Jayne Anne Phillips ‘Quiet Dell’

-All was so clear when one held a letter in one’s hand, one’s handwriting was intimate, a reflection of one’s deepest nature. Cornelius had spoken volumes, page after page of his flowing script had comforted and lead and reassured her, he’d questioned with her, answered, deepened their bond to one of lasting strength.img_0940

This Book is the story of Harry Powers, the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell as the newspapers of the early thirties called him, but also of his victims, of how he operated and of his trial.

Powers preyed on lonely women, widows, divorced women and spinsters sending hundreds of letters through the American Friendship Society, answering small ads searching for kindred spirits for:

-Correspondence leading to true friendship, fidelity, and matrimony

The first part of the book written as a nineteenth century novel describing one of the two key families in the case, the Eicher family, although long, helps us to better understand the women in the 1920s-1930s who wrote looking for friendship. Asta Eicher was completely dependant on her husband, a housewife bringing up her children with her husband’s mother living with them, initially her husband was thinking of leaving them for another woman and as her mother in law tells her:

-Lavinia, regal,kindly poured the tea. Aster, hear me out, in this world in which women have so little freedom and enjoy so little regard it is not always a bad thing to share a man, openly or not if all are happy, and it is not such an unusual arrangement amongst artistic people that alliances be discreet, particularly when there are children involved.

Aster was left with no income when first her husband died suddenly and then her mother in law, she had taken in a lodger, Charles who had ‘inclinations’ and had re-mortgaged her house and as funds were running low, Powers, under an assumed name writes to her, promising security for her in West Virginia. But Powers was an astute con man and did not just promise security in his letters:

-All was so clear when one held a letter in one’s hand, one’s handwriting was intimate a reflection of one’s deepest nature. Cornelius had spoken volumes, page after page of his flowing script had comforted and lead and reassured her, he’d questioned with her, answered, deepened their bond to one of lasting strength

In the summer of 1931, Powers, as agreed, comes to Chicago to pick up Aster in his automobile, takes her back to Quiet Dell where he tortures and murders her before coming back for the children to do the same.

In the second part of the book written as a journalistic investigation lead by Emily Thornhill a Chicago reporter we meet several of the true characters on whose names she remarks,  Defense Attorney Law, a murderer called Harm, and Sheriff Grimm with whom she strikes up a working relationship. Grimm tells us of the situation surrounding the case and of how Powers was caught:

-Grimm had spoken of dozens of enquiries from relatives of missing women how many more had inspired no search? Might Powers have killed a hundred women……police took little notice of willing disappearance, if Powers picked the right victim and bade her come to him, he might leave no trail at all, he travelled constantly and must have done so for over a decade previous to the four years he’d lived in Clarksburg. The EIchers had no money, Powers was caught because he went back to Park ridge for radios and rugs, determined to realise a profit.

Finally, Powers was not tried for the murder of the Eicher family but of that of another of his victims from the same period, Dorothy Lemke.

A slow beginning but an interesting re-telling of this true story.

First published as ‘Quiet Dell’ by Vintage in 2015

Laurent Binet ‘La Septième Fonction du Langage’

-In the beginning, philosophy and science worked hand in hand together up until the 18th Century, in order more or less to counter the church’s  obscurantism….then from the 19th Century…continental philosophy….became more esoteric, more and more free style, more and more spiritualist.image
-Whilst the English and the Americans remained faithful to a more scientific idea of philosophy, what we call Analytical Philosophy.***

Earlier in the year I took one for the team when I read Blanco Calderon’s ‘The Night’  a crime story with more than just a background in linguistic theory and the different theorists in South America and in the world. Well in spite of the wonderful write-ups I have seen, the nightmare is back, a crime novel with more than just a background in linguistic theory where the two main protagonists, Simon Herzog and Pierre Bayard probably the only fictitious characters in the book become mixed up in a farcical search for a document describing the 7th function of language (don’t worry the other six are explained), an understanding of which would permit the person who masters it to manipulate his audience, and for which the French semiotic philosopher, Raymond Barthes, has been killed.

I could not work up an interest to care about who were, and what were the relationships between Foucault, Sollers, Kristeva, Sartre, Derrida, Cixous,Todorov, Althusser, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, Debray, Roman Jackobson, Umberto Eco, Chomsky, J-Kahn,  Jack Lang, Laurent Fabius, Serge Moati, Régis Debray, Mitterrand and Giscard and thus to understand or care about the satire concerning them. As I put it When I read the Blanco Calderón:

-So if you are a linguistic theorist, this is the crime story for you. Otherwise like myself you may find this a particularly hard slog.

I would add that if you are particularly interested and versed in the 1970’s Paris Philosophy microcosm you may enjoy this book.

