Summer Reading

The remaining summer month isn’t going to be long enough for a slow reader like me to finish all the books I’ve started. There are 7 titles on Goodreads that I’m ‘currently reading’, one of them has been there since the Jurassic Period. Ok, maybe not that long, but I haven’t given up The Guermantes Way just yet, so I won’t delete it. I’m sure Proust understands, for there are more pressing matters.

First off, the horrific terror attack and mass murder in Nice sparked off an urge in me to, somehow, in whatever way, connect with France. It’s a bit late to participate in the blog event ‘Paris in July’. But since Nice, I’d started two France related books. And then there’s Germany, and now a priest inside a church while conducting mass…

Here are two titles I’m reading with European connection:

The Angel of the Left Bank: The Secrets of Delacroix’s Parisian Masterpiece by Jean-Paul Kauffmann

Angel of the Left BankThis enticingly thin paperback has been sitting on the shelf quietly for years. I’ve long wanted to read it although I’d no idea what it was about, one of the hand-me-downs from my son’s college reads. Now that I’ve started it, I know this one’s going to be a slow cook. Even though just 217 pages, I know I can’t rush it. Exactly as the title denotes, the book is about one painting, Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’, a wall mural in the Chapel of the Holy Angels inside The Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris. Why did Kauffmann write about this particular painting? Why did Delacroix choose to paint this enigmatic episode of the Bible? Who is the ‘Angel’? I want to find out the hidden story behind the creation of this masterpiece. Apparently there are secrets to be told.  I’m most curious to see the epiphany that both the painter and the writer must have experienced relating to it. Simply put, for us who feel there are days wrestling means nothing close to a TV pseudo sports program, maybe this book could be an enlightenment.

 

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Paris bookshopFirst published in Germany, now an international bestseller, The Little Paris Bookshop is a barge floating on the Seine River in Paris. Monsieur Perdu, the ‘Literary Apothecary’, is the owner. Now this is an interesting concept. M. Perdu prescribes books for any ailment his customers happen to be afflicted with. Bibliotherapy if you will. Not a bad idea. He has a book suggestion for everyone he encounters, so a clever way for German author Nina George to weave in her views on various literary works, her salutation to literature and reading. But of course, George isn’t just leading a book club discussion but telling a story. So she deftly brings us to learn more about M. Perdu’s past. While well-versed in bibliotherapy, M. Perdu has a wound that’s deep and sore, for he’s a victim of a lost love. Can the Apothecary heal himself? All signs point to a heartening, summer read.

 

Here’s one that I think I’ll finish first:

Words Without Music by Philip Glass

words-without-music-a-memoirThis one beats all my current reads in capturing my attention and interest. The contemporary composer Philip Glass (born 1937) is renowned as a ‘minimalist’ in his musical style, a label he frowns upon. Now about a quarter into Glass’s memoir, so mainly about his early life and the start of a career, I find what’s minimal is only the physical materials of life, the lack of money to pursue his dream. As for passion and talents, Glass is endowed with abundance, and the artistic milieu in which he immersed himself is astoundingly rich and fertile. Above all, the Bohemian living during his early days is idyllic. That’s why I’m mesmerized by his story, the pursuit of a dream driven by pure passion and inner drive.

Born in Baltimore to a middle-class, secular Jewish family, Glass left home at just 15 to enter the University of Chicago, majoring in philosophy and mathematics. After that, he knew he wanted a career, no, a life, in music, against the wishes of his mother and uncles, who ran a family building supplies business in his hometown and wanted him to take over some day. But Glass was determined to march to a different drummer. After Chicago, he went to NYC mainly to get into Juilliard, not knowing he wasn’t even qualified. So he started with an extension course to work his way in. Later as a full-fledged Juilliard student, he devoured every learning opportunity. He had earned his living doing all sorts of jobs, laborer, steel mill worker, taxi driver. Later to Paris, India, Glass shows us a life journey full of gratifying struggles and interesting encounters. What more, the memoir is a social history of the Beat Generation. Deeply immersed in the zeitgeist of the time, Glass’s personal connections with other musicians, artists, poets, writers, theatre actors and producers, and filmmakers make a fascinating insider’s story. His contact list a who’s who of the Beat Generation. Lots of ripples stirred up in me and definitely a future post coming.

 

This one patiently waits:

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

The MoviegoerI had listened to the audio book a few years back, and wanted to reread it right away, but didn’t. After that, I forgot about it. By chance I saw it in the Bookstore at Regent College on UBC campus a couple months ago, I quickly took that single copy out from the shelf. There are few books I buy at regular price, this is one of them. I want to revisit it; with my own copy, I can write on the margin, and I know I will with this one. Despite the title, it has nothing to do with the glamour of Hollywood movies, or the pop entertainment culture of the day. Rather, this National Book Award winner (1961) is internal, reminiscent of European writers like Camus or today’s Tom McCarthy.

 

These two will take a while to get to:

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

The Truth According to UsBarrows’ previous book is the wildly popular The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society published eight years ago. I’d enjoyed the lively characters in Guernsey amidst the troublesome setting of WWII, with the island occupied by German soldiers. Just curious to read children’s author Barrows’ first solo publication for adults. The Truth brings Barrows back to the home state of her aunt and primary writer of Guernsey, Mary Ann Shaffer, who died before completing the book. Family saga in small town West Virginia in 1938. If you’ve read this one, how is it compared with Guernsey? Should I even start it?

