Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Two by Simenon

Posted by nliakos on September 17, 2018

Maigret au Picratt’s (English version: Maigret in Montmartre), 1950

Maigret en meublé (English version: Maigret Takes a Room/Maigret Rents a Room), 1951

(in Tout Simenon Vol. 5, Presses de la Cité 1988)

I was recently inspired to re-read Maigret au Picratt’s when I watched it on my local PBS station, starring Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) as Maigret (likable, but not at all how one imagines Maigret while reading). I was pleased to find that it was in one of my four Tout Simenon volumes (it’s a 25-volume set, each of which has about ten novels and whodunits), so I immediately started to read. When I lived in France in the early 1970s,  I used to love reading Maigret mysteries, which for some reason were not difficult for me to understand (compared to the novels), and I read a lot of them. I guess there was a lot of repeated vocabulary from one to another. I don’t remember looking up words as I read, and all these years later, I can still read them without relying on a dictionary, but it was so easy to check a word on my phone (with a choice of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries!) that I sometimes opted to do that (mostly finding that the words meant what I had thought they did, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of Understanding Vocabulary in Context).

Maigret au Picratt’s follows Inspector Maigret as he investigates the murder of Arlette, a young stripper at a bar named Picratt’s. The night before she was killed, Arlette had gone to the neighborhood police station to report that she had overheard two men in Picratt’s talking about murdering a countess. They didn’t believe her until she herself was found strangled in her room. Maigret takes over the investigation from the long-suffering Inspector Lognon (who is used to ceding his authority to Maigret), but he is not fast enough to stop the killer from murdering the Countess von Farnheim in her apartment the following day. Then it’s all hands on deck to catch the killer before he strikes again. The countess was a drug addict, and the investigation takes Maigret into the seedy underground world of addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes,  and petty criminals. Maigret’s signature investigative style of immersing himself in the culture of the killer and victim is in evidence here, as well as in Maigret en meublé, which I also read because it followed immediately after Maigret au Picratt’s (both were written while Simenon was living in Connecticut, 1950-1955).

In this story, Inspector Janvier, one of the detectives who works very closely with Maigret, is shot while staking out a suspect in the Rue Lhomond, and Maigret becomes obsessed with finding the shooter. Since Madame Maigret is away from home, Maigret rents a furnished room in the building in front of which Janvier was shot, and he immerses himself in the life and people of the little street, chatting up the tenants and the young woman (la grosse fille, in the language of the day) who owns the building and knows more than she will reveal, the neighbors, the shopkeepers and the owner of the bar where he goes to eat and drink beer and white wine. (In doing so, Maigret absents himself from his other duties at the Police Judiciaire, other than checking in on the phone from time to time, but as always, his boss (le chef) seems okay with that.) Maigret becomes increasingly frustrated as his investigation turns up nothing, but eventually, he seems to figure out what must have happened, and then he sets about getting those involved to admit their guilt.

Written in the early 50s, these stories were probably set in the 40s. What strikes a modern reader is that in a time before cell phones, investigators on the street were very limited in their ability to communicate with their colleagues; if they were tailing a suspect, they would have to duck into a café or a bar to use a public telephone. To get from one place to another, they took taxis. Of course, there was no DNA evidence. There were no body cameras. But Maigret and his inspectors generally seem to respect the humanity of the people they are investigating and interviewing. I have no idea how accurate this depiction of the Paris police is!

Anyway, when I went to my local library recently, I checked the fiction and mystery shelves for Simenon’s books and was surprised to find only one Maigret mystery (Maigret’s First Case) and no novels. I checked it out, so soon I may be reading about Maigret in English. However, as usual, I borrowed more books than I can possibly read (four), and then I ordered Fear: Trump in the White House on my Kindle, so who knows if I will have a chance to get to it? 🙂

For a review of Pierre Assouline’s 1997 biography of Simenon, visit https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/08/10/reviews/970810.10bairlt.html. Hmmm. . . . not an admirable person. I much prefer Maigret!

For an interesting summary and discussion of Maigret en meublé on the website Maigret of the Month, try https://www.trussel.com/maig/mommeu.htm.

