Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Travelogue: Paris

I fully intended to blog during my recent trip to France, but...I didn't! I've been back almost a week, and am still catching up.

This wasn't my first trip to Paris, but the first one where I wasn't there on business and only able to sight see a very tiny bit.

We stayed in the 5th arrondissement, across from the Fountaine Saint-Michel, which is a marvelous location for Notre Dame in particular, and many of the literary pilgrimage sites that were high on my list, and mere steps to a metro stop and taxi queue. It is, however, a bit like staying in Times Square in New York. Lots of people, lots of tourists, and lots of kitsch.

My favorite view of Notre Dame Cathedral - love those flying buttresses!

We tried to balance seeing the top tourist attractions with visiting parks, making pilgrimages, and getting the vibe of the city.

Loved the Musee d'Orsay -- not only the fantastic collection of most of my favorite paintings in one location, but the overall beauty of the space, which is a renovated train station, was breathtaking. It was light and bright with lots of levels and open spaces.

And, of course, it was full of Monets and Manets, Pisarros and Renoirs, Van Goghs and many others.

I particularly enjoyed the special exhibit on 19th polychrome sculpture, which I knew nothing about but found beautiful and so interesting.

We went in the morning, had lunch, and then went back for another round. Bordered on sensory overload, but what a wonderful place!
I've loved this Renoir painting for decades! I had a poster of it in my college dorm room.

Another of my favorite places was the Pantheon, next to the Sorbonne. I loved the Pantheon in Rome when we visited that lovely city in 2015, and the history of Paris's Pantheon is absolutely fascinating. Its use as a religious building, then a secular, then political, then back to religious, then secular, etc.  chronicles the lurching about that has characterized France over the past couple of hundred years.

Now on to pilgrimages...
Cafe des 2 Moulins in Montmarte, where Amelie works in the movie, Amelie

We had coffee in this literary hangout that pre-dated the Lost Generation.

Two blocks from our hotel!

We also visited Versailles, Montmartre, the Louvre (but a very short visit--not a fan), Luxembourg Gardens (big fan!), and the wonderful Rodin museum and garden. We did a lot of walking, rode the metro some, took a few taxis and ubers, and felt like we got around pretty well.

It was quite hot while we were there--mercifully, I insisted on a hotel with air conditioning. I can't say that the food was fantastic--we mostly ate lightly--salads, charcuterie boards, and coffee and croissants--but that was fine as we didn't want to break the bank on food on this trip.

I was so glad that I did a lot of reading about Paris before the trip so I had a good sense of where things were and had a context for understanding the geography and history of the city.

Next up...Normandy (and a tiny slice of Brittany).

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Our Mutual Friend

Of the 15 novels of Charles Dickens, I have now read 12 of them at least once. With Our Mutual Friend now in the books, so to speak, I only have Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood left to read for the first time, although my reread list is long. I may read Great Expectations next...just because!

I enjoyed Our Mutual Friend immensely, and found it quite different from the others that I have recently read. I thought the plot extremely interesting, and the themes of identity, rebirth, resurrection, and trial by water to be fascinating, giving the novel a richly layered canvas. I know the conventional lit crit  on the novel focuses on Dickens lambasting London society for being greedy, money grubbers, which he does, but I found the rebirth angle stronger.

The basic idea is that John Harmon's father dies, leaving his son his entire estate, with some very severe conditions. I can't talk about the main plot any more than that without giving away the whole thing as Our Mutual Friend, aka the man from somewhere, takes on a few different guises as the plot unfolds.

Dickens really goes macabre with this novel, which makes it absolutely delightful in a pretty grotesque way. The Harmon fortune stems from Harmon senior investing in dust--he sifts through debris, and collects stuff that he finds to sell, leaving behind a fortune as well as mountains of dust. As a neat counterpoint to mining dust for treasure, the Hexam family makes a subsistence living from dredging the Thames at night, mostly pulling out bodies of suicides and murders, and emptying their pockets before turning them over to the authorities. The London of Our Mutual Friend is definitely not a pleasant place.

I really enjoyed comparing the various father/daughter combinations.

  • Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam - Gaffer is a rough old riverman, who pulls up bodies, while his beautiful, sweet, loving daughter (typical Dickens heroine) rows him nightly as he searches for booty. Lizzie knows that Gaffer loves her, but he doesn't want her to learn to read for fear she will leave him and he needs her to help him in his work.
  • Bella and R.W. Wilfer - R.W. is a cherubic, sweet, hen-pecked clerk who absolutely dotes on his beautiful, but spoiled daughter, Bella. I found Bella to be such a refreshing heroine--she is selfish and mercenary, but circumstances contrive to teach her how to overcome these characteristics and let her true, lovely nature shine through. Bella teases her father in a loving way, confides in him, scolds him gently, and  they love each other very much.
  • Pleasant and Rogue Riderhood - Rogue is a former partner of Gaffer, and is even rougher than Gaffer. Pleasant is his much abused daughter, who runs a shady pawnshop and specializes in swindling sailors on leave...but she too has her good side, which Dickens allows to triumph over her upbringing. Rogue backhands Pleasant regularly and they are at war most of the time, but she feels she owes him her obedience and fealty.
  • Jenny Wren and Mr. Dolls and Mr. Riah - Jenny is truly one of Dickens most bizarre characters. She is a very young girl, who is lame, looks after her drunken father (whom the narrator refers to as "Mr. Dolls"), whom she calls  her child, and sews dresses for dolls in posh Bond Street to make her meager living. She is quasi adopted by Mr. Riah, whom she calls her fairy godmother, who assumes role of parent to this child who was born old. 
    • Note about Mr. Riah - he is Dickens' apology and answer to the criticism he received for the very anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Mr. Riah is Jewish and is a front for the heartless money-lender, Fledgeby, who takes advantage of the stereotype and makes Riah his scapegoat. I loved Mr. Riah--one of the few gentle and gentlemanly characters in the entire book.
  • Georgiana Podsnap and John Podsnap - really only minor characters but she is sheltered and is very much a pawn of her rich father, who will make a good match for her, regardless of how miserable she will end up. Georgiana is starved for love and affection, and her father hasn't an inkling that she will go off the rails if he doesn't start paying attention to her.
I also absolutely adored the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Boffin - they are sweet, original, and golden in their own way, and are really the guardian angels of the novels. They are caretakers, faithful and true, with a naivete, energy, and zest for life that I absolutely loved.

I have downloaded all six parts of the mini-series from 1998 to watch on my upcoming airplane trips. Hope it's good!

Our Mutual Friend is my 19th century classic for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and it is the first of this summer's Big Book Challenge.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Paris in July - cooking with Julia, weeping over Dunkirk

I recently started rereading Julia Child's My Life in France with Alex Prud'homme. One thing led to another and I rewatched Julie and Julia, with Meryl Streep as Julia Child, Stanley Tucci as husband Paul, and Jane Lynch as her sister, Dort.

Loved the Julia parts of the movie, ground my teeth through the Julie parts, but my husband and I ended up cracking open Mastering the Art of French Cooking for dinner last night.

Poulet Saute aux Herbes de Provence - Chicken Sauteed with Herbs and Garlic in an Egg Yolk and Butter Sauce...from the kitchen of One Perfect Bite courtesy of Julia Child

1/4 pound butter
2-1/2 to 3 pounds cut-up frying chicken
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon ground fennel
Salt and pepper
3 cloves unpeeled garlic
2/3 cup dry white wine or 1/2 cup dry white vermouth
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon dry white wine or vermouth
2 tablespoons fresh minced basil, fennel fronds or parsley

1 ) Heat butter in a large skillet until it is foaming. Add chicken pieces and saute for 7 to 8 minutes, turning often. Do not let chicken color more than a deep golden yellow. Season with herbs and salt and pepper. Add garlic and cook, uncovered, for another 20 to 25 minutes, turning 2 to 3 times, or until chicken is tender and juices run clear. Remove chicken to a warm platter and tent with foil to keep warm.
2) Mash garlic cloves with the back of a spoon. Remove peel. Add wine and boil down until reduced by half.
3) Beat egg yolks in a separate small saucepan until thick and sticky. Beat in lemon juice and wine with a whisk. Add liquid remaining in saute pan, a half teaspoon at a time, until a creamy mayonnaise sauce begins to form. Beat over very low heat until warm and thickened.. Remove from heat. Add finishing herbs and adjust to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve immediately. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

It really was marvelous--we used only thighs and breasts, and since I am a dark meat fan, I preferred the thigh over the breast, but both were marvelous. Tender, savory, and just the right amount of lemony finish.

We had this with a rose, per Julia's suggestion, and accompaniments were potatoes sauteed in clarified butter, broiled tomato and summer squash, and finished the meal with espresso and a sliver of brie. I had bought creme brulee for dessert but no room. I also bought some smoked oysters to have on Triscuits while we cooked.

