The one with the problematic translated title

Pascal Garnier, The Front Seat Passenger (English 2014, French 1997)

Oh my, two Garnier in less than a month’ time, you can tell how much I’m hooked! I liked my first better than this one, but only by a thin margin, because I could hardly put it down. Like the previous one, it’s a novella easily read in one or two sittings.

The difference is that the main character of this story has hardly anything for him. Let’s see, what are the stereotypical features of a hero? Successful, daring, loving, courageous, honest, a good son, good friend, good husband …? Fabien Delorme is the opposite of all this. He’s weak, untrustworthy, egoist, unlucky and bland, judgmental and narrow-minded. Definitely too narrow-minded to make sense of what happens to him. He just lost his wife in a car accident, a wife for whom he had no longer feelings but still remained married out of comfort and convenience, and he discovers that she was in a car with a lover. Widower and cuckold in the same instant! His life is upside down, and will be even more so when he decides to get in touch with the lover’s widow.

It’s hard to root for Fabien, while it was so easy to root for Eliette in Too close to the edge. But we can’t help but follow him and find him excuses for his poor choices. What a loser! Even when he thinks that he has all the cards in hands, he’s being played. It’s slightly ironic, very down-to-earth and very very dark. The ending is a bit hasted but it could have been way worse.

If I had one reservation about the book, it’s the English title, which is technically, literally translated from the French. Fabien’s wife was seated next to the driver, her lover, in the front passenger’s seat when she had her fatal accident. I guess it’s called riding shotgun? But in French we have a colloquial expression for this seat: it’s the dead person’s place (because it was a very dangerous place to be back when cars didn’t have safety belts and that rules were nonexistent on the road). The French title is clever because “place” has so many different meanings. More than just a car seat’s question, it can read as the dead person’s space in the widower’s life. Or it can be Fabien’s attitude, metaphorically or literally, especially as Fabien doesn’t know how to drive a car and has to be driven or take a train to go somewhere. I felt that the book’s English title was narrowing it down, but I have no clue what else they could have chosen.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gallic Books for giving me a copy of the book!

The one with the widow looking for excitement

Pascal Garnier, Too close to the edge (French 1999, English 2016)

I’ve never read Pascal Garnier before, which is obviously a shame, and it seems ironical that an English translation would be my first introduction to this French writer. As a matter of introduction, I have to thank Marina Sofia for her titillating review which in turn made me request the book through Netgalley.

Pascal Garnier’s text starts in a deceptively quiet and banal way. Eliette is a retired, recently widowed woman who lives on her own in the Alps. Her adult children live in Paris, far away, with their own lives and worries, and she gets along with her neighbors well. But her loneliness leaves her slightly discontent and bored. She wishes something unexpected would happen to derail her routine. It’s a classic tale of be careful what you wish for, except that Garnier pushes it to the edge, metaphorically and literally. More than once I turned the page wondering where he’d take us readers and muttering to myself “did he really dare?”. It’s a roller-coaster read and a slim book you can easily read in one or two sittings.

It’s dark and realist, perfectly right for my taste. It’s not a Scandinavian thriller but the homegrown equivalent. As I take a few days off in the French countryside, where I always wonder about those tiny villages we cross on the way, with so many closed businesses, small farms with perpetually closed shutters and a rotting 2CV in the yard. So much for romantic countryside and sunset over the mountains! It’s often depressing, but Garnier manages to make it terrifying. Those old biddies who go to the supermarket, I’ll certainly be careful not to cross them. Especially if they look nice.

The one with short hair in the damp Seoul heat

Helen S. Kim, The Long Season of Rain (1996)

August 1969 in Korea isn’t the summer of love, at least in Junehee’s family. She’s eleven and the second of 4 sisters in a conservative family. Junehee’s father is in the military and frequently overseas, but whenever he’s in town, he isn’t much at home and remains distant towards his wife and daughters. The one who runs the household is Junehee’s paternal grandmother, who doesn’t let her daughter-in-law have much say in the girls’ education. Much say at all, for that matter. Junehee’s mother had to quash all her dreams and desires, even the smallest ones like wearing dresses in the color she likes or cutting her hair short.

