La Rentrée

Most of us know there are four seasons in the year. In France, there is a minimum of five seasons. The one we are in presently is known as La Rentrée. Literally the word mean ‘The Return’. It’s the time when all Parisians come home from wherever they spent August, and in some cases, July and August. Children prepare for school, and, even though the weather may still feel like summer, it’s the beginning of Autumn.

To understand “La Rentrée”, one has to understand the month of August. During August, almost everything stops. More than half of stores shut down. Restaurants, that are not in the tourist center, close for the month. The trains all do whatever repair work needs to be done. Many of the lines do not run. In August, the government is not to be found. As friends part for the summer, you can hear them say “A la rentrée” which loosely translates to “See you in September.” In other words, every single person in France knows that if you include ‘la rentrée’ in a sentence, you are referring to that season beginning September 1 when everything starts anew. Clothing stores have fresh stock. Children are back in school. The government gets back to work. And every supermarket has huge sections of space dedicated to schoolwork, creative work, and office work. If you have a favorite pen and haven’t been able to find another just like it, chances are very good, you will find it at the Carrefour or Monoprix during La Rentrée. It is a time of celebration and many parents will hang around their children’s school catching up with a drink or two in their hands.

I love it when every store stocks up on notebooks, paper products, pens of all different sizes, tips, and comfort. I will stand far too long in front of these aisles telling myself I don’t need anything (I have enough journaling notebooks to last me well into the next decade), and still end up at the cash register with a new pen and perhaps a folder. I love to write on paper. The computer is fine but pen to paper…there is nothing like it.

And … Writing. I did not make it into the Stanford Certificate Program. When I received the e-mail, my first feeling was of disappointment. My second was relief. I had started a summer course at Stanford Continuing Education in Short Story writing. I was beginning to get an idea of how much time just one course requires. I had no trouble finding the time. I was like a human vacuum cleaner sucking up all the knowledge that was available. So, along with reading published short stories and commenting on them, we each wrote a short story, had a workshop and every student commented on every other students writing. It was terrifying and glorious. When I magnified the work out two years, I wasn’t at all sure. Did I have it in me to write this novel I want to write. Or perhaps I should be sticking to what I do well, non-fiction writing. Since it was August and no one thinks in August, I put off any contemplation until September. I’ve signed up for another Stanford course and cannot wait for it to begin. And, by the way, I got an A+ in my class. I believe it is the first A+ I’ve ever gotten in my life!!!

Female and male peacock after mating season has ended. The male has shed his tail.

Lastly, and I’m taking huge license with this one, even Parc de Bagatelle and some of its creatures are starting anew. The male peacocks are molting which means they are shedding their gorgeous tail feathers!! I had no idea. After mating season ends, since tail feathers are not regenerating, they slowly fall out. When I was there this past Sunday, there were only a few colorful feathers on the backs of the males I saw. Here is some fascinating information from a website called: peacocksuk.com

Male peacock last week in August

“The peacock has around 150 to 175 long tail feathers or long covers which sit over shorter strong tail feathers. These shorter feathers  support the weight of the long tail covers which grow to three to four feet long. As the peacock matures to five or six years old, the peacocks tail feathers grow in size and the number. As the peafowl reaches maturity the eyes on the tail feathers become larger. At maturity the peacocks tail will be constant each year as long as the peacock is in good health. If several males are kept together we have found that the subservient males will not grow or develop a tail as striking or large as the dominant peacock.  If these birds are removed from the pen with the dominant male the upper tail feathers then develop! After the peacocks long tail covers have moulted the new tail begins to grow in the autumn, reaching maturity in time for the next mating season in the spring.”

A bientôt,

Sara

The Silent Generation

My sister is a prolific reader. She recommends wonderful books I might not have stumbled on had she not alerted me. A couple of weeks ago, she suggested I read Deborah Cohen’s Last Call at The Hotel Imperial: The Reporters who took on a World at War (Random House, 2022). It is so new that I had to recommend it to the American Library in Paris. I have found it to be one of those non-fiction books that is so well-written, it is easy to forget that it is not a novel. Cohen tells the story of the foreign correspondents who went to Europe, Asia, Russia (I know Russian is considered Asia but….) and chased down any emerging story. Some went to great lengths to get an interview before their friends, who were also competitors, got there first. This is definitely not Fox News where those guys sit in comfy chairs telling the world how it should think, what their truths are, and haven’t moved an inch to talk to anyone except those who 100% agree with them.

