Ramblings: I miss reading and writing in French

 I was reading through my 2003-2004 journal the other day, otherwise known as the “Israel journal”, where the first few months are written in English and the later months in French. I did this because my writing at the time was very intense and private, and I was always worried that someone on the very not private kibbutz would come across it and read it. While reading through the French entries I realized that not only was my French writing good; it had as much a voice as my English writing. That was 8 years ago, and since then all I seem to have really written in French is a few business emails (apart from the web page I recently wrote for a friend), and, even worse, I have completely neglected my French reading. It’s not like I am lacking in French books at home – I still have well over a hundred items of French literature lingering in my bookcases, well-read and beloved copies of works by my favourite authors, Rimbaud, Nerval, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Stendhal amongst many others. I even own the first 4 books from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles in French because at the time in France it was quite difficult to acquire English books right when you needed them. (After that my mum started to go to the States a couple of times a year for work so I would give her a list of books to buy for me). I’m still completely bilingual, and I still speak French with a French accent, and English with an English accent (and not Australian as someone was trying to tell me the other day). So what happened to me? Why don’t I ever write in French anymore? It’s still, in my opinion, the most beautiful language in the world. While English contains a dozen different words to describe something in several ways (take the word “shine” for example – how many synonyms can you come up with in one minute?); French has the ability to make anything sound like a song. I think “lyrical” is the best way to describe it, something that most Latin languages seem to be. 

I think I am more than likely just being lazy. English is my first language and it’s the one that comes easiest to me, even if I do find myself thinking in French now and again for no specific reason. I live in an English-speaking country where English is spoken first and then Spanish, and after that Mandarin and most probably Russian. I do however speak French at least once a day, but it’s not the same as living in a country where French is everywhere; on the radio, on TV, outside, inside and everywhere else. I don’t communicate extensively in French every day, and I definitely don’t write in French much anymore. I only watch the French movies I own (if they are Region 1, because most of them are Region 2 as they were purchased in France). I’ve watched most of the French movies available on Netflix and wish I could have more at my disposal. In any case, I am so behind on my movie watching that it would take me about 4 years to catch up on everything I want to see, if I maintain my current work schedule. I will always miss France and consider it home (although NYC is also my home now), and apart from my friends and old haunts, the main part I miss is being completely immersed in FRENCH.

You know what I also miss? Going into a French bookshop and browsing the French books. The funny thing is that when I lived in France I missed going into English bookshops and browsing the English books. That is until the Decitre opened in Grenoble along with their great collection of English books, at very decent prices. It’s difficult to buy French books here. Really difficult. Or again, I am too lazy to search too far for them, although I think I have done a pretty good job up until now. In any case, I follow the book reviews on a site called Boojum Mag, known to me because a good friend of mine in France writes for them, and I recently started making a list of all books I need to buy. I’m not going back to France anytime soon (but my mum is and oh my god a light bulb just went off in my head), so last week I bit the bullet and went on to Amazon.fr and looked through the books that I wanted to purchase. €57 later and two books are coming my way. According to the tracking system, they are now in Croydon and I can expect to receive them late next week, two weeks after I ordered them. Now this is not a cost effective solution to my problem, nor can I, Miss Impatience, wait two whole weeks to receive the books I want to read right now at this very minute, so there MUST be a better solution. If so, let me know. French book swap? French book lending library? What if I spend this amount of money and end up disliking the books? I know that’s always a risk one takes when buying books, but usually you don’t have to factor in the costly shipping charges too. And I shouldn’t really be spending money on books from overseas when I have a lot of debt to pay off, should I?

At a first glance the fact that I am going on about reading in French may not seem to have anything to do with my issue with not writing in French anymore. It does, however. Reading and writing are my two main passions in life and one cannot go without the other. I read because I love to fall into a world someone else has created and imagine myself there, and I read because it is also the best form of education for me. I write because I have so much to say, and I also write because I want to be read. Reading inspires me to write and writing inspires me to read, and if I read in French I feel like I write more in French too. One will never go without the other… I set myself weekly writing targets that I sometimes keep to, and often don’t, so I think I will just need to add a French writing target too, even if it’s just a journal entry or a random rambling of no real interest. In any case, I just wrote this whole post in English when I could just have easily have written it in French, couldn’t I? Although I know why… Most of the friends I grew up with in France are insanely good writers, and I would just worry about them critiquing anything I wrote in French. I got over that small stepping stone in English, so I may as well just get over it in France. OK… Over to my written journal for some French immersion then…

