The One with the Gloomy Swedish Detectives

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, Cop Killer (Swedish 1974)

Part of the fun to decide to read another Martin Beck police investigation is to search through the library shelves and try to remember how exactly both names of the writers are spelled. In my head, they are Maj and Per, which doesn’t exactly help. And you can’t really get help from the librarian if you don’t know how to pronounce them, right?

This one is Martin Beck’s ninth book, and they can be read out of order, but it’s probably best not to start with this one, because one can witness the trajectory of Martin Beck’s mood and beliefs from the beginning in the sixties to this one in the mid-seventies. In short, it’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t get better. Also, it’s better to have read Roseanna before, because one of the suspects of this investigation is a character from the first novel in the series.

If I was dealing with real people and if being gloomy was not part of the gumshoe’s and detective’s cliché image, I would be tempted to suggest a strong dose of Prozac to Beck and his close colleagues. Sjöwall & Wahlöö are part of the tradition that uses the conventions of the police procedural to denounce everything that goes wrong in society: miscarriages of justice, hasty judgments, unregulated use of violence by the police force, but also a country where young people struggle to find a right place, where they don’t find jobs and don’t find meaning in the jobs they may find. A country where press and politicians manipulate the news (has anything changed since?). 1974 is a time when young Swedish people are disenchanted, and except for smoking dope and having long hair, Swedish policemen such as Beck and Kollberg are just as disenchanted as they are. 1974 is the year heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, the year Abba released Waterloo and when lots of bombings by extremists and the economic crisis worried people all over the world. The 1970s were dark and bleak and the book does reflect this mood.

Reading a Maj & Per book is not about big twists and big shockers, it’s about the work and the time policemen put in to find a killer, often without much recognition. Only dogged determination, and a part of chance too. The pace is slow and it takes more than half the book to understand why the book is titled Cop Killer, but I promise, this is all worth it.


The One with the Accident of the Train Across the Lake at Midnight

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

Marilynne Robinson is one of these writers I have always been afraid of. Every time she’s mentioned, people speak about The Great American Novel, and I’m always convinced I won’t “get” it, and only Americans can “get” them. Another of these writers is Annie Dillard. I have started numerous times Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and never went beyond page 10. One day I’ll come back to it, I know, so many people have told me that I am missing out, but… intimidated I am.

I borrowed Housekeeping from our new library (more on that later!), and quite frankly I mistook it for Home, of which I had heard raving reviews from people who don’t only read highbrow books (I honestly don’t remember who especially). I didn’t know that Housekeeping was her first novel. I didn’t know what it was about. I didn’t know it had been published in 1980. In Modern Mrs. Darcy website, My name is Lucy Barton was recommended for people who love Marilynne Robinson, so why not try it the other way round ?

The first sentence made me pause, so pregnant it is with hidden messages :

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

Wow. This packs so much into one single sentence. The orphans (why? how?), the absence of men, the family relationships, the formality and distances of Mrs., Misses, the conservatism (naming one’s daughter like the mother), the mystery of “when they fled”. I was hooked, and no longer intimidated!

The style is everything in this book. There are images that will stay with you for a long time, like that of a train that crashes into the cold lake, lost forever with the narrator’s grandfather in it. The pace is slow and nothing seems to happen, yet a lot goes on beneath the surface. I could never tell when the story is supposed to be set, or where it’s supposed to be. It could be in an imaginary place of fairy tales, but not the Disney version, the dark and sad ones, like Grimm or Andersen. It also reminded me of the melancholy witches of Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the end of the lane.

The story is told by Ruth, and Ruth is all about her family’s past, and everything she says assumes a dreamlike quality. The writing is both simple and powerful, a bit like the Bible, so that everything happens feels like a myth or a metaphor.

At times the timeless story hit some hard places, especially when it incorporated some elements of reality, of normalcy. In particular, when Ruth’s sister Lucille decided to not follow Ruth and their quirky aunt Sylvie anymore, and when she decided to go to school and dress like a teenager and do what teenagers typically do; i.e. to conform and fit in, instead of staying on the margins of the town. When the village authorities showed up at Sylvia’s doorsteps trying to make her realize that Ruth had to lead a normal life and go to school. It was a hard landing from the dream to the reality for me, because deep down, I didn’t really “get” them and would rather identify with Lucille than with Ruth and Sylvie.

