Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan tr. Irene Ash #WITMonth

Bonjour TristesseRachel Cooke in this Guardian article The subtle art of translation reflects on the importance of the right translation and relates her memory of reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse.

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart.

She decides to splash out and buy a new copy to read and chooses the Penguin Modern Classics version translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it.

Françoise Sagan

Author, Françoise Sagan

For a while she continued to read it, telling herself it was stupid to cling to one version, as if it were a sacred thing, however she gave up, it may have been an accurate translation but it lacked the magic of that fist reading experience. She ends by saying that if you tried this story and hated it, to please have another go and entrust yourself to Irene Ash’s gorgeous 1955 translation.

Having read the article, I had no hesitation in going straight for the Irene Ash translation and was transfixed from the very first pages, totally put under the spell of this charming little novella.

Cecile is looking back and recalling the summer she was seventeen, when she and her father spent 2 months on the French Riveria near St Raphael, having a blissful holiday. He is a widower who doesn’t lack for female company and she has just finished school and lives a life of privilege and indulgence, her father imposing few if any limits on her, they are in a sense like children both of them in adult bodies.

He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring.It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks.

She is surprised to enjoy the company of a young man Cyril, preferring the company of more mature men and her father’s friends, and discovers she quite likes the attentions of this young man who is falling in love with her and she with him.

CalanquesIt should have been perfect, but things change when an old friend of her mother’s Anne arrives and she and her father announce their intention to marry. Although it is actually something Cecile feels is right for them and she adores Anne, part of her resents what signifies to her the end to the playful era she and her father have indulged, for Anne’s presence in their lives will certainly bring order and sensibility.

Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced by her into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost. And what did she bring me? I took stock: She wanted my father, she had got him. She would gradually make of us the husband and step-daughter of Anne Larsen; that is to say, she would turn us into two civilised, well-behaved and happy people.

She embarks on a plan to provoke a change in this happy little situation, instantly regretting it, but unable to halt the progress of a development she has initiated.

Tears came into my eyes at the thought of the jokes we used to have together, our laughter as we drove home at dawn through the empty streets of Paris. All that was over. In my turn I would be influenced, re-oriented, remodelled by Anne. I would not even mind it, she would act with intelligence, irony and sweetness, and I would be incapable of resistance; in six months I should no longer even wish to resist.

It is a simple storyline, but what makes it incredible are the adept insights Cecile has into herself and her behaviour and to all those around her. She acts irresponsibly as if she is unable to help herself, but with a certain equanimity, it is as if she stands outside of herself and narrates events and what is driving each character to act their part in her little drama, which will escalate into tragedy.

Utterly engaging, I was riveted, loved that ability her character had to understand the personalities around her and her own flaws, despite being unable to stop the mischief she provoked, not to mention that this was written when the author was only 18 years old.

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The Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly #memoir

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver, Poet

Outdoor MassageA few years ago a lady who had recently moved here to Aix-en-Provence contacted me in relation to Flairesse, my aromatherapy therapeutic massage business. She became a regular client and over time I got to know her well, discovering a mutual interest in culture, books and writing. She had a strong passion for travel, the lives of others and the excitement of discovery, which was the name of a blog she’d set up to keep a record of her adventures while living in France.

I learned that she was writing a book, which had initially been planned to be a collection of a dozen or so stories she had related to her clients over the years, (she had been a Marriage and Family Counsellor for 30 years in Southern California) these stories had been her way to illustrate a particular teaching, something she had found that people absorbed more easily through storytelling than being given the lesson directly.

However, and given her adventurous spirit, it came as no surprise to me, once she sat down to write it, she realised that looking back and recounting the past, the stories she had spent 30 years narrating, no longer excited her, so she decided to change direction and push her focus forward, towards the unknown lifescape before her and share this grand adventure she had embarked on, three years after her retirement, at the unstoppable age of seventy-eight.

Every month, I would hear how the book was progressing and I’d also hear about Karin’s latest travels, culinary adventures, her move to a quieter apartment, her daily five Tibetans rites of rejuvenation ritual, and always that infectious laugh and sense of fun she had about life. I lent her a few writing books and then suggested she might like to enter The Good Life France writing competition, 1,000 words about France – about memories, a favourite place, or something you love about France.

good lifeExcited about the opportunity to put her writing skills to the test, Karin took the first chapter of her book, moulded it as much as she could to meet the criteria, sent it to me to look over and to make recommendations on how to whittle it down further without losing any of the content and then sent it off! We came up with the title ‘Scattered Dreams’ and a few weeks later heard the fantastic news, a confirmation if ever any was needed of how realistic this dream was in coming to fruition, that she had won first prize! She was now published and on her way to fulfilling that goal of becoming an inspirational author.

