Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Life on Pause

Le Moulin à Barbâtre, à la nuit tombante

I apologize once again for my unexplained absence, but this time around, I do have a good excuse: I was on vacation, and I simply didn't manage to squeeze in a moment to explain that directly here on my blog before departing. Although I figured the message was pretty clear with my previous "Vacation Reading" post... (Read between the lines?)

I left for Noirmoutier, an island off the Atlantic Coast of France, in the Vendée region, three weeks ago today. I actually returned to the office on Monday, but I've been digging my way through personal and professional e-mails, as well as countless blog postings on my Bloglines account -- I sincerely doubt I will ever catch up with all of those! -- since fumbling into the office a bit dazed and still stuck in my vacation haze. Blogging friends, please forgive my dilatory attitude... Three weeks away will certainly transform your approach to things, make it all seem less important, less urgent and perhaps near-unnecessary. My brother even sent me a few reproachful messages, wondering when I was ever going to return to my regular ol' daily existence and resume the grind that we are all used to plugging through year-round. (He lives in America, after all, and isn't used to any extended absences from the office -- I honestly don't know what I would do without these breaks from time to time at this point in my life.) I had told him about my blog months ago, though, and strangely enough he hadn't popped in to visit for a while, so he could hardly scold me!

I plan on resuming my "regular" blogging habits from here on out, although you could hardly call me the most consistent blogger -- I'm well aware of that. But I've made progress from time to time; it just has yet to become consistent progress.

All that time away, of course, was calming and relaxing -- I can't remember the last time I turned off my "thought process", my anxiety-ridden brain, for such an extended period -- and I obviously didn't have access to a computer or to an Internet connection. At first I wondered if this would bother me, but then I realized that I had always survived just fine without it before, and that in fact before the early 21st century, I was far from a fan of anything computer-related. It took me at least a few years to get the knack of things and to even acquire any fair interest in the virtual world. There are still a lot of things out there that baffle me, and how I wish I could improve my own graphic skills so I could jazz up this here blog of mine, but that will simply have to wait until the moment propice.

But there is definitely something to be said for escapism, running off to a fairly secluded place and spending an extended amount of time in completely different surroundings. Even though the weather was not all that great for, um, I would have to say about 13 of my 18 days away, I was still able to immerse myself in a whole new life and pretend like my life back "home" didn't exist -- put it all in parentheses, if you will. I did read quite a bit, but not nearly as much as I had hoped, and I have to admit that I was more than ambitious in my hope to complete seven entire novels while away. Of course, I guess I didn't take into account the fact that there would be three small boys running around me for a good part of my vacation, and also that we would be spending many meals with extended family members... Which I thoroughly enjoyed, because for the most part I love all of my boy's family. (Um, was that a contradiction of sorts? Let's just say I'm being politically correct here...) But family meals always lead to family memories and family quibbles -- and you get where I'm going with this, so I think I'll stop right there.

My choices of reading in the end were a bit arbitrary and depended on my mood, which should come as no surprise, but I did at least require myself to alternate between French and English. I can highly recommend Muriel Barbery's L'élégance du hérisson, of course, although I had a hard time getting into the first 10 pages or so (a bit heavy and dense from the get-go, but then it settles into a certain sublime style, and it's irresistible). Once you're into it, though, you're in it for good. It's a beauty, and I believe it's a novel that will stay with me for some time. I stretched out the last 20 pages or so because I didn't want it to end...

I'm actually working on Sarah Waters right now, but again, I haven't quite gotten into the story yet. Granted, I've hardly finished the first chapter, so I know I may need to be a bit patient. But I won't neglect my reading list, trust me: it will just take me a bit longer than expected to make it through the pile...

In the meantime, I leave you with some of my images of Noirmoutier, personal shots that are the furthest thing from touristic -- because in fact I didn't end up doing very much tourism. We stayed close to the "vacation" home and only ventured out to the beach when the weather was fine, which wasn't all that often. I was fascinated with the moulin, as you can see in the number of photos where the windmill stands as the sole subject, as well as the lavender branches near the house. It was all very sauvage and rustique, and I loved every minute of it.

