Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Refugees

Posted by nliakos on May 9, 2019

by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove 2017; University of Maryland College Park First Year Book 2018-2019)

I’ve been dipping into this collection of short stories about refugees in America for about a year, one story at a time, in between reading other things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Viet Nam with his family at the age of four; his stories are informed by his own experiences as a refugee. I will briefly summarize each story.

The narrator of Black-eyed Women is a Vietnamese-American, one of the so-called “Boat People” who fled the country after the end of the war. Not unusually, the boat was taken over by pirates who raped all of the women and girls. The narrator was thirteen at the time; her older brother, with whom she was very close, tried to disguise her as a boy, but she was discovered. When he attempted to fight off her attacker, her brother was killed. In this story, the narrator, now 36 years old and a “ghostwriter” of other people’s books, confronts her brother’s ghost. “My brother watched me curiously as as I wept for him and for me, for all the years we could have had together but didn’t, for all the words never spoken between my mother, my father, and me. Most of all, I cried for those other girls who had vanished and never come back, including myself.”

Although I suppose the book was chosen as the First Year Book because of its subject of refugees and immigrants, this first story relates equally well to the #MeToo movement, telling as it does of the lasting trauma inflicted on survivors of sexual assault, who may appear to be functioning, but who have lost themselves, or a part of themselves.

The Other Man is the story of Liem, whose American sponsor is Parrish Coyne, an openly gay man living in San Francisco with a young Chinese immigrant named Marcus Chan. Liem is also gay, but has been unable to admit it to himself. By the end of the story, Liem is beginning to accept his sexuality and even sleeps with Marcus when Parrish is away.

“‘They think we’ve got a Western disease,’ Marcus said. ‘Or so my father says.’

‘We?’ Liem said.

‘Don’t think I don’t know.'”

War Years focuses on a family of Vietnamese refugees who are trying to leave the war behind them and move on with their American lives, but it is difficult when some members of their community keep trying to keep the struggle alive. Mrs. Hoa is one such person. She frequently comes around pressuring people to donate to the fight against Communism. The young narrator’s father would like to give her some money to keep her from spreading rumors about them in the community, but his mother insists that giving in will only make it worse. “It’s extortion,” she insists. Eventually, the mother confronts Mrs. Hoa in her home. . . . but the reality turns out to be a little different from what she had assumed.

The Transplant is the story of the odd friendship between Arthur Arrellano and Louis Vu, whose father’s liver saved Arthur’s life. . . or did it?

I’d Love You To Want Me describes the difficult path walked by Mrs. Sa Khanh as her professor husband succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Mrs. Khanh is devastated when her husband insists on calling her by another woman’s name. Can she overcome her feelings of betrayal and continue to care for him?

In The Americans, African-American former fighter pilot James Carver and his Japanese wife Michiko are visiting their daughter Claire and her boyfriend in Vietnam, where Claire teaches English and her boyfriend works on disabling the many landmines. The POV is Carver’s, and he struggles during the visit. He doesn’t like the boyfriend, he is unhappy that his daughter wants to remain in Vietnam (where she feels she belongs), and he resists any accommodation to the place or the people. He picks fights with Claire, who says “He’s old and angry and bitter and he’s taking it out on everyone he meets.”  She berates her father for his role in the bombing of the country and people she loves. Carver, feeling misunderstood, stomps off in the monsoon rain, falls in the mud, and ends up in the hospital with a fever. Daughter has to help Father get to the bathroom, just as he used to help her, all those years ago. This is really a story of a man coming to terms with his mortality, as his body betrays him and his family moves on into a different future.

Someone Else Besides You examines the relationships between the 33-year-old narrator (Thomas), his father, and his father’s girlfriend. Thomas’s mother is dead. He and his wife are separated over the issue of whether to have children; his father pushes him to try to persuade her to come back to the marriage. His father constantly puts Thomas down, e.g.: “You were only half a man before you met her, and you’re back to being half a man now.” If this is how Vietnamese fathers talk to their sons, it’s really harsh. Then again, why would I assume that all Vietnamese fathers relate to the theirs in the same way? Thomas is a fairly passive individual, prone to weeping; his father is his opposite, unemotional and aggressive. Father and son go to visit ex-wife Sam, who is pregnant (with whose baby?). Thomas harbors no hope of a reconciliation, but he finds himself more amenable to the idea of a child, now that the child is about to become a reality.

