Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Red Balloon

I only really learnt something of this book in 2016 when I made my list of Children's Books Set in Paris. I was immediately intrigued by the cover and bought it online that day.

The Red Balloon was the first book that I read for my first Dewey's 24 hour readathon back in October 2016. And I found it really disappointing.

The Red Balloon is actually still photos from a film of the same name and is surely one of the earliest movie tie-ins. The production quality of the book is really quite poor and the translation is terrible. 

Now usually when you let a balloon go, it flies away. But Pascal's balloon stayed outside the window, and the two of them looked at each other through the glass. Pascal was surprised that his balloon hadn't flown away, but not really as surprised as all that. Friends will do all kinds of things for you. If the friend happens to be a balloon, it doesn't fly away. 
Still the concept is delightful even if the execution falls somewhat short of the mark.  What child wouldn't love a balloon friend who will wait for him or her while they're at school and not fly away when your mother throws it out?

Then even more recently I discovered the 1956 film was available on SBS On Demand (this post has been languishing half-formed for quite some time, and sadly it's not On Demand any more, but it is on Youtube).  A mere 34 minutes long it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and many other prestigious prizes including the Palme D'Or for Best Short Film at Cannes. It remains the only short film to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay!

This is one of those rare situations where the movie is so, so much better than the book.

The Red Balloon movie is a fascinating glimpse into a 1950s Paris which seems a far grimier Paris than the one we enjoy today. Wiki tells us that it was filmed in a part of Belleville that has since been largely demolished. It is an almost a silent movie with very little dialogue.

And now I see that there is a modern homage to The Red Balloon - The Flight of the Red Balloon/Le Voyage de Ballon Rouge (2008), the first French film by Taiwanese director  Hou Hsaio-Hsien.

I suspect that I'll be watching this sometime soon. It's currently on SBS On Demand for those in Australia. 

Balloons are still a big deal in Paris. Australian Anna Dawson moved to Paris and started walking around with a pink balloon, now she is an Instagram star with more than 135, 000 followers.

Paris in July

Friday, 6 July 2018

Claris The Chicest Mouse in Paris

Somehow I had missed the pre publicity for Claris, and so recently I was walking out of my local bookshop (having already bought four books) when I was stopped in my tracks by Claris in the window display. I hadn't noticed her on the way in, despite stopping to look at the Paris themed window. I gasped, turned around, walked straight back in and bought it. I love Paris, obviously. I love kids books. I love Megan Hess's illustrations. And now she's written a picture book. Such a no-brainer that I would buy it, I would read it immediately and that I would love it. All of those things happened.

Claris is the story of a small French mouse. She lives in the mountains of France but is no country bumpkin. Claris fashions haute couture creations from garbage bags. But her friends and relatives just don't care. She dreams of Paris and of finding the stylish people.

Claris gets a lift in a hot air balloon with two frogs, one in a beret. Claris arrives in Paris and sets off to find somewhere to live. There are some hazards along the way of course, like a grumpy cat, and a nasty girl who is a sneering snitch.

From the very outset (with the totally gorgeous endpapers) Claris is utterly delightful. I just love the contrast between Claris' designer outfits and her hairy, mousey little legs.

The story is told in rhyming couplets and is charmant. 

So while the mice feasted on crumbs of éclair,
 she read about handbags in Vanity Fair. 

My copy came with a delightful little Claris pin.

I'm generally too old to have Instagram envy, but oh, Megan Hess's life on Instagram! Can anyone really be that glamorous?


Paris in July 

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Big Little Lies

I've fallen under the thrall of all things Big Little Lies recently. I binge watched the miniseries a few weeks ago. I inhaled it, and just loved it. I'd borrowed a copy from my library as I couldn't get it on my streaming services, and I was a bit worried about the move to an American location. Big Little Lies, the book, is Australian and firmly set in Sydney. Big Little Lies, the series, has moved to Monterey in California. But I loved it so much that I then went out and bought the DVD, so I could watch it again whenever I wanted to (after pressing it onto all of my friends first). I'm very excited that a second series is in production and will be released next year. 

The series has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. Perhaps my favourite discovery is Ituana's breathy, lovely version of You Can't Always Get What You Want. I loved that so much that I took out a trial subscription to Spotify! Which I am enjoying very much. 