Junehee has no brother, and that’s something everyone openly regrets, because Korean traditions strongly rely on patriarchy: even in 1969, women must obey men, sisters their brothers and younger sisters their elder sister. A family without a boy is much pitied, while girls will go to live in their future husbands’ families. A mother unable to birth a boy is a failure. Through Junehee’s eyes, we witness her mother’s struggles and sacrifices. A young orphaned boy is sheltered in the family, and could be adopted if only Junehee’s father and grandmother agreed to it. Unfortunately, while her mother warms up to this shy boy, Junehee’s father is incensed by his arrival and tells the women that the orphan needs to go as soon as possible.

That summer, Junehee will mature a lot and understand many secrets that the adults don’t want children to hear. This novel is for middle-grade readers, but as a grown woman it nearly made me tear up because it reminded me of the machismo of traditional Asian societies. The tone of the book is soft-spoken but many deeper issues around gender and marriage are addressed. It was hard to read about the mother’s fate, but fortunately the book brightens up at the end and leave some hope that Junehee’s life will be a lot different from what was traditionally expected of little Korean girls.

The one for the story that wasn’t meant to be

Henri Perruchot, La vie de Gauguin (French, 1948)

May I interest you in a little detour?

Once upon a time I visited Copenhagen, Denmark and I saw there several paintings by Gauguin. It was rather incongruous, but I then learnt that Gauguin had married a Danish woman in Paris and that at one point had come to Denmark for business.

I couldn’t reconcile the strict Protestantism of this Nordic country (simple lines, clean natural design, all straightforward, nothing hidden) with Gauguin’s universe of earthly pleasures, lush nature, transcendental mysteries, sensuality, exoticism, violent colors). How come these two had gotten married? How could Gauguin enjoy Copenhagen? Apparently they too had wondered about it, because I learnt in the same breath that they later had separated.

I got mildly obsessed with Gauguin’s wife. Not that he’s my favorite painter, by far. His colors are too violent for me, his Vahine women too naive. But his wife, this Danish woman, how did she come to Paris? how did she marry Gauguin, then a businessman of some sorts, and how did she react when he threw all that away for… paintings… art… Tahitian women? It must have been a shock, a disappointment… I thought it would be a good story. A story about a marriage going south (pun intended).

Until I got into the research itself. I ordered this (used) book, this huge biography by a serious biographer from the 1950s. The book was 400+ pages long, all yellow and faintly smelling of tobacco. The police size was 8 with footnotes even smaller. No margins, and no index whereby I could jump in the middle of Gauguin’s life to find the topic I was interested in.

I was in for the long run, and anyway what’s the hurry? It took me one full year, reading it bit by bit, when the mood stroke, which wasn’t all that often since I wasn’t really passionate and Perruchot’s sententious and respectful tone wasn’t making things easier. To Perruchot’s credit, he really investigated his subject’s life in details, down to the last cent of his budget (Gauguin had serious money issues, he nearly starved to death at different points, so it’s not stupid to follow this line of inquiry). But it didn’t make his subject sympathetic.

The portrayal of his wife was even worse. Mette Gauguin, born Gad, had traveled to Europe with a wealthy friend and she fell for the honest, successful financial advisor that Gauguin was at the time. She aspired to a comfortable bourgeois life, and I guess she couldn’t understand how her husband could reject all that for art’s sake. Perruchot makes her into an insensitive, selfish, superficial woman. She hated the financial hardships that followed Gauguin’s decision to stop working. She decided to take their children and herself back to Denmark, and her attempt to get Gauguin back into the fold of the traditional bourgeois values failed. Perruchot only mentions her when it comes to money, that she was very greedy about her estranged husband’s growing success at the end of his life and how she was insensitive when she announced bad news about their children (their only daughter Aline died in 1897).

Perruchot’s book is of course very one-sided and focused on understanding Gauguin’s life and artistic choices, although he’s rather objective about Gauguin being a tough one to be friend with (and even tougher to be married to, I guess). During the course of this year Perruchot almost convinced me that Mette Gauguin wasn’t a good subject for a story.

But now that I have finally turned the last page, I still wonder. What is her voice? What is her story? She obviously couldn’t follow Gauguin into his life choice, but then is she really to blame? I’m not sure I’ll write a story about it anymore, but her character will surely stay with me a long time still.