The last story, Fatherland, is about a Vietnamese family whose father left his first family behind after the war, but he gave the children of his second wife the same names as the children of his first wife. Twenty-three-year-old Phuong finally meets her namesake (who calls herself Vivien, after Vivien Leigh, and is a doctor in Chicago). The story follows the development of the relationship between the two Phuongs during Vivien’s visit to Saigon. It turns out that Vivien has not been completely honest about her situation. Phuong is nevertheless inspired to follow her sister’s example and leave Vietnam for a different life.

The essay On Being a Refugee, an American–and a Human Being follows the eight stories. I think the essay was my favorite piece in the book, betraying my preference for non-fiction over fiction. The author shares his own story and considers the current xenophobia, yet another instance of a recurring phenomenon throughout American history. He writes, “The average American, or European, who feels that refugees or immigrants threaten their jobs does not recognize that the real culprits for their economic plight are the corporate interests and individuals that want to take the profits and are perfectly happy to see the struggling pitted against each other. The economic interests of the unwanted and the fearful middle class are aligned–but so many can’t see that because of how much they fear the different, the refugee, the immigrant. In its most naked form, this is racism. In a more polite form, it takes the shape of defending one’s culture, where one would rather remain economically poor but ethnically pure. This fear is a powerful force, and I admit to being afraid of it.” This essay is followed by In Praise of Doubt and Uselessness, a contemplation of the writing life that led to the publication of these eight stories, which took 17 years from inception to publication.

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Evening Class

Posted by nliakos on April 21, 2019

by Maeve Binchy (Delacorte 1996)

I love how Maeve Binchy draws the reader into the lives of her various characters, and how she neatly resolves the conflicts and ties everything up neatly at the end. Her novels are not challenging, but they are very satisfying to read.

Evening Class follows Nora O’Donoghue (aka “Signora”), Aidan Dunne, Bill Burke, Kathy and Fran Clarke, Lou Lynch, Connie Kane, Laddy Byrne, and Fiona (and their friends and families) through a year of evening classes in Italian language and culture in a rundown school located in a poor area of Dublin. Nora/Signora, back home in Ireland after living in a Sicilian village for almost 30 years as the mistress of the local restaurateur, is the teacher of the class. Aidan, whose wish to become the principal of Mountainview College has been foiled by a man he despises, is in charge of the class. The others, except for Fiona, are some of the students in the Italian class (she is a friend of Aidan’s adult daughters and girlfriend of Barry, who is in the class). Each of the above characters has his or her own chapter, as is common in Binchy’s novels where she weaves the story of a place through its denizens (as in The Copper Beech), and it’s challenging to keep everybody straight and remember who is who and who knows whom, and in what capacity exactly (particularly since the members of the Italian class all have Italian names in addition to their Irish ones: Guglielmo for Bill, Caterina for Kathy, Luigi for Lou, Constanza for Connie, Lorenzo for Laddy, Bartolomeo for Barry–as do all the other members of the class who do not rate their own chapter). Binchy works in loveless marriages, intellectual disabilities, family secrets of various sorts, love affairs of short and long duration, mobsters, bank fraud, sexual dysfunction, and more, all of which she wraps up neatly by the end of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Les Misérables

Posted by nliakos on March 19, 2019

by Victor Hugo (Classiques abrégés, abrégé par Marie-Hélène Sabard 1996; original published in 1862)

I had several reasons to reread Les Misérables. First, my cousin Brigitte, who lives outside of Paris, had recently sent me a double CD with the original French version of the musical. I’ve been listening to it like crazy and copying out the lyrics from the impossibly small print on the booklet included with the CDs (this requires a very large magnifying glass and natural light). Also, PBS is broadcasting a new six-part adaptation of the novel on Masterpiece beginning in April. Then Brigitte sent me this abridged French version which she had on her bookshelf (“Schools no longer require that students read original unabridged literature,” she complained.) So I started reading it, tentatively at first, but then with relative ease. There were a lot of words that were new to me, as you would expect, but I used Google Translate on my phone, which worked for most of them. There were a few that made no sense (G.T. provides only one translation; if there are several meanings, that’s too bad!) and a few which supplied English words I wasn’t familiar with either (like borne, which was translated as bollard; I had to look it up in in a French online dictionary to discover that it meant a short, thick post).

