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Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun – Not everyone can be Agatha Christie

August 4, 2019 4 comments

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun (1994) Original French title: Meurtre chez Tante Léonie

If you’ve ever read Proust, you know all about Aunt Léonie, Combray, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way. Murder chez Proust by Estelle Monbrun is set in Illiers, the village that inspired Combray and where Proust’s aunt used to live. My recent visit to the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann prompted me to pick up this cozy crime novel.

When the book opens, the Proust Association is about to welcome Proust aficionados in Illiers for a tourism & literature stay. Unfortunately, Emilienne, the cleaning lady in charge of Aunt Léonie’s house finds Mrs Bertrand-Verdon, the president of the Proust Association, murdered. As we get acquainted with the VIPs of the conference, we realize that each of them has a good reason to dislike Mrs Bertrand-Verdon.

Her secretary, Gisèle Dambert, is writing her PhD thesis about Proust. She inherited of a treasure, Proust’s famous 1905 notebooks that his governess Céleste Albaret had to destroy. Gisèle had informed Mrs Bertrand-Verdon of this important discovery and now regrets it.

Professor Verdaillon, Gisèle’s PhD supervisor is about to publish a complete edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What would be the value of this edition is the 1905 notebooks were to reappear? M. Desforges works for the publisher who will market this edition. He used to be Mrs Bertrand-Verdon’s lover and his credibility has faded away recently. He can’t afford this edition to be a failure. M. de Chareilles was about to marry Mrs Bertrand-Verdon. He’s a traditional nobleman and it’s not certain that he knows all about his fiancée’s background. Professor Rainsford is an American academics who has been in contact with Mrs Bertrand-Verdon too. He seems to have things to hide as well.

All the important people of this literary microcosm have something to hide or a good reason to fear or dislike the victim. She was quite manipulative and had the upper hand on their future. So who did it? Commissaire Jean-Pierre Foucheroux and Inspector Leila Djemani are in charge of the investigation.

Estelle Monbrun is the penname of Elyane Dezon-Jones, a teacher of contemporary French literature in the USA. (Barnard College and Washington University in St Louis) She’s a specialist of Proust and Marguerite Yourcenar. Murder chez Proust will be nice for Proust nuts. It’s full of literary nudges about In Search of Lost Time and Proust’s biography. It’s fun to track them in the text.

Estelle Monbrun also knows how to write and how to describe the quiet French countryside. Her book sounds timeless. If you put aside the Proustian details, the village and the villagers reminded me of St Mary Mead. The best characters are the police, with a commissaire who limps after an accident and mourns his wife and a female inspector of North African origins who has a lot to prove to herself.

BUT. I’m sure you were waiting for the but. Even if Estelle Monbrun ticks all the right boxes to write an Agatha-Christie branded whodunnit, it doesn’t work. It’s bland like a poorly executed imitation.

This is where you see that crime fiction is a noble genre too. You may know how to write, how to assemble plausible details and use a believable setting for a cozy crime, it’s not enough. You need talent to create a story with interesting police characters, with characters that feel like flesh-and-blood people and with actions that are believable.

Back to Michael Connelly and how I thought that The Black Echo was perfectly executed. Connelly has the craft to do that, and even if he’s not a literary writer the way Chandler is, he has a huge talent as a storyteller. Here, the ingredients are there on paper but Estelle Monbrun didn’t manage to cook a good story. Storytelling is a talent per se and excellent crime fiction is an art as difficult to handle as more literary genres.

Black Run by Antonio Manzini – crime fiction in the Italian Alps

August 2, 2019 10 comments

Black Run by Antonio Manzini (2013) French title: Piste noire. Translated from the Italian by Samuel Sfez

Rocco Schiavone had an entirely personal hierarchy up and down which he ranked the pains in the ass that life senselessly inflicted on him every day. The scale actually started at 6, which covered anything that had to do with keeping house: grocery shopping, plumbers, paying rent. The number 7 included malls, banks, medical clinics, and doctors in general, with a special bonus for dentists, and concluded with work diners or family diners, though all his living relatives, thank God, were down south in Rome. An 8 on the hierarchy began, first and foremost, with public speaking, followed by any and all bureaucratic procedures required for his job, going to the theatre, and reporting to chiefs of police or investigating magistrates. At number 9 came tobacco shops that weren’t open when he needed a pack of cigarettes, cafés that didn’t carry Algida ice cream bars, running in anyone who wanted to talk and talk endlessly, and especially stakeouts with police officers who needed a bath.

