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Penny Plain by O. Douglas – “This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

July 4, 2020 21 comments

Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan) 1920 Not available in French.

This says tea, and a fire and a book and a friend—the four nicest things in the world.”

I’d never heard of O. Douglas before reading Ali’s post about Penny Plain for the 1920 Club. I decided it was a good book to have on hand for lockdown times or for days with little book concentration. I was happy to find it on my e-reader on a headachy Sunday.

Penny Plain is a romantic comedy set in Priorsford, Scotland, in 1920. Jean is 23 and lives with her brothers David, Jock and their adoptive brother Mohr in a rented house, The Rigs. Their parents are dead and Jean raises her brothers. She struggles to make ends meet. When the book opens, two events change her routine: David is leaving home to study in Oxford and Pamela Reston settles in Priorsford.

Pamela Reston is from English aristocracy. She’s almost forty, single and tired of her superficial socialite life. She decided to come to Priorsford to enjoy a simple life. Her brother, Lord Birdborough is in India. She calls him Birdy and they are close. In a nutshell, Pamela is having what we call now a mid-life crisis. Her arrival makes waves in Priorsford…

“I do wonder what brings her to Priorsford! I rather think that having been all her life so very ‘twopence coloured’ she wants the ‘penny plain’ for a change. Perhaps that is why she likes The Rigs and us. There is no mistake about our ‘penny-plainness’—it jumps to the eye!

But Pamela soon befriends the locals, especially Jean. In appearance, they are total opposite. Jean is the kind of virtuous character you only find in novels. She’s rather mousy and here she is, seen through Pamela’s eyes.

Jean dried her eyes and went on with her darning, and Pamela walked about looking at the books and talking, taking in every detail of this girl and her so individual room, the golden-brown hair, thick and wavy, the golden-brown eyes, “like a trout-stream in Connemara,” that sparkled and lit and saddened as she talked, the mobile, humorous mouth, the short, straight nose and pointed chin, the straight-up-and-down belted brown frock,

(Trout fishing really follows me everywhere, eh?)

It’s a romantic comedy, there’s no great originality in the plot but the characters are well-drawn. Jean’s brothers are funny, especially Mohr, the little one, only aged seven. He’s full of mischief. The crew of servants is also quirky, even if they tend to speak with Scottish accent and that was a challenge for me. Sentences like this require a bit of attention:

He couldna veesit his folk at a wise-like hour in the evening because he was gaun to hev his denner, and he couldna get oot late because his leddy-wife wanted him to be at hame efter denner.

You can’t forget you’re in Scotland. Going to England seems like crossing a border and venturing into a foreign land. And what it is with Scotland and religious intricacies? Catherine Helen Spence mentions it in her Autobiography and it went over my head. Her family was Calvinist and it weighed on her vision of life. Jean’s aunt, who raised her, was also a Calvinist and was frightfully religious—a strict Calvinist—and taught Jean to regard everything from the point of view of her own death-bed.

There are different churches in Priorsford and any newcomer must pick one. That’s already strange for a French for whom things are rather clear-cut. In the 1920s, you’re Catholic, maybe Protestant and there’s only one church of each. The real debate would have been between the churchgoers and the anti-clerical folks. Here, since there’s a wider offer of religious services, there are puzzling passages about the merits of a clergyman or the other, peppered with remarks like Episcopalians are slightly better fitted for society than Presbyterians. I read this and thought “?????”

This brings me to the other nice side of Penny Plain, O Douglas’s witty prose and clever observations. It counterbalances well the obviousness of the plot. It can be in descriptions of people:

Mrs. Jowett is a sweet woman, but to me she is like a vacuum cleaner. When I’ve talked to her for ten minutes my head feels like a cushion that has been cleaned—a sort of empty, yet swollen feeling.

Don’t we all know people like that whose conversation is one-sided and leaves you baffled? It’s also in little notes..

January is always a long, flat month: the Christmas festivities are over, the bills are waiting to be paid, the weather is very often of the dreariest, spring is yet far distant. With February, hope and the snowdrops begin to spring, but January is a month to be warstled through as best we can.

I’ve always felt like this about January. Some things don’t change, even a century later.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book, and with a little wave to Bill, I’d say a perfect one to listen to while driving a truck. I’ll leave you with a last oh-so-true little quote:

“You know the people,” said Pamela, “who say, ‘Of course I love reading, but I’ve no time, alas!’ as if everyone who loves reading doesn’t make time.”

 

 

20 Books of Summer #2: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski – Take a walk on a wild timeline

June 27, 2020 6 comments

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (2010) French title: Date limite. Translated by Sophie Aslanides

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski was our Book Club choice for June. I’ve read enough Swierczynskis now to be –almost—able to write his name without mixing the letters up or putting too many Ys. I’ve read The Blonde and the Charlie Hardie series, Fun and GamesHell and Gone and Point and Shoot.

All books mix Noir, thriller and SF with a huge dose of humor. Imagine the cocktail. I love it. For French readers, Swierczynski’s translator is Sophie Aslanides and it’s published by Rivages Noir. That’s enough for crime fiction lovers to pick the book, IMO.

So, what happens in Expiration Date?

We’re in Philadelphia. When the book opens, it’s present time. Journalist Mickey Wade has just been fired by his newspaper. Since he earned just enough to survive with his wages as a journalist, he’s now flat broke. He’s moving from his upscale neighborhood to a bad one, Frankford. That’s where he grew up and where he’s going to stay rent-free in his grandfather’s apartment while he’s at the hospital.

First night in the building, there’s a bodega downstairs but not a lot of neighbors. His friend Meghan helps him moving in and when she’s gone, Mickey feels tired, lonely, a bit desperate and headachy. He looks around Grand Pop Henry’s apartment and is intrigued by all the boxes he sees. But now is not the time to go through Pop’s stuff. He hunts down pills to fight his headache, finds what he thinks is Tylenol, pops two in his mouth, washes them out with some water and is thrown back to Frankford on February 22, 1972, his date of birth.

And I can’t tell you more about the plot without truly spoiling it. It sounds like Back to the Future but it’s by Swierczynski, so there must be murders, an investigation and bad guys. The plot is gripping and takes you for such a spin that sometimes you don’t know where you are or when. That’s the entertaining side of the book.

The more serious side is that, through these journeys into the past, Swierczynski takes us to Frankford street and shows us how it was a working-class neighborhood in the 1920s, moved to a middle-class one in the 1970s when Mickey was a kid to a run-down neighborhood. It’s now dangerous and the territory of gangs and drug dealers. The decline of industrial jobs in the US happened. It is the same implacable scenario that Roth describes for his hometown Newark. There is always some social commentary in good crime fiction.