On page 110, Ms. Cohen was describing “the so-called Lost Generation“. “Eventually the term “Lost Generation” came specifically to denote the American writers and expatriates who, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, had ‘grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.’ Disillusioned by the Great War, alienated by American materialism, they’d moved to Europe in the 1920s, embracing what the critic Malcolm Cowley called ‘salvation by exile.’ ” “In using the term “lost,” psychologists were referring to the “disoriented, wandering, directionless” feelings that haunted many survivors of what had been one of the most horrific wars in modern history.”–Robert Longley at ThoughtCo

Actress Betty Field Dances in Party Scene From “The Great Gatsby”. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images 

This doesn’t sound so different from today. So many Americans, disillusioned by the state of affairs in the US that have followed one war after another that the US can’t win, are moving over here (Europe). Some say it’s worse now than it was then. But how does one gauge how bad something is. Many of those correspondents saw and wrote about Germany and the threat of Hitler. Maybe it’s only worse now because we are in the middle of it, day by excruciating day, waiting for the next body blow. I’ve read the above paragraph by Cohen many times. I have found some solace in it. I didn’t move here because of the politics but I have stayed here because it seems like a nicer, kinder place to live. I’m sure many French people would disagree with me. Their politics hit them the way American politics hits me. Cohen goes on to say that by 1930, “the dividends had evaporated, adult life beckoned, the half-finished novel would be put away. The “exiles” were returning, sobered-up and broke, newly conscious (perhaps) of the ties that bound them to other Americans.” p. 111.

I’m writing this because I often feel torn. There is a very good chance that democracy won’t survive what’s happening in the US. From over here, it seems the Democrats are whimpering along not doing much about the everyday decisions coming out of a very biased Supreme Court. My own opinion about the war in Ukraine is that the more Europe and US gets involved, the more likely a war on a much larger scale will break out. How can it not? And will it take violence, death, and hostile killings to find out if Democracy can still survive? It is only through a few flukes that the “good guys” won WWII.

I can’t imagine what I can do if I were living in the US that I can’t do here. Democrats Abroad is a vibrant organisation and very active. I feel much closer to the ‘action’ by going to DA meetings and meeting interesting people and politicians who travel and stop in Paris to talk to us. The amount of e-mails I get on a daily basis from so many organisations who want to crush Republicans but are loud, hostile, nasty, and sound just like the Republicans they say they want to get rid of is extraordinary. I unsubscribe to at least three a day but, just like Medusa, six more come the next day. They consider themselves completely entitled to access my e-mail then scream at me in order to shame me into giving my life savings to something that is probably not working. I even wrote one person running for Congress in California. I asked that he tell me what he stands FOR; that I was tired of hearing how awful his opponents are. I never heard back.

I wrote last week that many bloggers like me, non-professional opinionators, feel numb, unable to write. Thoughts like the ones that have been swirling around my brain, I believe, occur to try and break us out of sleep-walking, out of an overwhelm that is crushing. People get involved in world activities for many reasons. One of the main ones is an attempt to feel some power in a powerless world. “I’m doing something, I have a voice. Where can my voice best be heard?”

All of this has been going on in my head and reading Last Call at the Hotel Imperial has gotten me writing. If only to put down on paper the hard questions. Where can I be useful? How can I be useful? Am I doing enough already? Can writing words be a tool that I can use to make a difference? If 300 people read what I write, does that make a difference?

There aren’t any answers. But it is good to ask the questions. If I, and others like me, keep asking the questions, individual answers may get clearer.

Taking a selfie

Why did I title this blog The Silent Generation? I wanted to know if any research showed similarities to the Lost Generation and today. The Silent Generation is about to outnumber the Baby Boomers of which I’m a part of. The Silent Generation is the most materialistic and tech savvy generation. The Silent Generation feels let down by adults and politicians (who don’t always act like adults). The Lost Generation was undereducated and the Silent Generation is overeducated but both ended up feeling ill-prepared for the world they have been let loose in. In France, they don’t vote. In the US, their passion lies mostly with Climate Change. This generation has “…the highest level of stress than any other generation, suggesting a need for more conversation surrounding mental health and the pressures facing recent graduates.”–Evan Brown, The Warped Similarities Between Millennials and the Lost Generation (2020). This only underscores the questions I ask myself. What do I owe this generation? I often look at the future as I see it in my head and I’m grateful I may not be alive to see the worst of it.