Topping the hierarchy, the worst and the most dreaded, was a rating of 10. The top, the worst, the mother of all pains in the ass: the investigation he wasn’t expecting.

Translated by Antony Shugaar

Black Run by Antonio Manzini is an Italian crime fiction novel set in the Italian Alps, near the French border, in the Valle d’Aosta. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone is the one who has the scale to rank up pains in the ass in life. This quote describes his grumpy self. He’s been sent from Rome to this valley against his will and he likes nothing there. The weather, the people, his staff, the atmosphere, everything rubs him the wrong way.

Black Run starts with a dead body found on a ski slope. Amadeo Gunelli drives a snowcat and prepares runs for the upcoming ski weekend at the Champoluc ski resort when he collides and drives over a corpse. Needless to say, the body is hard to recognize after that.

Schiavone is woken up in the middle of the night to drive up in the mountain and go to the crime scene. That’s were we learn about his rating of life’s pains in the ass and his methods to lead crime investigations.

I will not write about the plot itself, it’s a straightforward police investigation with financial and love interests intermingled in a close-knit community. The case was OK but I was only looking for entertainment when I bought this book.

My problem was that I totally disliked Schiavone. He’s obnoxious. He’s unhappy to have to go to the mountains and cares more about style than practicalities. That’s why he walks around in Clarke shoes in a ski resort: he wouldn’t want to be caught wearing ugly snow boots. He truly despises his team and treats them like they are morons.

He’s callous with women, objectifying them, flirting with everything that has a skirt and that he finds relatively attractive. He always appraises their worth according to their looks. This macho attitude could be tolerable from a writer born a century ago but not from a contemporary writer.

And, he’s also a corrupt cop, having illegal activities on the side. He had his own personal drama when he was still in Rome but I didn’t like him enough to care.

I know that you don’t have to like the characters of a book to enjoy it. But it’s different with crime fiction series. You need to like the main character enough to want to stick with him or her and follow him or her in her other investigations. Here, I didn’t like Schiavone and I won’t be reading any other book from this series.

Has anyone read a book with Schiavone too? If yes, what did you think about it?

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly – Perfectly executed

July 29, 2019 9 comments

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (1992) French title: Les égoûts de Los Angeles.

Michael Connelly was the star at Quais du Polar this year. I attended two events where he was a guest star, a film about LA and Connelly’s writing and a wonderful jazz & literature session with him and James Sallis. I saw him on the street, simply having a sandwich at the terrace of a bakery. I liked his attitude, he didn’t behave like he was a big deal and yet he is, if you consider the number of books he has sold. It made me want to read one of his books and I picked The Black Echo, the first opus of his famous Harry Bosch series.

Harry Bosch is a detective on the LAPD homicide team and he has just been demoted. The Internal Affairs are after him. When he and his partner are sent on a scene where a dead body was found, he’s the only one not to dismiss this death as an overdose. Something doesn’t sit well with him. And then he realizes that he knew the victim. It’s Billy Meadows, a fellow veteran who fought alongside him in the Vietnam War. There is no way Harry will let this case alone, despite all the roadblocks on the path: he has enemies in the LAPD and he crosses the FBI’s path. It’ll be a dangerous case for Harry’s career and even physical integrity.

I wasn’t sure that I’d like Connelly’s books but I did. Harry Bosch is an attaching character and The Black Echo is polished debut novel. Bosch is fully formed, believable and Connelly’s knowledge of police procedure and LAPD’s ways is precious and accurate. Bosch’s quotidian sounds real, like here:

Two hours of typing and smoking and drinking bad coffee later, a bluish cloud hung near the ceiling lights over the homicide table and Bosch had completed the myriad forms that accompany a homicide investigation. He got up and made copies on the Xerox in the back hall.

