Other People’s Stories

Recently someone asked as I live in France, was I reading any French authors, which prompted me to look on my shelves and reflect on this question. There were the two Irène Némirovsky books, ‘All Our Worldly Goods’ and ‘Fire in the Blood’ I read earlier this year and after discovering one of my French students was reading Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’, one of my favourite classics and an excellent study of character, we exchanged books, he lending me Stefan Zweig’s ‘le voyage dans le passé’ (in French and an Austrian author so translated from German) while I gave him Paul Durcan’s epic poem ‘Christmas Day’.

Manger Square, Bethlehem, Nativity Church beyond

I have read a couple of Amélie Nothomb books, ‘Fear and Trembling’ a factional account of her year spent in Japan, which was very funny in an excruciating way and I adored Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, a book I’d put off reading for years and finally read it during a two month visit to Bethlehem, a welcome reward following Karen Armstrong’s
excellent but gruelling ‘A History of Jerusalem’
– One City, Three Faiths after which I had a feeling of absolute awe that there were ANY people left living in that part of the world, having endured one crusade after another as successive peoples carried out their quest to occupy that Holy Land. I also became more wide awake as to how this current generation of people carry the blue eyed gene.

I digress. Back with contemporary literature, my book buddy had mentioned Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘lives other than my own’ to me a few times and her creative writing class are about to be introduced to it, so I found a window of opportunity to read it this week. And what an extraordinary thing it is. Familiar with the phrase ‘truth can be stranger than fiction’; here I am left with the feeling that ‘truth can be as compelling as fiction’.

Emmanuel Carrère was on holiday in Sri Lanka with his girlfriend when the tsunami struck, they had been considering separating and then found themselves in a whirlwind period where the relative significance of these reflections was crushed by that incoming wave and the devastation it wreaked on others.

“Everything that has happened in those five days and was ending then, at that precise moment washed over us. A dam opened, releasing a flood of sorrow, relief, love, all mixed together.

I hugged Hélène and told her, I don’t want to break up anymore, not ever.

She said, I don’t want to break up anymore either.”

The couple return to France only to learn that Hélène’s sister is on a downward spiral with the return of a cancer that she had thought she was rid of when she was a teenager. Juliette, now in her thirties, is a juge d’instance (a judge of small claims and grievances) and has three girls, the youngest only fifteen months old. Through Juliette, Carrère meets her colleague Etienne, a cancer survivor, who shares with the author an insight into both the world of being a cancer survivor and their realm as judges in the small town of Vienne, where they strive and indeed succeed to make a difference.

What makes this recount all the more extraordinary is the sense of the author’s narcissism, long time chronicler of the tormented self, he readily admits this and while I wouldn’t say that being witness to these events resulted in an absolute cure, it certainly lead him, as the book title suggests, to explore and find some empathy in lives other than his own.

While on the French theme, I would like to mention Patricia Sands, author of ‘The Bridge Club’, another story inspired by the lives of others, Patricia is an advocate of the premise that everyone has a story to tell and she does this not only through her novel but via her blog. Each Friday she posts about France and this week, she has very kindly written a post about this blog, which you can view here. So thank you Patricia and do check out her book.

Growing up with a Wild Book

courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Coy

Fefa is dyslexic. Reading makes her feel dizzy. She has never been a great fan of words, the letters get mixed up and make her feel anxious. The doctor has diagnosed ‘word blindness’.

    “Some children can see everything except words.

    They are only blind on paper” he says.

Fefa’s mother refuses to accept his verdict.

    “Seeds of learning grow slowly” she assures me.

She presents her daughter with a book and encourages her:

    “Think of this little book as a garden, throw wild flower seeds all over each page, let the words sprout like seedlings and then relax and watch as your wild diary grows.”

Fefa opens the book hesitantly, finds the pages blank within but wide open to her imagination, a place where she can write unobserved, in any way she wishes.

Soon Fefa is nurturing the slow transforming pages of her wild book as she would a precious flower garden, turning those awkward spiky, complex letters into words of beauty and importance.

Margarita Engle’s delightful ‘The Wild Book’ is a tribute in verse inspired by stories told to her by her maternal grandmother, a young girl growing up in rural Cuba, struggling with dyslexia. It will be enjoyed by readers of all ages, both those who struggle with and those who adore words and of course, lovers of the blank page journal everywhere.  It is a book to read and reread, silently and out loud.