Anyway, it answered a lot of questions I had while listening to the musical (and some that hadn’t occurred to me). For example, why didn’t Cosette object to her beloved father’s disappearance from her life after she married Marius? The answer is complicated. He didn’t just disappear; he used to come and visit her every evening at first, then less frequently; she was involved in her life as a newlywed and mistress of a large household; she was following Marius’ lead… Hugo goes into some detail (probably even more so in the original version) to explain this.

Something else I wondered about was whether the Thénardier family recognized their familiar relationships, and whether they recognized Cosette as the little girl they had enslaved at their inn in Montfermeil, once they had moved to Paris. Azelma, the second daughter, plays an insignificant role in the novel and has no role in the musical. But Eponine and Gavroche knew that they were brother and sister. In the novel, there are two younger boys whom Gavroche helps when they find themselves, at the ages of five and seven, alone on the streets of Paris, but he does not realize that they are related to him; the reader never finds out what happened to them after the night he hosts them in the belly of the Elephant of the Bastille, a damaged statue where he sleeps at night. The Thénardiers did recognize Cosette as the girl that lived with them at the inn, and Jean Valjean as the man who had paid off her debts and taken her away. In this abridged version at least, Hugo does not delve into the resentment Eponine must have felt when the man she loved fell in love with Cosette. In the musical (in the French version, anyway–I haven’t listened to the English version in a while), Ponine bemoans her fate but accepts that some people are born to happiness, while others are not.

The character of Jean Valjean is the most interesting for me. He begins his life’s journey as a kind of unthinking brute, goes through the horror of incarceration and the incessant pursuit by Javert, but rescues Cosette and manages to raise and educate her despite having no papers (which must have been tricky). He pretends to be someone he is not for her sake. Given the opportunity to shoot Inspector Javert, he sets him free (inadvertently killing him with kindness). He saves Marius despite his hatred and jealousy of the one whom Cosette loves more than she loves him and does what he can to ensure Marius and Cosette’s marriage. He is totally selfless–not really a believable character, but one you have to admire.

My biggest problem with the book is how unrealistic it is for the same people (Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, the Thénardiers and Marius) to keep accidentally running into each other in different parts of France. (Javert just happens to be assigned to Montreuil-sur-Maire, where Jean Valjean has started a new life as M. Madeleine, owner of a factory and mayor of the town; later he just happens to be reassigned to Paris, just as Valjean and Cosette arrive there to hide in plain sight. Thénardier just happens to inadvertently save the life of Marius’ father after the Battle of Waterloo. Marius just happens to rent a room next to the Thénardiers’ room in Paris; Javert just happens to be at the police station where Marius goes to report the Thénardiers’ plot to murder Valjean. Thénardier just happens to be in the sewer when Jean Valjean is there with the moribund Marius on his back. . . .)

But hey, it’s a good story.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2019

by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books, 2007)

This is one of those novels which does not unfold chronologically. Instead, the story of Oscar, his sister Lola, his mother Beli, his grandmother “La Inca”, and Yunior (Lola’s sometime boyfriend and the narrator of most of the novel), is spun in a haphazard way, as if the chapters had been thrown down the stairs and then organized according to which step they landed on. It’s not always obvious who is speaking, or about whom. The reader needs patience to figure it out. Parts of the novel take place in New Jersey, other parts in the Dominican Republic. There are voluminous footnotes to explain references to DR history that a non-Dominican reader would not know. The language is a combination of Spanish (a lot of slang) and English; I studied Spanish in school for many years (many years ago, too) and could understand enough to keep going (even if the slang expressions were beyond me), but I’m guessing that a reader with no knowledge of Spanish would be flummoxed. (Example: Her advice? Forget that hijo de la porra, that comehuevo. Every disgraciado who walks in here is in love with you. You could have the whole maldito world if you wanted.) And there is a lot of bad language and an obsession with sex, asses, and breasts. (One of the principal conflicts in the story is Oscar’s inability to get laid.)

That said, I kind of enjoyed it. It wasn’t boring, I learned a lot about the DR, and I got to use my poor Spanish.