The reader believes that Harry is a real detective, a maverick among his peers and that make him interesting. Details about the Vietnam War ring true too, a black echo was a soldier who went into tunnels, in search of Vietcong soldiers. Connelly doesn’t give useless information about the war but only the ones relevant for the plot and the reader’s understanding of Bosch’s past.

Connelly describes himself as a storyteller and that’s an accurate description. His prose is good, efficient. The Black Echo is an excellent page turner, I was eager to continue, to see how it would end. I liked Bosch and was totally engaged at his side during the story. It’s captivating and everything is well done: the LA setting, Bosch himself and his interactions with his colleagues, the atmosphere of the police investigation. It’s efficient, like Stephen King, only in a different genre.

Connelly is a wonderful and engaging writer but not an artist like other literary authors, which is not something he claims to be. From what I see in The Black Echo, the Bosch series is an excellent source of reliable, good and entertaining reads. We do need this kind of books because reading is above all a pleasure. And sometimes, literary books are interesting or challenging but not all that pleasurable.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom by Anita Heiss

July 20, 2019 13 comments

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss. (2016) Not available in French. 

This billet was due for Lisa’s Indigenous Lit Week but time went away from me and I’m late.

When Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms opens, we’re in 1944 in Australia. Japanese POW are kept in a camp in Cowra, in NSW, 300k East of Sydney. On August 5th, 1944, a thousand of these POWs escaped from the camp. Most of them died, either killed by Australian guards or because they committed suicide. Indeed, it was so shameful to a Japanese soldier to be held prisoner that it was better to die than come home with such a disgrace.

Hiroshi was among the Japanese who broke free from the camp in Cowra but he didn’t die. He managed to escape and reach the nearby Aboriginal station at Erambie. Banjo Williams, who lives at the mission, finds him and he and his wife Joan decide to hide Hiroshi until he can go home. It is a risky decision and their clandestine gust must stay hidden in a cave.

Banjo and Joan decide that their seventeen years old daughter Mary will bring him food and clothes. Hiroshi studied English at university – a convenient plot device –he can engage into friendly conversations with Mary and communicate properly with his hosts. Mary and Hiroshi get to know each other. Through their talks, the reader learns about Japan and life at the Aboriginal mission. And as expected, they fall in love.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is second Anita Heiss after Not Meeting Mr Right, a fluffy romance whose aim was to show the world that an Aboriginal young woman lived the same way as any Australian young woman of her age. Then I read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, not written but edited by Anita Heiss. It’s a stunning collection of 50 texts written by Aboriginal people from all Australia and all ages. They describe what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia and share their experience. Extremely moving.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is a novel between the two. It’s romance and fiction based on historical facts. It’s a political novel wrapped in a romance cover. Anita Heiss gathered stories and anecdotes from Erambie’s inhabitants and changed them into literary yarn, knitting a novel with a thread of fiction and a thread of history.

I enjoyed reading about life at Erambie and learnt more about the status of Aborigines in the 1940s. I think it’s even worse than Native American living on reserves in the USA. Food resources are limited. Work is rare and Banjo is lucky to be gainfully employed. Aborigines are under the guardianship of the mission’s Manager. They live under Acts of Protection and Assimilation, which means that they don’t have basic civil rights.

Anita Heiss’s purpose is commendable. You don’t catch flies with vinegar and this romance has more chances to attract a wide public than a dry essay. It is effective. The reader sees life through Banjo’s and Mary’s perspective. We feel empathy for them and anger towards the asinine rules they have to abide by. A non-Aboriginal reader will learn things and the novel’s educational aim is obvious, even if subtly played. Whatever works is good if it means that the message of tolerance is heard.

I thought that the romance between Hiroshi and Mary was too obvious, too predictable. In my eyes, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms would have been more powerful if Anita Heiss had chosen a male Aboriginal character who builds a strong friendship with a foreigner. The love card is a cliché that dims the novel’s lights. It’s good research and interesting but the romance is counterproductive and didn’t work for me.

If you want to know more about Aboriginal Australia, I’d recommend to read Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. Meanwhile, I hope that Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms reached readers who don’t read non-fiction and that it helped Australians face part of their past, as this was also one of Heiss’s goal.

For a better written and better informed piece about this novel, check out Lisa’s review here.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen – Vietnam before WWII

June 23, 2019 7 comments

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?

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.

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