She has become very fastidious and Jane Austen-ish again ... {Margaret Kennedy, Lucy Carmichael}

July 26, 2016

Something Light, something sparkling...

As it turned out, both of the books I just finished -- one for Paris in July, one because it was a Margery Sharp -- were perfect for a weekend {a week, really} in the too-high 90s when turning pages was about all the moving around that I wanted to do. :)
Savourer le présent

Imagine a beautiful village of several thousand people, each interesting in his or her own way. You want to meet all of them, and not just meet them, but get to know them a little, spend time with each and every one. Even if you shared every meal of every day with a new friend, though, it would take years. And how would you remember Julie as you sat down with Bob? What if you really liked Lucy and wanted to eat a second meal with her, even if that meant that everybody else had to wait? Consider also that people are always changing, so if you miss someone one year, well, they'll be slightly different by the time you do get around to them. This is the conundrum when it comes to tasting wines — even just from Bordeaux, say, a huge region with thousands of producers. Imagine the task at hand if you wanted to meet all the wines of France, or all the wines of the world. It is impossible.
      Yet it was a task I felt I had to at least attempt in good faith, even while acknowledging its futility. I mentioned this to my uncle on our flight to Chicago. We'd spent one more day in the silver Mustang meeting with clients in San Diego,  a beautiful, relaxed city that felt like Los Angeles without Hollywood, and were on our way to the second leg of Moët's wine shows.
      'No, no,' he said. He leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes, pursing his lips as he settled in to nap. 'You can't think of all the wines out there, like all the books you never got to read. You'll go mad. Think only about the wine in front of you,' He smiled to himself as he fell asleep, as if he had a particular wine in mind that very moment — possibly one of his own.

Normally, being old and crotchety, a coming-of-age memoir about someone in their 20s is the very, very last thing I would ever want to read, but I was intrigued by the idea of a Frenchwoman's experiences in America (as opposed to all the Americans-in-France memoirs out there). Laure Dugas was born into two families of French winemakers; her mother's family makes champagne and her paternal uncle Alain made Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines in the Rhone valley.

At a family dinner, her uncle asks if she'd like to represent his wine in America for six months, and she jumps at the chance, ending up spending three years in New York before returning to Paris to open her own wine shop. The memoir is a mix of her experiences as a young woman in New York {roommates, friendships, work}, her relationship with her longtime boyfriend {I was so glad that what happens at the end happens}, and her growing knowledge of wines, and of chapter-ends about everything from the different French wine regions to understanding vintages and terroirs.  Her voice is refreshing, a little self-deprecating, and in the end very likeable, and the sections on wine are so approachable and well-written that I found I enjoyed them and learned from them even though I'm not really all that interested in wine.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
      Actually the candles were a bit of a failure; they simply didn't give half enough light to eat by, and Jimmy had to switch a lamp on after the soup. (Cold vichyssoise, from a tin; but with chives chopped into it.) The main course was cold salmon, with mayonnaise not out of a bottle; Camembert cheese preceded the sweet:  glace pralinee ('Because he had the nuts,' thought Louisa affectionately; the little touch of economy-combined-with-chichi went straight to a heart already, despite every resolve, wifely.) -- As though to pull her up, a moth chose that same moment to fly into one of the candles; Louisa somersaulted several images together ... and felt that not for worlds would she see Jimmy fall so singed ...
     'You're not just being kind? You mustn't be too kind,' said Jimmy anxiously. 'You wouldn't let me make a fool of myself?'
      Louisa paused, but only for a moment -- It was still no trap she sprung! On the contrary, from sheer impulsive generosity she threw away a woman's most precious privilege; that of making the man declare himself first.
      'If you asked me, perhaps I would live here...' breathed Louisa.
      'They were words to raise him, in one instant, from the depths of faithful yearning to the topmost peak of fulfillment. Louisa's heart beat faster still, as she watched the changing emotions reflected in his face. Incredulity was, naturally, the first; after which came sudden illumination, followed by -- plain terror.