By the way, the author has been accused of sexual harassment; he has denied the allegations. It wouldn’t surprise me; the treatment of women in the novel was pretty sexist. They are tough and smart, but they are also sexual objects.

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Gone Away Lake

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2019

by Elizabeth Enright (Harcourt 1957)

This is a simple story of some children who discover an abandoned community near their vacation home. Only two elderly siblings live there, but they are delighted with the children and they all become friends. At first, they keep it a secret, but soon the secret becomes impossible to keep. Nothing particularly exciting or spooky happens. It’s nice that the children and the old folks befriend one another. I was underwhelmed.

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The Signature of All Things

Posted by nliakos on January 29, 2019

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the first of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels that I have read, although I read and enjoyed both Eat, Pray, Love and CommittedThe story of Alma Whittaker consumed me for days; I loved it.  The story takes us from Alma’s birth in 1800s Philadelphia to self-made tycoon Henry Whittaker and his dour, no-nonsense Dutch wife, Beatrix (with a long detour to describe Henry’s childhood in England, his travels with Captain Cook, and his rise to wealth in the New World).

Alma is not a pretty girl, but she is exceptionally intelligent and blessed with a wonderful memory and a gift for taxonomy. She receives an excellent education and is encouraged to pursue her interest in botany. As she grows older, she becomes an indispensable part of the family business (botanicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.), but she is not lucky in love. She falls in love first with her friend and publisher, George Hawkes, but he marries her silly friend Retta. Then she falls in love again with botanical painter Ambrose Pike, who comes to stay and work at White Acre, the Whittakers’ sumptuous estate in Philadelphia. It seems as though Ambrose returns Alma’s affection, but not in the way she had hoped. With Ambrose banished to Tahiti, Alma struggles with grief and depression at White Acre, as her parents grow older and die, leaving everything to her. But her entire life is called into question by a family servant, Hanneke, who forces Alma to realize the sacrifices that were made for her by others. Alma decides to leave White Acre behind and to strike out on her own for Tahiti, leaving the estate and the business interests to her sister, to try to find the explanation for Ambrose’s behavior.

Tahiti is completely life-changing for Alma, who had never traveled farther than Trenton in her entire life. She learns there to let go of things and to relate to people in entirely new ways. She is about to give up her quest for answers when the person who can tell her what she needs to know suddenly appears before her. She then travels to Amsterdam, to her mother’s people. On the long voyage home, accompanied only by a mangy Tahitian stray dog, Alma begins to write down her theory of competitive alteration, but she is not entirely satisfied with it and is therefore reluctant to publish it. It is several years later that she hears about, and then reads, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. She realizes that she has lost her opportunity to publish her groundbreaking theory because she hesitated for so long. She feels a special kinship with Alfred Russel Wallace, who likewise came up independently with the idea that natural selection, as Darwin called it, is responsible for species differentiation.

Alma Whittaker is a memorable character, a woman of great intelligence, integrity, and passion, with the courage to confront her life, with its privileges and challenges, head on. By the end of the novel, I both admired and loved Alma. Other characters–Alma’s parents, her sister Prudence, Ambrose Pike, the Reverend Welles and his adopted son Tomorrow Morning, Alma’s uncle Dees van Devender, and others, come alive as one reads. In addition, reading this book is like reading a history of science in the 19th century. Fabulous.

My favorite chapter is the seventh, which describes how 16-year-old Alma discovers how to pleasure herself from a book in the White Acre library. The first time she locks herself in a closet to experiment is the day George Hawkes, the botanical publisher, and the insufferable Professor Peck are dinner guests. During the dinner, Alma finds it impossible to concentrate on the conversation, and Prudence joins it for the very first time, arguing coolly with the opinionated professor on the subject of racism. It is wonderfully funny.

A few favorite quotes:

On learning of Ambrose Pike’s death: The news hit Alma with all the force of an ax head striking granite: it clanged in her ears, shuddered her bones, and struck sparks before her eyes. It knocked a wedge of something out of her–a wedge of something terribly important–and that wedge was sent spinning into the air, never to be found again. If she had not been sitting, she would have fallen down. As it was, she collapsed forward onto her father’s desk, pressed her face against the Reverend F. P. Welles’s most kind and thoughtful letter, and wept like to pull down every cloud from the vaults of heaven.

