Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - 120, rue de la Gare av Léo Malet


Paris in July 2021 is hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea. Today I want to share with you a book I read last year for a Swedish on-line magazine. 120, rue de la Gare by Léo Malet is a different kind of detective story.  

It was my first meeting with Léo Malet and it was a good one. He lived 1909-96 and was considered one of the best thriller writers in France. His name is connected to the genre 'noir' which he developed to perfection. Already in his first book, 120, rue de la Gare, which was published in France in 1943, one can clearly note one of the main characteristics of the genre; right and wrong are not clearly defined, or even possible to clarify, the characters all have flaws and the story often contains social taboos. 

Detectives are a popular genre today.  One of the problems with this genre today, I think, is that they are terribly violent in their actions. The murders are crude, sadistic and generally bestial and it sometimes feels difficult to even read about them. It was therefore a very nice feeling to have a detective story in your hand that was written almost 80 years ago, where admittedly murder fills the pages, but the plot is closer to the common man and his surroundings.

"Autumn 1941. Private detective Nestor Burma from Paris has fallen into German captivity. There he meets an enigmatic man who has lost his memory. Shortly before his death in the hospital, the man experiences a brief moment of clarity and mentions an address: 120, rue de la Gare . " When Nestor Burma is later released and sent back to Paris, he happens to see a former colleague at a train station. The colleague starts to say that he got something exciting on the track when he was shot. Before he dies, he manages to push forward: "Boss", he gasped. "Boss ... 120, rue de la Gare ...". (my translation from Swedish back cover).

It is the origin of the crime story which has many levels. Before the war, Nestor Burma headed the private detective agency 'Fiat Lux'. His old curiosity is still in place and he cannot ignore the mystery developing in front of him.  

The different faces of the detective genre

To understand Nestor Burma, his time and the murder mystery he is trying to solve, we must go back to the author. Malet had no formal education and before he started writing he supported himself as a cabaret singer. Surrealism interested him and he was a close friend with famous surrealists such as André Breton, René Magritte and Yves Tanguy. That influence is clearly noticeable in the novel, in the description of characters and surroundings. It is not always clear what it is you see, what the characters are up to and why they behave the way they do. This description of a woman brings to mind a surrealist painting, while visualizing 'noir' as a genre.

"Long and thin, bare-headed, wrapped in a light beige trench coat, with her hands tucked in her pockets, she seemed strangely alone in the middle of all the people, probably lost in a daydream. She stood at the corner of a newsstand, under the flashing gas lantern. The pale and dreamy face with its regular oval seemed agitated. The bright eyes, watery with tears, radiated an unspeakable nostalgia. The biting December wind played in her thick wavy hair.

She could have been around the age of twenty and admirably represented the mysterious type of woman you only meet at train stations, nocturnal visions that only the traveler's tired senses can perceive and that disappear with the night that produced them." (my translation from Swedish).

When you read, you are struck by similarities with other detective story writers and their detectives (characters, the way the detective is working, the ability of deduction, relationship with authorities, etc.).  I am thinking in particular of Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). I do not think that means that any of them have been influenced by each other, possibly with the exception of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose career began earlier.

Nestor Burma, the narrator, is a man with many talents; former anarchist, which may explain his lack of respect for authorities and its representatives, he moves with ease in both the upper and lower world. He is cynical and tough, but with a certain kind of humor. The idea goes to Raymond Chandler, although Marlowe's humor is somewhat lighter and his view of life less serious. This may be because Marlowe does not live in the shadow of a war like Burma. When it comes to deduction of evidence, he is not behind Sherlock Holmes either.

"The letter was first in a envelope of horizontal format, sealed with red seal varnish. The original envelope was so porous that it let through some varnish. You can see the stain on the back of the letter. You can have it analysed with your devices, but I am pretty sure it's from seal varnish. " (my translation from Swedish).

It is a complicated and exciting story set against the backdrop of an occupied France. Malet succeeds well in bringing out the atmosphere from that time. The daily difficulties of surviving restrictions find their way into story and dialogues. The dialogues are short, factual, fast and always move the action forward. Although we get to follow Nestor Burma as he investigates the mystery, gets the same clues as him, the killer remains hidden until the last pages. Here, like Agatha Christie's ability to hide the killer's identity.

At the end of the book, when Burma has figured out who the killer is, the layout is reminiscent of Hercule Poirot's habit of gathering everyone involved and talking about who the killer is. "It was a beautiful company to be a beautiful company." Here Burma, like Poirot, goes through the whole story from beginning to end. Events that happened, clues that were analysed, mysteries that were solved and the killer that was pointed out. Voila!

A black story

Léo Malet is a new writer to me. I am childishly fond of the 'noir' genre, whether it is books or movies. Nestor Burma's character is, as the genre indicates, a not entirely sympathetic figure. His actions are bordering the illegal. In relation to both government officials and ordinary people, he has a tough and sometimes harsh attitude, both in speech and action. One surprising thing is his ability to tell police and authorities what to do. The police commissioners he has as "friends" do not seem to care that it is Burma that gives orders, but obeys without flaws. It is perhaps not surprising that Malet has named his detective Nestor. The idea once again goes to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot's friend, Inspector Japp, who is largely dependent on Poirot to solve the cases. However, Burma's police friends are a little more independent and contribute with information that a private person does not have access to.

Léo Malet definitely has his own style. Hard-boiled like Chandler, yes, but Malet's world is much blacker and less light-hearted. The environment is surreal and the dialogue is strict, very strict. Even if you occasionally find Burma's thoughts and dialogue satirical and hilarious, the smile does not really want to break out. It tightens and stops.

Malet's way of writing can at times feel quite static. There are no long detours, the road is marked from the beginning. Strictly. Dark. 'Noir'. Nestor Burma is the one who controls and finally finds the solution. People are neither completely evil nor good, but behave like people in general. Nestor Burma is not a character you easily love, but you can tolerate him. Mostly because he, in his own way, stands for justice when someone has been exposed to injustice.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - My French Dinner

Thyme for Tea is hosting another Paris in July challenge this year. Now I am ready for my contribution to a French dinner.  Being on the road in our camper van, it is not that easy to make a French dinner. I still wanted to try something in all simplicity. At the time of the dinner I was at the Inari lake in north eastern part of Finland. A beautiful lake and we got a place just by the water. 

In this part of the world the supermarkets mostly have basic things connected to France. They have a lot of local specialities that we also tried out. But, now it is all French. I managed to buy a brie and a camembert but that was about it. Oh, I also managed to find a beautiful wine from one of our favourite producers Guigal. 