Afterwards we watched Dunkirk, which absolutely stunned me. I ended up weeping through most of the final third of the movie. I cannot imagine being that brave or that scared.

It took me awhile to place Mark Rylance, one of the small boat captains who helped evacuate the British army in May 1940, but he was, of course, Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.

This post is part of Thyme for Tea's annual July in Paris blogging party - here's a link to her roundup that starts week 3.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Paris in July - Books, Videos, Plans

In exactly three weeks, I will be a couple of days into the Paris portion of our family trip to France.

To prep for the trip, I have been reading, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and planning.

Reading thus far (links are to my blog posts on the book):

  1. The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, by John Baxter - loved this book so much, will probably throw it in the suitcase to reread while in Paris
  2. Madame de Pompadour, by Nancy Mitford - an okay bio of a royal mistress, good prep for visit to Versailles
  3. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway - flavor of Paris in the 1920s
  4. A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway - we're staying in his neighborhood so lots of places I want to walk to
  5. The Paradise, by Emile Zola - a terrific look at how Paris changed at the end of the 19th century
  6. A Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World, by Janice Macleod - easy to read, lovely pictures, lightweight but fun
  7. Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, by Deborah Heiligman - an excellent YA bio of Vincent and his brother
  8. Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik - interesting essays about living in Paris as an ex-pat
  9. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (second time) - loved this book so much--planning on visiting St Malo the day we leave Paris for Brittany/Normandy
  10. Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of France, by Martin Walker - loved the first in a mystery series set in Dordorgne.

We're staying near this famous bookstore!

Currently reading:
  1. Impressionism:Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, by Robert L. Herbert - really good, hoping to finish before we leave
  2. My Life in France, by Julia Child - a reread but so enjoyable; just booked a reservation in Rouen where Julia ate her first meal in France
  3. The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, by Adam Gopnik - Gopnik is so good, I couldn't resist diving into another of his books
  4. Paris, Paris: Journey Into the City of Light, by David Downie - I've been working on this for 6 months, good but not compelling

  1. Versailles, seasons 1 and 2 - really enjoyed this, waiting for season 3 to arrive in the US
  2. The Impressionists, 3 episodes (rewatched) - Richard Armitage as Claude Monet, cannot wait to get to Giverny on second to last day in France
  3. Amelie - so charming
  4. Untouchable - wonderful movie
  5. The Chorus (Les Choristes) - another great movie, set just after WWII
  6. La Vie En Rose - all about Edith Piaf
  7. 10 Golden Days (10 Journs en or) - fun
  8. Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen's time-traveling movie
Phillippe and his brother Louis XIV - Versailles


Join Us in France - Facebook page and website with podcasts
Annie and guest Elise cover everything - from driving in France, to museums, to dress codes, to train strikes, to food to try, how to picnic, wear to shop, wear to stay, and the FB page lets you ask questions and fellow Francophiles share their experiences and advice.

My husband and I are birders, and so final planning stretch is learning what birds to look for and where in Paris and Brittany/Normandy.

I will try to post each week as my trip approaches and then I hope to do travelogue posts while I'm traveling.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Fahrenheit 451

Well, I finally read Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451. I did it because it was sci-fi month at the GoodReads Tuesday BookTalk Read-Alongs group, and mercifully Michele chose this one as I have wanted to read it for awhile.

I am not a sci-fi fan, but as a lover of books, it was an interesting read. I didn't love it the way so many people do, but I can see why it is so popular.

The picture it paints of a numbed out, dumbed down society of people who are given bread and circuses so they won't protest or resist the authoritarian government is perennially relevant, especially these days.

I cheered as Guy Montag slowly embraced the fact that his conscience and reason where worth listening to and following, despite what his wife, his boss, and seemingly everyone else was insisting on. I found the first two thirds of the book a bit of a struggle to read--it was so oppressive and dystopian--but the final third, where Guy was able to escape the city and find the hobo town of book lovers who welcomed him into their group, I found worth slogging through the rest of the book to reach.

I've heard there's a new movie, but honestly, I just don't have the heart to see the book brought to life. Definitely glad I read this classic, but glad I can now check it off my to-read list!

This is the Back to the Classics book that I was most scared to read! Glad I'm able to check off that category as well. So, why did it scare me? I don't care for sci-fi, and I anticipated a gloomy read that would make the gloom seep into my mood...which it did.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Paris to the Moon

I just finished Adam Gopnik's marvelous book of essays about life in Paris, Paris to the Moon, and think I have a new favorite writer.

