Monday, 21 July 2014

5 Amusing Stories from Elizabethan England

1. Sense of humour. Level: Shakespeare

During one performance of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, in which Richard Burbage plays the title role “a female member of the audience grows so smitten with Burbage that she urges him to come to her that same night. She tells him to knock on her door and announce himself as 'Richard the Third’. Shakespeare overhears their conversation and goes to the lady’s chamber first. When the appointed hour arrives, Burbage knocks on the door and announces that ‘Richard the Third’ has arrived – only to hear Shakespeare reply from within: William the Conqueror came before Richard the Third.”

2. Queen Elizabeth, too, was famous for her humour:

“One day the earl of Oxford breaks wind as he bows down in front of her. Mortified, he leaves court immediately and does not return for seven years. When he finally does come back, the queen greets him cheerfully with the quip, ‘My lord, I had forgotten for the fart.”

3. …speaking of Elizabeth, did you know that she is considered one of the ‘greatest patrons of fashion in history’?

By 1600, in her royal residence could be found that“she has 102 French gowns, 67 round gowns, 100 loose gowns, 126 kirtles, 136 foreparts, 125 petticoats, 96 cloaks, 85 doublets and 99 ‘robes’… Additionally she kept 2 robes, 26 French gowns, 14 round gowns, 27 loose gowns, 23 kirtles, 58 foreparts, 27 petticoats, 41 cloaks and 38 doublets at the Office of the wardrobe at Blackfriars.”

4. Many of the words that were used in Elizabethan England and are still used today, have changed their meanings. For instance:

The word ‘nice’ used to mean ‘exact’ or ‘accurate’; the word ‘cute’ means ‘sharp’, while ‘mean’ refers to something little or humble, e.g. ‘the meanest woman in town’ reflects on poverty. Also: ‘several’ meant ‘separate’; ‘ecstasy’ = ‘madness’; ‘cheap’ = ‘market’; ‘budget’ = ‘bag’, and so on…

5. A remarkable man of Elizabethan England has to be Sir Richard Grenville:

“In 1591, after fighting for a whole day single-handedly against a Spanish fleet, with forty men dead on deck, no gunpower left, gaping holes in the side of his ship and six feet of water in the hold, you might think he surrender. Nothing of the sort: Sir Richard vows to fight on, to the death.”

To learn all you need to know about Elizabethan England, and to read first-handedly all these stories and more: get your hands on The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer.
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Friday, 18 July 2014

What to read: Books about Paris

I consider this as quite a popular type of post. Personally, I have read numerous articles dedicated to the best books situated in Paris, or more generally in France. However, I must admit I am purposely on the look for those kind of lists as reading about France has always been close to my heart. Unsurprisingly, one of my all-time favourite books is Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo – it is a classic, and if you have never read it, make sure you find the time – I thoroughly recommend it (do NOT rely on watching some Hollywood movie version of it as they like to completely alter the plot). I am definitely going to dedicate a post specifically for classic French literature as it is among my favourites. This is not that post. Here I offer some titles that you might have not heard of, but are still worthy of your attention if you want to read about Paris. Some of them are better in quality than others but all of them are good in their own means.

1.   The Girl at the Lion d’Or by Sebastian Faulks

Starting with the one of the highest literary quality. The name of Sebastian Faulks might ring a bell? That is due to his popularity because of another one of his novels – Birdsong. The Girl at the Lion d’Or has that same feeling of a timeless classic that you might get from his other work – it is a beautifully written story, full of utterly believable, engaging characters.

Set in a little French village between the two world wars, the story is about a passionate love affair between a young girl, whose life is marked by abandonment, and a rich married man, a veteran from the Great War. Both of them have been affected by the war in two very different ways, and in their eternal struggles they find another person to care for. Faulks is great when it comes to historical fiction and this is not an exception – the narrative is so flawless, it removes the ideas of time and space, and suddenly rural France in the 30s feels like the most natural and well-known place that the reader could find himself in. The descriptions of the people, the landscape, the tiny streets of Janvilliers, all of it comes to life under the hand of a masterful artist – Faulks paints the perfect picture of a time, when people are still trying to come in terms with the greatest war they have seen – yet, the feeling of a new threat is on the horizon, and there is still some air of uncertainty about the future.

