Review: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

21859192Blurb:

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure – through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes – combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

Review:

The steadily growing stream of birth and marriage announcements on my Facebook feed has led me to rethink these “steps” that most people take each passing year. I used to think (and still sometimes do when I’m feeling unsure or cynical) that this seemingly prewritten way of living, of societal norms pushing us forward, was depressing evidence for a lack of creativity. But lately I see these steps not as predetermined chains on a pair of manacles we never knew we were wearing, but as a climb up a mountain or a neverending game of “I dare you.” I dare you to try more, to do something different, to remember or to learn how best to live.

We only have one first. A first time riding in a plane, a first time seeing the ocean, a first time eating an orange, a first time falling in love. It happens and it finishes in the same moment. A simultaneous life and death that will slowly kill us if we don’t realize it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wants us to realize it. To do so he shares exquisite moments where he realized it during his career as an Aéropostale pilot in Northern Africa and South America. He’s lying atop a pebbled ledge in the Sahara Desert and finds a meteorite and knows he’s the only soul who has ever seen this rock. It’s a first, but one that he wants us to savor. He’s in the desert in Libya, three days without water, and he sees fantastic mirages—they are false, but they are something new only once, and he wants us to appreciate that.

What he wants is neither that new nor that radical. By recounting his memories he wants to inspire us to unlock our hands from our keyboards, to put our wallets back in our pockets, to unleash the shopkeepers from their shops, to look in a mirror, to look at each other, and to recognize something.

In English this humanist adventure tale is titled Wind, Sand, and Stars, evocative but lacking. The French title, Terre des hommes, or Land of Men, is better. There is no wind, there is no sand, there are no stars, if we are not there to observe them, or even more, to appreciate them. Life is a battle to stay awake. And according to Saint-Exupéry, it doesn’t have to be much of a battle if we just look around every once and a while. Whether we’re flying across the Andes in a snowstorm straining to find the light of a house and human soul below or whether we simply open our eyes while walking down the street, we can win the battle. Being awake will no longer mean adhering to a game of “I dare you,” a set of steps leading to more, more, more to stop us from getting bored. Everyday can have a first, every person can be awake, if we remember every single moment that we’re alive on this sphere in the universe.

5 stars out of 5

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Review: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

21859192Blurb:

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure – through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes – combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

Review:

The steadily growing stream of birth and marriage announcements on my Facebook feed has led me to rethink these “steps” that most people take each passing year. I used to think (and still sometimes do when I’m feeling unsure or cynical) that this seemingly prewritten way of living, of societal norms pushing us forward, was depressing evidence for a lack of creativity. But lately I see these steps not as predetermined chains on a pair of manacles we never knew we were wearing, but as a climb up a mountain or a neverending game of “I dare you.” I dare you to try more, to do something different, to remember or to learn how best to live.

We only have one first. A first time riding in a plane, a first time seeing the ocean, a first time eating an orange, a first time falling in love. It happens and it finishes in the same moment. A simultaneous life and death that will slowly kill us if we don’t realize it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wants us to realize it. To do so he shares exquisite moments where he realized it during his career as an Aéropostale pilot in Northern Africa and South America. He’s lying atop a pebbled ledge in the Sahara Desert and finds a meteorite and knows he’s the only soul who has ever seen this rock. It’s a first, but one that he wants us to savor. He’s in the desert in Libya, three days without water, and he sees fantastic mirages—they are false, but they are something new only once, and he wants us to appreciate that.

What he wants is neither that new nor that radical. By recounting his memories he wants to inspire us to unlock our hands from our keyboards, to put our wallets back in our pockets, to unleash the shopkeepers from their shops, to look in a mirror, to look at each other, and to recognize something.

In English this humanist adventure tale is titled Wind, Sand, and Stars, evocative but lacking. The French title, Terre des hommes, or Land of Men, is better. There is no wind, there is no sand, there are no stars, if we are not there to observe them, or even more, to appreciate them. Life is a battle to stay awake. And according to Saint-Exupéry, it doesn’t have to be much of a battle if we just look around every once and a while. Whether we’re flying across the Andes in a snowstorm straining to find the light of a house and human soul below or whether we simply open our eyes while walking down the street, we can win the battle. Being awake will no longer mean adhering to a game of “I dare you,” a set of steps leading to more, more, more to stop us from getting bored. Everyday can have a first, every person can be awake, if we remember every single moment that we’re alive on this sphere in the universe.