 

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The+Nest+-+book+coverIf I want a breezy summer beach read, maybe I should start with this one. But this too can wait. I got it mainly because of the future film adaptation. Sweeney’s debut work reportedly fetched a 7-figure advance from Ecco; not surprisingly, film rights were snatched up soon after. What should be noted is: by whom? Well, as evidence of the booming book/movie enterprise, Amazon Film it is, and Jill Soloway (Transparent) will direct. Note also, just saying, here’s a book with Amy Poehler’s endorsement on the cover. Have you read it? Are you looking forward to its movie adaptation?

 

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Related Review Posts on Ripple Effects:

Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

August: Osage County

 

Magic In The Moonlight (2014) Enchants Despite Flaws

Let me guess. To see or not to see, that is the question on your mind. No? You’ve decided to skip it, heeding critics’ view that it is a ‘minor’ Woody Allen?

Magic In The Moonlight Poster 1

Well, here’s my take. To begin with, a director’s repertoire has to be large and significant enough to be categorized into ‘major’ and ‘minor’. I’ve enjoyed Allen’s previous ‘minor’ works like Match Point (2005), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), or his noir dealing with magic and the circus Shadows and Fog (1991). Or, is that a ‘major’?

For some reasons, even a ‘minor’ Allen work piques my interest. Further, a new Woody Allen movie is like the perennials shooting up in the summer garden. Going to see one has been on my summer to-do list in recent years.

This 47th directorial feature of Allen’s uses magic as the storyline, a reprise of his well-known preoccupation. Instead of casting himself as a magician like he did in Scoop (2006), Allen has Colin Firth play the role of the renowned Wei Ling-soo, master of illusions who specializes in disappearing and reappearing acts shrouded in oriental mystique. Just a reflection of the time, 1928 Berlin.

After a successful show, Stanley Crawford, Wei Ling-soo’s real-life persona, is recruited by his childhood friend and fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to go with him to the Côte d’Azur in France to debunk a fake clairvoyant, played by Emma Stone.

Stanley is pleased to take up the challenge, for in his rational mind, the spirit world does not exist. He will be doing everyone a favour to expose the trickery of this young, self-proclaimed spiritualist Sophie Baker, whom he firmly believes to be a crook. Stanley tells Howard, ‘she can’t fool me’. In his mind, Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) are out to hoodwink the heir of a rich family, Brice (Hamish Linklater) and his mother Grace (Jacki Weaver), a fraudulent scheme that must be thwarted.

You might have read about the mismatch of Firth and Stone starring together. If there is anything that seems incompatible, it is Stone playing a medium with the expertise of contacting the dead in a séance. No matter, Stone’s appearance can only substantiate the magic.

Sure enough, the ‘minor’ notion applies with the film’s simple, stretched-out, single plot line. A subplot could add more texture to the film, and giving some talented actors more story and character development. Further, there are moments and dialogues that look tedious and unnecessary. Thanks to the cast of fine actors, we can see their concerted effort in making the film more interesting than the simple plot can offer.

DSCF9550.RAF

And there are scenes we have seen before. The Gatsby-esque ball, the observatory moment as in Manhattan (1979), as well as reminiscence of other sources. But then again, are fairy tales not meant to be retold?

You might want to add in one more familiarity. France. This is the second time in four years Allen makes a movie in France. Following the successful Midnight In Paris (2011), cinematographer Darius Khondji reframes the country with idyllic French Riviera through a golden filter. I would not argue against that ‘repeat’.

And the music, how often we hear them in movies depicting the 1920’s, in particular, Allen’s own. From Cole Porter’s “You Do Something To Me” (opening credits, sets the mood right away) to Harry Carroll and Joseph McCarthy’s “I’m Always Chasing Rainbow” (Brice serenading Sophie), from Beethoven to Ravel, music only adds in the magic.

Stanley takes Sophie along for a ride to Provence to visit his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins). The veteran, low-keyed but always reliable Atkins as the wise and knowing Aunt Vanessa plays a pivotal role in the story. While Sophie has the chance to demonstrate her extraordinary gift by revealing Aunt Vanessa’s past, Aunt Vanessa has also shown that she knows her nephew Stanley much more than he knows himself.

And (possible) spoilers coming up...

One of my favourite scenes is in the third act, when the seemingly oblivious Aunt Vanessa while playing a card game of solitaire is subtly prodding her nephew to clearer self-understanding, to act upon his heart rather than relying only on his rationale. This one reminds me of a nuanced and endearing scene in another movie, exactly with these two actors, Atkins and Firth, playing mother and son and engaging in a similar kind of dialogue. Yes, the two of them are charming together in both. That movie? What A Girl Wants (2003).

But what’s interesting is Colin Firth here shines as a chatty Darcy. He plays the role with such an amusing familiarity as if he has just changed costume from an Austen set to the 1920’s. Stanley feels superior, thinks Sophie beneath him. He is arrogant and smug at the start, challenging and badgering Sophie at every turn, full of pride and prejudice. Why of course, Sophie, from small town America, has not heard of Nietzsche, or Bora Bora, can’t tell Dickens from Shakespeare. A ready target for Stanley’s jest.

And Stanley is such an expert in alienating people. Sophie’s mom Mrs. Baker could not have agreed more with Lizzy’s mom Mrs. Bennet, this guy is an obnoxious snob. From Darcy to Stanley, two sides of the same coin. Firth knows how to play this one by heart.

