‘Pétronille’ by Amélie Nothomb – A Friend to Drink Champagne With

‘Pétronille’ by Amélie Nothomb   (2014) – 122 pages

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson


9781609452902_13Since she started publishing her novels in 1993, Amélie Nothomb has produced a 100-to-200-page novel a year for a grand total of 23 novels.  That seems to me an entirely sensible way to sustain a literary career.

Her latest, ‘Pétronille’, I found to be a sparkling delight.

 “I need a drinking companion,” I thought.  I went through the list of people I knew in Paris, for I had only recently moved there.  My few connections included either people who were extremely nice, but did not drink champagne, or real champagne drinkers who did not appeal to me in the least.”  

Our narrator here is an author named Amélie who bears a strong resemblance to our author.  At one of her book signings she meets a young woman named Pétronille Fanto who is an aspiring writer, and they go out for champagne.

‘Pétronille’ is a novel which is more about becoming friends than about drinking champagne.   Each of us hits it off or doesn’t hit it off with the individual people we meet, and for most of us there are only a few special people to whom we are willing or able to become particularly close.  Much of ‘Pétronille’ consists of the sharp repartee between Pétronille and Amélie.  You begin to understand why these two are ideal drinking companions for each other.

I suspect what is going on here is that our author has set out to write and has succeeded in writing a novel that effervesces like high-quality champagne.  There is a mischievous merriment to the scenes.  ‘Pétronille’ is not a serious novel.

Amélie Nothomb is at the top of her form in this lighter-than-air novel.  If you have not read Nothomb before, ‘Pétronille’ is a good place to start.  The writing is assured and pleasant to read and contains some insights into friendship.  I put ‘Pétronille’ up there as one of her best novels along with ‘Loving Sabotage’ and ‘Fear and Trembling’.


Grade: A-         


‘The Mark and the Void’ by Paul Murray – Breaking the Bank

‘The Mark and the Void’ by Paul Murray   (2015) – 459 pages




‘The Mark and the Void’ is a brilliant preposterous ragtag jumble of a comic novel.  It is about the banking industry.

“The story of the twenty-first century is the banks.  Look at the mess this country’s in because of them.”

It takes place when the Celtic Tiger, the years of phenomenal Irish prosperity, collapsed and died.  Some banks had made large outrageous investments which proved to be worthless, and they needed the Irish government to bail them out. Huge amounts of government money which were meant for the handicapped, the disabled, and the destitute instead went to failed executives at corrupt ‘too big to fail’ financial companies as multi-million dollar severance packages.  The United States had this same problem as Ireland when the investment firms Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns went bankrupt in 2007, and the entire financial industry was shaky.  It was the onset of a severe global recession.

“The radio waves are clogged with hard-luck stories derived from the last wave of cuts: grandmothers and children and chronically ill whose pensions were cut or whose special-needs assistants were withdrawn or whose care was cancelled overnight by governmental austerity, even as yet more billions flow in decidedly unaustere fashion to the notoriously corrupt bank.” 

Despite this sorry backdrop, ‘The Mark and the Void’ is a comic novel told from the viewpoint of a banker named Claude.  After the first hundred pages, I thought this novel was the most insightful sharpest dissection of the banking industry I had ever come across.  However after I completed the novel, it seemed to me more like a hodge-podge, somewhat of a mess. ‘The Mark and the Void’ is a shaggy dog tale that keeps getting shaggier and shaggier as it progresses, but I forgive Murray because of the long stretches of humorous brilliance.

Somehow Claude’s bank, due to a policy of moderation, had avoided the collapse but now they bring in an executive from one of these failed banks.  He has the banking crew make ‘counterintuitive’ investments.

One of the most absurd characters here is a novelist named Paul. Paul approaches Claude to ostensibly write a novel about a banker as Everyman. Claude agrees, and Paul follows him around at the bank for several days and then brings in his Russian friend Igor.  Paul and Igor are casing the bank for a burglary, not realizing that this bank is an investment bank and has no vaults.

Since Paul is a novelist, we do get into a literary subplot which is so ridiculous it somewhat undermines any serious points to be made about banking.  The novel really does not contain any original or shattering insights into banking, nothing that hasn’t shown up already in the newspapers.  It is strictly for laughs.

There is a nice little subplot about Claude obsessing over a waitress in the nearby café while he is oblivious to the woman working right near him at the bank who really cares for him.

There are too few novels about the modern-day business world, so ‘The Mark and the Void’ is a welcome, if shaggy, addition.


Grade: B+      


‘The Reflection’ by Hugo Wilcken – Unmistakably Noir

‘The Reflection’ by Hugo Wilcken   (2015) – 232 pages


‘The Reflection’ has the hard-bitten no-nonsense ambiance of a detective novel even though its main character/narrator is a psychiatrist.  The police in New York City in 1949 use our man’s psychiatric services in order to commit troublemakers to mental institutions.  The police cannot commit someone without the psychiatrist’s written authorization to do so.

We are definitely in strange disturbing noir territory here.