Discussion/Ramblings - radical children's literature

A few months ago, right at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement I came across an article discussing the wrongs and rights of what was called “radical children’s literature”. I can’t find the article itself anymore, but the book that this article pointed out was called Tales For Little Rebels – A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature and contains forty or so stories, illustrations, poems and other writings for children by authors and illustrators such as Lucille Clifton, Syd Hoff, Langston Hughes, Walt Kelly, Norma Klein, Munro Leaf, Julius Lester, Eve Merriam, Charlotte Pomerantz, Carl Sandburg and Dr. Seuss. I haven’t read the collection myself, but each article in the book supposedly contains some historical background and the author’s biography. The main theme of this publication is of course “radical” literature and its intent to make one think and question, all of these articles aimed at children. But isn’t that what the whole point of education is anyway? To learn how to think for oneself and make up one’s own mind? Are these publications considered “radical” just because they have some kind of political opinion (towards the left)? In general isn’t literature full of opinions and views and ideas? As a writer myself I know how hard it is to write something that doesn’t contain anything of yourself – actually pretty much impossible (unless you want to produce a bland string of words that are not going to interest anyone). Think I am just really intrigued on why these authors are considered radical, whereas others aren’t. All the literature I remember reading as a child was full of opinions and views, some of which I agreed with, others that I still remember questioning (and probably still do today).

I suppose I am too removed from the literature that is offered to children nowadays. I don’t have kids, I haven’t been a nanny in years and most of my friends who have children don’t live in this country. I still have the impression that it’s all about Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Tintin, Huckleberry Finn, Dr Seuss, Flicka, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, The Secret Garden, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Noel Streatfeild, Pippi Longstocking, Robinson Crusoe and these are the types of books that I will read to my children when I have them. I still have a lot of my old children’s books and will still read them now and again, just to try and recreate that feeling that they gave me when I was so much younger. Nothing like reading Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island and imagining how you could also run away from everything you dislike and make a secret life for yourself and your friends on an island. Or pretending you are Oliver Twist, running around the streets of London, hiding from Fagin and Bill Sykes. Or jumping on a plane with Tintin and falling into different adventures all over the world. Imagining the world governed by pigs standing up on their hind legs, wearing suits and smoking cigars (I still imagine Napoleon in Animal Farm to look like a pig version of Roosevelt and Churchill mixed together, don’t ask why). I wouldn’t really consider any of the above as “radical”, but they are definitely thought-provoking and in some way, character-forming. I don’t think I have ever read a good book, finished it, and not thought about it for days afterwards (not the use of the adjective “good” here). Many of the books I read as a child have stayed with me until this day, however outdated they may seem – yes, I am well aware of the fact that nowadays pre-teens would not be able to bike around the countryside of England by themselves for days on end, but how much fun is it to imagine that you can actually do this?

In any case, I really want to read this group of stories and illustrations, just because it sounds like a good collection of works by important writers and illustrators. Whether it really should be considered “radical” is another question that I will answer once I have had the chance to read it. That won’t happen until I have paid off my rent and overdue credit card payments, but once I have purchased and read it I will post about it. In the meantime I would love to get some examples of what is considered to be radical children’s literature of today and the past, and why it is considered radical…

To be continued...

Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers: my favourite book of all time

This happens once a year, at least once, sometimes multiple times: all of a sudden I will stop what I am doing and say "it's time to read Gone To Soldiers again." Then I pick it up and fall back into the words that have kept me going for so many years now. I will never ever tire of this book. It happened to me this morning, while I was making my morning tea, wondering through the haze of my mind what on earth I was going to write about today, trying to avoid the inevitable subjects of "2011 was a shitty/great/annoying/interesting year", when I just stopped in my tracks, grabbed my most recent copy of the book and read the first page. Nothing better than starting off your new year with firstly your first bender in 3 years, and then back to reality with your favourite book. The former not to be revisited for a while, the latter a lot more healthy.

The first time I read Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers was in 1991 or 1992. One of my mum's friends lent it to her, and as with any book that ever came into our household, I read it. Actually I devoured it. I've always loved historical fiction, especially dealing with WW2, and I love strong women characters that I can relate to. I also love rich, well-constructed prose, words that let you imagine the scene in your own head, help you to picture faces and expressions and leave them imprinted in your mind for a long time after you have read the last page of the book. This is how Marge Piercy writes. Gone To Soldiers will make you laugh, cry, want to hit things and finally feel like you can go out and accomplish anything that you want to, just because you can.

The novel is the story of ten different characters (men and women), interweaving, across the Atlantic and the Pacific, over the space of 5 years of war. Every character is human, and you will probably relate more to one over another, depending on how old you are when you read the book. My favourite will always be Jacqueline, feisty French Jewish girl who has to grow up and deal with the undealable. I sometimes see some of myself in her, more than in any of the other characters. Basically, Jacqueline makes me realise how much potential we have to create something from our lives, while remaining true to our hearts and beliefs. I know it sounds a little silly said like that, but you really need to read her story to understand what I mean.
There is also Bernice who breaks away from her father and runs away to fly aeroplanes; Louise who goes from writing women's stories to writing from the front lines in France via London; Daniel who deciphers code for a living; Jeff, the artist with the survival instinct, and probably the male character who I am the most attracted to; Abra who learns to live with nothing after having everything and all of the others who will touch your lives in a way that you wouldn't expect. An epic story that you can't put down. Life changing? Maybe. Just read it, the least it can do is help you learn a little more about what the regular person went through in the 40's.