Quite like Darcy, Stanley is such a poor (first-time) marriage proposer. Take her under his wings? No rational reason for doing this? Against his better judgement? Haven’t we heard such a marriage proposal before when Darcy first messed up his in front of an incredulous and fuming Lizzy Bennet?

Not to aspire to his ‘major’ endeavours, Magic in the Moonlight is a lighter piece in Allen’s humungous directorial repertoire. He deals with it like bringing work on his vacation, emphasis on the vacation. Don’t we all need a break every now and then? And isn’t the French Riviera an ideal spot?

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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I’m linking this review to Paulita’s Dreaming of France Monday Meme. CLICK HERE to see what others have posted.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Midnight In Paris (2011)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

To Rome With Love (2012)

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Two Fine French Films

For this week in the blogging events Paris in July 2014 and Dreaming of France, I’m sharing with you two fine, French Films. They are not new movies, but probably you had missed them when they first screened a few years ago, or they might not have screened in your area. I came across them only recently. Interestingly, they make a fine pair for they both touch on very similar themes.

My Afternoons with Margueritte (“La tête en friche”, 2010)

This comedy based on the book by French author Marie-Sabine Roger stars the famous French actor Gérard Depardieu as an uncouth, middle-aged construction worker, Germain Chazes. His lack of literacy skill is benign when compared to the low self-image he suffers as a result of the constant taunting from his teachers and classmates when he was young, and the life-long scolding from a harsh and overbearing mother (Claire Maurier). To his misfortune, Germain still has to live near her and take care of her, a woman now has senility to add to her abusive outbursts.

Germain’s life comes to a turning point when he meets Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus, who just turned 100 in June this year!) one afternoon on a park bench. Margueritte is an elderly lady living in a retirement home, and spends her afternoons in the park. She soon engages Germain to open up. Thus begins an unlikely friendship between the two.

My Afternoons with Margueritte

More importantly, Margueritte leads Germain to a whole new world of books and literature. She reads to him The Plague by Albert Camus, going through it in ten afternoons. He listens and is totally entranced by the language and the imagery.

When she reads to him Promise At Dawn, the memoir by Romain Gary, he is absorbed by the author’s description of his late mother’s love for him, and especially moved by the imagery of Gary “howling at her grave like an abandoned dog.” He begins to see his own predicament with the lens from the books Margueritte reads to him.

Who says literature belongs to the academics, or those in the ivory tower of the intellectual and sophisticated. Why is it so incongruent to hear a construction worker quoting Camus, or his seeing the world in literary imageries, or being tender and caring for a change. Germain’s friends tease him, they want the old Germain back. But Germain knows too well that he has crossed the point of no return, and that his transformation is empowering.

Soon, with the help of his girl friend Annette (Sophie Guillemin), Germain learns to read on his own. Further, he has learned to give back to Margueritte in an endearing way. As far as the story trajectory goes, Germain could well write a book entitled How Camus Can Change Your Life (that’s mine, not in the film).

Charming performances and great screen chemistry between Depardieu and Casadesus. A heart-warming story with sprinkles of humour for added appeal. A delightful and worthwhile film to watch.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

Queen to Play (“Joueuse”, 2009)

Along the same thematic line is this quiet and stylish production set in the beautiful French island Corsica just off the mainland. From Depardieu’s construction worker we now have a middle-aged chambermaid, Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), who works in a seaside hotel. Hélène goes through an inner transformation even more dramatic than Germain’s. It is interesting to watch the game where the Queen is the most powerful piece is freed from its male dominance for a change.

Originally titled “Joueuse” (The Player), the film is based on the novel by French author Bertina Henrichs. Director Caroline Bottaro has  displayed an inviting game board for us viewers to interact with, for watching the film makes us witnesses to a game change.

Sandrine Bonnaire’s portrayal of Hélène is sensitive and nuanced. The turning point of her life comes one day while cleaning a room. Through the translucent curtain swayed by the soft wind, she sees the hotel guests, a couple (Jennifer Beals, Dominic Gould), playing chess out in the balcony. She is fully mesmerized. The game board, the pieces they touch, their mutual affection bonded by the game not only send out vibes of sensuality but of intellectual stimulation. (She beats him, BTW) From then on, Hélène is obsessed with chess.

She gives her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) an electronic chess set for his birthday. While he is unappreciative of the gift, many a nights Hélène would slip out of bed quietly and learn to play on her own. She now sees every piece of crumb, every salt and pepper set on the table a movable chess piece, any checkered surface a chessboard on which she can prance to her imagery delight.

Queen to play

Other than her hotel job, Hélène does cleaning for a mysterious widower, Dr. Kröger, played by Kevin Kline, his first French-speaking role. Hélène finds a chess set on his bookshelf and asks him to teach her the game. Skeptical and annoyed at first, Dr. Kröger agrees when she offers to clean his place for free in exchange for chess lessons. He soon discovers that Hélène is not only serious but gifted. After a few lessons, she begins to win repeatedly.

But Hélène keeps her pursuit secret, afraid of reverberations, and misunderstanding from her husband. Why does she need to be so sneaky? Can’t a woman desire matters of the mind? Can’t a chambermaid be absorbed by the game of chess, set foot on a male-dominated, intellectual territory? Would Hollywood make a movie like this?