A word about the American edition. Swierczynski writes for Marvel Comics and this one is published by Minautor Books. It includes black-and-white illustrations like in old fashioned books. It gives them a wonderful vintage feel.

Do I need to add that this is a great holiday read?

PS : A big thank you for this book to Guy, from His Futile Preoccupations.

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ – the pressure of traditions on young couples

June 20, 2020 13 comments

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017) French title: Reste avec moi. Translated by Josette Chicheportiche.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ is a Nigerian writer and her novel Stay With Me was our Book Club choice for May. (Yes, I’m late with writing this billet. I never seem to be able to write billets in the same order as I read books)

Yejide and Akin are still in university when they meet and fall in love. They get married quickly and are happy together. Unfortunately, four years after their wedding, Yejide isn’t pregnant yet. The young couple wouldn’t worry about it if Akin’s mother didn’t put pressure on them. As her eldest son, he must have children to keep his family’s lineage alive. Yejide sees all the specialists and medicine men she can, but to no avail. Life goes on until her mother-in-law brings to her house Akin’s second wife.

Stay With Me goes back and forth between the present (2008) and the past (the 1980s) where everything began. Yejide’s first reaction is intense jealousy towards Fumni, Akin’s second wife. She feels betrayed by her husband, by her mother-in-law. She’s against polygamy and never wanted to be an Iya, a first wife.

Yejide has lost her mother when she was little. Her father was close to her but she had to live with his other wives and their children and she never found her place in the household. She thought she had found a new family with Akin’s family and her mother-in-law’s behavior is hard to accept.

Things don’t go where you think they’re headed, with a cohabitation between the two wives and all the drama around it. I can’t tell you how the story develops without spoilers, so let’s keep it that way: it’s dark and unorthodox.

Stay With Me shows an educated young couple with a Western type of relationship who is powerless to resist the pressure put by family and tradition. Yejide owns her hairdressing salon and Akin works in a bank. They live in a rather big city. They are happy the way they are but they don’t dare to go against tradition. Fighting Akin’s mother’s wishes is rude and impossible to do.

I discovered a culture I knew nothing about. Akin’s younger brother, Dotun is married and has children but it’s not enough to appease their mother. Her first born must be a father, at any cost. There’s also strong beliefs in devils, various superstitions that weigh on people’s lives.

Stay With Me is narrated by Yejide but also by Akin, and it was interesting to see events from his side. We see the pressure put on their shoulders. Of course, when a couple doesn’t have children, the assumption is that the woman’s fertility is the cause of the absence of pregnancy. Akin’s mother can’t imagine that her son could be responsible for it.

Stay With Me also mentions politics in Nigeria in the 1980s. There was a military coup in 1985 by Ibrahim Babangida. It doesn’t impact Yejide’s and Akin’s lives more than any other Nigerian of the time. They are not involved in politics and it doesn’t interfere in their attempts to have children. I didn’t see the point of including these political events in the novel.

I thought that Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s book was poignant and that it is an important plea for more individual freedom in her country. We’re in 2020, the story takes place in the 1980s, I don’t know how mores have changed in almost 40 years but surely things have moved on.

I enjoyed traveling to Nigeria, reading about the food, the customs, life in Yejide’s salon and the time it takes to braid women’s hair. I liked Stay With Me well-enough but something’s missing and it prevented me from loving it. It’s still worth reading, though.

In French, Stay With Me is published by Charleston, a publisher I’d never heard of. After a bit of research, they publish romance, which might explain why I never came across them. The French translation is by Josette Chicheportiche who has just published a new translation of Gone With the Wind. It’s a chunkster, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle such a long book. So if you’ve read it and loved it, I need some encouragements here. 😊

For the anecdote, there’s a “battle” between Gallmeister, the publisher of the new translation and Folio, who republished its old translation. If Folio’s translation of Gone With the Wind is like their translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or A Rage In Harlem, I’m definitely team Gallmeister and I’ll be reading Chicheportiche’s translation.

Two books by Viveca Sten – thoughts on the translations

May 31, 2020 12 comments

Still Waters (2008) and Closed Circles (2009) by Viveca Sten. French titles: La Reine de la Baltique and Du sang sur la Baltique. Translated from the Swedish by Laura A Wideburg (Still Waters) and by Rémi Cassaigne (Du sang sur la Baltique)

I’d heard of the Swedish writer Viveca Sten from a colleague and she was on the Quais du Polar writers’ panel for this year’s aborted edition. I think it’s the first time I’ve read two crime fiction books in a row from the same series since I had my Agatha Christie binge in 5ème (7th Grade in the US system)

It’s also the first time I read one in English translation (Still Waters) and one in French (Closed Circles). More of that later.

Still Waters and Closed Circles are the two first books of the Sandhamn series by Viveca Sten. Set on the Sandhamn island in the Stockholm archipelago, they feature Inspector Thomas Andreasson and his friend Nora Linde. Thomas works at the Nacka police and Nora is a legal advisor in a bank. Both work in Stockholm and have spent their summers in the islands near Stockholm since they were children. Nora uses her legal knowledge to help Thomas in his investigations. Unofficially, of course.

Sandhamn has become a famous vacation spot in Sweden and, from what I gathered in the books, it’s like The Hamptons in the US or Deauville in France. Nora inherited her house from her grandmother, otherwise she couldn’t afford to buy one. Thomas has a summer house on Harö, a nearby island. The two books are set in July, in the peak season for holidaying in Sweden.

In Still Waters, a body is found on the beach during the summer holidays. Thomas soon finds out it’s Krister Berggren, a middle-aged man from Stockholm who works for the state-run alcohol shops, Systembolaget. He has no obvious link to Sandhamn, what happened?

In Closed Circles, a famous regatta organized by the Royal Swedish Yacht Club (RSYC) is about to start when a participant is shot. The victim, Oscar Juliander is the deputy president of the RSYC and a well-known bankruptcy lawyer in Stockholm. Thomas was already on the scene since he was among the public who wanted to watch the race. He will lead the investigation. Nora is also in Sandhamn for the holidays, with her husband and children.

These two books are part of a series and a key success factor of a series is to hook up the reader on the characters’ private lives. We’re in the realm of all modern crime fiction series, away from Poirot and Maigret who don’t seem to have a life outside of crime investigating. It worked with me since I engaged in Thomas and Nora’s lives and picked up Closed Circles right after reading Still Waters.

