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The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen – Vietnam before WWII

June 23, 2019 Leave a comment

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen (2002) French title: Le Brodeur de Huê Translated by Sylvie Servan-Schreiber.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen was our Book Club read for May. Kien Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1967 to a Vietnamese mother and an American father. Kien Nguyen left Vietnam, spent some time in a refugee camp in the Philippines and arrived in the USA in 1986. He became a dentist and The Tapestries is based on his grandfather’s story. It’s his second novel.

The Tapestries opens on a wedding day, in the Hue citadel, in 1916. At the time, Vietnam was a French colony named Indochina. Ven is getting married to a groom she has never seen since a matchmaker organized the wedding. She is given away by her grandfather to the rich Nguyen family. She will discover that her groom, Dan, is seven years old. She’s 23 and has been chosen by her in-laws as a free nanny.

Soon after the wedding, Master Nguyen is accused of treason and hung. Ven manages to save Dan. The Judge Toan who was in charge of arresting the whole family takes the opportunity to confiscate all the Nguyen’s wealth. Their beautiful estate is ransacked and Ven and Dan will have to find a way to survive. Ven decides that the best place to hide Dan is to have him hired in the lion’s den as a servant.

We’ll follow the fate of these two ill-matched spouses, Ven’s devotion to Dan, Dan’s romance with his enemy’s daughter, his resilience and his newfound happiness in the art of embroidery.

I guess it’s supposed to be an ode to a beautiful romance, a fresco of the end of the Vietnam empire and traditional way of life, a picture of the French colonization and imperial Vietnam, before WWII and the long years of war against the French (1946-1954) and the Americans (1955-1975)

It could have been an excellent novel but for me it was a tedious read. The characterization wasn’t subtle enough. The bad were very nasty. Ven was very devoted. Dan was very good. The romance was corny and implausible, even if it’s supposed to be true since it’s based on Nguyen’s grandfather’s life. I’m not a huge fan of revenge stories where a character has to hold a grudge to honor their family. I’m with Gandhi, An Eye for an Eye will make the whole world blind. And Dan seemed to agree with that too.

Then I thought that the writing was clunky. The descriptions of the Vietnamese customs and landscapes were interesting but they showed it was a book intended for Western readers. They wouldn’t have been part of a real Vietnamese book. To make a long story short, it was a disappointment.

I find that books set in a country but written by authors who have emigrated are hard to pin down. Sometimes they are not written in the author’s native language, like Aki Shimasaki’s, Gao Xingjian’s or Peter May’s novels. I always wonder if their vision of their native country is distorted by their emigration and their new country. Do they romanticize their native country? How in touch are they with it and its current atmosphere? The Tapestries is a historical novel, how does Nguyen view the history of Vietnam and what’s the accuracy of what he describes?

I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re really looking for an easy read with a touch of exoticism but you could have that with the Calhoun series by William G Tapply.

Has anyone read it too? If yes, did you like it?

Bitch Creek, Gray Ghost and Dark Tiger by William G. Tapply – Three soothing crime fiction books

June 16, 2019 7 comments

Bitch Creek (2004), Gray Ghost (2007) and Dark Tiger (2009) by William G. Tapply. French titles: Dérive sanglante, Casco Bay, Dark Tiger. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni and François Happe.

A lady working for the publisher Gallmeister recommended William G. Tapply to me. I started with Dark Tiger, then went on with Bitch Creek and felt compelled to read Gray Ghost. In three months. I never read three books by the same writer in three months, unless they’re a trilogy.

These three books are the beginning of a crime fiction series and reading them in the right order would be reading Bitch Creek first, then Gray Ghost and finally Dark Tiger.

Set in Maine, the recurring character is Stoney Calhoun, a fly-fishing guide / “amateur” sleuth. Calhoun is in his late thirties and five years before the action of Bitch Creek, he lost his memory in a lightning strike. He woke up in a hospital with no memories. He doesn’t know anything about his past. He assumes that he used to work for the government since they gave him a hefty sum after his accident, but they never told him what he used to work on. He has no clue about his personal life either, just that heading to Maine and settling in an isolated cabin in a rural area felt right. He now works at a fishing equipment store, takes clients to fishing trips and makes fishing flies for the store to sell. He’s involved with the store owner, Kate Balaban. However, their relationship poisoned by guilt since Kate’s husband, Walter, is slowly dying in a nursing home. Walter is aware and OK with Stoney and Kate’s relationship but it’s not easy anyway.

