Book Reviews

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky
Home to Barcelona: A Foreigner’s Journey by Richard Manchester

Index of Book Reviews Issues 50+

Index of Book Reviews Issues 1-50


bookcoverBad Marie by Marcy Dermansky;
Harper Perennial, 2010

These things I love in a novel:  well wrought prose, originality, a sense of surprise, engaging characters and settings, a little fun, and challenges to our everyday perceptions.  This you’ll find in Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie, a short novel that has it all in 212 pages.

It’s all about thirty-year-old Marie, a very attractive brunette with large breasts who knows well the power of her physical assets. Marie is a bit off—think Betty in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), but without the obsession.  Marie has just been released from six years in prison for running off with her new boyfriend, Juan Jose, who robbed a bank and whose accomplice shot and killed someone during the caper.  Juan Jose subsequently hangs himself in prison, while Marie dutifully does her time, working in the female prison laundry.

That is the back story, part of Marie’s short history.  The novel begins three weeks after her release. Marie is now a live-in babysitter, sitting in a bathtub with two-and-a-half-year-old Caitlin, her charge.  Marie has been sipping whiskey in the tub and is now passed out.  Caitlin’s parents walk in on the scene and find the naked, inebriated nanny. The child’s mother, Ellen, begins to rail at Marie, while her father, the out-of-print French author Benîot Doniel, cannot stop staring at her voluptuous breasts.  Just as Marie wants him to do.

How did an ex-con, sentenced for being an accessory to murder and bank robbery, land the job in the first place?  She had just shown up at Ellen’s doorstep, and Ellen hired her on the spot.  Why? Because these two  have a history.  Because they grew up next  door to each other.  Because as kids they were thrown together as “friends” even though Marie’s mother was the cleaning lady for Ellen’s family,  even though Marie and Ellen never did get along so great.  It got worse in high school when Marie had sex with Ellen’s boyfriend at the time.  Yes, she’d been drunk.  Yes, she’d been seduced.  But still . . .  this was so Marie. 

Ellen, who could “forget if not forgive,” had undoubtedly taken on Marie out of some kind of pity.  Plus, she’d needed a nanny just then and the child took to her.  Marie, for her part, genuinely took to the child too.  So why not?

Lots of why nots, as it turns out.  This isn’t called Bad Marie for nothing. But we’re not talking ax-wielding nannies here, nothing so simple or formulaic.  Our Marie simply has one major flaw:  she lives for herself and her own pleasures.  Caitlin is a pleasure, most of the time.  Eating is a pleasure, all of the time.  Taking baths with Caitlin is  a pleasure.  Seducing Ellen’s husband is a pleasure.  In prison, Marie had read his one book, Virginie at Sea, now out of print, over and over again. She is smitten by the author; she’s fed up with Ellen’s constant rules and routine.  Early on—or I wouldn’t mention it—Marie and Ellen’s husband run away.  With Caitlin. What follows is so full of surprises it will have your head spinning.

While I dare not give any more away, I can say that Marie, while remaining true to her hedonistic pursuits, has huge obstacles of her own to overcome, and it’s amazing how she navigates.  One minute she is riding high, dining in expensive restaurants; the next, she is cut off.  Then she’s back on top; then not.  And so it goes.  No matter how bad things get, however, there is hardly a time when simply a hot bath or a gourmet chocolate mousse won’t raise her spirits to the ultimate degree.  And this is why, for all her faults, we too revel in her pleasures.  How exquisite to live wholly in the moment!  To savor simple joys without a thought for what’s to come!  To have zero ambition—almost; she would like to eat escargot dripping in butter.

Dermansky has said that she based the novel on French film, and she has listed five particularly inspiring films.  Betty Blue was not listed, but it certainly came to mind.  Indeed, I pictured a young Béatrice Dalle as Marie.  One wonders, will Marie turn destructive and aggressive when cornered too tightly?  Will she lose her grip on reality, such as she perceives it?  What will happen to the precocious baby Caitlin?

Settle down with a glass of cava and chocolate truffles for this one—because it will make you want to indulge yourself—and savor the exquisitely heady and edgy world of bad, bad, bad Marie.  J.A.  