The perfect read if you want to know something deeper about France – not just the prettiness of Versailles, but the history that defines a nation.

2.    The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Keeping it in the past with the second novel I highly recommend: The Paris Wife is set in the best time a book about Paris could be set in – the roaring twenties! The times when Paris is more in than ever – everyone wants to be there and run into the great bohemians of the age in a charming café in the Latin Quarter. And this book is dedicated to no other wife, but Ernest Hemingway’s first wife – Hadley.

Paula McLain beautifully writes this from first person – so, as a result the reader witnesses everything from Hadley’s perspective. We are there to meet Hemingway for a very first time, we are there being besotted by his persona, we are with him when he moves to Paris. But most of all, through Hadley, it is easy to see all the struggles that come with being a genius – a literary master, whose books are today sold in millions around the world, but whose beginnings were quite humble. This is the perfect read to get to the heart of his story – through his first marriage, it is easy to gain some idea of his character and even to understand more thoroughly, why decades later, he would be the man to take his own life. Furthermore, the book offers a wonderful insight into the period when Hemingway was writing The Sun Also Rises, making this a valuable read for literary buffs. But above all, this is a story about Hadley – a woman that might be overlooked when considering Hemingway’s life, but who should definitely not be easily forgotten.

3.    Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard
Fast-forward to Paris in the 21st century and you get Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris. Now, this is a more practical read as it gives you the idea of the Paris of today (plus some insight into the places to visit). I rank this book very highly as it is a perfectly charming read that can easily transport you to the city of lights due to the lightness of the language, and the effortlessness of the narrative.

In this book, Bard tells us her very own story of meeting her French husband, and deciding to completely change her life by moving to Paris with him (honestly, who can blame her?). What makes the book utterly delicious is the inclusion of French recipes at the end of each chapter – duck, goat cheese, sardines, trout, scallops, macaroons – there is something for everyone. But what really makes this book a must is that it proves to me that a modern author can write a beautiful, true story set in Paris, full of emotion. That is, in an age where we are constantly bombarded by chick-lit of low quality, and constantly reminded that the authors are usually women…it is quite refreshing to know there is a woman who can write in such a beautiful way without falling into the clichés of the trade. Give Lunch in Paris a read and you won’t regret it.

4.    The Art of French Kissing by Kristin Harmel

And here is something that definitely falls in the aforementioned category of the chick-lit. The Art of French Kissing is for the women who want a quick escape to Paris but have no time for it, or the ones who are, indeed, going to Paris in a few weeks, and want some more ideas into places to eat and drink. No, this is not a guidebook, but yes – it gives some good insight into where to go to enjoy the best coq au vin or tart tatin in Paris (the characters visit quite a few restaurants and bars along the pages of the book, and their whereabouts are conveniently shared with the reader).

As for the story, it is nothing ground-breaking in the chick-lit genre – a good-looking American girl just loses her fiancé, her job and her place in the matter of a couple of days, so she jumps into the opportunity to visit an old friend who lives in Paris. There, she is included in her small PR company, handling a new big French rock star. The story is charming, but the author does underestimate her readers – for me, the ‘big’ twist is visible from miles away, even without wearing glasses. Nevertheless, you can easily enjoy this short novel for what it is – charming, easy to read and fabulously set in Paris. 

My favourite quote from The Art of French Kissing - spot on
And what is your favourite book set in Paris/France?
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Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Date with The Wolf of Wall Street

Author: Jordan Belfort
Type: Autobiography
Publisher: Two Roads
Pages: 518
Originally published in: 2007

Back in December/January when everyone was off to the cinema to see The Wolf of Wall Street, I was one of the most excited moviegoers. Having in my mind that I am a big cinema buff, whose favourite actor is Leonardo diCaprio and who puts Scorsese among her most favourite directors – this was obviously the film for me. Needless to say I loved it! But while other people’s reactions is usually to get the DVD as soon as it is out, my initial response was to go to my favourite Waterstones and buy the book!

By twelve o’clock I was dizzy, and I was starving. In fact, I was dizzy and starving and sweating profusely. But, most of all, I was hooked. The mighty roar was surging through my very innards and resonating with every fiber of my being. I knew I could do this job. I knew I could do it just like Mark Hanna did it, probably even better. I knew I could be smooth as silk.