5 stars out of 5

Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

290897Blurb:

Set against the translucent beauty of France in summer, Bonjour Tristesse is a bittersweet tale narrated by Cécile, a seventeen-year-old girl on the brink of womanhood, whose meddling in her father’s love life leads to tragic consequences.

Freed from boarding school, Cécile lives in unchecked enjoyment with her youngish, widowed father — an affectionate rogue, dissolute and promiscuous. Having accepted the constantly changing women in his life, Cécile pursues a sexual conquest of her own with a “tall and almost beautiful” law student. Then, a new woman appears in her father’s life. Feeling threatened but empowered, Cécile sets in motion a devastating plan that claims a surprising victim.

Deceptively simple in structure, Bonjour Tristesse is a complex and beautifully composed portrait of casual amorality and a young woman’s desperate attempt to understand and control the world around her.

Review:

I was lying in the sand, taking a handful of it in my hand, letting it flow from my fingers in a soft, yellowy stream. I was thinking that it was flowing away like time, which was a simple idea and that it was pleasant to have simple ideas. It was summer.

A rich, liberated young French girl lives in a villa on the Riviera for the summer with her lothario father and his woman of the moment. Her days are spent sunbathing, swimming, walking in the countryside, visiting fashionable somebodies in trendy bars, eating, drinking and drinking, wanting love, not understanding love, but most of all and always, not thinking. Her days are full of not thinking. That is to say Cécile’s days are not full at all. So when the arrival of Anne, a cold but brilliant Parisian, usurps her father’s attentions, pulling him away from pert 20-somethings and into the halls of potential matrimony, Cécile begins to plot.

The halcyon summer days on the Mediterranean, full of nothing and everything at the same time, represent Cécile’s fading childhood. At 17 she will soon become a person, and eventually a person will want to think, and eventually these thoughts, if unwieldy and untested, will destroy. And afterwards, there will no longer be a villa on the Mediterranean, or there might be, but it will be filled with tristesse, that is, sadness.

Cécile boils up a plan worthy of a third Parent Trap movie to separate her father from Anne. But at the very beginning of her machinations, she already regrets them. The relationship dynamics here are rich and confusing. There’s definitely an Oedipus complex happening here: Cécile’s father dates women not much older than her, and Cécile idolizes him, takes his advice on love as gospel, aspires to love like him…maybe because she’s in love with him? Her competitor to this crown is, of course, Anne, whom she simultaneously admires beyond belief, indeed hopes to imitate and learn from, and wants to annihilate.

There are plenty of subtly romantic moments between all the characters, the most stirring of which a mere caress of Cécile’s face by Anne on the patio. The story devolves like a match of tug-of-war that will inevitably be lost. Cécile is on the cusp of liberty and meaningfulness and thought, on the verge of adulthood. She pushes herself forward and pulls herself backward, but she will definitely fall into the future, she will definitely hurt herself there, and she definitely cannot go back.

In Bonjour Tristesse she says hello to the loss of innocence but in this short, sharp little novella, also leaves a beautiful remembrance of losing it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

47780Blurb:
Prize-winning author Anna Gavalda has galvanized the literary world with an exquisite genius for storytelling. Here, in her epic new novel of intimate lives-and filled with the “humanity and wit” (Marie Claire) that has made it a bestselling sensation in France-Gavalda explores the twists of fate that connect four people in Paris. Comprised of a starving artist, her shy, aristocratic neighbor, his obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother, this curious, damaged quartet may be hopeless apart, but together, they may just be able to face the world.
Review:
Anna Gavalda has a wonderfully infuriating way of writing like so…
Making your eyes flitter down the page.
Making your heart bat harder with each revelation.
Until she concludes a thought.
Like this.
With oh-so-much meaning.

Her writing is more alive than most, an especially impressive feat since I’ve read her work in French, not English, and I lose myself and die a thousand readerly deaths much more often when reading in French. But her words flow inevitably forward. If, as many authors have proclaimed, the goal of a writer is to get the reader to read the next sentence, and the next, and the next, Anna Gavalda is nothing short of a genius. Myself and others may be tempted to label this short, direct style as cutesy and simplistic, but it’s gosh darn compelling, if we’re being frank.

Less compelling, however, is the story behind the words. We have a nearly plotless novel here; all that happens is outlined in the blurb, apparent from the initial chapters, and fated by the gods of storytelling. Nothing much occurs and what does occur does not surprise. The four characters–a ragtag team beaten by the world who will find happiness in their shared ruins and slowly rebuild each other–are terrific sketches, but what they do is nowhere near as passionate as Gavalda’s prose. I’ve only previously read Gavalda’s slam-dunk short story collection, I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere, which hides this weakness of hers. Petite novelettes are perfect for her character-centric writing; this novel of nearly 600 pages was vast and vacant, the winds of disinterest blew through its empty and tired intrigues.

And yet.
That writing.
Heavy on punctuation, on labelling feelings, on fragmenting thoughts.
It pulled me through.

(I’ll stop now.)

But this pathetic attempt at imitation shows how much her words tumbled and scattered in my brain. Gavalda might not tell the stories that I want to read, but she tells them in the way I want to read them.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer by Vicki Lesage

22363991Blurb:

Diapers, tantrums, and French bureaucracy – the crazy life of an American Mom in Paris.

Party Girl is back, this time as the sassy mommy of two kids trying to navigate the beautiful, yet infuriating, city of Paris.

How does she steer a stroller around piles of dog poop? How does she find time for French administration between breastfeeding and business meetings? And can she ever lose the baby weight with croissants staring her in the face from every street corner?

Answers to these pressing questions – and many more – are in this hilarious sequel. Laugh, cry, and wipe up drool right alongside Vicki as she and her ever-patient French husband raise two children in the City of Light.

Review:

When writing a memoir, the most important thing is voice. Everyone on this planet has terrific stories to tell, but most of us just can’t find the right words to tell them. So when I read a memoir, I want to hear the author’s voice in my ear and get a sense of who she is as a person. I’ve now read both of Vicki Lesage’s Parisian memoirs—Confessions of a Paris Party Girl and Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer–and fortunately, she does not lack for voice.

Both of these books are charming reads. Each chapter focuses on a single frustrating or ridiculous or amazing anecdote from Vicki’s French life. The stories are interesting and recounted in the perfect way: edited properly for ideal pacing but just unpolished enough that we can hear the person telling the story. Reading this book really does feel like listening to a friend detail her trials and tribulations over dinner and drinks.

Vicki is also funny, which is lucky for her, because you need a good sense of humor to survive French bureaucracy. In this book, she starts adding to her Franco-American family with the arrival of two babies. From a cultural perspective, it’s fascinating. You’ll learn all sorts of quirky medical differences between the two countries. For example, American infant birth weight is simply calculated differently—a baby who is considered average size stateside is seen as above average weight in France. It found it incredible that seemingly objective medical markers could use different formulas depending on the country.

Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer is a sweet book that largely succeeds on the strength of Vicki’s voice. Her ability to laugh at herself and her willingness to call out French and Americans alike when they’re wrong (there is a scene on the Metro where she absolutely destroys a yuppie connard that will make you applaud) makes her the perfect companion for a lovely Parisian adventure.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn Yalom

13623847Blurb: Oh, how the French love love! For hundreds of years, they have championed themselves as guides to the art de l’amour through their literature, paintings, songs, and cinema. A French man or woman without amorous desire is considered defective, like someone missing the sense of smell or taste. Now revered scholar Marilyn Yalom intimately examines the tenets of this culture’s enduring gospel of romance.

Basing her delightfully erudite findings on her extensive readings of French literature, as well as memories of her personal experiences in la belle France, Yalom explores the many nuances of love as it has evolved over the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present. Following along, step-by-step, on her romance-tinged literary detective hunt, the reader discovers how the French invented love, how they have kept it vibrant for more than nine centuries, what is unique in the French love experience, and what is universal.

Review: So I was led astray by the title of this book How the French Invented Love–doesn’t that suggest a sociological explanation of the significance of love in French culture? Now of course, love is important in every culture. But to my romantic American Francophile mind, the French seem to have cornered the market on love. Stereotype or not, it seems to me that the French, both throughout history and today, are much more devoted to the pleasures of love. I was expecting a sociological exploration of this belief. I wanted to learn: why do we associate the French so strongly with love? is the French emphasis on love fact or fiction? how do the French treat love differently from other cultures?

Unfortunately, this book somewhat broaches these questions but not sociologically. Rather, Yalom, who writes both congenially and informatively, takes us on a sweeping adventure through French love literature. She begins with the tragic story of Abelard and Heloise, whom she names the “patron saints” of French love. From there we discuss Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances and his focus on courtly love before moving to the invention of gallantry during the reign of Sun King Louis XIV. Then we investigate the Romantics’ fixation/fascination on love as the absolute purpose of life and finally we explore the more modern cynicism toward love as found in Proust and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Yalom does not limit herself to heterosexual love either–lesbian and gay relationships are well-covered. What I found most interesting about this chronological expedition through French literature was the oscillation between periods of romantic attitudes toward love followed by periods of jaded attitudes toward love. A lot of French love literature is motivated by backlash toward these ideals.

While this book left me with a long list of French love stories to seek out, I didn’t get the answer to my most pressing questions: do the French actually love differently? and if they do, why? This omission was somewhat assuaged by Yalom’s inclusion of several personal anecdotes on French love. She tells charming real life stories of French lovers that are so utterly French in character that I can’t help but believe that l’amour à la française is not merely imagined but truly exists.

4 out of 5 stars

Here’s a LONG list of French works focused on love that Yalom has inspired me to read as soon as possible:
The Lais of Marie de France
The Princesse de Clèves
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Manon Lescaut
The Misanthrope
Claudine at School
Madame Bovary
Cyrano De Bergerac
Remembrance of Things Past: Volume I – Swann’s Way & Within a Budding Grove
The Lover

So obviously that list suggests that you probably shouldn’t pick this book up if you’re not looking to add even MORE books to your already towering to-be-read pile. The Francophile in me, however, can’t wait.

Review: Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

11354710 Underground Time

Author: Delphine de Vigan

Blurb: Every day, Mathilde takes the Metro to her job at a large multinational, where she has felt miserable and isolated ever since getting on the wrong side of her bullying boss. Every day, Thibault, a paramedic, drives where his dispatcher directs him, fighting traffic to attend to disasters. For many of the people he rushes to treat, he represents the only human connection in their day. Mathilde and Thibault are just two figures being pushed and shoved in a lonesome, crowded city. But what might happen if these two souls, traveling their separate paths, could meet?

Review: This is life in the 21st century: Wake up and hear the noises of the city around you. Heave your body into a train car, squeezing every last inch of yourself into a vacancy. Physically contact several people during your commute; feel utterly alone. Sit at your desk and consider your work. Encounter numerous people throughout the day; connect with none of them. Push your body into the train again; stand mere centimeters from several other human beings. Return home, exhausted by your solitude, miserable from your loneliness. This is life today.

Mathilde and Thibault are professionals in Paris, a city many consider to be the most magical and beautiful in the world, but they both ache from the city’s harshness. In beautiful yet disjointed passages, de Vigan describes the day of both Mathilde and Thibault. Unsatisfied with their jobs, they wander, alone, throughout the city.

Reading about loneliness is both comforting yet boring. It’s reassuring to realize people have suffered from the same feelings as you, but overall, ennui isn’t terribly interesting. That’s why Underground Time wasn’t a spectacular read for me. Nevertheless, it moves quickly and the emotions it evokes are worth more than the less than exciting plot.

This is a very French novel. Things are depicted as they are rather than how we wish them to be. It’s also a very 21st century novel. Gone are novels detailing epic fights or webs of intrigue; nowadays we have these languorous, psychological works, a trend I could come to support if I can learn to spell languorous and psychology can be made more interesting.

The best part of reading this novel is determining what, if anything, de Vigan blames for Mathilde and Thibault’s smothering solitude. Personally, I think we are at fault. We can blame the city, urban life, and business culture. We can say the city divides people, separates them until they have no one to turn to. But there are several instances throughout the novel where Thibault or Mathilde could have struck up a relationship or merely a conversation with someone else. But they don’t. The city is absolute.

3 out of 5 stars.

Favorite Quotation:
“His life is in this incessant toing and froing, these exhausted days, these stairways, these lifts, these doors which close behind him. His life is at the heart of the city. And the city, with its noise, covers the complaints and the murmurs, hides its poverty, displays its dustbins and its wealth, and ceaselessly increases its speed.”

Discussing urban solitude and business malaise is popular right now. I recently watched Medianeras, an Argentinian film concerned with the same questions as Underground Time. I have the same criticisms of the film as I do the book: meaningful but ultimately flat because of the uninteresting subject matter.