Friday, 18 May 2012

My American (Stella Gibbons)

--The blurb--
"My American follows the lives and loves of Amy Lee and Robert Vorst: from a chance childhood meeting to the [...] trysts that follow. A baker's daughter, Amy has dreams of becoming a writer, whilst Robert is destined to be a doctor. Later, embarking on a lecture tour, Amy is reminded of 'her American' and endeavours to find him amidst Depression-era America."

--The review--
Fans of the work of Enid Blyton and Nancy Mitford will find Stella Gibbons' work something to truly treasure. Gibbons typically combines the disparate skills of her two contemporaries into something that is simultaneously touching and witty, and My American is no exception. Setting us up to root for the underdog, Gibbons mixes Mitford's acerbic wit with Blyton's standard plot pattern (whereby the goodies and baddies all get what they deserve) to create something truly unique.

While perhaps not groundbreaking, My American proves a comfortable and satisfying read, which is intensified by Gibbons' unpredictable twists and turns and an increase in our desire to root for the initially plain and introspective heroine. The sometimes wet and dreary London setting is contrasted with the lovingness of Amy's foster family and the adventurous and romantic Vine Falls in America, and wherever we are in the novel, the author always manages to completely and utterly transport her readers. We feel that Gibbons truly puts something of herself into aspiring writer Amy, expressing feelings about the act of writing to entertain an audience that are completely authentic.

Balancing dialogue and description with finesse, Gibbons is also commendable for her skills in terms of concision and pace: she jumps between different settings and characters with ease, never once allowing the reader to feel like one situation is being dragged out or that we are torn from another too soon. Equally, information is always revealed carefully, with the ending being a surprise almost right up to the moment of it happening, which is a big plus for those disappointed by certain twenty-first century chick lit.

Gibbons is just as powerful in her expression of devastation as in her expression of happier moments, and even though the suspension of disbelief is at times required while reading her novels, that precept does not apply to these moments, where she successfully manages to hit the reader right between the eyes every single time. Serious, beautiful, visual, precise and rereadable, what My American does provide is a strong plot, memorable characters, and a little life lesson to take away for everyone who reads it: that with a bit of luck, even if there is some suffering and hard work along the way, and even if we have to wait a long time for it, there is every chance that our dreams can still come true even when all hope seems lost and the whole world seems against us. Blyton-esque indeed.

A full list of works by Stella Gibbons can be found here.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes (Sandra Chastain et al.)

--The blurb--
"Come sit on the porch a spell. Let's talk about times gone by and folks we remember, about slow summer evenings and lightning bugs in a jar. Listen to the music of a creaky swing and hand-cranked ice cream and cicadas chorusing in the sultry night air. Let's talk about how things used to be in the South--and for some of us, they way they still are. Welcome to the world of Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes, where [...] authors Deborah Smith, Sandra Chastain, Virginia Ellis, Debra Dixon, Donna Ball and Nancy Knight come together for the first time to create this [...] collection of nostalgic tales. Here life's lessons are handed down [...] from eccentric relatives, outrageous pets and unrepentant neighbors, and served up with a generous dollop of that most valued of all Southern commodities: good old fashioned storytelling. From Mississippi to Georgia, from Florida to Tennessee, these daughters of the South will take you on a lush tour of the times and places they know best, each voice as refreshing and inviting as a glass of cold sweet tea on a hot afternoon. So come. Let us take you back. Let us take you home."

--The review--
With the rise and rise of self-help books, and in particular the Chicken Soup for the Soul series in America, it's hardly surprising perhaps that the warm and fuzzy style of the majority of these books should pervade the national consciousness. Upon reading Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes one is certainly reminded of this popular and successful series thanks to the emotive and confidential style in which these authors write. In spite of the title, the stories are not overly religious and so should not put off anyone who is not this way inclined.

The quality of the stories in this collection - which is the result of a collaboration by six different female authors - does inevitably vary. While some of the stories are overly saccharine for some tastes, there is without doubt more to this compendium than the tradition and trend started by the Chicken Soup series. Certain stories have a real "laugh-out-loud" aspect as well as a spiritual one, as the authors regale us with wacky tales of dotty relatives and slightly deranged pets. The texts are comforting and accessible without any feeling of dumbing down as we are told of situations we can all relate to, set in the slightly muggy heat of America's Deep South: whether it's trying to fit into a family as a new in-law, or trying to host a party that simply must go well, most readers will find something that rings true for them, whether they're reading from Alaska or France, Britain or India.

But alongside its humour, it is the purpose of this compilation that sets it apart from other tomes of its ilk. While many self-help books seek mainly to inspire (with any other side effects being secondary, accidental or peripheral) this collection not only motivates and touches us with heart-warming and amusing stories, but also, in equal measure, sets out to give us a true sense of place (and, furthermore, achieves this aim). In reading these tales, the reader is transported through the trials, tribulations, thrills and spills of other families just like theirs, and equally to the warm, friendly and tropical atmosphere of the South (giving me severe Florida-itis in the process; it's been now five years since I was last there). 