Thomas is a Swedish cliché: six foot four, well built, his shoulders broad from years of handball training. He looked just like the archetypal policeman, big and reassuring, with blond hair and blue eyes. He’s divorced and his marriage to Pernilla fell apart after their infant died from SIDS. After almost drowning in sorrow, he’s now slowly resurfacing. After several crime fiction books with alcoholic PIs and detectives, Thomas was a welcome reprieve.

Nora is married to Henrik, a doctor, and they have two sons, Adam and Simon. In her late thirties, Nora starts to think she doesn’t get that much out of her marriage. Henrik spends his holiday on his boat and participates in regattas while she’s left behind with the children. Then Nora’s employer asks whether she’d be interested in becoming the head of their legal department in Malmö. It’s a promotion but one that requires a move. Will Henrik accept to uproot the family for her career?

I wasn’t thrilled by Still Waters, I thought that the writing was a bit clumsy at times (Nora placed the chicken dish on the table and put on the latest Norah Jones CD, her namesake apart from the h.) and I had guessed who the murderer was, which is not a good sign. When I read crime fiction, I let the writer carry me to the ending. I don’t try to pick up clues and outsmart the detective to find out who did it. So, if I guess the ending without trying to find it, in my eyes, the book is flawed. The cliffhanger about Nora’s life pushed me to read the second book, also thinking that the first book of the series isn’t always the best one. Unfortunately, the same thing happened with Closed Circles: I guessed the two main clues of the plot and that’s a definite no-go for me. Plus, the characters’ lives took a turn that didn’t interest me anymore.

So, no more Viveca Sten for me, unless I want something easy to read. That said, reading two books from the same series, one in English and one in French was an interesting experience.

I had the English rhythm of Sten’s writing well in mind when I started the second book in French. It didn’t have the same vibe and it took me a few chapters to get used to the French translation. The English one felt neutral and smooth, the French one felt a bit contrived and inaccurate. The translator overdid it when he translated the scenes at the Nacka precinct, lowering the level of language of the police team, as if they needed to sound more NYPD Blues to sound true.

In the English version of Still Waters, the police chief is introduced like this: The old man was the head of criminal investigation in Nacka, Detective Chief Inspector Göran Persson.

Then, he’s called Persson in the rest of the book. In my head, he was close to retirement and a bit quick-tempered. In the French translation, he’s called le Vieux. (The Oldman) I was really surprised and downloaded an extract of the English translation of Closed Circles. Chapter 5, we’re at the precinct:

Göran Persson, the head of the criminal unit of the Nacka police, couldn’t keep his anger under control.

Göran, chef de l’unité criminelle à la police de Nacka, surnommé le Vieux, ne parvenait pas à contenir sa colère.

Where does the “surnommé le Vieux”, (“nicknamed the Oldman”) comes from? And then, he becomes le Vieux in the book. A few lines later, about Carina:

Carina Persson, the chief’s daughter sat beside them. For the past two years, she’d worked as their administrative assistant while trying to get into the police academy. She’d finally been admitted this fall. A côté d’eux était assise Carina Persson, la fille du Vieux, qui travaillait depuis deux ans au commissariat comme assistante administrative, tout en préparant le concours de l’école de police. Elle allait enfin le passer à l’automne.  

The “chief’s daughter” becomes the “Oldman’s daughter”. In French, le Vieux is more derogatory than Oldman in English. You never know what was the publisher’s order regarding the translation, they may have asked for this and the translator had to comply. We’ll live with this.

But inaccuracy has nothing to do with the publisher’s requests. In the quote before, “She’s finally been admitted this fall” becomes in French “She’ll take the exam in the fall”, which is not the same at all and it happens to be an important detail in the story.

And then there was the victim’s profession. Oscar was a bankruptcy lawyer. I have no clue how it is said in Swedish but I’m sure that Viveca Sten, being a lawyer herself, used the right term. In French, the proper term in administateur judiciaire, not un administrateur de faillite like in the translation. A little research would have prevented that.

I usualIy don’t read English translations of books. Why should I make my life more difficult and read in English when I could read in French a translation made for a French reader? But I had the opportunity to get Still Waters for a cheap price on my e-reader and went for it. Reading Closed Circles in French right after Still Waters in English was eye-opening.

The writer doesn’t sound the same way in the two translations and the French one, on top of its translation flaws, sounds a bit old-fashioned. The publisher’s probably partly responsible for it, if you look at the translation of the titles. La Reine de la Baltique (The Queen of the Baltic Sea) and Du sang sur la Baltique (Blood on the Baltic) sound a lot more sensational than Still Waters and Closed Circles, which are, according to Google translate, the right translations from the Swedish.

What can I say? Readers, the publisher matters. Le Livre de Poche is not Rivages, Actes Sud or Gallmeister as far as translations are concerned. I wish they’d paid more attention to it or spent more money on it. In my opinion, they have no excuse as this book was meant to sell well: it’s crime fiction, a hugely successful genre in France, it’s Nordic crime, a bestselling sub-genre and Sten was already a success abroad. What was the financial risk on this one? We, readers, deserve a better translation than that. Maybe Gallmeister changed me into a spoiled princess, sensitive to every little pea in my crime fiction translations.

Meanwhile, if I ever read another Viveca Sten, I’ll get it in English.

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet – San Francisco Noir

May 23, 2020 6 comments

Snitch World by Jim Nisbet (2013) French title: Petit traité de la fauche. Translated by Catherine Richard-Mas

Klinger didn’t waste a moment. His door, being the one that had impacted the light pole, was jammed. So, as they’d been robbing liquor stores with the top down, since they couldn’t figure out how to get it up, he tried to step up and out of the stolen sports car with dignity. But the remnants of the airbag entangled his legs, and he and his dignity spilled headlong into the street.

And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is Klinger, the main protagonist of Snitch World by Jim Nisbet. He’s a middle-aged thug, a weird concept because people should grow out of being a thug.

He and his accomplice Chainbang have just robbed a liquor store. They are in a car accident in the middle of the street, the police, the firemen and the paramedics are on their way. Klinger takes his share and ditches Chainbang, disappearing into the night while his partner is getting arrested. That’s Klinger for you.

He loves to drink and steals to pay for his booze and spend nights in cheap hotels, in North Beach, San Francisco. Nisbet takes us to this city, which seems to have turned its back to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s to fully embrace the tech era. Klinger is old school, he doesn’t even own a mobile phone. Walking down the SF streets, he gets reacquainted with Frankie, a pick-pocketing artist who was just released from prison.

