My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.
After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.
So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.
My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.
All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.
You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:
|Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller.||And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.|
Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.
I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.
Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?
Life is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi (2014) Original French title: La vie est un sale boulot.
Janis Otsiemi is a crime fiction writer from Gabon who writes in French. He was invited at Quais du Polar last year and he will attend this year too.
Life is a Dirty Business opens with Chicano being released from prison in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. He was convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. It happened when he and three accomplices tried to rob a store and one of them ended up shooting down the owner of the shop. Chicano was arrested, went on trial and was condemned to several years of prison. He kept his mouth shut and never denounced the real culprit. What good would it have done? It was like becoming a living target for people who would have avenged for the man he would have put in prison. Better to be alive in prison than dead. Chicano is quite surprised to be released, actually, because he hadn’t done his time in prison. He got to understand that they set him free because of an administrative mess-up; somehow his name came up in the list of prisoners pardoned by the president of Gabon.
Chicano is not turning down this chance and he’s decided to live an honest life now. He’s heading to town to find out what his former girlfriend Mirna has become and start a new life with her. Unfortunately, she has moved on and is pregnant with another man’s child. When Chicano went to her neighborhood, he met his former friends and accomplices. They are working on a new robbery and are missing a person to do it. Their aim is to steal the pay of soldiers in a military camp when it arrives by truck on payday. They explain to Chicano that they have inside information, that it’s an easy job and easy money. And Chicano could use money to start his new life, so he accepts to participate.
rOf course, things don’t go as well as expected and for Chicano, life in prison was an easiet life that the one he just set himself up for.
The plot is classic noir fiction, with a guy with a shady past who tries to turn a new leaf but succumbs to one last fatal crime. It is the same kind of plot as in Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. Efficient and time-tried.
I wanted to know how things would end up, even if I wasn’t optimistic for poor Chicano from the start, but the most enjoyable part of La vie est un sale boulot was discovering Libreville. Unlike Dernier refrain à Ispahan, this book is written by a local writer and it’s not written for a Western public. I loved the language and it was a fantastic opportunity to explore the variety of the French language offered by the Francophone world. You all know that French from Québec is different. French from Africa is different as well and I loved seing my language alive and vivid under Otsiemi’s pen. The French publisher, Jigal Polar added useful footnotes to explain words and expressions that a French reader wouldn’t understand. I don’t know much about African literature and it made me want to explore this part of Francophone literature.
Crime fiction is also often a good way to write about the unpleasant side of a country. It deals with crime and its darker side. La vie est un sale boulot is no exception. If what Janis Otsiemi describes is real, then there’s no need expecting anything good from the police. Here, they are corrupt and part of the crime world. They don’t really fight against crime, they take advantage of their job and status to benefit from crime. I’ve seen books where the police look the other way not to disrupt organized crime because somewhere they’re linked to the power in place. But here, they make money the same way that the criminals they’re supposed to chase do. Incredible and sad for the Gabonese people if it’s as bad as what Otsiemi describes. It was eyes-opening for the sheltered Westener that I am, another reason why it was worth reading.
While La vie est un sale boulot is not exceptional, Otsiemi does a good job and I’m glad a French publisher brought him to our attention. I’m sorry but this is not available in English. If you can read French, it’s worth trying out.
Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian (2012) Original French title: Dernier refrain à Ispahan.
I bought Dernier refrain à Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian at Quais du Polar last year. It is a crime fiction novel written by a Franco-Iranian author. Naïri Nahapétian left Iran in 1979 when she was 9 and when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. She came to France with her family and became a journalist. She goes back to Iran regularly and has started a crime fictions series set in Iran. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is the second book of this series.
The book opens with a crime. The singer Roxana is murdered in a theatre in Ispahan. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran and Roxana is back in her hometown after living for decades in the US. She was a very popular singer when the Shah was still in power and moved to California after the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. She was secretly working on a show with two other singers, Shadi and Nadia. There’s a good chance that her death is linked to this project.
Two recurring characters of the series become involved in solving the crime. The first one is Narek, a Franco-Iranian journalist who was staying in Iran for professional reasons. The second one is Mona. She was Roxana’s friend, they grew up in the same neighborhood and were good friends. Mona is a midwife and she operates a clinic who helps women with gynecological issues and everything around that. Her mission includes helping prostitutes.