Simultaneously nostalgic and refreshing as promised, anybody wanting a dose of escapism, realism, humour and inspiration all in one book will surely find what they are seeking here.

Works by the same authors

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Writing Your Life

I have always been a fan of autobiography as a genre, and luckily so is my husband. As a young teen I would read autobiographies of my favourite pop stars, while today I am more likely to read autobiographies of my favourite writers and broadcasters. These sit on the bookshelf alongside Jean-Marc's choices (often autobiographies written by political figures like Charles de Gaulle). 

So with this being a source of entertainment consistently from teenagedom to adulthood, it hardly seems surprising that I was immediately drawn to the exhibition on autobiography being held at the Louis Vuitton Espace Culturel in Paris' 16th arrondissement. It's just lamentable that I only heard of it a week before it was due to close, meaning repeat visits are unlikely to be possible.

It seems bizarre that while the Louis Vuitton shop on the Champs Elysées teems with Chinese and Japanese visitors, who queue in droves outside the door of the flagship store, the Espace Culturel, which is immediately adjacent to it on the Rue de Bassano, is practically deserted. There are some visitors, but still plenty of space and quiet for you to explore the exhibits, which prove to be an entirely positive and fruitful experience.

The venue itself is spacious and clean-looking, with its white walls and surfaces allowing exhibits to just pop out at you. This is complemented by the panoramic view of Paris to be gained from its tall windows (seriously, don't ever pay to go up the Eiffel Tower when you can get views like this for free) and contrasted by the lift ride up to the exhibit space, which is an exhibit in itself - with your ride taking place in total darkness, the artist behind the exhibit wants to encourage riders to explore their senses differently.

As well as it being free to enter the Espace Culturel, another perk of this exhibition was the sumptuously-illustrated and bound catalogue, also free, which gave details of the artists and their work as you went round, and doubled as a satisfying souvenir. But the whole thing is more than worth paying for, with high quality artworks in a variety of different media providing something for everyone. The number of ways in which the artists have chosen to "write their lives" is incredibly far-reaching: aspects of life and experience are captured through wood sculpture, books, film, photography, watercolour, comic books, and more. 

But perhaps more to the point, the reasons why they have chosen to do this do a lot to make visitors think about what it truly means to be 'us', and what we gain - or do not gain - from exploring our lives' twists and turns. For some artists, such as David B, the aim is clearly catharsis, helping them to work through life events such as the illness of a relative. For others, such as Fiona Tan, the autobiography (an hour-long film entitled May You Live In Interesting Times) is a cruise through their family, lives, and history, in an attempt to find out who she really is (which, you understand, can be difficult when you're half Chinese, half Australian, have lived in Indonesia, and now live and work primarily in the Netherlands). This also raised important questions of identity for us: we are a bi-cultural couple (I am English, he is French) who have both lived in each other's countries and plan on possibly going to live in a third one in a few years' time (Belgium). As a teacher in an international school, I also frequently come across what are known in the industry as "third culture kids": children and young people who are caught between the culture of their parents, the culture of the place in which they live (at that particular moment: some stay for less than a year before moving on) and the culture of the expatriate and international school lifestyle. Now that's some autobiography.

Lucy Wadham is someone else who, although she hasn't written an autobiography, has explored this conundrum through the sociological (and, OK, semi-autobiographical) tome The Secret Life Of France, where she discusses not only her own difficult adaptation to French culture and how this has affected her life but also the voyage of discovery travelled by her children in getting to grips with their Britishness (being raised in France, even by an English mother, has understandably made them very French). 

This is less addressed in the Autobiographies exhibition, though, than pivotal moments that the featured artists feel have shaped their lives: Ernesto Sartori, for instance, illustrates a supernatural experience that he had while still a child through the medium of sculpture, and Frédéric Pajak focuses on a gift of a Tintin album and how this helped him to deal with the death of his father. Others are more gradual (as the reading room of autobiographies in the exhibition space also attests), systematic and analytical in their approach, such as On Kawara, who marks each day of his life so far with a dot on a calendar that has a tiny square for every single day for 100 years. This is colour-coded too, with a yellow dot representing an ordinary day, a blue dot showing a day where he produced one work of art, and a red dot indicating a day where he produced more than one.

The forms of autobiography, then, are clearly as varied in their form and purpose as the spectrum of human life and experience itself. But don't take my word for it: if you're passing through the French capital this week, don't hesitate to go and visit the Espace Culturel. Or, at the very least, view the video trailer of the expo here. And when you've done that, you'll find me watching the story of Roald Dahl's life and work that's still available on ITV Player.