Since I am waiting very patiently for the library's vintage copies of The Eye of Love and Martha, Eric and George {instead of pushing the dangerous buy-with-one-click button for those two and all the others}, my virtue was rewarded by finding Something Light on the library's ebook site, and by finding it so much fun to read. Our heroine, Louisa Datchett, is thirty, and 'dashing' rather than pretty {'if her fox-colored hair was turning like an autumn leaf -- here a streak of cinnamon, there a dash of pepper -- she had nonetheless only to stand still in any public place, at a bus stop or outside a telephone booth, and as to Red Riding Hood up came a wolf.}. She reminds the milkman that 'My Auntie was a suffragette,' and tells herself that she is happily unmarried; she lives in a tiny flat {'She now turned on a tap, filled a kettle, lit a gas ring, laid the table and reached down the coffee tin, all without moving her feet. Such are the advantages, to the long-armed, of a kitchenette-dinette.'} and ekes out a living as a photographer of dogs ('She always had breakfast. With a really good dinner in prospect, Louisa frequently skipped lunch, as after a really good lunch sh could carry over, on cups of tea, till next morning, but she never went without breakfast.'} But she is also very, platonically, fond of men, enjoying the looks she gets from bus drivers and finding herself willingly at the mercy of bachelor friends, impoverished neighbors, and total strangers who need a favor or someone to listen to their troubles, with all the trouble and expense this brings.

      ... For once, rarely, contemplating an abstract conception:  the position of the independent woman in modern society. Better their lot by far, Louisa was sure of it, than that of the timid Victorian wife trembling at a husband's frown. (On the other hand, not all Victorian wives were timid; Mrs. Proudie, for instance, browbeating her bishop, couldn't have been wholly fictional?)'}. ... Louisa had a higher opinion of women than might be expectd; for those committed to any vocation. a genuine, wistful regard. If it was they who'd inherited the world the suffragettes fought for, that was fine with Louisa. But considering the average run of independent self-supporting modern women --
      Here Louisa broke off to consider the case she knew best:  her own. ... A nation of dog-lovers hadn't let her starve; but she noticed Number Ten's yoghurt on her milk bill. She was certainly independent, she hoped intelligent; and possessed only five pairs of stockings, two laddered.
      -- Considering the average run of independent self-supporting  modern women, Louisa honestly believed they'd all be better off with rich husbands.

Just at this moment, Louisa receives an unexpected letter from F. Pennon, a well-to do middle-aged Englishman she vaguely remembers meeting in Cannes, and before she arrives at his elegant bachelor apartment for tea, she has already told friends and acquaintances that she's engaged to be married.

It's not especially surprising that things don't work out as she expects, and then we're off on a rather conventional but still very funny set of romantic efforts. (I read on the Margery Sharp blog that Something Light was serialized, in 1960, in The Saturday Evening Post, so that fits.}  As always, Margery Sharp is just wonderful at drawing characters, and if Louisa has a little less depth, possibly, than some of her others, she's wonderful to spend time with.

And since we love them, here's the vintage cover, found on the Margery Sharp blog...

Champagne Baby:  how one Parisian learned to love wine — and life — the American way,
by Laure Dugas

Ballantine Books, 2016
Source:  borrowed, Minuteman Library Network

Something Light, by Margery Sharp
Kindle edition, Open Road Media, 2016 
Source:  borrowed, Boston Public Library/OverDrive