Still, the heartbreaking ending reconciled me with the whole novel when Ruth and Sylvie leave the village behind in a powerful scene and drift away across the country, hoping to find Lucille in Boston one day.

The One with the Spanish Doppelganger

Javier Marias, While the Women are sleeping (1990)

This post has been lingering in my virtual drawer since the end of June. It’s probably time for me to finish it. Don’t ask me why today, because I might end up put it off *again* another month or year. Which I hate.

I read the whole book because a. it’s a short story collection, and b. It’s one of the 10 books from our shelves that I vowed to read. Other than that? I would have probably ditched it. And probably regretted it too.

The thing is that this collection is very uneven, made of 10 stories from the 1970s to the early 1990s. It’s the first time I read Javier Marias, so I don’t know if this is typical or not. A few didn’t speak to me at all – to the extent that I didn’t understand what I was reading. A few left me cold, like the story of an antique book in a booksellers window who might be worth a lot of money. Why would I care? A few were interesting but weird, like the small talk that a majordome confided in the narrator while they were stuck in an elevator, or an older husband in love with his very young wife. Most stories had a weird, surreal or supernatural twist. Most stories had unpleasant characters, or downright unlikeable, which made the collection a tough sell.

Overall, two stories stuck in my mind: the one, “Gualta”, about a man who meets someone who looks very very much like him, is named like him, only to find him totally despicable. So what’s a man to do? He tries to change himself through and through, changing style and taste and love and life, and just about everything. But what will his doppelgänger do? Will he stay the same as the original Gualta or undergo the exact same transformation?

The other story I liked best was “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban” about a ghost in a school, which starts as one of these vague urban legends (we had one such legend in high-school, totally unfounded of course). The main character who tries to catch the ghost in the act is actually a lonely, and rather boring English teacher, a “man of little imagination” who is there on an exchange program. One of his (boring) duties is to stay late on Friday to lock up the school, but he’s warned that the ghost (who is only heard but never seen) comes every weekend to pin a resignation letter on a board. The rumor doesn’t tell who the ghost is and why he has resigned, but the English teacher seems an unlikely (if stubborn) candidate to pierce the mystery…

In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure that this collection really lured me enough to try any of Marias’ novels in the future (for which he’s surely more famous than for short stories). But of course, should the litblog experts say otherwise… Has any of you ever read Javier Marias’ novels and found it great? Am I missing out on something?

The One with the Strong-Willed Homesteader 

Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1914)

I know you can’t tell, but the setting has changed dramatically between the time I started and finished this book, as we’ve moved. But don’t misunderstand, we’re still close to Paris and the move (conclusion of a 6 months real-estate affair) is just a 20 miles transfer to suburbia. Nothing really comparable to the experience of this Woman Homesteader: her daring adventures made our endeavors very small and easy in comparison.

Talking about settling down in a new environment, here’s one female writer who has a pretty hands-on knowledge about it. Elinore Pruitt Stewart decided almost on a whim (at least, that’s what she tells us) to take a job in Wyoming in a ranch. A widow and single mother working in the city (she was a housekeeper), she wasn’t afraid to leave it behind and start anew in what many people say a man’s world. The book is made of (very much edited, I’m sure) letters she sent to a friend back in town from 1909 to 1913. These letters are full of little stories, but the author’s point throughout is to convince the reader that homesteading is completely feasible for women (single ones especially) and that the life she chose would be a better option than remaining in the city and working for a meager salary.

