Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Chilbury Ladies Choir

I absolutely loved The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan. I listened to an audio version, and really enjoyed the different voices of the various characters--all were excellently done.

The setting is a small village in Kent in the opening year of WWII--the men have gone off to war, leaving the vicar to disband the church choir because apparently in England the notion of a women's choir was unthinkable. I thought that a bit of a stretch, but nonetheless, the women, lead by the indomitable Prim, reform the choir, and use the music as a way of bonding with each other, grieving, celebrating, hoping, and surviving through the dark days and grim nights.

I really liked the variety of the main characters--my favorites were the two upper-crust sisters, Kitty and Venetia, the mousy Mrs. Tilling who learns to roar, and the devious Edwina Paltry. I thought the plot line interesting and poignant, and I really hated saying goodbye to the villagers at the end of the book.

I loved reading about life on the homefront during the war, and felt a surge of pride as the women stepped up and did things they never thought they could do...because they had to.

It's a story of resiliency, fortitude, and sisterhood.

Definitely a book I would recommend.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman is a YA novel about the famous post-Impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh, and his younger brother Theo, who supported Vincent monetarily and emotionally throughout his life and enabled him to have the time and resources to paint.

It was easy to read with very short, easily digestible chapters and sections, and was beautifully structured, creating strong themes of brotherhood, sacrifice, and family to put Vincent and Theo's lives and relationship into context.

Bios can be very dry and so crammed with incidents that it can difficult to seeithe larger picture. Not so with this bio. While Heiligman based her narrative on the hundreds of letters between the brothers as well as between themselves and the rest of their larger family, I never felt overwhelmed with minutiae. The author carefully picked what she wanted to feature: the struggles Vincent had in deciding on a fulfilling career (he trained to be a preacher before devoting himself to art), the struggles each brother had romantically, and finally and sadly, their struggles with depression and mental illness.

I was absolutely fascinated to learn how Vincent taught himself to draw and paint, repeatedly doing the exercises in drafting manuals, and then graduating to the human form. I was also surprised to learn that Vincent was adept at languages--speaking English, French, and (I think) German, as well as his native Dutch.

And, I was surprised to learn of the depth of Theo's support of Vincent. There is really no way that the world would have Vincent had Theo not sent him money to live on, sent him art supplies, promoted his work, and married the woman who continued that promotion after both brothers died. Theo was an art dealer for his entire working life, and represented many of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists in real time, and promoted their work and efforts to transform the art world.

 I instinctively liked the cover of the book, but came to love it after reading this tidbit about the hats.

I've always liked Van Gogh's paintings--my parents had two framed prints that graced our living room while I was growing up--but reading about his life and his relationship with Theo gave me a much deeper appreciation for his genius and the gift he gave us through his art.

And yes, I am planning on seeing a lot of Van Gogh paintings as well as the other Impressionist and post-Impressionists painters' works this summer in Paris and Normandy.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express

Finally, I got around to reading Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. It was a treat to read a genre classic by the genre leading lady.

My first thought, as the plot unfolded was, this sounds like the Lindberg baby kidnapping. I searched and lo, I was right. Dame Christie said she was inspired by that horrible crime. I thought she did a magnificent job in assembling a cast of characters, none of whom seemed to have a motive or opportunity and all who ended up having both.

The mystery is a claustrophobic variation on the isolated country manor, in which a train from Istanbul to Paris is stalled in a snowstorm. No one can leave, no one can communicate with the outside world. The murder happens in a locked room.

I watched the latest movie version after finishing the book--the one with Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, Judy Dench as Princess Drogomiroff, Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs. Hubbard, and Johnny Depp as Ratchett. I liked it. I know it's gotten some mixed reviews but it was dazzling. One huge difference between the movie and the book was all the time the characters spent outside the train car. Branagh, who was also the director, chose to make an avalanche stop the train in its tracks rather than a snowstorm. That meant that once the train was stopped, the characters could get out and walk around a bit. It would have been a less visually impressive film had all the shots been confined to a train car's interior. Very cramped, dark versus brilliant.

