Saturday, February 24, 2018

Amélie Nothomb's Pétronille

A couple of years ago, the movie Tokyo Fiancée played here at the Toronto International Film Festival and I went to see it. I think I'd heard of Amélie Nothomb before that--the film was based on one of her novels which may have been part of the motivation to see that movie in particular. I liked the movie so I thought I should read one of her books sometime.

Well, you know how that goes. It took a while.

I saw Pétronille at a local used book store that specializes in remaindered books, so I got it, but it didn't get read right away and it became part of the TBR pile. Then a couple of days ago that same bookstore had a different Nothomb available, Life Form, and I was going to get that one too, but I decided I should read the other first. (Wasn't that good of me?) So I did and I'm glad I did.

In Pétronille, a character named Amélie, a successful Belgian author now living in Paris (much like our author) decides she needs a friend she can drink champagne with. She meets Pétronille at a book signing. Pétronille is a fan of Amélie's work, but at that time is a graduate student doing research on Elizabethan drama. They seem to hit it off, but it takes one or two other cautious meetings before they become champagne-drinking buddies. Pétronille becomes a novelist in her own right.

Not a whole lot happens; this is not a plot-driven novel. But it is quite funny. The opening sentence gives a good idea of the tone. There's quite an amusing takedown of Vivienne Westwood, the British fashion designer from the punk era. The Amélie character is presented as socially reserved, even a bit diffident. At one point Pétronille suggests they use the informal tu instead of vous with each other; Amélie resists, even though, as Pétronille points out, they've slept in the same bed, and Pétronille has seen Amélie in her orange pajamas. Some of the humor comes from the tension between the diffidence of the Amélie character and the forthrightness of the telling of the story. I mean, she declares she's out to find a champagne-drinking buddy.

The novel takes a surreal turn at the end, the very last few pages. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but you do know that it's a novel.

Fun, and quite a quick read, only 120 pages. Now I'm hoping that pile of Life Form they had at the bookstore still has a copy or two left.

This is my first of Nothomb's novels. (Though it won't be the last.) Does anyone have any sense where this fits in? Is it an especially good one (or poor one)? Favorites?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Beginning: Amélie Nothomb's Pétronille

Intoxication doesn't just happen. It's an art, one that requires talent and application. Haphazard drinking leads nowhere.
... is the beginning of Amélie Nothomb's Pétronille.

I have to admit I laughed out loud at that opening and it does go on to be a funny novel. Amélie (the character, not the novelist, and don't confuse them...) is looking for someone to drink champagne with. Surprise, surprise. She finds somebody.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Here's to you! Bottoms up!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book Beginning: Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

When people ask me what I do--taxi drivers, hairdressers--I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one's ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. the beginning of Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

I no longer recall where I heard about this that made me want to read it, but I suppose it was one of the usual bloggy suspects. I put it on my library hold list six months ago and was finally able to pick it up Wednesday.

I like the opening. While the narrator thinks of herself a bit dull, it comes with sly humor, There's information packed in, too, and also a question to be answered: what does she do?

And I need to get reading! There's still six times as many holds as there are copies at the Toronto library.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Must get reading!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees

     Our father leaned out the window. "When you're tired of being up there, you'll change your mind!" he shouted.
     "I'll never change my mind," exclaimed my brother from the branch.
     "You'll see as soon as you come down!"
     "I'll never come down again!" And he kept his word.

That's the end of the first chapter of Calvino's novel, and Cosmo Piovasco di Rondó did keep his word. From that moment in 1767 when Cosimo was twelve and he climbed into a tree rather than eat snails, he stayed in one tree or another. And when his father died, Cosimo became the baron in the trees.

The novel has the delight of something like Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson: there's quite a lot of ingenious invention as to how Cosimo carries on his life in the trees. It's a boys' own adventure book with that sort of charm. How he gets around, how he gets food, how he sleeps, how he bathes, eventually how he meets girls--all these things are non-trivial problems and they're fun to watch him (and Calvino) work them out. Initially he has help from his younger brother Biagio, who is also the narrator of the story. He makes friends with the gang of boys who steal fruit from the orchards. He has a relationship with the proud daughter of his father's enemy among the local nobility. (More on her as we go along.)

Eventually, though, Cosimo is reconciled to his parents and they, particularly his mother, help. He becomes famous, first for his eccentricity, but then for his usefulness, in tracking wolves in the winter or preventing fires in a dry summer; then the whole community is his friend.

But the novel also takes place in an interesting time and has gentle intellectual interests. In 1767, the Enlightenment is in full swing, and Cosimo is affected by it. What is his relationship to the church, to learning? These are questions in the air:
'Cosimo...acquired a passion for reading and study which remained with him for the rest of his life. The attitude in which we now usually found him was astride a comfortable branch with a book open in his hand, or leaning over the fork of a tree as if he were on a school bench, with a sheet of paper on a plank and an inkstand in a hole in the tree, writing with a long quill pen.'
I may have perched in a tree and read a book once or twice when I was younger, but I never thought of making a career of it. Maybe I should have!

