A double helping of Maigret

One of the great things about Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels is that they’re short. Each features a story told in full, but achieved within 160 pages or so – in this he resembles Muriel Spark. No words are wasted and there is no flowery language. Indeed, Simenon was known for cutting out ‘beautiful sentences’, editing out unnecessary descriptives and adverbs – in this he also resembles Elmore Leonard. Or rather given that Simenon started writing decades previously, perhaps they resemble him in these respects. More recently, Pascal Garnier has been labelled as the heir to Simenon; true, his novels are short and noir, recalling Simenon’s romans durs, but they are deliciously comic in their nastiness, whereas I wouldn’t say that any of Simenon’s works are overtly funny – although as a character, Maigret is not without a sense of humour!

I read a lot of Maigrets when I was a teenager, but none since except for The Bar on the Seine back when this blog was new and I’d acquired a cheap set of nine Penguin ‘Red’ Maigrets from The Book People in 2006. Now, with the Penguin reissues in wonderful new liveries, and mostly new translations, I plan to make reading his novels a regular thing, not least because their length makes them perfect for the train journey to and from London or as palate cleansers between other tomes.

Let me tell you about the two Maigret novels I read last week – one from the new series, one from the old:

Pietr the Latvian

Maigret 1 Pietr the Latvian This was the first Maigret novel, published originally in serial form in 1931 – yes that long ago! At the beginning Maigret is stoking his office stove when a message comes from Interpol that a wanted international conman known as Pietr the Latvian is due to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Maigret hurries off to meet the train:

He stood still. Other people were agitated. A young woman clad in mink yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down, stamping her heels.
He just stood there: a hulk of a man, with shoulders so broad as to cast a wide shadow. When people bumped into him he stayed as firm as a brick wall.

Just as he has spotted his man with a retinue of hotel porters in the crowds getting off the train, a shout alerts him that the police are needed – a body, shot,  has been found on the train, and his quarry gets away. No worry, Maigret knows where they were headed. However the corpse also matches the description of the Latvian, but Maigret has a hunch about the other man and goes to the Hotel Majestic, where he openly stalks ‘Mr Oppenheim’ who dines with a wealthy couple at the hotel – later all three will vanish from the hotel.

Back at the office, a strand of hair in a glassine envelope that had stored a photograph was the only posession on the body from the train. An address in Fécamp, a town on the Normandy coast, has been faintly imprinted on it. Dispatching Torrence to the Hotel Majestic, Maigret goes to Normandy and stakes out the house of the envelope’s owner, standing in an alleyway in the pouring rain:

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

That last quote encapsulates to me the essence of Maigret’s style of detecting. Waiting and watching. Maigret, however, doesn’t always do this passively – he is not beyond pushing buttons to see what happens, more often than not confirming his hunches.  Needless to say, Maigret clears up the mystery of the identities of Pietr the Latvian and the body on the train, but not without some psychological intrigue, twists and more gunfire.

In this first Maigret novel, we may get to know the figure of Maigret – his solid presence and how he works, but little of his personality – that will surely follow.  In the last chapter of Pietr the Latvian, we also briefly meet Madame Maigret who bustles about looking after him, an unexpectedly jolly woman, I can imagine the pair of them, her gently henpecking him, and him indulgently letting her do it in subsequent outings.

David Bellos translated this new edition and it certainly didn’t disappoint – it was fresh and reflected the character of Maigret in the prose – a great start to the series. (7.5/10)

The Yellow Dog

simenon-the-yellow-dog-penguin

2006 Penguin Red Classic cover

This is the fifth or sixth Maigret book depending on which source you read (I’m finding the Maigret Bibliography and other pages at Trussel.com very helpful. There, The Yellow Dog is the 6th book, also published in 1931). The edition I read, the Penguin Red Classic from 2006 was translated by Linda Asher, and this translation has been retained for the new editions (although I don’t know it it has been changed at all).

It is set in the fishing port of Concarneau in Brittany, a location which Simenon must have known well, for at the bloggers’ reception I went to last weekend, John Simenon told me that many of the buildings described in the book actually exist, including the bar and hotel which are at the centre of the story (see here for an article in French by John Simenon about them).

One November evening, a shot rings out in Concarneau. One of the town’s notables, the wine dealer Mostaguen was shot at point-blank range through a letter-box as he sheltered in a doorway to light a cigar after leaving the Admiral Café. A large yellow stray dog is seen in the vicinity, assumed to belong to the would-be murderer. Maigret, who has been helping the Rennes police force, attends the next day bringing the young detective Leroy with him.

