Tuesday 31 July 2012


Parvana is the first in a series of books about an Afghan family living in Kabul in the early years after the Taliban took control in 1996. I had accidentally read the second book in the series, Parvana's Journey first, but this didn't hamper my enjoyment of Parvana (published as The Breadwinner in the USA and perhaps elsewhere).

Parvana (The Breadwinner) is another quick read. The writing style is simple and direct, but it's quite a compelling tale. I enjoyed reading this book even though I had read the sequel first. It certainly helped fill in the holes in my understanding of the story.

Parvana is living in Kabul with her family. Her oldest brother has already died, killed by a landmine. The family has been forced to move repeatedly each time as their home has been destroyed, each time they move into a smaller dwelling. When we meet Parvana and her family they are living in a single room. Her father had been a teacher, her mother a writer at a radio station. Both have been forced out of their jobs, and the family now subsists on the meagre living that they eek out by Parvana's father selling his skills at reading and writing in the local market. Parvana, her mother and her sisters are not allowed out of the house by themselves, venturing out only if accompanied by a male member of their family.

The first chapter is rather extraordinary and sobering reading. It's almost incomprehensible to the comfortable Western reader I think. How can we imagine the life of this girl and her family?

Bombs had been part of Parvana's whole life. Every day, every night, rockets would fall out of the sky, and someone's house would explode.

I learnt a number of things that I didn't know about life in Afghanistan at this time. The Taliban required windows to be painted black, women weren't allowed on a bus without a man accompanying them. Photographs were illegal. I didn't know landmines had been disguised as toys, imagine designing bombs to kill children. These were apparently Russian bombs.

At one stage Ellis challenges our thoughts about the men who are part of the Taliban. Parvana reads a letter for a Taliban soldier. The Talib has shaky hands, and a tear rolls down his face in response to Parvana reading the letter to his dead wife.

Could they have feelings of sorrow, like other human beings?

My Australian copy has a small section at the back about Afghans in Australia. I knew that there had been Afghan people and camels in central Australia for some time. That they had been essential to the exploration of Central Australia and the building of the Overland Telegraph Line between Port Augusta and Darwin. Indeed there are now large populations of feral camels in Central Australia, they are causing a number of environmental problems.

Anyway in one of my (rather common) d'oh moments I learnt that the Ghan, the famous train from Adelaide to Alice Springs, and now to Darwin, which has a camel painted on the side, is named after the Afghan cameleers. Ghan. Afghan. D'oh.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Paris in July Hot, Hot, Hot

For my final Paris in July Saturday Snapshot I thought about my experience of Paris in July. I was in Paris in July in 2010 and it was HOT. It was hot walking around. It was hot in the Metro. It was hot trying to sleep. It was hot in the Louvre (airconditioned? Non).

Everyone was looking for a way to cool off
We hit Aquaboulevard for a day
The locals were looking for ways to keep cool too

They do love Diet Coke for some reason, and sparkly hats it seems

We ate Berthillon every day.

Different flavours every day!
My son learnt to read French on these boards

Ahhh, Berthillon. Best. Icecream. Ever. 

Sometimes icecream was the destination.
Amorino is definitely worth a detour.
Magnums in France have an M and real dots of vanilla in the icecream
The thrill of travel for the young. 

We ate sorbet in cafes.
Beaujolais! Chilled red wine- for lunch. 
So fantastic, it's life changing.  

We made use of the water sellers everywhere
We ate delicious raspberries pretty much every day.
Although I think they were Spanish.

We picnicked by the Seine
And enjoyed the fabulous atmosphere and entertainment

Evening walks were wonderful. The beautiful Parisian evening light.
Accidentally happening upon more beauty. 

Next July I'll be in Paris again!
I can't wait. 

Paris in July is cohosted by Karen at BookBath 
and Tamara at Thyme for Tea 

Thursday 26 July 2012

1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die- Paris Edition

I spend much of my time reading through the 1001 Children's Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up. While I'm not planning on slavishly following the 1001 suggestions from this book, I thought it would be fun to check out the Paris selections. To see how many I've already seen, and build up some suggestions for more visits of course. 