The story beginning in Paris, takes in spies killing with poisoned umbrellas, Bologne and the characters are there for the explosion destroying the main railway station as the characters flit around the world to offer historical situations and people for the purpose of the author’s satire.

I should point out here that this review goes against the opinions of most, or even all, of the other write-ups I’ve seen.

First published in French as ‘La Septième Fonction du Langage’ by Grasset in 2015
*** My translation

Laura Lippman ‘After I’m Gone’

-Seven point five percent, she said at last.
-The country is two hundred years old this year. They’re asking you to give seven point five percent of the country’s entire history.image
-That’s a lot, and you know I don’t give points easily.

As part of my 2016 English lit targets, Laura Lippman here, influenced by a true case, the disappearance of Julius Salisbury a lottery and strip club owner in 1970 has written a fictional account here of what would happen to the women left behind after the disappearance of a successful but petty criminal. She imagines the family he left behind and their relationship with his mistress, a stripper at his club.

Felix Brewer disappears at the beginning of the book, 1976. On bail under a federal charge for running illegal lotteries, he doesn’t think he would survive the fifteen years in jail that was being asked of him and so in collusion with his two friends, Bert Gelman the lawyer and Tubby Schroeder the bail bondsman he skips bail and disappears leaving his wife Bambi, and three children, Linda, Rachel and Michelle as well as his mistress Julie Saxony who he persuades to drive him to the airport, he was going to leave everybody catered for:

-Julie was going to have it hard, once he was gone. Bambi had the girls, friends, family. Julie didn’t have anyone except her sister, an odd duck and that was being kind. The puss on that one when she took the wheel.
-This better be for forever, she muttered.
-You’re getting yours, he reminded her. Everybody was getting theirs, one way or another.

Ex Baltimore detective and present day cold case private investigator, Sandy Sanchez, drops a file and as he picks it up comes across the erstwhile picture of Julie Saxony, he remembered the case, she had disappeared, 10 years after her boyfriend Felix Brewer in 1986, gone to join him everybody supposed until her body was found in Leakin park in 2001. Maybe it was the mystery, or just her looks that tempted him to re-open this case.

When Felix Brewer disappeared so did his money, but what happened to it, Bambi was left with nothing to raise Felix’s family, Julie Saxony who was left his cover operation, a modest coffee shop, moved up to a small bed and breakfast and then to a fancy  restaurant just before disappearing, but with what money? Bambi’s?

Brewer left behind him a tangled web of friends and family and as Sandy investigates at his slow pace, he picks apart this puzzle,  Julie was definitely going to meet Felix when she disappeared. Bambi had found her own pearl earring at her house just after the disappearance, except she hadn’t lost it; had Felix bought the same earrings for all of his women? Had Julie been to Bambi’s house when she had been away and only Rachel had been there?

A pleasant murder mystery with an in depth study of each of the five women characters as well as Sandy, Felix was after all gone, so why spend too much time with him? As usual all is not as it seems and betrayal is at the heart of things. An interesting two weeks of audio in the car,  I’m not sure I would buy the book.

First published in English as ‘After I’m Gone’ by Faber & Faber in 2014

Edward Louis ´En Finir avec Eddy Bellegeule’

-In our village it wasn’t enough to be known to have been hard, you had to be able to make your son a hard case too. A father reinforced his masculinity through his sons,image to whom he had to transmit the values of virility, and my father would do I it, he was going to make me a hard case too.***

Now this was a difficult book to write up, I’ve been sat on it for five months now not really sure how to go forward and the I came across a blog article by Francilien based on an interview given by Edward Louis. I would suggest you check this out, I follow on here with a quote from this blog to put this book in perspective:

-Much of Louis’s work is influenced by the French sociologue Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on symbolic power. I’m not yet familiar with the body of Bourdieu’s work, but the conversation revolved around how Louis’s novels affirm the existence of symbolic power while simultaneously having the protagonist–Louis himself–diverge from this theory.
Symbolic power is basically the perpetuation of social violences by a group of people who have the claim to cultural–and thus political and economic–capital. “The question of political action, for the people with whom I grew up, was firstly a question of body.

The opening quote explains a little of the world into which the character Eddy was born. This book and the characters are a very thinly disguised version of the author’s own life, Eddy is born in an industrial village in the countryside in Picardy in the north of France, an English parallel could be an industrial village in Wiltshire or Somerset. From twelve years on school results were of no importance, to survive socially a boy had to be hard, take no nonsense, and going into school each day or not, you would still end up living in the village.

