to teachers properly. The children can read administrative documents and are propelled in the adults’ world because they have to help their families. For the parents, everything is different and they had to adapt to a new country, with different customs. Leïla Sebbar also describes very well the condescension of the French and their racism.

The author is very thoughtful and delicate in her descriptions of their lives. She doesn’t hide the clash of cultures, the violence in the couples and the strict control that fathers and brothers have on the girls of the family. Dalila would like to be like other French teenagers but fashionable clothes and make-up do not agree with her father. He can be vocal and violent about it and the responsibility falls down on her mother.

She captures very well the atmosphere of the time and she reminded me a lot of things from my own childhood. She tells the fights between communities and neighborhoods. She shows that these girls are studious in class and see school as a key to a better future. It’s a path to independence, if their parents don’t marry them too young. The boys are the kings of the house and they take power because they are male and are more at ease in France than their fathers. We see a culture where men have all the power and don’t hesitate to use it.

We also see families torn apart by immigration: the parents’ only dream is to go back to Algeria and the children’s only dream is to settle in France and be like the others in school. The parents have not yet understood that they would not go back because their children and grandchildren would stay in France and because, whether they fight against it or not, they slowly lose contact with their former lives in Algeria.

Fatima is the generation before the one featured in Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au square was published in 1981. Native French and Algerian immigrants live under the false impression that the Algerians’ presence in France is temporary, just to earn money before going back to Algeria. Both sides acknowledge too late that, contrary to what they thought, these immigrants were in France to stay. It might explain the loose ends in the assimilation process.

Fatima was written was before the foundation of the association SOS Racism (1984) and the marches against racism towards . I was too young to march but in school, a lot of us wore the pin Touche pas à mon pote (Don’t touch my friend) It was the time of awareness: these families where here to stay; their children went to school with the children of their age and France was their country. Leïla Sebbar perceived that and Fatima and Dalila are the representative of two generations and she shows a turning point for the immigrant communities.

Fatima made me understand how much they hoped that their stay would be temporary, in what frame of mind Fatima and her husband were. As a child, it never crossed my mind that Mohammed in my class could move “back” to Algeria. Unfortunately, the assimilation didn’t go as well as it should have. When you have curly brown hair in France, some people still feel entitled to ask you of what origin you are, as if you weren’t French.

It is a pity that this brilliant novella has not been translated into English. I think that it has a British follow-up in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This quote in Ali’s book could come from Sebbar’s novella.

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

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.

Five Bells by Gail Jones – four characters and Sydney.

November 17, 2019 15 comments

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2011) French title: Cinq carillons.

Five Bells by Gail Jones my third book for Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

Sydney, Circular Quay. James, Ellie, Pei Xing and Catherine converge to Sidney’s harbour for the day. Five Bells is evocative of Sydney, the beauty of the bay, its cafés and its crowds, people coming there to take the various ferries to go across the bay. Each character gives us their impression of the Sydney Opera and the bridge, the most striking features of the area, besides the pure beauty of the landscape.

Slowly, going from one character to the other, they unfold their past for us to see.

Then she [Pei Xing] saw herself from the inside: those layers of self slowly, gently, time-travelling across the water, the child receiving a white thin-lipped teacup from the hands of her mother, the student in plaits taught to sit still with her hands in her lap, the lover opening arched spaces to the engulfment of a man’s body, the mother bent, cloudy with joy, over her infant son’s head. In the wilderness of leaving Shanghai, these selves had blended and folded; now, in meditation, she was able to fan them apart. This was her habit, these days, to see herself in this way, the concertina of a life in which she saw her own folds and crevices. I have lived many lives. There was something reassuring in this, not to be single but many, not to be of one language but several, not to have but one discrete past but a skein, and multiple.

Pei Xing and James were the most striking characters for me. Pei Xing is the oldest of the four and she’s at Circular Quay to take the ferry to her weekly visit to a nursing home on the other side of the bay. She had a hard life, growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She left to build a new life in Australia but she’s still haunted by her Chinese past and we gradually discover the scars left by the political events she survived. Pei Xing has the most terrible past of the four but she’s come to peace with it.

James and Ellie used to be neighbours when they were young. They were teenage lovers and they meet again for the first time in years. James comes from Italian emigrants, Matheus and Giovanna and her mother ended up raising him alone.

In this country in which men need not talk at all, except of workday details over a beer or two, Matheus gradually grew silent and then he was gone. Giovanna had seen him retreating for years, becoming thin and stretched as a Giacometti sculpture. One day he stretched into nothingness and slipped over the horizon.

James grew up with an anxious mother who wasn’t nurturing enough. She wasn’t a safe haven and he grew up without a secure emotional anchor. Ellie played that role when they were children and then teenagers. And now he’s in need of emotional comfort and he reached out to her. He’s desperate and looking for help but it’s not certain he’ll manage to ask for it.