On nearly drowning while in Tahiti: Then–in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all–Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life,she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature–the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation–and it was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

On composing her theory of competitive alteration: To tell this story–the story of species transmutation, as demonstrable through the gradual metastasis of mosses–Alma did not need notes, or access to the old library at White Acre, or her herbarium. She needed none of this, for a vast comprehension of moss taxonomy already existed within her head, filling every corner of her cranium with well-remembered facts and details. She also had at her fingertips (or, rather, at her mind’s fingertips) all the ideas that had already been written over the last century on the subject of species metamorphosis and geological evolution. Her mind was like a terrific repository of endless shelves, stacked with untold thousands of books and boxes, organized into infinite, alphabetized particulars. She did not need a library. She was a library.

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An Appetite for Violets

Posted by nliakos on January 17, 2019

by Martine Bailey (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2014)

This is a really fun read, full of interesting historical tidbits from the setting (England, France, and Italy in the 1770s). The narrator/main character is Biddy Leigh, under-cook at Mawton Hall, near the Welsh border. Biddy (short for Obedience) is a delightful character, bright, hardworking, loyal and passionate. The reader cannot help but like her and be drawn in to her story–and what a story!

After the master of Mawton, Sir Geoffrey, marries Lady Carinna Tyrone, who is Biddy’s age (early twenties) and at least 40 years younger than her husband, Biddy’s life is upended. Her intended marriage to the local heart-throb, Jem, must be postponed while she travels with Lady Carinna; Carinna’s snobbish and unfriendly lady’s maid Jesmire; her footman, the Batavian slave Mr Loveday; and Sir Geoffrey’s steward, Mr Pars to London, Paris, and finally Tuscany to Villa Ombrosa, Carinna’s uncle’s estate. Biddy quickly makes friends with Mr Loveday, but she mistrusts and/or dislikes her remaining traveling companions, although she feels somewhat sorry for the sickly Carinna and promises to help her out of a difficult situation. Helping Carinna involves impersonating her to the lecherous Count Carlo, which leads Biddy to Carlo’s cook, Renzo Cellini. Renzo and Biddy, both lovers of good food and cooking, have much in common, but Biddy is afraid to tell Renzo who and what she really is. . .  until she has no choice.

Each chapter includes a recipe, and I was fascinated and sometimes repelled by the dishes described, like Viperine wine (To make a potent brew to prolong life and promote vitality drown several vipers in your wine and drink as you require) and Manus Christi (First take your sugar clarified and melt it in water of roses. Seethe these two till the water be consumed and the sugar hard, put in four grains of crushed pearls and precious stones, made in fine powder, then lay it in cakes on a marble stone anointed with oil of roses and lay on your gold.)

In addition to Biddy’s chapters (supposedly from a journal she kept in an old book of recipes given to her before she left Mawton), there are third person chapters from the perspective of Mr Loveday, letters from Mr Pars to his brother, and one extraordinary chapter (the first) about Carinna’s brother’s fruitless search for his sister in Villa Ombrosa, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s creepy wedding banquet in Great Expectations.  There are many unexpected twists and turns to the story, but everything gets sorted out in the end. I loved it.

 

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The Japanese Lover

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2019

by Isabel Allende (Atria 2015)

I went to the library the other day and picked out three novels off my to-read list–really unusual for me. I needed to take a break from all the seriousness of The Color of Law and similar books. It’s interesting how no matter how awful truth is, it doesn’t make me cry, but I’m a sucker for tear-jerker fiction.

The Japanese Lover is about passion, friendship, racism, injustice, trauma and its lingering effects, Japanese internment camps during World War Two, sex trafficking and internet child pornography, homosexuality and AIDS, aging and death. Deep stuff. Alma Belasco, saved by her doomed parents who sent her out of Poland ahead of the Nazis, has two loves in her life: one, Ichimei Fukuda, is the son of her aunt and uncle’s gardener, while the other, Nathaniel Belasco, is her cousin. Her feelings for them are strong and deep, but very different. Irina Bazili, a young Moldovan fleeing an abusive past, comes to work in the nursing home where Alma has gone to live, to the dismay of her wealthy family. Alma’s devoted grandson Seth is immediately attracted to Irina, who holds him at arm’s length. These characters and others have their own chapters as Allende weaves together their individual stories into a tapestry that spans almost a century. For example, she follows the Fukuda family to a hastily converted race track where thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans and immigrants where held until the Topaz internment camp opened in the Nevada desert, where they spent the remainder of the war, having lost everything they had worked for in this most shameful episode in our history. Allende brings this history to life and makes us care about each character, even the minor ones.

