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Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

July 21, 2018 22 comments

Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) / A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (2017)

I’m flying to Australia in a few days and I have SEVEN unwritten billets about books I’ve read. I’m going to write short posts about them mostly because I don’t want to go on holiday and leave a backlog of billets behind. Work has been in the way of my writing and updating my blog.

The first book I’d like to talk about is Down Under. Travels in a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson. I have read it in French and since “Down Under” is a bit tricky to translate, it’s become “Nos voisins du dessous”. Bill Bryson tells us all about a road trip he made in Australia in 2000. I enjoyed the tone of his book and its content. It’s a good mix of personal experience and everyday life during his roadtrip, fun facts about Australia but also serious historical information and informative descriptions of nature, and especially the fauna.

It’s told with a healthy sense of humour, by someone who comes from Iowa, has lived in Great Britain and loves Australia. When he makes fun of Australians, it’s always with affection.

Here’s a sample of his easy-going prose, a story-telling tone that catches the reader’s attention.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered by sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name) It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonesfish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you by actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

Well, our plane tickets are nonrefundable, so I guess we’ll just have to be prudent, eh?

I read his book partly at home and partly during a work trip while waiting at the airport. My constant giggling forced me to read passages to my colleagues or they would have thought I was nuts.

His trip includes a stay in Sydney, a visit to Camberra, Melbourne, some time in Queensland and some time in the Northern Territory. It was a pleasure to follow him, learn about the places he was visiting, discover mundane everyday life details and learn about the history of Australia.

Bill Bryson points out how little we hear about Australia in our respective countries. What is true for him in America is also true for me in France.

And this came back as a boomerang when I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. I had read an enthusiastic review by Lisa (see here) and since I love to read books about road trips, I thought it could be a good place to start with Carey.

I began reading it full of expectations and was soon stuck with it. I knew the words I was reading but didn’t understand what I was reading. I was totally missing the subtext. I was seriously rethinking my English abilities (and Australian English can be challenging) when I read Kim’s review. (see here)

She says “I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well.”

And it was like a lightbulb! The Australianness that had enhanced the experience for Lisa and Kim totally lost me. See here:

The sonny was named Titch although he was sometimes Zac which was what they called a sixpence and a zac was therefore half a shilling or half a bob, which was, of course, his father’s name.

I don’t think you can expect a French reader to understand that kind of sentence. I also had to google Holden because I didn’t know what it was and there were lots of random details like this that left me dumbfounded.

It was indeed a long way from my home and I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again after spending time in Australia… That’ll be a test: did I catch enough Australianness to understand Peter Carey?

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson

May 21, 2018 11 comments

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson (2007) French title: L’indien blanc, translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Kindness Goes Unpunished is the third volume of the Longmire crime fiction series by Craig Johnson. (See my billets about The Cold Dish and Death Without Company  Longmire is the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka country in Wyoming. When the book opens Longmire is driving to Philadelphia to accompany his best friend Henry Standing Bear (The Bear) who is hosting an exhibition about Indian Art at the city museum. Longmire’s daughter Cady works at a law firm in Philly and she wants her father to meet with her boyfriend, something Longmire dreads a little bit. Philadelphia is also the hometown of Vic Moretti, Longmire’s second in command in the sheriff’s office in Wyoming. Her father and brothers work for the PPD. With three good reasons to visit Philadelphia, Longmire leaves his beloved Absaroka county for a trip to the city.

When Longmire and The Bear arrive in Philadelphia, Cady isn’t there to welcome them. She has been assaulted and is in a coma. Worried sick about her, Longmire starts digging to understand what happened to his only child. After all, he must occupy the time between painful visits to the hospital. This terrible event turns into an opportunity to meet Vic’s family, her mother as a support system and her father and brothers as policemen.

When Cady’s boyfriend Devon is murdered a few days after she was assaulted, it is clear that the attack against her wasn’t random and that Devon was involved in shady businesses. This is how our country sheriff gets sucked into a dangerous investigation about drug trafficking while getting to know Vic’s family.

What can I say? This series is good. The plot held my attention. The criminal investigation was interesting. With all the walks and rides in Philadelphia, it makes you want to visit the city and see the places for yourself. The characters are flowed and likeable. Their interactions are subtle. Craig Johnson explores their feelings with a light painter’s touch, drawing their inner thoughts and struggles, slowly building up relationships, the way they do in real life with daily small interactions.