I pretend with this dinner that making the menu card in French will make everybody believe that this is a genuin French dinner. So here we go, the MENU!

My husband, Martin, made the spaghetti. This recipe is one he makes very well and I always enjoy it. Being in the north and it being summer strawberries is a must. Especially tasty with whipped cream which the French call 'chantilly'. Plat de fromage is all French and with the pleasant Côtes-du-Rhône from Guigal, dinner was saved. 

Especially enjoying to eat it outdoors in a beautiful environment. 

Sunday, 18 July 2021

The Classic Club Spin # 27




I had just updated my list for the Classic Club Spin and ... voilá there is the e-mail with the number. This month's spin number is 6 and that means Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. That is a book I dread a little bit, but I will try to get through it.  This is my list. 

1. The Master and Margarita by Michail Bulgakov

2. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Carter

3. Daisy Miller by Henry James

4. The Seahawk by Rafael Sabatini.   

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoj 

6. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

7. Child Harold by Lord Byron

8. House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

9. The Red and the Black by Stendhal

10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

11. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

12. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James 

13. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

14. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

15. To Have and Have not by Ernest Hemingway

16. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

17. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

18. The Brothers Karamazov by Fjodor Dostoevsky

19. The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

20. A Writer's Notebook by Somerset Maugham


I did take out two books which I know I will not read; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf (although I do like Woolf). The paper book of Lawrence is at home, so will see if I can get hold of an e-book version, since I am living van life in the north of Sweden.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - A Climate of Fear (Temps glaciaires) by Fred Vargas

Time for a French author for Paris in July. Fred Vargas is a favourite and I found an e-book copy from my library. This is book number 10 in the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series. Adamsberg is not the ordinary detective and so are not his colleagues. I think that is one reason why I enjoy Vargas' books. The whole police precinct consists of individual characters with, sometimes, strange habits. The other reason I enjoy her books is that the murder stories often go back in time and often have historical links. As is the case in this book. Here we go back to Maximilian Robespierre and the French Revolution.

"A woman is found murdered in her bathtub, and the murder has been made to look like a suicide. But a strange symbol found at the crime scene leads the local police to call Commissaire Adamsberg and his team. When the symbol is found near the body of a second disguised suicide, a pattern begins to emerge: both victims were part of a disastrous expedition to Iceland over ten years ago where a group of tourists found themselves trapped on a deserted island for two weeks, surrounded by a thick, impenetrable fog rumored to be summoned by an ancient local demon. Two of them didn t make it back alive. But how are the deaths linked to the secretive Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre? And what does the mysterious symbol signify?"

A thrilling mystery set both in France and on Iceland. The search for the murder is going slowly, but what I can imagine as rather realistic. Adamsberg finds a clue here, another there, and when they seem to show him in different directions, he might go for a walk to clear his head. Or drink a bear with his neighbour. Sooner or later the clues come together and he can present the culprit. Not in grand style like Monsieur Poirot, but with discretion. 

The story moves slowly forward and have all the features for a good detective story. Old family drama, threats, peculiar societies, mysterious murders and much more. What about a wild boar as a domestic animal? People obsessed with Maximilian Robespierre dressing up in 18th century clothes and re-enacting his speeches. A lot of things to find here. The culprit is hidden until the very end, but he/she cannot trick commissaire Adamsberg. A very exciting read that kept me up until late. 

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Another day in Paris and what is more perfect than to combine Paris and a bookshop? That is what Nina George does in her novel about Monsieur Perdu and his broken heart. 

“There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even remedies—I mean books—that were written for one person only…A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.”

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can't seem to heal through literature is himself; he's still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.

After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself."

This story could easily become banal and tear dripping, but Nina George is balancing the lives of her characters in a marvellous way. As we meet Monsieur Perdu he is living a simple and lonely life. Perdu means lost in French and we realise rather quickly that he is really lost. Twenty years earlier his girlfriend left him and he never got over it. For twenty years he has been living in an apartment house where he politely speaks with the neighbours, without getting too personal, but still knowing what is going on in the house. Something changes when a young writer, Max, who unexpectedly made a hit with his first book, moves into the house. He is traumatised by the pressure of writing another book and is hiding from the world. Then Catherine moves in opposite Monsieur Perdu. She has been dumped by her husband and is left without much belongings. When Monsieur Perdu offers her an old table, his life takes an unexpected turn.

The characters of this book are likeable although one is wondering what they are doing with their lives. Monsieur Perdu is of course the most scary example of someone who stopped living his life, due to an unhappy love affair. Max withdraws from the world due to outside pressure and Catherine is licking her wounds in isolation. Sometimes one might need a sparkle of some kind to be able to see ones own life from the outside. This happens to Perdu when he finally reads the letter his girl friend sent him that long ago. This is the turning point of his sad life and at the spur of the moment he heads south searching for the truth. By chance Max is accompanying him on the trip and as they run into new acquaintances, see other kinds of circumstances, they start themselves to reconsider their own lives. 

Nina George holds the reins of her story strictly to the end. Of course I did cry a little bit as always, but the story never enters into banality or very, romantic notions, although one can guess the end. It stays stable on the ground and I think that is why I really liked this book. Maybe also because I thought it would be a very romantic read, but found sort of realistic characters and personal feelings. A feel good novel, with a little bit more food for thoughts than usual run books of this kind.  


Saturday, 10 July 2021

Paris in July 2021 - Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin

It is already 10 July and this is my first post for Paris in July 2021. I am on the road in our camper van and it has been difficult to find time to blog. I have been reading a few books and made a French dinner so there are some posts coming up soon. 

However, I would like to start with a book I read and reviewed in May. It is such a wonderful and interesting historical fiction of Jeanne Hébuterne who was the muse of Amedeo Modigliani. Linda Lappin has written a novel, not only of the life of the two artists, but also of Paris. We meet Paris in the past and present. Both are as exciting as they can be, although the past gives us a kind of magic and dark side of Paris. 

"Amedeo Modigliani, embittered and unrecognized genius, dies of meningitis on a cold January day in Montparnasse in 1920. Jeanne Hébuterne, his young wife and muse, follows 48 hours later, falling backwards through a window. Now a ghost, Jeanne drifts about the studio she shared with Modigliani—for she was not only his favorite model, but also an artist whose works were later shut away from public view after her demise. Enraged, she watches as her belongings are removed from the studio and her identity as an artist seemingly effaced for posterity, carried off in a suitcase. Thus begins Loving Modigliani, retelling the story of Jeanne Hébuterne’s fate as a woman and an artist through three timelines and three precious objects stolen from the studio: a diary, a bangle, and a self-portrait of Jeanne depicted together with Modi and their daughter. A century later, Jeanne Hébuterne’s artwork will be rescued from oblivion."