Hélène’s teenaged daughter is her supporter at home when her husband finds out. He too later yields to her passion as Hélène enters her first tournament upon Dr. Kröger’s recommendation.

Oh I love these French films, for they unabashedly praise the arts, literature, and intellectual pursuits; their protagonists quietly shattering social norms and barriers to personal fulfillment. Queen to Play reminds me of Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Do you need to know how to play chess to enjoy the film? No. Actually, the camera seldom focuses on the chessboard. Instead, we see the faces of the chess players, that is where we read all the emotions.

Intriguing as chess moves, beautiful as the crafted pieces, the film is a joy to watch, a satisfying winner.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Paris In July 2014Dreaming of France Meme Eiffel***

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog Book Review

Séraphine and the Wrought-Iron Chair: Review of the film Séraphine

Haute Cuisine Movie Review

Haute Cuisine Movie Review

My first entry for the Paris In July 2014 blogging event is a review of the 2012 French film Haute Cuisine (original name Les Saveurs du Palais, which can be translated as ‘The Taste of the Palace’ or ‘The Taste of the Palate’)

 

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Haute Cuisine Movie Poster

 

The film begins with scenes on the remote Crozet Island in Antarctica, at the Alfred Faure Scientific Base. The cook, Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot), is preparing dinner for the dozens of workers there. It’s a special occasion, her own farewell dinner. This is the menu she has prepared:

  • Thai clear soup with fresh foie gras
  • Sweet and sour duck with Sarlat potatoes
  • Saint-Honoré cake

Not your ordinary cafeteria food for workers in Antarctica, but then, Hortense Laborie is no ordinary cook. If her one year gig working on the Crozet island sounds extraordinary, it is yet not as remarkable when compared to her previous job. Hortense was the personal chef of the French president (Jean d’Ormesson) for two years before she quit and sought a change in venue for her talents. Her kitchen used to be in the Élysée Palace in Paris, the official residence of the French President.

Haute Cuisine is a movie based on the real-life story of Danièle Delpeuch, a Périgord farmer and renowned country cook appointed by the Palace Élysée to be the personal chef for French President François Mitterrand in 1988. She was responsible for preparing home-made, simple cooking for the President’s own private meals and his personal guests.

In the movie, as soon as she stepped into the Palace’s Main Kitchen Hortense knows what she is up against: a macho army of 24 all-male chefs who guard their territory like a castle. They serve 70,000 meals in a year, using some of the copper pots and pans dating back to Louis-Phillippe’s days. Hortense does not work right in that kitchen, but that is her source of supplies and ingredients (initially), and the battlefield for territory and sphere of culinary power and influence. The battle begins as soon as she steps on this holy ground.

The Battleground 1

Hortense works in a small, homely kitchen joined by a tunnel with the Main Kitchen. Her helper is a young pastry chef Nicholas Bauvois (Arthur Dupont). The two form an unlikely alliance and share an endearing camaraderie. Frot’s portrayal of Hortense is most amiable. She is not a harsh boss over Nicholas, but she can stand her ground and be assertive in front of the Main Kitchen chefs, and even with the President’s staff. Hortense is an iron fist inside an elegant, velvet glove.

So from the kitchen in Antarctica to Paris, the film goes back and forth to tell the story of Hortense, how she gets the Palace job and why she quits two years later. The shifting between the two time frames are smooth and seamless. With the two drastically different settings juxtaposed against each other, viewers can savour the irony: That the exquisite culinary skills and fine art of Hortense’ cooking are more appreciated by the Crozet Island workers than the Palace Élysée.

A delightful movie not just for foodies, Haute Cuisine is like a layer cake, blending multiple tastes together by tackling various issues of contention… the battle between the sexes in the work place (the kitchen is probably the most volatile), efficiency in meal preparation vs. passion for cooking, and, the dilemma of all food lovers: gratification or health (no sauces, fats, or cheeses? How can that be in French cuisine?)

A well crafted film that moves as efficiently as an experienced server, removing your empty plate as soon as the food is consumed, quietly slips in the next item for you to enjoy without a break. Yes, it’s relatively fast-paced, lean and fat-free with no wastage; to top it all off, the delightful, well-timed and orchestrated music composed by the prolific Gabriel Yared is like the light cream on the Saint-Honoré cake.

The President deeply appreciates Hortense’s home-grown culinary offerings. Her ingredients are locally grown right from the Palace garden,or nearby markets, or from her own farm, yes, truffles too. The tastes remind him of home when he was growing up as a boy. He has found a foodie soul-mate in Hortense. Here’s her first meal for him and his five guests (with two hours’ notice as to the number of guests):

Stuffed Cabbage

  • Brouillade with ceps and chervil
  • Stuffed cabbage with Scottish Salmon and Loire carrots (“I like things to come from somewhere”)
  • Saint-Honoré (her Granny’s recipe)

But I personally like this one the best:

Beef fillet pastry wrapped

 

  • Cream of asparagus soup with chervil
  • Fillet of beef (pastry wrapped) with Chanterelle Fricassee
  • Cream tart with fruit of the forest and pistachio nougatines

A virtual meal, so delicious and satisfying… and best of all, fat-free.

~ ~ ~ Ripples 

 

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Paris In July 2014

This is my first post for the blogging event Paris in July, 2014.

This year the hosting team has expanded to four. From the original creators Karen and Tamara, we now have Adria and Bellezza. Thanks to their time and dedication, we can travel to France on a virtual flight, no need for tickets, no baggages to drag along.