Ellie lives in Sydney now and she’s happy and at the same time worried to see James again. He had disappeared from her life. Abruptly. And she never fully recovered from that abandonment, especially as it also came after her father’s death.

Catherine is an Irish journalist. She left Dublin to work in London after her role model, the journalist Veronica Guerin, was killed. Now she’s on the move again, from London to Sydney . She wants a fresh start because she cannot recover from her brother Brendan’s death. They were thick as thieves and losing him left a wound that won’t heal.

Gail Jones builds Ariadne threads between the characters. They have things in common, Sydney as a new beginning, traumatic deaths in their past, something around snow and Russian literature.

All the characters are in Sydney after leaving their old life behind. The city is a chance for them to start again and yet, they carry their past with them. All grew up without a full set of parents, their fathers died young. Due to the circumstances, they all lacked strong emotional roots that one builds in childhood or if they had some, they were cut-off too early. Ellie felt that James had abandoned her. Brendan’s death is untimely. Pei Xing lost her parents in the Cultural Revolution. James was not ready to lose his mother when she died.

Five Bells is contemplative and yet the story moves forward as the day progresses. I can’t reveal too much without giving out important details for future readers. The book’s construction is thorough and things fall into place neatly but not too neatly. I was drawn to the characters thanks to Gail Jones’s prose. I was in tune with her tone, the musicality of the sentences, like the gentle rock of a boat. I enjoyed her description of Sydney’s harbour and through these stories, she gives a picture of multicultural Australia. This is a country that welcomes strangers who want to start a new life. Living one’s country behind is never an easy decision to make and, in a way, Jones makes us think about all the ghosts that immigrants carry with them.

I discussed Gail Jones with Lisa when I was reading Five Bells and she told me that this author never worked for her due to heavy symbolism spread in her books. I didn’t notice anything is Five Bells but it doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Perhaps I missed it because I read it in English and it went over my head. Perhaps I’m not the kind of reader who notices things like this. I’m an easy public once I’m on board and Gail Jones embarked me within a few pages. So, who knows, it might bother other readers too.

PS: I wish I had time to write a billet about French characters in foreign books. Foreign authors keep puzzling me that way. Here we have a guy named Luc who comes from Besançon. How did Jones even think of this town? Because it’s where Victor Hugo was born? Luc lives in London and is a translator of Russian to French. I know that there are more French people in London than in Lyon (before Brexit, that is) but I wonder why she chose a French companion for Catherine.

PPS: I also wish I had time to write a billet about typos on French words and expressions in books written in English because there are too many of them. And with all the resources available on the internet, it would be nice not to see them anymore.

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

November 1, 2019 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

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

Frightening power, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You fucking what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2019 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 9, 2019 9 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – it will leave you breathless

September 15, 2019 17 comments

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) French title: My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent was at Quais du Polar in 2018 although My Absolute Darling is not crime fiction. After reading it, I understand why he was invited: this is a novel that walks on the thin line between literary fiction and thriller.

Turtle Alveston is fourteen and lives in an isolated cabin on the Northern California coast with her father Martin. Her paternal grandfather drinks himself to death in a trailer in the backyard. Martin is a survivalist. He believes that the world is going to collapse, he doesn’t trust the system and trains his daughter to prepare for the end of the world. He’s also abusive and a totally unfit parent.

When the book opens, it’s Spring and Turtle is in her last year of middle school. She does her best to keep everyone at arm’s length. She doesn’t engage with other students, donning a coat of aggressivity to push everyone away. Her English teacher Anna isn’t giving up though. Turtle fails at her spelling tests and Anna pokes at Turtle, feeling that things aren’t right at home.

Martin is a lunatic with his frightening theories, a sort of guru with only one attendant to his cult: his daughter. Martin is a damaged man, intelligent, charismatic and powerful. He’s controlling and uses every means in his possession to nail his power over his daughter. He manipulates her with love, he threatens her and he’s violent, verbally and physically. He beats her up and assaults her. Martin loves his daughter in a very sick way, he calls her my absolute darling. He wants to own her. He leaves nothing out to ensure that she doesn’t venture outside of the cocoon he has created for her. Except that his cocoon isn’t soft and nurturing, its walls are made of sea urchin.

Turtle’s mother is dead, her grandpa cares about her but is too deep in his drunkard hole to take action. Martin does everything he can to keep Turtle under his spell. He’s her dad, her only parent, her only figure of authority. They are isolated and she doesn’t know anything else.