 


I am fascinating by historical fiction about artists. They seem to be people so different from the rest of us. As we admire their free spirits, the sacrifices they make for their art and the simple, and often, poor lives they live (at least before they become famous), we can stay outside and look in. 

 The beginning of the novel takes you straight into the action and into a paranormal and gothic world.

"The ringing in my ears ceased with the dull thud of a heavy weight hurled out from a high window, crashing into the courtyard. I blacked out as a wave of pain surged through my body, traveling to the tips of my fingers and the roots of my hair. I'd barely had time to glimpse my brother André's face gawking through the open window frame, to hear the neighbours cat yowling on the balcony below us or the precipitation of feet on the stairs. Then there I was, conscious again, rather bewildered but intact, suspended in the air a few inches above that bloody heap on the cobblestones. A taut, transparent string protruding from my belly seemed to be attaching me to it."

It is an excellent opening to the story. Jeanne's travel in the other world continues over time. She is looking for Modigliani with whom she wants to be re-united. With the help of a cat she wanders restlessly around this new, unknown world, searching for her man. Going in and out of different 'doors' she enters other time zones and dimensions, where she soon becomes aware of what is happening with her inheritance. It is magically written and we are there with Jeanne as she roams around the streets of Paris that is so well known to her. It is a mixture of fantasy, gothic and magic and Lappin makes it look so true. First I thought we were going to stay in this world the whole book, and I was a little bit disappointed. But, as the story continues I found it a rather genius way of telling the story. But Lappin does not let us stay there, she has two other story lines up her sleeve. 

In the second part the story moves to 1981 and an American art student in Paris on a scholarship. She encounters a woman who new Jeanne. As strange things are happening she is drawn deeper and deeper into the life of Jeanne and Modigliani. Underlying secrets coming up to the surface, and lost paintings see the daylight again. To find out the secret, the two of them goes on a trip from Paris, to the French Riviera, to Rome, in search of answers. 

The third part takes place some ten years later in Venice when an art critic is organising the first ever exhibition of Jeanne Hébutern's works. All of a sudden a lost painting is turning up. And, we hear from Jeanne again. She, still invisible to the world, but her art is about to come out of its hiding. 

After her death at only 22 years old, her brother, André, collected and kept her art in the family. Her relationship with Modigliani and her work was shameful for them.  Only after André's death could her drawings and paintings be shown to the public. Jeanne is one of all those muses to famous painters and sculptures that were talented and could have made a career of their own. 

Linda Lappin has written a magical and fantastic story of the life of Jeanne Hébuterne. Thorough research and dedication to the object, she has given us the pleasure, for a moment, to get to know Jeanne, her life, feelings and inheritance. The story is treated with love and sensitivity. Well written both in prose, story development and historical facts, it contains fantasy, magic, suspense and gothic elements. It is a tribute to Jeanne Hébuterne and her art. One of the best historical fictions I have read.  

I received the novel via NetGalley and Linda Lappin for an impartial review. The views above are my own. 

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Summer reading continuing ...

 I have finished another two books from the pile I got from my parent's house, which I wrote about under Just checking in ... The first three books I did a very short review on in Summer reading. The next two books are: 

The Storrington Papers by Dorothy Eden 

I used to read a lot of Dorothy Eden when I was younger, and I know remember how I loved her books. Even reading her again so many years later was a pleasure. 

"For Sarah Goodwill, still reeling in the aftershock of a disastrous marriage, the position of secretary-ghostwriter to Major Charles Storrington seems the ideal opportunity to exorcise a few demons of her own. Sarah will help Major Storrington, confined to a wheelchair by the tank accident that finished a promising military career, to research and write the family history of the Storringtons, an armaments dynasty. She will also serve as governess to his small son."

Through old documents and a diary Sarah is taken back to the beginning of the century and the family that then lived in the mansion of Maidenshall. She quickly discovers that past happenings are coinciding with her own position in the family. Then there is the famous governess, not to talk about the old nurse to Major Charles Storrington. Now in her nineties, she seems absentminded, but who is she really? Keeps you guessing to the very end. A wonderful summer's day reading. 


The Son of the Thunder God by Arto Paasilinna

This is my first book by Arto Paasilinna, and it teases for more. 

"The Finnish people clearly no longer believe in their own God. This is the conclusion drawn by a crisis meeting consisting of pagan deities. That’s when Ukko, the supreme god, decides to intervene. He sends his son, Rutja, to earth in order to convert Finland’s people back to their true religion.

But Rutja needs a disguise, otherwise the Finnish authorities might just step in. He swaps places with Sampsa Ronkainen, an easy-going Helsinki antiques dealer and a true believer. Next, as if on cue, the beautiful Helinä arrives to audit Ronkainen‘s accounts. Rutja secures his first disciple. From here on out, things happen at breakneck speed."

This is a hilarious take on the Messias theme. What happens in the modern world when a new Messias is sent to earth to convince people to believe in him. The obstacles Rutja encounters tell a lot about how our society works today. It is fun, it is food for thought and gives a whole new dimension on the world we live in, our society and people living today. A wonderful book. 


Sunday, 20 June 2021

Summer reading


The reading has been rather slow for me in June. Being on the road does not give much time for this pleasure. We have bought a camper van and is now touring the north of Sweden. Wonderful experience of nature. For those of you who speak Swedish, or just want to look at pictures, can follow me on Den tillfälliga besökaren

Another obstacle with a van is that there is not so much space for more than the necessary things. As mentioned in the post 'Just checking in...' I choose a few books from self-service book shelves and those I have brought with me. I leave them at various camping as I have finished them. Here a few summary reviews of what I read. 

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason Another thrilling and intriguing story from Iceland. Detective Sigurdur Oli is contacted by friends to investigate a blackmail. Upon visiting the suspected blackmailer Sigurdur Oli finds her murdered. The friendship makes the solving of the case more difficult for him, and many times he suspects his own friends. It takes him through all levels of society, through greed and pride before he finally finds the culprit. 

Bad Intensions by Karin Fossum Three old friends meet in a cottage in the woods. In the middle of the night they venture out in a rowing boat. One of the friends does not come back. Fossum are excellent in keeping suspense and a psychological twist to her stories. It is hinted that something terrible happened in the past which affects the three friends. Two of them more than the third. Thrilling story about ordinary people. 

