Nonfiction

I’m still reading about how French women do it better

Despite coming across the astute reporting in this 2017 Racked piece with the great title How to Sell a Billion Dollar Myth Like a French Girl, I’m still reading about how French women do it better.

I realize that no woman is perfect, but somehow, as I told Ben last week, the idea that there is a whole class of women out there who eat what they like and don’t get fat, enjoy wine, always look elegant, and wear only matching lingerie somehow gives me hope for myself.

FrenchThe first book I finished last week was All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women by Helena Frith Powell. This book was great for prying open the myth of the perfect French woman. Frith Powell interviews a dozen or so French women, most known for their contributions to the world of fashion, business, or politics, and runs through their opinions and tips on a slew of style-related topics, from workouts to botox.

The women Frith Powell describes are mostly “pencil thin” and always “well turned out.” Normally, reading things like this would be an opportunity for me to give myself a hard time for my distinct lack of elegance, penchant for junk food, and myriad other sins. But to be completely honest, I felt inspired. It seems like Frith Powell was too. Her writing about these women is part tribute, part exposé with a tone along the lines of “You can’t be the perfect woman all the time…but tell me your secrets just in case!”

And, of course, the book raised my feminist hackles. Are these women really wearing matching lingerie for themselves? Are they really staying stick thin for themselves? Or is this just the patriarchy (apparently alive and well in France) doing some of its best work? Frith Powell gives the impression that it’s some of column A and some of column B.

ParisInLoveAnother woman worshiping with me at the altar of French style is academic and romance writer Eloisa James. I listened to the audiobook version of her memoir Paris in Love last week.

After her breast cancer went into remission, James and her husband, also a professor and originally from Italy, take a teaching sabbatical and move with their two kids to Paris.

James warns us that the memoir began as a series of Facebook posts on her personal account, which she used to keep her family up to date on their lives in Paris. But her observations are so interesting and humorous that they ended up forming a memoir. James is an adept writer with a knack for imagery and creating a narrative in both the short, post-style entries and the longer, more essay-like parts. I found I liked them both but wished some of the short pieces delved deeper into the topics at hand.

Instead, the memoir is a simple but enjoyable reflection on the Parisian lifestyle and her family’s forays into and foibles within it. James covers the usual ground: French parenting, style, weight loss, food, smoking, and romance, among the chief explorations. But she also talks about her children, whom she admits provide most of the humor in the story, as they navigate the local Italian (her son) and French (her daughter) schools at different levels.

All in all, two good reads in which to indulge my obsession and I’ll be looking at reading books by both authors in the future.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”

SargentPortrait

 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

My guilty pleasure reading: Cathy Glass

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Where I recuperated with my faithful companion

When I wrote the recap of my 2017 reading, I failed to mention my guilty pleasure reading. In October, I had a hysterectomy. That required three weeks off of work and lots of reading and Netflix. Honestly, despite the pain and immobility, it was a glorious boost to my reading productivity.

Years ago, I became fascinated with the idea of fostering children and with how we, individually as parents and guardians and as a society, deal with neglected children or children with special needs.

I think it had something to do with being the mother of a young child and feeling like it was really, really hard. And wanting to know how in the hell people deal with kids who have serious problems when I felt, at times, so inept in parenting my own perfectly healthy and generally well-care-for kid.

Another Place at the TableI came across Another Place at the Table, Kathy Harrison’s memoir of fostering and the many kids who share her home. It’s an honest, sometimes wrenching book that talks frankly about these kids and how caring for them affected all involved: the foster kids, Cathy, and Cathy’s own biological children. In my opinion, it sets the bar for the genre (the fostering/working with “tough” kids memoir genre, if that can be considered a thing).

It’s a great read for anyone who appreciates a smart narrator and a strong voice, and who also shares my voyeuristic interest in tragic childhoods. I chalk that propensity up to a desire for an adult perspective on the abuse memoir.*

From Cathy Harrison, I went on to Torey Hayden, who wrote slightly more sensationalist, but no less smart, memoirs about being a special needs teacher who works with some very neglected children.

Ghost GirlAll that is to say that I have an interest in books like this, but it’s been a number of years since I’ve found a smart writer with a good body of work about fostering/teaching “tough” kids.

Enter my surgery and my library’s responsiveness to patron interest. It was there I stumbled upon Nobody’s Son by Cathy Glass. I read it in one day and quickly worked my way through nine more of Glass’ books.