The change of setting was a good idea, a way to build a bridge between Wyoming and Philadelphia, where Vic’s and Longmire’s families live. The personal lives of the characters move forward but without too many details, which still makes it possible to read this book without reading the previous ones. I like that there’s always something about Native Americans in his books. Here, far from Wyoming, they are present through The Bear’s exhibition, Cady’s work as a lawyer and a character from the criminal plot.

Craig Johnson’s writing is warm like Louise Penny’s, if you’ve ever read the Armand Gamache series. Both managed to create a set of characters the reader is happy to hear about and see how they are doing since the previous book. I’m slowly reading this series and I have three unread ones on the shelf, a comforting sight for future comfort reads.

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

April 18, 2018 5 comments

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison (2017). French title: L’origine des autres. Translated by Christine Laferrière.

I have one rule on my blog: I write a billet about every book I read, even if I didn’t like it or couldn’t finish it. This rule is a problem when it comes to The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. It’s a collection of six conferences that she did at Harvard University in 2016. I have read them in French and frankly, I don’t have the vocabulary to write properly about them in English.

They are all about using the concept of race as a way to dominate other people. Her explanations are based on history, on psychology and literature.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor, The Sound and the Fury and Absalon, Absalon! by William Faulkner, To Have and Have Not or The Garden of Eden by Hemingway and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye are part of her demonstrations. She shares her own experience of racism, explains what she meant in some of her novels like Beloved.

These essays are fascinating. It’s only 92 pages, it’s thought provoking and clear. I’m not able to discuss them here or to quote them since I have read them in translation. So instead of doing a poor job of it, I will only recommend you to get this little gem and read these conferences. I truly envy those who had the chance to attend them. It doesn’t seem to be available in audiobook but it would be worth it.

Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier for Télérama

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

April 12, 2018 11 comments

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (1926) (French title: Mon mortel ennemi.)

People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were.… A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other. Perhaps I can’t forgive him for the harm I did him. Perhaps that’s it. When there are children, that feeling, goes through natural changes. But when it remains so personal … something gives way in one. In age we lose everything; even the power to love.

I’d never heard of My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather before reading Guy’s review and this novella intrigued me immediately.

It’s the story of the unhappy marriage between Myra and Oswald seen through the eyes of an external observer, Nellie. Myra was friends with Nellie’s mother and Aunt Liddy. As a young woman, she fell in love with Oswald Henshaw and when her guardian and uncle heard about the romance, he threatened to disinherit her. She eloped from their small town to marry Oswald Henshaw and her rich uncle followed through. He left his fortune to charities. She chose love against fortune and in Nellie’s eyes, it’s quite romantic.

Nellie is our narrator and she had three opportunities to be in contact with Myra. The first time was at home, when she was a teenager and Myra was visiting. The second time was in New York, where she goes for a while with her Aunt Liddy. The third time is a chance reunion as the Henshaw and Nellie live in the same neighborhood in San Francisco.

The crux of the novella is: did Myra made a good decision when she chose love instead of her uncle’s money? How does she live with this decision? How does Oswald live with her sacrifice? How does their couple survive this strong beginning?

Myra is not a likeable character and Nellie’s not comfortable with her.

And I was never sure whether she was making fun of me or of the thing we were talking about. Her sarcasm was so quick, so fine at the point—it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one doesn’t know whether one is burned or chilled.

As a reader I don’t know what to think of her. She’s a complex character, nice in some ways and harsh in other ways. She feels that her marriage is not up to the sacrifice she made and she hovers over Oswald as if to sustain a fire of love that isn’t there anymore. She sounds like she’s working on persuading herself that she’s so happy, making a show of it.

she was clearly glad to see him—glad not merely that he was safe and had got round on time, but because his presence gave her lively personal pleasure. I was not accustomed to that kind of feeling in people long married.

She knows that by marrying her, Oswald also made a bet on their love. When they eloped, he was aware that she wouldn’t get any money. And yet, he did it anyways which makes me think he chose love as well, even if it meant a career he wasn’t fond of. Myra explains:

He doesn’t properly belong in business. We never speak of it, but I’m sure he hates it. He went into an office only because we were young and terribly in love, and had to be married.”

This is a story that reminded me of Edith Wharton and Henry James. Myra is a Whartonian female character and Oswald has something about Newland Archer in him. There’s a troubling episode about cufflinks that made me wonder about Oswald. Did he stay out of loyalty? Or is Myra like Catherine in Washington Square? In her young days, did she fail to see that her marriage with Oswald was doomed? Is Myra a victim of the romantic ways of her youth? Who is the mortal enemy? Each spouse for the other or themselves because they made the wrong choice?