It’s a fun and easy read, a bit like an adult Little House in the Prairie, which I adored as a child. There’s hard work for sure, but the author kind of glazes over hardships so that every anecdote and letter has a happy ending. The author is such a positive Pollyanna that I (the naturally critical and grumbling French) could not help but wonder what she held back. She married her employer but he doesn’t appear much in the letters. She had a daughter from her first marriage, but she doesn’t speak about getting her to school or giving her any formal education: the girl just kind of tags along in her mother’s adventure. She hardly ever speaks of being lonely, afraid or even doubtful. She seems to value independence and hard work above all, but then you realize that she didn’t really make it alone, as she got married a mere 6 weeks after arriving into her job, making a convenience marriage rather than a love marriage. (see a very interesting article on Jstor on the discrepancies between what she writes and what really happened: Single Women Homesteaders: The Perplexing Case of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, by Sherry L. Smith, Western Historical Quarterly 1991)

Far from convincing me that homesteading was an enviable career for any woman, the book highlighted to me how exceptional Elinore was (we’re on first name basis) and the need for comfort and convenience and community that many people choose over the freedom and risk of such an adventurous life.

The One with the doomed passion in Spain

Frédéric Dard, The Executioner Weeps (Le Bourreau pleure, 1956; Eng. Pushkin Virago 2017)

I love Pushkin Press little-known European thrillers and noirs, so I was thrilled to receive the ARC through Netgalley. Yet, the story left me a bit tepid, and I remembered that I’d tried Frédéric Dard a long time ago and not found it quite my cup of “café”.

Still, it’s maybe me (or the bad timing) who’s at fault here, because it’s still a very good noir story. The narrator, Daniel Mermet, a semi-famous painter, has gone to Spain to paint alone. One night he crashes with his car into a woman. She’s hurt but not seriously, and he looks after her. The problem is that she has lost every bit of memory. The only thing Daniel knows about her is that she’s French. It doesn’t stop them from falling passionately in love. Time is suspended, but soon reality prevails. If they want to continue their love affair in France, the young woman has to get ID papers, and therefore an identity.

The premise is quite simple and thin, and yet the mystery grows by the page. As Daniel paints her beautiful model, his painting of her tells him something different from the love he feels. What is this frightening glimmer in her eye? Who is she and what is her secret?

I didn’t quite warm up to Daniel and the woman. She’s not a Femme Fatale, because she’s so passive and pitiful (or is it an illusion?). I found the amnesia and the revelatory painting a bit tricky, and without those two, the plot scaffolding starts to unravel. Yet, Frédéric Dard does a good job entertaining and titillating the reader. He was well-known for churning out cheap popular novels by the dozen. He actually wrote more than 200 novels!

On the trivia side, I was intrigued to see a French novel set in 1950s Spain, at a time where dictator Franco was ruling the country, with high level of poverty and police. Also, Daniel’s investigation brings him to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which is precisely the town we’ve moving to in less than 2 weeks!

Jumping From Story to Story

After I finished Ellen Klages’ collection of short stories I found myself in a mood for more. After all, reading more short stories was one of my goals for 2017, and one not too difficult to reach! (Not like reading from my own shelves, or reading from a set list of books, ahem…)

At first I felt a bit rusty, because I had been reading New-Yorker-style stories where you want to read carefully and hang on to every word: the epiphany is sometimes so subtle you don’t want to miss it. Nothing bad about that, except it’s maybe a bit too highbrow for me in this sunny, busy season. Ellen Klages reminded me that some stories can be lighter, quicker on their feet (mmh, you might object to stories having feet, but I own it) and don’t take themselves so seriously.

A few weeks ago I read the 2 stories that Danielle had sent me. The first one, “The Heaviest Dress”, by Mireille Silcoff was about a complicated Jewish family story and eccentric self-aggrandizing characters: I liked it but did not love it. I couldn’t quite relate to any of the characters, but it’s probably for the best!

The second one was a lot more arresting: “Circumstances of Hatred” by Laura Trunkey started in clichés and soon took a sharp turn towards daring. It started with a newlywed couple moving from one coast of Canada to the other because of an inheritance. The first sentence of the story is very original: “I had not forgotten about my grandfather’s refrigerator, but seventeen years of absence had diminished it”. The young man had a special connection with his oddball of a grandfather and upon his death he has been bequeathed a house with a locked fridge in it, that never should go on defrost. The young woman is unhappy about the move, there is bickering and low-grade dissatisfaction in the air. Can you imagine what will come next? Can you imagine what is kept in the fridge? I bet you won’t ever guess, because at each twist and turn of the story I kept muttering: no, she can’t possibly!