The novel starts out as a straightforward story as the psychiatrist finds out that his ex-wife has died.  This is devastating news to the psychiatrist even though he and she were married only a short time.  She was only in her early thirties at her death.  The psychiatrist himself is only 33.

“After the failure of my marriage, I’d waited for the moment when the pieces would fit together, when I’d know what to make of my life and how to go on.  Somehow that moment never arrived.”

It is the voice of the psychiatrist which drives this story.  He may have been married once when he was young, but now he is living the single New York life.  He lives in a small apartment, does not drive a car.  If he needs to travel, he takes the train.  He goes to the same restaurant every day, orders the same meal.

To say there are some stunning twists and turns here would be an understatement. Shady characters show up, and suspicious events occur. The psychiatrist thinks he is being followed. A bizarre assault, a corrupt policeman, a surreal mental asylum.  One lesson learned – never carry another person’s wallet unless you are willing to assume that person’s total identity.

If you like to watch film-noir crime dramas from the 1940s and early 1950s like I do, you will most likely enjoy ‘The Reflection’.  If you like Hitchcock or Robert Mitchum movies or if you like ‘Double Indemnity’, you will be bowled over by ‘The Reflection.  It’s got that noir feel to it.  I looked up the word ‘noir’ in the dictionary: ‘crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings’.  That is an accurate description of ‘The Reflection’.


Grade: A-

‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell – Haunted, but Humorous

‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell (2015) – 238 pages



Slade Alley is an easy-to-miss back lane off of Westwood Road.  Once on Slade Alley you will come upon a black iron door, only two-feet by two-feet, on the side of a dwelling that you must crawl through to get into Slade House.  But once you are inside, the rooms are huge and ornate despite the house having been bombed to rubble during World War II.

Here is a haunted house story.  A pair of ancient shape-shifting twins, Jonah and Norah Grayer, live in Slade House, and every nine years they must find an Engifted soul to drain from a human in order to rejuvenate themselves.   Thus all the chapters occur nine years apart (1979, 1988, 1997, 2006, 2015) as another unsuspecting soul stumbles into Slade House.

Here is another example of the many entertainments playing horror for laughs which are so prevalent today.  David Mitchell is a delight at setting up these situations, and ‘Slade House’ is great fun to read.  Only a few of us readers would expect more from David Mitchell than a mock-horror romp.

Even the cut-out window on the cover of the book tells you it was designed to move product.   This is an attempt to earn some big money by one of our best writers.  And why not?  Why should the big money in the book publishing business be restricted to hacks?

‘Slade House’ is a lark, a pastiche.  For what it is, this humorous haunted story is remarkably well done. I have little doubt you will enjoy reading it.  The question is whether or not one of our very finest writers should be spending his time writing such tried-and-true material.  Perhaps he should, in order for our literary writers to reclaim the mantle of popularity.  We certainly do not need another novel of contemporary suburban angst anyway.  But at the same time I have a vision of David Mitchell sitting at his desk writing ‘Slade House’ in his sleep.  This haunted house and its trappings were probably not much of a challenge for him.

Perhaps he can make enough money off of ‘Slade House’ so he can write something more original next time.


Grade: B+


‘Welcome to Braggsville’ by T. Geronimo Johnson – UC Berkeley vs. Small-Town Georgia

‘Welcome to Braggsville’ by T Geronimo Johnson   (2015) – 354 pages

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‘Welcome to Braggsville’ sometimes reads more like a good stand-up comedy routine than a novel.  It is a clever performance, an extended riff, and with also some tragedy along the way.

First, here is the plot of ‘Welcome to Braggsville’.  A white boy Daron, valedictorian of his high school class, from the small Georgia town of Braggsville goes off to college to California in Berkeley, affectionately called Berzerkeley.  While there he befriends a Malaysian would-be stand-up comedian Louis, a black ex-athlete Charlie, and a girl student Candice who claims to be one-eighth Native American Indian.  They form a clique and call themselves the Four Little Indians.

Daron mentions in class that his home town Braggsville stages a Civil War reenactment every year during its Pride Week Patriot Days Festival which happens to coincide with Spring Break this year.  The Four Little Indians decide to travel back to Braggsville to mount a ‘performative intervention’ protest at the reenactment, a mock lynching.  What could possibly go wrong?

Politically aware cosmopolitan Berkeley meets small town Southern-fried America.  That is the conflict at the heart of ‘Welcome to Braggsville’.  So these four diverse Berkeley students go back to Braggsville, Georgia for Spring Break.  Braggsville is the kind of town where you might have a female relative named Aunt Chester. We do meet some good old white boys like Daron’s wild-ass cousin Quint, but even Quint is presented as a somewhat likable fellow.  The black people in Braggsville all must live in their own section of town across the Holler called the Gully, yet this being a small town the blacks and whites interact more than they do in a large city.   We get a more honest real picture of what Braggsville is like than how a professor at Berkeley might picture it to be.

The climactic event in the novel occurs about one-third of the way through, and perhaps the novel goes on too long afterwards especially since this main event is never resolved.