This short novella is a real gem full of fascinating questions underlying Myra and Oswald’s story. I avoid spoilers in billets but there is much more to discuss about Myra and Oswald’s relationship. Cather’s strength is that she leaves the reader in the dark; it’s up to you to make up your mind about the two main characters.

It’s a text that raises questions about love and marriage that are still relevant today. How do we recognize true love, the one that was worth making the kind of sacrifice that Myra made? How do you live with yourself when your spouse had made a big sacrifice for you? It also shows that today’s freedom is great: in the 21st century, Myra and Oswald could have moved in together and see how things would go. In 1926, they had to get married.

If I were an English teacher, I’d put My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather on the syllabus. It’s short (around 100 pages, depending on the edition), it’s ambiguous and can lead to heated discussions between Team Myra and Team Oswald.

Highly recommended

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

February 3, 2018 11 comments

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009) French title: Un autre monde. Translated by Martine Aubert.

A quick post about my abandoning The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I think I gave it a read shot, I waited until page 215 to let it go. It’s 664 pages long and I couldn’t see myself reading the four hundred and something pages left.

I’m disappointed because I usually enjoy Kingsolver’s books.

This one is the story/journals of Harrison William Shepherd, son of a Mexican mother and an American father. When the book opens, his mother has just left her American husband to follow her Mexican lover to his property on Isla Pixol, Mexico. We’re in 1929 and Harry is 14.

The style is a mix of chapters told by an omniscient narrator, some are made of Harry’s journals sandwiched between chapters by his translator. We understand that Harry is dead, that he became a famous writer, that his translator gathered his journals to make this book.

After a few Mexican years, Harry is sent back to his father in America. Now feeling in a parental mood, he enrolls Harry in a private military school in Washinfton DC. We get to read Harry’s journal: normal boy stuff and news from the outside with riots due to the Great Depression. W’ere in 1930/1931, during the Hoover presidency.

Then it’s back to Mexico with his flighty mother who’s always looking for a man to support her. Harry is hired as a member of Diego Rivera’s domesticity. Trostsky is hidden at the Rivera’s house…and that’s where I dropped out of the story.

I couldn’t find interest in Harry’s life or in the real-life events the book mentions. The only things that interested me were the mentions about Mexican cuisine and the dishes Harry learns to cook. That’s pretty thin and not enough to trudge to the end page.

I was determined to read it all since it’s our Book Club choice for January but really, I was looking at my TBR with longing, eager to pick something else and that’s the sure sign that it’s time to give up and move on. Life is short, there’s never enough reading time. I can’t afford to waste it.

I am now in company of Dave Robicheaux, the gritty New Orleans cop imagined by James Lee Burke. A treat.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

January 6, 2018 6 comments

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran (2011). French title: La cité des morts. Translated by Claire Breton.

The City of the Dead by Sara Gran is the first instalment of her crime fiction series featuring her female PI heroin, Claire DeWitt. When the book opens, we’re in 2007, Claire is in California and Leon calls her to ask to come to New Orleans and investigate the disappearance of his uncle, Vic Willing. He vanished during the flood due to the floodwall failure around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the region. Everybody assumes that Vic drowned and that his corpse never reappeared. His nephew is not at ease with this version and wants to dig further.

Claire accepts the job and reluctantly comes back to a city she left ten years before. She used to live in New Orleans and her mentor Constance was training her to become a PI. Claire grew up in a decrepit townhouse in Brooklyn. She fell into mystery solving at a young age when she and her girlfriends Tracy and Kelly found a book called Détection by Jacques Silette. It’s an essay written by a French PI who discusses investigating and solving mysteries. This book is closer to a sort of Tao Te Ching of crime fiction than to a basic Crime Solving 101. It became Claire’s bible. And Constance had been tutored by Jacques Silette himself. That’s Claire’s professional foundations.

Claire accepts the case, flies back to New Orleans to find out what happened to Vic Willing and to face her personal demons. Coming back to New Orleans, a city she left after Constance’s violent death, is painful to Claire. And she comes back to a city traumatized and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and its consequences.

