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What Stories Does Your Home Town Have To  Tell?

This summer I’m resigned to be an armchair traveler. Except for a trip to the mountains for a few days later on, I have to be content to read about more exotic places. Luckily, good writers can make a reader feel as if they are experiencing the location first hand.

And so, within the first few pages of The Flaneur by Edmund White, I feel immersed in a very particular Parisian atmosphere.

White lived in Paris for sixteen years, and in it  he shares his point of view as he takes a stroll through the streets of the city, describing the shops, monuments, landmarks, and buildings while providing anecdotes and fascinating stories from the history of Paris.

A flaneur is “a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place”. According to White, Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker, since you can only take in all the detail by way of a leisurely stroll.  The loiterer, he says, has a long and distinguished reputation in Paris.

This is a thin volume, part of a series by Bloomsbury  “in which some of the finest writers of our time reveal the secrets of the city they know best.”

I’m not very far along in my reading, but I wonder if I were to be a flaneur in my own town, what stories do the streets and buildings have to tell?


If you don't read that...read  this!

Here's a couple more books about resistance movements - The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, and A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and the Resistance in Occupied France by Caroline Moorehead.

It's quite hot here in central Alberta, and we have a heat warning today. I think I'll finish up The Flanueur sitting in the shade at the beach.

A shady park in Seville, Spain.


In Between the Dark and the  Light

I’m not sure why I’m reading about the holocaust so often this summer. It’s a subject I have always been drawn to, but the reason I keep pulling these books from the shelf at this particular time is kind of baffling. Not exactly what I had in mind for summer reading. But, in my experience, the whole point is to be immersed in the act of reading. Supposedly, timetables and deadlines are somewhat suspended so we can drop deeply into a book without the constrictions of our regular routines.  You know – instead of spending fifteen minutes in the kitchen preparing school/work lunches for the next day, you have an extra quarter hour of blissful reading! 
And if themes of light and dark, good and evil, shadow and light are on the agenda for my subconscious, I’ll go with it…at least for this week, as I finish up The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
In this novel, three widows retreat to the run-down family estate in Germany, at the end of World War Two. 
One of the women, Marianne von Lingenfels, had promised her husband, an accused and executed member of the group who attempted to assassinate Hitler, that she would find and care for the families of the other members of the resistance. 
As she searches for and gathers a small group of women and children around her at the crumbling castle, she finds that keeping her promise is more complicated than she thought, as each of the other women has lived through experiences which alter and shape the future they once took for granted.
Naturally, this book deals with the theme of good versus evil, however, Shattuck explores the nuanced grey area, which is shadowy and unbalanced. 
Just as the protagonist, highly-principled Marianne, initially sees things as black and white, the characters on the dark side believe that their perspective is also justified. 
The discordant view of the townspeople of the community that Nazi-ism is necessary, warranted, and acceptable plays out in unsettling metaphors to illustrate the unfulfilling and unbalanced reality that Marianne resists. In one scene, a cat plays with a raven, breaking its wing yet not killing the bird. Marianne watches the flailing and dying bird, morose that the family pet is also a thoughtless killer.  She feels that at that moment, the bird is a sign that her husband is also dead. 
Marianne reflects on a photo of an infamous concentration camp guard. In the photo, the woman was “a woman who would have been a starlet with her coy smile and stylish hairdo, while the mug shot inside revealed a repellant bully with a look of stupid hardness in her eyes”. We can see the same person two ways, she thinks.
Shattuck examines how life is lived in an ecosystem where horror naturally seems to exist alongside the opposite. The narrator never exonerates the perspective of the townspeople but returns to how the widows' viewpoints as they try to survive the war and its aftermath. Instead, she explores the murky grey area: there's the black and the white, but as Marianne and the other characters discover there's it's not simply 'and/or' but rather 'and/and/'. This is a sort of no-man's land of falling, rising up, falling again, repeat.
This novel explores the ways we are wired to think of ourselves within communities as ‘we versus them’. In this view, there are only winners and losers. How do we define winning? Who gets to choose who is a winner and who is the loser?



If you don't read that...read  this!

Photo courtesy of Pinterest. Website no longer found.

I recently had one of those nice conversations with a friend that started with, "Have you read...", and "Yes! Loved it! Have you read...?"

Here's a few good ones: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.