P.S. You'll note the distinct absence of any photos of myself -- that's what happens, I guess, when you keep the camera under wraps and only whip it out when inspiration strikes. There were times when I realized, when it was clearly too late, that "Wow, maybe I should have taken a photo of that?!" (And in any case, anything else I left at arm's length was grabbed by 3-year-old hands and abused, so I believe I may have for once used good judgment with regard to burying my personal effects...)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

My Vacation Reading

As I settled into a sofa in our office lounge to read for a bit during my lunch break one day last week, a colleague asked me if I was attacking my "summer reading" book... I laughed and said, "Well, one of my summer reading books, but I've got a long list -- you ain't seen nothing yet!"

In fact, I will probably never make it through the whole list, but there are so many books I want to read right now, I can't help but bring along more on vacation than I will certainly end up finishing... I can just see myself choosing to leave ONE behind and deciding once I arrive that it's precisely that one that I want to read. Granted, this pile is a bit ambitious, to say the least. I'm still wondering how I'm going to fit these all in my suitcase -- after all, I was hoping to travel light, especially since I'm going to be in a beach setting and really don't need to bring all that much with me anyway. I may have to narrow this down... I want to be able to choose between a good selection of books in both English and French, depending on my mood, and I've been putting together these titles for a while now, for various reasons. I like to have a nice balance of light, fluffy reading along with heavier, meatier stuff for when I feel like I can settle in and spend a good three or four hours reading non-stop. Which is obvious from the photo above, as I've managed to combine both Nick Hornby and Murakami in the same mix... Suspense and romance are also both good to have on hand en vacances, at least if you ask me!

(And I'm actually still in the middle of Katherine Pancol's Les Yeux jaunes des crocodiles, which is quite good -- I hope to finish this by Friday, two days into my vacation...)

Thanks to Lauren for loaning me Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, as well as inspiring me to continue reading Nancy Huston. And thanks also to Meredith for the inspiration to write this post! She shared her summer reading selection with us months ago...

Most of the English titles in the photo above I managed to either buy used or to borrow, whereas I'm embarrassed to say that I bought all the French books. And some of these have been sitting on my shelves, patiently waiting to be read, for months, namely Duong Thu Huong's Myosotis.
Which will I read first? That's a good question... Again, it all depends on how the mood hits me. But I have a feeling it will be something lighter, so A Long Way Down may make its way back up to the top of the pile... Then again, it's not the book I've been the most impatient to read, so it may very well have to wait. Decisions, decisions...


I've been reading more and more for pleasure in recent years, probably as my own ideal form of escapism, and I can't seem to get enough these days. In a sense, I almost miss reading for my studies, having to analyze a text and discuss it in a classroom setting. This experience often brought out so much more for me, in spite of the stress I might have experienced in writing my own essays and analyses. I vividly remember studying Kate Chopin's The Awakening in a sociology class my senior year of college and wanting to discuss its themes for hours on end, feeling like I could peel away the layers of its depth and never reach the bottom of its literary potential.

My mind has opened up to more and more types of literature over the years, out of pure curiosity or perhaps even a subconscious yearning to broaden myself, my mind and my interests. Before moving to France, I used to read countless books about French culture and novels set in France or French-speaking countries, so when I picked up a book in a shop and it spoke to me somehow in this vein, I would more than likely bring it home with me, as was the case with Claire Messud's The Last Life. More recently, I've become fascinated with Japanese culture, and modern Japanese authors, most especially Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa.
Interestingly enough, though, I've always remained faithful to my love of novels rather than essays or non-fiction. Perhaps it's just this constant need for escapism that resurfaces at every turn, or a recognition of myself or some of my own neuroses and quirks in the characters. I imagine this is a universal trait, that we all yearn for this somehow, and we all look for ourselves in one form or another in our reading.

But the funny thing is that certain stages of my life took me away from the pleasures of plunging into a good book, and I've only found my way back again in the last four years or so. And what a rediscovery! In that absence, I didn't realize all the wonder and stimulation I was missing.
Even today I surprise myself with my constantly evolving passion for reading -- obviously I'm not alone, but it's as if I can't read fast enough some days, trying to soak up so much in such a short time. Then again, I often like to sit back and take my time, savor the pages, like I so often did with Milan Kundera. As I dig my way through one novel, I'm already thinking about what I will read next, anticipating the exhilaration of discovering new characters and new worlds. (Perhaps my boyfriend has solved this dilemma by reading several books at the same time, even in different languages, each one peeking out of a jacket pocket, but I can't seem to do this -- to split my attention that way -- as it distracts me from the story at hand. I need to focus on one imaginary world at a time.)