And the questions just keep coming?

A bientôt,

Sara

When Writers Come to Paris

Because I live in Paris and because I love the American Library in Paris, I get to meet some great writers. I’m fairly sure this wouldn’t happen to me anywhere else. Paris is small for a world class city. Everyone comes to Paris. When Audrey Chapuis, Director of the American Library, introduced Ann Patchett at the Yearly ALP Gala last Thursday evening, she told us that Ann had sworn off traveling after the pandemic. Wasn’t going to do much anymore. But when offered the opportunity to speak at the largest fund raiser the Library has every year, she was easily persuaded. And I got to meet her. When I told her I was a budding author at 74 years old, she looked at me and said “Good for you!” Then she wrote ‘Write often, read everything, love in Paris’ on the title page of her latest book of essays These Precious Days.

Anne Patchett

Maybe it doesn’t mean much to the average person but it certainly does to me. I got to meet Ann Patchett! She wrote to me personally in my book. I’ve read the inscription every day. It makes me smile. Then comes the problem: when one’s favorite writers are people like Ann Patchett and George Saunders, it is hard not to compare my written words to their written words. They are great writers (in my humble opinion). Not only that, they are great speakers. It is not every author who is also someone who can captivate an audience. You can hear Ann’s talk on YouTube on the Library Channel. And if you haven’t already done so, listen to Saunders’ commencement speech on Kindness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruJWd_m-LgY

I’ve been writing creative non-fiction for over six years and a journal forever. I write this blog. I wrote a memoir of my eating disorder Saving Sara My Memoir of Food Addiction. I wrote another book with five women on the practicalities of abstaining from addictive binge foods. I’ve definitely honed my skills and learned the craft of writing non-fiction. Now I want to try my hand at fiction. I am a beginner. I love words. It shouldn’t be so hard to put a sentence together. Right? Wrong. With fiction, I first have to choose a Point of View (POV). In non-fiction, that’s a done deal, it’s my POV. Choosing the POV in novel writing is huge. Is it one of the main characters with all their baggage flavoring their thoughts? Is it a distant third person and the story is told from some unnamed observer?

I have an idea for a novel. I’ve had it for awhile now. It’s why I felt able to entertain the possibility of applying to the Stanford Writing Certificate program in novel writing. But to get into the program, as part of the application process, I have to submit 3000-6000 words of fiction. The application letter kindly says that it is ok to send in published work. They just want to know how the applicant writes. I not only don’t have published work, I don’t even have finished works. I have had to hire an editor to help me so that I don’t completely embarrass myself. She is the one who has stressed my need to pick a POV. I am a quick learner and I’m smart enough to know that if I were actually to write this novel, I need a structured environment with teaching and feedback to proceed. I just have to get in to the program.

Steven King started writing when he was nine years old. He started submitting his fiction to many different places when he was fourteen. Ann Patchett wrote as a teenager, published her first book when she was twenty-seven. George Saunders‘ story is more like mine. He wandered around doing many things in many different countries. I think he majored in a science in university. Since he started writing, he has won many awards including the Man Booker prize for his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. And these are the people I find myself, hopelessly, comparing myself to. I told my editor. She said “That’s good. It means you will keep improving yourself.” I didn’t expect that.

A Class in a book for both writers and lovers of short stories.

So who else have I had the great good fortune to listen to while residing in Paris. Colsen Whitehead before he won the Pulitzer Prize; Richard Russo; Ta-Nehesi Coates was a visiting fellow and wrote most of his award winning book, Between the World and Me, down in a small cubicle reserved for Fellows; Lauren Collins, who writes for the New Yorker, married a frenchman and lives in Paris. She comes to the Library often to interview other writers. I subscribe to her newsletter and wonder if I ever could put together a sentence as she does.

Lauren Collins writes wonderful essays about France

Just a few days, I went to hear Colm Tóibín talk on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’ve not yet been able to get through more than a few pages of Ulysses at a time. I went because it was Colm Tóibín. He wrote Brooklyn, made into a wonderful movie; The Magician about Thomas Mann another writer I tried to read but couldn’t get more than a few pages. (Colm told me to read Buddenbrooks. He said that was an easy book to read). Maybe it’s because he’s Irish! Mr. Tóibín makes anything sound fascinating. I loved The Magician and am now part way into The Master, his 2004 book on Henry James.

