The one starring Mary Pickford in black and white

Miriam Michelson, In the Bishop’s Carriage, 1904

I didn’t know at first that Mary Pickford played the heroine Nancy Olden in a 1913 silent movie from which only a few pictures remain. Apparently it was so popular that it was remade in 1920 into yet another silent movie that got lost too. On my part it was pure luck: I just picked this title up from the Librivox free audiobook library because the writer was a woman and I thought it a bit unusual for the adventure/mystery genre.

Once I knew about Mary Pickford, an imaginary movie started playing in my mind. The heroine would have a slightly stilted walk, her long blond curls rolling around her and bouncing at her every move, all the more as Nancy Olden gets to run away from the police a lot at the start of the book. She would wear those nice shoes and dresses we all admired in the first season of Downtown Abbey. She would make exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions, her mouth open (oh my good I will be discovered!) and her eyelashes fluttering (can I flirt my way out of prison?).

It was a nice discovery. The plot is a fast-paced, first-person account of a cute, sassy, spunky girl who grew up in a harsh, miserable orphanage. She has become a professional pickpocket, using her beauty and apparent innocence to play tricks together with a young crook, Tom Dorgan, whom she loves. Despite her dark background and her controversial choice of career, she’s not one to whine. She has a quick tongue and lots of nerve. Nancy Olden grabs every life line that gets thrown towards her by chance encounters (the eponymous bishop is only the first, she enters his carriage under disguise to escape the police and plays a schoolgirl in full breakdown).

It has gotten a bit outdated at times, and the writing is clumsy at other times, but by most accounts it has well stood the test of time, as the heroine is quite resourceful and independent-minded, making her a very modern American girl.

No wonder that Mary Pickford made a huge success with it. Nancy Olden is an unconventional girl. She doesn’t wait for the Prince Charming, she even saves her own very Charming Prince!

The one that reopens the nature vs nurture debate

Robert Barnard, Out of the Blackout (1984)

I jotted down the name of this book ages ago after reading a blog post about WWII Britain (don’t remember where) and it took years before a bruised copy arrived from Bookmooch. Indeed, it starts in 1941 during the London blitz. But it all is rather misleading.

The book actually spans from 1941 to the late 1970s, and the blackout in the title is rather the main character’s quest for his own past. So what I thought was a classic whodunnit set during the war turned rather unexpected, in the vein of a psychological mystery à la Barbara Vine (but shorter).

Imagine a little boy of about 5, Simon, who find himself among other children refugees sent away from London by their parents to seek safety in the British countryside. The only thing is, this boy isn’t on any list and the name he gave is fake. Who is he? To the family who welcomed him, it doesn’t matter much. They raise him as their own, and when at the end of the war nobody comes to fetch him, they adopt him and give him their own name.

To the boy, who becomes a young man then a mature one, his adoptive family is paramount and his love for them genuine, but he still wonders and the mystery of his origins nags him as he finds himself in familiar surroundings around Paddington Station. The story moves by jumps to 1964 as he has managed to identify his birth family and to move in incognito with them as a boarder.

The Simmeters, his birth family, are not a nice bunch indeed, so you shouldn’t wait a teary reunion scene. Greedy, dishonest, lazy, uneducated, racist and antisemitic, who would want a birth family like that? Unexpectedly, Barnard evoke that part of the British population that was rather sympathetic to the Nazis and who had to keep low-key during the war lest they’d get arrested. Of course, Simon could have left it at that point, but he was convinced that his mother had been murdered by his violent, pro-Mosley husband. So he wants to get to the bottom of it.

The book is weird, because not much happens and Simon is rather detached, although there’s no question he takes his quest to heart. And his quest takes him nearly a lifetime, amidst a marriage, a divorce, a career, another marriage and family life. Simon is a nice chap, a good guy through and through, and yet his birth family couldn’t be more different.

