Orange Prize Winner!

As I pack my bag for a short visit to Northern Ireland tomorrow, I hesitate about only taking the kindle, having been caught out before on a 5 hour TGV train ride and a flat battery. But with the announcement that Madeline Miller has won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction with her debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, my decision is made, it has been tempting me all day and I have picked it up a few times, willing it to share its secret. So into the bag it goes.

While the international women’s writing prize will continue to be celebrated, this will be the last year that it is sponsored by the telecommunications company Orange, so we shall wait and see what name and new look next year’s prize will emerge with.

The shortlisted novels can be viewed here and my review of Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’.

So what can we expect to find within the covers of Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’? According to the blurb:

Greece in the age of Heroes.

Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to Phthia to live in the shadow of King Peleus and his strong, beautiful son, Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

Inspiration indeed in this year of the Olympics!

If This is a Man: The Truce by Primo Levi

I only had to read the first sentence of a Scotsman in Exile’s blog post of this book to put aside what I was reading and start this almost immediately; his review entitled And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up… continues its first line:

…These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is a Man’ by Primo Levi.

I found a copy on the second-hand shelf of our local bookshop the very next day, a copy I now own that would have to be the most annotated, scribbled in, colour highlighted, dog-eared, pored over volume that I possess (thanks to the previous owner ZIMERI). When I was a student, we studied ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’; how fortunate that today’s students are reading and studying this equally important work.

I’m not sure if I so much as read the book as followed closely in the footsteps of Primo Levi as he recounted the events that unfolded during his journey and time in the concentration camp, due to the way he chooses to express himself, which can best be summarised in his own words:

I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Thus we absorb only that which he personally experienced and perceive not just the daily routine, the trivial yet so essential implements of his survival, the relentless toil and the near brokenness, but we view also the different strata of man in that direst of circumstances, a kind of perverse hierarchy.

Primo Levi was a young man of 24 years, a chemist and part of a partisan band hoping to join the Resistance movement when captured by the Fascist militia and sent to a detention camp at Fossoli. A few weeks later, all Jews in the camp were told they would be leaving for an unknown destination, revealed to be the camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, part of Auschwitz.

650 people made the journey that day; on arrival, the majority were ‘swallowed by the night’ and 125 sent to the camps. Of those, only three made the return journey to Italy after liberation, Primo Levi being one of them.

He was fortunate to return and discover his family intact; we in turn are fortunate that he returned and wrote these two books to be read together, one the descent into darkness, the other the journey back towards an altered but real luminosity.

All I can really say is that if you haven’t read it, add it to your list and find the time one day to slow-read it, Primo Levi was an important chronicler of a difficult period in history and a man who was interested in and able to put into words his observations of humanity in all its capacity, something we all the better for knowing.

Death at the Château Bremont

There is a shelf in our local bookstore dedicated to books crossing numerous genres that have a connection with France, you will find nonfiction travelogues such as Sarah Turnbull’s ‘Almost French’ or David Sedaris’ vignettes in ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’, funny, true, yet never denigrating the country that has become like a second home to him. You will also find English translations of popular French authors like Jean Giono and Michel Houellebecq and novels set in France.

Death at the Château Bremont fits into latter, not only set in France, but here in Aix-en-Provence. I first became aware of the title thanks to a review by Lynne at Aixcentric, an excellent and informative blog I read regularly to know what’s happening in and around the area where I live.

Just yesterday I read that tonight is the annual Nuit des Musées when the town’s museums are free and open from 8pm until 1am. We love this annual late night out.

Not long after that mention, the book-club that I read along with nominated it as their May read and the author M.L.Longworth who lives here in Aix-en-Provence, was invited to join us. So, a fascinating insight into the gestation of this, first in the ‘Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery’ series, which follows the lives, dramas and intrigues of Judge Antoine Verlaque and Professor Marine Bonnet, his sometime amoureuse.

It’s a mystery and in order to keep the mystery alive, I will only reveal that Étienne de Bremont falls to his death from a Château window, an investigation is requested and after some drama involving clandestine affairs, jealous siblings, polo players, Russian millionaires and a New York suicide, all will slowly be revealed.

What makes Longworth’s mystery unique is the journey. It is far from dark and gory, realms she has no apparent appetite for, however she will take you on a gastronomic excursion through the towns, vineyards and countryside of the region, visiting suspects while piecing together the connections and clues to the lives of those involved in this conspiracy. So not just a book for aficionados of mystery’s, but one for food and wine lovers and anyone who has ever dreamed of living and working in a city of culture and gastronomy in the South of France.

