Victoria Jelinek


Plainsong by Kent Haruf

shoppingA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ of the USA is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.



Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home in an attack dubbed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby and her then fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, survived, and it was Libby’s testimony that sent Ben to jail on a life sentence for the monstrous murders.

41x9l+9rpDL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_As a youngster, Libby received a lot of money from strangers for having survived her ordeal (and for being cute). Twenty-five-years later, she’s broke, and hasn’t done anything with her life except grow angrier and more depressed. Then the Kill Club locates her. They’re a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, and they want to pump Libby for details because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and want to find proof that will liberate him. In turn, Libby hopes to make a profit off of her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with people associated with that night and her family at that time, and report her findings back to the club. When Libby begins this journey, she’s convinced her brother is guilty. But as her search takes her from decrepit Missouri strip clubs, to deserted Oklahoma tourist towns, and back to the site of the fatal killings, the inconceivable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself back where she started – running from a murderer.

The novel is a complex character study and an evocative portrait of people on the fringe of society. Told in sporadic flashback, Libby narrates the present-day chapters in first person, while the flashback chapters are told in third-person, describing the actions and perspectives of several key characters on the days leading up to, and on the day that, the family was murdered. Libby is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she’s bitter, tough, and selfish. Even so, you root for her, and you’re sad about her horrifying childhood. Similarly, Ben isn’t particularly appealing – he’s awkward, shiftless, impressionable, and irrational. Like Libby, you feel immense sympathy for him. Each of the characters in the book are compelling, even if they’re not agreeable, and Flynn expertly weaves their stories together. The narrative is consistently developed, compelling, and absolutely suspenseful throughout (I had to resist reading the last chapters to find out how it ended!). The best aspect of this book, however, is in Flynn’s ability to create a vivid picture or a situation in a phrase or two, giving the reader a believable glimpse into a world we might never see otherwise.

This is an insightful, poignant, and well-written book. Its ability to affect its reader is also impressive. I was troubled for several days after finishing it – I found myself checking on my sleeping child in the night, hugging him more during the day, and double-checking that the front and back doors were locked when I went to bed. Would I read it again? Not for some years. Do I recommend reading it? An emphatic yes!

 

 

 

 



British Writer Pens The Best Description Of Trump I’ve Read

This post was published by Michael Stevenson*, aka Dai Bando, Johnny Foreigner, Monsieur Pas De Merde, a blogger of French and British culture. It was some time ago, but I feel that as Trump becomes increasingly dangerous and cruel, and the world – a veritable mess – longs for (reasonable) American leadership, it’s worth looking at this piece again in order to both appreciate great writing as well as to consider, yet again, how fundamentally distasteful Trump is as a human being.

 

British Writer Pens The Best Description Of Trump I’ve Read

 

Someone on Quora asked “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?” Nate White, an articulate and witty writer from England wrote the following response:

A few things spring to mind.   Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed. So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.   And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.   Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.   And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist. Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that. He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.   He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.


And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully. That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.   There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
• Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
• You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss. After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum. God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.   He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart. In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish: ‘My God… what… have… I… created? If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.

 

* https://pasdemerde.com/2019/10/18/british-writer-pens-the-best-description-of-trump-ive-read/



Rentrée scolaire…

Une lettre a un ami concernant l’ouverture d’ecoles en France dans quelque semaines…

unnamedMerci pour le «heads up» de Facebook sur le retour des enfants à l’école (dates, groupes annuels, etc.). Je dois dire que je suis d’accord avec mon mari ici (quelle surprise!): nous allons attendre les notes officielles et voir quels sont leurs plans concrets et quelles mesures tangibles pour protéger les enfants contre le virus seront dès le premier jour, et faire un décision éclairée à ce stade.

Pour moi, me sentir bien à l’idée de retourner mon tout-petit à l’école, un plan pour déplacer les enfants à l’extérieur – à la “Forest School” et au danois – comme le note le mari, serait un très bon début pour améliorer mon niveau de confort.