Living in the tech world is Phillip Wong, a genius in programming and designing phone apps. He’s been working night and day for a start-up founded by Marcie, a girl he has a crush on. After working himself into exhaustion, he finally understood that Marcie took advantage of him and he decided to hop off the train.

Klinger and Wong’s worlds collide when Klinger and Frankie pick Phillip as their mark and accost him on the street. Klinger distracts him, Frankie visits his pockets. Problem: Phillip fights back and both he and Frankie are unconscious on the pavement when Klinger scurries for cover.

The next morning, Klinger reads in the paper about the aggression and that one man is dead and the other is in the hospital. Who is dead and who is alive? He gets his answer quickly when Marcie knocks on his hotel door. She has geolocated Phillip’s phone and she wants it bad as it is the key to his latest IT developments.

Klinger can’t say no to Marcie’s money and embarks in a fatal journey.

This is Noir territory. San Francisco is used as an atmospheric background and rain pours down on Klinger, the same kind of rain Chandler describes in Los Angeles. Nisbet takes us on the rainy streets of San Francisco, from Tenderloin to North Beach. We visit shabby bars and decrepit hotels that could not survive COVID-19 health code regulations.

Nisbet has a great sense of humor, he makes fun of this new world we’re in, with phone owning our lives and all the various apps we use. Klinger is out of his depth in this tech-dominated world.

Professional robbers don’t pick coat pockets anymore, Nisbet tells us. Marcie and her kind pick at other people’s brain and pocket the money. But since it’s technology, it’s socially acceptable.

As his name suggests it: Klinger clings to his old ways and to life. He’s always been a drifter and his main goals are to avoid jail and to get enough money for booze, food and a dry place to sleep. He’s not a very pleasant character, probably because he’s lazy, selfish and has no loyalty. I guess we can sympathize with a criminal who lives by his own moral code, provided that he has a code and abides by it.

I was invested in the story and wondered how it would end. I enjoyed Nisbet’s style and the barbs against the tech world that transformed San Francisco into one of the most expensive cities of the USA.

Recommended.

A Humble Enterprise by Ada Cambridge – Melbourne, tea cups and romance

April 26, 2020 20 comments

A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge. (1896) Not available in French.

I decided to sign up for Australian Women Writer Challenge again. I had joined this literary event in 2018 and all my Australian readings are in here. AWW (#AWW2020) is hosted by Australian bloggers and its rules are described on their website.

The idea is to read four, six, ten or more books written by Australian women writers. I’ve already read four, so I’m joining the party now. The first ones are two books by Catherine Helen Spence, her novel Mr Hogarth’s Will and her Autobiography

I had A Humble Entreprise by Ada Cambridge on the TBR because it was included in my omnibus collection of books by Cambridge that I acquired when I read The Three Miss Kings.

It also includes Sisters, A Mere Chance, Materfamilias, The Retrospect and her memoirs Thirty Years in Australia. I’ve read Sisters (upcoming billet). Among the ones I still have on the TBR, which one would you recommend?

A Humble Entreprise doesn’t seem to be one of Cambridge’s most famous books, it’s not even listed on her Wikipedia page.

A Humble Entreprise opens with a familiar scene of 19thC novels: Joseph Liddon, a dutiful clerk at the Churchills’ offices and dies in a tram accident, leaving his wife and his three grown-up children without an income.

His young son is hired as a clerk in the same office as his father but he can’t support the whole family with his entry-level wages. The eldest daughter, Jenny, comes with a plan: she convinces her mother and sister to open a tea shop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. To keep the running of the shop simple and efficient, they decide to serve tea, coffee and scones, since Mrs Liddon excels at baking them.

She puts an ad in the paper to advertise the place and Mr Churchill, her father’s former employer, stumble upon it. He remembers about the late Mr Liddon and also that his family declined any financial help from the firm. He’s impressed by their entrepreneurship and their willingness to support themselves with their tea shop.

He decides to visit the place and endorse it. He asks his wife and daughter to have tea there on their next shopping trip to Melbourne and to promote the shop to their lady friends.

Soon, thanks to Jenny’s sound management of their money and Mrs Churchill’s patronage, the place is successful.

Meanwhile, at the Churchill mansion, the family prepares themselves to the return of Mr Churchill’s eldest son, Anthony, from his trip in Europe. His stepmother is particularly happy to see him again, she who hoped to marry him but eventually married his father. She’s still romantically attracted to her stepson, which brings a certain twist to the story.

Anthony is thirty-five, still single and thinks it’s time to settle down. If only he could find the right wife. He has played the field enough and knows he doesn’t want a frivolous wife who only cares about clothes and parties. He wants an industrious, caring wife, one who’ll want to take care of their children and not let them too much in the care of nannies.

Guess what happens when he meets hard-working, no-nonsense and entrepreneurial Jenny?

A Humble Entreprise is written for a readership of young girls. Ada Cambridge uses this light and fluffy romance to give advice about love and marriage. There are several passages in which Anthony muses over the qualities he wants in his future wife. Pretty doesn’t come first, he’s more looking for companionship. Ada Cambridge addresses directly to her readers:

And, my dear girls—to whom this modest tale is more particularly addressed—I am credibly informed that quite a large number of men are inclined to matrimony or otherwise by considerations of the same kind. You don’t think so, when you are at play together in the ball-room and on the tennis-ground, and you fancy it is your “day out,” so to speak; but they tell me in confidence that it is the fact. They adore your pretty face and your pretty frocks; they are immensely exhilarated by your sprightly banter and sentimental overtures; they absolutely revel in the pastime of making love, and will go miles and miles for the chance of it; but when it comes to thinking of a home and family, the vital circumstances of life for its entire remaining term, why, they really are not the heedless idiots that they appear—at any rate, not all of them.

Something Jane Austen says in one sentence in Emma, “Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”

Of course, her views on marriage are in accordance with the mores of her time but she still advocates equality in the personal relationship. She sees marriage as a loving partnership and she clearly wants to teach her readers that beauty evaporates with time and that a good character with adequate skills lasts longer. They should work on useful skills instead of entertaining ones.

I wonder why she didn’t go further and explain to her female readers what they should look for in a husband. After all, women of sense do not want a silly husband either. Drunkards, gamblers, idlers, spendthrifts, cheaters and quick-tempered men should raise warning flags as well. Perhaps she didn’t go there because girls didn’t have the luxury to be picky and could only hope for the best.