The modus operandi of the murderer mirrors the lyrics of one of Roxana’s most famous song:
|Dans un royaume où les ignorants son trois, un homme a volé la voix des femmes. Il a emporté leur chant, semé des tulipes sur leur chemin ; et la joie s’en est allée.||In the kingdom where ignoramuses are kings, a man stole the women’s voices. He took away their singing, scattered tulips in their wake and joy deserted the place.|
This intrigues Mona and pushes her to dig further.
Out of the two characters, Mona has the strongest voice and is the most likeable. I found Narek a little thin. Mona raises her teenage daughter alone and doesn’t know if her husband is alive or not. He was summoned to the police station one day and never came back. Her work is her way to express her feminism and we discover the condition of women through her eyes. Her life in unconventional for her country and it’s not easy to keep living it. She’s a bit of an outsider, just like Anne Perry’s character Hester in her William Monk series. (Hester runs a shelter for prostitutes in Victorian England).
In his review about Three-Card Monte by Marco Malvaldi, Max from Pechorin’s Journal wrote something I totally agree with “Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do.” Dernier refrain à Ispahan belongs to the second category. The plot is suspenseful but the context of the murder and the setting were the most interesting parts. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is a window on the Iranian society and the condition of women. Naïri Nahapétian shows all the little things that are controlled to ensure that men are not in contact with women who are not their wife. I’ve always thought that the concept of hiding women not to trigger men’s lust was terribly offensive for men. The underlying idea is that they cannot interact with a woman without getting horny, as if they were only animals in heat. Isn’t that insulting?
Despite all its qualities, Dernier refrain à Ispahan remains a book written by a Western writer. Sure, Naïri Nahapétian gets the ins and outs of her country of origin. She knows Iran well, she understands its culture and I’m sure that what she writes is accurate. We do have a good sense of place, contrary to Alexis Aubenque’s rendition of Alaska. But her book is written for a French readership. It’s not the same as reading a translation of an Iranian book who was written for a local audience. It’s not as genuine and for me, it is French literature set in Iran and not Iranian literature. And that makes all the difference. So if you can recommend an contenporary Iranian novel, please leave a message in the comment section.
Recent political events pushed me to take this novel off the shelf. Tony from Tony’s Reading List had the same urge with Iraqi’s literature and you can find his review about Iraq +100 – Stories From a Century After the Invasion by Hassan Blasim, here. Reading books from these banned countries seems futile and yet, if literature weren’t powerful why would dictators always ban books?
Dernier refrain à Ispahan is not available in English. If someone’s interested in everyday life in Iran, there’s this wonderful film, Wadjda, about a girl who wants a bicycle even if girls are not allowed to have one. A good movie to show to our Western teenagers.
A New York Christmas by Anne Perry (2014) French title: Un Noël à New York. Translated by Pascale Haas.
Something strange happens with recurring characters of crime fiction series. They become like long term colleagues or distant relatives. You see them getting married or divorced, become parents, have their children grow up and sometimes become grand-parents. You hear or see of their family. All this procures a sense of closeness, as if these characters were real, as if reading a new volume of the series was a mean to keep in touch with them. Isn’t that powerful of a writer to create such a bond between their readers and their characters?
That’s exactly how I feel about the characters of Anne Perry’s two series, the William Monk one and the Thomas Pitt one. A New York Christmas is a side volume of the Thomas Pitt series. It features his daughter Jemima, whose birth I remember from an early volume of the series. And my thought was “Wow, Jemima is already 23, I remember of her when she was born and when she was a child.” See? Exactly like friends or relatives you don’t see very often and it seems like their children grew up overnight when in truth you’re just getting older.
