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


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.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)

I discovered Sherlock in my early teens and it was love at first sight. I read all the stories and novels in one breath and watched the Jeremy Brett series with a critical yet totally addicted eye (I bet this gives away my age), and like all the readers of the turn of the (20th) century, I was inconsolable at the Reichenbach falls and so thankful that Doyle had decided to cave in and write some more stories.

I had not revisited this childhood favorite ever since, but the recent TV show made me yearn for some Sherlock again, and as it seems that we won’t be getting any Cumberbatch before 2015 (?), I downloaded the original on my Kindle.

Oh man. It’s tough. It’s not anywhere as good as I remembered it. Some stories are downright laborious, and several times I’d guessed the truth well before the end. There’s not that many baffling deductions like in the first series of short stories (as I recall), but rather some deus ex maxima and a few implausible explanations.

I hope and suspect that the first collections were much better than this one, but I won’t try to read it again for fear of disappointment. I want to preserve the memory of being amazed. I tried to remember how old I was when I started them and I can’t, but I was obviously young  and naive. I guess the TV show has surpassed the original, and I’ll just have to be patient.

I still look forward to the day when my sons will be big enough to read it by themselves (what age? I once again wonder), but beware when revisiting childhood favorites: it’s a double-edged sword.

Batya Gur, Murder Duett (1999)

I have finished this book ages ago, but I’m only now jotting down a few words about it because all that remain in my memory is disappointment.

I have read several mysteries by Gur before (set in a kibbutz for one and in the small circle of psychoanalysis in Jerusalem), and so I was looking forward to be reunited with her subtle portrait of the Israeli society, and her recurring hero Michael Ohayon.

But this time he annoyed me with his moods and sensitivity, his extended (and rather long-winded) psychological theories. I skimmed through the better half of the book. Perhaps I should have stopped earlier, but you know how it is with mysteries, you still want to know who did it, in the end.

The book’s introductory situation was implausible from the start. Alone on a holiday, Ohayon finds an abandoned baby on his doorstep and decides to take care of her by himself (instead of, well, you know, call the police. Duh, he is the police). But as a divorcé with a grown-up soon, Ohayon isn’t really the best nanny around for the weekend. So, never fear, he calls on his upstairs neighbor, a female cellist cum single mother, Nita, to borrow some diapers.

Bam, love at first sight, or more precisely, at first sound, since as a music lover, he falls under the charm of this rather complicated young woman with an “artistic” sensibility (read: prone to hysterics and breakdowns). He starts dreaming of a life where he and Nina would adopt the baby girl and raise Nina’ child together, when…

Bam, a murder (after all, this still is a mystery). Namely Nita’s father, the renowned owner of a music shop in Jerusalem. Ohayon should be in charge of the investigation, shouldn’t he, except that it might be seen as a conflict of (love) interest, right? Well, he investigates anyway, even as another murder is committed, this time Nita’s brother.

At that point (which was relatively early in the book), I let out a big sigh. What kept me on was the portrait of musical professionals, which I found quite realistic and unvarnished. But I felt as if the author had difficulty sticking to the conventions of the genre, especially in terms of plot and pace.

Still, an Israeli mystery is rare enough to be worth a try, just  be patient with digressions and slow pace.

Judith Viorst, How Did I Get to Be 40 and Other Atrocities (1976)

I have been disappointed by the latest book by Gretchen Rubin, and I may have written harsh criticism, but I don’t want to be ungrateful: Ms. Rubin is very creative (even if her ideas aren’t applicable to everyone) and she can source information from very interesting people. She obviously loves research, and aphorisms.

Something caught my eyes in a blog post of hers: a short stance by Judith Viorst, a woman I’d never heard about before:

How do I know if the time has come to accept my limitations

Or whether I still ought to try to fulfill my promise?

I made me pause, and as I was still thinking about it the second day, I had to find the book it came from. I got a used book through Amazon, and the book is about as old as I am! So you see, I’m not really forty yet, and I don’t feel atrocious in the least, and yet…

The book made me smile, and even laugh out loud. Yes, the pages are yellowing and rather musty, but it is charming. A lot of these witty poems about married life in the 40s are about situations that might feel dated (70s and all) but I still recognize them. I could empathize with these women’s feelings and experiences.

Now I have to buy the book about the 30s as well!

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)

This post is long overdue, as I chose to re-read the Hobbit close to my due date, and now the baby is close to four months old!

I won’t really discuss the literary merits of the book, because I am a Tolkien fan and I have no ambition at objectivity. The Hobbit has been a great, possible the greatest favorite of my childhood (that was before I read the Lord of the Ring). My father read it aloud to me at bedtime around age 9 or 10 I guess. I was mesmerized. The book clearly lacks feminine role models (or any female at all, unless the mere reference to Mrs. Took, Bilbo’s mother or aunt counts for anything) , but I remember role-playing Gandalf with my (geek) friends.

Rereading it this year felt great, because I knew that reading wouldn’t be among my priorities this year. I took the easy way and got the audiobook, read by French actor Dominique Pinon, of Amelie’s fame. I downloaded it into my phone, to listen to at the maternity during feedings, and later on during the long walks I took in the park to soothe the baby.

I didn’t regret this choice. Pure escapism is nice when one is tired (in case you ask, I watched the movies too, and I enjoyed them, although they aren’t, of course, exactly as good as the book, but ugh, this seems a pointless discussion to me). It was quite an immersing experience to listen during so many hours over more than a month or two. I didn’t need to concentrate as much because I knew the story, and it was very comforting to reconnect with these characters I’d known as a child.

Although I was at first surprised by the choice of reader, I was soon convinced that Pinon has a great voice for a fantasy book. His voice is raspy, husky and he doesn’t shy away from croaking, whispering, or threatening when the action demands it. He properly rolls the “r” like a dwarf is expected to (at least in French) and has an apologetic, unassuming, shy little voice for Bilbo Baggins.

As an adult reader, I was surprised to see how different the Hobbit is from the LotR trilogy. It is a lighter adventure, mainly started for fun and bravado (with its fair share of terror and personal tragedies), and although Tolkien builds worlds from scratch and makes them alive, I don’t think he had any intention to make Bilbo’s quest a deep metaphor for fate, destiny and the end of civilization (clearly the LotR has larger ambitions). Also, in terms of plot, I can really see Tolkien inventing episodes along the way as he tells them to his children, which would explain an irregular pacing and also the somewhat clumsy ending. After Smaug the dragon is defeated, everyone being greedy about the treasure, it could easily have become a deadlock and a nasty war between men, dwarves and elves, and I felt that Tolkien didn’t want to depart from the children’s lit traditional arch where good guys and bad guys are neatly separated. The arrival of the goblins and evil wolves seems like a (too?) easy way out, and Thorin’s death conveniently removes any difficulty about the dwarves’ not-so-nice intentions.

But even as an adult I can’t find (serious) fault in this book, and I’m really looking forward to reading some of it to my sons one day. In fact, my elder son might start to be of age for this, what do you think?