findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Friday Fun: Paris As an Inspiration

Back from our Paris trip and wading through 650+ emails… so I may be a little behind with reading and commenting on your blogs… Here are some highlights from our trip – some iconic sights, and some lesser-known ones.

Notre Dame in autumn.

Notre Dame in autumn.

Sainte Chapelle  stained windows.

Sainte Chapelle stained windows.

Flower market.

Flower market.

Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden).

Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden).

Natural History Museum - Evolution Hall.

Natural History Museum – Evolution Hall.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

City of Science - The Geode.

City of Science – The Geode.

Zoo of Vincennes.

Zoo of Vincennes.

Nikki de Saint Phalle sculpture along the quay bearing her name.

Nikki de Saint Phalle Nana sculpture along the quay bearing her name.

Jardin des Tuileries. The goat in front of the Louvre.

Jardin des Tuileries. The goat in front of the Louvre.

More Nanas... bathing...

More Nanas… bathing…

The obligatory pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Although, as my older son said: 'What's the point of bringing us here if we don't buy any books?'

The obligatory pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Although, as my older son said: ‘What’s the point of bringing us here if we don’t buy any books?’

I do wish I'd bought this pop-up book of Paris...

I do wish I’d bought this pop-up book of Paris…

 

 

Friday Fun: Writing Desks and Cabins, Of Course

It’s been such a busy week! What better way to end it (and look forward to the half-term holidays) then with a few pictures of the places where we have been so good and hard-working…

Copyright: JAM Design.

Copyright: JAM Design.

No, I’m not sure what that over-sized gemstone is doing under the desk, either…

Domainehome.com, apartment in the Dakota Building, NYC.

Domainehome.com, apartment in the Dakota Building, NYC.

Blue, blue, electric blue … is the colour of my room… Yes, it might give you migraine after a while, but what a joy to come home to! (And did you notice the bottles?)

Ah, that’s much calmer, monochrome, almost Zen…

A great combination of feminine charm and masculine practicality. But can I exchange the dog for a cat?

Writing Shed, from Flavorwire.com

Writing Shed, from Flavorwire.com

Preferably in a forest, far, far away from here, with no Internet connection…

Have a lovely weekend!

Books Set in Paris

The holidays are coming up and we are planning a trip to Paris – albeit much shorter than we had hoped for! With three days less than we had originally planned, this has meant giving up on visits to the Louvre or Versailles, but it does mean that it leaves us something to do on our next trip to this wonderful city.

SacreCoeur1In preparation, of course, I’ve been reading (or remembering) some of my favourite books set in Paris.

Daniel Pennac: La Feé Carabine (The Fairy Gunmother)

Set in the lively immigrant and working-class community of Belleville, this is one of the funniest and most macabre installments in Pennac’s saga of the Malausséne family, place of refuge for numerous children, drug-addled grandpas and epileptic dog.

Paul Berna: Le Cheval Sans Tête (The Headless Horse)

A children’s classic, set in a deprived post-war Parisian banlieue bordered by railway lines, this features a gang of street children whose pride and joy is their headless wooden horse on wheels, which they use to careen down the cobbled alleyways. Then some real-life criminals get involved, but nothing daunts the kids, especially not one of my favourite female protagonists ever, tough Marion, the ‘girl with the dogs’.

FranSacreCoeur2çoise Sagan: Aimez-Vous Brahms? (Do You Like Brahms?)

The title comes from the question a young man asks an older but still attractive woman, and it marks the start of a real Parisian love story. Bittersweet, with lots of meetings and discussions in cafés and galleries, concert-halls and rain-soaked streets.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast

The quintessential guide for Americans in Paris. Hemingway captures the exuberance and sheer love of life, as well as the rivalries and cattiness of that period, 1920s Paris. For the other side of the story, read Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’, for Hemingway’s first wife’s account of the same events.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française

Not strictly speaking set in Paris, it nevertheless follows the fortunes of those who have had to flee from Paris following the Nazi occupation. Written with surprising maturity and reflection, this novel is particularly poignant when we bear in mind that it was written in the midst of the terrifying events which led to Némirovsky’s arrest, deportation and death in concentration camp in 1942.