M.L.Longworth with Claire McAlpine

No tourist visit, this literary journey is the real thing and so agreed the group of eight women who were present to discuss the book, all sharing their favourite parts, confirming the locations the book visits and even suggesting others for the third book, which the author is working on, all suggestions were gratefully received and noted.

M.L. Longworth’s second book in the series, ‘Murder in the Rue Dumas’ will be published on 25 September 2012.

A Letter to her Sister

Hyde Park by Stella Leivadi @treknature.com

After the slow meander through Nancy Goldstone’s ‘The Maid and the Queen’, I reached for this library book because I was sure it would have pace and I am long overdue reading it, considering I gave it to my sister for Christmas two years ago.

Rosamund’s Lupton’s ‘Sister’ is set in London, from Notting Hill to Hyde Park, in a police station and St Anne’s Hospital.

It is Beatrice’s book long letter to her missing sister Tess, in which she narrates everything that took place from the moment she heard of her sister’s disappearance until now, when she will recount the entire episode as a kind of tribute to her sister. Telling a story in this way, as Ruby Soames does in her excellentSeven Days to Tell You’ makes the reading of it more intimate, there’s less use of the I and they and more than usual of the you and your. It’s almost a conversation, only the narrator speaks and you listen.

Beatrice has been living in New York and the disappearance of her sister brings her back to London and provides some distance and perspective on her own life, which will change forever as she attempts to uncover what really happened to her sister, refusing to accept the conclusions of the police and the easy acceptance of their verdict by her mother and fiancé.

As I put down the phone I saw Todd looking at me. ‘What exactly are you hoping to achieve here?’  And in the words ‘exactly’ and ‘here’ I heard the pettiness of our relationship.  We had been united by superficial tendrils of the small and the mundane, but the enormous fact of your death was ripping each fragile connection.

It being something of a mystery, I do try to second guess not just the culprit but also the twist, there always is one isn’t there? I often look for the character that is barely mentioned and I was aware that this particular narrative perspective can be the perfect conduit for the unreliable narrator. However, in this case, I neither predicted the culprit nor saw the twist right until it occurred, leaving me in admiration of Lupton’s ability to outwit and pleasantly surprise her readers.

I look forward to reading her second novel ‘Afterwards’.

Wild Horses and Flash Fiction

Its National Flash Fiction Day today in the United Kingdom, celebrating the short, short form of fiction, the art of telling a story in less than 1,000 words and more often only 150 words.

David Gaffney shares his experience of writing and being published in the form and offers these tips:

  1. Start in the middle
  2. Don’t use too many characters
  3. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end
  4. Sweat your title
  5. Make your last line ring like a bell
  6. Write long, then go short

He goes on to explain each tip, click here to reveal his words of wisdom.

And here is my attempt to tell a story in 150 words, word by word.

*

The Muster

*

I ride bareback with just a halter and lead into the midst of the herd, gently coaxing them out from under the trees. My mount quivers beneath me; fear pervades the damp atmosphere and I exhale deeply to expel it.

The sound of a gunshot spooks the stallion and the horses move. Bright sunlight extinguishes shadows as they bolt, branches cracking beneath the drum of hooves.

My father is in position. The herd veers to the right. At the river bank there is a two metre drop into the water and we do not hesitate. I grip hard with my knees and feel muscle ripple beneath me bracing itself for the jump. Something knocks my shoulder and I cry out as we plunge head first into the torrent.

“Wake up son, we’re mustering that herd of wild horses today” my father says as I open my eyes.

The Secret History of Joan of Arc

Such a seductive title ‘The Maid and the Queen’ – The Secret History of Joan of Arc and it is indeed an intriguing story, wrapped in faith, hope, superstition, manipulation, cruelty and ultimately the exoneration and beatification of a heroine (Joan of Arc was canonised in 1920).

 Joan of Arc is testimony to the transcendence of the human spirit….She remains an inspiration, not only to the citizens of France, but to oppressed people everywhere.

Ironically, it is due to the inquisition of Joan of Arc that much of the history of the era was documented and preserved, her testimony and the numerous depositions from the many eyewitnesses who knew her and who were in some way involved in the events of the Hundred Years war, that period of conflict between the Kingdoms of England and France and various other alliances from 1337 to 1453, as each sought to claim control of the French throne.