See what I mean? 

I thought the book was first rate, Christie at the top of her game. I thought the film was a fine adaptation--true to the book, with some modern issues thrown in to make it feel less dated. 

This book is part of my 2018 Back to the Classics challenge, classic crime story category.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Paradise (aka The Ladies Paradise) - Emile Zola

After reading and loving Germinal a few years ago, I decided that The Ladies Paradise would be the next novel by Emile Zola that I would read. I was told by other bloggers that it was excellent but very different from Germinal.

On the surface, these two books couldn't be more different--Germinal is set in a company mining town and involves the lives and struggles of the miners, and The Ladies Paradise is about a department store in Paris. Both set in the late 19th century.

However, I was constantly reminded of Germinal as I was reading The Ladies Paradise. Zola depicts both the mine in Germinal and the department store (which is called The Ladies Paradise) in Paris as monsters and machines, consuming the traditional way of life of the countryside and city, feeding on the energy of the workers, exploiting their dreams, and crushing their lives. A few survive and thrive, a few survive and limp along, but most are swept away by the inhuman ferocity of the machine.

The version I read was renamed The Paradise, and is a tie-in to the mini-series, which was set in England rather than France, and it shows on the cover the actress who plays Denise, the main character, a girl from a town in Normandy who comes to Paris with her two younger brothers after their parents die. She is hoping to work in her uncle's shop, which is across from The Ladies Paradise, but business is so bad that he cannot take her on. She finds a position in The Ladies Paradise, suffers much, perseveres, and earns her reward, although you can't help but wonder how happy she will be with that reward!

Denise's story is very much like that of Christian in A Pilgrim's Progress, constantly struggling and beset with trials and tribulations, temptations and false friends, but she stays true to her internal guiding spirit and prevails.

I also couldn't help thinking about the movie You've Got Mail while I read this book. Octave Mouret, the owner of The Ladies Paradise, and Joe Fox, owner of  Fox & Sons Books are definitely cut from the same cloth--they orchestrate the ruin of the little shops that constitute their main competition for customers and charmingly defend their ruthlessness by insisting that the demise of the little shops was inevitable and they are not to blame for the fate of others. I kept on waiting for M. Moret to insist that "it isn't personal."

I felt a certain amount of frustration with the little shop owners, who fought back by trying to beat Mouret at his own game instead of trying to figure out a new game for themselves...but then, maybe that was Zola's point. The small shop owners who had mostly inherited their businesses from their fathers and grandfathers weren't able to change. Progress was flattening them and they couldn't deal with the new reality--they didn't have the skills, the mindset, the energy, or the resources that the modern world demanded.

As we deal with our own constantly changing world in which no one really knows what the next big thing will be that will sweep through the market, The Paradise was a sobering book to read.

This is my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, 2018, and my fourth classic this year. It's also part of my reading about France for my summer trip to Paris and Normandy. I've been reading a lot lately about the Impressionist painters and how they depict a Paris that was undergoing tremendous physical change, and so it was interesting to read a novel by a Parisian of their generation writing about the tearing down of buildings and age-old traditions as Paris transformed from a meandering medieval city to one of boulevards and lights.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

David Macaulay's Castle and Cathedral Books

Last year my vacation plans involved visiting castles. This year I'm anticipating visiting lots of cathedrals.

Last year I read David Macaulay's Castle - a marvelous, short (80 pages) picture laden book on castle fundamentals, geared for the grade 5-7 reader. I loved it. It was informative, easy to read and understand, and just what I needed to better appreciate visiting castles in general. Macaulay's castle was fictitious but representative.

Last month, I read Macaulay's Cathedral. It was sort of a companion book to Pillars of the Earth, which I read at the same time, and I loved examining the pictures showing how flying buttresses work, how to build a vaulted ceiling, how to support a wall that is mostly stained glass, etc. Again, the cathedral is fictitious but representative and remarkably similar to the Kingsbridge Cathedral from Pillars of the Earth.