Et / ou il y a des tests pour chaque enfant, enseignant et membre du personnel de l’école pour vérifier s’ils sont infectés (pas uniquement  lorsqu’ils présentent des symptômes et / ou se rendent à l’hôpital pour obtenir de l’aide, comme l’a dit Macron dans son discours – et , aussi, pour l’instant, les tests sont défectueux). OU, peut-etre, quelqu’un prend la température de chaque enfant et membre du personnel tous les jours quand ils entrent dans les portes (comme le fait l’Asie du Sud-Est pour entrer dans les lieux publics), puis les interdire de l’école, appliquer cela serait essentiel, mettre en quarantaine ceux qui sont malades et retrouver leurs contacts — il peut s’agir d’une application facultative, comme le font les Allemands, les Autrichiens et les Suisses, par opposition à obligatoire, comme les Coréens et les Singapouriens pour protéger les idéaux de la liberté civile. (Cependant, je ne vois pas cela se produire parce que je connais parents qui envoient régulièrement leurs enfants à l’école et qui soulèveraient l’enfer sacré s’ils perdaient leur droit de faire ce qui leur convient le mieux).

Et, comme le dit le chef du syndicat des enseignants en France, en alliance avec le chef des services de santé et des services médicaux en France, ALORS ils doivent embaucher des personnes supplémentaires pour surveiller les enfants dans leurs petits groupes (éloignement social, apprentissage du matériel, lavage des mains – etc. et afin d’aider les enseignants respectifs). Encore une fois, je ne vois pas cela se produire parce que c’est trop cher et que dieu sait que l’éducation publique connaît des difficultés exponentielles. (Les gens – in general – ne réalisent pas que c’est un investissement collectif dans la société de l’avenir et une assurance pour la survie de la démocratie). ET, enfin, ils doivent distribuer des masques à chaque personne (puis imposer le port de ceux-ci).

À l’exception de ces mesures de sécurité, que je pense que ce serait un miracle de voir se produire dans ce délai, SI du tout, j’aimerais qu’il y ait quelques mois au cours desquels le taux d’infections se soit stabilisé, du moins pas augmenté. En l’état, il y a encore beaucoup de nouvelles infections chaque jour en France (ainsi qu’une nouvelle résurgence à Singapour et en Chine, et les dieux savent que le Royaume-Uni et les États-Unis n’ont pas encore atteint leur “crest”) et cela malgré un confinement strict.

De plus, pour qu’une «immunité collective» se produise, il faudrait laisser beaucoup plus de gens tomber malades (ce qui est peut-être POURQUOI ils veulent envoyer nos enfants en premier – des cobayes au nom du plus grand bien) et puis testez l’hypothèse que cela fonctionnera pour créer une sorte d’immunité, comme nous l’espérons / comme il l’a fait avec d’autres virus …il y a un certain sens a cela. Et, nous devons sortire a un moment donne…

Hmmm.

Mon fils me dérange, nous sommes en hémorragie d’argent (la saison de mon mari a été perdue, je n’ai pas travaillé l’année dernière, donc je ne peux pas réclamer d’aide malgré les années de taxes payées) et j’ai une tonne de travail pour me préparer à entrer dans le à nouveau à plein temps en septembre (pour essayer de «keeping the wolves at bay»). MAIS, je ne veux pas prendre un “risque inutile” (comme l’a dit le chef de l’association médicale France) en ce moment. (Mais, c’est encore dans quelques semaines…).

Je comprends les raisons de l’ouverture des écoles. Lancez l’économie. Cela va être une sacrée récession telle qu’elle est (en particulier si les gens continuent de résister à une augmentation de l’âge de la retraite pour aider à payer les avantages que beaucoup reçoivent!). Et beaucoup – y compris nous, comme mentionné – sont hémorragiques et n’ont pas d’épargne, je comprends donc le désir de continuer. Je lève mon chapeau à ceux qui envoient leurs petits courageux (ou inconscients) à l’école, malgré les risques. And, maybe, we will also send our beloved junior to school shortly…

(Je suppose que cela doit être similaire à la façon dont les parents se sentent envoyer leurs enfants à l’école aux États-Unis? Mon enfant ou mes enfants iront probablement bien. Les statistiques soutiennent que tel est le cas. Cependant, avec la prolifération des armes à feu et la violence armée dans les écoles et les espaces publics, il y a toujours une chance qu’ils soient blessés…).

De plus, des articles paraissent soudainement dans les journaux français et anglais sur un enfant de neuf ans (peut-être le même enfant) qui a eu Covid-19, de nombreux contacts et n’a infecté personne. L’hypothèse est qu’ils ne «shed» pas beaucoup de virus et sont moins susceptibles d’être infectés or to infect.