Installed at the hotel, Maigret goes to drink with Mostaguen’s circle of friends, when Michoux, a former doctor, notices grains in their drinks which are identified as strychnine. Next day, another of the group, Servières disappears, his car found abandoned and blood-stained. Sensing a potential serial killer story, the town is besieged by journalists and in coming days the Mayor presses Maigret constantly to find the killer, whom they presume to be a vagrant – with a yellow dog…

Maigret lets Leroy do all the conventional detecting, while he assumes his usual waiting and watching alongside cultivating the waitress Emma who works at the bar:

Maigret’s gaze fell on a yellow dog lying beneath the till. Raising his eyes, he saw a black skirt, a white apron, a face with no particular grace, yet so appealing that throughout the conversation that followed he hardly stopped watching it.
Whenever he turned away, moreover, the waitress, in turn, fixed her agitated gaze on him.

Yellow dog new

New edition

The Yellow Dog is a great yarn – everyone involved seems to have something to hide, especially Emma perhaps? Maigret obviously has his suspicions as to whodunnit early on, but we don’t find out the full story until the cast are gathered together for the denouement, very much as Hercules Poiret so loves to do. The younger Leroy gives Maigret a chance to offer fatherly advice about more intuitive detecting style based on observation rather than forensics, which was a nice touch, but Maigret’s co-star in this short but complex tale is Concarneau itself. The events happen in the depressed off-season, when the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in town are at their greatest – in the summer everyone works. The notables believe that only an unemployed social outcast could be capable of these dastardly acts, but Maigret’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of poor downtrodden Emma and the vagrant, whom we’ll meet in time.

I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work out whodunnit in The Yellow Dog; for a mystery of a mere 130 pages, the plot was surprisingly complex. I  really liked Maigret more in this novel – his non-judgemental support of the underdog, not suffering fools like the mayor gladly and his ability to say no comment without actually having to say it. Translator Linda Asher is able to bring the town and the tail-end of autumn’s weather alive, whilst giving Maigret some joviality and a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which made this such fun to read. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pietr the Latvian: Inspector Maigret #1 by Georges Simenon, trans David Bellow. Pengiun classics, 2013 edition, pbk 176 pages.
The Yellow Dog: Inspector Maigret #5 by Georges Simenon, trans Linda Asher. Penguin classics, 2014 edition, pbk 144 pages.

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Book Group Report – Jean Teulé

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

suicide-shopOur book group read for July into August was actually a re-read for me. We’d wanted something quick and light as due to our schedules we only had three weeks between meetings instead of our usual four or five. I had read Teulé’s 2007 novel, published in English translation by Sue Dyson in 2008 when it first came out pre-blog – but thanks to my spreadsheet that I was already keeping back then I can retrieve my capsule review:

This very French, dystopian fable reminded me very much of the stylish film Delicatessen (a hilarious post-apocalyptic French sort of Sweeney Todd), but lacking some of its virtuosity. That’s not to say that it is unimaginative … Some of the ways that the proprietors of The suicide shop devise to help their customers do away with themselves are really hilarious, but it lacks the film’s lightness of touch with its macabre material. In particular, the Alan Turing suicide kit is inspired, as is the Kiss of Death given to Marilyn as her coming of age birthday present.

The Tuvache family who own the shop are all cartoon characters, all named for famous suicides which tell you all you need to know about them – there’s the father Mishima, the mother Lucrèce, son Vincent, daughter Marilyn, and the wayward youngest son. He’s named Alan after Turing, but does not display any of his namesake’s traits! Alan is the despair of his parents being all too happy, and happiness is catching in this sulphurous City of Lost Religion (presumably a take on Paris being the City of Light?). Usually in novels, it’s the other way around with everyone starting out happy before diving into the slough of despond – but this does allow a neat ending. A clever and funny, quick novel to read, but a little heavy-handed.

Yes, it’s literally about a shop where you can buy everything you need to kill yourself in whatever way you please. M. & Mme. Tuvache are only too happy to will help you decide how. There are some delightfully gruesome jokes here – but I will only share a bit of the Alan Turing one with you in case you want to read the book yourself:

‘The inventor committed suicide in an odd way. On the seventh of June 1954, he soaked an apple in a solution of cyanide and placed it on a small table. Next, he painted a picture of it, and then he ate the apple.’
‘He never did!’
‘It’s said that this is the reason why the apple Macintosh logo depicts an apple with a bit out of it. It’s Alan Turing’s apple.’
‘Well, well… at least I won’t die an idiot.’

(Wikipedia tells me that a half eaten apple was indeed found beside Turing’s bed, but it wasn’t tested for cyanide. His inquest wondered if he had accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes from gold electroplating which he did in his spare room.)