“No one in my family ever throws anything away, not even an old story that can be told and retold late at night, to make the deep darkness feel a little less lonely.”

It is a magical story of a little girl coping with school, homework, older brothers, being left behind as the others go off to boarding school, of facing family threats and danger; all part of daily life on the farm and in the village, aided by a loving mother and uncle who love to recite poetry.

    “After my mother

    finishes her seascape,

    my uncle recites

    a long poem about the sky,

    where sun spirits

        ride glowing chariots,

    and there is someone

    who knows how to fly

    towards the truth

    of dreams…

        I don’t understand

    the whole thrilling verse but I love the way poetry

    turns ordinary words into winged things

    that rise up

    and soar!”

Now couldn’t we all do with a wild book…

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Book of Lost Fragrances

A family steeped in the history and tradition of fragrance and essences, the son Robbie desperate to keep the flailing ‘House of l’Etoile’ alive, though he lacks the natural olfactory talent of his sister Jac, who is busy chasing the origins of myths (though unlike her brother does not believe in them), while trying to forget her one great love, the archeologist Griffin.

“Jac wanted to help people understand that stories existed as metaphors, lessons and maps – but not as truths.”

M.J.Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances’, brings all three to Paris on the trail of an elusive scent that may have the power to provoke memories of past lives, a holy grail for Buddhist’s whom Robbie is determined will have the fragments of a piece of pottery that retains some remnant of the transporting blend, at a time when there is the threat of Chinese regulations mandating the registration of all reincarnates. And it just happens that the Dalai Lama is in town on a low key visit, as is Xie, the kidnapped Panchen Lama.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Through episodes that take us from past through to present, we begin to understand what connects the l’Etoile family with Cleopatra, a French nun named Marie-Geneviève and discover what secrets lie beneath the city, navigating the catacombs of Paris.

I can well imagine it as a film, instant travel to some stunning, majestic locations many only dream of visiting, overlaid with suspense, adventure and exotic travel back in time, however for me the book skimmed hurriedly through passages, even to the point of multiple sentences beginning with past verb tenses, as if they were to be fixed later, I found this annoying and it interrupted the flow.

“He’d been moved from the intensive care unit to a regular room. Was sleeping. Had been since she’d arrived a half hour before. She was waiting for him to wake up. Because she needed him to do something.”

All the elements are there, it just didn’t engage me as much as I had hoped it would, also due to a tendency to over explain, it is an historical account but may have worked better if the characters had informed us of some of that history rather than the narrator.

After revelling recently in the joy of Eowyn Ivey’s exquisitely constructed sentences and reading Jhumpha Lahiri’s excellent essay on Sunday entitled ‘My Life’s Sentences’ which I wholeheartedly concur with, it could just be that I had unreasonably high expectations of this exotic historical, biographical mystery. That recent foray into the realm of magical literary realism with its own excellent dose of believable suspense, did mean that next reads were likely to suffer the after effect. The snowy wilderness of Alaska, Faina, Mabel and Jack and The Snow Child’ remain indelibly marked on my reading brain.

My Magic Elixir's on Show

I did love finding out what was in the mysterious elixirs, being someone who likes to mix and make essential oil potions myself in my work, I have an intense interest in essences, aromas, their energetic, spiritual, chemical and healing properties and the synergy of a personalised blend. Just like Cleopatra!

One of my Flairesse Personal Blends

Finding the perfect blend to help an individual maintain their equilibrium is one of my specialties. Past life regressions? No one has asked me yet and if they do, I may just refer them to a hypnotherapist.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Is English a Friendly Language?

A bit of a cultural insight today, but one I think will interest you. I have lived in France for six years and affirming insights continue to delight me, and if you visit France for the first time, they can be a revelation and prevent a lot of frustration.

Recently, I discussed with two French students the use of “friendly” language, words and phrases that most of us use unconsciously, but for a foreign language learner, need to be emphasized – how to write or speak so that you sound friendly. It is particular to the English language (and others perhaps?) with varying degrees of importance to the British, American and other English language speaking cultures.