The Autobiographies exhibition at the Espace Culturel (60 rue de Bassano, Paris) runs until May 20th.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Bookworm News (May 2012)

Where The Wild Things Are author dies at age 83
It's a sad day for the world of children's literature as Maurice Sendak passes into the next life today. The writer and illustrator of books such as In The Night Kitchen and Outside Over There died following complications arising from a stroke on the morning of May 8th, 2012. His first book in thirty years, Bumble-Ardy, was published in September 2011 and spent five weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List for children's books. Sendak's final book - My Brother's Book, inspired by his late brother Jack - will be published posthumously in February 2013. The self-taught illustrator, who is sure to be greatly missed by generations of children, is best known for the now-classic Where The Wild Things Are. A full obituary can be read in today's New York Times.

On the big screen
2012 has so far been a good year for literary movies: with David Nicholls' hit novel One Day also proving to be a blockbuster at the box office, and Susan Hill's spooky The Woman in Black (with Daniel Radcliffe adorning posters for the film), it seems there's no end to the cinematic treats available to book lovers this year. But believe it or not there is more: Yann Martel's The Life of Pi is out in December, featuring CGI animals, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is released in August, and The Great Gatsby's remake is also to be premiered at Christmas time, starring Leonardo diCaprio (I cannot WAIT). There are also whispers of a film adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. The less said about the poor adaptation of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the better.

The Orwell Prize and Financial Times Foreign Fiction Prize 2012 - finalists
And speaking of George Orwell - with the Orwell Prize for political writing due to be announced on May 23, the hear is definitely on for this year's finalists as they compete to win the £3000 award. The nominated pieces and writers are as follows:

The Beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb
The Opium War by Julia Lovell
Dead Men Risen by Toby Harnden
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
Dark Market by Misha Glenny
Hood Rat by Gavin Knight

Finalists have also been announced for the FT's annual Foreign Fiction Prize, but this is due to be announced sooner, on May 14, and is worth more in the way of cold hard cash (£10,000). With luminaries such as Umberto Eco competing, against relative unknowns such as Yan Lianke, the competition is certainly hot to trot there too.

Wishing the best of luck to all! 

Cooking the books
I admit I am a little addicted to cookbooks. I read blogs like Pip Cooks The Books with near-religious fervour and my Amazon wishlist currently has 25 cookbooks on it (read: far more than I actually have space for). But this one really takes the biscuit (sorry, I'll stop with the food-related puns now): it's an edible cookbook made of pasta, made by German design agency Korefe, that you can either actually use as a cookbook (recipes are printed on it) or that you can eat (the 'pages' are actually tear-off lasagne sheets). Think I would be genuinely torn as to what to do with one!

 France set to tax big booksellers to support independent stores
While there are many brilliant ideas from Britain that haven't quite reached France yet (such as shift working and cashback), here's an idea that perhaps the Brits should consider stealing from their Gallic brothers: the notion of a tax on bookshop chains to help promote smaller independent stores. This has been suggested by Frédéric Mitterand, France's Minister for Culture, as part of a review of the French publishing industry. Such a tax would apply to online retailers, such as Amazon, as well as to physical shops, such as the FNAC. Mitterand's recommendations also include the monitoring of book prices in book chain stores (another major chain in France is France Loisirs). Even if these are ideas put out at an election time in order to stir interest or comment rather than being close to impending implementation, I still think they're worth considering: our small bookshops are to be treasured in the face of big business (says she, who is a complete Amazon whore), but at the same time work needs to be done on consumer attitudes in encouraging them to support their local community and retailers. Sadly, where I live, we don't have a local independent bookshop. Perhaps an idea for a career change if one day stepping into a classroom full of hormonal teenagers doesn't appeal anymore...!

The French government also has plans afoot to digitise 20th-century books that are now out of print. These will be sold online, with the French government collecting 40% of the royalties, while publishers get the rest. The plan is operating on an 'opt-out' system, meaning that authors will be included automatically unless they specifically ask not to be. However, 900 authors object, claiming this infringes upon their intellectual property rights, and it's also worth noting that only works deemed 'indispensable' will be included, meaning that fans of trashier literature may have to wait longer to get their mitts on out-of-print works.

Buy or borrow at your local library
The Boston Globe newspaper has recently noted the rising trend of small bookshops springing up within libraries. This can help to counteract the closure of smaller bookstores in a town, enables people to buy books at lower prices, and allows libraries to raise funds for other projects, including the purchase of iPads and Kindles for rental by the library and the screening of films and hosting of lectures for its members. The American Library in Paris also does this, hosting a used book sale monthly - proving that this is an idea that's already beginning to cross the Atlantic.