A Lady at Last by Brenda Joyce The pirate father of Amanda, called La Sauvage, is sentenced and executed and she is alone in the world. Another pirate, Cliff de Warenne, of noble ancestry and pirating only on behalf of the government, is charges with Amanda. He will take her to London to meet her mother whom she has never met. This is a real romance, almost too much, but it is after all summer and an easy, romantic read, came in handy. Daring and beautiful pirates and bold and beautiful women. It takes quite some time before this story is finished, but I think we can all guess how it ends up in the end. 

Now I am continuing with Arto Paasilinna's The Son of the Thunder God.


Friday, 18 June 2021

Paris in July - 2021


Thyme for Tea is hosting another Paris in July challenge this year. One of my favourite challenges so I am happy to join. Here is the introduction: 

"Paris is alluring for so many reasons — the incredible culinary adventures you can have, its lens into history through its architecture and art museums, its walkability and world-class shopping. There is a lot to see and do in Paris and first-timers can have a hard time fitting it all in. "

Here, at Paris in July blogging central, we are connecting you with other lovers of Paris through the month long blogging event. Over the past 10 years, participants have used this event to post about new recipes, favourite holiday memories, best books on Paris, set in Paris, about Parisiennes, music from Paris, best cocktails found in Paris, favourite walks in Paris.... almost anything about Paris or France. 

We cant really go to Paris right now, but here we will share many different sides of our love of french things, and Paris. "

This year I am 'on the road' with our new camper van, meaning it is more difficult for me to arrange anything French, like a dinner, or watch a movie (bad internet on most campings), but I will do my best to at least read a few books. I might come up with something else, inspired by you all.

If you want to join, head on to Tamara's web-site linked above.  

I already have in my possession Nina George's book The Little Bookshop in Paris which I will read. I went to my, far too long, list of books I want to read. Books that have been recommended by you, my fellow bloggers. From the titles I found these belonging to Paris and France:

Black, Cara - Murder-on-Ile-Saint-Louis

Cahill, Susan - The streets of Paris

Castigliano, Frederico - Flaneur

Diliberto, Gioia - Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife (NF)

Garelick, Rhonda - Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

Hamad, Isabel - The Parisian

Kincher, Paulita - Paris Runaway

MacLeod, Janice - Paris Letters

Rowlands, Penelope - Paris was ours

Hopefully some of them are available by e-book via my library. Let's see where I end up. It would also be good to read som French authors so will see what is available.

Hope to see you in Paris in July.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Paris in July 2021


Ah, it is this time of the year. The time when we go to Paris in July to share our love for everything French. Tamara at Thyme for Tea is hosting again, thank you so much. I think this challenge is a favourite for many of us. 

This year will be a little different for me. We have bought a Camper van and are going around Sweden on a camping tour. We are heading towards the north on Saturday and hope to all the way up to the Midnight Sun. I am not sure what I will do this year, but read some books connected, one way or the other to Paris and France. I will start with Nina George's The Little Bookshop in Paris. I have heard good things about it, so it will be a good start.

Maybe, I will be able to do a French dinner in our van. Let's see what I kind of ingredients I can find. Maybe a French movie or a TV-series, and listen to some French music. I also hope to be inspired by your choices. 

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Just checking in...

 Several weeks has passed since I last posted here. I have been on the road with our new camper van and been busy visiting family and friends (all with safe distance) I have not seen for long. On Saturday me and my husband Martin, har heading to the north of Sweden. Camping seems like a good idea these days and we expect to keep distance, but still be able to enjoy nature.

Visiting my parents for a few days before we head north. Outside our guest flat there are two book cases with books given by people who live here. I must say that the books are from several genres, many of them I have already read. I have chosen seven of the books to take with me for our trip. They can easily be given to someone else, or a camping, to be enjoyed by other people. 

The Content Reader

I choose these books from various genres: 

Dorothy Eden - The Storrington Papers (used to read Eden when I was young, but have not read anything for quite some time. Should be an easy summer's read.)

Karin Fossum - Bad Intensions (I have enjoyed other books by her and the story seems interesting. I always have a weakness for stories where something is hidden in the past.)

Nina George - The Little Paris Bookshop (Heard good things about it and it will be a perfect read for Paris in July.)

Arnaldur Indridason - Black Skies (Love Indridason's books and I don't think I have read this one.)

Brenda Joyce - A Lady at Last (A little Harlequin romance cannot be wrong in the summer.)

Haruki Murakami - Killing Commendatore (Have read just a few of his books and am looking forward to this one.)

Arto Paasilinna - The Son of the Thunder God (Heard good things about Paasilinna's books and wanted to read something by him. Luckily, I found this one.)

I also have a few other books to read connected to the different challenges I am following. Hopefully I will catch up one day. 

Friday, 14 May 2021

How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

 


Samantha Ellis has recently written a book about Anne Brontë called: Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life.  I was rattending a zoom meeting with The Brussels Brontë Group a couple of weeks ago, where Samantha held a talk about the book, her research and her relationship with the Brontës. A must read. In the meantime, I found one of her earlier books in the library, How to be a Heroine - Or What I Have Learned From Reading Too Much.

"While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives."

A wonderful, witty account of her reading and how it has formed her life. The heroines she has chosen to highlight has guided her through different phases of her life and also gave some comfort when times were hard. We get a good background to her life as a teenager and as a grown up. It is very well done and makes for interesting reading.

So, who are the heroines who have been such an important part and an inspiration in life? 

The Little Mermaid, Anne of the Green Gables, Lizzy Bennet, Scarlett O'Hara, Franny Glass, Esther Greenwood, Valley of he Dolls, Cathy Earnshaw, Flora Poste and Scheherazade. 

I can't say I know of all of them, but most. Some of them has also affected me during my reading. An easy read and a must for anyone with heroines in their life. 

For those of you interested in a summary of her talk for The Brussels Brontë Group, here are two links. 

A review by Pauline Ghyselen and by Helen MacEwan

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Morgan's Passing by Anne Tyler


 The Anne Tyler project is hosted by Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home. We read two books a month and this is the second book for May. So, slightly late here is my review. 

"Morgan Gower works at Cullen's hardware store in north Baltimore. He has seven daughters and a warmhearted wife, but as he journeys into the gray area of middle age, he finds his household growing tedious. Then Morgan meets two lovely young newlyweds under some rather extreme circumstances--and all three discover that no one's heart is safe..."