The French language and the way it is spoken in conversation is more direct in some respects than English (we are not talking about the length of time to make a point). Polite, yes. Friendly, no. They are not the same thing.

La Boulangerie, by Rita Crane

Every time you enter a boulangerie (bakery), supermarket, pharmacy, catch a bus, enter a hotel or any public place you will likely be greeted with ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ and you will also receive a farewell salutation ‘Au revoir (sounds more like ‘arve-wa’ here in the South), and ‘Bonne journée’. This is politeness and by learning these few simple French phrases, a more positive experience is likely. A smile however, is a rare and precious gift, and eye contact is not guaranteed.

For more insight on the smile, there are some interesting comments by French citizens in Elaine Sciolino’s ‘La Seduction – How the French play the Game of Life’, which infer a smile is something that must be earned, it is not a gesture offered freely to strangers, it signals the beginning of a relationship. It is not being unfriendly, it is being true. To smile at a stranger can be considered false and anyone indulging in that behaviour may even be regarded as suspicious, conduct Harold and Barbara Rhode’s were baffled by in William Maxwell’s novel The Château.

So during our lesson, we read an email text with some words underlined and then we read it a second time leaving out the underlined text. Here is a short section of the text.

Hi Patti! Thanks for your email. Your new job sounds really great – I know that you’ve wanted to work as a graphic designer for ages and ages, and now it’s finally happened! Congratulations! I’m sure you’ll do really well in the job. Well, what about my news? I arrived in Prague about a month ago. It was quite difficult at first. Of course I couldn’t speak the language, and finding a place to live wasn’t easy. Then my friend Belen and I found a lovely little flat in the old part of town. It’s quite small, but it’s full of character and we love it. I’m working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. It’s okay – I don’t suppose I’ll do it for long, but it’s a way to earn some money.

One student read the entire text and the other the shorter version. At the end, I asked what the difference was.

“The second one is more like we talk” one student responded confidently.

“Well, no.” I replied.

It is true, direct conversation sounds rude unfriendly in English and can be the cause of unintentional cultural misunderstandings when foreign language students attempt to speak in English. Equally, we should not expect our smiles and warm, friendly conversational attempts to be greeted in appreciation. We are strangers until we have been introduced, or at least until we have become regulars.

So what are those friendly words/phrases that we use? Here are some of them:

It seems that        Unfortunately         So    Luckily          In Fact     Of Course     Well      Basically     To be honest       Frankly         Anyway        Apparently     Actually       Obviously       Would you mind

Can you think of any others?

A Rhyme for the Odes (Mu’allaqat)

No one guided me to myself. I am the guide.

Between desert and sea, I am my own guide to myself.

Born of language on the road to India between two small tribes,

adorned by the moonlight of ancient faiths and an impossible peace,

compelled to guard the periphery of a Persian neighbourhood

and the great obsession of the Byzantines,

so that the heaviness of time lightens over the Arab’s tent.

Who am I? This is a question that others ask, but has no answer.

I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language.

I am my language. I am words’ writ: Be! Be my body!

And I become an embodiment of their timbre.

I am what I have spoken to the words: Be the place where

my body joins the eternity of the desert.

Be, so that I may become my words.

No land on earth bears me. Only my words bear me,

a bird born from me who builds a nest in my ruins

before me, and in the rubble of the enchanting world around me.

I stood on the wind, and my long night was without end.

This is my language, a necklace of stars around the necks

of my loved ones.

– extract from ‘A Rhyme for the Odes’

by Mahmoud Darwish, from the collection ‘Unfortunately, It Was Paradise’

(13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008)

The Château

I finish William Maxwell’s 1961 classic on the last day of our two week séjour at the 16th century Château de la Loubière, what better environment to read of the travels of Barbara and Harold Rhode’s than from within the ancient walls of a majestic edifice that has saluted the sun, hosted visitors and protected its inhabitants from events we can only imagine, for centuries.

Maxwell’s Château Beaumesnil is in the north of France near Blois, where the young American couple make their acquaintance with Madame Viénot and her guests, whom they continue to encounter and attempt to befriend during their time in France, including time in Paris.

They visit France just after the end of the second world war which adds to the difficulties they encounter, though they are fortunate they speak French sufficiently well enough to be understood, though not in the manner they are accustomed to and this causes them much reflection, trying to figure out the reactions they inspire and why.