Gopnik is a New Yorker writer and in this book he writes about the five years he and his wife lived in Paris with their young son in the mid-1990s. He is a marvelous writer--the flow and richness of the language, his story-telling skills, and his focus on the little things that make up a life together make this an absolute joy to read. This was my bedtime reading for the past few months, wherein a read just a few pages or a short chapter each night to savor the experience.

I loved exploring neighborhoods, trying new foods and recipes, making friends, hanging out at the Ritz, and dealing with French bureaucracy along with Gopnik.

Here are my tweets in which I quoted the book while reading it:

“Not really liking it much is a precondition of art criticism of all kinds.”  
“...religion depends on being able to find the holy in the ordinary.” Jean-Philippe Derenne, as quoted by Adam Gopnik in Paris to the Moon
“...good cooking is made up of familiar things done right.”
“ We breathe in our first language, and swim in our second.”

As you can see, Gopnik has a lovely turn of phase. I've added a few of his books to my GoodReads want-to-read list, with The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food high on the list!

Counting down to my vacation to France, starting in Paris in 31 days!


Friday, June 15, 2018

Little Town on the Prairie

I've been sporadically rereading my favorite Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder over the past several years, and just finished Little Town on the Prairie.

It's one of my favorites because Wilder does a such a fabulous job of documenting life on the many little towns that sprang up in the 19th century along railroad lines. I loved reading about how the town went from an idea to stores, homes, schoolhouse, church almost overnight. And Laura is fully engaged with the town--at first dreading the strangers who come to her prairie but then embracing them and the social life they make possible.

I paid close attention, this reading, to the things the Ingalls family ate--ground cherries and husk tomatoes (both of which are sort of like tomatillos), not to mention blackbird pie, tomatoes with cream, and lettuce with sugar.

I also paid attention to the flora and fauna Laura describes--meadowlarks (which I love during the summer in Colorado), redwing blackbirds, and thunder pumps (the colloquial name for the American bittern), and that awful needle grass that sews its way into Mary's shoes.

Reading LH books is always nostalgic for me--this time I remembered how much Laura's diligence at studying inspired me to work hard in school. Speaking of school, I've always wondered what Wilder's sister-in-law, Eliza Jane Wilder, thought of this particular book!

And then, of course, I will always love Garth Williams's warm and lovely illustrations. They are as much a part of the book as the text.

This book is part of the 2018 Back to the Classics challenge, in the children's category.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Big Book Summer Challenge

Sue over at Book by Book is hosting her 7th annual Big Book Summer challenge, and since I have a few big books on my reading list for this year, I decided to join in again.

The Details
  • Anything over 400 pages qualifies as a big book.
  • The challenge runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
  • Choose one or two or however many big books you want as your goal.

Potential Reading List
  • The Masterpiece, by Emile Zola
  • Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
  • Can You Forgive Her, by Anthony Trollope
  • World Without End, by Kenneth Follett
  • Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon (just need to reread before November and season 4 of Outlander!)
That's a pretty aggressive list, considering I have a two-week vacation planned mid-summer, plus I tend to read less in the summer because I also like to garden, and I have other reading commitments (Persuasion for JASNA August meeting) and Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird for Tuesday BookTalkRead-Along, but we have to have goals, right?

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Gunners

The Gunners, by Rebecca Kauffman, came highly recommended by Joann at Lakeside Musing. I take her recommendations seriously as our tastes align quite well. I also liked the fact that it is is a new book, published in March of this year. I always try to read at least a few brand new books each year, and this one was definitely a winner.

The novel's central character is [this next part is the Amazon blurb] "Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections―even his emotional life is a blur. As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness."

I really liked how Kauffman constructed the story--the five remaining friends met together over the course of about 6 months and reminisce about their shared childhoods, and those reminisces give us not only the backstory but put the current interactions between the friends into context and moved the plot forward.

It seems like so many books these days use the parallel narrative style (past and present), but this one was different in that the reader was never really in the past but was catching glimpses of it as the story emerged. 

I don't have a lot to say about this book other than it had a compelling set of characters and I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as I learned about their lives and what they meant to each other, growing up in such a tight knit circle in a small town.

My one frustration is that Kauffman never told Sally's story--she remained an enigma. None of her friends could understand why she broke away, why she committed suicide, why she left them. Perhaps that is the point of the story--when a tragedy like that happens, when someone disconnects so completely, it can be unfathomable and all you can do is hang on to those left behind.

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.