It appears that just like there are women who keep on taking on losers in the hope of changing and redeeming them, so many of us love abandoned old buildings and dream of restoring them to their former glory. Did you know there is even a name for all those websites showing pictures of houses in decay? Ruin porn. Yep, it’s a trend.
I prefer my living spaces clean and airy, but just occasionally I succumb to the romanticism of the ruins.
This next one is especially for Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, who likes disaffected railway stations. Here’s a renovation project for you…
However, if you want to see how an Australian couple are lovingly restoring a gorgeous chateau in the south-west of France, their website and blog are a great source of inspiration.
I’m off on holiday and, since I don’t like not being able to respond to your comments immediately, I have only scheduled this Friday’s fun item and next week’s. Besides, I think you could all do with a bit of a breather from my posts, couldn’t you?
However, should you have a craving for earlier posts of mine which you may have missed, here are a few of my personal favourites:
I have stuck to a diet of women writers for this holiday month. I just felt they spoke more to me in my present situation of juggler-in-chief, squabble-settler-by-default, not-quite-amusing-enough-adult-companion and fleeting-moments-of-inspiration-scribbler.
Despite the foreign-sounding names, the first two women writers are native English speakers (married to ‘those attractive foreigners’), so their books were written in English. Although I do hope they will be translated into other languages.
Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin
This is the third installment in the Kiszka and Kershaw series, which combines police procedural with a detailed knowledge of London and its Polish community. This time, the story is very personal. Kiszka is finally getting close to his dream of convincing his girlfriend Kasia to leave her husband and move in with him. But then she disappears – as does her husband. Reluctant though Kiszka is to have anything to do with the police, he relies on his old friend Natalie Kershaw (who is suspended from active duty pending an investigation) to help him locate and save Kasia.
Of course, Lipska is too clever to make this a simple case of kidnapping, and East End and foreign criminal gangs soon get involved. Running up and down the East End and around Epping Forest, we meet an intriguing mix of characters, from a fake tan obsessed hotel-owner to a cat-loving assassin. This series goes from strength to strength, a successful blend of noir, police procedural and humour. The characters – not just the main ones and their sidekicks – are well rounded and entirely believable. But be warned: it does end on a bit of cliff-hanger…
Susan Tiberghien: Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman
Susan is the founder of Geneva Writers’ Group, of which I am a member, and teaches many of the workshops there, so I may be a little biased. However, it’s easy to fall in love with this charming collection of memoir, prose-poems, photos and essays about life as an American expat married to a French husband, travelling all around Europe with six children in tow. There is a home-made (but carefully crafted) quality to this patchwork quilt of a life filled with laughter, tears, children’s voices and recipes. The writing is poetic, warm, witty and full of subtlety. The chapter on the potato is a masterpiece of humour and comment on cultural differences.
This is a housewife (Susan became a full-time writer only after the children left home) with sharp observational skills and a barbed tongue, even though it be dipped in honey. For example, she describes the tricky preparations for their weekend trip to their chalet in the Alps, trying to fit 6 children, a family dog, and all their food, clothes and bedsheets into their car.
Then there was the carton of food. ‘It’s much easier to arrive with everything ready,’ Pierre said. And, of course, it was no trouble to prepare and pack and take care of the children while the father was busy tidying up his desk at the office downtown.
I’d try to make it all fun. After all, it was the thing to do, to go to the mountains for the weekend. The food went behind the last seat of the car because the skis went on the top, all sixteen of them. Ski boots went close to everyone’s feet, except the driver’s. He needed lots of room. I took his boots at my feet, along with my boots and Daniel’s. I had learned long ago that there was always room.
Finally, for good measure, a book that is by an American author with a very ‘English’ name.
Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy
An almost frenetic account of living with depression and anxiety. The author manages to make fun of herself and the people around her who have to deal with her very real problems. While the humour did seem a bit forced to me on occasion, there are passages that ring very true and heartfelt.
I wish someone had told me this simple but confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect… You’re supposed o be sad when things are shitty, but if you’re sad when you have everything you’re ever supposed to want? That’s utterly terrifying… But it gets better… You learn to appreciate the fact that what drives you is very different from what you’re told should make you happy.
Why is it called ‘furiously happy’? The concept here is of going to extremes, making the most of those rare moments of joy as a counterpoint for the extreme lows that life can throw at you. This is not about mindfulness and enjoying the small pleasures of life, but about throwing yourself whole-heartedly into new experiences and breaking the rules.
Although it was funny in parts and I genuinely liked the author’s honesty, this wasn’t quite what I expected. I was hoping for more insight and relatable moments, something a little more profound. I will be reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon instead.
Thank goodness it’s over, this summer a mess, boring old grandma, my cousins all stress over revisions, exams, they’re all older than me, they’ve turned into a silly old goody-goody!
New teacher, new classmates,
I’ll have to sit still
for two hours or more.
Finally be with my soulmates, those who understand, together cut classes, or make a stand against sarky teachers and all that brain freeze. Put like that, ‘la rentrée’ is a breeze!