             “That’s all very interesting, but just exactly what are these two people doing in Europe?

They’re tourists.

Obviously. But it’s too soon after the war. Travelling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t. The nail doesn’t choose the time or the circumstances in which it is drawn to the magnet.”

They encounter an uncertain transparency, for there are few false niceties extended, an important cultural difference causing them some consternation, however the couple make a commendable effort at developing the nearest to friendship that is possible with their hostess and her guests and bring the reader to some memorable locations and situations.

“They had hoped before they came here that a stay in the château would make them better able to deal with what they found in Paris, and instead a stay of three days in Paris had made them able, really for the first time, to deal with life at the château.”

In addition to the narration, there is another conversation about the book, which inserts itself from time to time and makes up the latter section of the book, so more than just a novel, it is as if we are witness to a conversation about the book with the author, as he indulges his experimental nature and writes as he pleases.

I guess one can never judge a château by its appearance and the white limestone exterior and cool human interior of Château Beaumesnil seem a world away from the warm terracotta tones of Château de la Loubière, as it soaks up the provençal winter sun, quietly reflecting her modest beauty on the surrounding landscape, full of warmth and the contented spirits of its past, recharging this particular visitor in the best possible way.

Today, pictures speak what words seem insufficient to describe, so I leave you with these and if you need an escape to Provence anytime soon, don’t hesitate to click on the link here for your own provençal retreat and mention you were sent by Claire.

The Snow Child

I recognise in the first two paragraphs the allure of melodic sentences, the promise of picturesque phrases that almost make music as they fly off the page like dancing quavers to craft pictures in my mind of that breath-taking, wild and unforgiving Alaskan landscape.

“Mabel had known there would be silence.”

“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found.”

Nature’s beauty and harshness leave me in a perpetual state of wonder with an undercurrent of fear and Eowyn Ivey doesn’t waste any time bringing both these sensations to the reader. A walk across the ice river bristles with tension and though I am sure Mabel will be safe, this is only the first chapter after all, I have to pause momentarily and put the book kindle down, my heart racing as I hear imagine that ominous crack.

Mabel and Jack have left the tame pastures of Pennsylvania and the close-knit support of their child filled families to try and make a success of ‘homesteading’ in the Alaska wilderness. The daughter of a literature professor, from a family of privilege, Mabel is finding her own self-imposed exile and the never-ending grief of a stillborn child that rendered them childless, almost too much to bear.

“We needed to do things for ourselves. Does that make any sense? To break your own ground and know it’s yours free and clear.”

    “Here at the world’s edge, far from everything familiar and safe, they would build a new home in the wilderness and do it as partners, out from the shadow of cultivated orchards and expectant generations.”

On a day when Mabel, a believer who often set fairy traps as a child, was near her lowest, she and her husband Jack build a beautiful snow girl from the first winter snow, lovingly sculpted with childlike features and dressed with a blue scarf and red mittens.

“Such delicate features, formed by his calloused hands, a glimpse at his longing.”

Wakened by the cold, Jack catches a glimpse of something passing through the trees on the edge of the forest, a glimpse of a blue scarf and long blond hair flying behind it, disappearing into the trees.

The next morning the snow child has been reduced to a pile of melting snow, the mittens and scarf are gone; footprints lead from the remnant of their powdery infant, across the yard into the trees.

This is no ghost story, but I couldn’t help but make comparisons with my recent read of Susan Hill’s ‘A Woman in Black’, another character who may or may not have been real, in this story there is a genuine intrigue that carries you through some of most beautiful passages of writing both in the depiction of characters and what they experience, as well as the incredible wilderness within which they live, as we try to grasp what she is, this child of the snow.

Red Fox by John Luke

“A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy red tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eyes.”

For me this story is an exquisite depiction of humanity living alongside nature and the constant to-ing and fro-ing between the seasons, trying to make progress, the necessity of humanity respecting nature and understanding the nature of fellow human beings. When we cease paying attention to either, suffering will undoubtedly follow.

A magical story that unfolds like an extraordinary dream; a unique blend of the inescapable reality of life in the wilderness, beside the quiet affirming beauty of believing in the imagination and visualising life into being.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.