In classic novels, or Victorian ones, there are often cases of mistaken identities or orphans from a different social backgrounds brought up in lower classes or the reverse. The Victorian answer is the triumph of nature over nurture: Oliver Twist stays a nice boy despite his hardships, etc.. But here, at the end of the puzzle, we’re left with a nice, satisfying twist that leaves no doubt as to Barnard’s position: nurture has won over nature in Simon’s life.

The one where I try a bonnet ripper as medicine

Beverly Lewis, The Shunning (1997)

Back in March when things went a bit hectic-tragic, I found myself in need of serious comfort read. I mean, not even a cozy mystery set in an English garden would have done it. I wanted sugar and good feelings and wholesome people having not-so-difficult difficulties… and the promise of a happy end.

So I returned to one of my weirdest acquired taste: Amish novels.

I don’t know a single other European person reading those, or even aware of their existence. (After a quick Kindle search, indeed Amish novels have been translated into Dutch and German, duh!) But apparently it’s a thriving niche market, and so far it has always worked its magic for me with previous titles by Wanda Brunstetter and Beverly Lewis, taking me faraway to another world with its own rules, a world more caring and more gentle and more quiet than my own. I bet that’s the whole point.

Now already you’re shaking your head at my Amish romance taste, and I’m just going to confess something even weirder: I didn’t read it in order. Like, I did start at page 1, but as soon as the pace slacked a bit I shuffled the pages forward to any sentence that grabbed my attention, only to return to a few pages backward if I had the sense that I’d missed a key plot point.

Obviously that was the result of my short attention span in stressful times, and it was also the reflect of the… ahem… rather formulaic and the… ahem… rather predictable story. But even consumed not exactly as the author prescribed it, the effect of this particular medicine remained efficient: within a few hours I was less stressed-out, a bit sedated perhaps, but certainly less gloomy.

The injection can be repeated every day for a few days until the patient is fully recovered, but beware of overdose, lest the patient would start wearing bonnets and refuse to use any electric appliance or car.

This one novel is about a young woman who struggles to find her true place within the Amish community, wonders about the outside world and (slightly, gently) rebels against the rules (don’t expect her to smoke something illegal and to try one night stands: she sings outside the church and refuses to throw away her guitar). and gets the strictest punishment that the Amish can design for their own: she’s shunned, which means that none including her own family and friends is allowed to interact with her, they look through her and don’t talk to her: a kind of very efficient social death in tight-knit communities.

This book is the first of a trilogy, but I won’t bother reading the others. The plot is sweet and the characters very attaching (if not quite relatable to my own experience), and rest assured that noone does anything remotely unproper in the whole book, but I’m already convinced that the gentle heroin will find her happy ending and her prince charming.

The one on how to survive the Gulag

Eugenia Ginzburg, Into the Whirlwind (1967)

I picked this Persephone book after a Prokofiev biography that left me with more questions than answers. What was it like to live through Stalin’s huge purges of 1937? What was the cost of surviving? Why did people not realize how totalitarian state was going to eat them up?

This book didn’t answer the questions either, and still raised others. But at least I got a glimpse of what women endured behind bars, and I got it in full details. Eugenia Ginzburg was not a opposant to the Communist regime. Far from it. In fact, she was an enthusiast Party member and had a quite successful career in journalism and university in Kazan. Her lifestyle was by all counts that of a bourgeois family. But in 1937 she was arrested as so many people around her (her husband, colleagues, friends…). Everyone seemed to expect getting arrested, and yet it seems that people thought that their own personal case was only a misunderstanding that would be cleared up within a short time. Lots of people still respected the great leader Stalin and thought that the purge campaign was the result of some minister’s initiative and would soon be corrected. Ginzburg wasn’t into the personality cult, but she still believed in the principles of communism, and she too struggled to make sense of a Party that kept devouring its own children and was building a Kafkaesque system.

After a number of months in prison and a mock trial of 7 minutes, Evguenia was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag, and not to death as she had come to fear. She spent years in solitary confinement and describes very well how she nearly got crazy from this inhuman treatment. Yet those years were not defined by physical hardships (she finally got in a cell with another woman, managed to communicate with next door inmates and got access to some books). The bitterer years were still to come, as she was transferred to labor camps in the Far East (Vladivostok), where she nearly lost her life from deprivation and exhaustion.