-Violence wasn’t unusual for me, far from that. I’d always, as long as I could remember, seen my father drunk, in fights leaving the café with other men as drunk as him, smashing their noses or their teeth. Men that had looked too pointedly at my mother, and my farher under the influence, who said threateningly who do you think you are looking at my wife like that you filthy bastard. My mother who tried to calm him down -darling calm yourself- but whose efforts were ignored. My father’s mates, who eventually ended up intervening, that was the rule, that was being a true mate, a good friend, diving in to separate my father and the other man, the victim of his drunkeness, with his face covered in cuts and bruises.***

From the outset Eddy would need to work double hard to gain respect, after all his name was “Bellegeule” that is Pretty Face in English. But there was another problem from the outset:

-Very quickly I spoilt my father’s hopes and dreams. From the first months of my life my problem was diagnosed. It would seem that I was born this way, no one understood the origin, the cause, where that unknown force came from that took me over from birth, that made me a prisoner of my own body. When I started to express myself, to learn to speak, my voice spontaneously took on a feminine tone. It was higher than that of other boys. Each time I spoke my hands moved wildly, all over the place, twisting and flapping. My parents called that  putting on airs, they said stop it with your airs. They asked themselves why Eddy  was carrying on like a sissy. They told me: Calm down, can’t you stop making those exaggerated movements like a queer. They thought that I had chosen to be effeminate, like a personal aesthetic that I had chosen just to upset them.***

Edward Louis in this book takes us through his early life, his surroundings and his family in painful detail until he can finally get away from his village and begin to construct his own life, for me there is an overwhelming feeling of bitterness behind this book and I wonder how he himself will feel, not about the sociological detail, but about the lack of forgiveness in the fullness of time.

First published in French as ‘En Finir ave Eddy Bellegeule’ by Editions du Seuil in 2014
*** My translation

Tristan Garcia ‘Faber, The Destroyer’

-We were middle class children from an average western country, two generations after winning a war, one generation after a failed revolution. We were neither rich nor poor, we didn’t miss the aristocracy, we had no utopian dreams and we didn’t care about democracy.image Our parents had worked but only ever in offices, schools, for the postal services, in hospitals, administrative work. Our fathers wore no overalls or ties, our mothers no aprons or pantsuit. We had been brought up on books, films, music – with the promise of becoming individuals.***

Tristan Garcia, a philosopher and writer, is forging a solid reputation, with his books being nominated for or gaining prizes, culminating with last year’s ‘7’ winning the ‘Prix du Livre Inter’

The opening quote sets the scene in the mid 90’s the generation that had known the events of May ’68, and influenced the way France went after, were in their late 40’s and the youth of the country that had been brought up by these very people to believe in freedom and individualism were discovering the hard economic facts, nobody owes you anything.

The book builds up to two periods, the first is the social conflict of 1995 where month long strikes, partially powered by the students at Lycées brought about the downfall of the then right wing government, replacing them by the socialists who then, amongst other things, in order to better share opportunities brought in the 35 hour week. Centering on events and people at a Lycée in a French town. The second period is the present day (2012) and the reckoning between the protagonists of that time.

Faber appeared one day in primary school in the lives of two children, Madeleine and Basile, Garcia describes in realistic detail the humiliation and pain involved in the bullying, and using brain not brawn frees them both and they both then spend their school years almost in adoration of Faber, to give one example:

-It was our place, lead down, we spoke about the week at school,  of our teachers, of our parents and of all those we called “the others”: our own generation for which we had only scorn. The “others” we’re either sheep or jerks. And then Faber spoke to us about the future which sounded wonderful to us.***

Fast forward to Faber my Bing from being a brilliant student at school to becoming a dissatisfied student, slowly putting distance between himself and his two friends who never accepted this culminating in Faber, although not in his senior year, taking a leading role in the student strikes in 1995, through the euphoria to the ultimate defeat.

-In the turmoil of the two or three weeks of the strike, here is the first scene that comes back to me: Faber in the process of goading on the group of undecided lycéens at nine in the morning. Climbing on the railings of the main gate, he had pulled himself above the teeming masses : bags on the floor, sitting in a circle, whistling and smoking, parents demanding that the lycée should be opened. He was sitting on the spikes at the top of the railings like a fakir, and in perfect balance he opened his arms to address us. Maybe he finished with his ass bleeding, but he smiled. He was magnificent. I already imagined him as head of state.***

Things go rapidly wrong for the three friends from here, Faber, due to a dramatic event, forced to leave, living for fifteen years as a marginal and Madeleine and Basile making what they can of their lives. So then begins the second part of the book, which involves revenge, deceit, and a whole new reading of events around Faber’s other friends and the jealousy of Madeleine and Basile, as Faber says:

-A small provincial town, sleeping through the modern world is a thing of beauty…..But when it wakes up it can be nauseating.***

A well written book, but not the one, in view of the subject,I would choose to translate into English.