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The Fiddler

Posted by nliakos on August 20, 2018

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House 2012)

I found this, my fourth Beverly Lewis novel, in the little library of my local senior center.  I took a break from Amerikanah, which I am really enjoying, to gobble down this Amish cupcake of a novel. You kind of know how it’s going to turn out, but Lewis keeps you guessing as to how she is going to get there. It is the love story of violinist Amelia Devries and Amishman Michael Hofsteder, set mostly in and around the invented Amish community of Hickory Hollow, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Both Amelia and Michael are at a crossroads in their lives. Amelia has the talent to be a star violinist, and her father and her agent are pressuring her to go that route, but she wants a husband and family, and she wants to play music because she loves it–not for money or fame. Michael doesn’t fit very well in his Amish community. At twenty-five, he has yet to join the church, and he gotten a GED and continued on to higher education despite the disapproval of his father. He wants to leave the Amish life and become English, but he is held back by his love for his family and hometown. He wants to be there, but without the limitations that the Plain life require. So the reader can see where this is going, especially since Amelia and Michael are attracted to each other from the first moment they meet, on a stormy night in a remote cabin where Michael has fled after an argument with his father, and Amelia has wound up after getting lost. A visit to Hickory Hollow follows, and Amelia falls in love with the people she meets and the serenity of the place, so different from the high-stress city life of an up-and-coming musical celebrity.

Everything works out in the end, and the twists and turns of the story kept me engaged for the day or so it took me to read it. Back to Amerikanah!

English language learners will probably not find this difficult, but they will have to deal with the occasional Deitch (Pennsyvania Dutch) words (italicized).

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The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2018

by Elizabeth L. Silver (Crown 2013)

Noa is on death row in Pennsylvania for the murder of her father’s young girlfriend, Sarah Dixon. The novel mostly consists of Noa’s memoir, about her childhood and young adulthood, culminating in the night that Sarah died. Noa’s voice sometimes gives way to that of Sarah’s mother Marlene, a hotshot Philadelphia lawyer who attempted to use Noa to force Sarah to leave her lover (Noa’s ne’er-do-well father), and then following Noa’s trial and conviction, turned against the death penalty and is trying to appeal for clemency with the help of a young Welsh lawyer, Oliver Stansted. (Marlene’s point of view comes from the letters she writes to her dead daughter.) Oliver visits Noa many times during the six months prior to her scheduled execution, and he begins to harbor doubts as to her guilt. Noa, for her part, refuses to tell anyone what actually happened. . .  until the final chapters. But her memoir will likely never see the light of day, nor will Oliver ever have the opportunity to read it.

I would have liked the book better had Noa been somewhat more likable, I think. She is not portrayed negatively, but I couldn’t really identify with her or feel emotionally close to her.

 

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Little Women

Posted by nliakos on July 14, 2018

by Louisa May Alcott (Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library 1947)

I was not one of the many girls who adored Little Women when I was younger. I am pretty sure I read it (but not Little Men or Jo’s Boys), but probably just once. It doesn’t feature animals, for one thing. And perhaps I found it too saccharine. It is kind of a goody-goody story. But I enjoyed the performance on PBS this year and resolved to re-read it. I bought it very cheap for my Nook app and alternated between that and a friend’s somewhat dilapidated 1947 edition (Ex Libris: Carmen Valenzuela) featuring color plates and line drawings by Louis Jamber.

This time around, I preferred Part Second, when the sisters are older, to Part First,  during which Mr. March is away ministering to the Union troops in Washington. Almost all the main characters are introduced in these chapters:  next-door neighbor Teddy “Laurie” Laurence, and his crotchety grandfather; equally crotchety Aunt March; and of course, mother Marmee and the four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. I think it is common knowledge that Alcott modeled Jo after herself, and I think she is most readers’ favorite character. Jo is a tomboy;  had the story been written now, she could be a lesbian or even, eventually, a trans-gender man. (Even though in Part Second, she bows to convention, falls in love, and marries.) She is a more natural character than Marmee, Meg, and Beth, who are all rather saintly, and more likable in Part First than practical Amy, who will grow up to decide that she should marry for money (so that she can take care of her poor relations). But in Part Second, the girls, now young women, take on more authentic characteristics. Meg, the first to marry, almost squanders her husband’s love and attention by paying too much attention to her children; Beth, facing her own death, inspires her family with her courage and kindness; Jo struggles with her ambition, her sharp tongue, her inability to reciprocate Laurie’s love for her, and the loss of her beloved Beth; and Amy finds true love and a fortune in the person of Laurie, once he has gotten over his crush on her sister. Through it all, the parents are founts of wisdom and good advice, especially Marmee. All of these things are pretty well known. But I cried over Beth’s passing and cheered for Jo and her Professor. Despite its moralistic tone, Little Women can still delight.