A Humble Entreprise is a fluffy novella I’ve read in one sitting, which was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to read a feel-good novella and it filled the bill. Cambridge writes in a light tone and has a good sense of humour, as you can see in her description of the Churchills going out to downtown Melbourne:

Half an hour later her husband and stepdaughter, two highly-finished, perfectly-tailored figures, sober and stately, severely unpretentious, yet breathing wealth and consequence at every point, set forth together through spacious gardens to the road and the tram—which appeared to the minute, as it always does for men of the Churchill stamp, who are never too soon or too late for anything.

As always, because I’m curious about everyday life in other countries and previous centuries, I enjoyed reading about Melbourne in the 19thC.

Recommended to readers who enjoy 19thC literature and are not allergic to romance.

PS: About the cover. I really don’t understand where this cover comes from. It’s miles away from the atmosphere of the book, as far from it as Nana is from Emma. The second picture is more accurate, you can imagine Jenny running the tea shop while her mother bakes the scones and her sister holds the cash register.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Meet Belinda, the clever spinster

April 19, 2020 26 comments

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950) French title: Comme une Gazelle apprivoisée.

Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog – something to love, that was the point.

For April, our Book Club chose to read Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, thanks to Jacqui’s recommendation. It is my second Pym after Excellent Women. What a delightful read it was!

We are in a little village in England, probably in the 1930s, as it’s before WWII et rather far from WWI.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are two spinsters, both over 50. They live together near the vicarage. Harriet is the most outgoing of the two. She’s friendly, cheerful and loves to socialize. Her pleasure in life is to take care of the curates of the village. She loves to have people at diner and share good food. She gets along well with Count Bianco, who regularly proposes to her and gets refused.

Belinda, our narrator, is quiet and has been in love Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve for thirty years. They met at college, bonded over poetry and she was heartbroken when he married Agatha instead of her. She now lives with her unrequited love and gets a bit bullied by Henry’s wife.

Some Tame Gazelle tells the story of the village over the span of a few months during which several events occurred. A new curate arrived, much to Harriet’s delight. Agatha went away to heal her rheumatism, freeing Belinda from her looming presence. An old friend from college, Dr Parnell came to stay at the vicarage with his colleague Mr Mold. This setting reminded Belinda of their youth. And then Agatha came back, accompanied by Bishop Theodore Grope, in charge of a diocese in Africa. All these visits and arrivals disturbed the usual course of Harriet’s and Belinda’s lives.

Harriet is bubbly and seems to have decided to make as much as possible of her life, within the constraints of country life. She enjoys nice and fashionable clothes, she cares for good food and good company. Pym says about her that Harriet was still attractive in a fat Teutonic way.

Belinda tries not to delve into the past and succumb to melancholy but living so close to Henry is like constantly pouring salt in a wound that never has time to heal to be painless at last.

Belinda is humble, probably because she doesn’t think of herself as loveable and worth of any attention after being rejected by Henry. Besides, Harriett always shines more in company and Agatha picks at her, chopping at her self-esteem.

Henry is a disagreeable pompous man but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s not fit for the life of a clergyman and I wondered how he came to this career, suspecting that Agatha roped him into it, as she is the daughter of a bishop. Henry seems only interested in poetry, a love he shares with Belinda. His sermons are full of literary references that fly over his parishioners’ heads:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. He began at the seventeenth century. Belinda reflected that if he had gone back any further, the sermon would have assumed Elizabethan proportions.

He neglects his duties as a clergyman and it’s hard to say whether he’s lazy or simply can’t be bothered with them because he doesn’t have the calling that should go with his position. He lacks the necessary people skills, the empathy and the ability to find the right comforting words at the right time. He sounds selfish and irritable but I thought it might come a deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He sounds like he wishes he has married Belinda.

Under Pym’s writing, Belinda is a delightful middle-aged lady who casts a lucid and funny look at her life and her fellow villagers. She sees a lot and is quite astute in her perception of people and the meaning behind their actions. She’s benevolent, sees the good in people and tolerates their little flaws and quirks as everyone has theirs. She’s not blind about Henry’s shortcomings but loves him anyway.

Men in Some Tame Gazelle aren’t great people. They see women and wives as convenient co-workers and caretakers for old age. A most distinctive skill for a woman is her ability to knit a good pair of socks, well-shaped and of the right size. Dear, no wonder Harriet stays single. Dr Parnell sums it up in a blunt statement: After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.’ A way to a man’s heart is his stomach and his well-socked feet.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Belinda and Henry. They seemed well-suited for each other and Belinda’s life is a waste of her talents. She could have been so much more but her crushed hopes put her in a shell she never went out of. And Henry is probably living the wrong life, with a career that was not his calling.

A Tame Gazelle is a great study of characters, being in Belinda’s head was charming. Pym also shows a society full of social constraints, of etiquette and habits. We see it in passing when Belinda muses “Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.” How can there be a rule about when to think about poetry?

As a French, I also had a lot of fun with the food. It is of much importance to Harriet’s well-being and Pym shares about the various menus. I wondered what sardine eggs, cauliflower cheese, a tin of tongue, potato cakes, Belgian buns, trifles and rissoles could be. And I found this discussion most puzzling:

What meat did you order?’ ‘Mutton,’ said Belinda absently. ‘But we haven’t any red-currant jelly,’ said Harriet. ‘One of us will have to go out tomorrow morning and get some. Mutton’s so uninteresting without it.’

What has mutton to do with red-currant jelly?

QDP Days #2 : At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier – Discover Lyon in 1921 and the first CSI lab in the world

April 4, 2020 13 comments

At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier (2013) Original French title : La nuit, in extremis. Not available in English.

This is Day 2 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar.

Today is about At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier. It is the third instalment of a series set in Lyon, with professor Hugo Salacan and commissaire Kolvair as main characters.

We’re in 1921 and Anthelme Frachant gets out of prison. Commissaire Kolvair knew him from their war years and knows that he killed Bertail, another soldier and a friend of Kolvair’s. Kolvair suspects that he will kill again and decides to follow him. He takes a room in the same boarding house as Anthelme. During his first night there, Kolvair leaves his room in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by withdrawal symptoms and goes out in search of his next cocaine dose. Kolvair lost a leg in the Great War and suffers from phantom pain. He also has PTSD. Cocaine has become a coping mechanism and that night, it saves his life, in extremis. Indeed, while he was away, Anthelme slaughtered everyone in the boarding house.

