Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Paradise (aka The Ladies Paradise) - Emile Zola

After reading and loving Germinal a few years ago, I decided that The Ladies Paradise would be the next novel by Emile Zola that I would read. I was told by other bloggers that it was excellent but very different from Germinal.

On the surface, these two books couldn't be more different--Germinal is set in a company mining town and involves the lives and struggles of the miners, and The Ladies Paradise is about a department store in Paris. Both set in the late 19th century.

However, I was constantly reminded of Germinal as I was reading The Ladies Paradise. Zola depicts both the mine in Germinal and the department store (which is called The Ladies Paradise) in Paris as monsters and machines, consuming the traditional way of life of the countryside and city, feeding on the energy of the workers, exploiting their dreams, and crushing their lives. A few survive and thrive, a few survive and limp along, but most are swept away by the inhuman ferocity of the machine.

The version I read was renamed The Paradise, and is a tie-in to the mini-series, which was set in England rather than France, and it shows on the cover the actress who plays Denise, the main character, a girl from a town in Normandy who comes to Paris with her two younger brothers after their parents die. She is hoping to work in her uncle's shop, which is across from The Ladies Paradise, but business is so bad that he cannot take her on. She finds a position in The Ladies Paradise, suffers much, perseveres, and earns her reward, although you can't help but wonder how happy she will be with that reward!

Denise's story is very much like that of Christian in A Pilgrim's Progress, constantly struggling and beset with trials and tribulations, temptations and false friends, but she stays true to her internal guiding spirit and prevails.

I also couldn't help thinking about the movie You've Got Mail while I read this book. Octave Mouret, the owner of The Ladies Paradise, and Joe Fox, owner of  Fox & Sons Books are definitely cut from the same cloth--they orchestrate the ruin of the little shops that constitute their main competition for customers and charmingly defend their ruthlessness by insisting that the demise of the little shops was inevitable and they are not to blame for the fate of others. I kept on waiting for M. Moret to insist that "it isn't personal."

I felt a certain amount of frustration with the little shop owners, who fought back by trying to beat Mouret at his own game instead of trying to figure out a new game for themselves...but then, maybe that was Zola's point. The small shop owners who had mostly inherited their businesses from their fathers and grandfathers weren't able to change. Progress was flattening them and they couldn't deal with the new reality--they didn't have the skills, the mindset, the energy, or the resources that the modern world demanded.

As we deal with our own constantly changing world in which no one really knows what the next big thing will be that will sweep through the market, The Paradise was a sobering book to read.

This is my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, 2018, and my fourth classic this year. It's also part of my reading about France for my summer trip to Paris and Normandy. I've been reading a lot lately about the Impressionist painters and how they depict a Paris that was undergoing tremendous physical change, and so it was interesting to read a novel by a Parisian of their generation writing about the tearing down of buildings and age-old traditions as Paris transformed from a meandering medieval city to one of boulevards and lights.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

David Macaulay's Castle and Cathedral Books

Last year my vacation plans involved visiting castles. This year I'm anticipating visiting lots of cathedrals.

Last year I read David Macaulay's Castle - a marvelous, short (80 pages) picture laden book on castle fundamentals, geared for the grade 5-7 reader. I loved it. It was informative, easy to read and understand, and just what I needed to better appreciate visiting castles in general. Macaulay's castle was fictitious but representative.

Last month, I read Macaulay's Cathedral. It was sort of a companion book to Pillars of the Earth, which I read at the same time, and I loved examining the pictures showing how flying buttresses work, how to build a vaulted ceiling, how to support a wall that is mostly stained glass, etc. Again, the cathedral is fictitious but representative and remarkably similar to the Kingsbridge Cathedral from Pillars of the Earth.

Macaulay also has books on City, Pyramid, Underground, Toilet, Mill, and, of course, the How Things Work series. He just might be my new favorite author!

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

French Movies and Movies Set in France

Not only am I reading in prep for my trip to France this summer, but I'm also watching movies in French or set in France.

Here's what I've watched so far:

Amelie - in French, absolutely charming--visiting Les Duex Magots in Montmatre is now a must-do.