I really enjoyed the book all over again, but what did the others in the group think?  Well – no-one hated it outright. We were split over the plot, or perceived lack of it – some wanted more, others somewhat disagreed with as it is only 160-odd pages of big print – a short novel really and it does have a main storyline with other elements. I think all but me felt a little cheated by the final ending, but I won’t expound further. Everyone did at least like some of the jokes. Needless to say, we all found it very French! Given the amount of discussion though, it did make quite a good book group read. I particularly loved the shop’s slogan – ‘Vous avez râté votre vie, réussisez votre mort…’ translated as, ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.’ (8.5/10)

By the way, I recommend the film Delicatessen from 1991 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – a post-apocalyptic character-based French comedy about the inhabitants of a building block. Full of grotesques and very quirky – very Terry Gilliamesque, but in French. The Suicide Shop has been made into a French animated film too, but I haven’t seen it and aren’t sure if it’s subtitled.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, Gallic Books, paperback 169 pages.
Le Magasin des suicides (DVD) ~ Patrice Leconte
Delicatessen [DVD]

Psst! Want to know a secret?

Secret by Philippe Grimbert

Secret

This short novel contains within its 154 widely spaced pages a tale so compelling you will want to read the whole thing in one sitting as I did and still have time to savour the exquisite writing as translated from the French by Polly McLean.

The only problem that I have in writing this review is that I can’t tell you much about it without giving away the central secrets that lie in this family’s past. The narrator tells of his childhood growing up in post-war Paris in the 1950s, the sickly only child of supremely fit and glamorous parents. He wishes he had an older brother and invents one, but it is when he talks to an old family friend once he reaches fifteen that he begins to find out the truth about his heritage, something his parents had wanted to stay buried.

One day while still a child, he helps his mother tidy in the attic …

She had opened a trunk in which she expected to find fashion magazines that used to publish her designs. She jumped when she saw the little dog with Bakelite eyes, sleeping there on top of a pile of blankets. Threadbare and dusty-muzzled, he was wearing a knitted coat. I immediately grabbed him and hugged him to my chest, but had to abandon the idea of taking him to my room: I could feel my mother’s unease as she asked me to put him back in his place.  (page 5)

You should never hide things like that where people may find them – at the very least they should have ‘lost’ the key to the trunk. I shouldn’t be so glib though.  Grimbert himself is a psychoanalyst and he uses all the tricks of the trade to gradually tease out what happened. He also shares a his surname with his protagonist, which will lead you to all sorts of questions, not least the killer one – are there elements of autobiography in this story?  I have no idea of the answer to that by the way.

Published in 2004 in France as Un Secret, and 2007 in the UK dropping the ‘A’, this book was a bestseller in France and won a Prix Goncort. It was also filmed and I can certainly see it as a French drama. Please be aware that it is also available under the title ‘Memory‘.

The style is spare, yet full of the details that we need to get pulled into the story. I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. (9/10)

For another non-spoiler review see Vulpes Libris here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Secretby Philippe Grimbert. Pub 2007 by Portobello Books, paperback 154 pages.

A French crime novel of character…

The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

3 evangThis was our bookgroup read for June into July, the first roman policier, and an award-winning one too, by frenchwoman Fred Vargas – Fred being short for Frédérique.  Vargas is an archaeologist and historian and, with Reynolds as her translator, won three successive CWA International Dagger awards for her first three novels.

Although the plot of this novel contains an ingenious crime which kept us guessing to the end, at its heart this book is totally character-driven. It is set in and around those quiet Parisian side-streets south of the rive gauche full of houses where shabby can sit perfectly alongside chic, and cornershop brasseries and tabacs do a good local trade. Let me tell you a little about what happens …

The story opens with an opera singer – Sophia Siméonidis wakes up to discover that a tree has been planted the garden of her grande maison. Her husband is unconcerned, but it troubles her, so she rings the bell of ‘the disgrace’ as she calls the house next door to ask the three young historians, Marc, Mathias and Lucien who share it to dig up the garden and see what’s going on.  Nothing found, the tree is replanted, but some weeks later Sophia goes missing. The remains of a corpse which appears to be the missing opera singer is found in a burned-out car.  The three had befriended Sophia and her best friend Juliette who runs the brasserie a few streets away, and together with Marc’s godfather and uncle, an ex-cop, they start to investigate.  Was it her cool and aloof husband, her fiery Greek former lover, her niece who has arrived in Paris?  All could have dunnit.

Now, back to the characters.  It is Armand Vandoosler, Marc’s godfather that coins the term the three evangelists for the guys, calling Marc, Mathias and Lucien, St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke after the gospels for fun.  It irritates the hell out of Marc in particular, but it sticks.