Macaulay also has books on City, Pyramid, Underground, Toilet, Mill, and, of course, the How Things Work series. He just might be my new favorite author!

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

French Movies and Movies Set in France

Not only am I reading in prep for my trip to France this summer, but I'm also watching movies in French or set in France.

Here's what I've watched so far:

Amelie - in French, absolutely charming--visiting Les Duex Magots in Montmatre is now a must-do.

Midnight in Paris - a Woody Allen movie, starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams--pretty trite and lightweight and predictable--fun to see Paris but not much to offer beyond that.

La Vie en Rose - in French, movie bio about Edith Piaf--incredible acting by Marion Cotillard as Piaf. I downloaded her greatest hits after watching. What a voice! What a sad life, though, despite her stardom.

10 Jour en or (10 Golden Days) - in French, another charming movie, this time about a bachelor who gets saddled with an immigrant refugee boy.

The Intouchables - in French, an unlikely friendship develops between a wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet) and his caretaker (Omar Sy), just released from prison. Loved this movie!!!

Saving Private Ryan - my first time watching this, incredibly powerful. After a week in Paris, we are spending our second week in Normandy, and I've already booked a full-day tour of the British and American beaches used in D-Day.

Les Choristes (The Chorus) - in French, another amazingly good movie, set in a home for troubled boys in 1949, the new teacher is a musician who brings discipline to the classroom and structure and purpose to his pupils when he forms them into a choir.

Having a great time discovering some new movies, listening to French, and seeing the city and the countryside. Vive la France!

Any other recommendations for me?

Monday, March 26, 2018

It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

First time doing this meme but I read others' posts pretty faithfully and like the format.

Finished this week
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atchison - I loved A God in Ruins, and was impressed by Time After Time. This is her first novel and spans the twentieth century, chronicling a family in York. Interesting, occasionally funny, often heartbreaking.

Currently reading
Just now starting The Paradise by Emile Zola - another book set in France, another classic, very excited to read it.

Next up for GoodReads Tuesday Read-A-Long group is Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. I don't think I've read--if so, it's so long ago that it doesn't count. Very excited to dive into a great mystery.

Listening to
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - all about building a cathedral in England in the 12th century during the civil war caused by Stephen and Matilda (daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II). Absolutely loving it and eager to finish it so that I can watch the mini-series.

Also listening to Edith Piaf after watching La Vie en Rose a few weeks ago as well as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Marquez, both inspired by Mozart in the Jungle (see below).

Rewatching Mozart in the Jungle, from the beginning in order to fully appreciate season 4. 

Watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time over the weekend--what an intense, powerful movie..

Two more episodes to watch in the upteenth rewatching of A Year in Provence.

In the kitchen, the garden, etc.
Dug sheep and peat into the raised beds, and planted spinach, lettuce, garlic, leeks, and onions. Trimmed the out-of-control thorny yellow rose bush. Resumed work on my son's quilt after letting it lie dormant since November.

The week ahead
Easter Brunch at my niece's house! 

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Moveable Feast

I've owned a copy of Ernest Hemingway's memoir about his life in Paris in the 1920's, A Moveable Feast, for years, fully intending to read it when the time was right. With a trip to Paris scheduled for July, the time was now.

I ended up enjoying it quite a bit--it is rather uneven as it is a posthumous book. It is more a collection of pieces that he wrote about his life as a poor writer, in love with his first wife, Hadley, and doting on his baby son, writing in cafes, roaming the boulevards, meeting other writers and artists at Gertrude Stein's salon, going to the races, and skiing in the Alps.

Having recently read A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway's voice in Moveable Feast is almost identical to Frederic Henry's. They were clearly written at the same time.