Midnight in Paris - a Woody Allen movie, starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams--pretty trite and lightweight and predictable--fun to see Paris but not much to offer beyond that.

La Vie en Rose - in French, movie bio about Edith Piaf--incredible acting by Marion Cotillard as Piaf. I downloaded her greatest hits after watching. What a voice! What a sad life, though, despite her stardom.

10 Jour en or (10 Golden Days) - in French, another charming movie, this time about a bachelor who gets saddled with an immigrant refugee boy.

The Intouchables - in French, an unlikely friendship develops between a wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet) and his caretaker (Omar Sy), just released from prison. Loved this movie!!!

Saving Private Ryan - my first time watching this, incredibly powerful. After a week in Paris, we are spending our second week in Normandy, and I've already booked a full-day tour of the British and American beaches used in D-Day.

Les Choristes (The Chorus) - in French, another amazingly good movie, set in a home for troubled boys in 1949, the new teacher is a musician who brings discipline to the classroom and structure and purpose to his pupils when he forms them into a choir.

Having a great time discovering some new movies, listening to French, and seeing the city and the countryside. Vive la France!

Any other recommendations for me?

Monday, March 26, 2018

It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

First time doing this meme but I read others' posts pretty faithfully and like the format.

Finished this week
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atchison - I loved A God in Ruins, and was impressed by Time After Time. This is her first novel and spans the twentieth century, chronicling a family in York. Interesting, occasionally funny, often heartbreaking.

Currently reading
Just now starting The Paradise by Emile Zola - another book set in France, another classic, very excited to read it.

Next up for GoodReads Tuesday Read-A-Long group is Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. I don't think I've read--if so, it's so long ago that it doesn't count. Very excited to dive into a great mystery.

Listening to
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - all about building a cathedral in England in the 12th century during the civil war caused by Stephen and Matilda (daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II). Absolutely loving it and eager to finish it so that I can watch the mini-series.

Also listening to Edith Piaf after watching La Vie en Rose a few weeks ago as well as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Marquez, both inspired by Mozart in the Jungle (see below).

Rewatching Mozart in the Jungle, from the beginning in order to fully appreciate season 4. 

Watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time over the weekend--what an intense, powerful movie..

Two more episodes to watch in the upteenth rewatching of A Year in Provence.

In the kitchen, the garden, etc.
Dug sheep and peat into the raised beds, and planted spinach, lettuce, garlic, leeks, and onions. Trimmed the out-of-control thorny yellow rose bush. Resumed work on my son's quilt after letting it lie dormant since November.

The week ahead
Easter Brunch at my niece's house! 

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Moveable Feast

I've owned a copy of Ernest Hemingway's memoir about his life in Paris in the 1920's, A Moveable Feast, for years, fully intending to read it when the time was right. With a trip to Paris scheduled for July, the time was now.

I ended up enjoying it quite a bit--it is rather uneven as it is a posthumous book. It is more a collection of pieces that he wrote about his life as a poor writer, in love with his first wife, Hadley, and doting on his baby son, writing in cafes, roaming the boulevards, meeting other writers and artists at Gertrude Stein's salon, going to the races, and skiing in the Alps.

Having recently read A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway's voice in Moveable Feast is almost identical to Frederic Henry's. They were clearly written at the same time.

My favorite pieces were about the writing process--how Hemingway worked, what he was trying to achieve, and what he thought of what he wrote--and the other authors he met, and how they worked, etc. I liked the fact that he acknowledge that he had talent, but knew that to mine it required hard work.

The pieces, towards the end of the book, on Scott Fitzgerald were painful to read. I love The Great Gatsby, which was already behind him when Hemingway met him in Paris, but Hemingway's perspective on how Scott and Zelda colluded to dissipate his talent was heartbreaking.

And speaking of heartbreaking, I felt so sad reading the very ending fragments in which Hemingway asks for Hadley's understanding and forgiveness in how he represented their happiness in Paris and then wrote of the wedge that came between them, in the shape of his second wife, Pauline, and how his affair with her destroyed their marriage and his happiness. There must be twenty or more fragments in which he struggles to say that he is sorry things went so badly and that it wasn't her fault.