At the kids library I stocked up on short stories (translated in French but it’s better than nothing): two stories by Truman Capote, “The Thanksgiving Visitor”, and “Miriam”. Both are classics, and they didn’t disappoint (although I found it weird to put the two of them together for a teen edition – and the translator did a literal translation of Thanksgiving with “day of the giving of thanks” which was awkward). Then I turned to the master of entertaining and thrilling stories, Stephen King. I grabbed a copy that was titled Mist, except that the French editor must have pulled a trick because the short story Mist (that people online rave about) was not listed inside! Talk about disappointment!

I understood later on that the original collection, Skeleton Crew, was so thick that it was not publishable as such in France, and the publisher just cut the collection in two volumes (without saying so!). It didn’t really matter because the range of stories and tones is quite wide. Some are pure horror, some fantasy, some thrillers, even a page of poetry! I didn’t relate to all of them, obviously. Well, it’s hard to relate to a story about a surgeon stranded on a desert island who decides to eat himself, right? … Right? The one I loved best was the one with the gentlest ghosts, “The Reach”. It’s set on a small Maine Island. An old resident, Stella Flanders, has never set foot on the continent, she has never seen the point of doing so, until she is dying from cancer and now that the reach is frozen she’s tempted to go see on the other side. The small-town villagers and gossips are all well portrayed and the whole close-knit community comes alive. The story was sensitive and gentle and well deserved the prize it got in… 1982. Another non-horror story was quite fun: the  “Word Processor of the Gods“. Well, it wouldn’t speak to Millenials I guess, but I do remember word processors (although I never had one, I had a mechanical typewriter that felt like heavy lifting for fingers). I love Stephen King ever since I tried 11/22/63 last year, but I will decidedly stay away from his goriest stories, now that I know that he pulls no punches.

Last, I started (yet) another short story collection by Spanish writer Javier Marias, While the Women are Sleeping. It is a collection taken from our own shelves for 2017 (more brownie points to me!). I find it weirdly satisfying to be able to finish one story in one setting: it’s even better than crossing stuff in my checklist, as I am quite goal-oriented these days with the packing and moving!

The One with the tender music of old Europe

Pawel Huelle, Moving House and other stories (Polish 1991, English 1996, French; Rue Polanki et autres nouvelles, 2000)

Confession: I started typing this blog post on my (3 year old) phone and the WordPress app got all weird on me. Also, I have come to the conclusion that a post draft I started in April disappeared into the ether, so I’m trying to catch up on book reviews for those I have finished ages ago, before they disappear too!

So let’s stick to the facts (mmh, who am I kidding): this short-story collection was very interesting and I’m so glad : a- that this Polish writer got translated into French and English; b- that my parents gave me this book several years ago; c- that my 2017 “read-from-my-own-shelves challenge” finally made me pick it up; d- all of the above.

Anyway, I bet that you’ll want something a bit juicier than that. And the book is largely worth it. It is set in Gdansk, the Polish town that used to be German up to 1945 (under the name of Danzig). No, strike that, it’s much more complicated! Gdansk has forever alternated between German and Polish rulers and even became a “free harbor” with some autonomy. At the end of the WW2 it suffered a massive population exode (Germans from Danzig, but also from Eastern Prussia and beyond, making for hundreds of thousands of civilians desperately making their way west, under heavy air raids and the threat of Soviet army). Gdansk is also the place where, in the 1980s, the Solidarnosc movement was born, a rebellious force against the Communist ruling party, so strong that it led to its demise.

This bit of history is fascinating to me, but imagine what it means for someone to be born in this place! In many stories by Huelle, Polish characters have to live with the past and linger in a weird nostalgia. The stories are all set in the postwar, Communist era and several are in fact coming-of-age stories.