Turtle finds solace in the nature around her house. She’s tough, knows how to live off the land, how to avoid dangers, how to build a fire, how to orientate herself in the wilderness. Martin and her grandpa taught her these skills. She’s an expert with guns, Martin makes her practice all the time. She is a warrior, accumulating a lot of survival skills and inner strength.

Fourteen is a pivotal age. Puberty hits. Children start to take their independence, of mind and of action. They start to hike the awkward trail to adulthood and parents do not control as much as before what they are exposed to and who they are in contact with. Their own social circle starts to be more important than the family one. Parents stop to be heroes who know everything and are always right and become mere humans. It’s the age where Martin’s control over Turtle is meant to slip and this father is not about to accept it. He can’t let her go.

Several events arrive in a short time span. Anna is more insistent in her follow-up. Turtle rescues Brett and Jacob, two teenagers from the local high school who went hiking and got lost. The outside world makes a dent in Turtle’s shell and begins to get to her. Martin taught her skills to cope with the end of the world and to be self-reliant. She will use these skills to claw herself out of her abusive father’s large paws. She will use them to put an end to her world.

And we, readers, follow her, silent witnesses to all her failings, her strength and her inner pep talks.

She thinks, you will trust in your discipline and your courage and you will never leave them and never abandon them and you will be stronger, grim and courageous and hard, and you will never sit as he sits, looking at your life as he looks at it, you will be strong and pure and cold for the rest of your goddamn life and these are lessons you will never forget.

We are rooting for her. We are horrified by her home situation and we watch her looking for her way out, trying to get out of the mental maze where her father holds her prisoner. She’s like a princess, hostage of a dark prince, except that this princess doesn’t wait idly for her knight to rescue her. She’s been raised to think that one can only count of themselves. Fortunately. And in a sense, she’s right. Where are the adults in this story?

My Absolute Darling is Tallent’s debut novel and it is truly extraordinary. He manages to insinuate himself into the mind of a fourteen-year-old abused girl. We are in Turtle’s mind, seeing the world through the distorting glasses she wears, courtesy of her father’s twisted education.

The novel holds together in every aspect. It’s built like a psychological thriller but it isn’t one. Things happen, one at a time, each one adding a brick to the story, pushing it forward, building up suspense and threat. Some scenes are extremely intense and disturbing, some at home with Martin and some in the wilderness, along the shore. Turtle’s life is surrounded with dangers, at home and outside. She has no real safe place.

Gabriel Tallent shows us how hard it is to go out of an abusive relationship and even more when it is a parent/child one. Turtle loves Martin and hates him at the same time. He loves her and is the one who hurts her the most. In an interview, Tallent says he used the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator in The Captive to draw Martin. (See my billet here about The Captive. It’s entitled Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.) I can see how Proust could be helpful.

There is no attempt at psychology or psychiatry in My Absolute Darling. Tallent never tries to put a medical name on Martin’s behavior. We only understand that he had a destructive relationship with his own father. Tallent doesn’t dig further, it’s not his purpose. He focuses on Turtle and we really want her to succeed and climb out of this dark world to join ours. Even if we are destroying nature at a frightening speed and if this world is imperfect.

My Absolute Darling is an excellent book, unbearable to read at time. I had to put it down sometimes, to reconnect to my surroundings because I was too far away with Turtle and her bad place. I had to bring my mind back from that hellish cabin in Northern California. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that we are in the presence of a very gifted writer.

Highly recommended. Of course, in France, it’s published by Gallmeister.n

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning

August 7, 2019 17 comments

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (2001) French title: Dernier rapport sur les miracles à Little No Horse. Translated by Isabelle Reinharez.

Things you need to know about Louise Erdrich before you read this billet. This is from her Goodreads bio: “Karen Louise Erdrich is an American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books. Her father is German American and mother is half Ojibwe and half French American. She is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa). She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant Native writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.”

This is my second attempt at reading The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. Somehow, last time I knew it was just a question of bad timing because I really loved this piece of literature.

When the book opens, we’re in 1996 and Father Damian is around a hundred years old. He’s been on the Ojibwe reservation since 1912. He’s been sending letters to the Pope this whole time and now, they’re sending an emissary to investigate the life of Sister Leopolda. Her potential sainthood is at stake and Father Damian knows the truth about her.

We soon discover Father Damian’s personal story. He’s actually a woman. He was born as Agnes DeWitt, became Sister Cecilia when she joined a convent. She had to leave her religious community because she liked playing the piano too much and had a sensual relationship with Chopin’s pieces and her beloved instrument. This was not tolerable for her convent. Released from her vows, she lives on a farm with a German farmer, Bernd Vogel. They fall in love and though they don’t marry, they still have an intense and loving relationship.

Fate strikes, Bernd dies, Agnes is wounded and torrential rains devastate the farm and take away her piano. She survives and happens to take on the identity of Father Damian Modeste who died en route to the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.