In Bitch Creek, Tapply sets up the décor and the characters for his new series. We get acquainted with Maine, Stoney, his dog Ralph – named after Ralph Waldo Emerson – and Kate. Calhoun is a competent fly-fishing guide and he loves his quiet life in his cabin, with his dog and Kate. He gets the occasional visit from a mystery man who ensures that he has not regained any memories.

When his best friend Lyle is murdered during a fishing assignment that he filled in for Calhoun, Stoney starts poking around and investigating. He discovers that he has buried knowledge of police work, he knows what to do and not do, he has muscle memory for fights. He is a great help for the local sheriff who investigates the murder.

In Gray Ghost, Stoney is out on the water in Casco Bay with a client when they discover a dead body on one of the bay’s island. He’s roped into participating to the investigation again, officially seconding sheriff Dickman. Forgotten skills resurface again, giving him pieces of his past.

In Dark Tiger, a government operative was found dead in the north of Maine at Loon Lake. The mysterious visitor bullies him into taking a position as a fishing guide at Loon Lake and investigate the death of their agent.

I loved the Calhoun series. Honestly, I’ve never been fishing in my life and I don’t see myself doing it any time soon. I’m urban, I work as a corporate executive. As my work life turned into an out-of-control high-speed train, I felt drawn to Tapply’s books and that probably explains why I read the three in three months. Tapply was a New Englander and passionate about fishing. He knows what he’s writing about and the reader can feel it. Bitch Creek is where Stoney’ cabin is set, Dark Tiger and Gray Ghost are fly-fishing baits.

Tapply has an intimate knowledge of fishing trips and of the New England countryside. As a European, I was sometimes disoriented by the names of the cities in Maine. Dublin, Madrid,  Portland don’t conjure up images of rural Maine. Tapply gives the right amount of descriptions in his books, frequent enough to take you there and learn about the landscape and the history but not too long and too erudite to bore or lose you on the way. He took me there with his words, like Craig Johnson takes you to Absaroka country in Wyoming.

Being with Calhoun in Maine was so far away from my daily life that it provided an easy and immediate escape. It soothed me. Calhoun is a very likeable character who lives a slow life, takes time to enjoy the creek around his house, spends his time in quiet places where he can catch fish. He doesn’t fish for catching preys, photograph them and brag about the size of the fish he caught. He fishes as a communion with nature. I enjoyed visiting him and witness his touching and humorous relationship with his dog and his on-and-off and yet deep relationship with Kate. (I think dog lovers will enjoy these books too.) Stoney feels real. He’s a placid, reasonable man who enjoys his solitude, a few genuine relationships in his life and tries to live a tranquil down-to-earth life. I guess he allowed me to hop off the high-speed train for a few hours.

I’m sad about Tapply’s untimely death in 2009. There will be no more episode to this series and no Calhoun comfort read for me.

As usual, the Gallmeister books have gorgeous covers and outstanding translations. I’m repeating myself I know, but what can I say, it’s a repeating performance on their side. Not surprisingly, I much prefer the Gallmeister covers to the American ones. The Gallmeister illustrations show both the crime setting and the fishing theme of the series and the American ones give off a creepy vibe that I didn’t feel in the books, even if the crimes were horrible.

I’ve seen that Tapply had written another series, the Brady Coyne mysteries. Has anyone read it? Is it worth exploring too?

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder – Humbling, infuriating and touching

June 2, 2019 15 comments

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (2018) Available in French.

I never read women’s magazines, mostly because I find them vapid. I’m more of a BYOB (Bring Your Own Book) person as far as waiting rooms are concerned. A few weeks ago, I forgot my book at home and flipped through Grazia and stumbled upon a fascinating article about Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. I knew I had to read this and indeed, I devoured it in one sitting.

Nomadland is a non-fiction book written by journalist Jessica Bruder who spent three years living on and off with vandwellers, people who left their brick-and-mortar homes to live in an RV. They move from place to place and survive on seasonal jobs. The seasonal jobs consist in working at campsites or amusement parks in the summer, at an Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush or harvesting sugar in Minnesota. Bruder had her own RV, and moved around with them.

We follow Linda, a sixty-four-year-old woman who just finished to prepare her tiny RV and leaves her family to work at a campsite in California. She and her friend Silvianne will work there the whole summer. Through Linda and her friends, we slowly discover the parallel world of vandwellers, the horrible working conditions of these seasonal workers, their annual gathering in Arizona during the winter, in a place named Quartzsite.