I imagined the thoughts going through the head of my two sons – one in primary school, one in secondary school – as the school year approaches. School doesn’t start until the 2nd of September here (and is known as ‘la rentrée’), but the shoe-shopping and hair-cutting dilemmas are starting already.
This is linked to Gabriella’s fun prompt at dVerse Poets tonight. Please visit us there for more reminiscing about the good old school days…
Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.
Today’s rather lengthy blog post (apologies – you may need to read it in two goes if you are in a rush) compares and contrasts two families with buried secrets: one from Norway, the other from the Netherlands. The third book I mention is not available in translation, but proves that it doesn’t take big secrets to make a family dysfunctional: sometimes the everyday grind is enough to wear one down.
Gohril Gabrielsen: The Looking Glass Sisters (transl. John Irons)
This story about siblings stuck in a shocking relationship of love and hate, and mutual dependency, has all the hallmarks of Nordic darkness and Ingmar Bergman films.
Two middle-aged sisters live together in a rickety old house in Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway. Ragna is the older one and has spent nearly all of her life looking after her half-paralysed sister, the narrator. This is not an easy relationship: they takes pleasure in hurling insults and deliberately annoying each other. They are very different, not just physically: Ragna is practical, hard-working and would have liked to escape her surroundings. The younger sister (never named) finds refuge in books and the world of the imagination.
Childhood memories are tainted with petty squabbles; in adulthood, the tricks they play on each other take a really nasty turn. Ragna snatches away the breakfast before her sister has finished eating, deliberately occupies the toilet so that her sister is forced to wee on herself, even leaves her sister out in the cold to teach her a lesson.
For all of Ragna’s almost careless cruelty, we suspect that we can’t trust the first person narrator’s description either. She is convinced that Ragna and her new boyfriend Johan are trying to cart her off to a nursing home. She complains of the depravity of her older sister, but it only serves to highlight her own fear of abandonment. She plots and deceives, and knows exactly how to humiliate her sister in public. She loves twisting sentences around, till they become almost philosophical and very sinister.
Stupid cowardly Johan with his voice, forcedly good, pretends first that I am nothing, afterwards kills the crutch woman with his look.
First I the crutch woman am nothing, afterwards I kill stupid cowardly Johan, pretend nothing with my look, my voice.
The sentences just work. I’ve achieved the meaning I wanted. At last I can once more carry on my most precious occupation: lie on the pillows and twist the world exactly as I like.
Yet she is also pitiable in her desperation. I found it heartbreaking that there were so few happy childhood memories to nourish her. There are also moments of touching self-awareness. She comments on how thin and acidic her blood has become, and how both of the sisters have become both victims and monsters.
We do not have any other choice but to remain. We are equally frightened and helpless, and cling to each other as a defence against the outside world… poor helpless us.
I’ve chosen perhaps the more explicit passages, but the beauty of this book is that most of the story is told obliquely, through the increasingly desperate interactions between the sisters, through the younger sister’s tortured ruminations:
If that’s how it really is, the marrow can only be swallowed with the mouth held close round the hollow bone shaft, and only in the deepest abyss, in the black boggy soil, can I regurgitate the confession, hold it out:
I’m the one with horns, the one with goat’s eyes.
This is a book to make those of us who never had sisters thankful for the fact. I don’t know how Peirene manages to find these very powerful and unsettling stories to translate. But I am glad they do. [Literal translation of original title: Staggering Possibilities, No Fear]
Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us (transl. Hester Velmans)
A modern housing estate on the outskirts of a small Dutch town becomes ‘suburban paradise’ to middle-class families with fathers commuting to work, frustrated mothers who feel their talent and potential has been wasted in the ‘boondocks’ and therefore take refuge in Tarot and gossip, children all born within a couple of months of each other – ready-made playmates. An unconventional family then moves into the former rectory on the old village green: young Lucy, her artist mother and their two middle-aged lodgers nicknamed the Luducos (one is Ludo, the other Duco, but they were so similar that the children were never sure which was which).
At first, the children are enchanted with Lucy, who is a born storyteller:
She was the exact same age as us, but she’d already experienced so much more. She’d discovered a rusty treasure chest filled with gold ducats in the ruins of some old castle; she had battled sabre-toothed tigers; she had sailed a pirate ship, wearing a wooden leg and with a green parrot on her shoulder. She’d spilled hundreds of glasses of orange squash, too, without any dire fallout. Just watch us try that at home.