The title story made me sigh: a little boy is soon moving away from a house shared by several households. This house used to belong entirely to an old German woman, Madame Greta, who has been dispossessed by the Communist regime and only has one room now, filled with her piano and memories. The boy’s parents forbid him to go there, because they hate and distrust everything German, but as the parents are preparing to move the boy is attracted by the music and he gets to meet with Madame Greta.

There’s a story about a table, a household object that the narrator parents got from a displaced German who left Gdansk at the end of the war. The narrator of another story, “Snails, Puddles, Rain” goes with his father to chase snails. We get to learn that his father has only found this odd job after being kicked from several more qualified jobs, because he doesn’t toe the Communist party’s line.

I have a feeling that the French collection does not have the exact same stories as the English collection, but if you have a chance to read it, don’t be intimidated by Polish names and by the obscure history of this small part of Eastern Europe! This is probably the first Polish writer I’m reviewing in this blog (in 10 years, can you believe it?), but I hope not the last.

The One with the Artists Retreat

Alison Lurie, Real People (1969)

Wow. I had finished a string of books that left me between “meh” and “blah”, and I was starting to fear that it had something to do with me. And then, luckily, a book that grabs me and within days makes me feel and think at the same time. So unexpected! (Somehow, despite Alison Lurie’s reputation, I had feared that this book had aged… not at all)

Real People is set in the fictional artists colony of Illyria in New England (apparently very much inspired by famous Yaddo, near Saratoga), where Janet Belle Smith, a mid-range short story writer, has been admitted again for the summer. We readers get to read her diary.

I had read things by Alison Lurie in the late 1990s-early 2000s, pre-blog obviously, so I don’t remember what. But this book, short, highly readable, perceptive and funny, made me want to read her all over again.

It talked to me at so many levels. It’s both deep and funny, and when you start to wonder if it’s not a bit too cliché she surprises you with an abrupt switch or a deep observation. Obviously, I could not help but identify with the main character, the struggling short story writer, mother and wife. She brings her own insecurities and doubts and snobbery and naivety to the plot. She is forced to ponder how honest she can be in her writing, how honest about herself, and to wonder if she hasn’t been “too nice” in her writing as in her life. But at the same time she has this moral superiority about her that makes situations both witty and awkward for the reader, and that will certainly bring her comeuppance at the end.

Artists colonies are so fascinating, and I’d been wanting to attend one forever. I was lucky enough to go to one last year in June, with a small group of supportive women, and I wish I can go there again next year. I could not help but compare what goes on at Illyria and what I experienced last year. In Illyria, there’s a covert spirit of competition and a sexual tension. Artists in Illyria went there with something to prove, if not to themselves, but to the other artists and the retreat’s organizer. It might be okay for some people, but don’t think it’s quite the atmosphere I personally would need to create. I guess you go to an artist colony to be removed from the world, and if the colony recreates the usual stress of the world, it’s not worth going.

On a lighter note, it reminded me of another novel set in a writing retreat, an Ann Cleeve’s mystery, the Glass Room. And of course, there’s a body in the library…

The One with the Sorry Self-Made Jerk

Georges Simenon, Le Bourgmestre de Furnes (1939)

Wow, does this man know how to dampen the mood! He called these novels “romans durs” (tough novels) but not because they are violent, but because they are gloomy and hopeless. After the tragic fate of the young man fresh out of prison, I tried another one, the fate of the mayor of a small town in Flemish Belgium. No less tragic this time again.

This book is the wonderful, chilling portrait of a powerful, heartless man. Joris Terlink was the son of a poor shrimp fisherman in a tiny hamlet, but through intrigues and sheer ambition he has become a wealthy manufacturer of cigars and the mayor of the small market town of Furnes, near Ostende. Everybody in town treats him with deference and calls him Boss, but it’s more out of fear than respect. He has enemies in the traditional Catholic upper-class of Furnes. He stands firm against corruption, but he refuses in the same way to help people with a small job and money, because he made his own fortune without help. He’s a bully at home and a bully at work, a solitary man whom you don’t pity. Unless you take a peak at his private life and you discover that the people around him are also horrible, and that the only human being for whom Terlink shows any feeling is his adult daughter who is mentally deficient and whom he keeps in a room at the top of the house.