Cependant, je soupçonne qu’il y a des machinations en place (publicite, propaganda?) pour nous mettre à l’aise d’envoyer nos juniors à l’école, parce que ce que j’ai lu dans une variété de journaux – viables aussi – est qu’il est “probable” que les enfants iront bien, et le taux d’infection augmentera, mais il sera «gérable» pour les hôpitaux, etc. Les mots clés étant «probable» et «gérable». (Mais, imaginez si tous les enseignants et educateurs tombent malades! J’ai aimé chacun des professeurs de mon fils des ans, et j’apprécie excessivement son professeur actuel! Perdre l’un d’eux serait une vraie perte.).

Donc, nous allons attendre et voir ce que les fonctionnaires proposent sous peu, et prendre alors une decision eclairee…

 



A Serious Man
April 16, 2020, 7:49 am
Filed under: Film reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A potential film to watch while in confinement…

A Serious Man posterDid you like The Big Lebowski? Fargo? Raising Arizona? Oh Brother Where Art Thou? No Country for Old Men? Then you should watch A SERIOUS MAN by The Coen Brothers if you haven’t watched it already.

The setting is 1967 Americana suburbia: Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) life is beginning to unravel -his wife wants a divorce because his incompetent brother is sleeping on the couch and his son owes the school bully $20 for a bag of marijuana – and he just wants to know how it all went wrong and what he can do about it.

The Coen Brothers have made some great films and this one is marvellous – a suburban dysfunctional family drama meets metaphysical mystery that stands out as their most human and relatable film yet.



The Accidental Further Adventures of the 100-Year-Old Man

The Accidental Further Adventures book reviewThe sequel to The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is another deft satire about the flaws of modern society. Using Allan and Julius’s latest adventures, with its madcap twists and turns, Jonasson creates a thought-provoking portrait of the current state of the world.

After climbing out the window of his retirement home on his 100th birthday and accidentally entangling himself in an epic adventure involving a suitcase full of cash and a gang of ruffians, the spry Allan and his best-and-only-friend Julius, settle into luxury on Bali. Most people wouldn’t grow bored of sipping cocktails beachside, but Allan and Julius aren’t like most people so their decadent life has become a bore and they’re restless. Julius decides to liven things up with a hot air balloon ride in honor of Allan’s one-hundred-and-first birthday. When the operator jumps out of the balloon to take a bite out of Allan’s birthday cake, Allan and Julius accidentally snap the lever that sets the balloon in motion and they go sailing up into the sky. But they’re not hot balloon experts, of course, and end up having a crash landing at sea before being rescued by a North Korean ship carrying smuggled uranium on board. Soon, Allan and Julius are swept up into an international diplomatic crisis that involves various global players such as Putin, Trump, Merkel, and Kim Jong-un.

I found myself looking forward to going to bed each night in order to continue reading this book in peace. Allan is an incredibly endearing character leading us through twists and turns galore in an intricately plotted book. All the while, Jonasson makes thoughtful and relevant points about power, truth, morality, and the role of perception in current affairs, and not in an ideological or pedantic way, but with nuance, wit, and warmth.

A highly amusing and intelligent book that I absolutely recommend!

 

 



Covid-19–March 12, 2020

Light-07My morning started with an ex colleague of mine at an international school in Geneva sending me a very long article that was ‘end of days’ in theme, with graphs and statistics, about how Covid-19 was going to kill us all unless governments shut societies down and put people over money. She and I got ‘into it’ ’cause I didn’t take it that seriously. I sent her an article from a prominent sociologist discussing the phenomena of social hysteria historically up to today (it’s compelling!), and she flatly told me I was negligent and irresponsible.

Driving up to work that day, the roads were eerily quiet. It was like a Danny Boyle film. But, work was wonderful: my colleagues were calm and informed, the day was sunny, the school did not want to close due to social pressure, life was good. Again, however, driving back to France, I had a foreboding and stopped by the grocery store and bought ingredients for two meals (and wine!), put some money in my bank account, got some cigarettes. President Macron was set to give an address on Covid-19 that evening. I suspected that he would suspend all educational institutions in France. The Italian experience was becoming alarming.

It was a superb speech, as usual. And it was also the beginning of my realization that this was a serious situation. He did, in fact, close all nurseries, schools and universities “indefinitely.” He urged people not to use the virus as an excuse to distrust or hate “other,” because viruses “do not have a passport or a nationality.” It stunned me (and my husband gave me due credit for predicting this next step, even as I wish that I hadn’t been right).