The three young academics are strapped for cash. When offered to live at a low rent in ‘the disgrace’ in return for doing the house up, they jump at it.  They each specialise in a different era of history – Marc is a medievalist, Mathias studies cavemen, and Lucien The Great War. Their characters reflect their chosen eras too. Marc is very serious and dresses in black, Mathias would live like a caveman if he could, and Lucien talks in war clichés…

…Lucien came downstairs and burst into Marc’s room without knocking.
‘General alert!’ he cried. ‘Take cover! The neighbour’s on her way.’
‘Which neighbour?’
‘The one on the Western Front. The one on the right, if you prefer. The rich woman who wears scarves. Not a word. When she rings the bell, nobody moves. Empty house. I’ll tell Mathias.’
Before Marc could say anything, Lucien had run down to the first floor.
‘Mathias,’ he called, opening his door. ‘General alert! Empty—‘
Marc heard Lucien stop abruptly. He smiled and came downstairs after him.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Lucien was saying. ‘Do you have to be in the nude to put up some bookshelves! I mean, what is the point? Don’t you ever get cold?’
‘I’m not in the nude, I’ve got sandals on,’ Mathias said calmly.

It could be easy to get irritated by these three, our modern-day equivalent of the impecunious students of Puccini’s La Bohème, or French ‘Friends‘ like Ross, Chandler and Joey.  However, I rather liked them, as did our bookgroup. I did have a favourite in Mathias  who is big-hearted and arty, (he’s Joey, although by subject matter he should be paleontologist Ross); Lucien could be Chandler – master of the quick quip, and Marc is all too serious and highly-strung Ross.

GiancarloI haven’t introduced you properly to Vandoosler yet.  The old ex-cop is utterly charming, a silver-haired flatterer who had was retired from the Sûreté for not being the cleanest of flics.  I immediately visualised him as Giancarlo Gianini, (who played Rene Mathis in the Bond films, Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace).  I know he’s Italian, but he feels right in my thinking.  Mind you, Alain Delon would do too!

Armand Vandoosler raised his finely wrought profile. He was looking like a policeman now. He had a concentrated expression which seemed to draw his eyes in under his eyebrows; his nose appeared somehow more commanding. Marc recognised the look. The godfather had such an expressive face that you could tell the kind of thoughts he was having. When he looked serious, it was the twins and their mother, lost somewhere in the world; when it was medium-serious, it was police business; when it was sharp, it was some woman he was trying to seduce. At least that was the simple reading.

Vandoosler leads their investigation, using his contacts in the police, but doing things totally his own way.  He must have driven the local police mad with his interfering, but we all enjoy maverick investigators.

There was much humour in this novel which kept the tone light – the interplay between the three evangelists was fun, and the relationship between Marc and his godfather too.  The descriptions of Paris life were nice too, particularly all the late suppers at the brasserie, bringing shopping from the markets not the supermarché – it almost seems an age ago, yet the modern scourge of car parking problems will play a part too.

large_sm walking down paris streetI liked this book a lot, and so did the rest of our bookgroup who made it to our monthly meeting.  Vargas has written two more novels featuring the Three Evangelists, but unfortunately, these don’t appear to have been translated yet. We all would read more, but will have to try her other series – featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

Overall though, this book just made us all want to go to Paris!   (8/10)

Paris in July 2013

Which brings me to the fact that this post fits perfectly with the start of this year’s Paris in July hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea – a month-long celebration of all things literary related to the City of Light. It’s the first time I’ve joined in, and I hope to read at least one more Parisian book this month too.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas (1995), translated by Sian Reynolds (2006), Vintage paperback.

Him pretty good funny sometimes

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

ME-TALK-PRETTY-ONE-DAY-David-Sedaris
The American humorist David Sedaris is famed for his self-deprecating wit and his good-natured take on life.  He has written nine books compiling his essays and stories now, plus loads of journalism, plays and more.  I first encountered him on radio – he’s recorded many of his essays for BBC Radio 4, (sadly none are available on listen again at the moment).

We chose Sedaris’ breakthrough volume Me Talk Pretty One Day for our book group this month.  We like to throw an occasional non-fiction book into the mix, and having read James Thurber’s autobiographical stories My life and hard times last summer, and some Garrison Keillor previously also, it was good to compare and contrast their styles.

MTPOD is split into two parts.  The first half ‘One’ comprises tales from Sedaris’ childhood growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. The second half, ‘Deux’, chronicles episodes from the time he spent living in France with his partner Hugh.