Very soon I found myself downloading the audiobook on my new love (Borrowbox). 15 hours 55 minutes! In just two weeks (I'm sure I won't be able to renew it as it's really popular, I had to wait for it)- that's quite an ask for me. But it was pretty easy I guess. Even though I didn't really love Caroline Lee's voice work- I found her rather overwrought Aussie accent a bit much actually. Her narration is fine, but I found her character voices grating for some reason.  But I did love the story and was sucked right in yet again. 

Just in case anyone else has been hiding under a rock Big Little Lies tells the stories of three kindergarten mums. Their friendship, their relationships and families. Madeleine is the feisty one, she's on her second marriage, and is the old hand of the school yard, an expert in the politics and cliques (yes of the parents). Celeste and Jane are both first time kindergarten mums, Celeste is married with twin boys, Jane is the youngest, a single mother with one son, Ziggy. All are juggling busy lives and finding their own way with work life balance, and each has made quite different decisions and compromises in her life. 

From the start of the book and the movie we know that someone has died. But not who. Big Little Lies is a Who Was It? more so than a Whodunnit? There are a number of smaller mysteries along the way and I did guess those whilst watching the show and I kept wondering if I would have guessed them if I read the book first. 

Given that the series was so fresh in my mind, I was very interested in the differences between the book and screen versions- and there are quite a few really. But they tend to be minor - some of the characters have an extra kid in the book (it tends to be the brothers that are left out), Mrs Ponder who lives next to the school didn't make the cut to the small screen. I can't remember Jane's parents being in the series. There are a few story lines that are in the show but not in the book. And of course everyone is richer and everything is grander in Monterey than they were back on the Pirriwee Peninsula. 

Speaking of which the whole Pirriwee setting really annoyed me. The rest of the Sydney suburbs mentioned are real. Jane's parents live in Granville, she lived in Newtown before moving to the peninsula. Why then make up the fictional Pirriwee? Are you really protecting the innocent when it's clearly a Northern Beaches location? Why bother?

Structurally, I really loved the little snippets from parents at the school that began or finished each chapter. Police interviews are not really like this at all I suspect. I'm sure everyone would be much better behaved, but I love all the catty little snippets given in these sections, and the differing insights and information. 

Liane Moriarty is a phenomenally successful Australian author. Rather remarkably two of her sisters are authors too, successful, but not quite in the stratospheric leagues that Liane inhabits. Big Little Lies was my first Liane Moriarty read, I know that there'll be more. 


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Hay Festival 100 Books

Oh. This List! Created by the Hay Festival to honour 100 years of women's suffrage in the UK. 

100 books by women published since 1918.

A Book of Mediterranean Food - Elizabeth David
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing - Eimear McBride
A Place of Greater Safety - Hilary Mantel

Ain't I A Woman - Bell Hooks
Ariel - Sylvia Plath
At The Source - Gillian Clarke
Babette's Feast - Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
Bad Behavior - Mary Gaitskill
The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak
Beloved - Toni Morrison
Bonjour Tristesse - Françoise Sagan
Brick Lane - Monica Ali
Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
Close Range Wyoming Stories - Annie Proulx
Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
The Collected Dorothy Parker - Dorothy Parker
Dept. of Speculation - Jenny Offill
Everyday Sexism - Laura Bates
Falling Away - Alice Oswald
Frost in May - Antonia White
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling
Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution - Mona Eltahawy
Heartburn - Nora Ephron
Henry and June - Anaïs Nin
Home going - Yaa Gyasi
How to be a Woman - Caitlin Moran

How to Eat - Nigella Lawson
How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed - Slavonia Drakulic
I Captured the Castle - Dodie Smith
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
Into That Darkness - Gitta Sereny
Like Water For Chocolate - Laura Esquivel
Lullaby - Leila Sliming
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor
My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante
Notes on a Scandal - Zoë Heller
Noughts + Crosses - Malorie Blackman
Orange Are Not The Only Fruit - Jeanette Winterson
Orlando - Virginia Woolf
Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi (currently reading)
Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren (see my review)
Possession - A.S. Byatt
Rachel's Holiday - Marian Keyes
Rebecca - Daphe du Maurier
Regeneration - Pat Barker
Selected Stories - Alice Munro
Small Island - Andrea Levy
Standing Female Nude - Carol Ann Duffy
Stranger On A Train - Patricia Highsmith
Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain
The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson

The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie
The Color Purple - Alice Walker
The Country Girls - Edna O'Brien
The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives - Carole Hillenbrand
The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank (see my review)
The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer
The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan
The Fountain Overflows - Rebecca West
The Glass Castle - Jeanette Walls
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
The Gruffalo - Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler (illustrator)
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
The House of Spirits - Isabelle Allende
The Human Condition - Hannah Arendt
The Illustrated Mum - Jacqueline Wilson (see my review)
The Land of Green Plums - Herta Müller
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin
The Moonmins and the Great Flood - Tove Jansson
The Passion According to G.H. - Clarice Lispector
The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark
The Pursuit of Love - Nancy Mitford
The Road Home - RoseTremain
The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 - Sue Townsend
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein
The View from the Ground - Martha Gellhorn
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
Three Strong Women - Marie NDiaye
Tipping the Velvet - Sarah Waters
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Train to Nowhere - Anita Leslie
Under the Net - Iris Murdoch
Unless - Carol Shields
We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
What I Loved - Siri Hustvedt

White Teeth - Zadie Smith
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Wild Swans. Three Daughters of China - Jung Chang
Wise Children - Angela Carter
Women & Power. A Manifesto - Mary Beard


I find this a super interesting list. So many here that I want to read, so many that I've meant to read over the years. And yes that noise you hear is the creaking and groaning of my huge TBR growing even bigger.

I do wonder at the inclusion of such a very recent book as Lullaby. It's much too recent to be able to judge it's place on this list. I'm also not convinced at the value of books like Gone Girl being included here. 

Monday, 28 May 2018

Les Misérables Silent Stalkers in the Dark/À chasse noire, meute muette V2B5

One of the very few advantages of being more than 100 pages behind in the #LesMisReadalong is that I can, indeed I must, read more than one chapter a day at the moment. Sometimes that can be a bit difficult with a book like this, deep in the more technical aspects of Waterloo for instance, but sometimes it can really pay off.

And V2B5 is one of those times. As the name would suggest Silent Stalkers in the Dark is quite an exciting read. Jean Valjean has realised that someone is onto him, and that he and Cosette must move from the Gorbeau Tenement. A thrilling late night chase ensues.
Sure enough, not three minutes had gone by before the men appeared. There were four of them now, all of them tall, dressed in long brown frock-coats, with round hats, and big truncheons in their hands. They were no less alarming for their tall stature and huge fists than for the sinister way they skulked in the shadows. They looked like four spectres disguised as respectable citizens. 
Crossing from the left bank and the Jardin des Plantes to the right bank, via the Pont Austerlitz and Jean Valjean comes to the (sadly) fictional Petit-Picpus. A very quick google showed me the sad facts, on a great Les Mis site I don't think I've seen before. Of course I was already making plans to visit on my next trip to Paris.
Petit-Picpus, which in fact scarcely existed and was never more than a roughly defined area, had the almost monastic appearance of a Spanish town. The roads were rarely paved, the streets not much built up. Apart from the two or three streets we area going to talk about, it was all blank walls and desolation. Not one shop, not one vehicle, only the occasional lighted candle here and there at the window, and all light extinguished after ten o'clock. Gardens, convents, yards, allotments, the odd low-built house, and solid walls as high as the houses. 
Of course Jean Valjean prevails and finds safe harbour, but not before using his superhuman strengths to climb a wall of eighteen feet, and narrowly escape Javert.
It was a characteristic of Jean Valjean that he might have been said to carry two bags: in one he kept his saintly thoughts, in the other the formidable talents of a convict. He dug into one or the other, depending on circumstances. 
Jean Valjean's bond with Cosette deepens as he watches her sleep with her head on a stone. 
He clearly perceived this truth, the bedrock of his life from now on, that so long as she was there, so long as he had her by him, he would have no need of anything but for her sake, more fear of anything except on her account. He was not even aware of being very cold, having taken off his coat to cover her with it. 
Every so often Victor Hugo inserts his unnamed narrator into the text. I had wondered initially if it was himself, or some character that we hadn't met as yet. Hugo does this again at the beginning of Silent Stalkers in the Dark, clearly referring to his own exile from France. 
Reluctantly obliged to speak of himself, the author of this book has not been in Paris for many years now. Since he left it, Paris has been transformed. 
Victor Hugo lived in exile from France from 1852 to 1870 during the time of the Napoleon III/Baron Haussman transformation of Paris. Hugo wrote Les Miserables while living at Hauteville House in Guernsey, where he lived for the majority of his exile. Hautville House is currently in need of renovation, the full price of which has just been recently donated by a billionaire benefactor. 