One of the insights that astounded me was the prolific negotiation of the female offspring of nobility to secure territorial alliances or peace between the realms. Daughters were auctioned off as young as 4 years, though depending on how power shifted and who survived into adulthood, those promises could alter.

Nancy Goldstone’s thoroughly researched oeuvre, takes a step back to look at the events, beliefs and susceptibilities of characters leading up the prominence of Joan of Arc, none more so than Charles VII, Yolande of Aragon’s (Queen of Sicily) son-in-law and the man who as a sensitive 11-year-old boy, she had taken into her home, nurturing and caring for him as her own, at a time when he was not destined for the throne (he had two older brothers). His propulsion into the role of King while the English were making inroads into the territory, King Henry having proclaimed himself King of England and France, and his reluctance to engage in battle, were significant risks to the Kingdom of France that required intervention.

Drawing inspiration from ‘The Story of Melusine’, commissioned in 1393 and written by Jean d’Arras (when Yolande was 12-years-old) a propaganda devised to address the political controversy surrounding the Duke of Berry’s appropriation of an ancient and imposing castle belonging to the aristocrat Lusignan family, Yolande of Aragon was able to usher Joan into an audience with the young King.

To Yolande of Aragon, the parallels to the story line of Melusine were obvious… there was just one element missing to turn this fiction into reality. The Queen of Sicily actively sought a Melusine as part of her strategy for reinstating the dauphin as the legitimate heir to the French throne.

That Joan was effectively recruited, is reinforced by a French historian who reported that in 1428 alone, twenty people, mostly women, claimed to have been chosen by God to deliver a message to the King. None of them were given the opportunity unique to Joan, whose faith and convictions aligned with what Yolande wanted to hear and would result in her leading an army to relinquish the city of Orleans. By speaking passionately to Charles inner most fears, in particular an obsession with his possible illegitimacy and by her knowledge of ‘his secret prayer’ to God which he cried out in his sleep, Joan materialised as a sign and a saviour.

Gentle dauphin, I am Joan the Maid, and the King of Heaven commands that through me you be anointed and crowned in the city of Reims as a lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is King of France.

Having succeeded in turning the English back, Joan was eventually captured and no longer considered useful by her King or sponsor, was sold to the English who sought vengeance, and submitted her to a long inquisition hoping to rid themselves of her and the fervent following she inspired among the people. Though their interrogations were inconclusive, and their hopes to condemn her destroyed by a signed recantation, she was tricked into heresy and sentenced to be executed.

I found the book full of interesting facts and connected events surrounding Joan herself, but I admit it was not an easy read and slow going at times –perhaps by necessity– to comprehend all the characters, families, alliances and influences. I did find myself wishing at times that the author might have used more creative tools to inhabit the emotional life of some of the characters, something that makes reading well-researched historical fiction a real pleasure and certainly adds pace.

But for a factual account of how The Maid came to represent a significant turning point in France’s history, I can think of none better.

If it is accepted, as it is often said, that without Joan of Arc there would be no France, it is also true that without Yolande of Aragon, there would have been no Joan.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

 

A Love of Words and Music

I have been struggling a little to finish ‘The Maid and the Queen’, what with school holidays, the French presidential elections (which I voted in for the first time), working on promoting my Aromatherapy business and socialising more than usual, including attending an excellent concert of the cult singer/artist ‘Camille’ at Le Silo in Marseille on Friday.

Camille

No one song can possibly represent what a performance by this artist represents, she sings, uses her voice and body as an instrument, dances barefoot in her sacking dress and easily extracted volunteers from the audience to participate.  She is total inspiration, if you would like listen, here is a sample ‘Mars is no Fun’.

So no book chat today, instead I will share a fun word cloud tool that I discovered thanks to Elodie at  ‘Commuting Girl’ called Tagxedo into which you can copy any text or enter your blog or website name and the tool will analyse the content and show you which are the most popular words and how often they are used.

So Voila! For this blog ‘Word by Word’, here is an image of the most common words used and I am delighted that the word ‘Word’ is indeed such a dominant feature.

Intrigued, I decided to put the text of my ‘sitting on the shelf’ novel as I have always wondered which words I might be over using.  So I am not going to say anything more about the novel, except that it is called ‘A Piece of the Mosaic’ and here is a clue to what lies within.

So what does your blog, novel, poem,story look like?