July 23, 2016

Only {re}connect: Lord Byron and Madame de Staël

      After returning to the Villa Diodati, Byron spent much of July and August writing. The dismal weather deepened his customary melancholy. 'Really, we have had lately such stupid mists, fogs, and perpetual density,' Byron wrote to his publisher on July 22. ... Despite his weather-induced gloom (or perhaps because of it), the summer was a remarkably creative period for Byron. ...
      Whenever he sought a respite from writing, Byron found congenial company at the Chateau de Coppet, the salon of Madame Germaine de Staël. Madame de Staël was perhaps the only woman in the world who could match Byron for notoriety in 1816. ...
      On a Saturday afternoon in July 1816, Byron arrived at Coppet for dinner. As soon as he entered the room, all eyes turned toward him, staring 'as at some outlandish beast in a raree-show. One of the ladies fainted, ad the rest look as if his Satanic Majesty had been among them.'  Madame de Staël, immune to scandal and quite unperturbed, gave Byron a warm and gracious welcome. Between their discussions of  literature, she peppered him with detailed questions about his personal life, and particularly his troubled marriage. Byron, who was practicing his melancholy public persona while pretending to be devoted to his estranged wife, took no offense at her intrusive queries. 'I believe Madame de Staël did her utmost to bring about a reconciliation between us,' he confided to a friend. 'She was the best creature in the world.'
     Byron returned to Coppet frequently over the next several months. 'She has made Coppet as agreeable as society and talent can make any place on earth,' he told his editor. The celebrated hostess 'ventured to protect  me when all London was crying out against me..., and behaved courageously and kindly; indeed, Madame de S. defended me when few dared to do so, and I have always remembered it.'

from The  Year Without Summer, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman

{With my fondness for Coppet, this was a wonderful sidelight from reading Frankenstein, and reading about it, last month, especially since I had forgotten coming across this story before. I only had a chance to dip into this book but what I did read made me want to read more,}

{image of the Chateau found here}

July 19, 2016

Martha in Paris

      'She's only eighteen, Mr. Joyce! Do you really think that at eighteen -- '
      'Just the right age,'  said Mr. Joyce briskly.
      'And she doesn't speak French!'
      'She will,' promised Mr. Joyce. 'I have just the billet for her -- widow of a professor, daughter who's a school-marm, not a word of English between them. Martha'll learn French all right.'
      Still Dolores hesitated. Actually it wasn't Martha's lack of the parley-voo (as Harry would have put it) that chiefly troubled her; nor did she fail to appreciate the widow-and-daughter aspect. Before marriage, once forced to take in lodgers herself, as an experienced landlady Dolores at once recognized, in that particular set-up, a guarantee of respectability. But Martha, in Paris, would be attending an art-school as well; and of the few French phrases Dolores knew la vie de Boheme happened to be one...
      'What I really mean--' persisted Dolores; and hesitated again. For what she really meant, to put it crudely -- and though no nice woman would, it was something any nice woman naturally thought of  -- was that in Gay Paree Martha might get raped. Not sordidly and horribly, of course, not in such dreadful circumstances as one read of in the Sunday papers, but after some gay party when they'd all been drinking red wine. 'What I mean,' said Dolores delicately, 'is that she might come to harm ...'
      She blushed as she spoke. Mr. Joyce regarded her thoughtfully.
      'I shouldn't think it likely myself,' said Mr. Joyce. 'She must weigh close on ten stone.'
      At which moment, Martha appeared.

Ooh la la. In the books I'm reading {rather randomly} for Paris in July, all I really need is some Parisian atmosphere, along with good writing or a good story.  Atmosphere-wise, there's enough {an art school, a park bench in the Tuileries Gardens, and the apartment of a distressed gentlewoman and her spinster daughter, who take in boarders}. As to my second requirement, since this one is by Margery Sharp {another writer that I've discovered with great thanks to our friend Jane}, I had high hopes, and I was delighted, every minute.  {It's a short book, only about 160 pages, and one of the funniest I've read in ages.}

As this book opens, Mr. Joyce is making an accustomed Saturday-night visit to the Gibsons, who have lovingly raised Martha, their orphaned niece. Martha is now eighteen, an art student with a particular gift for a kind of abstract drawing, and Mr. Joyce, who has taken a paternal/art patron-ish interest in Martha, has arranged for her to study in Paris. There are hints, on the very first pages, that there's something unusual about Martha,a girl who 'always looked her best immediately after a hot bath,' and who always says exactly what she thinks. {Are you watching The Tunnel?  She reminded me of  Elise, the French detective... while I'm digressing, I also think the actress who plays her, Clémence Poésy, has one of the best French names ever.}

It's kind of wonderful when you find fairly one-dimensional characters and you wouldn't want them any other way ... Martha, Eric {the young, marriage-minded English bank clerk, living in Paris with his mother, who Martha meets on that park bench}, her landlady, Madame Dubois, and her daughter Angele {my name in 7th-grade French class}, who breathlessly follows what she thinks is Martha and Eric's great romance.