The young protagonists in this novel are Emily and Leon. Emily fell head over heal in love with Leon at university. Leon is a very extrovert young man, aiming to be an actor, while Emily is rather introvert. As we have seen in other Tyler novels, a relationship starts out with a strong and driving man, loved by a rather quiet but determined woman. Somewhere along the line this balance of power slowly changes. This love story reminds me of Evie and Casey in A Slipping Down Life

We first meet the young couple as they are managing a puppet show. In the middle of it all Emily, who is pregnant, goes into labour. Leon asks the public if there is any doctor there. After a short while a man gets up and says he is a doctor. He says not to worry, babies do not come that fast, I will take you to the hospital. On the way there the baby is also on its way and they have to stop midway. The doctor helps out with the birth and has everything in his hands by the time the ambulance comes. 

This is our introduction to Morgan Gower, a man of many talents. We soon learn he is not a doctor at all, but he goes around town pretending to be someone else. He dresses out in strange costumes, help out where is needed. Whatever need there is, he is the specialist needed. He is so convincing so people always believe in him.

With the birth of Emily's and Leon's baby he forms a special interest in them. He starts following Emily around, wearing different disguises. She soon discovers that he is there but pretends she does not know. Today we would call this behaviour for stalking and it is not a good thing. However it is, Morgan soon becomes a part of the couple's life.

At home he has a wife and seven, or is it eight(?) daughters so the house is full. Most of them have already got married and moved out. His mother and sister have moved in instead. As in other Tyler novels, here is a big house, described in detail, inhabited with strange characters. Everyone seems to be living life in their own style and occasionally they intermingle. A problem with Morgan is that he loves his daughters while they are young but when they grow up he looses interest. There is no indication of anything inappropriate, but today we are more aware of sensitive situations.

"She said, "Couldn't you still love the girls anyhow? You don't stop loving people just because they change size."

I am fascinated by Tyler's occupation with houses and their inhabitants. Here I find similarities with The Clock Winder which is also about a big house with strange inhabitants. Bonnie, the wife of Morgan, is like a queen holding the strings to keep the house on its course.

"He never saw the mysterious way the house started slipping downward, or sideways, or whatever it was that it was doing."

The story takes an unexpected turn when Morgan, rather tired of the unruly and loud environment of his house, more often venture out in different disguises. And when he and Emily become more entangled their lives take another turn.

The character of Morgan is quite different from other characters in her novels. He sticks out, just like Jeremy in Celestial Navigation. Two characters who live in their own world, but sometimes integrate with other people. Even if this is not my absolute favourite of her books, I enjoyed the story and to see what Morgan would do with his life. Emily and Leon, like Evie and Casey do grow apart and start new lives. Tyler always has an interesting approach to family ties and that is what her books are about. It will be interesting to see how I feel about the different family connections once I have read them all.

I cannot help finishing off with a letter Morgan wrote to one of his daughters. He writes a lot of letters but never send them off. Maybe it is some kind of therapy. Anyway, this letter reveals a lot of his character, and I would say, fits quite well into the thinking of modern people when it comes to belongings.

"Dear Amy,

I notice that you appear to be experiencing some difficulty with household clutter.

Understand that I'm not blaming you for this, your mother has the same problem. But as I've been telling her for years, there is a solution.

Simply take a cardboard box, carry it through the rooms, load into it everyone's toys and dirty clothes and such, and hide it all in a closet. If people ask for some missing object, you'll be able to tell them where it is. If they don't ask (now, here is the important part), if a week goes by and they don't notice the object is gone, then you can be sure it's nonessential, and you throw it away. You would be surprised at how many things are non-essential. Throw everything away, all of it! Simplify! Don't hesitate!

All my love, sweetheart,

Daddy"

A good advice even today for cluttered houses. 

 

Friday, 7 May 2021

How To Read Novels Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster



I am not a professor in literature, but I would like to be. Unfortunately, this will never happen, so, I have to go along trying to read novels and literature like a professor. Thomas C. Foster's book is therefor a very useful tool. He has also written How To Read Literature Like A Professor, which sounds like another useful read.

It is not only a book for readers. I would say it is also useful for aspring writers. How do you make a novel interesting? What does it have to contain? Who should be the narrator and what should he/she do? The content gives a hint on what makes up a good book. 

Pickup Lines and Open(ing) Seductions, or Why Novels Have First Pages - are we not fascinated by how certain writers manage to hook you on the first sentence? This seems to be one of the most important sentences in a book and Foster mentions a few excellent openings. I love good openings and cannot help but quote them here, although I am sure you are already familiar with them (I only knew 2,4 and 5):

  • "What's it going to be, then?"
  • "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
  • "This is the saddest story I ever heard."
  • "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife."
  • "At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj' Ali Abu Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar."

"The first page, sometimes the first paragraph, even the first sentence, can give you everything you need to know to read the novel. How? By conveying some or all of the eighteen things the first page can tell you." Eighteen things to include in the first page! That must be rather tough. Let's see what he partly says (more reflections in the book).

  1. Style - short or long sentences? Simple or complex? Rushed or leisurely? "The first page of any Hemingway novel will impress us with short sentences and a strong sense that the writer was badly frightened in infancy by words ending in "ly"." Writers inspired by Hemingway; Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.
  2. Tone - Every book has a tone. Is it elegiac, or matter-of-fact, or ironic? A tonal masterpiece is the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. 
  3. Mood - Similar to tone but not quite the same. Not like tone which is about what the voice sounds like, here it is about what it is telling. For example Nick Carraway's narration in The Great Gatsby. "So what is it, we wonder at once, that he's not quite saying here?"
  4. Diction - What kind of words does the novel use? Common or rare? Friendly or challenging? Are the sentences whole or fractured...? A Clockwork Orange set as example with the "deceptive simple query, "What's it going to be, then?".
  5. Point of view  - Who is the narrator? 
  6. Narrative presence - Is the narrator inside or outside the story? First person narrators are clear, but what about third-person narrators? In the old days the third person narrator was more someone of the world, amused by what was going on, while in modern times the narrator is often impersonal, detached and cool (Hemingway, Anita Brookner).
  7. Narrative attitude - toward characters and events. "Austen's are generally amused, slightly aloof, a little superior. Dickens's tend to be earnest, involved direct... Flaubert's narrator in Madame Bovary is famously cool and impersonal..."
  8. Time frame - When is all this happening? Contemporaneously or a long time ago? How can we tell? Does the novel cover a lot of time or a little? "That "many years later" of the García Marzquez opening is magical. It says, first of all, that this novel will cover a great deal of time, enough for a small child holding his farther's hand to rise to power and fall from it."
  9. Time management - Will time go fast or slow in this novel? Is it being told in or near the now of the story or long after?
  10. Place - Place is a sense of things, a mode of thought, a way of seeing. 
  11. Motif - Stuff that happens again and again. Motif can be image, action, language pattern, anything that happens again and again. Like miracles and the colonel's narrow escapes in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like the flowers in Mrs. Dalloway.
  12. Theme - Story is what gets a novel going and what we focus on, but theme is one of the things that makes it worthwhile.
  13. Irony - Or not - some novels are in dead earnest. The entire nineteenth century springs to mind.
  14. Rhythm -There are two levels of rhythm in a novel: prose and narrative.
  15. Pace - How fast do we go? Foster quotes the opening from Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. This is not going to be a hundred-yard dash. Everything about the passage says "leisurely" - the long, abstract words, the embedded "some people never do," the sense that his should be no more rushed than the event, if you can call it that, that it describes. James is never frantic, never in a hurry.
  16. Expectations - Of the writer, of the reader. 
  17. Character -Not always on page one, but more often than not. The bottom line: people are helpful to start a novel.
  18. Instructions on how to read the novel - All of these previously mentioned elements go into teaching us how the novel wants to be read. Whether we read it that way or not is, naturally, our call. But every novel wants to be read in a certain way. 