The original Russian book was published in 1967 after being smuggled to the West. It ends abruptly in as it is supposed to be followed by another book detailing the next years of forced labor and exile: “Within the whirlwind”.

Her testimony is so rich in details and names that you can’t read it but with respect. Yet Ginzburg herself comes very much alive through her pages, as a wonderful optimistic, energetic and resourceful person, a fun woman to be around, especially in dire circumstances. She recited poetry for pages and pages on end. That she survived her ordeal of more than 20 years is a miracle, but I can somehow guess that with such an open, easy and strong personality, she would put luck on her side more than once. Some sentences made me tick, like when she says that “prison, and especially solitary confinement, ennobled and purified human beings” and that it was after being transferred to Kolyma that she encountered ugly people who sought to take advantage of the system.

Reading such a harrowing memoir is strangely enough not too depressing, mainly due to Ginzburg’ clear and powerful voice who never seems to despair of the human race in general. I wondered at times if it hadn’t been whitewashed, but I prefered believing in her fortitude. The most heartbreaking moments were when those women allowed themselves to think of their children, abandoned to orphanages or relatives and taught to distrust or forget their parents.

The one where dandruff is poetry too

Judith Viorst, It’s Hard to Be Hip over Thirty (1968)

I found this unfinished post among my drafts, as I read this collection late last year. No wonder I kept it aside, as it’s always very difficult for me to find anything to write about poetry.

I have been taught to take poetry with deference, to keep it at arm’s length and to over-analyze every word for an obscure and deep meaning. Witty poems is something I discovered very recently indeed, thanks to blogs, one day when someone (may s/he be thanked again!) pointed me toward Taylor Mali’s Typography.

Wow, a poem can actually makes you laugh out loud! (I haven’t found French comic poets yet, but I’m not trying too hard to be honest)

I discovered Judith Viorst with her witty poem collection about being in your forties, and I loved it so much that I had to get the earlier decade as well! (well, now you have a rough idea of how old I am… so much for anonymity). I felt particularly lucky that Persephone has republished this short volume, and this is a very chic addition to my little grey collection (and don’t let me start about the matching bookmarks).

In this collection, she deals with the adjustments that come after getting married, from the single, dating young professional to the classic role of a stay-at-hom wife and mother in the suburbs. Some of her references have become dated but she managed to make me laugh out loud several times, especially on divorce, which isn’t the funniest subject per se.

I can’t say I recognized myself in every poem, which often portray the American clichéd perfect desperate housewife. Some of the poems are tinged with lost ideals (those lofty ideas of a 1960s feminist clashing against ordinary life) and a bit of cynicism, but to me they mostly ring true! Getting older is something universal, making compromises in marriage is unavoidable. What I loved is that none of these poems pretend to be chefs d’oeuvre, yet they manage to be both witty and hard to forget.

Here is one excerpt about motherhood:

Last year I had a shampoo and set every week, and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian chandelier of
our discerningly eclectic bedroom, but
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber’s strained bananas in my hair,
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier,
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.

And another, my favorite:

…It’s true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
And because
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn’t let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me,
And because
Despite cigarette cough, tooth decay, acid indigestion, dandruff, and other features of married life that tend to dampen the fires of passion,
We still feel something
We can call
True love.

Reading Aloud with My Oldest: The Day I Started Being Read To

Back when I had to read every single day the same board-book, there were times when I wondered when it would stop.

When I started the new series about Read aloud books, I wasn’t even aware how soon the day would come when my oldest would read independently.

But he’s firmly 6.5 now, and he’s reading! Alone! (Every scrap of paper and cereal box!!)

Then one evening came when I felt a bit tired or overwhelmed and when my son said: “My turn! Tonight I am reading to you!”. Let me tell you, it was awesome.