 

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The Map of Salt and Stars

Posted by nliakos on June 23, 2018

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone 2018)

This novel by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is actually two novels in one. The first one, set in Syria, Jordan, and North Africa in 2011, is the first-person account of the escape of one Syrian family from the conflict in their homeland. This family consists of the mother, a cartographer, and her three daughters, Huda, Zahra, and twelve-year-old narrator Nour. The family had been living in New York, where Nour was born, but decided to move back to Syria after the death of the husband and father to cancer. They have barely settled in to their home in Homs, and Nour’s Arabic is still quite rudimentary, when the house is destroyed by a shell, and they find themselves homeless. Joined by the father’s best friend, Abu Saeed, they begin to make their way westward, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally Morocco, seeking safety. They confront dangers of many kinds, lose one person when the ferry they are on sinks, are separated when the mother has to remain behind to take Huda to a hospital, and are finally reunited in Ceuta, the Spanish city across from Gibraltar, where the novel concludes.

We experience this harrowing journey through the eyes of Nour, who happens to be a synesthete; her descriptions are accordingly vivid, such as “a dog barks silver purple”, “the bare walls will be splashed with color from everybody’s singing”, and “I smell the brown-red brakes before we see the bus terminal”. (I wonder: Is Joukhadar also a synesthete?) She is still grieving for her father, as they all are, in their different ways. She idolizes her eldest sister Huda, but has to learn to love middle sister Zahra, who can be hard to like but who undergoes her own transformation as the novel unfolds. This is Nour’s coming-of-age; it could not happen in a more challenging setting.

The other novel within the novel is the story of another journey, undertaken nine centuries earlier in the same part of the world, that of Rawiya of Ceuta, who disguises herself as a boy so that she can apprentice herself to the famed (actual historic) mapmaker, al-Idrisi, as he travels throughout the then-known world to make the first accurate map of it for the Sicilian king, Roger II. Rawiya (aka Rami) is a kind of super-hero(ine), smart, courageous, highly skilled and seemingly indefatigable. Rawiya and al-Idrisi, together with another apprentice, Bakr, and the poet/singer Khaldun, make their way over the same lands as Nour and her family do, although some of the names are different (Aila for Aqaba, Barneek for Benghazi). This is a story that Nour’s parents have told her over and over again, a story that she tells herself, trying to take on the attributes of Rawiya, who never seems to be afraid, never panics, never loses sight of her goal, whether she is fighting people or mythical monsters (giant serpents, the roc). It is Rawiya’s story that will help Nour to reach the place where she and Zahra are reunited with their mother and Huda.

Both stories were engrossing, both protagonists admirable and likable, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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A Man Called Ove

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2018

by Frederik Backman (Washington Square Press, originally published in Swedish in 2014 and translated by Henning Koch in 2014)

Ove is 59, apparently “on the spectrum” with all the difficulties with human relationships that that implies. As a young man, he fell head over heels in love with Sonja, who did not judge him (perhaps because her father had very similar traits), who loved him in return. Ove and Sonja married, but their happiness was marred by a tragic accident. Sonja was able to move past the tragedy and get on with the business of living, so Ove did, too. Until Sonja died, robbing Ove’s life of all its color and robbing Ove of his reason to go on living.

Spoiler alert: Below, there are some details about the story that you might not want to know if you are going to read it. Stop reading here!

So Ove decides to end his life, and the novel focuses on a period of weeks (I think–it’s not entirely clear, and there are numerous flashbacks to Ove’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Sonja) one winter during which Ove attempts to commit suicide several times, in different ways (neatly and with minimum trouble to those who would need to deal with the aftermath, as per Ove’s idea of the right way to conduct oneself). But each attempt is interrupted by others who need Ove’s help: his old friend (more recently, enemy) Rune and Rune’s wife Anita; his new neighbors, Patrick, Parvaneh, and their children; his obese young next-door neighbor Jimmy; the awkward teenager Adrian; gay Mirsad, whose father hates homosexuals; and a nameless stray cat, among others. Slowly and inexorably, they pull Ove back from the brink and show him how to love and live again.