And so, today I am delighted to be able to introduce you now to published author Karin Crilly, and the book that made its first chapter appearance in The Good Life France where it was so fabulously awarded the recognition it deserved – The Blue Satin Nightgown, My French Makeover at Age 78.

I had to share this photo which Karin sent me one night as I was scribbling notes over one of her chapters in the book, (after that first success, I read all her manuscript and tried to concentrate on making notes for feedback, which was difficult, as her stories were so entertaining and often had me open-mouthed in surprise).

She’d told me she was going to an Elton John concert earlier in the evening and then later this picture arrived, showing her accepting a lift home from Xavier – the husband of her friend Marie-Paule, a couple who became like family to her –  it so depicts the excitement and sense of adventure Karin was always up for and no wonder her book is so full of laughs and the pure delight of living life to the full.

The Blue Satin Nightgown is an enchanting, easy reading memoir of Karin’s two years based here in the small town of Aix-en-Provence, taking us through both the trials and delights of her attempt to integrate into French culture, finding an apartment, discovering the markets, learning French cuisine – though she is already an excellent cook, and shares some new and favourite recipes throughout the book.

She attracts men without trying and there are many entertaining chapters of close encounters and demonstrations of what we might refer to as, the French culture’s ‘art of seduction‘, a term that doesn’t have the same meaning in English, more of a natural charm that often surpasses the boundaries of the Anglo-American experience and is practised by young and old.

One of the endearing aspects of Karin’s writing and of her character is her ability to look at herself and see how she reacts in certain situations, to talk to herself as if she were one of her own clients. She brings a natural and gracious wisdom to the page and often thought back to wonder how her late husband Bill, to whom she dedicated the book, would have responded to what she had experienced and often asked herself what lesson she needed to learn. She finds wisdom not just in her own encounters, but by maintaining a strong and positive link to her loved one, a memory that never held her back, one she found a way to help push her forward and kept at her side, without ever succumbing to grief or self-pity.

Karin is not just an inspiration to those in their seventies or those who have lost a life partner, she is an inspiration to all of us, who have ever thought about doing something a little adventurous or extraordinary.

When my husband died from complications of Parkinson’s disease, I wondered if I could still be extraordinary. I had expended so much energy being his caregiver for eighteen years, the last five years of which demanded my entire being. After grieving for several years, I retired from thirty years of counselling. I needed to reinvent my life. I believed what I have always known: that the true self is presented  with ideas that it is capable of fulfilling.

When I received the call at age seventy-eight, I remembered my clients and my advice to them.  And I said YES!

Karin Crilly, Introduction, The Blue Satin Nightgown

Buy a copy of Karin’s The Blue Satin Nightgown via Book Depository here (affiliate link)

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The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi tr. Alison Anderson

Layout 1A woman working in an asylum centre as a translator is called to fill in for an interview. She utters the word she has all but banished from her vocabulary. Yes.

Now she faces the man with the voice she recognises, the man who snapped his fingers and changed her life, in their country, all those years ago.

One last interview with an asylum seeker who’s a bit of a problem, said my interlocutor, who was not anyone I knew. He went on, It’s a Colonel from the Theological Republic. But – I read your file. “Refuses to do any simultaneous translation for military or government personnel from her country of origin.”

Fariba Hachtroudi’s novella (translated from French) is a dual narrative, switching between two characters as they experience the present and remember the past in flashbacks, a kind of first person stream-of-conscious prose that is tense and withholding, though ultimately revealing.

We know bad things have happened, but no one wishes to relive or explain them, their thoughts rarely go there and yet we feel the presence of the past that hangs over them and the danger in the present. They both live with fear, paranoia and suffer from separation, from the memory and pain of love. They seek answers, atonement and their brief meeting will move them closer to it.

Now the Colonel is one of the hunted. He has been reinstated as a citizen. We have become full-fledged compatriots.  But what about the past? Can you just erase it with a swipe of your hand? And that pool of putrefaction that he waded into, without blinking an eyelid? The stench of it?

They live in isolation and with the memory of a great love and yet they have this terrible connection, which they must move beyond if they are to benefit each other. Can one overcome the memory of torture, the victim and the perpetrator and establish some other understanding?