Anthelme turns himself to the police and Kolvair finds him at the prison’s asylum. The question is Will Anthelme be judged for his crimes or will it be considered that he lacks criminal responsibility, due to mental illness? The alienist Bianca Serragio thinks that he is schizophrenic, an illness that doctors still investigate and try to define. Will she be able to convince Public Prosecutor Rocher that Anthelme cannot be hold accountable for his actions and that he must be placed in an asylum instead?

At night, in extremis is more a novel about Lyon, the 1920s than a true crime fiction novel. With the murderer known from the beginning and without any actual police investigation, the plot centers around the city, the times and the personal lives of the characters.

Lyon is where the cinema was born. It is also a scientific cluster for forensic science. Lyon had the first CSI lab in the world. Indeed, Edmond Locard (1877-1966) studied with Alexandre Lacassagne, a pioneer in forensic medicine. (See Lacassagne in action in my billet about The Rhône Murders by Coline Gatel) Both are from Lyon. In 1910, Locard set up the first CSI lab in the attic of the Palais de Justice in Lyon. He researched graphology, fingerprinting methods, ballistics and toxicology. He coined the Locard’s exchange principle, still used in today’s forensic science. His statement is that “Every contact leaves a trace”. His Traité de police scientifique is a seven-volume methodology of forensic science still in use in today’s CSI departments.

Kolvair believes in CSI and works with forensic scientists. Odile Bouhier evokes the famous lab in the attic. Her alienist, Bianca Serragio works at the Bron asylum, now known as Le Vinatier hospital. It was founded in 1877 and they still have some of the 19thC buildings and a big park. It’s also a reknown psychiatric hospital in France. Bianca Serragio is doing research in psychiatry, looking for ways to improve diagnosis and cures. The Rorschach test dates back to 1921 and Bianca believes it will help. Odile Bouhier depicts times of great scientific breakthroughs in criminology and psychiatrics.

This historical setting is interesting and piqued my curiosity. Since the crime plot was easily solved, the reader’s attention is focused on the characters’ personal lives.

Kolvair battles against demons inherited from the Great War and his liaison with Bianca is his safe place. Bianca has to fight for a field that needs recognition and being female doesn’t help. Forensic scientist Badou is orchestrating a hasty marriage of convenience because someone blackmails him, and threatens to reveals his homosexuality. His bride knows his sexual preferences and goes into this marriage with her eyes open. Professor Salacan’s children need extra-care, one has trisomy 21 and another is diabetic. This is how I learnt that in 1921, in Toronto, J.J.R. McLeod was conducting research and experiment on insulin.

Bouhier’s novel shows a city with a strong scientific community, but the novel felt unfinished, pieces are not stitched together well-enough. I had trouble remembering all the characters. There are too many of them for a 280 pages book. IMO, the writer should have either stuck with Kolvair and his PTSD or written a longer book, to give herself time to develop everyone’s personal lives and personalities.

It was a nice read for the local setting, the picture of Lyon in 1921. It spurred me to browse through several Wikipedia articles about Locard, Le Vinatier and other scientific facts and I always love to learn new things.

Many thanks to M. who gave me this book before moving back to America.

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian – excellent

February 1, 2020 18 comments

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian (1998) French title: Incident à Twenty-Mile. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of westerns. I know of the genre, I’ve seen passages of films, I know the key actors and what they look like but I haven’t actually watched a lot of those films. My mind doesn’t keep an extensive bank of western images for future reference. I like to think that I approach westerns in books with an almost clean mind.

My first western book was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey and the next one was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. Incident at Twenty-Mile is my third visit to the genre, a western written by Trevanian in 1998. To be more precise, it is a novel that mixes two genres, western and crime fiction.

The novel opens at the State Prison at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1898. Lieder is a very dangerous prisoner held in the security quarters of the prison. He reads a lot, can manipulate his wards and has already escaped from two other prisons. His new ward is a rookie and his colleagues have warned him against Lieder’s sneaky ways and violence.

Meanwhile, a young man named Matthew arrives at the small of town of Twenty-Mile, a town settled along a railway line between the town of Destiny and a silver mine up in the mountain. The few inhabitants of Twenty-Mile survive because they provide necessities and entertainment to the miners every weekend. This explains why the city has a General Store owned by Mr Kane and his daughter, an inn operated by the Bjorkvist family, a barber shop run by Pr Murphy, a brothel managed by Mr Delany and his three “girls” and a stable handled by Coots and BJ Stone.

When Matthew arrives at Twenty-Mile, he’s penniless and looking for a job. He makes a tour of the business owners but none of them wants to hire him. He doesn’t give up and convinces each of them to employ him for a few hours a day, selling himself at a low price in order to create his own job.

Through hard work, calm and politeness, Matthew worms himself in Twenty-Mile, ends up settling in the vacated sheriff’s house. He needs to belong to a community and decided to settle in this isolated town full of misfits.

From the beginning, we see that Matthew is a troubled man. He tries too hard. He’s afraid of rejection. He has a childish obsession for the children books The Ringo Kid, an anachronic reference to a Marvel Comics series from the 1950s. When he doesn’t know what to do, Matthew wonders what The Ringo Kid would do and acts accordingly. His father was a drunkard and he’s still trying to heal the scars he got from domestic violence and poverty. He wants to be loved and part of something.

Of course, Lieder escapes from Laramie’s prison with other inmates and decides that the money from the silver mine near Twenty-Mile would be a good loot. The town of Twenty-Mile gets prepared to defend itself against this dangerous criminal.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is absolutely brilliant. Trevanian is a gifted writer, with a flowing prose, a knack for describing landscapes and for setting a specific atmosphere. The people in Twenty-Mile are well-drawn, each of them has something in their past or their present that keeps them hostage of the place. The town is a character in itself, an example of these remote Western towns that grew over night, along with the discovery of gold or silver veins. Wyoming and Montana have ghost towns and Twenty-Mile is already declining. We know that if the mine closes, this town up the mountain will die with it.

This is my second Trevanian in a year, the other one was The Summer of Katyaa psychological thriller set in the Basque country in France before WWI. Despite the very different settings, the two books have similarities.

Here, Trevanian plays with codes of westerns, it’s obvious in the various descriptions of the street in Twenty-Mile and the way Matthew repeatedly squints at the horizon. You can almost hear a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

In both books, characters experienced a trauma in their adolescence and it affects their abilities to live as capable and sane adults. Lieder is a psychopath and his damaging childhood released a lot of violence in him, a total lack of empathy and a messianic vision of his role in this world. It’s a bit chilling and uncanny to hear him promote WASP supremacy and rant against immigrants.