Let me just say, usually I need a few pages to really get into a book, and after that I keep reading until I finish it, the same way an alcoholic cannot drop the bottle before he has every last drop of it. This was not the case. From the very first paragraph I was in, fully and consciously, Jordan Belfort had me around his finger, and I was hungrily taking in every single sentence he had for me. For yes, just like in the film, Jordan has this amazing persona that attracts people and makes them listen. This becomes plainly obvious in the book – on those pages you do not get diCaprio’s magnetism to lead you on; you do not get his seducing voice or flirty stare – it is plain words and they still get you. That is, the film does not exaggerate Jordan’s way with words.

Back in February: enjoying a chai latte and Mr Belfort's stories on the life of the rich and dysfunctional 

Now, the Wolf has not turned into my personal hero just because I admire his intelligence, wit and charisma. Unlike those fanboys, who suddenly decided that ‘this is the life’ and ‘he is the man’, just after seeing the film, the readers of the book will get an even deeper insight into Belfort’s life and internal struggles. Yes, he is a billionaire and he did cheat the system and whatnot, but do not think that there were not consequences in his life, or that he does not come in terms with his drug addiction. What may surprise you is that, generally, The Wolf of Wall Street is a story of a man, who has to face his drug abuse in order to save his marriage, his job, and even his personality, which is being completely altered by the non-stopping use of Quaaludes, cocaine… actually, frankly, whatever drug you can think of, he has probably taken it.

The book is a page turner. It is going to make you laugh more than a few times; will make you cringe a couple of more; will disgust you and make you seriously question Jordan’s decisions at other points. All in all, you are either going to love it or hate it, for the book has a character – Jordan’s character. And just as you have a strong opinion on him, you are going to have one on his book because he is not the kind of a man, or an author, that will leave you somewhere in the middle, with mixed feelings. No, it is going to be either one or the other. Personally, I loved it.

As for a comparison to the film – something inevitable when there is a book adaptation – the book gives a lot more detail (unsurprisingly). The best thing is, a good part of the book has found its way to the big screen – some of your favourite movie scenes are coming word for word from the pages. Even the unbelievable ones have actually happened (according to Jordan’s autobiography at least). But then after that, you get even more: you see what happens at the end, when he has to leave Stratton Oakmont; you witness the hell he goes through when he almost loses his new-born boy; you are there when he has to go to a rehab.

Nonetheless, it is a book on excess. On the overindulgence. On the constant hunger for more money, more drugs, more alcohol, more cars, more sex, more everything and anything. You are not going to like the young Strattonites, or the culture they are a symbol of; you might even be sicken by the way of living Jordan promoted, but if you want to know everything about it (and be able to criticize it) – this is the read for you.

“They were drunk on youth, fueled by greed, and higher than kites.”

Final verdict: if you are interested in these kind of stories – the poor boy who becomes a billionaire con-man and then loses it all – then chances are you are going to enjoy this one a lot. But it is not for the faint-minded – there is a lot of strong language and graphic content –proper 18+ material. Also, at 518 pages, it is quite a long read. Then again, as soon as I finished it, I started looking around for Catching the Wolf of Wall Street….
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Saturday, 12 July 2014

Five quotes to inspire the writer in you

1. "Literature remembers what we have forgotten: to write is to read within oneself. Writing reawakens memory; it is possible to write as one might exhume a body. Every writer is a ghost-buster, a phantom-hunter."
- A French Novel, Frédéric Beigbeder

2. '“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it.” 
Anaïs Nin

3. “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” 
- The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

4. “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” 
Rainer Maria Rilke

5. And finally the straight-to-the-point-advice one:
The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.
           - Ernest Hemingway for Esquire, 1935
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Friday, 11 July 2014

Me Talk Pretty One Day: Review

Author: David Sedaris
Type: Autobiography
Publisher: Abacus
Pages: 272
Originally published: 2000

I was interested in reading this book as it was recommended in one of those ‘10 best books about Paris’ articles. So, not knowing who David Sedaris was (for the rest of you as clueless as me - an American comedian), I picked it up from the library the other day. Although the whole first half of the book is situated on his growing up in the USA (indeed, not in France), I still found myself thoroughly enjoying reading about it. This is one of those books that make you laugh out loud and believe me, I was doing this quite occasionally.