Torture, like love, destroys, distorts, and transforms. Indubitably. Love, like torture, alters bodies. From the precipices of torment. Both love and torture mortify the soul deep in one’s inner chaos. Where the self disintegrates.

It’s a book that would benefit from being read twice as the narrative isn’t chronological, the characters and their loved ones are revealed slowly so thoughts shared in the beginning without reader knowledge add more to the story if we flip back and reread them.

Though a short novella, it requires concentration and acceptance that the threads will become clear, even while things are unclear, there is a mounting tension and discomfort that is hard to articulate, but is testament to the profound, tightly woven writing style of the author, this her first translation into English.

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi was born in Tehran, leaving Iran after the 1979 revolution and settling in France. She spent 2 years in Sri Lanka teaching and researching Theravada Buddhism.

An account of her return to Iran after 30 years in exile was the subject of a memoir The Twelfth Iman’s a Woman? Following that visit she set up MoHa, a humanitarian foundation that advocates for women’s rights, education and secularism.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for kindly providing a copy of this novel.

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe by Dawn Tripp

I’ve loved Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings since I stumbled across them one weekend in an art gallery in Chicago and felt the effect of them, rather than saw them as such, for they are indeed imbued with feeling and when you see one of her large canvases with its bold visual statement, well for me anyway, you can’t help but be moved by it, struck dumb by it, to stop and appreciate how this artist communicated something deep within you, without words or reality. I felt it almost like a punch, I didn’t quite understand what it was, but I wanted to know who is was that had created that effect on me.

Although I bought a beautiful book about her paintings, it was something less intellectual and more personal I was after. I found a very old, yellowed copy of Laurie Lisle’s Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe.

It provided an excellent framework of her life, her childhood and introduction to art, her various shows, her marriage and need for solitude and her eventual move to that part of the world that most resonated with her, New Mexico.

However, O’Keeffe comes off as a rather distant, aloof character, seen from the outside, rather brusque, detached. The biography filled in her life, but left me still wanting to know who she was, sure there was much more to her that we would benefit from knowing.

One of the things that makes Georgia O’Keeffe such an interesting character is not just her work, but her essence, her self-knowledge and ability to act upon it, to ensure that she lived in a way that allowed her art to express itself in an authentic way. When she wasn’t able to do this, her mental health declined, however she knew how to resolve it and in acting accordingly, lived to the age of 98.

She married the well-known gallery owner and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, something of a scandal as she was 25 years his junior and he left an unhappy marriage for her, but she never collapses into the relationship, they find a way of supporting each other, that also allows them be individuals and to pursue (most of) their own ambitions wholeheartedly.

Inevitably there would always be compromise, Stieglitz accepted that O’Keeffe needed to spend a portion of the year in New Mexico without him and O’Keeffe had to accept that Stieglitz did not want to become a father again.

GeorgiaWhich all leads me on to say it was with quiet anticipation to learn that Dawn Tripp had the courage, respect and admiration for O’Keeffe to decide to venture into creating a work of fiction, that attempts to channel the voice of Georgia O’Keeffe. What might she have really been thinking if it was her voice relating the story of this life and not someone from the outside.

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe does exactly that.

Dawn Tripp similarly came across her story through her art, after seeing an exhibition of her abstractions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009. She had been aware of her work, but experienced something different that day.

As early as the fall of 1915, at twenty-nine-years old, she was creating radical abstract forms when only a handful of artists were bold enough to explore this new language of modern art. Her abstractions of that time – and those she continued to create throughout her life – were ambitious, gorgeous shapes of colour and form designed to express and evoke emotion, and they were stunningly original.

It provokes in the author, a desire to want to know this woman, the artist, the creator of these stunning works and why she was not recognised for the visionary power of these abstractions during her lifetime. There were excerpts from letters as part of the show:

The language of those letters was sharply intimate, vulnerable, complex. O’Keeffe’s letters revealed a woman of exceptional passion, a rigorous intelligence, and a strong creative drive. Her letters had a raw heat that felt deeply aligned with the abstract pictures I was seeing on the walls, but at odds with the image of O’Keeffe I’d grown up with: the aged doyenne of the Southwest, poised and cool, holding the world at arm’s length.

My Faraway OneWhen the novel was almost complete, the correspondence of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz was published, having been sealed for twenty-five years after her death.

It was a pleasure to read this novel that attempts to get inside that mind and share something that feels more genuine in terms of what her work intended, than the easy reference that so many of the male critics of the time jumped to, insinuating the sexual by responding to the visual elements of Stieglitz’s nude photos of her and the soft interior of her giant flowers, rather than the essence of life itself pushing forth.