As an enlightenment thinker, he begins a Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees, he writes to Diderot about it, and gets a short note in return. At a later date, Napoleon on one of his marches around Europe decides he wants to meet this baron in the trees. Neither has much to say to the other.

There are love affairs, or rumors of love affairs, but there is only one love: Viola, that proud daughter of the family's enemies. She returns more than once to the story and perhaps the main question is what will happen to them.

Anywho, it's a great novel and I recommend it. I've read it a few times before, and it still has the power to bring me both tears and smiles.

It's recently been retranslated by Ann Goldstein, now spectacularly well known as the translator of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. I got her translation from the library (and I've read about a third of it and will probably read it all again) and it's quite good, but I don't know that I will need to rush out and buy it to replace my old translation (done by Archibald Colquhoun in 1959) which still seems to me to be fine. I do like the new cover. Although it should be said the Other Reader* in the house prefers the older cover.  Even though I'm not convinced that it needed to be retranslated, any attention it brings is more than welcome. Calvino is not exactly obscure, but he could (and should!) be better known. Almost all Calvino I've found to be great reads, but if I were to recommend one, this would be it.

*for the Other Reader, see Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Beginning: Martin Amis' Money

As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows. We banked, and hit a deep well or grapple-ridge in the road: to the sound of a rifle-shot the cab roof ducked down and smacked me on the core of my head. the beginning of Martin Amis' Money.

I think the poop on this is, it's supposed to be his best and it's supposed to be funny. Anyway, it's been on my TBR pile la la, I can't hear you, TBR pile, what did you say? I read his father's Lucky Jim years ago and was disappointed; I like my humor a little more genial than Lucky Jim. But that's not very fair to Amis fils. And now Martin Amis is coming to Toronto to give a talk at the downtown public library and I got tickets (they're free) and I haven't read a single one of his books. No doubt he'll mostly talk about his latest, but I have this one, and I decided that would be my homework.

The cover above is way cooler than that of my Penguin paperback.

Anybody have any thoughts about Martin Amis? Is this the one to read? Would that opening keep you going?

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Ross MacDonald's The Blue Hammer

The Blue Hammer was Ross Macdonald's final novel. It came out in 1976. Lew Archer, P.I. and the usual protagonist of Macdonald's novels, is hired to recover a painting stolen from copper magnate Jack Biemeyer and his wife. But there's more to it than that. On page eleven, Archer is already telling Mrs. Biemeyer, "This case looks a bit more complex to me than it does to you."

Naturally Archer was right. This ends up the longest of the Archer novels at 280 pages in my edition.

Macdonald was well-established by this point in his career and the book got mostly glowing reviews, except for one in the New York Times. And I like it, too. But in his book of interviews with Macdonald It's All One Case, Paul Nelson says, "I do think it's correct that anyone who read all of the Archer books would anticipate things in The Blue Hammer," and that's true, too. Nor does Macdonald deny it. A crime in the past is connected to crimes in the present; there are troubled children, and possibly more troubled parents; there are secrets in the family. In this one the family secrets are particularly complex, with two interlocking families. The main figure is Richard Chantry, a famous painter, who disappeared 25 years before, and whose illegitimate half-brother had been killed seven years before that. That's the crime in the past. In the present, two dealers in paintings are killed, one drowned, the other beaten. The theft of the painting was partly contrived by the Biemeyer's drug-addled daughter. That's the troubled child. And there are family secrets, revealed by the end of the novel.

Anyway, quite enjoyable, if not his best.

Paul Nelson asks him in It's All One Case: "One more book at least would you say is fairly certain?"

"Yes, I should round it off," Macdonald replied. Alas it wasn't to be.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Silver Age. How. At least two deaths by different means.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Book Beginning: Lynn Crosbie's Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

"Hey pig!" was one of the many greetings thrown from cars, with bags of warm garbage, each day as I walked home, my chin tucked into my neck.
     At home, a cuff to the face for the bowl left in the sink.
     In my room, I saw under my dead boyfriend's poster, and love flooded through my barren heart, as always. the beginning of Lynn Crosbie's Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Crosbie's novel came out in 2015 with House of Anansi Press, a small-ish Canadian publisher. Evelyn, the unhappy high school girl whose voice we hear above, is moving from self-harm to drugs, and has just scored some heroin at the start of the novel. She's being raised by her drunk single mother, who's a former hanger-on in the Seattle grunge scene. The dead boyfriend of the poster is Kurt Cobain, with whom Evelyn has no relationship in this world. But maybe in the next.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like.