I want to end with a short quote that shows the comic spirit of ‘Welcome to Braggsville’.  Here is the Malaysian Louis talking about the Braggsville general store:

“I was at this store, Lou Davis’s, and it was like a Chinese store, you had everything: meat, bumper stickers, everything.  In Chinatown, it’s like that.  You can buy fruit and bread and get your teeth pulled in back.  Anyway at Lou Davis’s I saw some strange stuff, like headcheese and all, and thought, hmmm, headcheese.  Maybe these people are weird.  Then I had an image of my grandma eating, guess what, chicken feet!  I thought, Okay, Southerners are like Chinese.” 

Maybe you had to be there.


Grade : B+

‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann

‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann  (2015) – 242 pages

 Colum McCann’s writing style in the novella ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ is close to poetry, but most poetry isn’t this much fun.  This novella is probably the finest piece of writing I have read this year.  The other stories in this collection are good solid moving stories, but it is ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ that hits it out of the park for a grand slam home run.

So many of the lines in this novella are not complete sentences but are nonetheless evocative.  The prose here is lyrical and hypnotic, like nothing I have ever seen before. We are inside a man’s mind, and his thoughts are not usually in full sentences.

“Car horns blaring everywhere.  A terrible sound, really.  Isn’t the snow supposed to deaden the sound?  How is it that my hearing gets worse but the awful sounds get louder day after day? A cacophony.  That’s the word.  The pianist playing the contrabass.  The saxman on the violin.  The flautist on the horn so to speak.”  

In the above excerpt there are only three complete sentences and six sentence fragments, yet the language totally evokes the effect of all the car horns to this old man’s mind.

The chapters in the novella alternate between the reflections of a retired judge and the notes of a police procedural.  Thus the judge’s impressions may wax poetic, but the police statements keep us tied down to earth.  The actual story here winds up to be an intriguing murder mystery.  It says a lot about the ubiquitous cameras which are in our lives today.

The other three stories in this collection do not have this exceptional lyrical aspect, but they are well-written stories nonetheless.   In one story, “Sh’khol” a mother adopts a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome and gives him for his birthday a wetsuit to use swimming in the ocean off the coast of Ireland near their home.  In another story, ‘Treaty’, a nun confronts the man who raped her many years ago.

At the end of the collection there is a note from the author stating that the novella and these stories were “completed in 2014 on either side of an incident that occurred in New Haven, Connecticut, on June 27 where I was punched from behind and knocked unconscious, then hospitalized, after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted on the street.”  McCann then gives us the following line:

“In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we try to avoid the autobiographical.”

The novella ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ is a particular delight.  It will cast a spell on you like nothing you have read before.


Grade:   A 

‘Lurid & Cute’ by Adam Thirlwell – Facetious & Annoying

‘Lurid & Cute’ by Adam Thirlwell   (2015) – 358 pages


My short review of ‘Lurid & Cute’ is that this novel is too lurid & too cute.  However since “Lurid & Cute’ is shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s prize, I will go into more detail about my monumental problems with this somewhat comic novel.

Our hero wakes up in a seedy hotel room lying next to a woman who is bleeding severely from her eyes due to a seizure or an attack or the drug ketamine.  This woman is not his wife who is at home. The situation is classic noir, similar to countless pulp detective novels.  However the style of writing here is far from noir.  Noir stories are usually told in a clipped style, abrupt and matter-of-fact and to the point.  Here the style is expansive and flippant, and the author over-explains just about everything.  I won’t quote one of these over-explanations since they are interminably long and nearly incoherent and sure to test a reader’s patience.  Despite the author’s analyzing to death, we are never told basic things like how the woman’s injuries were sustained.  It might have been the drugs.

Although my experience with mind-altering drugs is quite limited to some marijuana and hashish, I do remember that at one point feeling that the thoughts I was having on the drugs were the most profound of my life.  Later after the drugs wore off and I tried to recapture these profound thoughts, I realized that my drug-addled thinking was just off.  That is pretty much how I feel about ‘Lurid & Cute’.

Our hero here participates in a couple of armed robberies, a trip to a brothel, and an orgy, all to little effect.

My basic problem with ‘Lurid & Cute’ is that I totally disliked the narrator.  I found him facetious, pseudo-profound, and lacking any real insight.  I suppose it is possible to empathize with an armed robber brandishing a toy gun, but I found this one’s interior voice even more annoying than his outward behavior.    Adam Thirlwell does address the question of a protagonist’s disagreeableness at length in the novel itself.  I have appreciated many novels where the main character is thoroughly unlikeable like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, but in these other novels you can either empathize or even identify with the main protagonist despite or because of their failings.  I neither empathized nor identified with the main character in ‘Lurid and Cute’ at all.  I found his behavior and thoughts throughout the novel obnoxiously cartoonish without any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

So here we have a narrator no one could possibly care about blabbering on about his despicable behavior in a tiresome fashion.  If the author doesn’t take his or her subject seriously, it is difficult for the reader to care either.  This is true for comedy as well as tragedy.


Grade: C


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