This is the Georgia O’Keeffe I’ve wanted to know, and suspected existed, from someone who has tried to absorb her childhood, upbringing and place in the world, attempting to understand what she was trying to express and how it was both uplifted and repressed by the decisions she made.

To explore those initial choices, few of which were her own, the effect of Steiglitz managing and directing her career, their relationship, her need for a child, their life between New York and Lake George until the moment when she allows herself to visit New Mexico with her friend Beck and begins an annual pilgrimage to a place that will eventually consume her entirely and become her home, both physically and spiritually.

We see O’Keeffe as a young independent woman, learn about her family background, their vulnerability to TB, the shock of meeting Stieglitz’s wife and family, the abundance of material wealth and food, she so close to nature – and yet so attracted to him, his mind and his person.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1920

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1920

She resents her art being seen through his lens of her, by the critics, that association with gender, the feminine. The thing that builds her up, blinds them to the work as she sees it. She seeks solitude. She resists being photographed, unable to convince through other means. By the time Stieglitz divorces, Georgia is lacklustre on marriage.

Her mental decline from accepting it all, the inevitable, necessary turning point, turning away from her husband, though forever connected to him.

Dawn Tripp has us completely immersed in a perception of the life of Georgia O’Keeffe that feels as real as if it were the artist herself speaking, though we all know how private she was, and through this novel we understand that need even more so.

People can be sceptical of the fictional biography, but when it is well researched, and the author has found the appropriate voice, and treats the subject with respect and understanding, it brings history alive and makes it accessible to a much wider audience than the more traditional, detached form of narrative.

I highlighted so many paragraphs and sections in the book, it would make the review too long to show them. All the better to discover the words for yourself.

Absolutely brilliant, loved it.

Notes on the Paintings Depicted

OKeeffe painting“Pink Tulip”, 1926, Georgia O’Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36” x 30”
The Baltimore Museum of Art, Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in memory of her husband George Siemonn.
©Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (City Night) (Untitled – Night city), Seventies © 2009 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / © Georgia O

Georgia O’Keeffe White Iris, No. 7 (White Iris # 7), 1957 © 2009 by Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / © Georgia O

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills,” 1935, Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in. Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Click on the link to buy this book.

Buy Georgia: A Novel at Book Depository

Note: The book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Eugene Onegin – Chapters Three & Four

Elle était fille, elle était amoureuse.

Jacques-Charles-Louis Clinchamps de Malfilâtre

Tatyana Eugene Onegin

January 25 – The Feast of Tatiana

What better day to write about these chapters, January 25 being the feast day of Saint Tatiana in Russia, a symbol of women and celebrated as a student festival. Both the name and the day have become even more popular since Alexander Pushkin made her the love interest of his epic poem.

Chapters Three & Four

Eugene Onegin inquires as to how his friend the poet spends his evenings and thus finds himself invited to join him for a family evening at the home of Olga and Tatyana, where they receive warm, old-fashioned hospitality, though afterwards he cannot remember which girl was Olga and which Tatyana. While the evening failed to ignite significant interest in our hero, it did set tongues wagging among the locals.

Conjecture found unending matter:

there was a general furtive chatter,

and jokes and spiteful gossip ran

claiming Tatyana’s found her man;

The girl who spends her hours immersed in romantic novels let her imagination run wild and fell for the insinuations, if not the man himself, suffering from a love sickness of her own making, culminating in a letter (in French) to the imagined hero she has shaped from the form of Eugene Onegin. A baffled Onegin, clearly does not read the same literary genre.

Who taught her an address so tender,

such careless language of surrender?

Who taught her all this mad, slapdash,

heartfelt, imploring, touching trash

fraught with enticement and disaster?

I can’t help but laugh, it is perhaps the poetic form combined with the ignorance of the hero, this bringing together of polar beings, to create such a discordant clash of romantic versus pragmatic. And so we wait to learn what will pass, when by chance the two meet, and Tatyana must listen to the unfeeling hero speak from a detached but well intended heart, warning her against baring her soul so easily in future. Though it is true, he tolerates and listens easily to similarly themed devotions from his friend the poet, for whom such outpourings are his raison d’être.

But I was simply not intended

for happiness – that alien role.

Should your perfections be expended

in vain on my unworthy soul?

Saint TatianaAnd finally the long autumn and winter bore him and he agrees to a second visit, one that will fall on Tatyana’s name day celebration!