 

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The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2018

by Alyssa Palombo (St. Martin’s Press 2015)

I was in the library, looking for Red, by Orhan Pamuk. It wasn’t on the shelf, but my eyes strayed over to Palombo, and I saw two historical novels by the same author: one about Botticelli and the other about Vivaldi. Those looked interesting, kind of like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I loved, so I borrowed one.  The Girl with the Pearl Earring this is not, but it held my attention for about 24 hours. Palombo’s narrator is the musically talented, stubborn, eighteen-year-old Adriana d’Amato. Having read that some people believe that Anna Girò, the much-younger woman whom Vivaldi was rumored to have had an affair with, was in fact not his mistress, but his daughter, Palombo imagined who the mother and actual mistress might have been, and came up with Adriana, who approaches Vivaldi one dark night asking for secret violin lessons, which ultimately culminate in a scandalous love affair between this daughter of a wealthy Venetian social climber and the Red Priest.

In addition to Adriana and Antonio, there is a bastard brother, an abusive father, faithful servants, BFFs Vittoria and Giulietta, various suitors (the older, boring senator; the handsome, fabulously wealthy son of a great Venetian family), the eventual children who are all beautiful and musically talented…. Except for the impossible relationship with the composer-violinist, Adriana turns out to have a pretty cushy life. And things happen without much fanfare. Palombo doesn’t bother to build her story line slowly. (In two sequential sentences, Adriana’s half-brother Giuseppe begins courting her widowed friend and marries her eighteen months later.) Everything is tied up neatly and efficiently: for example, unwanted spouses conveniently die so that would-be lovers can marry, and the bastard child given up for adoption magically reappears to study singing with Vivaldi.

There’s rather a lot of sex. . . .  no bodices are actually ripped, but there’s a lot of passionate attraction among Venice’s beautiful young people (and a few lecherous old ones too).

And Adriana seems more like a liberated young woman of today, insisting on making her own choices (like nursing her babies and composing music) even when those are not done in her society. Another author quoted on the cover, Roberta Rich, proclaims the novel “realistic”. That’s not an adjective that came to my mind while reading it!

It wasn’t deep, but it was a satisfying read in a way. I can’t claim I didn’t finish it.

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Maigret’s First Case

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2018

by Georges Simenon (in English translation by Ros Schwartz, Penguin Classics 2016; originally published in French as La première enquête de Maigret in 1949)

This could be the first Maigret roman policier I have read in translation; or maybe not; if I had read another one, I don’t remember doing so. But I am pretty sure I have not read this one in any language. Jules Maigret is a twenty-something employee of the Saint-Georges district police station (secretary to the chief inspector), very young, totally inexperienced, in love with his nascent police career and full of ambition to rise in the ranks and eventually work at the Quai des Orfèvres (the police headquarters in Paris). The chief inspector assigns him his first case: a young flautist, walking down a fancy Paris street late one night, sees a young woman leaning out of a window and screaming for help, and hears a gunshot. What happened? Was anyone injured (other than the flautist, who tried to intervene and was beaten for his pains)?

Maigret sets to work, aided by the flautist, Justin Minard. His modus operandi is not very different from what would become his signature style later: immersion into the world where the crime was (or was not) committed, getting to know all the people involved, watching and waiting and taking notes and thinking. But at this stage of his life, he lacks confidence in himself and his gut feelings, and doors do not open for him, or people jump to do his bidding, as they will later. He even comes to suspect that the Chief Inspector, for whom he has enormous respect, does not wish the case to be resolved. . . .

It’s interested to read what is essentially a prequel to the other books. The story is set in a Paris where automobiles like the De Dion Bouton share the streets with horse-drawn carriages. Maigret is a slim young man, in contrast to his later heft. He has not been married long, but a youthful Mme. Maigret is as accommodating, understanding, and trusting as ever.

Favorite quote: “He hadn’t slept with his moustache net on and he had to straighten the tips with a hot curling iron.” Really, a moustache net? Who’d have thought?

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