I feared it would be twaddle, but I even enjoyed the book, picked by my son from the class bookshelf: The Monster Series by Ellen Blance and Ann Cook. Published in the 1970s, it is as old as I am and I love the illustrations by Quentin Blake! They’re deliciously quaint and easily recognizable.

The sentences are very short and straightforward, but there is a real plot and a real voice. It’s amazing how little is necessary to build a story. It took my son 10-15 minutes to read the whole book word by word, and he even took the time to ponder on the watercolour images.

It took me a while to track down this book, because there’s precious little on the internet about Ellen Blance (yes, there are still people who are mostly unknown on the web, isn’t it reassuring somehow?) and Monster in France is known as Dinomir (which sounds a bit Russian or Slavic, together with a hint of dinosaur) and my son’s school edition has no name on the cover (isn’t that mandatory?)

I didn’t grew up learning to read with Monster/Dinomir, but I’m happy that my son did.

Do you remember what book you first read cover to cover?

Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Black Room at Longwood, Napoleon’s Exile at Saint Helena (French, 1997)

To be frank, I’d never have even opened this book if a dear friend hadn’t sent it directly onto my Kindle while demonstrating how to use e-books.

I’m no big fan of Napoleon. Actually, I don’t know much about Napoleon, having managed to skip every class on this particular period of European/French history. Napoleon was reduced to basics, insisting on the modernization of French state before disapproving the folly of wandering towards Europe’s Russian outposts.

The sentence “Napoleon was sent to exile at Saint Helena” made us laugh and not think twice.

You see, there’s a nursery rhyme that every French child knows: “Napoleon died at Saint Helena / His son Leon burst his big belly / He was found sitting on a whale / He was licking fish bones”. (“Hélène” and “baleine” rhyme in French, as do “bidon” and “poisson”.)

It’s only fairly recently that I tried to locate Saint Helena on a map, just out of curiosity. If you don’t have a clue (I won’t hold it against you) go to Google Maps and come back.

Surprising isn’t it?

It doesn’t take long to realize that it was the kind of place you can’t escape from. The place you don’t come back from. Napoleon only survived 5 years there, slowly won over by gloom and humidity.

Kauffmann has been kidnapped as a French journalist in Lebanon during the 1980s and had spent 3 years in captivity (I read a book about his return to freedom a few years ago). So he knows a thing or two about solitude and confinement. He also loves islands. He visited Saint Helena, travelling by the only boat that make its way from Cape Town to the island.

I could empathize with the pages where Kauffmann muses over our inability to really recapture the past, but I didn’t quite get in the right mood for that. The travelogue part felt more like a magazine account than an essay. I didn’t really care for Kauffmann’s visits and his other companions.

Even if I didn’t care for Napoleon, the parts I loved best eventually were the description of the former emperor’s lonely life with his closest courtiers. The atmosphere was quite claustrophobic and led to bickering, petty jealousy and endless poring over the past, trying to analyze what went wrong.  Those who had followed the fallen emperor to the island weren’t prisoners themselves, they had come out of loyalty, maybe out of hope that the emperor would find his way back to France and/or to a powerful position. They were all vying for his attention, noting his every word and move in order to publish memoirs later on, hoping to be rewarded on the emperor’s will.

Despite its weaknesses, it was well worth spending a few hours on this book to discover these less-known points of history and geography!

Reading Aloud with My Oldest: Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902)

I knew for quite a while that one day I would read Kipling’s Just So Stories to my son because that’s a book my father read to me as a child and I remembered enjoying it a lot. It was part of “the” list but of course I couldn’t remember how old I was when I listened to it, so I had no clue when to read it to my son.

Maybe I should have waited another 6 months to read that book with him (he didn’t get the point of some stories at all), but my son is now so full of questions about everything that I figured that  tales of origin (“pourquoi stories” is apparently an English expression) will be very successful at this stage. And they were!

My memory of the book was kind of fuzzy, but as I read it all came back to me. The second time around, as an adult, I was able to enjoy it even more, because I paid more attention to the language and to the witty allusions that are quite above a 6 year old’s head.