Also discovered another similar blogging event and that’s a Monday Meme Dreaming of France from Paulita’s An Accidental Blog. The more the merrier I’d say.

Dreaming of France Meme Eiffel

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Click Here to the New York Times’s profile of Danièle Delpeuch, the real-life personality on whom the movie is based.

Other Food Related Posts on Ripple Effects, coincidentally, all Paris-related:

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais (movie adaptation coming out in August, 2014)

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Saturday Snapshot February 15: Windows & Doors

By now, I’m sure many of you are tired of looking at white and greyish stuff, be it snow, or its liquid form. Let me take you on my escapade to Provence, France, and continue to bask in some warm colours.

This time, we’re looking at windows and doors. Again, they are photos from my trip to Avignon and Arles in the summer of 2010.

Blue Windows in ArlesShop windowAvignonSix windows in ArlesPink window

A shop window

Yellow windows2 blue windows

Now here’s the trick: Choose a photo. Look intensely at it for one minute then close your eyes and let the image imprint in your mind. When you reopen your eyes, I’m sure you won’t see white. Let’s just dream a little dream of warm summer daze.

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda of West Metro Mommy Reads. CLICK HERE to see what others have posted.

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ALL PHOTOS TAKEN BY ARTI OF RIPPLE EFFECTS.
DO NOT COPY OR REBLOG

Saturday Snapshot February 8: Cabin Fever continues…

The snow and cold persist. I’ve to revisit Southern France to assuage cabin fever. Here are more photos from my Provence travels in the summer of 2010.

Avignon, the historic centre of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages. Its Palais des Papes, or, Palace of the Popes, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Medieval Gothic architecture was designed as a fortress and palace, residence for the Popes. Six papal conclaves were held there in the 14th century.

Palais des PapesSigns pointing to others historic monuments:

Signs

The Bridge of Avignon, Pont St. Bénezet, or Pont d’Avignon, was built between 1177 – 1185, rebuilt in 1234 after it was damaged in a siege by Louise VIII, King of France. It was an important crossing over the Rhone River. Only four arches now remain:

Pont d'AvignonNot all serious history though… Right outside the Palais Des Papes, I saw an elephant doing Yoga:

Elephant outside Palace of the PopesA closer look:

Elephant doing YogaAnd in the town centre, this beautiful merry-go-round:

Entertainment in town centreAnd puppeteers getting ready for a skeleton show:

Street performersSnap back to reality… no elephant in the room or dancing skeleton. And it’s -16C outside. Just let me hop back on that merry-go-round…

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Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda of Metro Mommy Reads.
CLICK HERE to see what others have posted.

ALL PHOTOS TAKEN BY ARTI OF RIPPLE EFFECTS.
DO NO COPY OR REBLOG

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Saturday Snapshot January 25: Cabin Fever

It’s January 25, and we’re deep in winter. I don’t need any more photos to remind me of our seasonal deal, snow and ice. Saw the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a couple of days ago. And Oh, how I need to unleash the Walter Mitty in me now, and let my mind zoom off to distant lands, warm, temperate, and colourful.

So here I am, travelling back to the summer of 2010, taking a road trip in Provence, France. A cure for cabin fever: I breath in the warm air, feast my eyes on colours and relive a most memorable family vacation.

We took a day trip from Avignon to Vaison la Romaine and Chateauneuf du Pape, passing through vineyards, stopping by markets.

A vineyard beside a 12th Century chapel in Vaison la Romaine:

Vineyard by 12th Century Chapel in Vaison

Grapes on vine

A street market. The colours … what a contrast to our wintry white and grey:

Street Market in Vaison

Colourful pots

Colours Colorful rolls

Motor carI like the kid here. What was he looking at?

The Kid

Or here, the yellow rose. Imagine opening your front door and be greeted by a cheerful, yellow rose:

The Yellow Rose

And the fan here. Just looking at it can cure cabin fever. Let your inner Walter Mitty take you for a ride:

The Fan

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Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda of West Metro Mommy Reads. CLICK HERE to see what others have posted.

ALL PHOTOS TAKEN BY ARTI OF RIPPLE EFFECTS. DO NOT COPY OR REBLOG.

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Saturday Snapshots July 28: Paris Montage

The Brasserie Balzar
Near the Sorbonne, Sarte and Camus’s frequent hangout where they dined and debated. Insert shot of Menu: Breakfast for 6 Euros includes a croissant, tartine, confiture, hot drink, orange juice.

A View of the Tower
Size is relative. 

The Paris Apple Store
Probably the most elegant of all the Apple branches.

The Paris Collage
As you can see, I got a bit carried away playing with the features in the photo editing site Picmonkey.

Again, Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce of At Home with Books, Paris in July at Bookbath and Thyme for Tea.

Thanks to Zara Alexis for pointing me to PicMonkey.com for making these collages and watermarks.

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Saturday Snapshots July 21

Once again, Saturday Snapshots framed by a Paris in July backdrop…

I was pleasantly surprised to find the open space outside the Louvre being used not only for tourist line-ups but as a spot for a family outing.

Dad can keep an eye on Sis biking, while Mom gets baby ready for a video shoot.

And Li’l Bro rides into the sunset.

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Saturday Snapshot hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books, Paris In July at BookBath and Thyme for Tea.