All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Moby Dick Big Read - The First Half

I happened along the Moby Dick Big Read on twitter last October. Moby Dick is a huge chunkster, and  certainly not a book I'm ever likely to pick up with the hope of completing reading it, but the audiobook seemed possible. I'd recently taken up listening to audiobooks whilst out walking the dogs. With all my post Steptember walking the dogs are getting quite a bit of exercise and it's nice to listen to something on the way. I don't do it all the time, sometimes I won't listen to anything, sometimes to walking music, and now podcasts have taken over my life... But I've found it a great way to get some more reading done. I've already listened to The Family Law and very much enjoyed the experience. So in no time at all I'd downloaded the podcast of the Moby Dick Big Read onto my phone and was stepping out.

I was really taken aback by how much I enjoyed the early chapters. It's all quite poetic and quite Dickensian really, which isn't surprising I guess as Moby Dick was published in 1851. Dickens had toured America in the 1840s and 1851 was in the midst of his hey day, between David Copperfield and Bleak House.  Which is not to suggest that Herman Melville was influenced by Dickens particularly, just that they are contemporaneous, Victorian, and sound similarly descriptive to my modern ear.

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
I was a bit familiar with the broad sweep of story as I think most people are- a mad sea captain chasing a white whale. I've tried to watch movie or TV versions over the years figuring that I'd never read the book, but usually I haven't made it through much of it. Not even that series with Patrick Stewart got me through it all. I was a bit surprised that Captain Ahab isn't even mentioned until Chapter 16, and even after that he only appears from time to time. I presume that he will come back closer to the end. 

Is the whaling ship really the "true mother" of (white) Australia?
That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman. After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale-ship touched there. The whale-ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony. Moreover, in the infancy of the first Australian settlement, the emigrants were several times saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale-ship luckily dropping an anchor in their waters. 
Naturally I don't think so, but there is more whaling in the very early days of white settlement than I had realised. Colony rode to wealth on whale's back. Start of whalingLater there is a full chapters of diversion into the classification and nomenclature of whales. (Chapter 32 Cetology)

After the most exciting action chapter yet (Chapter 54 The Town-Ho's Story, a rather complete diversion of an incident on another boat entirely, The Town-Ho, but which provides us with a fatal encounter with Moby Dick) comes a full 3 chapters of digression into the depiction of whales in art. I do love these Victorian era digressions, they provide extra information and background to the story, almost like the author is providing their own annotated version of their story- although they completely killed the enjoyment of Anna Karenina for me, and I never did manage to finish it. 

Melville is dismissive of the depiction of whales in most cultures and antiquity (probably rightly so)

which functions to tell us of the dangers inherent in knowing what a whale actually looks like. 

So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.
Melville's highest praise is for the work of Ambroise Louis Garneray.

Picture Source

There is a pervasive racism throughout, which I suppose was typical of the time. Much is made of the savages, generally meaning the Pacific sailors and harpooneers, but I still wasn't quite ready for racism to be applied to rope!
Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.
Although Melville did manage to make a whole chapter (60) on how the ropes used in the hunt (the whale line) was made, how it was coiled in barrels (a process which is particularly hazardous it seems).

During the several months of my listening so far I have made frequent use of the online Annotated Moby DickIt is very handy for all the historic and biblical references that are rather obscure for me, and also some words that have slipped out of common usage, such as puissant.