There are three sides to Nomadland, and none of them will leave you indifferent.

The most emotional one is discovering this nomadic community, hearing about the personal stories of the people Jessica Bruder met. Most of them are old and should be enjoying retirement but their pension is not high enough for them to do so. They have to work. Some are broke because of the 2008 financial crisis. They lost their house due to a foreclosure. They lost their pension because all their money evaporated in the crash. They had health issues, went through a divorce or lost their job. They had what we call in French, des accidents de la vie, the ones that are covered by social benefits in Europe.

I felt a lot of respect for the people she met. They endure difficult living conditions because no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, living in an RV is hard. It’s tiny, it’s cold during the winter, it can break down and if you’re a city, you need to be invisible. I enjoyed the part about Quartzsite and the RV’ers reunion. It’s full of workshops to help people live better in their RV.

They stay positive, feed their hope for a better future or have decided that this way of life was best for them. They bonded. Some have blogs and Facebook pages. They live on the edge and I couldn’t help wondering what would become of them. They’re all ageing. What happens when they get sick and can’t work anymore? Where are they going to live when they are too old to move around in such a small space? Who will take care of them?

The most infuriating side of Nomadland is reading about working conditions at Amazon. Let me tell you something: besides kindle books, I will never buy anything from Amazon again. Never. The working conditions described here are despicable. We’re talking about exploiting people with an unequaled cynicism. (By the way, in Europe, the unions of 15 countries had a meeting on April 29th, 2019 to fight together for better working conditions at Amazon in Europe. Their slogan was “Treated like robots by Amazon. We are humans, not robots”)

I’m talking about inhuman working conditions regarding the environment, the stupidity of the job to be done, the cadences to be kept and the general management of employees. Their working conditions is the cost of your receiving your parcel on time.

By cynicism I mean: offering free painkillers in the breakrooms because employee ache everywhere; publishing recommendations in an in-house magazine for new employees about getting in shape before coming to be sure they’ll hold on; exploiting the easy RV’ers workforce through their recruitment site Amazon CamperForce and get tax credits for it. Here’s one story about a CamperForce experience:

When Barb and Chuck showed up in Quartzsite for the first time, they were still recovering from their three-month stint at CamperForce. Like their coworkers, they’d faced a triple trial there. First came physical exhaustion. (“Muscles I never knew I had are shouting at me after ten hours of lifting, twisting, squatting, reaching,” Barb reflected.) Then came Kafka-style madness. (After forty-five minutes spent hunting for a bin with enough room to stow a product, Barb had to repeat “breathe, breathe” to stay sane in the warehouse, which she nicknamed “Amazoo.”) Last came flat-out survival: the stress of subzero temperatures in an RV built for warmer climes. (The rig’s water supply got cut off after a filter froze and burst. Then its pump broke. Chuck lost a day of work getting repairs done.)

And the lovely Linda ended up with a repetitive motion injury from using the handheld barcode scanner. It left behind a visible mark, a grape-sized lump on her right wrist. Even worse was what she could not see: a searing pain that radiated the length of her right arm, from thumb to wrist, through elbow and shoulder, ending in her neck. Lifting an eight-ounce coffee cup or a cooking pan was enough to trigger an agonizing jolt. She believed it to be a bad case of tendonitis, but knowing that hadn’t helped abolish the affliction. A year after, she still hadn’t recovered from it. I have lots of quotes and all of them made me really angry. How can they treat people that way? Farm animals have better working conditions than that.

Now, are you going to fatten Jeff Bezos with your next Christmas shopping?

The most educational side of Nomadland was the questioning about poverty and how a rich country as America has come to this. Jessica Bruder doesn’t give lectures but peppers her story with facts and analysis. To sum it up, several factors concur to the problem: rents have increased a lot faster than wages, the American retirement-finance model showed its limits during the 2008 crisis (where is your pension when the financial markets collapse?) and all this is a culture where economic misfortune was blamed largely on its victims. I’ll add wild capitalism that pushes on the selfishness button we all have in us and a criminal laissez-faire of politicians. Some things cost nothing on the country’s budget: regulations about loans, about the minimum wages, about retirement plans and protect people from corporate wolves.