Although she is dead as the novel begins, Sonja is a luminous major character in Ove’s story. Part of the reason that Ove does what he does is because he knows Sonja would approve, and he believes that when he dies, they will be reunited; he doesn’t want her to be angry with him because of what he does or doesn’t do. Sonja’s good qualities shine throughout the story: gentleness, generosity, intelligence, perseverance, a sense of justice and an ability to meet each human being on his/her own terms, without judgment.

Parvaneh, an Iranian immigrant, is also a very important character in the book. Outgoing, generous and practical, Parvaneh also refuses to be frightened by Ove’s grumpy exterior. She does not hesitate to ask for, even to demand, his help when she needs it, thus saving his life on several occasions.

I just loved this book. Especially if you know someone on the spectrum, you may gain some insight into how that person thinks and sees the world. The novel has been made into a movie, which looks good, and I hope to see it soon, but I don’t expect it to surpass the novel. Movies seldom do.

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Black Narcissus

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2018

by Rumer Godden (Little, Brown 1939)

This one is part of my on-going project of reading all of my mother’s books which I still have and haven’t read (Cf. The Birds Fall Down). She had two by Rumer Godden: this one, and An Episode of Sparrows, which I believe is better known.

Black Narcissus is the story of a small group of Anglican sisters who are sent to a remote village in the Himalayas to open a convent with a school, clinic, and dispensary in a building which has been offered to their order by “the General”, the local potentate. Ominously, a group of brothers failed at a similar project in the same location. The offer of the building seems too good to pass up, but at the same time there are numerous signs pointing to failure (so the reader isn’t very surprised when in the end, the nuns depart, leaving little to remember them by).

There are some colorful characters, including Sister Clodagh, the sister-in-charge (I spent the whole book wondering how to pronounce her name); Sister Blanche, aka Sister Honey, the over-emotional sister whose rash kindness will eventually set the group on the road to disaster; Sister Ruth, “the snake-faced sister”, who sinks into madness; Mr. Dean, the Englishman “gone native” (apparently a terrible thing) who kindly helps the nuns in every way he can, including trying to get them to understand the people they are trying to serve; and Dilip Rai, “the young General”, the eponymous Black Narcissus, who wants to study in England, so he convinces Sister Clodagh to teach him. Reluctantly, she acquiesces, but his presence in the Convent eventually leads to trouble.

I am always astonished at the arrogance of the English (and of Christian missionaries) who believe that they have everything to teach the inhabitants of other lands, and nothing to learn from them. (Mr. Dean is the exception to this unfortunate tendency.) In this novel, Rumer Godden seems to be saying that some other cultures are impervious to Western teachings, although some of her characters refuse to believe this.

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Corridors of the Night

Posted by nliakos on February 21, 2018

by Anne Perry (Ballantine 2015)

This is my first encounter with Anne Perry, and the characters in this suspense novel–William Monk, head of the Thames River Police; his wife Hester, a nurse; their adopted son, Scuff (presumably a nickname); and various other people that play roles in the story–must all be familiar to most readers of this book. To me, they were not, so I was a little confused, but after several chapters I was on board and following the plot. The story is set in London in the nineteenth century, some time after the Crimean War, in which Hester served alongside the famed Florence Nightingale. There is a crazed chemist, enabled by his brother, a doctor, who is obsessed with finding a way to transfuse human blood from one person to another without killing the patient. The reader wants to shout, “BLOOD TYPES!”, but the discovery and understanding of these will not happen in the time frame of this novel.

The chemist, Hamilton Rand, has discovered some poor children whose blood does not cause patients to die (presumably they all have Type O blood). He purchases them from their father, who has no clue as to the use to which they will be put. Hester figures out what is being done just in time to be kidnapped and taken to a remote country house where she is expected to assist in the diabolical (but professionally intriguing) experiment. I assumed that her rescue would be the book’s climax, but it goes on for several chapters after Monk successfully rescues her and the three children–through two trials and two murders!