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews


bookcoverHome to Barcelona:  A Foreigner’s Story by Richard Manchester; PPU, Barcelona, 2008/2010

Ever wonder what it’s like to live in Barcelona and teach English?  I’ve been doing it for years, and the first thing I learned was that my degrees and teaching experience in the U.S. didn’t mean squat.  Because you’re competing with every crusty in torn jeans passing through who’s trying to earn a little pasta by capitalizing on the mere fact that English is his/her native language.  Especially back in the 90s, the city was rife with rinky dink English schools who hired anyone who’d work for the ridiculously low wages offered.   Often the owners were upstart locals whose command of English left a lot to be desired; and they didn’t always know exactly how to discriminate between bona fide teachers and those who claimed to be teachers.  Or if they did, they likely passed over the experienced teacher in order to hire cheap staff who’d work crap hours and teach kids or whatever was needed.  I taught at some of those schools in the beginning, and the “teachers” I met there go down in history as some of the most colorful, eccentric—often just plain wacko—characters that I’ve ever encountered.  Take Una, a red-headed vegan world-traveler from New Zealand, whom I overheard one day lecturing to her class of young adults on “pork auras,” which she claimed to see emanating from around their sick heads.  I don’t think their English was good enough to grasp what she was saying, but it didn’t stop her from a lengthy lecture with ominous overtones on the evils of eating pork, a staple in the diet here.  Mainly, these teachers-who-weren’t-really-teachers were British, but they came from English-speaking countries everywhere.  And one thing they all had in common:  an unquenchable thirst for alcohol.  I loved these guys.  We’d all get soused at the end of the night after teaching at one of these mills; it was part of the ritual. We knew every scuzzy after-hours bar in this city, and they got to know us.  People back in the States said I should write a book about the experience.  I never did.  But Richard Manchester, an American in Barcelona whom I knew briefly during that decade, took up the task . . .  and this is that book. 

Our narrator is one Lester Ferry from San Diego, known by all simply as “Ferry.”  He has just been dumped by the beautiful Svetlana, a relationship he knew was too good to last.  He’s a short order cook at Snapperheads restaurant which specializes in all-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp and forty-eight ounce margaritas.  He is 27.  He lives at home. A move to Europe seems like a good idea (Svetlana had fantasized about it).  “I chose Barcelona  . . . because it looked nice enough when I watched the Dream Team dunk their way to the gold in the ’92 Olympics.”

And so he arrives, with no contacts, no language skills, no real skills period, “worried that I’d be the oldest one at Barcelona’s George Orwell Youth Hostel,” which he was not.  He rents the first room he stumbles onto, from a middle-aged Andalusian woman, Paz, who feels like a foreigner herself in Barcelona. The other renter is Enrique, who chain smokes Ducados  and hardly ever looks up from the TV except to razz Ferry about the evils of capitalist-imperialist America.  “Anything bad in the world, you can bet came from the U.S.” 
Money, of course, is a problem for Ferry, but that’s not all:  “For me, the most unexpected difficulty of living in Barcelona was the Catalan’s insistence on speaking Catalan.  At first, I imagined that Catalan was just a dialect of Spanish, but as my ear developed, I became aware of the language’s sheer power—its ubiquity, its difference.  The city itself spoke Catalan, not Spanish.”  And so, “Catalan justified my inability to learn Spanish, which was one of the reasons I told everyone I was going to Spain.”  Of course, it doesn’t help that he only hangs out with other English speakers, namely other English teachers.

Because soon enough, don’t you know, Ferry lands a job teaching English at Hello Its English Time!, where he is sent out on site to various students at businesses, no clue what he’s doing.  One such student is a high-powered executive in a posh high-rise office at Plaça de Francesc Macià.  We follow Ferry on the stifling hot bus to get to the class, where he will earn enough to eat lunch, buy a paperback book or get a haircut. “My chest and back began to perspire, and I could smell the sweet pungency of last night’s beer seeping out of my pores.”  And once there, arriving late, he must improvise all the way.  “I vowed to myself to be ready for the next lesson, but then I remembered that I had made the same vow two days before, squirming in the same seat.”  The exec is half on to him, and asks at one point:  “Did you had a special classes to teach English?”  To which Ferry spews his “credentials,” before forcing the guy to read one of the paragraphs for advanced students in the back of his book, correcting every single pronunciation mistake.