I loved the first story Go Carolina which told of Sedaris’ battle with the school speech therapist who tried to get rid of his lisp – his ‘lazy tongue‘. In an aside he tells about his lazy family …

My sisters Amy and Gretchen were, at the time, undergoing therapy for lazy eyes, while my older sister, Lisa, had been born with a lazy leg that had refused to grow at the same rate as its twin. She’d worn a corrective brace for the first two years of her life, and wherever she roamed she left a trail of scratch marks in the soft pine floor. I liked the idea that part of one’s body might be thought of as lazy – not thoughtless or hostile, just unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team.  My father often accused my mother of having a lazy mind, while she in turn accused him of having a lazy finger, unable to dial the phone when he knew damn well he was going to be late.

In Genetic Engineering I had to giggle along with his observations about his father when they were on holiday.

As youngsters, we participated in all the usual seaside activities – which were fun, until my father got involved and systematically chipped away at our pleasure. Miniature golf was ruined with a lengthy dissertation on impact, trajectory, and wind velocity, and our sand castles were critiqued with stifling lectures on the dynamics of the vaulted ceiling. We enjoyed swimming, until the mystery of tides was explained in such a way that the ocean seemed nothing more than an enormous saltwater toilet, flushing itself on a sad and predictable basis.

Most of our group found his essays on childhood and his family were more fun than his time in France, although his exasperation over his attempts to learn the language were fun…

Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language, the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way of the other, hermaphrodite is male and indecisiveness female.
I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it.

Having a French/German language teacher in our group, the latter chapters about his attempts to learn French sparked off some good conversation about learning languages in general, but not so much about the book. Incidentally, the book’s title was about him mistranslating a phrase into French.

I enjoyed a lot of Sedaris’ writing in this volume, but did find that, as in his radio programmes which just feature a couple of articles, they were more fun in small doses.  Similarly, those of our group who hadn’t heard him on the radio, weren’t so taken, preferring the gently rambling tales of Garrison Keillor, another author who broadcasts his work; we managed to forget about Thurber comparisons.

I would happily read some more small doses of Sedaris, but will definitely listen out for him on the radio. (6.5/10 as a book).

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Abacus paperback, 272 pages.

Bookgroup Report – Always look on the bright side of life

Candide by Voltaire

This short novel is another one of those influential classic books that I had always planned to read. I’d bought a copy in preparation, and ten years later it was still sitting on the shelf. I was really pleased that we chose it at book group, and I’m mighty glad to have read it for it was really funny and not a chore at all – a verdict we all shared.

Candide, or Optimism as it is subtitled, is a fast moving romantic adventure published in 1759.  Starting off in Westphalia, young Candide falls in love above his station – with the Baron’s daughter, Miss Cunégonde, but is driven out of the castle, gets press-ganged into the Bulgarian army, flogged, shipwrecked then caught in the Lisbon earthquake (of 1755), tortured by the Inquisition (which wasn’t ‘expected’), he gets separated from his beloved again, goes to El Dorado, gets rich, gets robbed – suffering ever-worse calamities in his journey to get home and find Cunégonde again. Through all of this hardship, Candide fervently believes that he will eventually be reunited with his love.

Along the way he has many companions, the foremost of whom is Doctor Pangloss, the teacher,  philosopher, and believer in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, a personal philosophy he spreads far and wide …

One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in the little neighbouring woods, which was called a park, she saw through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects.  She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the deire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficing reason for young Candide, and he for her.

Yes, this is the first of many occasions when Voltaire gets slightly saucy, rather than satirical, and very funny it is too.  I must admit, a lot of the direct satire was lost on me and the rest of the group as we were unfamiliar with the times the story was set in. It appears that the German philosopher Leibniz was a particular target as he believed in a benevolent God – however, we could all get the general themes. This was where an edition with good notes came in rather useful. One of our group who is a linguist read the book in the original French and was amused to find that the novella is billed as ‘translated from the German of Dr. Ralph’, Ralph being Voltaire.

In the end Candide’s optimism may have been tempered by the hard reality of life, but there are a lot of laughs along the way. Candide’s travels and encounters may owe a lot to Gulliver’s travels which preceded it, but what struck our book group most was the surreal edge to the humour – where else would you encounter an old woman with one buttock?  This led our book group to decide that Voltaire’s heir is none other than Monty Python, who in The Life of Brian, also simultaneously espoused and satirised optimism – here’s Eric Idle …

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best ….
And … always look on the bright side of life…

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I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Candideby Voltaire
Gulliver’s Travels (Oxford World’s Classics)by Jonathan Swift
Monty Python’s Life of Brian [DVD] [1979]