Apartments, 26, rue Vavin 1913
Arc de Triomphe1836
Basilique du Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Christ) 1919
Bibliotheque Francois-Mitterand 1995
Castel Beranger 1898
Centre Pompidou 1977
Charles de Gaulle Airport 1974
Flower Tower (Maison Vegetale) 2004
Le Grand Rex 1932
La Grande Arche de la Defense 1990
Hotel Guimard 1912
Hotel de Soubise 1709
Institut du Monde Arabe 1987
La Ruche Studios (The Beehive) 1900
La Sainte Chapelle 1248
Pyramide, Le Grand Louvre 1989
The Madeleine (Church of St Mary Magdalene) 1842
Maison de Verre 1932
Musee d'Orsay 1987
Notre Dame de Paris 1330
Opera de la Bastille 1989
Palais Garnier 1875
Pantheon 1793
Paris Great Mosque 1926
Musee du Quai Branly (Quai Branly Museum) 2006
Rue Franklin Apartments 1904
Theatre des Champs Elysees 1913
Van Doesburg House 1930
Villa Savoye 1929

Whilst I'm not the biggest fan of architecture per se, visiting some of those buildings and monuments were the highlights of my two visits to Paris. 

Arc de Triomphe

Essential for any trip to Paris, make sure you go up to the top-
the views are sensational

Notre Dame de Paris

I've visited several times now, but there is always more to see
and I still haven't made it up to the roof...

Sainte Chapelle

It's impossible to describe the beauty of this experience,
my 9 year old was moved to take pictures for the first time ever 

Palais Garnier

We stayed nearby, and saw her in many lights and moods,
a glorious sight at the end of the rue


Such an extraordinary building, not just beautiful, but important too
as a mausoleum for important French figures
and the home of Foucault's Pendulum

These buildings are Paris to me. Of course there are some notable omissions. Where is La Tour Eiffel? The Louvre itself, not just the Pyramid? The Conciergerie? The Grand Palais? Of course they can't list every house or public building in Paris. I do think that I would have excluded Charles de Gaulle airport.  Sure I've been there, many of the visitors to Paris come through there naturally, but is it worthwhile architecture, or is it just ugly 1970s concrete construction?

And what for next year? I'm very keen to visit La Grande Mosquee. I will need to see the Centre Pompidou at long last, I don't think I can avoid it forever. I've never even walked past. That's one of the great things about Paris, there is SO much to see and do. Every Metro stops opens up another world, every street corner and laneway takes you somewhere else that is extraordinary. 

Paris in July is cohosted by Karen at BookBath 
and Tamara at Thyme for Tea 

Monday 23 July 2012

French Children's Literature Prizes

I was inspired to write this post after reading this informative post on French Literary Prizes by Tamara at Thyme for Tea. There are so many of them, and it's all rather confusing for the sadly non-French. Her post gave me the idea to look at French Children's Literary Prizes.

It's hard to pull the information together. Wiki is a great place to start of course. They list prizes in French literature. I think perhaps my favourite is the Prix de Flore, which gives the winner a cash prize and a daily glass of Pouilly-Fume at Cafe de Flore.

There are two major international prizes for Children's Literature. The Hans Christian Andersen Award has been awarded for writing since 1956, and illustration since 1966. Rene Guillot won the writing prize in 1964. Tomi Ungerer was awarded the illustration prize in 1998.

The other major international prize is the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. This award, the richest children's literature prize, and indeed one of the richest literary prizes  in the world, was established in 2002. As yet no French author has been lucky enough to win it.

I'm aware of two French children's prizes. The Prix Sorcieres is for works written in French, or translated into French. As yet I haven't found a condensed list accessible in English to list past winners. British powerhouse Michael Morpurgo has won the Prix Sorcieres three times. King of the Cloud Forests in 1993. Wombat goes Walkabout 1999. Kensuke's Kingdom (read my review) in 2001. Many of the French language books are not available in English, which is such a shame.

The Prix Jeunesse ran from 1934 to 1972. There is now another prize also called Prix Jeunesse, but it seems to relate to German children's television.

Occasionally I will find a book that will proudly proclaim to have won a French Children's Literary Prize of some sort, and I'm powerless to resist them. They're so different. I like European picture books, they have such a different sensibility. Like The Scar.

Recently I bought Anne-Laure Bondoux's The Killer's Tears, winner of the Prix Sorcieres in 2004 (published in French as Les larmes de l'assassin). A cheery book set in Patagonia about a lonely boy, "Paolo, was like a seed planted in bedrock condemned never to bloom" and a killer.

I also bought a second hand copy of Rene Guillot's Sama which was awarded the Prix Jeunesse in 1950. It is the life and adventures of a young African elephant.

I look forward to reading these and more French prizewinners in the years to come.

Paris in July is cohosted by Karen at BookBath 
and Tamara at Thyme for Tea 

Sunday 22 July 2012

Demi Joan of Arc

I think it's safe to say that I've become mildly obsessed by Joan of Arc. As with all great obsessions, it all began simply enough. I read Jim Leavesley's Mere Mortals and Joan was one of the people he featured. I've read a few other junior nonfiction books about Joan since. I saw this book on The Fourth Musketeer last year, and ordered it that night. 