Agnes becomes Father Damian. The Last Report on the Miracles on Little No Horse goes back and forth in time. It’s split between a few moments in 1996, when Father Jude investigates Sister Leopolda and makes Damian’s acquaintance, and between tales of the people on the reservation.

The story is not linear, it goes in circles or it’s told by theme: one clan at a time, the interactions between people on the reservation, Father Damian’s personal journey with his faith and his adaptation to the life on the reservation. He befriends Nanapush, a traditional Ojibwe that he never managed to convert to Catholicism.

Father Damian loves the Ojibwe people, they become his people. As soon as Agnes knows where she’s headed, she starts learning the Ojibwe language. She’ll never stop. Father Damian will be a good priest, present during harsh time, understanding, open and always lending a friendly ear.

This is a stunning novel that rings true and it reminded me of Aboriginal literature. It’s the story of a people who has to accept the presence of white men who kill them with foreign illnesses, send them overseas to participate to wars they don’t feel a part of, who try to keep their culture and who live on the edge of two worlds. Even if it’s not a manifesto, the reader reads between the lines and clearly see the struggles, the poverty, the abuse of power and the greed of the white settlers. It is said without animosity but it is said.

We see the lives of human beings who are inhabited passions that they have to live through or try to tame. We follow Agnes/Damian’s doubts, his troubles with her/his double identity and her/his strong faith. Agnes/Damian is a wonderful character who experiences passions in her being, through earthly lovers, through her fusional relationship with music. Father Damian is acutely attuned to the people around him, he catches their vibes, absorbs them and finds the best way to interact with them and take care of them. There is no condemnation in his bones because Agnes knows that Father Damian is her creation, her way to do good. She’s flawed and can’t afford to be too preachy.

Louise Erdrich takes us to Little No Horse, this poor reservation in North Dakota, where part of the Ojibwe Nation still lives today. She said that Little No Horse is not the Turtle Mountain Reservation but it inspired it. She shows us the Ojibwe culture through light and lyrical touches. She doesn’t sugarcoat their hard life or makes them all angels or victims of the white colonization. Story after story, little point after little point, she draws a picture of life at Little No Horse. Time is not a straight line and she allows her narration to go in circles, not following a timeline but associations of ideas.

I understood that this is what Aborigines call “yarning” and I like that term. Every strand of story weaved with the other strands ends up creating a vivid tapestry of life. I read Little Not Horse in French translation. The cover of the French edition is brilliant. It’s a painting by Maynard Dixon who mostly painted the South-West of America, including Indians. This painting is the perfect cover for Erdrich’s book. It shows someone hidden in a cape, someone who conceals their identity and looks like a nun. The naked character embodies the sensuality of Erdrich’s prose and reminds us that love in all its forms is celebrated in this novel. The naked lady is followed by this other character who also looks like death, desolation and despair. It’s the constant fear that Father Damian feels: if someone sees him naked, they’ll know he’s a woman in disguise.

This is an absolutely stunning book. I hold my breath until the end because I knew Father Damian had a secret to tell. I enjoyed reading the stories of the Little No Horse community. I was interested in Agnes/Damian’s struggles as a person and as a believer. Thanks to her luminous prose, Louise Erdrich manages to stay on a thin rope, avoiding sermons and intolerance.

Highly recommended.

Sue, at Whispering Gums recently reviewed The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich here. Some characters come from the same community as the ones in Little No Horse. They seem to be their descendants.

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

July 27, 2019 12 comments

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) French title: Le gang de la clé à molette. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all just began just one year from today. Edward Abbey. Wolf Hole, Arizona.

This cryptic quote by Edward Abbey is the first thing you read when you open The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey (1927-1989) was an American nature writer and an environmentalist. He related his experience as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s in an autobiographical book, Désert solitaire.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is set in the desert regions of the American southwest. Think Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It was published in 1975 and remember that the city of Page was founded in 1957, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river was inaugurated in 1964 and that Lake Powell was a result of this dam. All these constructions are fresh in memories and make the news when Abbey wrote his novel. The area changes rapidly with the development of tourism, the construction of interstates and other huge works of engineering.

The Monkey Wrench Gang relates the fast-paced journey of four ill-assorted environmental activists. Or at least, that’s how we’d call them now. Dr Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith joined their forces to sabotage machines, bridges and constructions to slow down the roadwork and constructions sites in natural places. They can’t bear the scars that these human works do to the natural landscape.

But who are they and how did they form this revolutionary group?

Dr Sarvis, Doc, is a surgeon from Albuquerque. That’s his day job but at night, with the help of his girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug, he burns billboard along the highway because they spoil the view.