We get to know the other teachers at Hello Its English Time!, a motley crew of foreigners including Kylie from Australia, who practiced her beginning Spanish with her landlady, spouting kitchen nouns to the poor woman; Gordon, from the English Midlands, with his shaggy bangs and acne, who snorts at Kylie’s reading material:  Under the Tuscan Sun; and the (under)worldly and cynical Clarence, a binge drinker (“binging since 1993”), in fraying collar and cuffs, who truly does not give a rat’s ass about teaching or much else.  The crew gathers at the Quiet Man and other watering holes and drinks to oblivion, the guys anyway.  Literally in Ferry’s case.  He begins to have blackouts and wakes up on a sidewalk somewhere, usually in a dodgy area.  And so it goes.  Everyone counting pesatas to see if they can afford the next drink.  After the Quiet Man, there is the after-hours Bar Kentucky on a seedy, potentially dangerous street in the Barrio Chino.  As Ferry recalls his introduction to the place:  “I stumbled into the bar, bouncing off both sides of the doorway, as if I was falling, as if someone was shaking me down into a hole at the bottom of the world.  I looked around Bar Kentucky and saw a place that I could one day reflect on as the lowest point of my existence. . . It was almost 5a.m. and an unbroken wall of human backs still lined the bar.  In a dim corner near the toilets, a girl was hovering around a small man quietly playing the clarinet.  He blew no distinguishable tune, but a rhythmic hum found the niches in the bass music that was thumping from the boom box behind the bar.”   It’s a bar Gordon likes because, “It’s impossible to get out of line there.”

I love Ferry’s description of many things in the city (the Catalans themselves, for one), but perhaps my favorite is his running commentary on DIA supermarket, a place those of us on a low budget know well:

DIA manufactured their own brand of generic goods, labeled in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Greek—the short list, Gordon told me, of European Union lightweights. The claustrophobic aisles were scenes of constant disaster—broken jars of beans in smelly fluid, burst sacks of flour and rice, abandoned infants screaming for the world to end.  The chaos increased toward the end of the month, as the entire stock dwindled to nothing . . . DIA gave me the sinking feeling that it was the last stop on the block, abject poverty and despair waited for me to make one mistake to play to their advantage.                                                                     
The second half of the book takes a slightly darker tone.  The drinking catches up with Ferry, and on the advice of a palm reader/psychic expat from California, he begins to see an ex-English teacher who is now very ill. The relationship is beneficial to both, but we know we are beyond the honeymoon period of the newly arrived.  Still, fun to be had, as Clarence and Ferry begin publishing a newspaper satirizing both the expat world and the natives, which they photocopy on the school’s copier.  Author Richard Manchester did just this when he lived in Barcelona, only properly printed.  It was called The Advocate, and I laughed my head off with each issue. 

I don’t want to give away the ending; it will come as a surprise.  Just don’t think it’s exaggerated; it’s not.


There are other ways for English teachers to arrive in Barcelona.  One could perhaps get hired from one’s native country by one of the well-established institutions here (loath to offer contracts to those already here without papers, no matter how qualified), get a contract and go straight to work with good pay, surrounded by professionals who dress smart and take their job seriously.  I have since worked in these places, and I found that they have never heard of the Quiet Man, or if by chance someone has, they’ve certainly never heard of Bar Kentucky.  I will forever be thankful that I slid in the way I did —no contract, living in cheap hostels, scrambling for work with the great swath of transients, some of whom proved very good teachers, by the way, and went on to become professionals.  Thank you, Richard Manchester, for capturing it all so perfectly.  J.A.


In 2003 TBR published an exract from a then 'work in progress'. Some names are different but one gets the idea of the style and humour. Digui, Digui