Matthew isn’t a functioning adult either, only the outcome is different. He was the recipient of raw violence and does everything he can to tame these tendencies, thanks to the Ringo Kid ideal. I can’t say more to avoid spoilers but Trevanian’s exploration of Matthew’s mind and past goes farther.

In The Summer of Katya, Trevanian showed a pointed interest in psychoanalysis. I think that it is present in Incident at Twenty-Mile too and this particular undertone gives a special flavor to his novel.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is an excellent thriller, with an extraordinary sense of place, well-drawn characters and good suspense. Highly recommended.

Another great find by Gallmeister and masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

December 28, 2019 9 comments

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (2014) French title: Funny Girl. Translated by Christine Barbaste

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby opens on a pageant contest in Blackpool, UK. We are in the early 60s and Barbara Parker becomes Miss Blackpool. She ended up in this competition after her aunt suggested it. As soon as Barbara realizes that being Miss Blackpool means a whole year of service as a ribbon cutter to the city of Blackpool, she steps out and refuses her title.

Barbara is a fan of I Love Lucy and she wants to be like Lucille Ball, to make people laugh. She leaves Blackpool to go to London and becomes Sophie Straw. Her agent helps her find auditions even if he thinks she has better chances as a model than as an actress.

One of her auditions takes her to the BBC where the director Dennis Maxwell-Bishop is looking for an actress for a new TV show. The screenwriters are the duo Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner who were successful with a previous radio show. Clive Richardson will play the male character of this new venture, a sitcom about a couple and their domestic life. Tony and Bill struggle with the scenario, they cannot make the characters sound genuine.

Sophie arrives for the audition and boldly challenges them. She has charisma, a mix of innocence and ambition. She’s a natural comic. Her personality and suggestions are inspiring to Bill and Tony. The four of them make a great team, their working together boosts their creativity.

The adventure of the TV series Barbara (and Jim) can start.

Funny Girl is centered around Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill’s lives. Clive is present too, but not as much as the others.

Tony and Bill are both homosexual. They met after they were caught by the police as it was still a criminal offense at the time.  Tony chooses security, marries June and lives a middle-class life. Bill remains true to himself and is involved with the London gay scene.

Dennis is married to Edith, who works for a publisher. She’s at ease with the literary world and her friends have no respect for Dennis’s job. It creates frictions in their couple.

Barbara/Sophie loves her job and her life. Hornby created a lively character, class-conscious and hardworking. Success doesn’t change her. Sure, she can afford a different lifestyle but she never becomes snotty. She’s a very loveable character who learns to navigate in her new environment.

We follow the seasons of Barbara (and Jim) and they give rhythm to the characters’ lives. Nick Hornby ambitions to bring back London in the 60s, the change in the British society and how it is reflected in TV shows. It’s a quick and entertaining read about a turning point in the country: more personal freedom, first commercial TV, end of criminalization of homosexuality, music…It’s also the clash between “classic culture” and “pop culture”, with intellectual looking down on TV producers and even more on comedy shows. Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill belong to the pioneers of television series, a genre that is currently thriving.

I imagine that if you’re British and old enough to have known that time, it must be a wonderful trip down memory lane. For me, it was a fun read but nothing more.

Figurec by Fabrice Caro – Appearances are deceitful

December 15, 2019 4 comments

Figurec by Fabrice Caro (2006) Not available in English

Figurec is Fabrice Caro’s debut novel. His first love is BD (comics) with an offbeat sense of humor. He has a knack for picturing our world, our quirks and inconsistencies. You’ve heard about him twice this year on this blog, first when I blogged about his BD Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and then when I wrote about his latest novel, Le discoursFigurec is a first bridge between his BD and novels, Le discours is more accomplished.

Now the book and how can you sum up a book like Figurec?

The first chapter is an “Act 1, Scene 1” of a theatre play. The second chapter is a man attending a funeral and who thinks:

L’enterrement de Pierre Giroud m’a énormément déçu, c’était une cérémonie sans réelle émotion. D’accord, il y avait du monde, bien plus qu’à celui d’Antoine Mendez, mais tout cela manquait de rythme, de conviction. Même la fille de Pierre Giroud –du moins celle que je supposais être la fille de Pierre Giroud—n’était pas très en verve. Elle hésitait en permanence entre une pudique retenue et des sanglots bruyants de qualité très médiocre. Le résultat était assez caricatural, sans nuances. Pierre Giroud’s funeral was a stark disappointment. It was a ceremony devoid of real emotion. OK, there were a lot of people, a lot more than at Antoine Mendez’s funeral but this one lacked rhythm and conviction. Even Pierre Giroud’s daughter –or at least the one I assumed was Pierre Giroud’s daughter –wasn’t in brilliant form. She was always between modest self-restraint and loud sobs of poor quality. The result was caricatural, without proper nuance.

He watches the funeral as if he were watching and commenting a theatre play or a soccer game.

After this funeral, the narrator goes to diner at his friends Julien and Claire’s place. We learn that he dines with them five times a week but they don’t seem to mind. He likes them but still thinks he’s mooching off them and at the same time bringing entertainment in their otherwise dull marriage. For fun, Julien collects original 45s that were #1 at the Top 50 French chart in the 1980s and his enthusiasm about his latest find is puzzling, but who are we to judge someone else’s passions?

Our narrator also goes to diner at his parents’, a diner that his successful younger brother and lovely girlfriend attend too. His parents worry about him because he won’t settle down and doesn’t seem to grow up. He feels like a failure compared to his brother.

Our narrator is a would-be playwright and the “Act Something / Scene Something” inserted in the novel remind us his attempts at writing his play and his true goal in life.

After the first few pages, the reader feels that they’re spending time with a weird narrator, a sort of loser who attends funeral for fun, takes advantage of his friends, makes his parents believe he’s a writer-to-be when he just bums around. At this stage we think we’re just with a pathetic and nutty character.

Things get strange when a man approaches him at a funeral and asks him whether he belongs to Figurec too. That’s where the off-the-wall story takes you to a parallel world of false pretense where you don’t know who is who and what to think. All this is wrapped up in Caro’s unique brand of humor and talent for alternate universes.

A fun and disconcerting book. Next week I’ll see the theatre version of Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and I can’t wait to see how the director translated this BD to the stage.

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville – Splendid

December 8, 2019 17 comments

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934) Not available in French.