I'm planning on reading The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, within the next month or so. It tells Hadley's story, so I understand, and should serve as yet another great source of what to visit and experience in Paris this July.

I am counting this book as one of my Back to the Classics 2018 books, a travel/journey narrative category.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

Normally I am a stickler for reading series in order. However, much as I loved Still Life and A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny's first and second books in her Armand Gamache/Three Pines mystery series, set in rural Quebec near Montreal, I never read any of the others...until I was searching my library's audio collection for something to listen to and spotted A Great Reckoning, #12 in the series.

Throwing caution to the winds, I downloaded it and never looked back. Penny does a fabulous job of filling me in on what happened between #3 and #11, and this really is a stand-alone novel.

And, let me tell, it was absolutely fabulous. The whole time I kept on thinking of Harry Potter--not sure whether it was the setting (the Sûreté Academy, aka police academy), the supporting characters (students and professors), the mysterious map that figures prominently in the whodunit, or all of the above.

It was enormously fun to read--I adore the inhabitants of Three Pines, starting with Armand and his lovely wife Reine-Marie, but also Gabri and Olivier, Myrna, Ruth, and Clara--and the mystery was good, with sufficient red herrings, snatches of poetry  (ancient and modern), philosophical and ethical quandaries and musings, and just the right amount of danger.

It wasn't an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but I quite enjoyed the forays into orienteering, map-making, and WWI from the Canadian perspective.

Now, I'm thinking rather than back-tracking and reading #3-#11, I will just plunge forward since Penny has also published #13 and #14.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Villette was a solid four-star novel, a classic, but reader, it was no Jane Eyre.

I've read a lot about Charlotte Bronte's life and work although until Villette, I had only actually read Jane Eyre...multiple times. I knew that it was her last novel and that once again she tried to tell the story of her life in Brussels as a young woman and her unrequited passion for her teacher, Monsieur Heger, and her jealous rage against his wife, Madame Heger.

The writing in Villette is better than the plot, which is filled with coincidences and, apart from the two main characters, Lucy Snowe and Paul Emmanuel, peopled by rather two-dimensional characters. The story Charlotte Bronte wanted to tell required plot gymnastics because, I believe, her real motivation was catharsis rather than the need to tell a story of the human condition. She needed to rewrite her own personal history in such a way to prove to herself that she was loved by the man she loved, she had been chosen and not rejected.

I've been reading Hemingway lately and so top of mind for me is that Villette is not a honest story. Charlotte Bronte created a story of star-crossed lovers, thwarted first by Paul's cousin, Madame Beck, by Catholicism (not just the fact that Lucy is Protestant and Paul is Catholic, but personified by Pere Silas), by misplaced family obligation (Paul is sent to save the family fortunes in the Caribbean), and finally by Nature herself. All this to explain away the fact that she (Charlotte Bronte) fell in love with a married man--actually I think it was more transference and infatuation than love.

I am glad I read Villette. It shows Charlotte Bronte's skill as a writer, but it suffers from a lack of honesty, something that shines through in Jane Eyre.

Book 2 in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge!

Friday, February 16, 2018


I went into Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich, with my eyes wide open. I read enough reviews without getting spoilers to know that this was one of those books you either love or loathe, but I didn't quite know why.

Reading it is akin to watching a train wreck, a beautiful, dazzling disaster of a novel. Let me start with the writing. It is gorgeous. Ruskovich has the pen of a poet--she can weave sentences that are strong and poignant and colorful. Her words sing.

The problem is that the story doesn't hold together and the characters are unbelievable. I'm pretty comfortable with ambiguity in novels, but I don't think that Ruskovich wanted her readers to feel uncertain about what her characters did. The ambiguity is unintentional, so despite the glorious turns of phrase, the novel is weak.

If you haven't read it or don't mind spoilers, here goes - Jenny and Wade are married, have two young daughters, June and May, live on a mountain in Idaho near a small town. Wade meets Ann, a music teacher and English expat, and asks her to teach him to play the piano so that he won't develop early dementia, as his father did. She does--he practices at home. One hot summer afternoon, May is singing a song Wade learned from Ann, so Jenny kills her with a hatchet. June runs away from the scene and is never found. Jenny goes to prison, Wade and Ann get married, Wade gets dementia, Ann becomes obsessed with Jenny.