      'I'm not supposed to speak English.'
      'You've been speaking it to me.'
      'And I'm sorry for it,' said Martha gloomily.
      What a tender conscience she had! And how flattering to Eric's starveling ego that she'd wounded it for him!
      'If you like, we'll all talk French,' he promised.
      'I might pick up a bad accent,' countered Martha.  -- Why didn't she say outright that she wasn't coming simply because she didn't want to?  Her mistake lay in having entered into argument at all. Martha, perceiving this, was in fact about to rectify the situation, and as forthrightly as possible -- the phrase 'not if you paid me' actually forming on her tongue -- when Eric pressed on.
      'Anyway, I'm sure you'd like to see our flat,' he urged. 'Mother's done wonders with it. The bathroom's just like at home.'
      He spoke more appositely than he knew. As has been said, the one thing that discontented Martha in the rue de Vaurigard was the bath. What with the flakes of enamel adhering to her behind and the water never running quite hot, she hadn't had a proper lie-down-and-soak in weeks.
      'Is it constant hot water?' she asked enviously.
      'Constant,' Eric assured her.  'Mother had a whole new system put in.' -- He wasn't disconcerted by this new turn in their conversation. Amongst all the other virtues he'd projected on Martha was that of domesticity.
      'Is the bath vitreous?' asked Martha.
      'If you mean is it a sort of china, yes,' said Eric. 'Pale green.'
      Her defences pierced at last --
      'What time on Friday?' asked Martha.

This is a major turning point in the plot; I'd hate to give anything else away. :)

The best thing of all is that Martha in Paris is the middle book in a trilogy {The Eye of Love tells us what happened before, and Martha, Eric and George tells us what happens ten years later}. All three are among the Margery Sharps just published as ebooks, though I'm trying very hard to hold out till they come in from the library.

Martha in Paris, by Margery Sharp
Collins, 1962
Source:  The Boston Athenaeum

July 16, 2016

A very good listen

Our friend JoAnn is so good with audiobooks, appreciating the unique talents of different narrators and enjoying read/listen combinations. As much as I love them, I tend listen to audiobooks without those nuances, but there were ways in which the one I just finished brought home the unique pleasures of reading this way.

I Let You Go is in itself a well-written and suspenseful novel.  The book opens with a hit-and-run accident, and goes on to trace what happens next to Jenna Grey, a young woman mourning the death of her child, and the Bristol police detectives investigating the crime. As the book moved back and forth between these two parallel stories, the recording used two narrators -- a woman, Nicola Barber, to read the chapters about Jenna, and a man, Steven Crossley, to read the chapters told from the point of view of Inspector Roy Stevens and the ones about Ian Peterson, a businessman teaching at the college where Jenna is an art student.  That in itself was a great way to empasize the rhythm among the two story lines, and both narrators were very good.  But the reading {especially the woman's} also underscored the twists in the plot in a way that might not have been there on the printed page, and that was the best part of listening.

I won't say more.  It's not perfect {the end piles up a little}, but if you're looking for a good mystery, or a very good audiobook, I can recommend this one!. :)

I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh
Penguin Audio, 2016
Source:  Minuteman Library Network