I do feel quite strongly that the appeal of certain books, or certain kinds of books, is very singular and unique, and that one's interests in books is very subjective. A book that a mass of people might enjoy sometimes just doesn't do anything for me, and I can't necessarly get into it or grasp why it is so popular. Whereas some other subjects or styles pull me in every time, but may not appeal to others at all. And that's okay! I've made peace with this fact, knowing it's all a part of who I am, and my own search for identity.

But like so many others, I'm sometimes overwhelmed by all the wonderful books there are to be read, and I know my thirst will continue unquenched for years to come. I just hope I'll never lose this passion for the written word, because it's one of the things that keeps me going from one day to the next.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Trip down Ten Years

I thought this photo of my niece swimming at her 10th birthday party in June was so beautiful, so serene and yet so bright and energetic (quite a juxtaposition of sorts, non?). That's Ally all right... in a nutshell. She looks like one of those dancers in the water -- what are they called again? synchronized swimmers?-- and you can just feel, sense how happy she is in this moment. So carefree -- so thrilled to be alive. It's often in times like these, when I see the utter innocence and pure bliss of childhood, that I myself wish I could be a kid again, with no fears, worries or responsibilities -- not a care in the world.

Ally was born ten years ago this year. Her birthday in late June really struck a chord with me, hit home in more ways than I ever expected. I look at pictures of her now and I'm dumbstruck by how fast she has grown up, how much she has changed and matured, how beautiful and talented she is at her age. She has so much potential and is full of joy, in spite of any difficult circumstances she might have had to endure at times. And I am thousands of miles away from her...

I berate myself, beat myself up about not writing more often (never enough), not keeping in touch as much as I think I should or wish I would... And yet I do think of her all the time and I am reminded of her throughout the day by the funniest little things. That I couldn't be there this year for her 10th birthday party -- well, it was harder than I thought it would be. Now I'm trying to put together the perfect birthday package, something special I can send her to let her know I'm thinking of her, and also to give her a little taste of France, in tiny doses. Does anyone have any fabulous suggestions of some great things I can add into my care package for a 10-year-old American girl who has never been to France, but who is definitely curious about the culture and life here? I'm hoping she'll make it over to visit one day, and I don't know if that opportunity will come when she's in high school or before, but in the meantime, I'd like for her to share in what I love about this country. Whenever I go home to the States for a visit, she asks me all sorts of questions about France and what it's like to live here -- she's at that age where she's overflowing with curiosity and sweet inquisitiveness, and she tells her friends about her tata who lives in such a faraway country. (I've given her coloring books and children's books about France over the years -- I need some new ideas!)

Now when she picks up the phone she recognizes my voice immediately, and I can never seem to pull the wool over her eyes. She asks me how to say words in French, and then giggles on the other end of the line. I feel her spirit with me here sometimes, her whispering -- coloring feverishly like I did at her age -- so fascinated with drawing, singing and dancing, all the art forms I, too, enjoyed as a little girl.

I've already picked her up an adorable t-shirt from Petit Bateau with "La vie est belle" written on the front, and she told me that she loves polka dots right now, so I've been keeping that in mind in my hunt for gifts... She's definitely a real girlie-girl, loving pretty things and always checking out my makeup bag when I come home. Two years ago she begged me to buy her some lip gloss at a Victoria's Secret sale! But I grimaced and promised to let her have one of my own lipglosses when we got home... I had other *better* gifts in mind for her...

Every time I go home I find myself wanting to spoil Ally, and the truth is that she is surrounded by love in my family. Her arrival was unexpected in all of our lives, but she is an angel: she brought us closer together in more ways than we ever could have imagined. Today she makes me laugh and sigh over the phone with her maturity, her quiet philosophy at such a young age -- in some ways I think she knows more than she should at 10; I guess that's the curse of her generation... I don't remember ever being so aware of the world around me, of so much in general, in the way that she is -- constantly.

My boyfriend was hilarious a few days ago: he said, "Why don't you fly your niece over to spend vacation with us in Noirmoutier?" He said it so innocently, so seriously -- like it was a literal possibility. But we all know that flight fares at this time of year are out of this world, so this is utterly unthinkable. And there is the matter of discussing it with her mom and dad, my younger brother, who would need to work out some logistics. It's a nice idea, but like I said, for another year -- perhaps even next year, if we can plan it out ahead of time. I'm hoping some of my family will really buckle down and visit me here in 2008 -- it's been far too long...