Confession: I tried to learn French once. Years ago, I signed up for a New Orleans Free University class in what should have been a great place to learn French or at least Cajun. But each week the instructor came to class “under the influence.” Even though he shared some wild Paris stories and jumped on and off the teacher’s desk, my French never improved.
I’ve always enjoyed books about experiencing the world through the lens of a new culture. Alice Kaplan‘s excellent Dreaming in French is a very fun and compelling read. In clear beautiful prose, she writes about how living in France changed the life courses of three smart and gifted women: Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis.
Each of them spent time in France on the cusp of womanhood. In many ways, France and French culture affected not only how they viewed the world but their entire lives afterward.
In 1949 Jackie travelled to Paris by ship as part of a contingent of Smith College students spending the year abroad. It was soon after World War II and she was placed with a former WWII resistance fighter whose husband had died in a camp doing slave labor for the Nazis. Read more »
Forget the sappy title--James Tate’s poems are accessible yet deep, eccentric, and sometimes bizarre. His gifts include a fluid poetic style and the ability to continuously surprise. Here’s how “It Happens like This” begins:
“I was outside St. Cecilia’s Rectory / smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me….” The poem’s speaker admires the goat, wonders if there’s a leash law for them, and then when he walks away the goat follows him. “People / smiled at me and admired the goat. “It’s not my goat,” / I explained. “It’s the town’s goat. I’m just taking / my turn caring for it.” “I didn’t know we had a goat,” / one of them said, “I wonder when my turn is…” Whether you’re a goat-lover or not, you will enjoy the odd realism here, the tongue-in-cheek humor.
In fact humor is another one of Tate’s paramount qualities. Check out some of his other poetic titles in The Eternal Ones of the Dream: “Uneasy about the Sounds of Some Night-Wandering Animal,” “Doink,” “The Flying Petunias,” Read more »
I’m both a poetry and quotation aficionado, so what could be better than a twofer? Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful gathering of quotations about poetry Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetryis the kind of book you read through to inspire you, make you laugh, or help you figure out what modern poetry is and does. Appropriately, Copper Canyon Press (the publisher) chose for their pressmark the Chinese character for poetry. It’s constructed of two parts that mean word and temple.
O’Driscoll begins his introduction with Boswell’s question to Samuel Johnson (the famous dictionary maker), “What is poetry?” Johnson’s witty reply was, “Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.”
The book itself is arranged in sections each beginning with a phrase. Examples include: “What is it anyway,” “Making a Start,” “Inspired Moves,” “Call Yourself a Poet,” “Best Words,” “The Audience,” “On the Contrary,” and “In Memory.” This is just a sampling. O’Driscoll has devised a lot more categories.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes (although there are so many good ones it’s hard to winnow them down to a short list.) Read more »
The spirit of Graham Greene whispers through these pages. Pico Iyer is my favorite contemporary travel writer. The Man Within My Head differs from most of his books because he delves more into his own past than usual in this volume, detailing many connections he sees between his own life and that of Greene: they lived near each other in Oxford but never met, and each suffered a major house fire. They also traveled to many of the same places including Viet Nam.
Especially involving are the sections about Pico’s childhood. He lived first in Britain, his father having come to England from India as a Rhodes Scholar. He was an only child and some of his earliest memories are stacking magazines with articles by his father. The little Pico loved to arrange them and stare at his Dad’s pictures. When he was in grade school both of his famous parents were invited to California to be part of a think tank promoting ways to end violence. Pico tried to be an American student, to wait in the hills for the school bus with his plastic lunchbox, but he soon realized that education in the states did not challenge him. He asked his parents to send him back to England to attend boarding school.Read more »
There aren’t many good novels about chess. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a fabulously good one. In Jennifer Dubois’s debut novel, two chess players from different countries alternate telling their stories until their paths cross in Russia in 2006.
The first, Aleksandr Bezetov, a child prodigy, moves to St. Petersburg to attend an elite chess school while he is still a teenager. Exceedingly naïve and innocent, he’s assigned to a boarding house where prostitutes and a crazy assortment of other Russians live.
On his first day, while attending a celebration honoring Stalin’s memory, he meets two young dissidents who invite him to their gathering spot, Café Saigon. Soon Aleksandr is drawn into a world of samizdat and far-left causes. Read more »
April is National Poetry Month. All across this great land, people are celebrating in schools, libraries, galleries, parks, etc. For that reason and also because discovering new poets is just fun, I will be showcasing some new poetry titles this month.
In We Almost Disappear, David Bottoms writes about the South, childhood, camping and fishing, and aging. Nature features predominately in these poems. There are also many poems about his childhood, including some lovely ones about his grandparents, his sense of personal history handed down through generations. I found the poems to be calming, beautiful, and full of a deep humanity. Emotive and rich, they share Read more »
My husband, who seldom brings books home from the library, surprised me recently with this one. I laughed and said, “I’m not that desperate” but after dinner I found myself browsing through the pictures. But soon I was drawn into the writing. If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you’ll love this book and if not, you’ll probably at least sample the series after reading it.
The World of Downton Abbey is a social history of the times--Edwardian England to shortly after World War 1. In eight essays, Fellowes describes life then. She also gives an idea of how many people worked in service in those years—more than in farming or mining. Families would rejoice when a child got hired by a wealthy landowner, especially one as highly regarded as an earl. Not only would the person have a secure job, but the family would no longer have to provide housing, clothing or food as they would have needed to if the person worked as a clerk.
This book is full of interesting facts about working in service at the beginning of the last century. There was a network of downstairs folk who spread news of job openings from place to place and also kept a black-list of rich people who mistreated their help.
Also, covered are corsets—just know you are very lucky to be spared the agony of wearing one. Even Daisy the kitchen maid had to don this straitjacket under her uniform. A woman in those days could not take hers off by Read more »
While suffering withdrawal pangs from Downton Abbey last week, I came upon Alexandra Potter’s light but literate Me and Mr. Darcy. Like Downton Abbey it offers fancy English estates, afternoon tea on fine china, cool British accents, and couples in love.
You can tell that Alexandra Potter, a Brit, writing about an American heroine, has spent a lot of time in the States. Her bio notes that she travels often to New York and L.A. She has the American idiom down and captures Yankee humor well.
The book starts out with Emily (a New York bookstore manager) out on a date with a cheap guy who is calculating how much extra she owes for the pizza that they just shared. (She added toppings for her half.) Unfortunately, Emily has a track record of being unlucky in love. Her fashionable friend, Stella, who also works at the bookstore, invites her on a winter beach vacation with the hope of meeting new men. Emily refuses. Glancing at a flyer on the counter, Emily has a ready excuse--she can’t because she’s going on a one week “Jane Austen Tour.”
Impulsively, Emily snags the last spot for the event and joins a coterie of much older ladies on the bus tour. The only two men are the aged driver and a rather obnoxious, poorly dressed reporter who will be covering the event.
Potter has a good ear for snappy dialogue. Spike, the reporter, and Emily don’t click at all. In fact, Emily really Read more »
OK. I confess. This book sat for most of its check-out period on my night table. I had read Didion’s excellent book The Year of Magical Thinking but I knew that this new memoir covered another territory of loss—not that of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, but of her daughter who had the wonderful name of Quintana Roo (a state in Mexico.)
And yes, Blue Nights is sad. As would be any book about losing your only child. But it’s also amazingly human, full of insights and many questions, some of which go unanswered.
First the title. It comes from those late June, early July nights where twilight seems to linger for hours until darkness finally comes. The light is soft; the world is warm and alive. Didion speaks of them as occurring only in the north, not far south in LA where she spent much of her life as a screenwriter, essayist, and novelist and where Quintana grew up. No, the blue lights happen in New York City where Didion now lives now and where Quintana died young at the age of thirty-nine from a massive infection. To make matters even more tragic, she first got ill only five months after her wedding.
The book covers other things as well adoption, meeting with biological family for the first time as an adult, parenting, the failures of parenting, and, in particular, aging. Didion writes with brutal honesty especially about this last topic. Read more »
Nicola loves books and reading and wanted her first daughter to become a writer but Vanessa held firm about spurning books and taking up art. So Alexandra became the writer in the family, but not one that her mother could not control. For Nicola, Alexandra’s career as a writer is a mixed blessing. She constantly calls her daughter’s first memoir that “awful book” probably because Alexandra tells the truth in it about her Mom’s drinking. Read more »