Who's in Charge Here? - yes, narration could be difficult. "Perhaps the novelist's hardest task is deciding who should tell the story. Main character? Secondary character?" Can we trust the narrator? Is he/she reliable? Obviously more important than one usually realise. 

Wrinkles in Time, or Chapters Just Might Matter - "You pick up a novel, open to page one, and your heart sinks. Why? No number, no title. In other words, no chapters. You're facing the black prospect of life without breaks, the long, long slog through an untrammelled narrative wilderness." I understand the feeling. 

Drowning in the Stream of Consciousness - "Once upon a time, narrative was simple. You said what characters did, you quoted their dialogue, and, if need be, you told what they thought: ... But then, as Virginia Woolf points out. "On or about December 1910, human nature changed." Certainly the novelist's relationship to consciousness did. As a result of huge changes in the scientific and philosophical understanding of the mind - the by-products of work by Freud and Jung ... the depiction of consciousness became much more fluid. And messy."

Foster guides us through novels of various kinds. Often he comes back to Ulysses, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Alice in Wonderland, but he refers to other novels as well, from classics having made a mark in literature, to more modern stories.

It is an easy, enjoyable read down literature lane. Lots of good advice how to interpret or find out what the author is trying to convey to the reader. It is written in a humorous way and sometimes I laughed out loud. A perfect non-fiction book about fiction books.




Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin

 


"Amedeo Modigliani, embittered and unrecognized genius, dies of meningitis on a cold January day in Montparnasse in 1920. Jeanne Hébuterne, his young wife and muse, follows 48 hours later, falling backwards through a window. Now a ghost, Jeanne drifts about the studio she shared with Modigliani—for she was not only his favorite model, but also an artist whose works were later shut away from public view after her demise. Enraged, she watches as her belongings are removed from the studio and her identity as an artist seemingly effaced for posterity, carried off in a suitcase. Thus begins Loving Modigliani, retelling the story of Jeanne Hébuterne’s fate as a woman and an artist through three timelines and three precious objects stolen from the studio: a diary, a bangle, and a self-portrait of Jeanne depicted together with Modi and their daughter. A century later, Jeanne Hébuterne’s artwork will be rescued from oblivion."

I am fascinating by historical fiction about artists. They seem to be people so different from the rest of us. As we admire their free spirits, the sacrifices they make for their art and the simple, and often, poor lives they live (at least before they become famous), we can stay outside and look in. 

 The beginning of the novel takes you straight into the action and into a paranormal and gothic world.

"The ringing in my ears ceased with the dull thud of a heavy weight hurled out from a high window, crashing into the courtyard. I blacked out as a wave of pain surged through my body, traveling to the tips of my fingers and the roots of my hair. I'd barely had time to glimpse my brother André's face gawking through the open window frame, to hear the neighbours cat yowling on the balcony below us or the precipitation of feet on the stairs. Then there I was, conscious again, rather bewildered but intact, suspended in the air a few inches above that bloody heap on the cobblestones. A taut, transparent string protruding from my belly seemed to be attaching me to it."

It is an excellent opening to the story. Jeanne's travel in the other world continues over time. She is looking for Modigliani with whom she wants to be re-united. With the help of a cat she wanders restlessly around this new, unknown world, searching for her man. Going in and out of different 'doors' she enters other time zones and dimensions, where she soon becomes aware of what is happening with her inheritance. It is magically written and we are there with Jeanne as she roams around the streets of Paris that is so well known to her. It is a mixture of fantasy, gothic and magic and Lappin makes it look so true. First I thought we were going to stay in this world the whole book, and I was a little bit disappointed. But, as the story continues I found it a rather genius way of telling the story. But Lappin does not let us stay there, she has two other story lines up her sleeve. 

In the second part the story moves to 1981 and an American art student in Paris on a scholarship. She encounters a woman who new Jeanne. As strange things are happening she is drawn deeper and deeper into the life of Jeanne and Modigliani. Underlying secrets coming up to the surface, and lost paintings see the daylight again. To find out the secret, the two of them goes on a trip from Paris, to the French Riviera, to Rome, in search of answers. 

The third part takes place some ten years later in Venice when an art critic is organising the first ever exhibition of Jeanne Hébutern's works. All of a sudden a lost painting is turning up. And, we hear from Jeanne again. She, still invisible to the world, but her art is about to come out of its hiding. 

After her death at only 22 years old, her brother, André, collected and kept her art in the family. Her relationship with Modigliani and her work was shameful for them.  Only after André's death could her drawings and paintings be shown to the public. Jeanne is one of all those muses to famous painters and sculptures that were talented and could have made a career of their own. 

Linda Lappin has written a magical and fantastic story of the life of Jeanne Hébuterne. Thorough research and dedication to the object, she has given us the pleasure, for a moment, to get to know Jeanne, her life, feelings and inheritance. The story is treated with love and sensitivity. Well written both in prose, story development and historical facts, it contains fantasy, magic, suspense and gothic elements. It is a tribute to Jeanne Hébuterne and her art. One of the best historical fictions I have read.  

I received the novel via NetGalley and Linda Lappin for an impartial review. The views above are my own. 

Friday, 30 April 2021

Book Beginnings on Fridays and The Page 56

 


This week's book I have not yet read. However, I have seen references here and there and I am really excited to start The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. Here the summary.

"Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie's reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?

The periodic table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow all the elements on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.  The Disappearing Spoon masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery, and alchemy, from the Big Bang through the end of time."

Does it not sounds intriguing? Can hardly wait to start this book.  



Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader


"As a child in the early 1980s, I tended to talk with things in my mouth - food, dentist's tubes, balloons that would fly away, whatever - and if no one else was around, I'd talk anyway. This habit led to my fascination with the periodic table the first time I was left alone with a thermometer under my tongue."



The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice



"In the end, it's probably impossible to tease out whether the heads or tails of science, the theory or the experiment, has done more to push science ahead. "

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

Here another instalment in the Anne Tyler project (hosted by Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home). This month's first book is Earthly Possessions, and it might be my absolute favourite so far. 

"Charlotte Emory has always lived a quiet, conventional life in Clarion, Maryland. She lives as simply as possible, and one day decides to simplify everything and leave her husband. Her last trip to the bank throws Charlotte's life into an entirely different direction when a restless young man in a nylon jacket takes her hostage during the robbery--and soon the two are heading south into an unknown future, and a most unexpected fate...."

Maybe you can say that being taken hostage is typical of Charlotte. People seem to be drawn to her. It was of course coincidental that the nervous young man grabbed her, but still. Charlotte being Charlotte meant that she trotted along as the robber ran away with her from the scene. As we follow Charlotte on her trip with the robber, Jake Simms, we get glimpses of her past life. Jake is a somewhat lost, a young man and Charlotte is a woman of experience and turns out to be the stronger of the two. 

Long before this specific point Charlotte's life never did go according to plan. Her parents were not like other parents; her mother so obese she could hardly move and her father a recluse who spent most of his time in his photo studio. Her main aim as a young girl was to get away from the family and the town. She enrolled to study at university, but had not even started when her father died and she had to take care of her mother who became more or less bedridden. 

This is when she feels she has to clean up her life, that is, get rid of her earthly possessions. Somehow they represent the burden that is lingering over her life and traps her. One day the oldest son of the former neighbours is back and rents a room in her house. Charlotte always loved his family, so different from her own. They start to go out together and end up being married to Saul without Charlotte really figuring out how it all happened.  Saul is very religious and educates himself to become a priest. Another burden on Charlotte who does not  believe in God. 

"Which is not to say I didn't go to church. Oh, no, I showed up every Sunday morning, sitting between my mother and Julian, smiling my glazed wifely smile. I believe I almost enjoyed it; I took some pleasure in his distance, in my own dreamy docility and my private, untouchable deafness. His words slipped past me like the sound of a clock or an ocean. Meanwhile I watched his hands gripping the pulpit, I admired his chiseled lips. Plotted how to get him into bed with me. There was something magical about the pew that sent all my thoughts swooning toward bed. Contrariness, I suppose. He was against making love on a Sunday. I was in favour of it. Sometimes I won, sometimes he won. I wouldn't have missed Sunday for the world."

When Saul moves in it comes with furniture from his old house and all of a sudden her almost empty house is now full again. Not only of furniture, but of people. When Saul encounters needy people he puts out a helping hand. 

Charlotte reminds me of Elizabeth in The Clock Winder. Like Elizabeth she seems to draw people to her. Nothing is too complicated for her to take care of.

"I didn't understand you. Now I see everyone grabbing for the pieces of you, and still you're never diminished. Clutching on your skirts and they don't even slow you down. And you're the one who told her the truth; I heard you. Said the word out loud. Cancer. You sail through this house like a moon, you're strong enough for all of them."

I think the last sentence above is a key to the whole novel. As before, Anne Tyler gives us a strong female character who, in the end, seems to be above everything else. The sun that shines in the lives of the people surrounding her, just like Elizabeth does. Reading all of Tyler's novels like we are doing now, clearly highlights her family stories. Strong female characters, seemingly dependent on someone; mother, father, brother or husband, but in the end, going through life with a perspective and drive to achieve something. Apparently having a plan. Reaching a point where they make a decision how to live their lives. It can be staying put and be happy with how things are, or choose another way.   

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Through Belgian Eyes by Helen MacEwan


Helen MacEwan is one of the initial founders of The Brussels Brontë Group. The Group is dedicated to research the years that Charlotte and Emily spent in Brussels. Helen has written another three books connected to the Brontës in Brussels; Down the Belliard Steps (about the founding of the Group), The Brontës in Brussels (a 'guided' tour of places and history connected to the Brontës), Winifred Ghérin, Biographer of the Brontës. Through Belgian Eyes, with the under title Charlotte Brontë's Troubled Brussels Legacy takes a look at how the Belgians handle/d Charlotte Brontë's attitude to Brussels and the Belgians. Mainly through her two books set in Brussels, The Professor and Villette. And, why it took so long for the Belgians to acknowledge her greatness. 

"Charlotte Brontë's years in Belgium (1842-43) had a huge influence both on her life and her work. It was in Brussels that she not only honed her writing skills but fell in love and lived through the experiences that inspired two of her four novels: her first, The Professor, and her last and in many ways most interesting, Villette. Her feelings about Belgium are known - her love for her tutor Heger, her uncomplimentary remarks about Belgians, the powerful effect on her imagination of living abroad. But what about Belgian views of Charlotte Brontë? How have Belgian commentators responded to her portrayal of their capital city and their society? Through Belgian Eyes explores a wide range of responses from across the Channel.

In the process, it examines what The Professor and Villette tell Belgian readers about their capital in the 1840s and provides the Brussels background to the novels. Brussels has inspired few outstanding works of literature, and that makes Villette, considered by many to be Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece, of particular interest as a portrait of the Belgian capital a decade after the country gained independence in 1830, and just before the city was transformed out of all recognition from the 'villette' (small town) that Charlotte knew. Her view of Brussels is contrasted with those of other foreign visitors and of the Belgians themselves."

Charlotte has been accused of being condescending and rude when it comes to the Belgians and Brussels. It took a long time for the Belgians to take her writing to their heart. Her infatuation with Monsieur Heger had a big impact on his family. It is now well established that the stay in Brussels had a huge impact on Charlotte's writing, if not on Emily's.  

A lot of research has gone into this book. It is quite impressing how Helen has gathered information from so many different sources, Belgian and foreign. There are references to articles and letters, archive documents as well as private ones. The book does not only deal with Charlotte and her relationship to Brussels and the Belgians, but it is also a history about the city and the country. Helen gives us a glimpse of life in those days, political as well as on private levels. What did Brussels look like in those day? How has it changed since Charlotte and Emily walked its streets? Is there anything left from that time? How did other exiled authors and well-known political persons look at Brussels? Helen has caught the spirit and atmosphere of that time.