But this is not a blog about economy or politics, it’s a literary blog. Why should you read Nomadland? Besides the informative content, I thought that Jessica Bruder’s writing was engaging. She writes well and wants us to share her experience. She went all in, living in an RV herself and her comments about how that felt were invaluable. She did more than interviewing vandwellers. She shared their lives, earned their trust and opened our eyes on a parallel world. I hope that Linda is doing well, I’m rooting for her and her projects. Her resilience and optimism are commendable and Jessica Bruder gave her a voice.

Rush for this book, it’s a gem.

PS: This book is in the Beach and Public Transport category, not because it’s fluffly but because it’s so well-written that it’s easy to read.

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson – Boston crime

May 30, 2019 2 comments

The Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson (2013) French title: Cassandra. Translated by Laurent Bury.

The Hard Bounce is Todd Robinson’s debut novel and he was at Quais du Polar a couple of years ago. In France, he’s published by Gallmeister.

Boo and Junior have never left each other’s side since they were sent to St Gabriel’s Home for Boys, an orphanage in Boston. Now adults, they still live in Boston and decided to put their 470 pounds of muscles and ten grants of tattoos in good use: they founded their own security company. They are in charge of the security details at The Cellar, a Boston nightclub and they are competent bouncers, intimidating but not necessarily violent.

When they are asked to look for Cassandra, the DA’s missing daughter, they have to go out of their comfort zone. They were never hired for that kind of job before but the DA doesn’t want the police to get involved to avoid bad PR.

Is Cassie just a rebellious runaway teenager or did she fall into bad hands? Will Boo and Junior find her alive? And what does Cassie’s story stir in Boo’s past that makes him want to find her, no matter what?

The Hard Bounce has a great sense of place, Boston is almost a character in the story. Boo and Junior explore its back alleys, flirting with legality sometimes and but always committed to doing their job.

Boo is our narrator and through the story, he takes us to meet the team at The Cellar, all outsiders who have found a new family at the club. We discover Boo’s past and the strength of the friendship between him and Junior. They look out for each other, they are their own family unit.

Boo has a wonderful voice, a mix of street talk and wit that makes the book alive and the reader eager to find out what will happen next. The story was engaging in itself but I rooted for Boo who is a true softie under his muscle. I have the French translation but downloaded a sample of the original on my Kindle to give you a taste of Boo’s storytelling.

In the following passage, Boo meets Kelly Reese for the first time. She works for the DA and is the middleman between Boo and Junior on one side and their employer on the other side. She’s just arrived The Cellar to hire Boo and Junior:

Everything about her screamed “out of place”. Her dark, curly hair was cut in a perfect bob. Most of our regulars looked like their hair was styled by a lunatic with a Weed Whacker. She was also in a dark blue suit that looked like it cost more than the combined wardrobe of everyone else in the bar.

Whether your collar is blue or white, in Boston, you stick with the crowd that shares your fashion sense. The city’s got a class line as sharp as a glass scalpel and wider than a sorority pledge’s legs. The old money, reaching back generations, live up Beacon Hill and the North End. They summer in places like Newport and the Berkshires.

They see me and mine as a pack of low-class mooks. We see them as a bunch of rich bitch pansies. Kelly Reese’s collar was so white it glowed. Still, it didn’t keep me from checking out her ass as she walked up the stairs ahead of me. Ogling knows no economic boundaries.

That’s on page 19 and I was hooked. Maybe you will be too.

PS: I think that with the American cover, The Hard Bounce looks like a romance novel.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique!

May 18, 2019 28 comments

 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) French title: Les aventures de Tom Sawyer.

Tom Sawyer is so well-known that I’ll do us a favor and skip the summary part of my usual billets. I’ll focus more on my thoughts.

You might wonder why the title of this billet is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – C’est l’Amérique. Well, it explains why I’ve only read this classic now. Tom Sawyer is etched in my childhood memory as a Japanese anime I used to watch. The theme song was very catchy with a chorus that said “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique”. It’s the kind of sticky tune that stays in you mind all day when you’ve barely thought about it. Believe me, most of French people of my age remember this anime and know this song. And it was quite difficult to distance myself from the images flooding back and see Tom, Huck and Becky differently in my mind eye.

Reading Twain in the original helped keeping the anime images at bay but it was sometimes a challenge. Twain’s use of dialect made me pause and read carefully. I have a French translation of it and all is lost in translation and worse. The dialect is gone and the boys speak like a grammar book. In English, Huck makes a lot of grammar mistakes and comes from an outcast family, he can’t speak like an educated child but in French, he does. See an example here, an excerpt from the scene in the cemetery.