Covid 19 – March 16, 2020

Aperol in Les Bossons 2020A friend wrote this to me when I responded, simply, to her text about what I was doing in my self isolation, « Drinking in the sun : »

« I take the opinion that if washing your hands with a hydro-alcoholic solution keeps germs away, then filling your body with alcohol will do the same…’Tis a noble sacrifice you are doing for the greater good of la république! »

Indeed. Vive la République! Yes, I’m a regular a dame de la résistance when one considers my coping strategies…

(Though I did write a note to both Emmanuel Macron and Édouard Philippe about what I saw today going in to vote and at the voting station, so that’s something (she tells herself)…).



Covid-19 March 14, 2020
March 16, 2020, 10:06 am
Filed under: Corona 2020 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
ClaustrophobiaÉdouard Philippe, the Prime Minister of France, has declared that as of midnight, France will shut down everything non essential. Only grocer, newsagents, petrol, chemists, banks will remain open. We are told to only go out for supplies, light exercise, and to vote in the municipal elections tomorrow. The closures are “indefinite.”
They will pay businesses to pay their employees if they must shut, otherwise they must work remotely, taxes due in march will be delayed. (Nothing mentioned about we freelancers who aren’t paid when we don’t work).
This is when the gravity of the situation hits me. They wouldn’t do this unless it was truly serious. This will be a huge, financial hit for the French economy – an economy already drained of its coffers, with an aging population, a lot of social benefits provided to its citizens and not enough tax income.
This is when panic sets in.
I’m claustrophobic – always sit on the end of a theater or movie row, or the outside of a bench in a restaurant, or the side of the bed not against the wall, etc.
We can’t leave.
There is nowhere in the world we could go to avoid this.


Covid-19–March 13, 2020

FondueMy son was thrilled to discover that his school would be closed “indefinitely,” even as we attempted to discuss – in a child’s terms – that it wasn’t ‘good.’  The day was gloriously sunny and the drive up to Geneva was gorgeous and quiet. My school had resisted closing down, feeling it was alarmist and that there was money to be lost – social distancing and staying home if ill or afraid seemed okay. Finding and containing worked in China and Korea, so why not in Switzerland? But I knew that now that the USA had banned Europeans from entering the USA as of midnight Friday the 13th, France had closed all educational institutions from Monday (indefinitely), Belgium, Germany, Spain to follow, and the alarming rate of infection and the consequent lock-down in Italy, Switzerland would have no choice politically but to shut down.

We had a meeting. The head of the school spoke. We would move to online teaching for the high school for the following week and re open the week after. I was devastated. I’m a substitute teacher – at one school, granted* but there can be time between gigs. For me, this was a five-week stint due to an accident, and I was loving being there every day in the classroom teaching literature, and among people who are interested and knowledgeable about books. To close it now was devastating for me personally. Moreover, I wouldn’t get paid if I wasn’t in the classroom. My husband, who runs a touring company, was struggling with the looming threat of Covid-19 hanging over travel and holidays.  We’re building a house and renting an over-priced one next to the land. Ostensibly, the teacher who had had an accident could teach online, so I was out of an income for the moment.

But, what could I do? After classes, I went for lunch with a friend and colleague and it was great. Later, upon return to Chamonix, I went to our local bar to meet friends for a drink while the kids played. It was hopping. I felt a sense of relief and hope by the fact that so many folks were out despite the threat of this disease, even as I also felt slightly anxious and it felt surreal with the jocularity and close quarters when the ‘plague’ seemed to be at our door. After a couple of hours, my husband, son, dog and me left and went to dinner. The local restaurant had some customers, but everyone was sitting at a distance from one other, and we were near the door, so we felt fine and it was a jolly meal of fondue.

And, I began ‘speaking’ to two dear friends I’d known since the 1970’s and early 1980’s, respectively, in Oregon, and who I had just spent my 50th birthday with, about what was going on here as well as there. I believe our text conversations will prove to be the saving grace at this time…

*We were called “floaters” at the literary agency that I once worked for in Hollywood. Floaters were ‘vetted,’ employed, but didn’t have a desk/’master’ of their own, and would help out or stand-in at a given desk or office as was needed.