The one with the Loch Ness monster as a guest star

Patricia Wentworth, Fear by Night (1934)

The name of Patricia Wentworth features high in the lists of what Miss Marple’s fans are supposed to enjoy, so I had to try it sooner or later. Mr. S. borrowed this mystery at the library at random, and I understand that this book is not the typical Patricia Wentworth’s fare. Let’s just say it was a bad pick.

Do we need to tell more? I guess so, but I’ll be brief.

The plot in a nutshell: girl without money and connections cannot marry boy without money. Girl seeks job, boy disapproves. (this being the 1930s, girl still does what she wants, but the bottom line still proves that she’d better listen to boy). Girl actually is an heiress, but doesn’t know. Job proves to be a treacherous trap to prevent girl from getting inheritance money. Boy finds out and rescues girl. Baddies are punished. Girl and boy marry. The end. Setting = Scotland, its fog, islands, deserted cottages, old women with a heavy accent and… lake monster.

I’m sorry for the spoiler, but I foremost want to warn you against a rather dull book that will waste a few precious hours of your time. I’m sure there are better Patricia Wentworth’s books out there. The interactions between the girl and the boy are rather sweet, but also awfully bourgeois. The girl is supposed to be scared by the eerie atmosphere, but for me it didn’t work because she wasn’t consistent and the fear was simply not there. She is plucky and decisive at the beginning of the book, but in the end she still needs her prince charming. It definitely helped to imagine a black-and-white movie star of the 1920s like Mary Pickford with exaggerated eye-rolls and expressive hand gestures in a silent movie. But when you think of the heroines of the 1930s, little Ann Harding is a pale comparison to the likes of Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, or Norma Shearer, who were a lot more assertive and seductive.

The one that goes deep into Bletchley Park

Michael Smith, The Secrets of Station X (1998)

I have a thing for Bletchley Park, yes I do! I don’t remember when I first heard about it, but my interest was rekindled a few years ago by the ITV mini-series “Bletchley Circle“, who focused on a group of girlfriends in the early 1950s, all apparently quiet housewives or secretaries, who actually had worked at Bletchley Park during the war. Lately there was a BBC program presenting Bletchley Park’s women, and also a movie about Alan Turing’s life (which I haven’t seen).

So I took the opportunity of an Amazon promotion to buy The Secrets of Station X, in order to know more about Bletchley. And I did learn a lot alright, and perhaps too much for my own taste! This book tells in excruciating details every single code that has been broken during the war in Bletchley, which means that there are a lot of repetition (like, they get a bit of information, then get stuck for a while, get frustrated and then there is a breakthrough and then it is all clear, so they can move on to the next code… ugh!).

Michael Smith obviously did a lot of research, and had a lot of first-hand interviews with people who worked at Bletchley Park (at the peak, there were no less than 10,000 people, many of them women). The result is a huge mish-mash of interesting facts, trivia, personal memoir excerpts, all put on the same level, or so it seemed to me. We can jump from the use of codes to help fight the El-Alamein battle, to the logistics of having so many people in a rather small place, to the memory of Americans and British playing together during breaks, to the different particulars of each hut of the Park.

At the beginning Smith took some time to explain how an Enigma machine worked and how the de-coding went, but I didn’t really understand and so I was soon out of my depth. I would have enjoyed a more synthetized approach, but I guess that’s probably in another book out there.

Enough already with the hard and down-to-earth realities of non-fiction! This book put me in the mood for a good spy novel. Any suggestion?

The one not to read by the beach

E.F. Benson, The Face (1927)

The mood for creepy stories doesn’t strike me often. Besides, being notoriously bad at blog group challenges, and keeping any kind of reading deadlines, I usually have fun reading all about the traditional October R.I.P. challenge in friends’ blogs and cheering from the sidelines.

But the other day (I wrote this post when it was only yesterday, but never came round to edit it before tonight) Danielle dared us all to try at least one of those short stories she was reading and her invitation came at the right moment, just after I finished a book and wasn’t really enthusiastic about the others I’d started. What is more efficient to escape a “meh” situation than a pretty good scare? I took the laziest way: I found the audio version and downloaded it right away on my phone. I wasn’t disappointed.