However, my favourite part is definitely the second half, where Sedaris and his boyfriend are spending a few years living in Normandy. Keeping in mind that he arrives there without knowing a word of French, you should prepare yourself for even more laughs and ridiculous situations – for that is a typical American in France (now if he were reading this review he would have definitely questioned this statement).

Anyway, this is an instant page turner as the author’s great sense of self-irony turns him into quite the humourist. Indeed, being a comedian, his humour has been widely recognised as self-deprecating, often concerning his family life (and what a family life it is!).

What makes the second part of the book so good, is his struggle with studying French – something, I am sure, a lot of us understand. For example:
“The Hard Kind [of French spoken by Americans] involves the conjugation of wily verbs and the science of placing them alongside various other words in order to form such sentences as ‘I go him say good afternoon’ and ‘No, not to him I no go it him say now.’”

Reflecting back on the first part of the book – his upbringing in North Carolina – I found this quite interesting as a non-American reader. That is, sometimes this kind of stories might come off as being a bit too difficult for an outsider to appreciate them. Here, this is not the case – once again Sedaris’ sense of humour makes all the stories thoroughly enjoyable.

Me talk pretty one day is a bestseller for a reason. If you are looking for something funny and refreshing, or you are just starting studying a new language and are feeling completely hopeless – this is the book for you.
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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Five Perfect Summer Reads

As it is almost the middle of July and with that, it is time to hit the beach (or at least enjoy the sunshine in the park), bookshops everywhere put old classics behind, and push light-hearted summer reads to the front. To be honest, I have to agree that when you are relaxing in the boiling weather outside, reading the likes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dante’s Divine Comedy might be a bit overwhelming.  However, that does not mean you should completely abandon your better judgement and jump into a poorly written book, sporting a glittery-colourful cover (and usually exclusively targeting women, promising them the ultimate romantic story of a cute but shy girl running into the perfect, yet grumpy, man, while she is having a coffee in her favourite charming café).
Fear not, here are five light, yet well-written novels that you can enjoy during your summer vacation.

For the ones who want something short but meaningful:
1.     Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

This little novel, written in 1958, is most well-known for its film adaptation (personally, I think one of the best book adaptations). Audrey Hepburn is the perfect Holly Golightly, combining in her performance girly charm and delightful absent mindedness, making us believe she is Holly. However, to fully appreciate this effect you definitely need to read the book. Truman Capote is a literary genius and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is no exception – offering quite strange and intriguing characters, the book is as fast read as it is fast paced. It never drags, it never goes off in long descriptive narratives, yet it is as alluring as Miss Golightly, and being such a short novel – it inevitably leaves you wanting for more. Also, if you have already seen the film, you will be interested to see how different the original story is. Really, you have no idea what the book is all about just yet, and sure as hell I am not going to spoil it.

For the ones who want to travel by a book:
2.     A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

… For summer reads can be written by Hemingway, too. A Moveable Feast is for the days when you want to imagine you are in Paris in the twenties and you can casually run into Hemingway, or Fitzgerald, or Pound, at some of their favourite cafés, up in Montmartre or down in the Latin Quarters. A book full of brilliant quotes, for Hemingway had quite a brilliant way with words: “We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” It is the simple stuff that made his style – long sentences are a must, but no one writes them quite as Hemingway did, and his style is refreshing, and it is warm, and captivating, and it makes you want to keep reading. Anyway, if you are interested in Scott Fitzgerald’s manhood, or the saucy lives of the famous artists of the time, this one is a must.

For the ones who want to stick to period classics:
3.     Emma by Jane Austen

If you want to stick to the classics, Emma (or any other Austen novel for that matter) should be the perfect choice. England in the 1800s, charming women and charismatic gentlemen – this a dream for the period drama lovers. I would say that Emma comes up as the most appropriate summer read as it is one of the most light-hearted novels of the period (even by Jane Austen’s standards, whose books are quite happy-go-lucky). Indeed, compared to the Bronte sisters, or Marry Shelley, Jane Austen’s work is a bit more fitting when it comes to a read for the beach. Her well-written, sarcastic story about Emma Woodhouse is the perfect summer read. As she herself points out: "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Well, you can see for yourself.