Impressions of Tatayana and Olga

Tatyana is distant and aloof socially, yet vulnerable to the roller coaster of emotions she reads and studies at length in her romantic novels. Her falling in love is not as such inspired by meeting Onegin or anything he says or does in their first encounter, it is by the idea of him inflamed by the wagging tongues of neighbours, that allow her, now that she has some distance from the man himself, to imagine herself in love. She has a need to express herself and because she hesitates to ever do so in person, pours her emotion into the written word – a letter.

Olga we only see through the eyes of the enraptured poet Lensky, he is always with her, walking with her, reading to her, writing poems about her, he gives and receives love easily and neither of them appear subject to the more tumultuous vagaries of passionate love.

Onegin’s Reaction to Tatyana?

An almost fatherly response, he was concerned that she should not respond in the same manner when next she looks for love, outwardly he shows little emotional response to her revelations, however there is a hint that the words may have affected him at a more sub-conscious level that has yet to make its way into his more intellectual self. Fortunately, he does show careful consideration for her feelings, by refraining at least from criticising her too harshly or outrightly rejecting her. Ironically, it is his constant boredom that will lead back to the warm hospitality of her family home.

Le Grand Meaulnes

Le Grand Meaulnes

How Does it Contrast With Another Classic Romantic Novel?

I can only compare it with the most recent classic romantic novel I have read, though it was written nearly 100 years later, Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes whose male characters are more afflicted by romantic notions in the vein of Tatyana, than Eugene Onegin. In Fournier’s novel and in his own personal experience, it is the women who dole out the practical advice and suggest that the young man is too young, only for him to become completely obsessed with her.

Overall, these chapters are much more dramatic and throw us deep into the story, they entertain, they shock and delight. It is a pleasure to read and I am looking forward to what the next two chapters will bring.

Click here to read the follow up review of Eugene Onegin Chapters 5 & 6

Lost Cat, Found Humour

There’s little enough humour in our lives and when there is, we don’t always appreciate it or even get it. I admit there is a lot of humour that doesn’t work on me, it’s not enough to know the English language, the cultural  and political context is critical and as for French humour – way too difficult! – however I do admire anyone able to write with humour, speak with it or just be it!

012413_1956_LostCatFoun1.jpgCaroline Paul has something of the gift, in a kind of self-deprecating way, and her book Lost Cat, allows us to have a few laughs at her expense, although they are situations that could equally apply to many of us and especially cat and dog owners.

She has written this light and entertaining tale which will appeal to all ages, a story of love, desperation and the many tools available to obsessed animal lovers in search of a missing pet. It is a true story which comes with a caveat, three in fact, (1) painkillers, (2) elapsed time, (3)normal confusion for people of a certain age.

Knowing that the author has previously written a book about her job as a fire-woman,  it came as less of a surprise to learn that she was involved in a light plane crash in an ‘experimental plane’. Her sense of humour is established not long after this revelation when hospital staff inform her that she has broken her tibia and her fibula.

“The Tibia and Fibula?!” I said, tasting the blood in my mouth, feeling the bruises on my arm, laughing through my morphine haze. When I explained that these were my cats, the staff just nodded, expressionless; to them, I was just another numskull hallucinating on a gurney. But it was true. Two thirteen –year-old tabbies, affectionately nicknamed Tibby and Fibby, were now wondering where the heck I was and why I hadn’t come home.

The accident leads to a period of enforced convalescence and a bout of the blues ; she is unable to venture out, most likely taking up too much space, both mental and physical in what had been the cats’ territory. The home dynamic has also changed since the author became involved in a new relationship, her partner not exactly a cat lover, although as a graphic artist, she has contributed sketches to the book that add to its entertainment value.

Then, a month into her recovery, without warning, something terrible happens. Tibby disappears.

Caroline panics and in the aftermath of his disappearance indulges every possible theory to find out where he is, from walking the neighbourhood to visiting the pound, from prayer to consulting a psychic. Then five weeks after his disappearance, Tibby returns, just like that.  In perfect health.  He’d even gained half a pound and his coat was as shiny as silk.

Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats.


Allia’s cat Noisette

Rather than accept the fact he is safe and has returned, the author then turns detective to try to figure out where he has been, some place he’s clearly still visiting as he is no longer interested in his food. This when I discover things about animal behaviour and the obsessions of animal owners that have me laughing out loud and wanting to tell everyone about  all the crazy things it is possible to spend your hard-earned cash on when you are under the influence of an animal obsession.