Things I Liked

Everything happens from Cathy’s perspective. She’s articulate and clearly has a knack for parenting and for fostering. She also gives a bird’s eye view of each fostering experience, sometimes noting her own foibles, which I appreciate. It makes her seem like a reliable narrator.

Mummy Told Me Not to Tell

Jesus.

I always enjoy meeting the kids and learning their stories. These are always riddled with drug-addicted parents and the like, but that, of course, appeals to the SVU fan in me.

Also, if you read enough of these, you’ll learn that Cathy’s husband leaves her for another woman and she zings him in, like, every other book. It’s kind of great.

Things I Didn’t Like

Cathy has been fostering a long time and writing these memoirs for a long time. Her books are formulaic and the titles—talk about sensationalist. Here’s a taste: The Saddest Girl in the World; Daddy’s Little Princess (ewww); Damaged: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Forgotten Child. 

Oh lordy.

Why I’m Kind of Embarrassed

The Girl in the MirrorThis is total guilty pleasure reading. These books are not literature with a capital “L.” I read them for the same reason I imagine some people read romance novels or any other deep genre fiction.

Also, the subjects of the stories are real people (most of the children are grown up now) who’ve suffered real tragedies. I guess the reassuring thing is that, from Glass’ house each kid moves on to a better situation. Either they go home to rehabilitated parents or move on to be adopted or to a facility that provides the mental health care they need. Glass is a compassionate stepping stone on their way to better lives.

So, guilty pleasure? Absolutely. But there’s some meat in there too.

*Somewhat related to the “Pelzer” effect, based on books written by David Pelzer about his childhood with a terribly abusive mother. When I worked at a public library, patrons requested these all the time. And abuse memoirs are super popular. I even indulge myself sometimes.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir

The Only Girl in the World: A MemoirMaude Julien grew up a captive on a lonely estate in France. Her father, Louis Didier, was a fanatic of some sort, not religious really, more of an extreme narcissist with unusual world views that leaned toward Occult-ish. Maude’s mother, Jeannine, a captive herself, aids Maude’s father in the abuse of their daughter and meets any show of favor toward Maude with resentment.

Because Maude’s father believes she needs to be trained to be “superhuman,” her childhood consists of one trial after another through which she is supposedly being toughened up.

In addition to chores, waiting on her father hand and foot, and being loaned out as a hard laborer to workmen who come to fix/build things on the estate, Maude is subjected to tests of endurance meant to build her strength for the time when she is destined to “raise up humanity.” Whatever the eff that means. What it means for Maude in the meantime is that she’s forced to live in a room with no heat; bathe in cold water; and be locked in a cold, dark cellar from time to time, where she’s told to “meditate on death.”

This is a pretty straight forward memoir of abuse. Maude is a captive; she turns to books and her animal friends for comfort and escape. It’s sad and if you have any problems reading books about children or animals being hurt (including childhood sexual abuse), this book is not for you.

The problem, as I see it, is that this story leaves some weird details unresolved. For example, it’s mentioned several times that Maude’s mother was a captive herself, originally the youngest daughter of a poor miner, given to Louis when she was only five. The introduction mentions this “transaction” and says it’s not clear whether there was any money exchanged, but that Louis promised to care for Jeannine, who he said “wouldn’t want for anything,” with the caveat that her parents “no longer see her.”

That’s all we get about Jeannine, other than that she was poor before she came to live with Louis and that he sent her to boarding school, then eventually impregnated her.

At the end of the book, Maude escapes the estate by going to live with her music teacher, a kind old man who sees she’s is suffering and convinces Louis to let Maude live with him for extensive musical training. (One of Louis’ goals was to make Maude a virtuoso musician and much of her childhood was spent learning various instruments, including piano, accordion, trumpet, and a host of others.)

So, somehow Maude gets to go live with Monsieur Molin, the music teacher, and she works in his shop and is very happy there, the end. I guess.

At the end of an abuse story, I need one or two things to happen: the abused person needs to find healing in a future free from their abuser and/or the abuser needs to get his comeuppance.

The complete lack of denouement in this memoir made the ending feel unfinished and left me wondering what the author’s life is like now and how she came to write a book about her experiences. I’ll go search for some interviews online and see what I can find.

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