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Arles: In Search of Van Gogh

Watching the movie Séraphine (my last post) made me think of another artist tormented by mental illness. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in the Netherlands. His artistic imagination was ignited when he moved to Paris in 1886 and saw the works of the impressionists. But the prolific period of his life began only after he went south to Arles.

I visited Provence in August, 2010, went on a walking tour of Arles following the footsteps of Van Gogh. For Paris in July hosted by Karen of Bookbath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea, I’m reposting an excerpt of my travelogue here. Some of you may remember my series of travel posts, but many of you have come to Ripple Effects only recently. Please join me as I revisit Arles and its nearby St-Rémy-de-Provence.

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Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888, seeking the tranquility that was so elusive to him in the big city. In his letter to his brother Theo upon arrival to Arles, he wrote:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.”  — Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1888.

The fresher and more colourful palette is apparent during this most prolific period of the artist’s life. Bright yellows, blues, shorter and swirling brush strokes established his signature style.

As for me, I was a bit disappointed to see the sunflowers have already withered in late August. Fields of yellow were now massive brown. They would be harvested at a later time for their oil, a good reminder that, for tourists, it’s the view and the photos, but for those living here, it’s their livelihood. The lavenders on the Luberon mountains too had long passed the season. Note to myself: Early to Mid July is best if I ever come this way again.

But all was not lost. I was gratified to follow some of Van Gogh’s footsteps as I explored the clearly posted Van Gogh sites in the town, the scenes and locales where the artist so vividly captured in his paintings.

Arles is a Roman town. What more prominent landmark to reflect its past glory than the Roman Arena in the town centre. Why all the arches? The free flow of pedestrian traffic. The full seating capacity, 20,000 people, could exit the Arena in 7 minutes.

Used by gladiators in ancient time, the Arena is still the venue for bullfights:

But Van Gogh’s interest was not so much in the violent action of bullfighting than the people, as his painting Spectators In The Arena At Arles (December, 1888) clearly shows:

The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum was his hang-out, renamed Café Van Gogh now. The yellow café upon the backdrop of the blue, starry night had deeply inspired the artist:

Café Terrace At Night (September, 1888):

Van Gogh had wanted to make Arles a hub for fellow artists. Upon his urging, Gauguin came to join him in October, 1888. The two painters frequented the Café Terrace many a night but only for two short months. What happened on December 23rd was reported by the local paper the next day:

At 11:30 pm., Vincent Vaugogh [sic], painter from Holland, appeared at the brothel at no. 1, asked for Rachel, and gave her his cut-off earlobe, saying, ‘Treasure this precious object.’  Then he vanished.

After this incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a local hospital, now the Espace Van Gogh in Arles, a cultural centre:

And here is Van Gogh’s rendering when he was staying there:

In January, 1889, Van Gogh returned home to his ‘Yellow House’ (which has now been torn down and reconstructed), but for the next few months, suffered onslaughts of hallucinations and delusions. His view of his own condition nevertheless was lucid and even progressive for his time. His letter to Theo is poignant, as he openly faced his predicament and earnestly sought a solution:

And for the time being I wish to remain confined, as much for my own tranquillity as for that of others.

What consoles me a little is that I’m beginning to consider madness as an illness like any other and accept the thing as it is, while during the actual crises it seemed to me that everything I was imagining was reality.”

— Sunday, April 21, 1889.

On May 8, 1889, he checked himself into the Saint Paul de Mausole, the mental hospital at St-Rémy-de-Provence. Under the care of his doctor Théophile Peyron, the artist’s condition improved and he thrived in the idyllic environment there. Art therapy had brought healing and prolific output. Van Gogh stayed there for a year and created more than 150 paintings.

Dr. Théophile Peyron out at the front garden of Saint Paul de Mausole hospital:

The olive grove outside:

Olive Grove (June, 1889):

To his brother Theo, he wrote on Sunday, May 11, 1890:

At the moment the improvement is continuing, the whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush. I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises…

My Van Gogh trip ended at St. Rémy, and so be it. I’ve seen the sites wherein the artist was at his most prolific. I’ve seen the town and surroundings where he found inspiration.  I’ve seen his final solace where he attained some stability and painted with passion. I’d like to keep these as memories of my travel to Provence. I could hardly bear to think of his last days, discharged from St. Rémy just a few days after the above letter, headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirt of Paris, and in just two short months, succumbed to the recurrence of his illness. He shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890, and died of his wound two days later.

Back to the thoughts I wrote about: How do we keep art from turning into a cliché? I think it takes a certain awareness of the artist as a person, plus a measure of empathy and respect for the struggle to live and create… and realizing that the beautiful works are often triumphs in spite of life’s overwhelming adversities, rather than the natural products of bliss and fortune.