My favorite pieces were about the writing process--how Hemingway worked, what he was trying to achieve, and what he thought of what he wrote--and the other authors he met, and how they worked, etc. I liked the fact that he acknowledge that he had talent, but knew that to mine it required hard work.

The pieces, towards the end of the book, on Scott Fitzgerald were painful to read. I love The Great Gatsby, which was already behind him when Hemingway met him in Paris, but Hemingway's perspective on how Scott and Zelda colluded to dissipate his talent was heartbreaking.

And speaking of heartbreaking, I felt so sad reading the very ending fragments in which Hemingway asks for Hadley's understanding and forgiveness in how he represented their happiness in Paris and then wrote of the wedge that came between them, in the shape of his second wife, Pauline, and how his affair with her destroyed their marriage and his happiness. There must be twenty or more fragments in which he struggles to say that he is sorry things went so badly and that it wasn't her fault.

I'm planning on reading The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, within the next month or so. It tells Hadley's story, so I understand, and should serve as yet another great source of what to visit and experience in Paris this July.

I am counting this book as one of my Back to the Classics 2018 books, a travel/journey narrative category.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

Normally I am a stickler for reading series in order. However, much as I loved Still Life and A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny's first and second books in her Armand Gamache/Three Pines mystery series, set in rural Quebec near Montreal, I never read any of the others...until I was searching my library's audio collection for something to listen to and spotted A Great Reckoning, #12 in the series.

Throwing caution to the winds, I downloaded it and never looked back. Penny does a fabulous job of filling me in on what happened between #3 and #11, and this really is a stand-alone novel.

And, let me tell, it was absolutely fabulous. The whole time I kept on thinking of Harry Potter--not sure whether it was the setting (the Sûreté Academy, aka police academy), the supporting characters (students and professors), the mysterious map that figures prominently in the whodunit, or all of the above.

It was enormously fun to read--I adore the inhabitants of Three Pines, starting with Armand and his lovely wife Reine-Marie, but also Gabri and Olivier, Myrna, Ruth, and Clara--and the mystery was good, with sufficient red herrings, snatches of poetry  (ancient and modern), philosophical and ethical quandaries and musings, and just the right amount of danger.

It wasn't an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but I quite enjoyed the forays into orienteering, map-making, and WWI from the Canadian perspective.

Now, I'm thinking rather than back-tracking and reading #3-#11, I will just plunge forward since Penny has also published #13 and #14.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Villette was a solid four-star novel, a classic, but reader, it was no Jane Eyre.

I've read a lot about Charlotte Bronte's life and work although until Villette, I had only actually read Jane Eyre...multiple times. I knew that it was her last novel and that once again she tried to tell the story of her life in Brussels as a young woman and her unrequited passion for her teacher, Monsieur Heger, and her jealous rage against his wife, Madame Heger.

The writing in Villette is better than the plot, which is filled with coincidences and, apart from the two main characters, Lucy Snowe and Paul Emmanuel, peopled by rather two-dimensional characters. The story Charlotte Bronte wanted to tell required plot gymnastics because, I believe, her real motivation was catharsis rather than the need to tell a story of the human condition. She needed to rewrite her own personal history in such a way to prove to herself that she was loved by the man she loved, she had been chosen and not rejected.

I've been reading Hemingway lately and so top of mind for me is that Villette is not a honest story. Charlotte Bronte created a story of star-crossed lovers, thwarted first by Paul's cousin, Madame Beck, by Catholicism (not just the fact that Lucy is Protestant and Paul is Catholic, but personified by Pere Silas), by misplaced family obligation (Paul is sent to save the family fortunes in the Caribbean), and finally by Nature herself. All this to explain away the fact that she (Charlotte Bronte) fell in love with a married man--actually I think it was more transference and infatuation than love.

I am glad I read Villette. It shows Charlotte Bronte's skill as a writer, but it suffers from a lack of honesty, something that shines through in Jane Eyre.

Book 2 in the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge!