Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Tropic of Cancer

Every now and then I will give my reading habits a self-educational slant and read a classic I managed to miss in school. I rarely review them because, really, what can I add to the discussion of Madame Bovary, but this time I have a few things to say.

er-tropicofcancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
An American classic, for a while considered too pornographic to be allowed in the USA, Miller describes the adventures of a Henry Miller in Paris in late 1920s. He lives as a bum, with no money and no prospects, sort of working on a book and expertly leeching off people he meets, sleeping with every prostitute he can find.

How I found it:
The first time I heard of Henry Miller was in high school, from my high school teacher who said he was her favorite writer. I mixed him up with Henry James and said I’d read him and found him boring, which really surprised her. Then I did start Miller but did indeed find him boring and only returned to him now as a sort of project to fill some of the gaps in my literary education.

Summary judgment:
I had this category for required reading that I finished because I was a good student but had to make myself finish: a feat of endurance. This wasn’t quite so hard to get through but really didn’t do much for me.

Best things about it:
Miller has a good sense of place. The Paris of his book is not the Paris I know and love (which is a very touristy, very postcardy one) but it lives and his description of the other places he visits are even more lively.

Worst things about it:
In general, I didn’t find particularly good reasons to immerse myself in this unpleasant, (literally) lousy world that Miller creates – other than a (misplaced?) intellectual ambition.
But if I were to choose one thing that was the worst, I would say the philosophizing, which would always turn into indecipherable, “poetic” drivel with nihilistic undertones. Oh, and sometimes when you felt it couldn’t get any muddier he would start describing a dream, which is generally the most useless writerly activity in the world.

Other pluses:
Sometimes when Miller focuses more on the people his character meets than on his insufferable inner monolog, the book flows better and reads faster. Some characters he describes remain fairly memorable, even though that’s usually because of how callously he writes about them.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s been discussed many times and there’s no disputing the fact: Miller’s depiction of women is offensive and heartless (and it doesn’t help much that his depiction of men has little heart as well). It was bad to begin with but it has grown old even worse.
✤ When you’re no longer 13 and sex scenes are not something exciting because you read them on the sly in your parents’ books, you appreciate how boring most sex descriptions are. So when their presence is the main thing that made the book famous, the book doesn’t stand the test of time too well.

How it enriched my life:
I can tick off one more book from the list of unread classics and now I can dislike Miller in an informed way.

Fun fact:
The book was banned as pornography in the USA and Great Britain and only became legally available in the 1960s. You can see why, of course, but the decades that passed since have really made us less sensitive to this kind of thing.

Cover notes:
A classic shot of a naked lady is a safe choice that’s hard to dispute and I could get behind the framed typography, especially that it makes for a recognizable series. But the last frame, with the Cancer, has no outline and rounded corners and this I just can’t approve of because it shows the designer’s helplessness.

Follow-up:
I’m quite happy never to take up another Miller again.

Recommended for:
This book should only be read by two kinds of people: American lit professors who need to know the classics and pretentious teenagers who still think descriptions of sex make a book some kind of revolutionary.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Wonder Woman

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Dud Avocado

Today’s book is an almost forgotten classic which remains cherished by some. I never heard of it before I found it randomly but I’m glad I did find it.

er-thedudavocadoThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A not-so-well-known classic from 1950s. Sally Jay Gorce is spending her carefree time in Paris thanks to generosity of an uncle. She gets mixed up with the bohème, aristocratic elites, diplomats and some shady characters but will face everything with vivacity and wild hair colors.

How I found it:
It was on the list of Greta Gerwig’s favorite books. When I read that it was about Paris I read a few first pages of an online preview and fell in love.

Summary judgment:
It doesn’t entirely live up to the spectacular beginning but I still really liked it.

Best things about it:
Everything I loved best about the book is already there in the first scene: Sally’s joie de vivre, her perfect carelessness, spontaneity, all of them spilling through to the language itself. Her voice is very well-defined and seductive. Oh, and Paris.

Worst things about it:
I feel like in the second part of the book, as Sally leaves Paris, the book loses some of its focus. The discovery about Larry seems slightly too intense for the tone of the rest of the story.

Other pluses:
However, it also speaks to Sally’s resilience that she can take the darkest side of life with bravado (except for that short panic mode) and with the same carelessness that makes her endearing…

Other minuses:
✤ …Even if it makes her either unrealistic or callous.
✤ On an unrelated note, south of France is not shown with the same level of devotion as Paris and the characters related to the movie-making didn’t strike me as very interesting or convincing.
✤ I sort of liked the fairy tale romance at the end, if only because the photographer was so enticing, but it did come out of nowhere.
✤ Maybe the best part of this reading experience is that it gives you all the fun of a trashy novel with the veneer of a much better language and style.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed reading it on trains and it made me want to go to Paris again.

Fun fact:
It seems (from the foreword) that Elaine Dundy was quite a character herself.

Follow-up:
I’m not sure I’m planning to read any more of Dundy on the strength of the Avocado alone but if I come across something, I’ll give it a try. I might also re-read this one in the future.

Recommended for:
Americans in 1950s Paris or those who wish they could be them.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Song of the Sea

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Going Places, Picture Perfect

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Musée Jacquemart-André

Our recent trip to Paris deserves at least one more post and this time I want to focus on a slightly lesser-known tourist attraction we managed to visit,

Museum Jacquemart-André

er-jacquemartandre

Category: Places

Find it in: Paris, on Boulevard Haussmann (some 10 minute walk from Champs-Élysées)

What it is:
It’s a quite unique little museum that boasts a few impressive works of art – including Rembrandts and Botticellis – which, even more interestingly, is housed in the original location: a residence of the museum founders. A couple of filthy rich art collectors (no really, they were insanely rich, if you think of it), Édouard André and Nélie Jacquemart, spent their lives buying works of art that caught their fancy and, dying childless, bequeathed the collection together with the house to the state to make it into a public museum.

How I found it:
It was actually our second visit to the museum, though the first one without a temporary exhibition so that we could focus on the permanent collection. During our honeymoon stay we saw an interesting exhibition of less-famous Pre-Raphaelites there and when our plans to go to Amiens fell through this year, we decided to revisit Jacquemart-André instead.

Summary judgment:
Obviously you can see more impressive art collections elsewhere in Paris but the building itself and the story of the museum make for a lovely visit.

Best things about it:
I loved seeing the building with a lot of its original 19th century decor preserved and, as we took the audioguides, we learnt a lot about the historical background, which also fascinated me, particularly the details of the life of people who could entertain every fancy and never worry about money.

Worst things about it:
The gift shop doesn’t come up to the standards of gift shops in other museums. And if you think that’s minor, I understand why, but visiting gift shops is one of the reasons we travel. It is what it is.

Other pluses (and yes, bullet points):
✤ Feminist skew. The whole story you hear on the audiobook focuses on Nélie, her rise to fortune and her life as an art buyer. You barely learn anything about Édouard – except that it was really his dream at first. I found it refreshing.
✤ Also, let’s not overlook the art. There might be so much more to see in the Louvre, Orsay and other places but if we had a museum like this here, everyone would be clamoring to see it. Some pieces the museum hosts are really worth seeing.
✤ Charming courtyard through which you enter the museum is well worth sitting in for a few minutes, preferably with a croissant or a pain au chocolat. (And we did.)
✤ Details of presentation allow the visitors to easily imagine the life of the married couple. These are really small things, like music in the ballroom but they improve the experience.
✤ Last but not least (I dislike this expression), I value the overall optimistic feeling of the exhibition. It’s nice to think of people who did live leisurely and followed their passions (well, Nélie did anyway). History is too full of gloomy stories.

Other minuses:
✤ That’s in no way the museum’s fault but we came too late to see the cafe.
✤ Uccello’s painting was being renovated – again, just our bad luck but a pity, too.
✤ Some commentary on the audioguide concerning some paintings (e.g. Chardin) basically listed things that the painting showed. Thank you, that’s all very useful and superfluous, but how about a little analysis?

How it enriched my life:
The visit proved both educational and charming. It was also my first time ever using an audioguide which I’d always considered pointless, and it convinced me of their usefulness, even though they prolong a visit extensively.

Fun fact:
It might be obvious to those of you who know more about history of architectural inventions than I do, but the house had pneumatic walls that you could let down and combine three rooms into one gigantic ballroom. How steampunk is that?!

Follow-up:
I will probably not return soon for a regular visit but it’s a lovely place for a temporary exhibition and I will be happy to check out any that I might come upon.

Recommended for:
People who love history, Paris or art. People who dream about spending their lives leisurely and with tons of money so they could buy the biggest painters in history.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: 10 Things I Hate about You

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Picture Perfect

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Dior Exhibition

We are back from our almost spontaneous, short trip to Paris and, as usual, Paris delighted us. We saw a couple of our best-ofs, including the Louvre and the towers of Notre Dame and we lived in the middle of the Latin Quarter, which might be the best area we’ve stayed so far in Paris: it managed to be both lively and quiet somehow and we valued it. We also had a bit of an adventure when we missed our flight back (or just the check-in, which was even more infuriating) – in case that never happened to you, keep it that way because it’s not fun. But we managed to return (and it only took 8 more hours and way. Too. Much. Money) so that I can share with you the impressions made by the exhibition

er-diorcouturierdureveChristian Dior, Couturier du rêve

Category: Exhibitions

Find it in: Musée des Arts décoratifs (until January next year)

What it is:
The biggest ad you’ve ever seen – but also a huge exhibition about the career of Christian Dior: his life, his designs and his fashion house, including information about other designers who took over as heads of the House of Dior after his death. It takes up a large part of the museum and shows a lot of archival information, movies and, of course, dresses.

How I found it:
While Arts décoratifs is not the best museum in Paris, it has two advantages: it’s located next to the Louvre and it is included in Museum Pass, a ticket for many museums in Paris. So every time we’re around we drop in because at least twice we saw very interesting temporary exhibitions there – any very well-designed ones, too. The Dior exhibition cost extra so we almost skipped it but the entry to the exhibition that we saw from the hallway looked so impressive that we decided to return the next day just to see the design of the whole thing, even if we didn’t find the theme all that exciting.

Summary judgment:
It is a magnificently looking exhibition about a somewhat interesting subject. But even if you’re not into fashion, it’s likely to impress you with its scale and effort.

Best things about it:
The design is breathtaking. This is clearly an exhibition designed and executed by someone with a keen eye and a huge budget. Every room is governed by a different visual idea – yet not so different as to cause chaos and a consistent dominance of black and white helps to create a classy, unified look. The entrance, which attracted us in the first place, recreates the entrance to Dior’s boutique with smartly placed screens showing movies. One of the early rooms called Colorama contains only glass cases going on and on, full of everything Dior (shoes, cosmetics, accessories, dress models) arranged by color and it’s a brilliant way of showing the scale of Dior’s enterprise. My favorite design bit was the room focused on floral inspirations whose ceiling is completely covered by white paper flowers and leaves: and if that wasn’t enough, each part has different kinds of plants – roses, ivy etc. There is also a white room filled with simple, white models of dresses that focuses on the technical aspects of sewing (complete with a live seamstress that answers questions) followed by a black room showing the history of Dior through iconic dresses (black and red ones). It all culminates in a bombastic room full of ball gowns with a fairy-tale-like lighting and I dare you not to be impressed by the whole thing. That was by far the most spectacularly constructed exhibition I’ve ever seen.

Worst things about it:
This is clearly a huge event in Paris because even two months after the opening you wait in line for the tickets. But worse still, there are so many people inside that you need to manoeuvre through the crowd rather than just focus on the show and it’s pretty hot in some rooms. Sounds like a minor thing but it gets a bit jarring.

Other pluses:
Some of the designs are lovely to look at, particularly in the ball room, even if you are not excessively interested in fashion. I imagine that if you are, it must be a heavenly experience.
Many beautiful fashion photographs from different periods are also displayed, including great shots by Avedon among others. Also, older fashion designers were great sketch artists and you can see some of their sketches.
The exhibition does justice not only to Dior himself but also to other heads of the house who followed him, including Galliano and Saint Laurent, and this, together with other historical bits, has a bit of an educational function.
In the whole opulence of the show it becomes an afterthought but it shouldn’t be: Dior’s artistic inspirations are illustrated with some loaned paintings (from d’Orsay and other places) which by themselves would be worth visiting an exhibition, at least in any other city.

Other minuses:
This is minor but the typeface used on some of the captions is tiresome to read in the highly contrasted light in the black rooms. That would be easy to fix by choosing a different variant of the same typeface. (I had to.)

How it enriched my life:
Actually, it taught me a lot about the history of fashion, a subject of which I have a very loose, blurry idea. It also delighted me with the design of the exhibition, raising the bar of my expectations in this area. So high.

Fun fact:
As I was looking at the dresses and liking some of them I realized that I would have nowhere to wear a Dior even if I could and wanted to buy one. Not only do I not go to this kind of events often but also the people I meet wouldn’t probably recognize how much money and effort I put into my dress so what’s the point? And this was a happy realization in a way because otherwise I might get frustrated about how I can’t really afford any of those dresses on display.

Follow-up:
Whenever I’m in Paris next time I will check for Arts décoratifs’ new temporary offering, as usual.

Recommended for:
A must for anyone interested in fashion in any way. Even more so for designers of exhibitions. But I believe this exhibition has something to offer to other people as well, as long as they’re interested in history, art or room lighting.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Moonstone

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

It’s time for an exploration of another Disney classic (or should-be classic?),

er-thehunchbackofnotredameThe Hunchback of Notre Dame

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1996 Disney animation loosely based on Victor Hugo’s romantic, fatalistic, huge novel Notre Dame de Paris.

How I found it:
I was broadly aware of its existence but never actually watched the movie as a child. This was the first time.

Summary judgment:
Except for a few slightly hiccuppy moments, it’s a good movie and I enjoyed it. Whether I’d watch it with a child is a different matter – I’m not sure.

Best things about it:
It’s actually a good movie: strong, fairly focused, dramatic and socially involved. The characters are instantly likeable or hateable and you feel the atmosphere of the cathedral.

Worst things about it:
I feel this movie is not quite sure who it wants to be for. If it’s for an older audience (dare I say: young adults), there might be too much childish humor personified by the gargoyles. If it’s for kids, maybe there should be a little less sexual obsession and straightforward murder. However, to be quite honest, I might fall into this gray area because I felt I was a representative of the right audience, except I doubt that’s what Disney executives had in mind.

Other pluses:
It’s a very interesting, swiftly moving movie that touches upon extremely ambitious, unusual subject matters: xenophobia, fanaticism, alienation, all those things you normally only find in animations as metaphors.
Quasimodo’s character, as well as Esmeralda’s, are quite complex and relatable.
Animation is lovely, especially the cathedral looks great. It is so central to the narrative that is becomes another character and I always like when any place can be presented in such a lovely way, let alone a place so dear to my heart.

Other minuses:
I’ve got just one huge problem, which might even be “the worst thing.” Quasimodo is very marginalized in the story! It’s taken for granted that he could never get the girl, just because he’s not handsome. And yes, I know it’s loosely inspired by Hugo but the ending is different anyway, so couldn’t we make it a bit more progressive? Phoebus is great, I know, and they make a good couple with Esmeralda but Quasimodo is shown as having a huge crush on the girl only to have to learn that she is way out of his league. And it might even be a realistic lesson we all learn at one point in life but with the way he and Phoebus are presented, I’m afraid what children take out of this is “pretty goes with pretty.” Again, it might be true but not a message by whose reinforcement I stand.

How it enriched my life:
It’s always fun to look at the Notre Dame cathedral, which is one of my favorite places in the entire world, no kidding. Also, I always wonder what’s up there on those upper balconies where tourists are not allowed to go and the movie is taking place there so I enjoyed that.
It is also very interesting to see this different tone in a classic Disney animation. I think it might be the most underappreciated one out there.

Fun fact:
Esmeralda is not a part of the official Disney Princesses franchise and there is really no good reason for this omission. She’s one of the most kickass princesses (well, “princesses,” but so is Mulan), brave, talented and not afraid of her sexuality. Shame, Disney.

Follow-up:
In due time I will continue to explore those Disney classics that I somehow missed in childhood. And I will probably rewatch this one some time.

Recommended for:
Fans of Disney animation who are already capable of making their own judgments and not excessively afraid of hellfire or of depictions of fanaticism.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Marvels

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Personalness

Ten Days in Paris

I had to sit through some embarrassing things today, which builds character, I hope. This, or stomach ulcers, so I’d rather have character, please. But I won’t be talking about it because it’s a public blog and because it was generally icky and I have something way more awesome to talk about, namely our recent trip to Paris.

It wasn’t our first one: we went once before for a Patti Smith concert. But the concert happened in January: it was dark and muddy and we caught terrible colds and spent half of the stay in a hostel so I’d say it was only Almost Perfect. This time I can skip the Almost because Paris is amazing. It has beautiful buildings with high windows and iron-cast railings, painted classy white or cream (not scrambled-eggs-yellow and puke-peach pink like most houses here) and you can just get off the metro anywhere and are pretty likely to find a charming spot nearby. And I know it’s way cooler to like post-industrial ham can factories and tuberculosis hospitals covered in graffiti but I’m just not that cool and the postcard charm of Paris worked for me. So much.

We had an intense stay because we couldn’t decide what to skip (we did skip the sewage museum in the end though) and tried to see it all, in which we only partially succeeded. Because it would take long to talk about everything and because you don’t really care, I’ll give you my random list of favorite things about our Paris stay.

1. Notre-Dame. I love that place and when I say love that’s exactly what I mean (or almost exactly because you can’t really kiss a building and expect it to be very satisfying; true fact). As you might have already inferred I’m not all that original in my tastes but neither very apologetic about it and can tell you straight away that the Notre-Dame cathedral, and the little park behind it, where you can see all the intricate detail of the outer design, is my favorite place in Paris. It’s got that rare effect of stopping me in my tracks every single time I see it. We participated in the mass there, too, and it does make an impression to have the familiar ceremony in that interior. That, and having it read in French, of course.

2. All the museums and all the works of art. From the point above you’d be justified in expecting my favorite painting to be Mona Lisa, only you’d be wrong and not even close. If I had to pick a favorite it would be Vermeer’s Lacemaker, also not that surprising but still better than Mona Lisa. We saw Centre Pompidou, the Louvre, d’Orsay, Petit Palais, Orangerie, Musee d’Arts Decoratifs, and a few places with exotic art but I’m sure there was more and I’m forgetting something. It just felt like gorging on art, minus indigestion.

3. Of all the museums, the Louvre makes the strongest impression with its sheer scale and architecture. It’s as far from modern white boxes as can be and I find it extremely refreshing.

4. Politeness. There are many stereotypes about French people (as about any people) and while one often finds stereotypes disconcertingly true, the one about French rudeness couldn’t be more ridiculous. Everybody has an “Excusez-moi” and a “Merci” ready and says it with a smile, without the silent part we’re used to (which goes something like “Excuse me (can’t you damn see I want to go through and do you have to play with your phone in the way?)”). And even when people smirk at your French (as this trip has shattered a few of my precious illusions about the communicative value of my French) they will try to make sense of what you say or immediately offer English. It’s really hard to practice French in France.

5. Montmartre cemetery. It was one of our first trips and we almost gave up on it because like dummies we walked around the wall almost twice before figuring out the entry was on the other side of the road and on a different street level (don’t judge us). But the cemetery was impressive, full of half-broken neo-Gothic monuments (at least I assume they’re not actually Gothic) and wet, creepy cats (what is it with the cats I’ve no idea). It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea and those who prefer their cemeteries brighter and with wider alleys should go to Pere-Lachaise and those even less morbid should stay away from cemeteries altogether. But we enjoyed it, if it’s the right word to use.

6. Bookstores! There’s nothing we love more than visiting foreign bookstores and we were not disappointed. We came back with so many new books that we were seriously worried about excess baggage on the airport (needlessly, though). We bought some bargain albums, many children books (none for children though, it’s all for us), two fantastic books of Paris watercolors and a collection of romantic comics for girls of the 50s. It did hurt our backs but it was worth it.

7. Paris streets. Last time the weather did not favor walking trips so we mostly kept to museums, metro and beds but this time we walked whenever we could, breathing in the city’s atmosphere. Metro is a wonderful invention that we’re having a hard time to do without again but it does separate you from all the views and the pleasure of crossing the street on red light (everybody does it and you don’t even get fined).

8. Inner gardens. Parisians apparently love greenery and walking around the nice areas, you get to see a ton of charming green spots. You don’t get to see the rest because they’re cut off with gates rather than just grilles but luckily we lived in an apartment with such an inner court with greenery (and, needless to say, cats).

9. Biking around Versailles. We did the whole Versailles trip, with visiting the king’s apartments and going through the gardens among the fountains. Towards the end we discovered you can rent a bike and it was only thanks to that that we also saw both Trianons because we wouldn’t have been able to walk anymore. After days of walking, though, biking turned out to be just what we needed.

10. Temporary exhibitions. As if the permanent collections weren’t great enough, we also happened upon two temporary exhibitions that were as if to my order. In Centre Pompidou they had Roy Lichtenstein (the book about comics for girls might have tipped you off), who always fascinated me and, in fact, did not disappoint. It was also gratifying to find out he meant his art to be as cerebral as I always took it to be. The other one was pre-Raphaelite’s (albeit the lesser known ones) and we had to run around Paris to find it, thanks to a misleading poster (or just our misinterpretation, probably). It was fascinating in a very different way because I simply can’t think of a better example of art as an escapist activity. The patience and care with which they painted all the ornaments on princesses’ dresses and flowers behind the mythical goddesses suggest they wanted to live it the worlds of their own making. I get how people can judge it kitsch but their technical mastery impresses and it’s possible to understand their escapist longings. And, who am I kidding, like almost every girl I’ve been in love with pre-Raphaelites since high school.

I could go on for a long time because, as disclaimed before, this list is pretty random, but ten is a good number to stop at. To sum up, the trip was everything we hoped it to be and we don’t have a complaint to make except that it makes it doubly difficult to get back to some of the things one has to wrestle with here (or more like rub against its slimy parts, sorry for the disgusting but appropriate metaphor).

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