To wrap up my travel posts, and taking the risk of turning it into a cliché albeit my motive is pure, here’s the YouTube clip again, Don McLean’s tribute to Vincent:

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My five-part travelogue on England and France:

  1. Tate Modern & Billy Elliot
  2. Bath’s Persuasion
  3. Paris: The Latin Quarter
  4. Art and Cliché
  5. Arles In the Steps of Van Gogh

Sarah’s Key: Book into Movie

“When a story is told, it is not forgotten…”   — “Sarah’s Key” the movie

The Background: Vel d’Hiv Roundup

The story has to be told, because it is based on a historical event that has long been ignored. On July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police in Paris rounded up more than 13,000 Jews in Paris, among them 4,000 children, and confined them in the Velodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome), an indoor bicycle racing track and stadium not far from the Eiffel Tower. There in the Velodrome the Jews were kept under French police guard for five days with no food and just one tap. They were subsequently sent to internment camps outside of Paris, where children were torn apart from their parents. Apart or together, they shared the same fate. From the internment camps, young and old alike were later transported by train to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The Velodrome, which was situated in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, has since been torn down but the event remains a dark page in France’s history.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup had been ignored for decades in the classrooms of the nation. Post-war French leaders from de Gaulle to Mitterrand had kept mum on the issue of France’s role in deporting Jews to the death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, in particular, the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Here’s an excerpt of Chirac’s historical speech taken from a TIME magazine article:

France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum; France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable,” Chirac said in his speech, using the Vel d’Hiv roundup as a metaphor for all Vichy crimes. “Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers.

A story based on this true event ought to be noticed. The French drama based on true accounts, “La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), was released in 2010 to a large audience in the country. And for us in North America, we have the novel Sarah’s Key (2007) and its movie adaptation (2010) to inform us of that horrific event and the imagined scenario of its impact on the lives involved.

(Spoiler Alert from here on.)

The Book

Written by Tatiana de Rosnay and published in 2007, the book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 120 weeks. It has sold 5 million copies world wide and been released in 38 countries. de Rosnay has published works in French. This is her first English language book.

The book weaves two stories together 60 years apart. 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski’s family is one of those being rounded up on July 16, 1942. On the spur of the moment, Sarah hides and locks her 4 year-old brother Michel in a cupboard in the wall of their bedroom, thinking there he will be safe until she comes back for him. It was horrific for her and her parents to find out later that they won’t be returning at all.

Sarah and her parents are kept in Vel d’Hiv in appalling conditions, only to be deported to an internment camp where she is separated from them. Her determination never wavers though in getting back home to let her brother out of the locked cupboard. She has kept the key, guarding it with her life.

Fast forward to 2002. Julia Jarmond, a U.S. expatriate married and working as a journalist in Paris, delves into the research of the Vel d’Hiv roundup for a magazine article commemorating its 60th anniversary. She is totally absorbed by the little-known event. What’s more, she finds out that the apartment that used to belong to her French husband’s grandparents and which is now under renovation for her to move in was the very home of Sarah and her family.

At the same time, Julia struggles with a personal dilemma. At 45, mother to 11 year-old Zoé, and after two miscarriages, Julia is excited to find out she is pregnant. Her husband does not share her sentiment however, pressing her to abort. The poignant story of Sarah inspires Julia’s decision as the story unfolds.

While I whole-heartedly admire the author for her intention to honor the victims of Vel d’Hiv and her eagerness to expose the atrocities afterwards, I have reservations about the literary quality judging from the style and structure of the book. At several points, I feel the writing redundant. And for a novel written for an adult readership, it gives me the feeling of being talked down to, told what to think and how to feel.

Structurally, it presents the two stories in alternating chapters. The shifting is abrupt as the chapters are only three pages long. This lasts till the middle of the book when the story of Sarah’s key comes to an end. That occurs when Sarah makes it back to her apartment and discovers the heart-wrenching horror. The rest of the book is the continuation of modern day Julia’s story, her persistence to discover Sarah’s trail after the war and dealing with her own personal dilemma. Compared to Sarah’s story, this latter part seems trivial and anti-climatic.

The Movie

One year after it premiered at the TIFF, I finally have the chance to see this movie as it is being screened only recently in one theatre here in town.

Screenwriter director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has gleaned the essence of the novel and tightened the plot in an engrossing way. By virtue of its form, the movie has the advantage of showing rather than telling.  It can condense paragraphs of words into a cinematic moment frozen in the mind’s eye. The film is captivating, telling the story with vivid and haunting images.

We see the recreated Vel d’Hiv and its appalling condition. We see a woman plunging to her death from a high level in the Velodrome, an apparent suicide. We see the horror of children torn away from their mothers in the internment camp. We see too the desperation of Sarah finally running up to her apartment, pounding on the door of the new family living there. We see her barging into her bedroom and unlocking the cupboard. And from inside there with the camera pointing out, we see the terror on Sarah’s face as she looks in. We hear her scream.

The storytelling is carried out by the excellent performance of the two main actors, Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Kristin Scott Thomas (“I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) as Julia Jarmond. The structure of the plot limits young Sarah to only the first part of the film, albeit her portrayal is memorable, her unseen presence lingers through the movie.

Kristin Scott Thomas always delivers. Her role as the persistent journalist Julia is convincing and a pleasure to watch. Her cool demeanor conveys the fact that it takes intelligence and professionalism to find the truth as a journalist, and yet, once exposed, the truth can have the affective power to inspire and turn one’s life around. Scott Thomas has aptly portrayed this change.

Nevertheless, the weakness of the film lies in the lack of character development in the ‘minor’ roles. If given more depth, they can sharpen the conflicts and enhance the story. I’m thinking of Julia’s relationships with husband Betrand (Frédéric Pierrot, “I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) who insists on her abortion, and with her daughter Zoé (Karina Hin).