The story got me thinking about what a medical breakthrough safe blood transfusions were, and made me curious to read about how it actually happened here. (The discovery of blood types was not made until 1901 by the Austrian Karl Landsteiner, and much progress was made during the First World War.) So the story of Hamilton Rand and his diabolical experiment, set thirty  or forty years earlier, makes sense.

I liked Monk and Hester, and will perhaps seek out some of the earlier books in the series to find out how they met and fell in love. Thanks to my dear friend Carol for this book!

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The Trumpet of the Swan

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2018

by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino (Harper & Row, 1970)

Although I’ve read Stuart Little  and am a huge fan of Charlotte’s Web, I had never read E. B. White’s third classic children’s book, so I have now corrected that error. While it does not compare with Charlotte’s Web, it is entertaining and sends a message that disabilities can be overcome with persistence and resourcefulness.

The principal human character in the story is Sam Beaver, a young boy who grows up as the story of Louis the swan unfolds. Sam loves nature and animals and is always ready to help Louis when asked. But his importance to the story is secondary to that of Louis, the Trumpeter Swan who is born mute (not a Mute Swan!). (He is described as having “a speech defect”.) Louis refuses to accept his fate as an outcast in Trumpeter Swan society, and his parents decide that he should learn to play a trumpet of his own. Louis gets Sam to help him attend school to learn to read and write, and little by little, he accumulates a slate, a piece of chalk, and a trumpet,  all of which he carries around his neck and uses to communicate with both humans and other swans. He has many adventures: he plays the trumpet for the Swan Boat at the Boston Public Garden, and in a Philadelphia night club, and he woos and wins his true love, Serena. With Sam’s help, Louis is able to return to his idyllic life in the wild (but he has to agree to occasionally sacrifice  a cygnet to the Philadelphia Zoo, which seems kind of harsh given that Louis himself refuses to stay there).

It’s weird that a swan would think and communicate in English, use the toilet in a hotel room, know how much to tip a waiter, and other oddities, but there are funny passages that made me laugh, and I guess I can say that I enjoyed the book (but it’s definitely not in the same league as Charlotte’s Web!).

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If I Stay

Posted by nliakos on December 26, 2017

by Gayle Forman (SPEAK/Penguin Group, 2009)

Vicki and I watched the movie of the same name that was based on this novel, which made both of us want to read it. I consumed it in a couple of days. Both the movie and the novel made me cry.

If I Stay is the story of 17-year-old Mia Hall, a promising young cellist living near Portland, OR. In her final year of high school, Mia is dating Adam, a young man a year older than she who is a guitarist in a punk band. She is very close to her parents, who also frequented the rock music scene–her father was the drummer in a well-regarded band–and her younger brother Teddy. She has applied to Julliard, which would mean moving across the country away from her family and Adam, but other than this her life seems quite charmed. . .  until the family is in a terrible accident on a snowy road. Mia’s mother is dead on the scene; her father and brother make it to the hospital but ultimately do not survive. Mia herself is gravely injured and comatose, but her spirit watches over the family in the hospital, including her own unresponsive body and the people who keep a vigil at the hospital: Adam, her best friend Kim, her grandparents and other relatives. Mia’s spirit is devastated by the loss of her family, and she dreads waking up without them. One of the nurses keeps telling her that whether she lives or dies is up to her, and that if she wants to live, she must decide to live. Mia seems reluctant and readies herself to die–but Adam refuses to let her go without a fight.

The novel does not proceed chronologically but consists of time snapshots of the day of the accident interspersed with flashbacks to Mia’s childhood and adolescence; these include scenes without her, such as her parents in their bedroom listening to a very young Mia practicing her cello obsessively late into the night. The flashbacks flesh out Mia and Adam’s loving relationship as well as Mia’s family life.

I must be showing my age, but I was kind of amazed that Mia and Adam quickly become intimate, and no one seems to think it strange for high school kids to be sleeping together. This is, after all, 2017 (well, 2009, when it was written)!

Music is integral to the story. In the edition I read, there is an addendum by the author explaining her choices of both popular and classical pieces that she wrote into the novel.

If I Stay is a love story, tender and passionate. Adam and Mia, like Romeo and Juliet, love deeply and intensely, despite their youth. But will their love be enough? You can probably guess the answer–but this book is followed by a sequel which I have not read, Where She Went, which takes place three years later. Apparently there is no happily ever after–at least not immediately.

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