Where we should have sparklingly bright sunshine, sadly our atmosphere is smokey from the forest fires raging to the west of us, creating a strange, hazy, overcast effect (and a red sun). Still, it's good to find time to sit outside and read, and keep our friends in BC close to our hearts.



Beaujolais, the Tour de France, and looking for silver  linings

Bonjour, dear readers! A little Beaujolais, a book, and some Coco-inspired sandals.


In honour of Bastille Day, I enjoyed some Beaujolais this weekend. I believe it was Louis Jadot, 2015, Beaujolais-Villages; and, if you are interested, there’s a great documentary on Netflix called A Year In Burgundy about this teeny little wine-producing region south of Burgundy.

The gamay grape from which Beaujolais is made features light tannins, and is therefore on my list of ‘approved’ wines. By which I refer to the fact that I can’t drink  any old fermented grape. A major disappointment in my life, to be sure!

I’m not a beer drinker, and while I occasionally will order something boozy like a mojito (and truthfully, and without modesty, I admit to making a pretty wicked Caesar), I love red wine.

It starts with the aroma when my nose is buried inside the glass – and, yes, I’m a wine snob and believe you must drink red wine from a deep, wide glass. Then there are the first notes of….what? That’s part of the joy! Being surprised and captivated by the taste memories of fruit, or flowers, (which fruit, which flowers? Carnations? Lilac? Strawberries? Plums?). And then the delicious finish at the back of the tongue and throat when you swallow, which is hopefully smooth and mellow.

I love reading and learning about the culture of wine; for me, the education is part of the enjoyment. It’s like learning a language through immersion.

Sadly, I can get terrible headaches from red wine, and for a long time I would pick up a bottle with great trepidation, not knowing if I was going to wake up at 2:00 p.m. with a migraine.

One weekend, while browsing the selection at Canmore Wine Merchants, the clerk took the time to explain to me that some varieties of grapes have thicker skins than others. As a result, there is a lot more tannin in those grapes than the thin-skinned varieties.

If I choose wines made from the thinner-skinned grape varieties, (and use moderation, of course!), voila – no headache.  

And, I think, that’s one nasty disappointment averted quite nicely.

Which brings me to the topic of the Tour de France.

(Bastille Day, Beaujolais, the Tour; you’re following this, right?)

As a previous hard-core Tour fan, my viewing of the event has gone by the wayside these past four years. Between Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, and the myriad of other cyclists who have tested positive for doping, I lost my jam for the race.

I resented devoting three weeks every July to follow a bunch of cheaters. After so many years spent reading about the Tour, waking up early every morning for three weeks in July to watch the race live on cable TV, the disappointment I felt was huge.

Then, quite serendipitously, I noticed a recap of Friday’s stage of the race on YouTube. Voila, my cynicism turned to curiosity. While following a long line of vehicles down the hill into Sylvan Lake after work on Friday evening , I began to muse about the pelaton: could this be the year I stage my own comeback as a Tour-ophile?

But what do Beaujolais and the Tour de France have to do with The Slow Waltz of Turtles?

Well, more disappointment, I’m afraid. But let me reassure, I still recommend this book as a worthy summer read. Ironically, one of the themes is of learning to overcome disappointment.

When I closed this book, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the resolutions to the characters’ dilemmas. Both Joséphine and her daughter suffer terrible assaults, but both seem to move on effortlessly. While halfway through the book Iris seems poised to wreak havoc on Joséphine’s life, she instead turns her focus on finding another sugar daddy. Likewise, Joséphine’s youngest daughter appears to be embarking on some risky behavior with some other teens in the basement of the apartment building, however she spends the rest of the novel mooning around about a boy and her first kiss.

I felt that the characters, and subsequently the story, lost momentum. What happened to the Mafia connections, and the voodoo queen? Why did the police inspectors appear to hate Joséphine? As this novel is book two in a trilogy, perhaps the answers are provided in book three.

I’m a little disappointed, as I was excited at the prospect of discovering a new-to-me author. However, just like the hot weather here in central Alberta, I’ve moved on. I didn’t bother to look for the next book in the trilogy, but made some new selections.

The rain this afternoon inspired me to put a chicken tagine in the oven, pour a little of the Beaujolais in a (proper, big) glass, light some candles, and dig into The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck.

Cheers to a week of reading pleasure and contentment!