Colm Tóibín speaking at the American Library in Paris

I think you get the idea. I’m in Writing Mecca. If I can restrain the part of me that loves to say “You aren’t good enough,” I can listen and learn. I can say “Pay attention. Maybe one day you will be good enough.”

A bientôt,

Sara

It’s never too late and you’re never too old

About half a mile south walking distance on La Petite Ceinture, is one of those “free libraries” boxes that seem to be popping up all over the world. It’s a box with a two door glass front up on stilts where people leave books and are encouraged to take a book. This wonderful invention is just becoming popular in France. I find them in the most remarkable places. “My” free library has both French and English language books. I’ve found a 1937 beautifully printed book of Baudelaire poems and, in the same trip, a Harry Bosch detective thriller.

My little “free library” with buildings from Blvd de Montmorency reflected off the glass doors.

I walk down there two or three times a week and just peruse through the offerings as if I were at a regular library. I never expect much but am sometimes refreshingly surprised. As I was last week when I found Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. Ms. Doerr was seventy-four years old when Stones was published in 1984. I know this because someone I knew well back then had been in a writing class with her. When I complained that I was getting too old to write a book (I was thirty-seven at the time), Ms. Doerr was held up as an example to me that you can never be too old. I immediately bought the book and read it. As I said I was thirty-seven years old. Since I don’t remember much of the story except that it took place in a small village in Mexico, I’m hypothesising that I didn’t read books the same way I do now. Of course, I still read so fast that I often worry that I don’t retain anything. I think that back then, and especially with Ms. Doerr’s book, I read it competitively and negatively. ‘What does she have that I don’t have?’ Well, for one thing, she knew how to put a sentence together using a spare amount of words but had a big punch.

I wrote about La Petite Ceinture four and a half years ago when I first moved to the 16ème.

When I saw Stones for Ibarra in that little free library on La Petite Ceinture in the 16ème, it was like being struck in the head with a 2 x 4. A wake up call? Maybe. Of course, I grabbed it as if it were a precious jewel. As soon as I got home, I started to read it. It’s a beautiful little novel. Her language is sparse, engaging, and poetic. I immediately googled her and learned that she’d thought about writing as a young girl (she was born in 1910). She met her husband to be in her teens and eventually left Stanford University to marry him. It was after his death, when she was in her mid-60s, that one of her sons encouraged her to go back to college and get her Bachelors degree. She graduated from Stanford in 1977. She began writing while at Stanford, earned a Stegner Fellowship in 1979, and soon began publishing short stories. One of her writing professors got her into the Post-Graduate Writing program. And at the age of 74, she published her first book.

Three days ago, I got an e-mail from the Stanford Continuing Education Writing Certificate program. I was being invited to an informational Zoom meeting about their two-year writing program. I’m seventy-four.

I wrote a first book. It was published when I was seventy-two. I wasn’t writing the great American novel though I did hope it would sell better than it did. I wrote the book to let people suffering with a debilitating eating disorder know that there was hope and that I’d found a solution that worked long-term for me and many others.

Writing a book is hard work. And they say that writing a second book is even harder than writing a first book. I decided I wouldn’t do it. That I was too old. That I didn’t have the energy. But I couldn’t help writing chapters anyway and telling myself it was just for me because I like to write.

Then I found Stones for Ibarra. Then I get the e-mail from Stanford. Nobody I know believes in coincidences. It’s just what you do with them. I have an idea. That’s always a good start! I also have limited energy. So…. well, between writing the first paragraph of this blog and this last sentence, I accepted the invitation to go to the informational meeting. That’s called one step at a time and also called no commitments. I can always change my mind—about everything! But, it is true that I, and you, are never too old.

In case anyone is wondering how very cold it is here in Paris, here is a photo I took of the snow outside my window on Saturday.

We had no summer last year, it was so cold and everyone is crossing fingers for a warmer summer this year. This is not a good start!