I downloaded Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville after reading Guy’s review and what a delight!

We’re in 1934. Jim Henderson is in his thirties, single, unemployed and lives in a boarding house. One day he receives a letter from the mysterious Edwin Carson, a wealthy collector of precious stones. Carson invites Henderson to a weekend at his country house, Thrackley. Jim is a bit weary of this invitation that comes out of thin air but is not in a position to refuse a weekend of free food and accomodation. Then he realises that his good friend The Honorable Freddie Usher is also invited and they decide to carpool to Thrackley.

As they arrive to the gloomy house, they are welcomed by a creepy butler, Jacobson. Their unease increases when they understand that all the guests are rich and own jewels. All but Jim Henderson. He wonders why he was invited and he starts thinking that Carson has an ulterior motive: gathering this party is not just about enjoying each other’s company.

The weekend unfolds and after various peripeties, the mystery is solved and Jim learns about his past.

The summary is a classic murder book of the time. It has the same recipe as a book by Patricia Wentworth. The major difference is Melville’s sense of humour. I was hooked from the first pages by the lightness of his tone, the affectionate way he makes fun of his characters. The description of Henderson’s life at the boarding house was catchy and I couldn’t put the book down. Here are a few excerpts of Melville’s delightful prose:

The alarm clock at Mr. Henderson’s left ear gave a slight warning twitch and then went off with all its customary punctuality and power. It had not cost a great deal of money (to be exact, three shillings and eleven pence), but for all that it had a good bullying ring which could be calculated to waken most of Mrs. Bertram’s lodgers. Not, however, Mr. Henderson.

___

“Damn!” said Catherine Lady Stone, a member of the Council of the Society for the Purification of the English Language.

This is a perfect Beach-and-Public-Transport book but also a wonderful Gloomy-Winter-Day book that you associate with reading on a couch by the fireplace. It’s British classic crime in all its glory and it can’t get more British than that:

She suddenly shot from her chair and said loudly: “I can’t stand it another minute!” the effect was much the same as if a lorry-load of milk-cans had collided with a double-decker bus in the middle of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John – the waste of a relationship

November 3, 2019 14 comments

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John (1997) Not available in French. (Translation Tragedy)

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John is set in London, even if its author is Australian. I wonder why this novel needed to be in London, Sydney or Melbourne would have done the trick too. Well.

One night, when Nicola comes home after going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, her partner Jonathan tells her to come and sit down. The ominous “We need to talk” arrives and he coldly informs her that he wants her to leave their flat.

He considers that their relationship has run its course, he doesn’t want to live with her anymore, and since she can’t afford to buy him out, he will. He calmly explains that everything is settled, he’ll be gone for the weekend, implying she should be gone when he comes back. Meanwhile, he’ll stay in the spare room. Come Monday morning, a real estate agent will evaluate the flat’s worth.

Nicola is stunned, she never saw that one coming, she thought they were in a happy relationship. At first, she listens to him, flabbergasted. She thinks he doesn’t mean it. And she slowly realizes that yes, he’s serious and that she’ll have to leave her home.

We see Nicola stumble, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She’s obliged to move on. Her friend Susannah is outraged for her and tells her she can move in with her family as long as she needs it. The dialogues between Nicola and her friends, between Susannah and her husband Geoffrey introduce a bit of lightness in the sadness. We witness the end of a relationship, the crushing pain inflicted on Nicola by a cold Jonathan.

Soon, Nicola finds her backbone and demands answers. She wants to know what happened, since when he felt that way and she feels utterly betrayed that he never mentioned anything before he reached the point of making such a rash and final decision.

Nicola loves him deeply and he says he doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders what she did wrong and her self-worth crumbles quickly. Her heart is broken but so is her self-esteem. She feels unworthy and questions her judgment: how could she be so blind and misread him that much?

We see her holding on to her job, taking care of the painful details of separating her life from Jonathan’s and living through her heartache. Jonathan’s rash actions planted darts in her self at several points at the same time: her heart, her pride and her self-esteem.

Nicola lay under the bedclothes, hunched around her pain, despising herself.

She despised herself for her failure to oppose Jonathan’s frozen blankness with the tears and shrieks which would have expressed her true feelings. She despised herself for the mean little sarcasms which had been her only mode of attack—she despised herself even though these slights had found their petty targets, because the wounded pride to which they gave expression was—or ought to be—the least of her complaints. She believed that the wound Jonathan had dealt to her heart (her truly loving, trusting, faithful heart) was a more serious and honourable wound than that to her self-esteem. She supposed these two could be differentiated, and so long as they could, she had shown him nothing of the real pain she was suffering. In the face of his cast-iron indifference she was apparently as dumb and cold as he. She despised herself for this dumb coldness. She had never before so plainly been shown the difficulty, the near-impossibility, of speaking truly to an interlocutor who will not hear, but she knew one must attempt it nevertheless, and thus far she had failed even to make the attempt. She swore she would make it on the morrow, and at last, wretched, now, beyond tears, she slept.

But we also see Jonathan’s side and discover a man who made a decision thinking he was doing the right thing. But why doesn’t he feel more relieved or happier?

Madeleine St John vividly describes the end of a love affair. I felt Nicola’s pain and heard with horror all the hurtful words that Jonathan threw at her with perfect calm. As you can see in the previous quote, St John conveys Nicola’s sorrow and you cannot help but empathise with her.

As the story unfolds, we understand that Jonathan is clueless, unable to express his feelings properly, even to himself and whatever they are. At first, like Susannah, I thought he was a perfect rat and then I felt sorry for him.

Apart from watching the train wreck of Nicola and Jonathan’s relationship, I had fun with all the French words peppered in the text. Lots of French words. Without any footnote or translation. How do you deal with that? And, as usual, the only French character has an improbable name considering he’s young and we’re in 1997. After a young Jean-Paul in a book by Max Barry and a young Michel in Zadie Smith, now a young Jean-Claude. Writers, these are typical baby-boomers’ names.

Apart from this slight mishap only visible to a French reader, The Essence of Thing is book like the marmalade that Jonathan’s mother makes. It’s a good balance between the sassy conversations of the minor characters who rally around Nicola and the bitterness of the end of Nicola and Jonathan’s couple.

Highly recommended.

You can read Lisa’s review here.

This was my second book by Madeleine St John. The first one was The Women In Black and my billet is here.

It is also a contribution to Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

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

November 1, 2019 17 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

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

Frightening power, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You fucking what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2019 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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