So, why did Jenny kill May? Because she hummed a song? Really--no other reason? Why did Ann and Wade fall in love? There seemed zero chemistry between them. Why was Ann English--what on earth did that have to do with anything? She didn't even seek solace in a cuppa tea, ever! The most non-English character I've ever met. Why did Ann visit the weird Deliverance-esqe family at one point in the story? It had absolutely no bearing on the plot or our understanding of Ann. What did Eliot and his accident have to do with anything--okay, plot device to get Wade to the school to meet Ann, but then why did he surface again later in the story for one short section? How did that have anything to do with the story arc or help explain anything at all about what went down that summer afternoon?

All that said, I actually found the prison scenes interesting, although they did nothing to help me get a handle on who Jenny really was, why she did the awful thing she did, etc.

Idaho was one of the most dissatisfying books I've read in a long time. It should've been great--Ruskovich has a way with words, but based on Idaho, I don't think she's a very good storyteller.

This is a Tournament of Books finalist. I have feeling it will do well. The crowd at GoodReads on the Tournament of Books group seemed to love it.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Manhattan Beach

Until I read Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan, I gave absolutely no thought to how ships, especially those engaged in WWII, were repaired. I suppose this is due to my living my entire life in landlocked Colorado and spending zero time with any proximity to a naval shipyard, but I found the subject utterly fascinating as recounted in Manhattan Beach.

Manhattan Beach not only provides an interesting look at how a young woman, Anna Kerrigan becomes a diver involved in ship repair in New York during WWII, but it also includes a creditable mystery that involves the disappearance of Anna's father, gangsters, politics, nightclubs, Ziegfield Follies show girls, and the rough and tumble life of the naval shipyard workers and its neighborhood.

However, the soul of the story is really that of the relationship between Anna and her severely disabled sister, a lovely girl named Lydia, who cannot speak or move, but who is cared for by both Anna and her mother with tenderness and a devotion that is heart-breaking. In a way, Lydia almost becomes for Anna what an imaginary friend is to some children--a confidant who doesn't pass judgement but who provides a focus and purpose whenever necessary.

I absolutely loved how Anna reinvented herself, which I think the vast disruption of the war made possible for so many people.

I also loved Anna's relationship to the ocean--her physical need to dive and immerse herself in another world, where she was lighter and stronger but completely vulnerable to the literal ties that bound her to the other world. In writing that, it occurs to me that her experience in diving metaphorically maps how she interacts with the other worlds she enters--the world of the gangsters and nightclubs and money laundering, the world of the mistress, the world of San Francisco where she starts over, but still tied to her family, however tenuous.

Manhattan Beach is on the Tournament of Books 2018 shortlist and one that I hope goes far. I'll be rooting for it.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

John Baxter's The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris was so much fun to read. I am going to Paris for a week in July and, in typical fashion, am spending my time before the trip reading up on the city.

The book is less a guidebook than a series of short essays, each of which focuses on a particular spot (restaurant, theatre, park, etc) or slice of history (often literary) or a cultural quirk (absinthe drinking, for example) and all of which impart a feeling of what it is like to roam the streets and boulevards of Paris, stopping for a coffee, window shopping, enjoying the light, and relishing the feel of the city.

Baxter has a lovely way of writing that I quite enjoyed...
“Paris metro stations sometimes resemble women’s handbags, filled with colorful but often puzzling objects, many of dubious utility.”
Lest you think the book is only about the beautiful buildings, exquisite food, or lovely parks, Baxter also talks about the gritty aspects that characterize all cities, regardless of  how well their tourism offices spin reality.  I absolutely loved reading about the two side-by-side cabarets in Montmartre (circa 1900), Le Ciel (heaven) and L'Enfer (hell), as well as les apaches (street gangs) from the 1920s.

And, to top it off, the front of the book contains a marked map with all of the restaurants, markets, and sites.

This book was a great way to kick off my Paris reading and whet my appetite for cafe au lait and croissants.