I read it in French, a “classic” translation, and by classic I mean that it was the same as the one when I was a child myself… that’s telling, and that it got the Kipling’s original illustrations. The translation by Robert d’Humières and Louis Fabulet dates back 1961, and funnily enough they excluded the tale “”How the Camel Got His Hump” because they deemed it “untranslatable” due to puns. It was eventually Pierre Gripari,a children’s writer I love (because I was brought up listening to his tales read by him on vinyl disks… yeah, “classic”, I told you). who found a way to translate Kipling’s puns.

My son was drawn in right from the beginning with “How the Whale Got His Throat”, but what he mostly liked were the mariner’s suspenders and jack-knife (and the fact that after the mariner had left his suspenders in the whale’s throat he had to hold his blue breeches to go home (the French version said “culotte” as in “underpants”, ergo funny). He laughed out loud at The Elephant’s Child and how he spoke when the Crocodile had gotten hold of his nose. He also loved the stupid Jaguar who couldn’t tell a Slow-and-Solid Tortoise from a Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog (in The Beginning of the Armadillos, but we had to google Armadillos next, because they aren’t a familiar sight downtown Paris).

We had fun together, which is the main point. I must say that I had a hard time reconciling these charming tales (still very readable by todays standards) with the knowledge that Kipling also wrote the White man’s burden (which I haven’t read) and was a late-Victorian imperialist.

Have you had any good or bad experience with Kipling?

 

Josephine Tey, A Shilling For Candles (1936)

This book got a bad start with me. Because I enjoy Josephine Tey, I took the book with me at the maternity when my second son was due to be born. There are many posts around the blog world about choosing the right book for the proper time, but I’m not sure there are many about choosing a book for a birth. The result was disastrous. Not the birth obviously, but the choice itself. I was in no mood for light reading, and British tongue-in-cheek wit was totally lost on me.

Give me drama! Give me lyrism! Give me epics! I also had brought with me the audiobook of Tolkien’s Hobbit, and strangely enough it was a much, much better fit. Now, a psychoanalyst would make something out of it I’m sure.

And poor Josephine, now the opening scene with the victim’s discovery on the beach is forever associated in my mind with a certain hospital room where I vainly tried to get distracted from the upcoming events. No book should get that kind of a trial.

All the more as this is not Tey’s best book. I loved The daughter of time, Brat Farrar and the Franchise affair, but as one of her earliest novels, A Shilling for Candles does show some weaknesses (in the same way as The Man in the Queue). Even judging by normal reading standards it doesn’t have a watertight plot and moves rather unevenly from characters to characters until a rather clunky resolution, and so, even nine months later, my attention tended to wander away. Inspector Grant is such a darling (not the hard-boiled detective by any means), so I felt a bit sorry for him. It was a light, fun read, but definitely not the one book to remember Tey by.

Back from Holidays with a Treat!

Usually, when French people come back from holidays in late August (the entire country sort of shuts down from 08/5 to 08/25, except for the tourist industry), there are bad surprises in the mail: the tax sheet and lots of invoices. That makes you get back in the (grumpy) mood right away, believe me.

But this year, a nice surprise awaited me too, that helped me find the courage to open the tax sheet: a book by Pushkin Press: Salad Anniversary by Tawara Machi, that will come out in October!

Some years ago I wrote a review of this book after I fell in love with these evocative poems full of those tiny moments daily life and mundane emotions. Machi Tawara had used a very old poetry form to express herself and created a huge success in Japan.

Some 5 years later I opened the book afresh (the one I’d read was a library copy) and I enjoyed it again. Here a few lines that resonated with me this time, from the poem Hashimoto High School (Machi Tawara is a teacher):

Proctoring the exam,

Suddenly I think of each one’s mother,

The day she conceived this child

 

Parents claim to raise their children,

but garden tomatoes turn red

unbidden

In case you need a refreshing break from fall’s hectic schedule (back-to-school! new projects at work! budgets! the end of year already looming! arggh…) and the noise of social media, a book of poetry (in paper with a clean design and a cute cover) is a good place to start.