Sunday, August 26, 2007

transitions

After those very busy posts of last week, the hairdos, the domestic goddesses, the dogwashing, you know, all that fun, it's time for some calm around here. Paul and I have had a quiet weekend in our little waterfront paradise. Our Golden Retriever came home from her annual grooming looking very pretty (they put bows in her hair!) but promptly went to sleep and barely budged for the next 24 hours -- looking good comes at a cost! So we followed suit and relaxed in the sunshine with our books and the weekend papers. Today it's overcast and I feel a bit gloomy about the oncoming seasons. Once the rains start coming, this little island is not such a paradise with daily boat commutes over rough waters using slippery docks, not to mention the kilometre of dirt (and hence very muddy) road that has to be covered to get to the boat. There is no bike fender I know of that will really shield against that mud so outings get planned carefully for outerwear, changes of wear, etc. and Helly-Hanson becomes the fashion du jour.

Another effect of the changing season will be that, with the return to classes, recreational reading time gets pretty limited. So I'm trying to rush through a few books this week, trying to savour them at the same time -- tough to manage. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I just finished Anna Gavalda's Hunting and Gathering (trans. Alison Anderson), and enjoyed it very much. I heard about it on one of the numerous "Paris ex-pat blogs" that I love to check out regularly, but unfortunately can't remember which one -- at the time I put it on my Chapters/Indigo wishlist and then finally got 'round to ordering it a month or so ago. Wish I'd realized that it was a translation 'cause I would have loved to read this in the original -- the translation itself is great, really capturing the Gallic rhythm, but Paul and I try to read a few French novels a year to keep up vocab, etc., and this one would have been perfect. It's a charmingly told story of a group of four rather damaged people, three of them young, one a senior no longer able to live alone. They eventually become family for each other, gradually building trust and exposing their vulnerabilities and telling of their past in a way that skirts close to clich├ęd and sentimental, but for me, at least, avoided those weaknesses.

Certainly, the story follows some predictable patterns and it's not especially realistic in some of the redemptions it sketches, but I was so charmed by what it gathered together that I could easily overlook that. First charm for me, of course, was the Paris background-- specific enough to be satisfying but not intrusive. Secondly, I appreciated the culinary descriptions which ranged from the exhausting and increasingly frantic preparation and service for a New Year's Eve dinner at the restaurant where one of the characters cooks to the simple broth the same character prepares to tempt a roommate who verges on anorexic. This latter roommate, who I could most easily imagine being played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, contributes much of the novel's charms in the form of her art. Considerably damaged through a childhood and adolescence of dealing with a suicidal mother, she expresses herself through wonderfully described, deft sketches that captivate those around her.

In a series of scenes, for example, when she is first working as a night office cleaner, she asks a persistent offender not to leave his office in such a disgusting state -- why can't he use the garbage can? Given the size and prominence of his office and the tenuous condition of her employment, this is a risk, and the sketch she leaves pulls no punches: "To her tirade she added a nasty drawing featuring a little pig in a three-piece suit leaning down to see what sort of strange contraption [the wastebasket] was hiding under his desk." But the next time she cleans this office, it's in much better condition and she sketches "an angel as seen from behind, a pair of wings emerging from his suit and a lovely halo over his head."

As well, through her we learn something of art history and of other less predictable knowledge such as the impetus for Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." And a thoroughly eccentric character, scion of an impoverished aristocratic and counter-revolutionary French family fills us in on lesser-known aspects of French and Parisian history, illuminating his beloved city for us signpost by signpost -- who, for example, are the Barbes and the Rochechouart for whom the Metro station is named and how would they feel about having their names linked?

I haven't even mentioned the lovely relationship that develops when the three roommates decide to take in the grandmother who's been displaced from her home through failing health. Or the addict who recognizes himself in Van Gogh's letters and subsequently commits to rehabilitation. This was a perfect book for late summer reading, the kind to curl up in for a day or two and that will inspire another several days of daydreaming about its many charming characters and images. It would suit a rainy fall day by the woodstove just as well, though, so you might want to put it on your list.

One more little delight about this book for the knitters among us. The Charlotte Gainsbourg character gets a gift from the grandmother (who's trying to woo her on behalf of the grandson). When she first opens it she thinks it's "one of those straggly things for mopping the floor [but] it was a scarf, very long and loose and rather badly knitted: a hole, a thread, two stitches, a hole, a thread, and so on . . . Some new kind of stitch? The colors were . . . different, to say the least." And the accompanying note in "the handwriting of a turn-of-the-century schoolteacher, pale blue, wobbly, full of loops, apologetic" says that since the grandson "wasn't able to tell me the color of your eyes . . . I put a bit of everything." Camille (CG!)tries it on and exclaims "God, it was ugly, My God, it was lovely." -- Once again, we have a knitlit example of the therapeutic and seductive charms of knitting, as I pointed out to you earlier in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.

I'm still working on the Icarus shawl -- at 400+ stitches per row of keeping-track-lacework, this is now fairly slowgoing but I'm almost finished the 2nd of the last three charts. The next one, though, is 24 rows long, so I'm not sure if I'll manage to get it done this week. I'd really love to be able to get it blocked before classes start.

One more thing -- I've posted a poll on the right that I hope you'll take a second to participate in. I'm curious to know how many of us are affected by the back-to-school vibe. Since I was five, I doubt there have been more than perhaps two or three years September didn't mean a changed schedule: either I was going back to school myself; Paul was (our first two years); the kids were; or, as now, I'm getting ready to teach. What about you?

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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