I've read this book at least once a year since 1991. I've been through so many copies of it, I've given copies to my friends and it is without a doubt my favourite book of all time. Every time I read it I discover something new and somehow I find comfort in the stories, in a way I find a patch of non-moving ground that I can stand on for a moment to recollect myself.

More information on the book on Marge Piercy's website: Gone To Soldiers
More information on Marge Piercy: Biography

All of Marge Piercy's novels are excellent - once you have read this one try the others (especially Braided Lives).

Anthropology of an American Girl - review & musings

I find it very, very difficult to categorise books. There are books I liked, there are books I loved. There are books I really didn’t enjoy but forced myself through anyway. There are books that I couldn’t get into, but went back to after months, even years, and loved. There are good books that I didn’t enjoy. There are books that are not considered “good” that I really loved. I read for several reasons, the main one being because I cannot remember a day in my life when I haven’t been reading one book. The other reasons are completely self-explanatory: I read to learn, to escape and to let my imagination run away from me. I am never bored, not just because I always have something to do or to see, but mainly because I always have a book to discover, to read, to finish. I live surrounded by books, as do/did my parents and my grandparents, my sister and my brother. I read fiction and non-fiction, classics and modern fiction. I love poetry, plays and prose. I love to read poetry out loud to my cat (she prefers French literature to English, but I think that is more because of her national pride and all that). Words inspire me, reading inspires me to write and vice versa.

I read many books that inspire me, I read many good to very good books, but there are only a few times a year that I read a book that hits me so deeply that it affects my entire being for the time I am reading it, as well as afterwards. I read a review of Hilary Thayer Hamann’s first novel Anthropology of an American Girl a while ago, and tried to bookmark it in my brain, but didn’t remember about it until I was browsing the new paperbacks at St Mark’s Bookshop a few weeks ago. Once I started it I went back to the Jade I was when I was 17 and 18. It’s as if I had a direct connection with the main character, Eveline Auerbach. I am probably not the only one who feels this way, but I am not kidding when I felt I was being literally pulled into the story and became Eveline. First love, second love, heartbreak, freedom, passion, thoughts… The last years of high school, growing up in a “bohemian” household, friends who know your fears and help you through them, fragility but so much strength. But then, halfway through the book Eveline and I became separated. We went our separate ways, she took a path I could not agree with, could not really understand, while I took another path, that of personal freedom from everything.

There is a very specific break in the story, between high school graduation and the beginning of college and it was at this point that Eveline and I became friends and I no longer saw her life through her eyes, as one, but by her side, through her narration.

To understand, you must read this novel. On the outside it appears to be another coming of age novel, girl becomes woman, loves and loses, to love again, but there is so much more to this than that. The prose is wonderfully well written, so much that instead of reading you feel that you are living the story. When Eveline was sad, I cried. When Eveline was depressed, I walked around in a haze. When Eveline walked away I threw the book on the ground in anger. What I am trying to say is that Hilary Thayer Hamann did a remarkable job of writing a novel that is right up there on my favourite novels that I will read over and over again and that will never cease to make me cry list. Right up there with Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to name a few. We go through Eveline’s late teens and early twenties, follow her from East Hampton to Manhattan, watch her grow, then wither, then grow again.

We all have an Eveline, a Harrison Rourke, a Jack, a Kate, a Rob and a Mark in our lives, whether we are male or female, they all exist. I know who they are in my life. At first I thought I could be Eveline, it appeared that I am not, but I still love her as a person. Person or character? Although the main character is female, the story is for everyone. Be prepared to be punched in the stomach and in the face, to bawl your eyes out and to want to run to the ocean and watch the waves. Just read this book – you won’t regret it.

(When I bought the book I thought I was giving myself a break and that this was going to be some fun, light reading. I was so wrong! I didn’t realize exactly how much it had affected me until I found myself crying at everything this week, even for my crying average it was over the top. For some reason this story just hit me right in the core).

“Everywhere there are angels.”

Kristin Hersh - Rat Girl

I read and finished this book last week, after it having been at the top of my "to read" pile for over a month. I LOVE reading autobiographies, especially musicians' autobiographies, but I've read so many this year that I kept pushing it back, and was feeling a little reluctant about reading it.

Oh was I wrong... I should have known better! I loved Throwing Muses growing up, but was always more focused on Tanya Donnelly's career and music rather than Kristin Hersh's, so this actually made me learn about Kristin a lot more than I did before, and I even though I respected her before, I do thousandfold now.

Kristin took her diaries from when she was 19 (1985) and turned her thoughts, feelings and actions from that year into a memoir, interspersed with song lyrics. During this year Kristin is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, signs a record deal with 4AD Records and finds out she's pregnant. Her prose is so colourful and upbeat, even through her "darker" days, and I feel like anyone can relate to certain parts of her book, if not as a whole. I really loved the fact that I was reading a coming of age novel written from real experiences, by a real person who also happens to be an amazing musician.