And since I’ve been looking for ‘intrusions of grace’ lately, there’s a scene here that is of note. It is not in the book, but screenwriter/director Paquet-Brenner has aptly created a poignant cinematic moment with it.  When Sarah and another girl are trying to crawl under a barbed wire to escape from the internment camp, they are caught by a guard. But upon the urgent appeal of Sarah, he softens. Using his bare hands to hold up the wire, he pushes the girls through. The camera then closes up on his bleeding hand, pierced by the barbs, an apt allusion. How we need these ‘intrusions of grace’ to shed a glimmer of hope amidst overwhelming darkness.

“Sarah’s Key” may well be one of those examples where the movie speaks more powerfully than its source material. If you are time-pressed, go for the cinematic rendition.

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To read more about the Vel d’Hiv roundup and related articles, click on the following links:

Behind the French Ruling on WWII Deportations of Jews“, TIME.

“Remembering the Vel d’Hiv” The Economist.

“Letters from Drancy” The Guardian.

“Vel d’Hiv Roundup” Wikipedia

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

While reading van Gogh’s letters is a fascinating journey into the mind of the artist, it is also poignantly heartbreaking. This is an abridged version of van Gogh’s letters, almost all written to his brother Theo from the various places he had stayed from 1872-1890, Holland, Belgium, England and France.

A few decades separate his life from Hemingway’s, but I think he too had his “moveable feast”.  To the painter, it’s not Paris, but the open country of southern France, in particular, Arles and St. Remy’s, Provence.

(A corner store in Arles, named after the famous ‘Yellow House’ Van Gogh once lived in)

Unlike Hemingway, van Gogh felt Paris only ‘distracts’. He wrote to his brother Theo after moving to Arles from Paris in February, 1888:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.

While Hemingway sought to “write one true sentence”, van Gogh yearned to reflect what was true through his paintings:

… giving a true impression of what I see. Not always literally exact, rather never exact, for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.

And colours were his tools. Van Gogh began to use a new palette that he did not see in his native Holland. Under the bright Provence sun, the artist excitedly indulged in a myriads of brilliant colours he had not experienced before…”There is that sulphur yellow everywhere the sun lights on.” He eagerly ushered in a new style.

Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly… — To Theo from Arles, August 1888

(The Sower)

I believe in the absolute necessity for a new art of colour, of design, and — of the artistic life.”

“But the painter of the future will be such a colourist as has never yet been [emphasis his].

Through the artist’s colourful lens, the view that van Gogh saw was one that I could never imagine. Here he described to his brother Theo a painting he’d finished, in a letter dated September, 1888:

 … the starry sky painted actually at night under a gas jet. The sky is greenish blue, the water royal blue, the ground mauve. The town is blue and violet, the gas is yellow and the reflections are russet gold down to greenish bronze. On the blue-green field of the sky the Great Bear sparkles green and rose, its discreet pallor contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas.

(Starry Night)

Many of the letters are descriptions like this to Theo in Paris. Reading them, I can sense the artist’s excitement and joy in capturing everything he saw in Arles:

At the moment I am working on some plum trees, yellowish white, with thousands of black branches. I am using a tremendous lot of colours and canvases…

… it will be to our advantage to make the most we can of the orchards in bloom. I am well started now, and I think I must have ten more, the same subject. You know, I am changeable in my work, and this craze for painting orchards will not last for ever. After this may be the arenas…

His letters alas are also pleas for funds, as he was “literally starving”. With the last fr.5 he had, he’d spend it on canvases. He lived in dire poverty most of his career, damaging his physical and mental health.

I can’t do without colours, and colours are expensive… I cannot get more on credit. And yet I love painting so…

Worse still, his letters are also accounts of anguish, depression, and “unbearable hallucinations.” He desperately sought cures, admitting himself into the asylum in St. Remy’s. Ironically, it was there that he experienced the most prolific period of his life.

                    (St. Paul’s Hospital at St. Remy’s)

Throughout van Gogh’s numerous letters, there are many beautiful lines, insight into love, art, books, and life. Here are a few:

  • “Since I really love there is more reality in my drawings.” — Autumn 1881
  • “I would not give a farthing for life, if there were not something infinite, something deep, something real.” — December 1881
  • “It is the painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work so that it becomes intelligible to other people. To work for the market is in my opinion not exactly the right way…” — July 1882
  • “I assure you that some days at the hospital were very interesting, and perhaps it is from the sick that one learns how to live.”  — January 1889
  • “I took advantage of my outing to buy a  book… I have devoured two chapters of it… This is the first time for several months that I have had a book in my hand. That means a lot to me and does a good deal towards my cure.” — March 1889
  • “What I should very much like to have to read here now and then, would be a Shakespeare… What touches me, as in some novelists of our day, is that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare’s case reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. — From St. Remy’s Hospital, June 1889.

But tragically, van Gogh succumbed to his mental illness. In July, 1890 two months after moving back to Auvers, north of Paris, he went out to the open fields and shot himself. Two days later he died from his gunshot wound. He was 37.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother and Others. Introduction by his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, abridged by Elfreda Powell, Published by Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2003, 324 pages.

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The is my last post for the blogging event Paris in July hosted by Karen of BookBath, and Tamara of Thyme for Tea. My other post is “A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway.”

To read my travel post from last August “Arles: In The Steps of Van Gogh” CLICK HERE.

Photos: Van Gogh’s paintings, from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Arles and St. Remy’s by Arti of Ripple Effects, August, 2010.

To read all the 900 letters of van Gogh online, go to this excellent site of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.