“I wish I’d said Mister Williams. But I never meant any harm. Everybody calls him Hoss.”

“A body can’t be too partic’lar how they talk ’bout these-yer dead people, Tom.”

This was a damper, and conversation died again.

Presently Tom seized his comrade’s arm and said:

“Sh!”

“What is it, Tom?”

And the two clung together with beating hearts.

“Sh! There ’tis again! Didn’t you hear it?”

“I –”

“There! Now you hear it.”

“Lord, Tom, they’re coming! They’re coming, sure. What’ll we do?”

“I dono. Think they’ll see us?”

“Oh, Tom, they can see in the dark, same as cats. I wisht I hadn’t come.”

“Oh, don’t be afeard. I don’t believe they’ll bother us. We ain’t doing any harm. If we keep perfectly still, maybe they won’t notice us at all.”

“I’ll try to, Tom, but, Lord, I’m all of a shiver.”

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

I know that dialects are hard to translate but using spoken language. Here’s my suggestion :

– Oui, j’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais je n’ai pas voulu le froisser : tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On ne fait jamais attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut!

– Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? demanda Huck, le cœur battant.

– Chut! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. Tu n’entends pas ?

– Si. Ils viennent, ça c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Je voudrais bien être ailleurs, moi.

– Allons, du cran. Je ne crois pas qu’ils nous en veuillent ; nous ne faisons rien de mal. Peut-être que si nous ne bougeons pas ils ne nous remarqueront pas.

– Je veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais je ne réponds de rien : je tremble comme une feuille.

– J’aurais dû dire monsieur Williams. Mais c’était pas méchant, tout le monde l’appelle le vieux.

– On doit toujours faire attention à ce qu’on dit des morts, Tom.

La réflexion de Huck jeta un froid ; le silence régna de nouveau. Tout à coup, Tom saisit le bras de son camarade.

– Chut !

– Qu’est-ce qu’y a, Tom ?

Ils se serraient l’un contre l’autre, le cœur battant.

– Chut ! Tiens, on entend quelque chose. T’entends pas ?

– Euh…

– Là, t’entends pas ?

– Mon Dieu, Tom, ils arrivent ! Ils viennent, c’est sûr. Qu’est-ce qu’on va faire ?

– Sais pas, tu crois qu’ils nous voient ?

– Oh Tom, pas de doute ; ils voient dans le noir comme les chats. Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas v’nu.

– Allons, n’aie pas peur. Je crois pas qu’ils nous en veulent ; on fait rien de mal. Si on se tient tranquille, peut-être qu’ils nous verront même pas.

– J’veux bien essayer de rester tranquille, Tom, mais Bon Dieu, j’ai la trouille.

Feel free to comment, I’m always interested in discussing translation matters. I’m not surprised that the dialect disappeared, it’s frequent in French translations. After all, peasants from Wessex speak like a French bourgeois.

Besides this translation that I explored later, I enjoyed reading Tom’s adventures. I loved Twain’s sense of humor and side remarks scattered along the book, like this one:

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

As a reader, I felt as the accomplice of the writer, watching Tom’s adventures unfold like a movie. I didn’t remember the dark passages, about the murder in the cemetery, the trial and Tom and Huck’s subsequent fears. Tom is a loveable character, a mischievous child. As a parent, I sympathized with Aunt Polly but it’s hard to stay mad at Tom for a long time. His heart is in the right place.

Maybe the theme song of the anime was spot on: Tom Sawyer represents a kind America. Nature around St Petersburg is exotic for us, with the Mississippi river flowing by. I’m not a historian but what Twain describes seems different from life in France at the same time. Religion is very important in the village’s life. Sunday school gathers the children and Aunt Polly adds religious times of her own at home:

The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. Breakfast over, Aunt Polly had family worship: it began with a prayer built from the ground up of solid courses of Scriptural quotations, welded together with a thin mortar of originality; and from the summit of this she delivered a grim chapter of the Mosaic Law, as from Sinai.

The characters of Jim and Injun Joe are also typically American. The way Twain drafted “Injun Joe” made me cringe but I can’t judge a book written in 1876 with today’s set of values. And I don’t think it should be censored but it should come with a foreword to explain the historical context. These books help us see where we come from.