I'd never heard of the author/illustrator Demi before. She is an American author/illustrator who has created over 100 books! She appears to specialize in picture book biographies often of spiritual figures. Her titles include Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Mother Teresa. I'll be interested to see more of her work. 

Demi has created such a beautiful book about Joan of Arc. Naturally she covers the basics of Joan's story, her childhood in rural France. Her three brothers and her sister. Joan was quite religious from an early age. She would pray in the fields to feel the presence of God. She "deeply felt the injustice of the invaders" from England and Burgundy, and "frequently prayed for the deliverance of France." Joan was visited by her heavenly voices for three years before she was stirred to action. 

Demi really has it in for the Dauphin Charles, repeatedly remarking on his lack of courage. When Joan first arrives to see the (the cowardly) Dauphin he worries that she might be an evil sorceress and sends her to be examined by powerful members of the church. This takes three weeks! Charles refuses to go to Reims after Joan has secured freedom for Orleans, because he didn't want "his easy life and royal existence disturbed."

Joan was injured by an arrow to the thigh during her first defeat near Paris. The French commander at Compiegne locked her out of the city. She was captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English. At her trial Joan, still only 19, stood before 44 men who questioned her Catholic faith. Her death sentence (for wearing men's clothes) was read out to her in a cemetery, which is a rather macabre touch, perhaps designed to make her confess. Joan did sign a confession, but then recanted almost immediately.

Demi tells us that everyone wept as Joan died in the marketplace of Rouen. Seriously, what is wrong with these people? Reading out death sentences in cemeteries is one thing, but burning young women to death in the marketplace? Awful. 

In a note from Demi at the start of the book she describes how she studied the "exquisite medieval art of the fifteenth century: illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, architecture, painting and sculpture." And it shows in the gorgeous illustrations, and the attention to detail. 

Demi also states that she read "all the children's books on Saint Joan", and she regards Joan of Arc by Herself and her Witnesses by Regine Pernoud as the most inspirational. I wonder when my TBR will actually shrink instead of grow when I read a book?

Paris in July is cohosted by Karen at BookBath and Tamara
 at Thyme for Tea 

An Illustrated Year is hosted by An Abundance of Books.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Musee de l'Assistance Publique- Hopitaux de Paris

I do love the more obscure museums of Paris. Sure the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay and the Orangerie are all fantastic. But I tend to prefer the smaller, special interest museums. Musee Victor Hugo. Musee Rodin. So fascinating.

Another specialist museum that I was lucky enough to visit in 2010 was the badly titled Musee de l'Assistance Publique- Hopitaux de Paris (Museum of Public Assistance- Paris Hospitals). Even though it's near the epicentre of Paris on the left bank of the Seine in the 5th there were only a handful of other visitors with me on the afternoon of my visit. This is one of the many museums covered by the absolutely essential Paris Museum Pass.

Many of the hospitals were established to help children
and particularly orphans and malnourished children. 

What, you don't have an opium cannister?

A drawing from 1432 showing the 39 sites suitable for blood letting

Kidney dish in English. Haricot en Francais. 

An amputation kit

Guillaime Dupuytren's surgical instruments

Rene Laennec's stethoscope from ~1820

Jean-Martin Charcot teaching at Saltpetriere

The courtyard has a beautiful garden of medicinal plants

I know a visit here isn't for everyone but it's well worth seeking out if you're so inclined.

Update 2013. Sadly it appears that this museum has closed, at least in this format. There is a reopening due at Hotel Dieu in 2016.

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Paris in July is cohosted by Karen at BookBath and Tamara
 at Thyme for Tea 

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Proust's Overcoat

I haven't read Proust. There. I've said it. Now, having read Proust's Overcoat I'm not sure that I want to read him. Perhaps I'm just not old enough to read him yet. 

I was vaguely aware of this book having read newspaper reviews when it came out I think, so pounced when I found it in a remainder store on a recent trip to Canberra.

Unlike James Joyce's Ulyssess, which I don't expect to ever read, I do still harbor vague notions that I might get to reading Proust one day. Til then I'll read about reading Proust I guess. 

But this book isn't just about Proust. It's also about Jacques Guerin, a perfumier, who was to amass "one of the most important personal libraries of all time." He had books and papers by Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Cocteau, Genet, Hugo, Picasso, Rimbaud and Proust. His collection was so important that he was twice visited by Francois Mitterand to try to secure the collection for the Biblioteque Nationale. Sadly, Mitterand left empty handed and the collection was eventually sold at a public auction at the Hotel George V in Paris in the 90s. 

