Tuesday 29 October 2019

The Godmother

I heard about The Godmother on Episode 120 of Chat 10 Looks 3. Possibly my favourite ever podcast. I've listened to all of it, bar one episode. Annabel Crabb had just read The Godmother as her friend Stephanie Smee translated it. I was immediately intrigued. I do love a French book in translation, so it wasn't a particularly hard sell. Annabel gushed over it and described it as "spiky, original and laugh out loud funny", and said that it was like "a very original hat". 

The Godmother is a French Noir crime book. And yes it really is "spiky, original and laugh out loud funny".  The Godmother is Patience Portefeux, a 53 year old widow, who has lived a tough life. Patience had a very unorthodox childhood. 

My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. 

The family home was "in the no man's land between a motorway and a forest". Her father was a French Tunisian pied-noir (not a term I'd heard before) and her mother an Austrian Jew. Both of them were displaced, they had "lost everything ..... including their country". Her father uses his trucking company to ship drugs then later weapons and ammunition. 
To get a job with Mondiale you had to have first done time, because according to my father, only somebody who'd been locked up for at least 15 years could cope with being stuck in a truckie's cab for thousands of miles, and would defend his cargo with his life. 
Patience grows up to marry young, and is then widowed young, at 27, and left with two young girls to bring up. She begins working as a French/Arabic court interpreter to support her family. She offers many fascinating insights into the modern multicultural country that is France. Patience like all of us is initially enthusiastic and empathetic to those she interprets for. 
I felt infinitely sorry for many of the Arabs whose words I reproduced in those trials. Men who were extraordinarily poor, with little education; impoverished migrants looking for an El Dorado that didn't exist, forced into a life of small-time skullduggery and petty crime so as not to die of hunger. 
But she becomes disenfranchised with the French court system. 
The interpreter was simply a tool to accelerate the act of repression. 
Patience is now interpreting police wiretaps from drug surveillance operations, and becomes personally involved in one of her cases. This is all set amongst the common baby boomer scenario of being trapped between elderly parents in care, and young adult children. Patience's mother is dementing and in a nursing home, which appears to be very expensive in the French system. 
There we all were, part of that great middle-class mass being strangled by its elderly. 
I loved so many things about The Godmother. The writing. The plot (although yes it does go a bit OTT at some stages, but I'll allow it, given the rest of the book). The humour. The Chamonix Orange Cake references (yes, I need to try one now, although I really suspect they won't be my thing). The view of French society that I haven't seen before. 
Fourteen million cannabis users in France and eight hundred thousand growers living off the crop in Morrocco. The two countries are friendly, and yet those kids whose haggling I listened to all day long were serving heavy prison sentences for having sold their hash to the kids of the cops who were prosecuting them and of the judges who were sentencing them, not to mention to all the lawyers who were defending them. It didn't take long for them to become bitter and poisoned with hate. I can only think, though ..... that this excess of resources, this furious determination to drain the sea of hash inundating France, teaspoon by teaspoon, is above all else a tool for monitoring the population insofar as it allows identity checks to be carried out on Arabs and blacks ten times a day. 
Hannelore Cayre is a practising French criminal lawyer and author. The Godmother is her fifth novel, but I think this is the first of her works to be translated into English. I certainly hope the others will follow. 

Stephanie Smee did a cracking job with the translation, Stephanie is also a lawyer, and has translated work from French and Swedish, she also speaks German and Italian! Wow. 

I really don't like the Australian cover, it looks more Mother Superior to me than Godmother. I tried to buy the original French version, La Daronne, on kindle but haven't managed to get around Amazon's geoblocking as yet. I must try harder. 

The Godmother Book Club Notes

Wednesday 16 October 2019

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

The book of the year? Maybe. Certainly one of the most important ones. Climate change is the issue of our time. Right here, right now. 

It really is extraordinary that it has taken a diminutive schoolgirl from Sweden to mobilise the world. Not into taking action mind you, we haven't managed that as yet, but we have seen global passion and protest that I think is unprecendented. As well it should be. 