July 14, 2016

Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis

      Aimee slid into the warm night. She saw white wavelets hitting the opposite bank of the Seine.  Flooding threatened if the thaw kept up.
      She'd lived here most of her life, yet the neighbors in her building were only nodding acquaintances. Not one was someone to go to for help. Of course, she was aware, as they all were from the concierge, that a retired doctor of L'Ecole de Medecine lived on the first floor with his dog. An actor and his family resided on the second floor. An old aristocrat owned the top-floor pied-a-terre, handed down through the generations.  Hers had been inherited from her grandfather. God knows she couldn't have afforded to buy a place on the Ile Saint-Louis on her earnings from Leduc Detective.
      Along the quai, a few lit windows, like eyes peering into the darkness, showed in the hotels partciuliers,  narrow limestone-arcaded town houses with delicate wrought-iron balconies and high arched entrances. ... She knew other worlds existed behind the massive carved entry doors leading to double- and triple-deep courtyards and gardens that could never be glimpsed from the outside. Life on this island took place in the courtyards, in the hidden back passages that had changed little since medieval times. The Ile Saint-Louis was a feudal island fortress, its fortifications the town houses built for the aristocracy. Five bridges spanned the comma-shaped island, which had once been a cow pasture in the Middle Ages. It was eight blocks long and three blocks across at the widest,yet so self-contained that long-time Ile Saint-Louis inhabitants - Ludoviciens -- still referred to the rest of Paris as 'the continent.'  Stubbornly reclusive, the inhabitants ignored the tourists, aware that they inhabited the most desirable streets in Paris, keeping themselves to themselves. They were proud of having allowed a post office to open only a few years ago, of having neighbors like a minister or two and like the Rothschilds, whom one was unlikely to visit to borrow a cup of sugar. Who was she to criticize?  She'd never live anywhere else.
      A woman in trouble wouldn't knock on the Rothschilds' door in the middle of the night. Was that why she'd been chosen?

I'm not especially drawn to edgy modern mysteries, but I've read and enjoyed several of the books in this series about Aimee Leduc, a 'computer detective' living and working in Paris, sometimes for Paris in July.

The newest book, Murder on the Quai, is waiting for me at the library, and it promises to tell us more about Aimee's background.  {I was laughing earlier today when I saw a tweet from Martha Stewart Weddings about books to take on your honeymoon, and it was the one recommended for Paris. Yes, these books definitely give you a feeling for Paris, but then again there's nothing like a nice romantic murder...}

But I was drawn to this one in the meantime, because it's set on the Ile Saint-Louis, one of the places I remember best from when I went to Paris {walking across the bridge near Notre Dame, having breakfast in the cafe on the corner there, the narrow streets lined with those tall houses, and a little shop that sold French jams and teas to take home} and because of the plot. While she is working in her apartment, trying to finish some client work on a tight deadline,  Aimee receives a phone call from an obviously terrified woman, pleading for help and begging Aimee to go to the courtyard in her building. When she does, she finds a newborn baby wrapped in a beaded denim jacket.  When a group of protesters gathers at a reception, where an oil company, suspected of polluting, is about to announce an drilling agreement with the French government, their peaceful protest erupts into violence, and  as she searches for the baby's mother, Aimee discovers that the danger she is in may be connected.

An edgy mystery softened by Paris, and by Aimee's growing attachment to the baby girl and the hints she receives about what may have happened to her own mother, who disappeared when Aimee was a child. And a suspenseful one, which at the end I couldn't put down. Cara Black is very good at evoking the city, and although I didn't necessarily remember the street names and which bridge was which, I definitely felt a little bit of a familiar sense of place.

Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis, by Cara Black
Soho Press, 2007

Source:  Boston Public Library

July 11, 2016

Virginia Woolf & the Raverats: a different sort of friendship

52 Tavistock Square, London
Jan 24th 1925

My dear Jacques,
      As I was eating my muffin in bed this morning in came an exquisite crate from the South of France filled with flowers of every colour & smell, which I frantically tumbled on the bed to see who could have sent them, & there was your card! I assure you it brought the tears to these hardened eyes of mine, that you should have thought of me. And I was just writing ti you (a thing I enjoy doing thoroughly, for I write to no one else now) to say that if you'd really like it, I'll send out proofs of my novel [Mrs. Dalloway], which has just arrived, on condition you don't bother to write to me about it,  or even read it; & don't mention it to anyone for fear we should be asked for it, & it won't be out till May. For no other human being in the world would I do this -- why, I don't know. But I'm a little morbid about people reading my books. ...
      Well, this is all very rambling; merely a gossip & I don't suppose you realise in the least how the flowers coming from you, on the eve of my birthday too, pleased me. There they are, against my painted walls, great bouquets of yellow & red & pink. They rather remind me of all your quips & cranks, & sitting by the river at the Grange, when you made me smoke one of Sir George's cigars -- & I so much wanted you to admire me, & thought I was a desolate old stick compared with the younger generation. ...
      Let me see your memoirs, & send me any scraps of a letter you like to dictate to that dear old creature Gwen.
      Yrs ever

Letters, Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury, art, France, an introduction to people I didn't know, and a glossary {!} of people and places, all in a book found in the library, by chance. This lovely {and literally, physically lovely} book ticks all my boxes.  And I can 'count' it for #woolfalong, and for Paris in July {France, at least}. :) But most of all, for the joy of reading letters again, something I used to do all the time and have greatly missed.

Gwen Raverat (the editor's grandmother), a renowned painter and woodcut artist, was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin {this, I'm learning, was such an interesting family...}; her father and VW's were good friends, and Virginia would visit the Darwins at home when she went to Cambridge to visit her brother Thoby.  Later, she studied art in London and became an early member of the Bloomsbury Group. Jacques Raverat, also a painter, who 'came from an unusual French family,' studied at Cambridge but was already beginning to feel the effects of an illness that turned out to be multiple sclerosis. After Gwen and Jacques married, they eventually moved back to Vence, in the south of France, for his health, and most of the letters in this book were written when Virginia and the Raverats renewed their friendship, by letter, beginning in the 1920s.

The letters, in themselves, are wonderful.  {This book is also filled with their art -- Gwen's paintings and woodcuts, and Jacques' landscapes -- which is beautiful.} As he became increasingly ill, his were dictated to Gwen, with small asides that she added, and Virginia and Gwen wrote to each other as well. They gossiped {Virginia mostly}, remembered disagreements and slights and forgave them, and talked about writing and painting.

February 1925
Dictated to Gwen Raverat

My dear Virginia,
      I am writing to you now, first because I like it, & then because it's less trouble than trying to remember what happened 15 or 20 years ago. It all seems on looking back, so infinitely complex,  it's so difficult to sort out the threads. ... I was interested in Roger [Fry's] apprecition of my pictures. Of course I like praise & a few years ago a little encouragement would have helped me & meant a great deal to me. I suppose I had to find my own way in pride & isolation, but believe me, it wasn't because I shouldn't have liked success ; and I think I wasted a great deal of time. I should like Roger (& you to see my latest work. It's 100% better than anything he can have seen. I ought to have 20 or 30 years work ahead of me, & instead of that, now ...
      I am glad the flowers pleased you, but its a little early yet, & I wish you could see the wild flowers in April & May & June up in the hills. ...
      We are having a visit from Eily [Virginia's friend, now married to Gwen's cousin]. I know you prefer Bernard -- a mere Darwin -- but I love Eily very much.  She is wise & mellow & humorous & tolerant, & she has warmth of heart & a lightness of touch, unsurpassed, which are very endearing qualities. Perhaps she is not very clever, but then there are such a lot of clever people,  that it doesn't seem to me so important as it used.
      We talked about you a great deal, as you can guess, & we agreed on one point,that you were probably, of all the people that we both knew, the happiest. But how can one tell about a person one hasn't seen for so many years, I wonder if it's true; and I wonder if you think it's true. It's, in my mind, a great compliment, let me tell you. ...
      Goodbye dear Virginia

P.S. Feb 9th
      I wrote this at intervals during the last fortnight & was just going to send it off; & now your letter has come & your book. Almost it's enough to make me want to live a little longer, to continue to receive such letters & such books.  I don't know how to thank you. I am flattered (& you know how important an element that is in one's sensations) & proud & pleased & we've already read the first 40 pages of Mrs. Dalloway. How tiresome that we can't talk. I should so love you to be autobiographical & egotistical & indiscreet ...
And how lucky for us that they wrote letters, instead, and that we can read them, too.

There's a wonderful NPR interview with William Pryor, here. And then there's Period Piece, Gwen Raverat's memoir of growing up in Cambridge, which I knew about vaguely but now can't wait to read. Have you?

Virginia Woolf and the Raverats:  a different sort of friendship, edited by William Pryor
Clear Books, 2003
Source:  Boston Athenaeum