And then I quieten down, remembering I have a ten-year-old who is heading in that direction, big time. I’m just thankful that dinosaurs are extinct or he’d be begging for a pet one of those too! I’m afraid of what will happen when he becomes financially independent, the ‘overflowing with life’ rooms, in the virtual home he has created online, possess no furniture or accessories, unless you call a peacock in the living room an accessory.

Camping Neighbours cat – can you believe this cat goes camping!

Where do our pets go and what do they do, when we’re not around? And why? Aren’t we enough for our furry companions? For animal lovers, these are the ultimate questions. And so began a quest familiar to anyone who has realised that the man in their life isn’t who he seems: the quest to find out where Tibby had been for those five weeks.

This book landed on my lap in a busy work period a little while ago and was the perfect antidote, even if you are not a fan of animals, it is worth reading for the enlightenment of the lengths people will go to, to understand their animal.  I wish this book had been available just before Christmas, it’s the perfect gift. There’s always next Christmas! I’ll be buying multiple copies.

Highly recommended.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by NetGalley on behalf of the publisher.

Mom & Me & Mom

Maya Angelou starts her conversation book by mentioning something people often ask, how it is that she became the women she is, a question she says she has been tempted to respond to using lines quoted from Topsy, the young black girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who said, “I dunno, I just growed.”

Mom Me MomInstead, Angelou has written this thought-provoking tribute, sharing a slew of matriarchal experiences among the many others already shared in her remarkable series of autobiographies, to highlight a little of how she did become that brave, sensitive, adventurous and caring women she is, in part due to the grandmother she loved and the mother she came to adore.

It is a story written with utmost compassion and forgiveness, for this is a woman whose mother admitted when she and her husband separated that she could not mother young children, so sent them to live with their grandmother for ten years. Angelou closes the prologue reminding us that love heals and throughout the book will prove that kindness is the greatest gift we can ever give and foster in others.

Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.

Vivian Baxter, Maya Angelou’s mother, was the eldest of a large family of mostly boys, for whom threats, intimidation and violence were a part of their way of their life and this petite force was often at the forefront of their skirmishes. Their father encouraged tough boy talk and tasked his daughter with ensuring the boys didn’t soften. Little wonder that after falling in love, marrying and realising that it was a mistake, they were also unable to agree on who should raise their toddlers, they separated and sent the children to their father’s mother in Stamps, Arkansas. Maya was three and Bailey five-years-old.

Ten years later, when their grandmother felt that Bailey had grown too old for Arkansas, when he had reached a dangerous age for a black boy in the segregated South, it was arranged for them to return to their mother in California. Bailey was enthusiastic, Maya much less so. It would be difficult, but for all her flaws, their mother knew how to communicate with her children and didn’t push her mother status on them. Maya decided she would call her ‘Lady’ and her mother’s response to this is one of many small pleasures Angelou offers up in her book.

Maya has a baby very young, without the foundation of a loving relationship, however with the love and support of her mother, this event in no way prevents her from pursuing her life’s dreams and ambitions.

I thought about my mother and knew she was amazing. She never made me feel as if I brought scandal to the family. The baby had not been planned and I would have to rethink plans about education, but to Vivian Baxter that was life being life.

Some years later deciding to marry Tosh tested the mother daughter relationship, Vivian didn’t try to stop her daughter from making what she thought was a mistake, but she chose to leave San Francisco, not wishing to witness the fallout. Like any young women living off the heady ambiance of newly married love, Maya wished to prove her mother wrong.

To begin with she continued doing all the things she loved, the things that made her Maya Angelou, seeing her friends, attending a dance class, going to church and speaking freely about God. However her activities slowly became issues between the young couple, so she stopped them in an attempt to maintain peace between herself and her husband.

At first the dimness is hardly noticeable but not alarming. Then with a rush, the light is vanquished by darkness.

This gem of a book, complete with gorgeous photos, is a wonderful addition to her already masterful collection of autobiographies and chronicles that one relationship that runs through our entire lives, that with our mother. It may not always be easy, but Angelou shares those moments that tested and ultimately strengthened the love and respect they had for each other. She accomplishes it with incredible honesty and selflessness, something that shines through in the brief interview I have linked here. What a wise and loving soul she is.

Interview – Learning to Love My Mother: Maya talks about her mother with a BBC interviewer.

“Exercise patience with yourself first, so you can forgive yourself for all the dumb things you do. Then exercise patience with your children.”

Note: The book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.