I want you to act as if our house is on fire.
Because it is. 
No One is Too Small to Make a Difference is a small book. Almost a pamphlet. Some have criticised the book to say that it is repetitive. Which is to miss the point entirely. It is a collection of 11 speeches written and delivered by Greta Thunberg from September 2018 to April 2019. Some of these speeches have been delivered to a variety of rather distinguished audiences, the British Houses of Parliament, the European Parliament and the World Economic Forum. Others have been delivered to rallies, and even a Facebook post. 

I really had no idea where Greta Thunberg had sprung from. Yes, I'd heard about her rise to prominence in the past few months, but it was fascinating to read it from her perspective in I'm Too Young to Do This, a Facebook post from 2 February 2019. Greta won a newspaper writing contest about climate change in early 2018, and after that she came into contact with activists and groups. She liked the idea of a school strike, but no-one else was interested. 
But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead. I was so frustrated that nothing was being done about the climate crisis, and I felt like I had to do something, anything. And sometimes NOT doing things- like just sitting down outside parliament - speaks much louder than doing things. Just like a whisper is sometimes louder than shouting. 
She posted her initial School Strike on Instagram and Twitter, it went viral, and that, as they say, is history. Greta's sense of urgency is one of the most striking things.

We are about to sacrifice our civilisation for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few. 
So is her determination to make a difference. 
The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. The hardest because our current economics are still totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create everlasting economic growth. 

It is sobering to read that "we are failing but have not yet failed".

It's fascinating to ponder why (mainly) men are so threatened by this small 16 year old Swedish schoolgirl. One who is after all trying to save the earth for all of us. It's incredible that all this started with Greta sitting down outside the Swedish parliament on Fridays. It's incredible that she can not only stand up to this torrent of abuse, but that she can even can push back. We ignore her at our peril. 

Monday 14 October 2019

The Book of Idle Pleasures

I found this unexpected delight at the recent Newcastle Lifeline Book Fair. A few days later I was prostrated by illness and a rather consumptive cough and took an afternoon rest and decided that this would make a great accompaniment. How right I was.

I'd never heard of this book before, or either of the two editors or 13 contributors I suspect. But I'm mightily impressed with this little book from 2008. It is a "restorative gift book for the stressed out, tired and hassled" according to the back cover.

Very simply, it is a compendium of mini essays about Idle Pleasures. Some of these are rather obvious. Cloud Watching. Taking a Bath. Good Company. Others not so much- Slouching, Putting Out the Washing, Learning the Names of Trees and Walking Back Home Drunk. 

It turned out that even Being Ill was an Idle Pleasure. Which is lucky I guess because I'm still ill over a week later, although I've been at work and not particularly idle. The Book of Idle Pleasures was actually quite prescient for its time. While concepts such as mindfulness and hygge were yet to take the world by storm in 2008, they were spelt out here using slightly different words. 
Enforced idleness is a rare treat. Those brief moments in life where for one reason or another you are forced to just stop and think. In waiting rooms, queueing, for example, or even just sitting on a train. Waiting for the tea to brew is one of those moments. 
Which is all so delightfully English. In 2008 these moments didn't give us enough time to 'do' anything else. Now of course we have a screen handy at all times that we can stare at and scroll. 

I loved the deliciously English turn of phrase so often used, and how wonderful it is to find that chuntering is indeed a real word: from the start of a passage extolling the virtues of Sleeping in Your Clothes. 
After a busy day you find yourself lying on the sofa drifting off into a hypnogogic state in front of a chuntering TV screen. 
Or that merely owning a dressing gown could be a sign of hope, that a dressing gown can actually be the uniform of revolution. 

Each Idle Pleasure is accompanied by a fabulous illustration by Ged Wells. I think they are lino cuts, whatever they are, they're great.

The whole book is great. I was going to read it and pass it along. But I'll be keeping it on my shelves instead.