Her investigation will lead her in various areas of the city. She will take us to neighborhoods literally destroyed and full of buildings in ruins. She will show us the incredible level of criminality of New Orleans, its poverty but also its strong culture and traditions. Claire takes us to what looks like a Third World country. Sara Gran used to live in New Orleans. She depicts a city with no decent public services and gangrened by corruption. Institutions don’t work together, the police and the judicial system can’t coordinate their efforts and a lot of crimes remain unpunished. Killings are common occurrences. Arm and drug trafficking are almost in the open. Eighteen months after Katrina’s passage, the reconstruction of the city has barely started in some areas and people are in as bad a shape as the buildings in ruin. Some lost everything and lived through terrible times. We all saw on TV how poorly the US government handled this major catastrophe at the time. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the world a rich country that had tons of money for war but none to rescue its poorest citizen.

For this reader, this aspect of The City of the Dead was the most interesting part of the book. I was not really interested in the outcome of the investigation. And in the end, I was disappointed by the motive behind Vic Willing’s murder. I thought it was a banal device for a crime fiction writer.

And then, there’s the whole esoteric/mystic side of Claire DeWitt. I was bored by the unintelligible quotes from the fictional Détection. Silette’s book sounds like ominous prophecies by Nostradamus written by a fortune cookie author mated with French intellectualism of the 1970s. At least that how it looked to me and it totally put me off. See what I mean:

“Happiness is the temporary result of denying the knowledge one already has,” Silette wrote. “Once one knows what one knows—once one knows the solution to his mysteries—happiness is besides the point. But in rare cases, something much better can bloom.”

I really don’t see the attraction or the need for this pseudo-intellectual thread. I’d be very happy to read other readers’ thoughts about this.

Last but not least, the style. *Sigh* Clearly, Chandler ruined me. I’m way too picky and too demanding when it comes to crime fiction. I thought that Gran’s style was good but not exceptional. I read the French translation and while it’s well done for today’s French readers, I wonder if it will keep. The translator chose to use very contemporary slang to translate the voices of New Orleans’s criminals and outcast. Expressions like truc de ouf or verbs like kiffer may sound outdated in a decade. The translation will sound as weird as the one of Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes. Slang is difficult to translate and it’s like fashion, its trends don’t last.

In the end, I didn’t like The City of the Dead very much, mostly because of the weird Silette cult. No second book with Claire DeWitt is in my future.

Something must be wrong with me because this book was in the following literary prizes: Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel (2012), Hammett Prize Nominee (2011), Shamus Award Nominee for Best First PI Novel (2012), Deutscher Krimi Preis for 1. Platz International (2013), Meilleur polar des lecteurs de Points (2016)

If you’ve read it, please let me know what you thought about it.

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson

August 3, 2017 7 comments

Wait for Signs. Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson (2014) Not really available in French.

Wait for Signs is peculiar collection of short stories by Craig Johnson. They all feature the characters of Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, about a rural sheriff in Wyoming. These stories are snapshots of Longmire’s life as a sheriff but also as a man. My favorite ones are Old Indian Trick, Messenger and Divorce Horse.

In Old Indian Trick, Longmire is driving his Cheyenne friend Lonnie Little Bird to the hospital for a check-up. On the way, they stop at a restaurant for coffee and arrived just after it’s been robbed. Switching into sheriff mode, Longmire starts investigating the case. At some point, his friend tells him who the culprit is and where he lives. After Travis the thief is under arrest, Longmire asks his friend how he knew and if it was an old Indian trick. Lonnie shrugs and Longmire realizes that Travis is so stupid that he filled in an application form before robbing the restaurant and gave accurate contact information. As Longmire points out if you sat a bag of groceries next to Travis, the groceries would get into Stanford before he would, something that the French translator translated into “si on posait un panier de légumes à côté de Travis, les légumes arriveraient à Stanford avant lui. Please note that in French, a bag of groceries (literally, “un sac de provisions”) becomes un panier de légumes. (A basket of vetegables) It means a lot about French eating habits, I think.

For me, Messenger is the funniest story of the collection. Longmire, his Cheyenne best friend Henry The Bear and his deputy Vic are on their way back from a fishing trip. They intercept a message on the radio. It comes from a local ranger, Chuck, who’s asking for help: he’s in such a dangerous situation that he’ll soon have to use his gun. Longmire drives up to Crazy Woman Canyon, a spot in the Big Horn Mountains, where they find Chuck and Andrea Napier, a tourist from California. Both are stuck on the roof of a Porta Potty, surrounded by a bear and her cubs since Ms Napier had fed the bears with popcorn. Despite the situation, Longmire and his friends can’t help cracking jokes and see the funny side of moment:

It was really unfair to call it a Porta Potty. It was actually much more than that—what they call in the literature a self-contained, freestanding restroom facility. It sat on a concrete pad and was made of heavy wood with a lower foundation of masonry and river rock. With a short overhang and shallow shingled roof, it must’ve been a chore to climb onto.