For the ones who want to stick to the chick-lit:
4.     Food of Love Cookery School by Nicky Pellegrino

Something more modern, and definitely something you can actually find in the summer books section, The Food of Love Cookery School might not be a masterpiece, but is a quite enjoyable read nonetheless. I have to point out the style needs to be polished and there is nothing literary striking about the book. However, the story is just delicious! The characters are quite engaging: starting from four very different women, who have enrolled on a cooking course in Sicily, to the charming Sicilian chef who teaches them, to all the other lovely Sicilians who make an appearance on the pages: you can tell Nicky Pellegrino loves Sicily with all its food and colourful individuals! Plus, when an author knows well the place they are writing about, you can feel it from the book - Pellegrino can easily take you on a walk around the island and make you want to spend your next holiday there. A very easy read, this is the ultimate book for the working woman, who finally has found some time off to enjoy a delightful read.

The Gender neutral:
5.     The Innocent by Ian McEwan

Now, this is another modern author, but his books could easily be regarded as classics one day (ahem talking about Atonement over here). The Innocent, unlike some of the previous suggestions, can be easily alluring to both male and female readers. Situated in Berlin in 1955-56, this is the story of young Leonard Marnham, who is assigned to a British-American surveillance team. That is, he wants to escape from his ordinary life and unwanted innocence – indeed, he soon meets Maria, a beautiful German woman. As you might have guessed things are never that cheerful in McEwan’s novels and this one will not disappoint the reader seeking for drama and twists. A light-read it might not be, but an enjoyable drama for the summer evenings it sure is.  

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Monday, 7 July 2014

Sunday Brunch: What to read from Agatha Christie

Hello, dearest! This is my very first post and as I intend to refer to it: the Sunday Brunch. Basically, this is going to be a reoccurring post each Sunday, dedicated to books for your leisure time. As I didn’t fancy calling it just ‘the Sunday Post’ (quite a few obvious reasons against it), I decided to add a cheeky little ‘brunch’ to it…after all everyone enjoys a brunch really! So, there you have it!

Well, what is the best author to enjoy in your free time with a cup of tea? To me, Agatha Christie immediately springs to mind! And accidentally, this week I found myself reading another one of her books while I was relaxing in a café (ah, a favourite part of my days!). The Queen of Crime, as she is widely known, is the perfect choice as her writing is easy to read and captivating. There is something in her books that just makes them addicting – I, myself, am an Agatha-addict, and there is no hope for me – no turning back now! Even though her novels are relatively short, her characters are always so well developed that you feel like you are part of the stories, as if you personally know them. And naturally, we have Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – two brilliant, but quite different, detective minds: two of the most charming elements in her books.

In the bookstore next door: Agatha Christie is an author easy to find

Thankfully, Agatha Christie has written quite a lot – in terms of detective stories, there are 66 novels and 14 short story collections! There are too many things that could be said in a single blog post, which is why I am only going to briefly mention a few titles.

Firstly, I will always recommend to first-time Christie readers one of her most famous novels - Murder on the Orient Express. You get Poirot at his very best, and a case so complicated, the simplicity of its twist is going to shock you and haunt you for quite a while, I daresay! Plus, the scene of the crime is a train, full of a rich assemble of colourful characters, making this book an instant page turner.

Now, a title that I will always love as this is the first book of Agatha Christie’s I have ever read – Cat Among the Pigeons. A teacher is murdered at the Meadowbank School for Girls, and the murderer is not only someone living in the premise of the school, but a cold-blooded killer who is not afraid to strike again. Beautifully written, this is the ultimate story for a relaxing Sunday afternoon, that will keep you guessing 'till the very end.

A reading date with my man: coffee, cake and a book are a must

Lastly, the book I was actually reading the other day, and that inspired this post, was They do it with mirrors. I have to admit, this time I instantly figured who the murderer was and how he did it (something I can rarely say with Christie’s novels), but this does not mean I didn’t enjoy the book. In two words, Miss Marple visits an old friend, whom she is worried for. Her worries significantly deepen when a murder is performed while all guests to the house are gathered in the Great Hall. But who has the motif and the opportunity to kill?

I could write a lot more about Agatha Christie, but this will have to wait as I don’t want to write a post too long for this lazy Sunday evenings. In the meantime, do let me know: what Agatha Christie novel is your favourite?
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