For those of you who are visiting France soon or entertaining a visit, here is a blog by David Lebovitz. He usually writes about food but this has a lot of information about requirements and what’s happening here. https://davidlebovitz.substack.com/p/covid-update-for-visiting-france?s=r

A bientôt,

Sara

Postcard from New York

I met a lovely woman, Marlena Maduro Baraf, through my publishers She Writes Press. She and I decided that, periodically (once a month if we can do it), we would post each other’s blog. Marlena was born in Panama and now lives in New York City. Her blog is called Breathing in Spanish. I encourage you to take a look at it. On our last phone conversation we were comparing the vaccine roll-out–France vs New York. Here is her latest blog:

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When we fly somewhere D does this anxiety bit…walking around all night. Last night he didn’t sleep, insisted we must leave at 8 sharp for our 10:30 appointment in Queens—45 minutes by GPS.  We’d tried the New York State website just pastmidnight. We googled “NYS find your vaccine” and plugged in our zip code. We scanned through the listings

Westchester County Center (closest), 0  Jacob Javits Convention Center, 0
Jones Beach, Jones Beach?, 0  
Aqueduct Raceway, where is that?  Jan 18, 3; Jan 25, 54!

Spaces evaporated like bursting bubbles. D got a spot on the 25th. Had to book me on the 26th.

                                                                        *
horses…racetrack…jockeys…death
I grew up near a racetrack in the bushes in Panama City. Our house was surrounded by tall grasses, lizards, snakes, and serenading frogs. My little brother, sister, and I liked to push through the bushes to the outermost curve of the hipódromo to hear the rushing sounds of hooves on dirt and watch the jockeys in brilliant colors fly on their horses. At dinner time one night, we heard shots in the distance. They were coming from más allá, más allá, by the racetrack!Papi turned on the radio. After a while we heard that our president, Jose Antonio Remón Cantera, had been shot while watching the races. I can still feel the rush of excitement—and the worry. Who did it? Is he dead? 

                                                                        *
D is doing the driving. Highway onto highway. As navigator, I look out for the Lefferts Blvd/Aqueduct Raceway exit, but we miss the sudden onramp to the Raceway Casino, so we continue ahead while our GPS circles us back. The place is desolate—roadways, miles of cement, an occasional building. Orange cones lead us to a sign that reads  “vaccines.”  

A soldier waves us through to parking in the vast expanse. We walk to other men and women in rumpled camouflage who examine D’s appointment sheet and driver’s license. Three weeks ago we watched on our tv as thousands of National Guard soldiers assured the safety of our Capitol and capital city. Can they feel the gratitude in my heart?

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We pass tiny statues of jockeys. Inside are rows of booths for betting and strings of seats facing the track on the other side of giant windows. The “Big A,” a year-round racetrack, is holding live racing without fans—but there are no horses in sight.  In 1973 the champion racehorse Secretariat paraded for the last time at the Big A. Pope John Paul II said mass for 75,000 people in 1995. And now vaccinations.

Win, Exacta, Trifeta, or Pick 4. We approach a betting booth to check in. D cracks a joke. The check-in guys laugh and counter with theirs. People under masks, that’s all we are. Tomorrow’s forecast is snow. Will they vaccinate me today?. A young Hispanic woman with a shirt that says SOMOS Community  takes my ID and my appointment printout to a supervisor. Within ten minutes it’s done. No rigid bureaucracy; instead, basic human competence and good will. 

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Table 7. The nurse asks for our names to which D answers, Donald Duck. She takes mini histories–previous allergies, reactions to vaccinations….  I go first. The prick is like the prick of a very thin mosquito.  Who is paying the gargantuan cost of this day? The state alone? The work day is 7 am to 7 pm,  500 doses per day, the nurse explains. Enters the number of our Pfizer first dose on a small card, with return date for the second dose in 21 days. A weight we’ve been feeling since March begins to lift.

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We left home at 8:22, 
arrived at Aqueduct parking, 9:22. 
vaccine, 9:47. 
rest at assigned benches 15 minutes 
left racetrack, 10:02.

D and I feel  sleepy in the afternoon and the day after.  We talk about the pleasure of even brief interactions with real people, the individuals entering our data into computers,the National Guard, other guards—all kind and efficient. We feel a deep sense of gratefulness. A glow—even—of love.

                                                                        *

Remón Cantera who earlier had been Panama’s Chief of Police and had ousted several elected Panamanian presidents did die on that fateful afternoon at the races. I was nine at the time. It was the first time I understood the finality of life.    

***


In the United States, each (of fifty) states develops its own criteria for prioritizing vaccinations, generally based on protecting the most vulnerable. New York is vaccinating  Groups 1A and 1B:  people in the health professions, people over 65, mass transit workers, firefighters, grocery store workers in contact with the public, and teachers.  As is true most everywhere in the world, there are not enough vaccines.  