But if we set aside the setting, it remains a childhood book. Tom plays with his friends, imagines he’s a pirate, a robber or Robin Hood. He enjoys his freedom during the summer and dreads going to class. He loves wandering in the country around him and explore. He has a crush on Becky. Is he very different from the young narrator in La Gloire de mon père by Marcel Pagnol or the boys in War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud?

In the end, Tom is a symbol of childhood, with its dreams, its own vision of the world, its innocence and its freedom of mind. Maybe that’s why a Japanese firm made The Adventures of Tom Sawyer into an anime that was so popular in France. His childhood has become part of mine.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

May 8, 2019 8 comments

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989) French title: Amour monstre. Masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

If you’ve never heard of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, forget about nerd techies and Star Wars aficionados. The geek here means more freak as in Freak Show. I started to read it in English but had to switch to French because I couldn’t picture what I was reading and didn’t know whether it came from my English or something else.

Something else it was.

Al and Lily Binewski inherited of the flailing Fabulon carnival show, had trouble keeping freaks on payroll to attract an audience and decided to breed their own freak show. Al would tinker with Lily’s pregnancies so that Lily would give birth to their own troop of freaks.

I’m sorry for the long quote that will follow but I don’t know a better way to introduce you to the Binewski family and give you a taste of Dunn’s brand of crazy prose.

First, this is how Al and Lilly took matter into their own hands and started their family:

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn’t mind. Relying on Papa’s ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

And then the outcome was *drum roll*

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it’s been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone-scale.

I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother’s and sisters’. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living-van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents’ masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Furtunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

The narrator is Olympia, the hunchbacked dwarf. We see her in present time (1980s) with Miranda, her daughter. Only Miranda thinks she’s orphaned and Olympia takes care of her financially and observes her from afar and is about to step into her life. (I won’t tell more to avoid spoilers). Olympia also tells us her family story, something so extraordinary that I struggle to sum it up.

Let’s say that the Binewski siblings were raised by nomadic parents who operated the Fabulon Carnival, founded by Al’s father and developed by Al himself and then Arturo. The siblings are raised in the idea the freakiest you are, the more love-worthy you are. They compete for their parents’ love through their earnings in the carnival. Whose show brings in the most money?

After a while, Arturo takes over the management, expands the carnival and soon reigns over a big crowd. In a sense, he promotes the concept of Freak Pride and call the other humans the norms (for normal people) He becomes a sort of guru, inside and outside his family. His siblings would do anything for his affection.

Geek Love is a crazy book that won’t let you indifferent. I wondered how the author’s brain came out with such a story. There are a lot of weird side characters in Geek Love and Dunn managed to design a coherent world. The details she gives about the carnival help build up her world, just like all the details about Hogwarts reveal the school of Witcraft and Wizardry in our minds and give it substance. It comes to life under our eyes.

It’s an alternative world where beauty, power, adoration and wealth are in the hands of the deformed. Obviously, it goes against the dictatorship of beauty. But if you go behind the curtain of strangeness, it’s a story of rivalry between the siblings and out-of-norm love. It describes the functioning of a close-knit clan who lives in their own world, with their own rules and bring the spectators in for the time of the show. Human nature remains and the quest for love, approval and a sense of self-worth are the same for the Binewskis as for anyone else.

Dunn questions a lot of human behaviors in her Geek Love. It challenges our reaction to physical differences. It points out our fascination for abnormalities. The Fabulon carnival wouldn’t exist without its constant influx of awestruck spectators, as if the public was at the same time repulsed, riveted and relieved that these deformities are not theirs.

Al and Lily’s actions are also questionable. Are parents allowed to interfere in a pregnancy to have the baby they want? Is it right by their children? The question is even more pressing nowadays since the medical techniques have developed tremendously since Geek Love was published.

Geek Love was our Book Club read for April and we had a lot to share about it. It’s disturbing to the point of nightmares. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to see it on a big screen as some images are better tamed in one’s mind when they come from words than from film. I know blocked things and scenes I didn’t want to imagine fully. I didn’t like the Binewkis very much but some of us found them touching in their own weird ways.

I’m eager to talk about this book with other readers. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Spoilers are allowed if readers are warned. I’m looking forward to discussing aspects of the book I couldn’t put into this billet. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

PS: The French title of the book, Amour monstre is perfect. Monstre as a noun covers the word Geek and monstre as an adjective means huge and this fits the story. Amour monstre means both Geek Love and Huge Love and this applies to the love Olympia feels for Arturo and Miranda.

Burning Bright by Ron Rash – compelling

April 26, 2019 8 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.

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