First published in French as ‘Faber le Destructeur’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation

Catherine Cusset ‘Indigo’

-You’re a pain in the ass you know
that had surprised her, since Deb nobody had used these words on her and he had pronounced it with the same intonation as Deb as if she had been reincarnated in Raphael but without the friendship….image
-it’s funny you should use those words, I had an American friend who use to say just that to me in French; you’re a pain in the ass
-it must be true then he chuckled, are you no longer friends?
-She killed herself six months ago
-You were that much of a pain in the ass?***

Catherine Cusset’s novel takes place in the south of India, an area where France has historical links via its trading posts in Mahé and Pondichery, and around a cultural festival organised by the Alliance Française in Trivandrum. The story concerns four French people and their reasons for being at the festival. Charlotte, late forties,  who lives and works in New York, leaves her husband and children for a week to come to this festival trying to find a sort of internal peace that has escaped her since the suicide, in India, of her friend Deb. Roland Weinberger, an egocentric successful sixty something author living with a much younger Italian, he too is there for another reason, to try to meet the only woman that had ever left him. Raphael, who has written a very troubled autobiography concerns nag abuse as a child but he has changed all of the names and then Finally Gerlaldine who lives in India, is married to an Indian and works for the Alliance Française, she is the organiser of the festival.

The festival takes place the year after the terrorist attacks in Bombay amid heightened security. As time moves on the protagonists slowly lose their bearings, Gerladine is drawn to Raphael whom she recognises from her youth where she had a holiday home near his family home in Brittany and recognises his family from his book.

-The car followed the deserted road towards Trivandrum, towards her apartment towards her happy and peaceful life which she had just brushed aside for a minute of absolute happiness as you would impulsively pull a cloth from a table, adulteress, there was something old fashioned about this name, even melodramatic they made her smile, because she had brushed nothing aside, the two realities coexisted without contradiction, she was Joseph’s mother, the Muslim wife of Intiaz and she was also…….the woman who had just made love with this man twenty five years later.***

Roland who has lived his life so far, discarding women when he is ready to move on in life, is drawn to this one woman who discarded him as a young man and goes to the town she lives in to meet her. He is at first annoyed to see that she has not come to the meeting but sent her mother instead, and of course it’s not her mother…..

The book ends with a tragedy, with one of the four drowning, but you will need to read to discover.

This book is a slow study of character and interaction, Which I listened to on audio and which happily shortened my commute.

First published in French as ‘Indigo’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation

Per Petterson ‘Out Stealing Horses’

-People…think they know  you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts imagenot feelings…..not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are

Trond is now an old man,  following his wife’s death he decides to move out from the city to an isolated hut in the countryside. By coincidence he recognises his only neighbour after all these years, Lars, Jon’s brother. And the story of his life bubbles to the surface, how decisions, large or small shape the people we become.

Trond has now become a solitary person, but not an inactive person, a little apprehensive with his choice and living with the shadow of events shaped during his childhood.

-I did not bring a television set out here with me, and I regret it sometimes when the evenings get long, but my idea was that living alone you can soon get stuck to those flickering images and to the chair you will sit on far into the night, and then time merely passes as you let others do the moving.

Two major events in the past are the key to who Trond has become and they are linked by the same seemingly innocuous phrase, the title of the book. Young Trond had gone to spend the summer doing up their country cabin with his father and had made friends with Jon, a young lad of his age living nearby, the book begins with Jon coming to their door early in the morning:

-Are you coming?’ He said. ‘We’re going out stealing horses.” That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July. Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer. At least my father did not. He never said anything about the war.

During their adventure, Trond cannot understand the strange reactions of his friend Jon and we learn of a major personal tragedy is the cause of this, in trying to understand what Trond has heard, his father questions him about their morning and reacts unexpectedly to Trond’s story:

-When you were out this morning, were you with Jon then?
-Yes I said
-What were you doing?
-We were out stealing horses.
-What’s that you say? My father was taken aback.
-Which horses then?
-Barkald’s horses. We weren’t really stealing them. We were just going to ride them. But we call it stealing to make it more exciting.

As the story moves on we learn of the role of Trond’s father during the war, as with many people in this isolated village near the Swedish border, such as Jon’s mother, but not his father, he helped people cross the border from occupied Norway into Sweden. As they worked the escapes their password which he muttered outside of Jon’s parents cabin was of course:

-Are you coming he said we’re going out stealing horses

Obviously heard by the young Jon. One night due to neglect by Jon’s father, he and Jon’s wife were forced to flee to Sweden for the duration. This was the second major event that shaped Trond’s life, his father could never settle down to his previous life after this. Looking back on his life, Trond comments:

-People…think they know  you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts not feelings…..not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are

And I guess this is true for all of us but with a little less drama.
As the book cover says Out Stealing Horses is a poignant and moving tale of a changing perspective on the world, from youthful innocence to the difficult acceptance of betrayal, and of nostalgia for a simpler way of life. 

First published in Norwegian as ‘Ut og stjœle hester’ by Forlaget Oktober in 2003
Translated into English as Out Stealing Horses by Anne Born and published by Vintage in 2006