 In poorer communities here—deeply affected by the illness–people don’t have easy access to the internet or transportation or hours off from work.  New York and other states have begun programs of door to door visits to assist people. The state is about to open a vaccinating facility in Yankee Stadium for residents of the Bronx (only) with large numbers of low-income communities. Rhode Island has prioritized neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the disease.  Rich and poor countries have different access to the vaccine. I’m afraid we’ll experience a new category of have and have nots in the world for a very long time.

But there is hope. New vaccines are being developed and approved surprisingly quickly. Let’s take care of ourselves and one another. News changes daily.


.

Marlena Maduro Baraf is author of the memoir At the Narrow Waist of the World, available where books are sold.

A bientôt,

Sara

Reading in Lockdown

My friend, Janet Hulstrand, a wonderful writer, sent out a blog today that championed buying books and supporting authors. I am reblogging her blog as no one could say it better. I would only add that the wonderful website: http://www.bookshop.org supports independent bookstores and even gives a percentage of its profits to the support of these wonderful bookstores trying to stay alive during the Pandemic. I wish we had it over here.

How You (Yes, You!) Can Help Writers by Janet Hulstrand

Buy books if you can afford to. If you have “too many books”… (But is there really such a thing? Most writers, and even many readers, don’t really think so…Too few bookshelves, certainly. But too many books? Ridiculous!). But anyway, if you think you have too many books, well then, buy them, read them, then give them to friends, or better yet to the library or other places that accept used books–hospitals? prisons? schools?

Buy new books if you can afford to. The reason for this is that if you buy used books, the only entity to make any money is whomever is selling the book. The publisher gets nothing: the author gets nothing. This makes it hard for authors and publishers to stay alive! So do what you can. If you really need to buy used books (and believe me, I understand if you do) you can still write reviews, and that will help authors and publishers.

Review books on Amazon or GoodReads. I think it is absolutely wonderful that we no longer have to rely only on professional book reviewers to tell us about books. Having said that, I think it’s only right that if we’re going to be influencing people’s decisions about whether or not to buy (or read) a book we should be fair about it. Here is a post I wrote about how to be fair when writing a review. (Most people don’t know HOW MUCH these reviews help writers: they help A LOT! And they are so easy to do. I explain how easy it is also, in that same post.)

Buy from indie bookstores, in person or online. My own personal favorite indies are the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris, and BonjourBooksDC and Politics and Prose in the Washington DC area. But there are wonderful indie bookstores pretty much everywhere, and they need our support! If you’re not near a store, you can buy books online from many indies: and even if your local indie doesn’t sell online, you can support indie bookstores by purchasing books online from IndieBound or Bookshop.org.And now just two please-don’ts:

Please don’t ask your writer friends if you can have free copies of their books (!) They need their friends and family members to BUY their books, and then tell all their friends about the book, and write reviews of their books, and give their friends gifts of the book, and…like that. (You can trust me on this. They really do!! Writing books is not such an easy way to make a living: indeed, this is a huge understatement.) 

Please don’t go to indie bookstores to browse and then buy the books online from you-know-who. How do you think the indie booksellers are going to pay the rent on that lovely space they are providing for you, where you can hang out and spend time with other booklovers, and go to cool book events, if you don’t buy books from them? Hmm? I mean, really. Think it through! This post spells out some of the many reasons why it’s good to support indie bookstores. Well, anyway, I hope as you consider your holiday shopping this year, you will consider doing some of the above. It’s been a hard year, especially for small businesses, including indie bookstores. So I trust you will do what you can to help them out. They deserve it! 

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.”

A bientôt,

Sara

Saving Sara

“Read Saving Sara to see how bad it can get before it gets great–and find out just how she did it, so you can do it too. What a great read.” –Judy Collins, New York Times best-selling author of Cravings and Grammy-nominated singer

Yes, I have written a book. Yes, that Judy Collins, the one who sang Both Sides Now and who we listened to for hours. She read it and told me how much she loved it. I have decided to announce the book on this blog, but Saving Sara and Food Addiction/Compulsive Eating will have it’s own blog starting mid-February.

From the time I was a young teenager, I always wanted to write a book. For all the wrong reasons. My father gave me a diary after we saw The Diary of Anne Frank together, and I was obviously deeply moved by her story. I was ten years old. I even read the book but, though I was inspired to write, I didn’t learn anything about writing and observing and sorting through my thoughts. I used my diary, that had a key and a lock, to complain about my parents and the world in general. Then there were long gaps of three or four months before I took up the cry of the teenage victim once again. It didn’t make for very interesting reading when I found that diary at forty years of age. However, I was impacted by the pain that my young self lived with. Sometimes, I thought I’d made it all up.