Well, I told you it was no picnic, right? I bet Simenon could push any positive-thinking expert over the edge in less than 200 pages. Poor Pollyanna would have to take antidepressants…

This is not a murder investigation, but there is one dead guy though. An employee of Terlink’s, a guy who needed money to finance his girlfriend’s abortion. The girlfriend is 16, un wed, and the daughter of a powerful Catholic man, a direct competitor to Terlink’s position. Would you expect for one second that Terlink would lend this guy money? I don’t think so. So the guy kills himself and tries to kill the girlfriend, making it into a huge public scandal. Of course Terlink benefits from the scandal, the girl’s father resigns and the girl is sent to a nearby seaside resort to give birth to her child far from the judging eyes of Furnes people.

What happens next is probably akin to a burnout or a midlife crisis, in my modern eyes. Terlink should rejoice or launch himself into more business. Instead, he dithers and wavers. He ditches boring meetings, plays hookie from the town hall and instead finds himself increasingly often at the seaside resort, attracted (in a non-sexual way) to the 16-year-old girl, who, instead of being shameful and repentant, enjoys life on her own with two other carefree women. This girl clearly would be his own fantasy daughter, if only his own wasn’t ill. He discover an alternate lifestyle, free of duty, work, Catholic sin and social pressure far from his little town. This is also a sign of social evolution, between the old society based on fishing and market and field work, and the new one with tourism and restaurant, dancing, entertainment …

Would you think that Terlink starts over and become a joyful guy, enjoying his money and buying himself the pleasures of a young lover? Come on, that’s Simenon! Terlink could, but that’s not who he is deep down. The novel ends rather gloomily, this breather being short-lived and doomed to become the mayor’s downfall.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who feels under the weather but otherwise it’s really interesting to watch a man you would judge as a jerk at first sight become a complex, flawed and pitiful human being.

The One with the Pestering Widow

Georges Simenon, La Veuve Couderc (French 1942, English title: The Widow)

Part of my plan for 2017 was to read more Simenon, which meant in my mind more Inspecteur Maigret. But it turns out that the volume we own at home is a collection of his serious novels (“les romans durs”, “the hard novels” according to Simenon’s own terminology), not the lighter Maigret police investigations (although one can discuss if Maigret is lighter, at least it’s more plot-driven and was definitely written to entertain). So the hard way it went…

I chose La Veuve Couderc at random, because I was maybe expecting a glamorous widow (like the NYRB cover?). But it is anything but glamorous, bucolic or romantic.

The widow in question is Tati, a 40-something year woman (which in 1942 made her an old woman), uneducated, ugly (she has a huge mole on her face) and rather unsympathetic. She has been a farm girl, a servant from the age of 14, and she slept with the master’s son (and the master himself) a few years later. She managed to get herself married to Couderc and after the master fell into dementia, her husband died and the thriving business went bankrupt, she hangs on to the farm and takes care of the old master, fighting her two sisters-in-law who want to get rid of her.

But we don’t get to know her first thing. We enter the novel through a vision of a man walking in the sun as seen from a crowded bus. We are in a peaceful countryside, a quiet canal and sunny meadows. It is the scenery as seen by Jean, whom we discover is a young man fresh out of prison. He is free, without any destination, any project, any money. He meets Tati on the bus coming back from the market and she hires him as a farm hand.

Jean and Tati are an unlikely couple. He is 28, educated, son of a rich businessman in the city. Yet Simenon manages to make it a very linear story, as if nothing was surprising. The atmosphere is slow and heavy and the two characters seem doomed from the start.

There are moments of lightness, when Jean discovers the farm life and takes joy in simple manual activities and the routine of life with the animals. He was adrift, and the farming life grounds him for a time, but not for long: soon his guilt, his restlessness and his nightmares come back to haunt him. Tati, on the other hand, has felt frustrated for years, stuck in the farm with her father-in-law. She bosses Jean around, but when things get more personal between them it gets out of hand.

It’s not an easy read by any means, not because its gore but because of its hopelessness. Yet as I am finished with this one I am quite ready to continue with another “roman dur” by Simenon.