Bonnie is a Jewish young woman from the Bronx. She’s a feminist, exploring her sexuality freely and in rebellion against her upbringing. In other words, Abbzug is at war with society, with herself and with her family. She loves the adrenaline of their mission and she follows Doc around. She’s much younger than him, and their relationship suffers from it because he expects to be dumped at any moment. He introduced her to environmental sabotage and she found a cause to embrace in this fight against the system.

Despite their illegal activities, Doc and Abbzug remain active members of the society. Doc is still a surgeon, and his profession is profitable enough to fund his underground activities. He’s the banker of the operation and a closeted anarchist.

Cover of the original edition

Hayduke is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war. He suffers from PTSD, his days in Vietnam haunt him. He’s well-trained and able to survive in difficult conditions. He knows how to manipulate explosives, thanks to his time in the army. He knows all the tricks to make secret missions a success. But his temper is volatile, highly inflammable. He guzzles beer as if it were water. He loves firearms and carries an arsenal around. He despises all kind of authority. He’s an outsider, unpredictable and scares the others. He has nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous, even in the eyes of his accomplices. And he’s sexist and behaves like an oaf. He’s a solitary man who enjoys hiking, spending time in the wilderness.

Seldom Seen Smith is a Mormon. He lives in Utah and has three wives in different houses. They seldom see him, hence his nickname. He works as a tourist guide in the area and he knows it extremely well. Smith is grounded by his wives. He has homes he can go back to; his life is there in these mountains, in this desert and he has something to lose if things go wrong.

The three men have complementary skills: one can bring money, one knows the land like the back of his hand and the other has the organizational and technical knowledge to make their missions happen. Abbzug tags along but is still an active participant. She also has the classic role of the femme fatale.

The four of them met when Doc, Abzzug and Hayduke booked a tour with Smith. They share a common hatred for all the destructions of nature in the region; roads, dams and mines are their targets. This group of misfits finds a common ground in their protest against the destruction of nature to build dams, exploit the soil or drive faster on an autobahn instead of using the highway 66. This team who sometimes struggles to work together engages into a dangerous run against the clock to destroy as many machines and roadworks as possible before they get caught. Their only limit is that no worker shall be injured or killed by their sabotage.

Abbey embarks us on a thrilling road trip with this quartet of self-made activists. The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of westerns, of pulp and of cartoons, which means that suspension of belief is needed to enjoy the ride. Hayduke and Charlie Hardie, the character invented by Duane Swierczynski in the Charlie Hardie trilogy seem to have a connection somewhere in their family tree. They have mad survival skills, like in a Road Runner and Wild E. Coyote episode and they are running away from the law. In Abbey’s book, Bishop Love, the local law enforcement is the pursuant. He’s like a villain in a cartoon, a mafia godfather with a court of minions and a lot of means to track down our quartet of nature vigilantes.

Abbey knew the region very well and it shows in its gorgeous descriptions of the landscape. I’ve been in the area and although I remained on the touristy tracks, Abbey’s words brought back memories.

Instead of writing an essay or a pamphlet, he wrote this indescribable novel full of fervent denunciation of the irrevocable damages that mankind does to nature in the name of progress. And forty-four years later, see where it led us.

Abbey managed to write a revolutionary and yet playful book. It’s serious in its fight for the cause of wilderness against mankind’s greed and shameless destructions. It questions unbridled development and points out the damages that western civilization does to natural places. See below a photo of the collection Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, it’s a coal mine in Arizona.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert, Arizona, Etats-Unis (32°21’ N – 111°12’ O).

The Monkey Wrench Gang was an influential book. Monkey wrenching became a term to describe that kind of sabotage. The founders of Earth First! Claim that Abbey was their model. It’s a revolutionary book, and typically American in the way that the characters relate to wilderness and are weary of governmental power.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it, probably even more these days, with all the state of our planet. Abbey loved this region and wanted to fight for it. He loved it so much that he asked to be buried in the desert and nobody knows where his grave is. He’s back to the wilderness and thirty years after his death, his books are still relevant and fun.

Highly recommended to anyone but especially to people who intend to visit the area. (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…)

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 16 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

Burning Bright by Ron Rash – compelling

April 26, 2019 9 comments

Burning Bright by Ron Rash (2010) French title: Incandescences

I discovered Ron Rash at Quais du Polar and bought (and got signed 😊) a collection of twelve short stories, Burning Bright. Unfortunately, it took me two years to read it. As always, it’s difficult to write about a collection of short stories. Write about all of them? Boring. Pick one to three favorites? That’s an option. Have an overview of the collection? That’s my choice.

The stories in Burning Bright are all set in the Appalaches, where Ron Rash comes from. Ron Rash was at Quais du Polar this year too and he said that he writes about his region again and again because it’s home, because he wants to tell about this land and its people and because he thinks that if he digs deep enough in one place, he’ll reach the core of the human soul and his stories will have a whiff of universality.

His exploration takes us in different times. A story is set during the Civil War (Lincolnites), one during the Great Depression (Hard Times), one just at the end of WWII (Return) and the others are set in the last decades. As you can see, historical stories happen at a pivotal moment of the history of America. In the others, the timestamp is less clear. A way to reach universality, probably.

Several stories picture people at a rough moment of their lives. Money is tight and they’re one step away from poverty. A brother has to evict his nephew and his junky friends from his brother’s house. His brother and sister-in-law are stuck in a trailer, scared to death of their violent and drug addict son. A farmer and his wife struggle to survive during the Great Depression and discovering who or what snitches eggs in their henhouse is vital. A child steals valuable objects on the victims of an airplane crash to his worthless parents in order to sell them and put food on the table. A man digs up in tombs of confederate soldiers, looking for belt buckles and other tokens to be sold to people who collect such items or like to reenact battles of the Civil War. He needs money to pay for his mother’s medical bills. These stories show to what length humans are ready to go when their survival is at stake. Some become nasty, selfish and tend to lose part of their humanity in the process. Some keep their dignity and kindness and do what needs to be done but feel guilty.

Ron Rash describes a tough world where people struggle to survive in a region where the economy was based on the wood industry and coal mines. At Quais du Polar, he explained that people have hard lives and live on and off the land. Their lives are intertwined with the land.

His great aunt had been born on this land, lived on it eight decades, and knew it as well as she knew her husband and children. That was what she’d always claimed, and could tell you the week when the first dogwood blossom would brighten the ridge, the first blackberry darken and swell enough to harvest. Then her mind had wandered into a place she could not follow, taking with it all the people she knew, their names and connections, whether they still lived or whether they’d died. But her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk. (Into The Gorge)

In Into The Gorge, Rash describes an old man who wants to harvest ginseng in a place that used to be communal woods, where everyone could help themselves and is now a National Park, where it’s forbidden to pick anything. It’s hard for him to accept that the land where his great aunt had died, where his father had planted ginseng is now off limits. His relationship with the land that provides his living runs deep. He earns enough from his tobacco plot but would like to earn a bit more by selling ginseng, to have a bit of money in case of emergency.

Ron Rash also writes about old beliefs. In the Corpse Bird, an engineer who has trouble sleeping hears an owl at night and he remembers that it is said to be the death bird. When he hears that their young neighbor is suddenly ill, he becomes restless, unable to find logical reasons convince her parents to bring her to the hospital. They think he’s nuts but his unease remains.

Burning Bright is a compelling collection of short stories. Rash’s prose is beautiful and he also writes poetry. He says that he reads his texts aloud to hear how they sound. Each word is valuable and I wish my English was good enough for me to hear everything he put in his words.

Comparisons are always dangerous in literature but these stories reminded me of Annie Proulx’s short stories. They have the same rough edges, the same understanding of the roots of America. The stories are dark but not bleak. They put common people in the spotlight and shows how they cope with what life throws at them.

Highly recommended.

PS: The English cover of Burning Bright goes better with the stories than the French one.

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

April 7, 2019 38 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.

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott – Aspartame Noir.

April 6, 2019 5 comments

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott (2007) French title: Absente. Translated by Benjamin Legrand.

Megan Abbott was at Quais du Polar a few years ago and I had the opportunity to talk to her and she signed my French copy of The Song Is You. It was time for me to finally read it.

The book opens in 1949, in Hollywood. An ambitious starlet, Jean Spangler leaves her home to go to a night shooting at a studio. She never comes back. The only thing that was ever found was her handbag in a park. The case is closed quickly by the police and remains unsolved.

Then we’re in 1951. Pushed by Jean’s friend Iolene, the journalist Gil Hopkins starts investigating Jean’s disappearance again. Jean was involved with actors who had violent and degrading parties and possibly with the mafia.

Gil Hopkins is a journalist turned into a well-known PR person for a studio in Hollywood. He spins stories for a living, in order to keep the studio’s actors out of bad press. He benefited of Jean’s disappearance in a way because he was the one who helped her studio erase any link between her and them that night.

Gil Hopkins (Hop) is a troubled character, a womanizer who drove his wife into the arms of his best friend. A man attracted by Hollywood’s fake lights like a moth to a flame. He has money to buy fine clothes but at what price for his integrity? Of course, he drinks a little too much and spends too much time in bars. He’s handsome, has a real talent for spinning stories and feeding them to the press. He knows how to swim in muddy waters.

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in discovering what happened to Jean Spangler and I abandoned The Song Is You after reading half of it. I figured that if I wasn’t hooked by a crime fiction novel after 150 pages, then it was probably time to spend my precious reading time on something else. It didn’t help that the translation had some mishaps, mostly frenglish translation. Completed cannot become complété in French. And executives are cadres, not exécutifs.

The Song Is You is a tribute to Chandler but to me it remained aspartame Noir. It reconstructs the atmosphere of Hollywood in the golden age. All the details are probably accurate but it lacks the feeling of the writer who actually lived that time. It’s well-crafted but it’s not the same. It is also based on a true story and I think it might even be a cold case. It’s hard not to think of it as a reference to The Black Dahlia.

I felt like Megan Abbott was slipping into someone else’s shoes instead of using hers. Although he’s a lot less detail oriented about Hollywood, I preferred Jake Hinkson’s Not Tomorrow. It is set in the 1940s but he doesn’t try to create another Chandler or another Cain. He made the setting his own and wrote a book with his own voice. He didn’t try too hard to respect some Noir codes.

So, I left Hop in Hollywood and hopped on another crime fiction trip with Les suppliciées du Rhône by Coline Gatel.

Away From Men by Pascal Dessaint – excellent crime fiction set in Toulouse

March 28, 2019 4 comments

Away from Men by Pascal Dessaint. (2005) Original French title: Loin des humains. Not available in English.

Last year at Quais du Polar, Pascal Dessaint was signing books at a stand and I asked him to recommend one of his books to me. He picked his fourteenth book, Loin des humains, saying it would give me a good idea of his work. Pascal Dessaint lives in Toulouse and according to his bio on Wikipedia, he loves to hike and is passionate about environmental causes.

Loin des humains is set in Toulouse and was published in 2005. The action takes place in September 2004, one year after the heat wave of 2003 and three years after the AZF tragedy. On September 21st, 2001, the chemical factory AZF exploded near the city center of Toulouse. The blast was of 3.4 on the Richter scale, 29 people died and 2500 were wounded. Two thirds of the windows of the city of Toulouse were destroyed. Needless to say, it left scars on the city and its inhabitants.

The book opens on Jacques Lafleur who decided to tackle the bramble branches that have invaded his sister Jeanne’s garden. He’s there with a pair of pruning shears when his murdered taps on his shoulder…

This will cost Capitaine Felix Dutrey his last days of holidays. His colleague Marc calls him to come back early and lead the investigation about Jacques Lafleur’s murder.

While the police are doing their job digging in Lafleur’s life, Rémi, who works in waste collection center finds Jacques Lafleur’s journals. They date back to the summer 2001. He starts to read them voraciously and Lafleur’s words and way of life make a certain impression on him. When he hears the news about Lafleur’s murder, he decides to act…

Loin des humains is a well-crafted crime fiction novel. Jacques Lafleur is quite a character. He’s a wanderer, a hiker, a bum. He travels and hikes. He usually come back to France to spend a few weeks at his friend Mariel’s place in Ariège. She’s a nurse who lives in a remote house in the mountains. His journal of the summer 2001 was written there.

Jacques came back to Toulouse in September 2001 and stayed with his sister Jeanne since the AZF tragedy. Their brother Pierre also lives in Toulouse with his wife Valérie and their son Quentin. Pierre is a snake specialist and has a vivarium full of dangerous snakes in his backyard. Jacques and Pierre have a complicated relationship. They used to be close but don’t seem to be on speaking terms when Jacques’s death happened. Why?

Loin des humains is a well-written and multi-layered crime fiction novel. The point of view shifts between the police team, Rémi’s and Jacques’s diaries. The police team (Félix, Marc and Magali who has just come back from her personal tragedy) always speaks in the first person, embarking the reader on their side. Rémi’s chapters are told by a omniscient narrator. And Jacques’s voice is conveyed by his journals. It gives the reader clues about the dynamics between the siblings. Jacques hikes in Ariège and it Dessaint writes beautiful pages about the nature there. Remember, he loves to hike too.

The whole book has a great sense of place, Toulouse and the nature in Ariège are part of the characters’ DNA and influence their lives. The police team characters are developed enough for the reader to get attached to them. I liked Félix’s voice, his life on a boat on the Canal du Midi and his relationship with Elisa. Rémi’s looming presence adds to the plot. And the siblings are odd enough to pick the reader’s interest.

Really, who wanted Jacques Lafleur dead?

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin – Interesting but difficult to read

February 27, 2019 19 comments

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1952). French title: La Conversion.

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late. James Baldwin. Go Tel lt on the Mountain.

Too late for what?

Welcome to Harlem, 1935 and meet John Grimes, the teenage son of a Seventh Day Adventist substitute preacher, Gabriel. We’re on the morning of his fourteenth birthday and he’s confused.

The first part of Baldwin’s debut novel focuses on John, his home and his family. In appearance, nobody remembers his birthday, not even his mother. We’re in a poor apartment and his mother Elizabeth has trouble dealing with John’s young brother Roy and his little sister Ruth. Roy is a troublemaker, daring in a way John would never dream to be.

Gabriel’s shadow hovers over the family. He might be a man of God but he’s no angel. John hates him fiercely because he’s a preacher and violent man. His mother Elizabeth is under his yoke, somehow feeling unworthy of her husband. Gabriel has a daywork during the week and preaches during the weekend but he doesn’t seem to practice what he preaches. We see that John lives in an unhealthy atmosphere.

For his birthday, John escapes to Manhattan and watches the white man’s world. And he wants to be part of it. This means escaping Harlem and his fate. John is also slowing understanding that he’s gay. Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1952, homosexuality is not openly discussed. But the hints are there for the reader to see. John is only starting to understand his sexuality and he has a crush on Elisha, the preacher’s son.

And he watched Elisha, who was a young man in the Lord; who, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, had been given power over death and Hell. The Lord had lifted him up, and turned him around, and set his feet on the shining way. What were the thoughts of Elisha when night came, and he was alone where no eye could see, and no tongue to bear witness, save only the trumpetlike tongue of God? Were his thoughts, his bed, his body foul? What were his dreams?

John knows deep down that he’s attracted to men but, in his world, it’s too big for words. John is gay, he’s tempted by the outside world, he’s intelligent and he hates his father. Why would he want to be a preacher like his father? Instinctively, he wants more for himself and cannot deny his sexual orientation. Who he is isn’t compatible with a preacher’s life.

Too late for what? Too late to be a straight religious black man in Harlem.

But he’s fourteen and not ready to give up on other people’s expectations. His conversion is his goal, something expected from his family but also something that could bring him closer to Elisha, the preacher’s son. He has doubts that he tries to conquer but they keep creeping up his mind:

And his mind could not contain the terrible stretch of time that united twelve men fishing by the shore of Galilee, and black men weeping on their knees tonight and he, a witness.

He wants to be saved. Badly.

The second part of the book is a Sunday morning service in Gabriel’s church. The whole family is there, Elizabeth, Gabriel, the children and Florence, Gabriel’s sister. Baldwin takes us in Elizabeth’s, Gabriel’s and Florence’s thoughts. They mull over their past and the reader sees their personal journey and John’s origins.

Gabriel used to drink and sleep around before he was saved. Florence was pious and stayed at home, taking care of their mother and spending time with her best friend, Deborah. Gabriel was still wasting his life away when Florence left for New York, to leave her hopeless brother behind and try to have a better life in the North. Deborah was sadly well-known in their town because she had been raped by a group of white men. She’s also very pious and Gabriel later marries her. After Deborah’s death, Gabriel comes to New York too and marries Elizabeth, John’s mother. He met her through Florence. Two despairs don’t make a hope, as they will soon discover it.

They have the past of common black people in the South and John belongs to the first generation that hasn’t known the South and has lived in New York his whole life. In a way, they’re like emigrants, the parents coming from another country, another past and the children belonging to their present, to this new territory they moved to. For the adults, it’s time to look back on their past and think about it:

But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective, to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.

The dedication of Go Tell It on the Mountain is For my mother and my father. John looks like a young James Baldwin. Bright. Gay. Stepson of a preacher who married his mother when she was pregnant with him. Born in Harlem. Destined to explore the world. This novel was published in 1952, when Baldwin was living in Paris. Perhaps the geographical and emotional distance helped him write it.

For me, as interesting as it was, it was a very difficult read because of all the religious aspects. They put me off. The grand spectacle of the Sunday service was tedious to read. I was happy to read about the characters’ past, but all the religious parts bored me to death. I don’t know if they were necessary. Maybe they were, especially for foreign readers like me. Church services with events like this

The silence in the church ended when Brother Elisha, kneeling near the piano, cried out and fell backward under the power of the Lord.

as a regular occurrence is not part of my cultural background. At all. Living in Paris, Baldwin probably knew that some of his readers would need details. The Sunday service is supposed to be a powerful scene but I watched it from afar, thinking they were crazy to put themselves into such a state of mind for religion. In the end, we don’t really know where Baldwin stands, as far as religion is concerned. What does he really think about these ceremonies?

Go Tell It on the Mountain was a complicated read for me, one I can’t say I enjoyed. I expected more family confrontations and less sentences with God, Lord, the prophets and the saints in them. However, I think it’s an important book to read to understand Baldwin’s work.

Other billets about Baldwin’s work: Going to Meet the Man. A must read.

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