MontmartreViewFred Vargas: Pars vite, reviens tard  (Have Mercy on Us All)

Many of Vargas’ crime novels are set in Paris, but this is the most memorable of them all, featuring the uncoventional Commissaire Adamsberg, but also incongruent phenomena such as a town-crier in modern-day Parisian squares, sinister cryptic messages and a possible revival of the bubonic plague.

Victor Hugo: Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame)

A much more tragic and ambiguous story of unrequited love and the plight of outsiders than the Disney version will have you believe, this is above all a love story for the cathedral itself, which Hugo thought the French were in danger of destroying to make way for the modernisation of Paris, and a panoramic view of the entire history of Paris.

TuileriesGeorge Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

Based partly on his own experiences of working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, the first half of the book recounts a gradual descent into poverty and hopelessness in the Paris of the late 1920s. This is the darker side of the gilded ‘expats in Paris in the coin of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and still remarkably accurate for low-paid workers today: ‘If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.’

Cara Black: Murder in the Marais

For a lighter, more enjoyable read, this is the first (and still one of my favourites) in the long-running Aimée Leduc crime series set in different quarters of Paris. Always based on a real-life event, the books show a profound love for the streets, food, sights and people of Paris, plus they feature a resilient, resourceful and very chic young heroine with a penchant for getting into trouble. What more could you want?

ParisMetroSimone de Beauvoir: Memoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)

The first part of de Beauvoir’s autobiography, it is of course primarily concerned with her intellectual and emotional awakening as a child and teenager, but it also gives an intriguing picture of Parisian society at the beginning of the 20th century: its snobbery and limitations, the consequences of a lack of dowry for girls, the impact of Catholicism on French education. The friendship with the beautiful, irrepressible Zaza (and her tragic end) haunted me for years.

There are so many more I could have added to this list. It seems that Paris is one of those cities which endlessly inspires writers. What other books set in Paris have you loved?

 

Poem: Love of Music

Music-Note-Coloring-Pages-For-KidsAnthony at dVerse Poets Pub has us talking about music being the food of love,  and urging us to play on. Who am I to disagree? Musicality, rhythm, sound is all-important to me in poetry – when I read the poetry of others or when I write my own.

 

 

 

When you were mine I took you for granted.

I lost you and never noticed you had gone.

My desk, my car, my home bathed in silence -

I believed them calm. I thought I relished the peace.

Then one day I wandered by chance to a small room

cloudy with sweat, bulging with smoke, but a space

where you were revered

uttered with honey-dripped tongue

encased in love-laden arms.

No more passing by in deafness.

You unleashed yourself against my ears

entered my pulse

forged new pathways in my limited world.

Comparing Reading Cultures

Every three years or so the literary magazine Livres Hebdo  in France does an IPSOS survey of not just its readers, but the wider French reading public. The latest edition of this survey (April 2014) reveals that reading remains the second favourite leisure activity of the French (after ‘going out with friends’). 7 out of 10 French read at least one book a month and about half of them claim to read every day.

However, e-readers have not made that much of an inroad yet into French reading habits. Its popularity has grown only by 3% in the last three years.

And what are the favourite genres? Crime fiction (known as ‘polars’) tops the list, unsurprisingly, followed by spy thrillers, self-help books and historical essays/biographies.

So, are there any causes for concern? Well, the French admit that reading does seem to be a pastime associated with the middle classes, the better-educated and economically better off. This finding holds true in the survey of reading habits in England commissioned by Booktrust UK. In fact, there has been talk in Britain of a ‘class division’ in reading culture, with a clear link between deprivation and lack of reading enjoyment.

But perhaps the English are further down the road of using digital media to do their reading. In England 18% of people never read any physical books, while 71% never read any e-books. A quarter prefer internet and social media to books, nearly half prefer TV and DVDs to books. Only 28% of people in England (and I think it’s important to point out that this data is only for England, not for the UK as a whole) read books nearly every day, so considerably lower than in France. Fitting in nicely with the stereotype of ‘highbrow French’ reading books with boring covers and impenetrable titles?