Villette, Charlotte's masterpiece is the story about her Brussels, and based on the time she spent there. It is an interesting, but complicated book, and considered very personal as she had some difficult times there as well. However that is, Brussels somehow stayed with her for the rest of her life, and, in one way or the other, made it into her novels. Through Villette Helen shows us where Charlotte found inspiration for her writing. A little bit of detective work is coming into her account as she tries to locate paintings and venues which Charlotte wrote about. We meet Leopold I, we get an inside view on nineteenth-century boarding schools, her approach to Catholicism and much more. Even an anecdotal chapter on 'Charlotte in the Congo' (the Belgian colony at the time). 

If you are a fan of the Brontës you will find this book interesting (even without the Brontë connection it is an interesting account of Brussels in the first half of the 19th century), and it covers so much of Charlotte's stay and the time she spent there. There are still a few places left where Charlotte and Emily visited. They are included in The Brussels Brontë Group's guided tours that take place several times a year. If you are visiting Brussels have a look at the Group's web-site. 

Through Belgian Eyes includes many illustrations. Personally, I find the illustrations from old Brussels very interesting. Even if you know your way around Brussels, it can sometimes be difficult to get your bearings. So much has changed in these quarters. Helen guides you around the streets, squares and happenings with her engaging and well written account of a lost Brussels. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

The Habsburgs by Andrew Wheatcroft

 


A book about the Habsburgs is certainly going to be a thick one. A family with a long history and part of the European history for over 1000 years. In spite of this, Wheatcroft has been able to give an account of the family in just under 300 pages (not including footnotes and timelines). Considering the number of Habsburgs that have passed by during this time span, it is a thorough historical account of their lives and deeds. Some gets a little bit more space and some less, and rightly so. It starts with the first Dukes of Austria, originating from, what is today, south of Switzerland, in 1020 and continues to the last emperor, Karl I who was dethroned in 1919.  

I will not even try to make a summary of this interesting family and its input on the history of Europe. As with most ruling dynasties, it is a matter of wars, conquering of land, survival through intrigues, influence as well as personal lives through marriage, children and the fight for survival of the dynasty. As regards the latter part there were both good and bad sides of the motto of Austria: Felix Austria Nube.

"The impact of this Spanish fixation with blood and race on the Habsburgs remains conjectural. But their marriage patterns in the century and a half of the 'Madrid-Vienna axis' are unique in the history of Western Europe. 'Happy Austria marries': and it is a matter of record that the Habsburgs had gained their patchwork of lands by marriage alliances underestimates the intense military activity undertaken, especially in Italy to sustain and consolidate their holdings. It also, wrongly, suggests that other families did not use marriage in the same way to cement of consolidate political alliances. But what distinguished the Habsburgs' marriage strategy especially after the death of Charles V, was its inventiveness and capacity to adapt to new circumstances. No other royal house had developed so coherent a notion of 'the power of the blood'."

Royal marriages have always been a political game, and did most of the time, but not always, lead to unhappy marriages. However, many of the Habsburgs seemed to have loved their spouse and their children, in a way which was not common at the time. 

"Many Habsburg marriages seemed despite their political origins to have turned into genuine love-matches, and the anguish that Habsburg parents felt at the death of their children, even as tine infants, also seems unfeigned, even if expressed in terms of a dutiful resignation to the divine will."

One of the most famous of the emperors, and the man who consolidated and extended the then rather small empire of the Habsburgs, Maximilian I, was very much in love with his first wife, He married Mary of Burgundy, a request by his father, Frederick III. The union turned out to be a union of love from both sides. They were married in 1477 and Maximilian was devastated when she died in a riding accident in 1482. Fate does not always turn out that good. In 1493 he married Bianca Maria Sforza who brought a rich dowry and rights as imperial overlord of Milan. It was an unhappy marriage and they had no children. It generated a huge number of bastards though, and he seemed to have been very fond of them and provided for them. 

Maximilian died on 12 January, 1519, and is buried under the altar steps of the church of St George at Wiener Neustadt. "Where he was buried, he said, he would feel the priest stand on his chest when he raised the host during the mass. But his chest was an empty cavity, for his last command had been that his heart be embalmed, carried to Bruges, and reunited with the body of his first wife, Mary of Burgundy." I find this terribly romantic, and not typical for the time. 

The other face, and not such a nice one, of the Habsburg's marriage policy was the inbreeding. 

"Ferdinand III dutifully produced a total of eleven children, but only two sons who survived infancy. The death of his elder son, Ferdinand, from the universal scourge of smallpox in 1654 brought the younger brother Leopold to the fore, as the senior surviving male in the Austrian branch of the house of Habsburg. After 1665, he was the only surviving male member of his immediate lineage. Thus despite all this prodigious begetting, the twin Habsburg thrones (in the male line) depended on two sickly cousins, Leopold and Carlos. Although much has been made of the dire genetic effects of inbreeding, much more dangerous for the Habsburgs was the devastating rate of infant mortality, and the prevalence of epidemic disease in the close confines of the courts, in Madrid and in Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck. Numerically, the Habsburgs seemed to produce a great many more daughters than sons, and these daughters tended to survive longer than their seemingly more vulnerable brothers. Of course, the life expectancy of Habsburg women was drastically reduced by early marriage, repeated pregnancies, and death in childbirth or from puerperal fevers."

The inbreeding (in the Spanish line) came to and end with Charles II of Spain. He suffered from ill health all his life, but did survive until the age of 39. His disabilities were more physical with the famous Habsburg jaw, where the lower jaw outgrows the upper one. The English ambassador, Stanhope, reported in 1697:

"His constitution is so very weak and broken much beyond his age that it is generally feared what may be the success of such another attack. They cut his hair off in his sickness, which the decay of nature had almost done before, all his crown being bald. He has a ravenous stomach, and swallow all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands so much out, that his two rows of teeth cannot meet; to compensate which, he has a prodigious wide throat, so that a gizzard or liver of a hen passes down whole, and his weak stomach not being able to digest it, he voids in the same manner."

The last in the Spanish line of the Habsburgs, he died in 1700 without an heir, and chose Louis XIV's grandson Philip of Anjou as successor. France was no friend of the Habsburgs, during most of their history, and it did not go down well in Vienna. It led to the War of the Spanish Succession.  

I have chosen to mention a few notes dealing with the more personal side of the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs is so much more. It is a well researched and easy accessible biography over a family that fought for political control of their dominions for more or less a thousand years. Through the book we get to know the great and not so great achievements, their struggle for power and glory, for family and legacies. It is a tour through European history. Andrew Wheatcroft writes with knowledge and compassion and presents a fascinating story of a family's rise and decline.