The fathers are not immune to the exotic charm of Lucy’s mother either:
… they would always get this funny look on their faces whenever we started on about the way things were done in the rectory, or explained that if something got spilled over there, Lucy’s mother just laughed it off. Then our dads would cough and leave the table to walk the dog… Lucy told us our dads sometimes lingered on the green for hours, gazing up a the rectory’s lighted windows… And then they’d head home again. Back to their own wonderful, modern houses. Saved from the nuisances of living in a white elephant…
When another family moves into the area, and their young son Thomas and Lucy solemnly declare themselves to be engaged (at the age of 5-6), it all seems quaint and charming. But then the childhood idyll is shattered: a bizarre murder takes place and the community starts to take sides. Hypocrisy and judgement rise to the fore. The children gang up on Lucy, who seems to be the harbinger of bad luck, but she refuses to tell anyone about the severe bullying. This is told with frightening candour (from the point of view of the bullies) and the gradual piling on of horrors, albeit without any graphic details, will make your head spin:
…we were beginning to hope that Lucy would finally throw in the towel? But what were the chances of that? Just look at the way she insisted on going to the loo during break every morning, although she knew perfectly well what was in store for her there. Or the way she’d drink her carton of milk very day, even though we’d put soap in it over a hundred times. Or like that time with the matches. Or all the other times… She walked into every ambush, every trap, with eyes wide open; she seemed to be courting danger on purpose instead of trying to escape it. What was she playing at? There really was no need to rub our noses in it day after day… It got harder and harder to think of something that would top the last torment.
Eventually, her family decides to escape and make a clean start on the island of Lewis. They struggle at first with the barren landscape, the language, the weather and the physical labour of peating. The difficult moments are laced with humour, so it’s not all painful reading. Ultimately, Lucy believes she finds some sense of belonging in the Hebrides, with a new ‘gang’ of children. Yet the secrets hidden deep within their family make it impossible for them to forget the past and find peace.
I found the last part of the book less convincing: when Lucy returns to the Netherland as an adult and all the pernicious secrets and mysteries are revealed. The first two parts, however, make this book an emotionally gripping, quite intense read.
Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips)
After the two harrowing reads above, it was a pleasure to turn to a much softer, slightly more sentimental collection of short stories about love and the death of love, children discovering the world, loss of innocence and magic. Some of the stories are linked: we get to see different points of view and how the relationships evolve over time. In ‘Sandokan, the Malaysian Tiger’ we see how a group of children frighten themselves witless with a séance, while in ‘Ten Times on the Lips’ we follow their tentative steps into adolescence, the need to show off, hide vulnerabilities, their fragile friendships and terrible moments of hurt. In ‘The Girl with the Roses’ we see two lovers in the early stages of their relationship, struggling to find common ground, while in ‘Inner Peace’ we see them many years later, married, with two children, growing apart.
There are parts that have a touch of magical realism (the first and longest story in the book is a curious blend of fantasy and reality), but there are also parts that sound so frighteningly realistic and down-to-earth that I felt I was being a fly on the wall witnessing the fights of many, many couples I’ve known personally.
It is all very readable, although the rich, flowing, verbose style and long sentences may feel unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. What the author does well is describe childhood years under Communism, without going into politics, simply the backdrop of the blocks of flats where the children play all day unsupervised. I also like the tension between the old world and the new (stressed mothers today vs. the older generation who feel that they endured far greater hardships, for example). The level of writing may not be quite there yet in terms of really thought-provoking literature, but Rosetti is a writer to watch.
The author hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French translation of her debut novelDeadline, a mystery novel with fantastical elements.
It’s been roughly a century since the French riviera and countryside were discovered by foreign writers. Here are a few of their villas and chateaux for your envious gazes…
After his separation from Angelica Bell, Bunny Garnett (former lover of Angelica’s father Duncan Grant) spent the rest of his days at this chateau in the south-west of France.
Vanessa and her family spent every summer in Cassis in the south of France. Virginia Woolf also visited them there.
Somerset Maugham lived in this spectacular villa near Cap Ferrat for over thirty years, until his death in 1965. It was remodelled and renovated for him by American architect Barry Dierks. Everyone who was anyone visited Maugham here: writers such as T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming but also political figures, including Winston Churchill. It is now a boutique hotel.
The villa where F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly wrote ‘The Great Gatsby’ was up for sale in 2012. Although the Fitzgeralds moved in and out of several villas on the Mediterranean, the “price upon request” (read: an arm, a leg, and your first born) property in Cap d’Antibes boasts those delightful unnecessaries found in 19th-century homes: staff accommodations, pool terraces, a sauna, portholes, and “immaculate” gardens.
Above, the kind of hotel Rosemary might have stopped at on the French Riviera in the first part of Tender Is the Night.
And finally, this little treasure below. I could not establish any literary connections for it, but it’s in Provence near Avignon, it looks fabulous and it’s available for rent. When I have my next $9000 or so to throw away spend, I will stay a night or two there, invite all of you writer friends over and then it will have us as its literary connection!
A really fun prompt at dVerse Poets Pub today: to write ‘echo poetry’. An Echo Verse is a poem where the last word or syllable in a line is repeated or echoed underneath to form a rhyming liner. My attempt below is just a quick sprint, inspired by conversations between my parents (and of course the first line of a poem by T.E. Brown). But there are some far more wonderful examples linked up to the site, both funny and thoughtful, so I strongly urge you to check them out.
A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot! Hot?
Even in a heat wave, there’s bliss to be found. Around?
Ferns, palm-shade, pool to cool us down… You frown?
Flowers burst forth in coloured refrain. Again?
Oh, you’re such a philistine and bore! Once more.