DSCN6650Worldwide surveys of reading habits do tend to confirm somewhat national stereotypes. Self-help books are popular in the US, while in the UK there is a marked preference for celebrity autobiographies and TV chefs. The Germans, meanwhile, prefer travel/outdoor/environmental books, while the French, Romanians, Italians seem to prefer fiction.

But the most interesting result may be found in Spain. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, since the recession hit the country so hard, it seems that books have become that affordable luxury and has led to 57% of the population reading regularly. It has also become one of the biggest book-producing nations, bucking all the publishing trends. And what do they prefer reading? A very interesting mix of Spanish-speaking writers (including South Americans) and translations from other languages.

And what are we to make of a 2011 study from the University of Gothenburg showing that increased use of computers in children’s homes in the US and Sweden have led to poorer reading skills as well as less pleasure derived from reading?

At the risk of preaching to the converted, I leave you with a conclusion which has been replicated in multiple studies around the world and which refers to leisure-time reading (of whatever description):

People who read books are significantly more likely to be happy and content with their life.

Sometimes You Just Need Time Out…

… I didn’t work, I didn’t write, I didn’t even read anything this weekend. This time it was all about the family, enjoying the autumn (despite the less than sterling weather) and creating memories. And the apple-and-pear juice we made is the best thing we’ve ever tasted!

Autumn landscape in the Saleve.

Autumn landscape in the Saleve.

Walking for charity in the Botanical Gardens in Geneva.

Walking for charity in the Botanical Gardens in Geneva.

Gathering apples and pears for juice-making.

Gathering apples and pears for juice-making.

Squeezing the juice out of the fruit pulp.

Squeezing the juice out of the fruit pulp.

Releasing balloons for the Charity Walk.

Releasing balloons for the Charity Walk.

The perfect place to write a poem, don't you agree?

The perfect place to write a poem, don’t you agree?

 

Art, Creativity, Poetry (and Prose)

Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.

seaofink_0_220_330Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)

The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.

A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:

When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.

When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.

When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.

Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.

You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.

How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?

He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.

silentmusicAdam Wyeth: Silent Music

A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.

There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all.  ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom.  The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.

poetryinternationalweb.net

poetryinternationalweb.net

Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.

Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto

Nothing moves but cars.

First one passes, then I see

a second coming.

 

By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:

Some say to witness the break of day

is to witness the hand of God

pull back his black mantle

to touch fingers

with our ancestors

and know something of Adam

as the land was revealed fresh,

like seeing a lover undress for the first time.

 

Life Happens Most When You Aren’t Looking

For dVerse Poets Pub tonight, the prompt is to write about the things that happen while we’re not paying attention, the small things in the corner of our eyes, half-glimpsed. I based my poem upon my almost unhealthy obsession with sneaking a peek at other people’s bookshelves.

Tales of the Unexpected Reader

??????????Loitering with Father Dirt,

in her bookcase I pick up

random titles, authors brittle, dead,

their fame clinging like heavy wet sand

to her hesitant words.

Blue Nights with a grain of sand

I assemble in her silence.

Genji winks at Kafka when

they witness my quick fumble, sorry mess.

Who are they to judge the

81 Austerities between women and men?

Poetry Anthology for a Great Cause

I don’t often trumpet publishing news  or ask you to buy my books (perhaps because I don’t often have anything to trumpet about!), but this book is for such a good cause that I have to share with you.

product_thumbnailOne of my poems has been included in The Wait Poetry Anthology, which is now available in paperback from Lulu. [I've ordered mine and it looks gorgeous - a satisfyingly chunky collection of poems.] Of course, it’s not just my poetry: you will find such a wide variety of poems, on all topics, in all styles, from writers all over the UK and the world, debutants to established poets.

All proceeds from the sale of this volume will go to Cancer Research UK. So let me tell you my very personal reason for wanting to take part in this initiative (and why I am so delighted that my poem was selected for inclusion in the anthology). It’s the same reason why I’ve done the Moonwalk in Edinburgh a few years back (fundraising for Breast Cancer Research).

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36 years old. It was quite advanced so she had her left breast completely removed, plus months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to follow. It completely destroyed her looks: she was not only forever scarred physically but also never wore a swimsuit or went to the beach again. She lost her lustrous locks (she used to have hair down to her knees when she was in her teens) and had early menopause. The cancer was vanquished and she is still alive today, but the consequences of such aggressive interventions have stayed with her, resulting in all sorts of health problems.

Edwardian Rapunzel from Etsy.com. Needless to say, this is NOT my mother in her youth!

Edwardian Rapunzel from Etsy.com. Needless to say, this is NOT my mother in her youth, but close…

I know her greatest fear at the time was of leaving me motherless at such a young age, potentially at the mercy of a cruel stepmother (she was not very optimistic about my father’s choice in female companions). Yet, although I was about 7-8 years old then and an only child, I never got to feel the full impact of her illness or her terrors. I have a difficult relationship with my mother – we have very different concepts of life and people – but I will be forever grateful to her and admire her for the way she held herself and my life together at that time. Fundraising for cancer is one of the few ways in which I can show her that.

An e-book will also be available at some point, but for the time being, here is another link with information about how to purchase the book online. Dead easy.  Thank you very much… and let me know what you think of my poem and those of others!

All About that Bass: ‘Feminist’ Songs and Crime Fiction?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been no avoiding the infectious, 50s inspired (musically speaking) song ‘I’m All About that Bass’, sung by the talented singer/songwriter Meghan Trainor. She has made chart history in the UK by being the first act to make the Top 40 based on her internet streaming presence alone. [Just as an aside: this twenty year old has been writing music since she was 11 and has released two albums already, plus worked as a songwriter and producer for others.] I love the witty anti-Barbie doll video and ‘any body is OK’ rhetoric, but it has given rise to some controversy, with some saying that the singer is either ‘thinny bashing’ or that she does not go far enough in her feminism. Anyway, here is the song itself, make up your own mind (but be warned, it is quite addictive, so you may find yourself singing it all day).

The song did get me wondering about whether there is such a thing as ‘feminist crime fiction’. This is a trend which perhaps dates back to Modesty Blaise and the first VI Warshawski novel, and was then continued with characters such as Kinsey Millhone, Lisbeth Salander and Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox. Most of these heroines are what is known in American circles as ‘kick-ass’, i.e. they usually pack a revolver and have advanced knowledge of at least one or two martial arts.

But what about those who are more ‘everywoman’ than ‘superwoman’? I’m thinking of women who excel at their jobs (policewomen, forensic pathologists, psychologists, whatever they are) but are also ordinary and vulnerable, one of us, in short: Kay Scarpetta, Ruth Galloway, Jane Rizzoli, Lacey Flint, Geraldine Steel, Kate Daniels. I’m sure you can think of many more from TV series. Has it almost become a cliché to feature the ‘strong female detective’ (or investigator with some links to the police) with a commitment problem and demons from the past constantly haunting her?

Two recently read books highlighted this similarity – and it goes beyond the English-speaking world. Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird introduces Anna Fekete, member of the Hungarian minority in former Yugoslavia, whose family came as refugees to Finland when she was a child. She is embarking on her first non-uniform criminal investigation position in the north of Finland and has to contend not just with a violent and seemingly unsolvable case of serial killings, but also sexism, racism and tense relationships with members of her family. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate Rhodes introduces Alice Quentin, psychologist who sometimes works with the Metropolitan police, who has escaped an unhappy and abusive childhood and now seems to have a knack for stumbling upon murder victims. Both women receive threatening messages, both find release in running and both seem somewhat oblivious to personal danger.

I am always excited to encounter a new female investigator, and can even cope with the clichés of lonely single life, damaged childhoods and obsession with the job or case in hand. After all, some of us non-investigators are cat owners who come home to empty fridges on occasion. But it would be a shame if this became the ‘shorthand’ for strong women and, implicitly, of feminist crime fiction. Because these women are not strong – they are still vulnerable, even though they are resilient and have overcome their past (to a certain extent). Strength is also about being content, being happy, having nothing ‘missing’, but ‘all the right junk in all the right places’ and celebrating that! Which is why I am currently in love with Cathy Ace’s middle-aged gourmand no-nonsense Welsh heroine Cait Morgan.

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