Well, we’re in 1904 and Jemima Pitt is now 23. She’s chaperoning a young bride, Delphinia on her trip from London to New York, where her fiancé is waiting for them. Delphinia will marry Brent Albright, a rich young man who belongs to a powerful family from New York. Delphinia’s father couldn’t accompany her for health reasons and her mother left them when she was a little girl. When Jemima and Delphinia arrive to New York, Brent’s older brother Harley embarks Jemima in an odd mission. He has heard that Delphinia’s mother was in town and they need to find her before she crashes the wedding ceremony and embarrasses her daughter and her future in-laws. But Jemima senses there’s more to the story of Delphinia’s mother than just someone who abandoned her child. Where is she and what were her reasons to leave everything behind?
For those who’s never read the Pitt series, you need to know that Thomas Pitt is a policeman who was educated as a gentleman and who married in a higher social class than his. Charlotte married him against her parents’ wishes. She was a feisty young woman who wouldn’t play by good society’s rules and wanted to use her brains. She is fascinated by her husband’s job and she always gets involved in her husband’s investigations, going to places a policeman couldn’t go. Jemima is her parents’ daughter, ie, she’s thrilled to help solving a little mystery.
Unfortunately, she’s not as savvy as she thinks and Harley might have ulterior motives…And that’s all I will tell you about the plot.
Let’s face it, it’s not the novella of the century but I still enjoyed it. I read it as quickly as you watch an entertaining film. It was what I was looking for when I picked it up and it met my expectations. Given the ending, I wonder if there will be a third series with a spinoff of the Pitt branch in New York. It might be nice to have a new source of comfort read.
PS: I put the two covers from the English and the French editions. They are not the same but look alike.
Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry (2011) French title : La fin justifie les moyens. Translated by Florence Bertrand
Acceptable Loss is the eighteenth volume of the Monk series created by Anne Perry. I’ve read them all, they’re part of my comfort reading diet. Set in London in the second part of the 19th century, the main characters are Monk, his wife Hester and their friend Sir Oliver Rathbone. Monk has lost part of his memory in a cab accident years before. Hester used to be a nurse in the Crimea war and she now manages a clinic that helps prostitutes. Sir Rathbone is a famous barrister.
In the previous volume, they had solved an ugly case of children prostitution. Monk is now commander of the River Police. He’s called to the banks of the river Thames when Orrie Jones finds the body of Mickey Parfitt in the water. Monk thinks he’s been murdered, which is confirmed by the legist. Worse: Parfitt was strangled with a knotted expensive silk scarf. The murder was premeditated. Parfitt owned a ship moored nearby on the river Thames and it was used as a secret club for members of the good society. Parfitt provided these gentlemen with sex shows involving little boys.
Monk is horrified by this traffic. On the one hand, he’s not keen on finding the murdered as he thinks Parfitt deserved his fate. On the other hand, this is the second case involving children trade and the last one was somehow unfinished. He wants to find out who financed Parfitt, helped him set up the boat and brought new clients. Parfitt didn’t have the means or the connections to start this business on his own.
Monk investigates, Hester meddles and Rathbone is in a difficult position as his father-in-law might be involved in this nasty business.
Acceptable Loss met my expectations. I picked it to be entertained the way you watch a film. Mission accomplished. Anne Perry manages to renew herself and to keep things interesting for her long time readers. I’ll read the next one when I need comfort read.
The Boy by Marcus Malte. (2016) Not available in English. (Yet) Original French title: Le garçon.
Remember, back in September, when I introduced you to the Rentrée littéraire and I told you I’d visited a bookstore and asked for a recommendation? It was Le garçon by Marcus Malte. (The Boy) With 550 pages, it’s a river novel that flows from 1908 to 1938 and tells us the life of a boy. He doesn’t have a real name. He never talks but he’s still the hero. The novel opens in 1908, the boy’s mother is dying. They’re taking a last trip together and she’s told him what to do with her body after her death. They lived as hermits. He knows nothing of the world and behaves like an untamed animal.
But he leaves his shelter to go and meet the men. He travels like an animal and arrives to a hamlet. He spends a few months there among of community made of four farms and four families. Joseph is their leader. His had married an Indian from Mexico. She’s dead now and their son is mentally disabled. Joseph’s wife brought her culture to this village and this part of the novel rings like old stories. The boy doesn’t speak and he tries to understand the world he’s in. He doesn’t really think in abstract words but with images. Malte uses this trick to make the reader understand that the boy’s mind is expanding, it’s growing and making connections but so far, putting articulated thoughts on abstract thinking evades him.
|Ainsi l’homme-chêne et la femme-nuage avaient donné naissance à l’enfant-ruisseau qui était devenu l’enfant-rivière puis l’enfant-torrent. De même, l’homme-renard et la femme-mante ont engendré l’enfant-crapaud et l’enfant-ver. C’est une chose étrange. C’est une notion parmi les plus délicates à saisir pour le garçon : ascendance et descendance. Fratrie. Les liens du sang. Difficile à démêler pour quelqu’un qui n’a pas idée de leur existence, ou si vague. (page 87)||And the oak-man and the cloud-woman had given birth to the stream-child who became the river-child and then the torrent-child. And the fox-man and the mantis woman had fathered the toad-child and the worm-child. It’s a strange thing. It’s one of the most complicated notion to grasp for the boy: ancestry and progeny. Siblings. Blood ties. Hard to unravel to someone who has no clear idea of their existence. (Page 87)|
He stays in this hamlet until the end of 1908. An earthquake happens and they think he brought it on them and he’s thrown out of the community.
He ends up with Brabek, a huge wrestler from Romania. He lives in a travel trailer and goes from village to village to make wrestling shows and earn money. He’s lonely and he takes the boy in. Brabek accepts the boy, loves to have an attentive ear for his stories and craves companionship. The boy gets attached to the giant softy and his horse. Brabek is a Quasimodo in love with Victor Hugo and he shares Hugo’s talent freely with the boy. This section of the book reminded me a lot of Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary, for the atmosphere, the shows and the thoughts about life included in this section. I wish I could ask Marcus Malte about it.
Then Brabek dies and the boy takes the horse and trailer and travels further. We leave picaresque literature and enter the playing field of 19thC novelists. A carriage accident brings the boy into the house of Gustave van Ecke and his daughter Emma. This scene reminded me of the meeting between Marianne et Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Gustave van Ecke used to grow apples. A Gustave who grows apple, the fruit of Normandy and has a daughter named Emma? Flaubert came to mind and Marcus Malte writes:
|La voici. Elle qui porte ce prénom d’amour déchu, celui d’une héroïne qui cherchait l’or et trouva le plomb. p184||Here she comes. She has the name of fallen love, one of a heroine who was looking for gold and only found lead.|
The name van Ecke sounds like a Flemish painter and this section of the book brought back images of portraits by Dutch painters or outdoors scenes by impressionist ones. Emma and Gustave are lonely. She’s an only child and needs a companion. He never recovered from his wife’s death. Her name was Laure, like Petrarque’s great love. The boy still doesn’t talk but he fills a void. Emma, like Austen’s namesake, is not looking for a husband. She’s happy to take care of her father and she cherishes the freedom being single brings her. The boy finds his place in this generous household.
The boy will spend four years with Emma and Gustave in Paris. Time goes by and Malte anchors us back in the world history through lists of informations about the time. It helps us put the boy and his friends in perspective in the grand scheme of things.
In 1912, the boy is 18 and his senses are fully awake. Emma and the boy fall in lust and in love. Their love story is a meteor and a hot and naughty affair. It is a whirlwind of feelings, sensations and experiences. It’s joyful like I Want You by Bob Dylan and the images are as vivid as the ones on I Want You in the film I’m Not There by Todd Haynes.
Meanwhile the boy grows up. He observes things and people. He adjusts. And Malte describes all this as if it were a film.
WWI arrives with its horror and its absurdity. In a chapter, Malte describes all the family ties between the ruling families in Europe. All the countries have kings and queens and France is the odd man out with their Prime Minister Poincaré. It emphasizes the
The boy is in Verdun and in other desolate places in the Somme. In a paragraph, Malte describes the trauma of the war.
|C’est un pays de labours. Un pays de fermes, de villages, de blé, de vignes, de vaches, d’églises. C’est un pays de pis et de saints. C’était. La magie de la guerre. Qui tout transforme, hommes et relief. Mets un casque sur le crâne d’un boulanger et ça devient un soldat. Mets un aigle sur son casque et ça devient un ennemi. Sème, plante des graines d’acier dans un champ de betteraves et ça devient un charnier. p355||It is a land of ploughing. A land of farms, villages, grain, vineyards, cows and churches. It’s a country of udders and saints. It was. The magic of war. Which changes everything, man and land. Put a helmet on the skull of a baker and he becomes a soldier. Put an eagle on that helmet and he becomes an enemy. Sow, plant steel grain in a beetroot field and it becomes a mass grave.|
That’s for the boy’s reality. Emma’s reality is different but cruel too.
|Chaque courrier est une menace. C’est de là que vient le danger. Chaque jour des obus, des milliers d’obus délivrés par la poste. Timbrés. Propres. Des balles à domicile. A bout portant. Combien de victimes tombées en silence devant leur boîte aux lettres ou dans leur cuisine, dans leur salon ? p353||Each mail is a threat. That’s where the danger comes from. Each day, bombs, thousands of bombs delivered by postmen. Stamped. Clean. Delivered bullets. Close range bullets. How many victims fallen silently in front of their mailbox, in their kitchen or their living-room?|
I think this quote really nails the violence of the pain brought by these letters and the use of war terms is particularly effective. The violence is direct and physical on the front but it exists too for the ones who are back home.
I won’t tell you more about the story or it would reveal too much. This is a beautiful book and I’m glad I read it. The fairy godmothers and godfathers of literature and poetry have sure cast their spell on Marcus Malte and his novel. It’s novel with a literary family tree. It is built on the foundations of previous works and relies on different novel shapes. Picaresque. Correspondance. 19th century novel. Poetry. Traditional tales and oral tradition of ancient storytellers. It’s subtle. Grave. Funny. Erotic. Violent. It intermingles the boy’s personal story with History. It’s a coming-of-age novel. It questions the roots of humanity and the path between anima and human. It’s incredibly well-done. My only complaint is that it was a bit too long at times.Otherwise, it’s a fantastic novel chiseled by a writer whose style is indescribable. Pure beauty and a reminder that Literature is an art.
So, a big thank you to the independent bookshop L’Esprit Livre and their passionate libraire.
Nancy at Ipsofactodotme has also reviewed it here.
Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz. (2014)
Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz is our Book Club choice for December and I’m not going to waste a lot of time reviewing it. That’s how irritated I am with this book I abandoned at page 67.
First, there’s this ridiculous font of characters that reminded me of a giggling teenage girl who puts little hearts on her is. Look!
Then there’s the flatness of the style and the easy literary devices: addressing to the reader to go back in time and introduce the plot or describe the characters or make useless detours to add fake life to the prose. I started to roll my eyes from the first page after I recovered from the silly font. The narrator is American, a detective from the famous Pinkerton Agency.
As I sit at my Remington Number Two improved model typewriter (an American invention, of course) et begin this great labour, I know that I am likely to fall short of the standards of accuracy and entertainment that he maintained to the end.
Well, that inspires me. The first part of the sentence seems labored, as an American would spell it and autobiographical for the actual writer. He fell short of fiction greatness and accuracy is an accounting standard, which might be crucial if the point of the book is to earn money. You think I go a bit too far? You need another round of it:
My appearance? Well, it’s never easy for any man to describe himself but I will be honest and say that I could not call myself handsome. My hair was black, my eyes an indifferent shade of brown. I was slender and though only in my forties, I was already too put-upon by the challenges life had thrown my way. I was unmarried and sometimes I worried that it showed in my wardrobe, which was perhaps a little too well worn.
See? Am I mistaken when I say he doesn’t sound like a New Yorker? And compared to Craig Johnson, Horowitz writes like a toddler.
I was still willing to suffer through the banal prose for a good piece of entertainment. But then it got worse when the British inspector from Scotland Yard came into the story. The deciphering of the secret code included in a letter made me groan of frustration. Like we say in French, I threw the sponge away. (I gave up) I’m too old to read a mix of Da Vinci Code and The Famous Five. I’m too busy to waste good reading time on such a book.
So, bye bye Moriarty! Hello Petros Markaris! I’m taking the French leave and going to Athens for Liquidation à la grecque.
If you want to read an gentler review of Moriarty, go to Caroline’s review.