Longmire convinces Henry to change their fishing loot into treats for the bears. While Henry diverts the bears’ attention with fresh fish, Longmire and Vic help Chuck and Ms Natier out.

Then the tourist explains that something hit her bottom when she was using the facilities and that it freaked her out. Longmire is skeptical but eventually discovers that there’s an owl stuck into the toilet. He’s about to shoot it when Henry comes back and explains that the Cheyenne believe that owls are messengers of the dead and that they bring word from worlds beyond. Therefore, the owl must be saved. This is how Vic ends up head first in the toilet to catch the owl with Longmire and Henry holding her by her feet.

Anyone who’s ever seen the kind of restroom they have in American National Parks can imagine the scene and the stench. Johnson’s description is very cinematographic and always laced with his humorous undertone. I imagined the scene perfectly and as always you can feel that this writer knows his settings. He lives in Wyoming, he knows the place and I’d love to know how much he invented int his story and how much he borrowed to the local newspaper. I suspect that the Californian tourist stuck on the Porta Potty roof after feeding the bears with popcorn is a true story.

Divorce Horse is set during a pow-wow. Tommy Jefferson, a participant to the horse races complains that the horse that the sheriff department has nicknamed Divorce Horse has been stolen. Tommy was married to Lisa and she asked for a divorce because he spent more time taking care of his horses than her. It was a nasty divorce, Tommy kept on calling her and the sheriff department got involved. Now Lisa is back in town and Divorce Horse has been stolen. What happens with the horse, Tommy and Lisa holds the story together but the most interesting part of the story is the description of the pow-wow, of the horse races and of the weather.

The weekend had been blessed with three memorable spring evenings where you could smell the grass in the pastureland, and the sagebrush and cottonwoods that had been holding their breath since October gasped back to life. The cool of the evening was just starting to creep down from the mountains, but it was still T-shirt weather, if long-sleeve T-shirt weather.

Again, we can hear that the writer himself belongs here, that he’s more than familiar with Wyoming.

Among the nine other stories, two feature Longmire and his grief over his wife’s death. The other stories are encounters with strangers, fleeting moments in Longmire’s life.

I have also read An Old Indian Trick and Divorce Horse in French because Gallmeister, Johnson’s French publisher gave them as gifts. Sophie Aslanides is Craig Johnson’s translator for French readers. She’s excellent. She knows him, she spent time at his ranch and you can feel it in the fine tuning of her translations. Craig Johnson sounds the same in French and in English. She managed to translate his Americanisms into French. For example, Yep becomes Ouaip. It’s the same level of language, the same tune, it’s fantastic. Here’s an example:

After a moment, a weedy looking young woman came to the door and looked at me. She did not open the screen and had the look of someone who had taken life on early, made some bad choices, and had gotten her ass kicked.

Au bout d’un moment, une jeune femme malingre apparut et me regarda. Elle n’ouvrit pas la porte. Elle donnait l’impression d’avoir commencé à vivre très tôt, d’avoir fait les mauvais choix et de s’en être mordu les doigts.

I suppose that this collection of stories will mostly interest the readers of the series. It’s like making a phone call to a friend to hear how he’s doing. I imagine that fans of Commissaire Adamsberg or Chief Inspector Gamache will understand the appeal. We share glimpses of Longmire’s quotidian. It introduces us to the everyday life of a rural sheriff. He doesn’t face a lot of pure violence but he ends up meeting all kind of people:

“I’m serious, Sheriff. She says she’s supposed to meet Him. Here. Today.” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her right. “Jesus?” “Yes.” “Jesus.” I sighed, glancing around trying not to cast aspersions, but it was hard. “Returning after two thousand years and He chooses the Sinclair station in Powder Junction, Wyoming?” “Apparently.”

The stories give us clues about Longmire’s personality. Johnson’s tales are always full of humanity, spiced up with a good sense of humor and a strong sense of place. A nice and comforting read.

PS: For French readers. This collection is not available in French, per se. However, it is easy to read in English.

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