I was a bit surprised to learn that Proust died so young (aged 51 in 1922). He had asthma from a young age and was quite sickly. He was a rather fascinating character- he lived in a cork-lined room on boulevard Haussmann, and worked at a frantic rate night and day "to bring his great work to completion in an incessant race against death."

The book starts with the author visiting Proust's coat itself at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris (another reason to visit next year). Although Proust's coat is stored away in a box and not on public display. It is a threadbare, dark gray wool otter-lined double-breasted coat. It is shabby and worn. 

Proust wore his coat year round. He used it as a blanket whilst lying in his brass bed in his cold, unheated room frantically composing his magnum opus. Indeed, the descriptions of Proust's obsession with his coat made me wonder about his sanity. He arrived at his brother Robert's wedding in 1903 not having slept for three nights and his "appearance was frightful. He was dressed astoundingly, swaddled in multiple layers of clothing; he wore three sweaters underneath a jacket, and three coats on top of that. He had wrapped his chest and neck in flannel, bits of which poked out from the collar of his shirt." I can only imagine that his coat still smells despite the cleanings. 

This is a rather fascinating little book, a mere 120 pages, but it spins a web containing Paris, Proust, his unusual family and Guerin's world of literary obsessions and perfume. 

Paris in July is cohosted by Karen at BookBath 
and Tamara at Thyme for Tea 

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Tour de France

I'm certainly not a sports fan, but every July I start watching tv sport quite frantically and obsessively. But not just any tv sport. The Tour de France. It's quite a commitment to watch the Tour in Australia. The time difference is a killer. The SBS telecast only starts at 10pm each night, and goes til about 2am. That's a tough schedule to keep up for 3 weeks! Jobs, family and sleep all suffer.

It's not just about the cycling though.

Although the cycling is fascinating enough in itself, and there are certainly interesting characters racing each day. These men are astonishing warriors, as they undertake riding 3,000 km all over France (and occasionally in neighbouring countries) in 3 weeks- an almost impossible feat it would seem.

I love the scenery too of course. It's extraordinary.

 I may squeal out loud when I've been there!

They make special efforts to show us every church and chateau near the route, as well as the natural beauty of the countryside.

Or sigh if it makes my feet itch just a little
SBS also goes to great lengths to give us a taste of the areas the cyclists move through. At the start of each broadcast Gabriel Gate highlights the food of the region, and then cooks a typical dish.

Pink lentils!

It's the whole package, and why I'll be up late again tonight. And as many nights as I can until it all ends in Paris next Monday morning Australian time.

Paris in July hosted by BookBath and Thyme for Tea

Monday 16 July 2012

Parvana's Journey

Parvana's Journey is a harrowing tale of children living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This is not the sort of story that I would normally seek out. Which is one of the great things about reading from a list that you didn't create yourself- your boundaries are stretched.

Deborah Ellis is a Canadian writer, she is a mental health counsellor and anti-war campaigner. Her books often deal with children displaced by war, poverty or disease. They have been very successful. She has donated all her royalties from Parvana's Journey, and I presume at least some of her other books, to the charity Women for Women in Afghanistan

Parvana's Journey is actually the second in a series of 4 books depicting Parvana's life- Parvana (also titled The Breadwinner), Parvana's Journey, Shauzia (aka Mud City), My Name is Parvana. All rather confusingly titled I think.

Parvana's Journey starts with 11 year old Parvana struggling to find enough rocks to bury her father. Her family had become separated during the war in Afghanistan in the late 90s- she was with her father; her mother with her 3 siblings are somewhere else. But Parvana's father becomes increasingly frail, and dies in an unfamiliar village. Parvana is left on her own, and journeys on in a rather random way. She doesn't know where to go, or who to trust to help. 

Given the setting some of the content is rather depressing. The senselessness and arbitrary nature of death in war. Hunger. Poverty. Disease and dispossessed people. In fact all the flavours of human suffering. 

"My uncle had an orchard," Asif said. "He grew peaches, mostly, and rows of berry bushes. He accused me of stealing berries from him. Is it stealing to take food when you're hungry?"
When everything was quiet except for the crying of people who had lost loved ones, and the screaming of those who had been injured, the children got up and started walking again. They couldn't help anyone, and no one could help them.
Is this it? She wondered. Have I come so far, just to be here? Is this really my life? 

I think as an adult reader the earnestness of purpose of the writer, and the sociopolitical view is a bit too obvious. Which isn't to say that the book is bad, I enjoyed reading it. I was just aware that I was being taught something. Not that it's a bad lesson, it's not, but I can see the teaching. That may not be as apparent to younger readers who have not sat through quite as many news broadcasts as I have. I'd love to share this book with my 11 year old son but would struggle to convince him that there might be dragons, time lords or magic within the covers.