“The face” is a pretty straightforward story about a recurring nightmare, how we rationalize this fear, how we trivialize the dream, how we find every good reason to distract us away from it and to shrug it off.

If we go all meta, we can also see that it says something of the power of storytelling, that is all too easy to despise a simple story especially in the genre of horror, because they are supposedly not highbrow, but just give it a try and see if you won’t have goosebumps.

Now that Danielle has convinced me, I’ll go and download all the others available stories of E.F. Benson, but I’ll probably finish them long after Halloween has come and gone. Perhaps for the winter solstice, when the year is at its darkest?

The one in the whirlwind of Black history

Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman (1981)

I didn’t know what to expect from Maya Angelou. My only knowledge of her, being a Caucasian French woman, is through Oprah Winfrey (whose fame crossed the ocean, but by name only). I heard of long and adventurous life, but I didn’t know that this book was just a part in her memoir, and a small part indeed.

This book packs a lot of history and a lot of names within just a few years of her life. It starts in 1957 when she moves from the West Coast to New York with her son and joins the Harlem Writers Guild. She then proceeds to explain how she came to work for Martin Luther King, then to almost marry someone, then to actually fall for a South African freedom fighter in exile who brings her and her son to Africa (Cairo) but soon disappoints her with his philandering and domineering behavior. The final pages of the book are set in Ghana in the early 1960s, but it ends so abruptly that I was somehow frustrated for lack of a better editing and closure.

I was impressed by Angelou’s voice, her strength, self-reliance and wisdom. I was floored by her sense of freedom. She never stops moving forward, and setbacks, grief and sadness are just brief intervals before she picks herself up again and goes for the next thing. Her life (or the glimpse on just 5 years of it!) is so full of life-changing decisions that I was riveted, but also exhausted. She offers a very large perspective on events happening around her in America and Africa at the same period, and with so many portraits, it’s really a collective history as well as a deeply personal one.

My weird feeling is that Angelou seems both deeply rooted in a community, culture, historical moment, as well as a whirlwind of emotions, reactions taken at the spur of the moment (why did she agree to marry a man she didn’t really love? why did she suddenly turn her back and decide for Africa?). I admired her, but I couldn’t really understand her.

As a European reader, the experience of reading this book is nothing short of an eye-opener, because I don’t think I have read anything so blatant about what it means to be a Black, African-American woman in mid-20th century and to hear it from her own voice. We don’t talk about races in France, so I wasn’t comfortable reading that she distrusted white people and visibly thought that white people could not understand Black people. I may have misunderstood that part myself, and that was probably the result of her times and her heightened political conscience. It is really fascinating to see how African and African-American activists rubbed shoulders, influenced one another (I’m really treading lightly because my knowledge of it is very limited), and how the early 1960s with the new independent states in Africa raised hopes for so many (and not only in Europe and white America). More than half a century later, we are so far from that wind of freedom and optimism that we have mostly forgotten about it.

The one that turns out shockingly outdated

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Making of a Marchioness (1901) and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst

It wasn’t part of my plan to revisit Frances Hodgson Burnett because I loved her Little Princess as a child (don’t let me start on the Japanese anime version Princess Sarah, I would probably make a fool of myself!).

No, I just saw this book in the Persephone list and (I’m embarrassed to say) downloaded the Gutenberg version on my Kindle. I expected saccharine and late Victorian conventions, but I have to say it went well beyond my expectations. I mean, for worse rather than for better. It’s written like a melodrama, but there are too many disturbing elements for the magic of suspended disbelief to apply.

The first part is a sort of Cinderella tale, but one where Cinderella would only rely on her naivety and honesty, not on her looks and wit. Miss Emily Fox-Seton is genteel and (insufferably) kind, but she doesn’t have any money, so she has to work as a dignified assistant, and the prospect of getting into middle-age (34!) in this precarious status is a bit daunting. Oh, but she doesn’t rebel against her fate, that wouldn’t be very polite… and it would require a lot more thinking that Miss Emily is used to. But don’t worry, that’s perfectly alright, because the book’s Prince charming doesn’t really like women who are intelligent and witty, he’d rather have a quiet wallflower (or no wife at all, but in this matter he too doesn’t have a choice, he has  to have an heir). She’s here to breed and smile, so that the lord and master can rest after his day’s work. Given that Miss Emily is not exactly young, the production of an heir might be trickier than for other possible girls in the cattle fair wedding market, but as we are in a fairy tale, the miracle occurs indeed.