How comes all this, if there be not something puissant in whaling?
I did take some breaks from Moby Dick from time to time. I've been listening to podcasts and sometimes I would get hooked on a series and want to listen to it (Alone), or sometimes I just wanted to listen to more of Chat 10 Looks 3. Sometimes you need a break from things. A few of the readers had exciting whale chasing passages and it's not really relaxing walking the dogs with increasingly fervent yelling in your ears about maritime disasters and the relentless persecution of these behemoths of the deep.

The audio quality and production values of Moby Dick Big Read varies wildly. At times it was quite distracting. One chapter had a metronome quite audible in the background, others page turnings, others a hollowness. A few were fully produced with wave and seagull sound effects. The voice quality of the various readers also fluctuates considerably, but then you have unknown volunteer narrators mixing it with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow (who quite naturally delivers the sermon), and even David Cameron and Sir David Attenborough. It was rather inspired to have Rick Stein read Chapter 64, Stubb's Supper and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to read Chapter 65- The Whale as a Dish. 

It seems only fitting that this post has become my longest. Moby Dick is one of the longest works that I've ever taken on. Although I have read half of Bleak House (twice), and am undertaking a year long read along of Les Misérables this year. 

I've decided to close this post off here and as I am at the half way point that seems reasonable. I'm 67 chapters in (of 136), and still can't quite believe that I've made it this far. 

Thursday, 24 May 2018

The Latecomer

I happened upon this delightful little book when I was browsing in my favourite Basement Books recently. It's tiny (139 pages) and it had the look of a book in translation and so curious I picked it up. Indeed it is a book in translation. Dimitri Verhulst is Belgian, and writes in Dutch. I'd never heard of him, or this book before. 

So, I opened it up and read the first paragraph standing there in the aisle. 
Although it's completely deliberate, night after night, I loathe shitting in bed. Debasing myself like this is the most difficult consequence of the insane path that I've taken late in life. But holding back in my sleep could only arouse the suspicions of my carers. If I want to continue to play the role of a senile old man, I have no choice but to regularly soil my nappies. Because that's what this is: a role. I am nowhere near as demented as those around me believe!
Right. Someone is faking dementia. I'm in. I turned the page, and snorted to myself while reading the second page. It's in the basket. Yes I need a basket when I shop at Basement Books...

I've probably only read a handful of Dutch books, or books written in Dutch, in my life. So it's kind of funny that the last two have been the first person point of view by old men in a Dutch nursing home! That can't be a genre can it? And I loved both of them. I remember The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 1/4 Years Old very fondly (see my review), can it really be two years ago already? Both are first person narrations by somewhat curmudgeonly old men. 

Here Désiré Cordier is in his early 70s when he starts faking dementia. He lives with his wife Moniek and they have two adult children. 
People my age don't have Facebook or other sociable computer whatnots to cheat loneliness; no, we bump into each other in real life with gruesome frequency a funerals, the most natural occasion for us to maintain contact with our diminishing outside world. 
He has a lot to say about ageing, dementia, older people, and the care in nursing homes.
Recently my most faithful companion has been, somewhat surprisingly, a dog. Pablo by name, even though many of the residents address him with the name of the dog that played a role in their own past and has been buried for decades in the vegetable garden of a residence that will soon be divvied up between relatives who are united only by their mutual loathing. 
Désiré saves even more of his scorn for his wife and marriage. And religion comes in for a good swipe too. 
But a person - and I'm talking about myself here - who grew up in a society in which religion went unquestioned and considers his agnosticism an achievement, the product of deep and courageous thought, can only feel ridiculed by having the label 'Catholic' stuck to his forehead. I felt philosophically swindled by my lawfully wedded wife and regretted not being able to step out of character for a minute to point this gruesome misrepresentation out to Winterlight's nursing staff. It annoyed me immensely, being henceforth noted down on death's waiting list as a believer. The first rattle in my throat or tiniest bit of coughed-up blood will have a priest scurrying to my bedside with a breviary and an aspergillum. 
There were a couple of minor medical errors that other readers possibly wouldn't notice, but my joy was compounded when Désiré was taking a Mini Mental State Exam as part of his diagnosis. 
My final score was 17 out of 30. 
'See! He's passed' 
I am most intrigued to read more of Dimitri Verhulst. Thankfully my library has two of his other books. Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill and The Misfortunates, which seem to be his most famous books. And both are under 200 pages. Perfect.