This first part is a rather weird mix, because Burnett switches from bits of social commentary about the fate of single women without marriage prospect, bits of factual information about how women get by with a small budget (prices included) to traditional sentimental fluff. Burnett doesn’t seem to believe very much in her own main character, informing us readers several times that Miss Emily is a bit simple, which is presented as a virtue. At some point I decided that she wanted to ridicule her, but no, she’s rather a creature to be pitied. Burnett probably wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian gender stereotypes, and ridicule what a true “angel of the home” looks like amid less virtuous, but more real people, but as she ends the first part with Miss Emily’s successful marriage, I was a bit lost.

The second half goes on to portray her married life, which would be insufferably dull, but for some evil people whom Burnett throws as Miss Emily’s Lady Walderhurst’s nemesis. Burnett adds a few bitter lines about bad marriages and domestic abuse, but the main point is a Victorian gothic plot that is not very tense (you can smell the happy end by miles). The moment where my tepid feelings turned decisively against the book was the forced exoticism and the slighting remarks on the half-Indian, half-English woman (read: half-good, half-evil) and her evil Indian servant. Indians and in general people with a dark skin are cunning and their strangeness is irreconcilable, despite Lady Emily having read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. This part is such a heap of racist, colonial clichés, certainly common in 1901, that it makes for an uncomfortable read if you’re not reading it at a meta level.

If I’m trying to be Fox-Seton-like kind and forgiving, I’d say the first part is worth reading for its social subtext. I try to rationalize it saying that Burnett probably wanted to write a different book, but settled for a conventional potboiler. But if I am 21st-century-blunt, I’d say some old texts are better left gathering dust. Age is no excuse in this matter, and 1901 was a great year for other more memorable books with memorable women caracters, like Claude à Paris by Colette, The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Tony), Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

The one with my middle-school swashbuckling crush

Michel Zévaco, Le chevalier de Pardaillan (French, 1907)

$_35I don’t really know what takes me to revisit some of the books I loved as a child or a teenager. Because, people, when I think about it reasonably, I can’t really see the benefit:

  • I am a grownup now, so I know better. I read better too (at least I hope so)
  • it’s not as if I had nothing to read (insert huge TBR pile here)
  • it’s very likely that I will end up disappointed by the book, by the hero I cherished, by my teenaged self, or all of the above.

It’s not so say I read a lot of crap as a child, but the reasons why some books stuck with me well into adulthood are that they resonated with me at a certain age, not really because of their literary brilliance.

Anyway, I’ve done it again. Sherlock Holmes last summer, Pardaillan this time (before the summer break). And the good news is, it was fun. I had no problem swallowing the 544 pages of heroic adventures where the shiny Chevalier defends damsels in distress under the reign of French king Charles IX during the civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Pardaillan refuses to take sides, falls in love, fights left and right, always to defend the innocent, the unfairly accused, the weaker party. He crosses the path of many historical figures especially as this book (part of a long series) tries to explain how the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre came to happen (in 1572), the same events Dumas evokes in his Reine Margot.

I guess I couldn’t help but introduce the name of Dumas in my post. Pardaillan is highly inspired by Dumas’ D’Artagnan. Indeed, it is hard as an adult to read a chapter without comparing with the other book (I hadn’t read it as a child). And I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t quite measure up. Yes, the hero is dashing and the plot is romantic and highly convoluted. But Zevaco’s text first appeared as a daily series in a newspaper, and obviously there was little editing and a lot of repetition, lyrical flights of fancy, rhetoric questions to the reader, digressions etc. Dumas is a chatterbox, but Zevaco manages to beat him at it.

I can tell very precisely when I started reading this book: 1988. That was the year the TV series was released in France (thank you, weird internet trivia). Its main actor, Patrick Bouchitey, is pictured in the photo above. Isn’t he dashing? (in the late 1980s way, that is) I was starting middle-school and got a serious crush on the series actor. Plus, I got to learn a lot more on a particular history period that the history teacher ever explained to us. And I wasn’t afraid to read huge tomes from the grownup shelves! So you see, I’m not really disappointed with my old tween self.