I had romantic notions of writing. I thought of starving artists living in garrets in Paris, writing by candlelight and thought how romantic. That would be one way to lose weight. As the years came and went, I set my goal of writing a great novel ten or fifteen years ahead of whatever era I was in. The truth was that I had nothing to say. I was still complaining which no matter how you twist and turn it is boring.

Then I moved to Paris in 2014. I joined a couple of organisations that taught french classes and, it turned out, they also had writing classes. With a push from a friend, I signed up for a writing class in the Fall of 2015. The only class I could find (at the late date I finally made up my mind to do it) was a class on Memoir writing. The teacher thought I was a good writer, that I had a ‘voice’. So I signed up for more writing classes. If you live in Paris and have a creative bone in your body, you take writing or art classes. There is an abundance of them. It is Paris after all. In the summer of 2016, I took a week-long writing workshop given by WICE, the same organization I had taken my first course with. I found I had something to say especially if I was prompted. The thing I had most to say about was my eating disorder that I have lived with all my life. At the workshop, I met an agent who read ten pages of my writing. She asked me if I thought I could write a book. Of course I said Yes! She said, ‘write it and then send it to me.’

It turns out that one needs more than a story-telling voice in order to be a good writer. I had to learn the Craft of Writing. I started this blog in order to practice writing. I hired a coach and learned how to set a scene, how many scenes in a chapter, how to write good dialogue, how long should an average book be. All things I’d never thought about, or was even aware of, although I read voraciously. Almost four years later, I have a finished product. The launch date is May 12, 2020. Amazon put it up on the website for pre-order last August. I have no idea why they do that but they do. Now people are calling me a writer, an author.

I have to say I’m amazed. I actually did it. Not in my forties or fifties but starting in my sixties and the book will be published in my early seventies. It’s possible to find inspiring cliches to give a person confidence and now I’m my own example of why you don’t give up and it’s never too late, you’re never too old. My parents used to say that I never finished anything. If only they could see me now. It was hard work. I almost gave up three times. My editor had great faith in me. She kept telling me I am a good writer and this was a story that needed to be told. Thank goodness for cheerleaders.

I will say more about the book itself in the next blog

For more information on WICE: https://wice-paris.org

I am a champion of independent bookstores. Of course, one can always order off Amazon but go to this website to see where the independent bookstore closest to you is: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781631528460

A bientôt,

Sara

The Water Dancer

I have never met Ta-Nehisi Coates though he was living in Paris at the same time I was. He was a fellow at the American Library in Paris and wrote ‘Between Me and World’ while there. That book went on to win the National Book award and changed his life. In his words,” it was like being hit by a Mack truck.”

I was sent an advance copy of ‘We were Eight Years in Power’, his 2017 book of eight articles previously written for the Atlantic during the Obama Presidency. I reviewed that book as highly as I could. I then went backwards and read his earlier books. I watched many videos of him on You Tube and always felt sad that I hadn’t met him when he was here. I’ve come to like the man in the videos as much as the man who writes such articulate evocative essays. I have always been struck by his use of language, the elegant phrasing in his essays and his easy street vernacular when chatting away with an interviewer.

Now he has written a novel The Water Dancer, his first such book. He has adopted an almost mystical, mythical style of storytelling that, to me, is completely different than anything before. How does one write about something so heartbreaking as the treatment of slaves, the separation of families, of couples, the courage of so many people putting their lives on the line to rescue others from “the coffin” (slavery in the deep south), the life of Harriet Tubman and all the stolen moments, memories and stories of an entire race of people.

This is the story of Hiram Walker, born to a black mother whom he can’t remember and a white plantation owner. Hi narrates his unexpected life from five years old when he thinks he lost his mother to his late twenties. When he has flashes on his mother, it is of her dancing with her sister, Emily, feet pounding the floor, bodies bonelessly swaying without shame in complete abandon like the water dances in the river. Water is a character in this enthralling telling of a boy first just wanting to remember, then wanting to be free and then wanting to understand.

He lives his teenage years in his father’s house underneath in the Warrens, he tries to escape, is captured and emprisoned. In time, he makes it north and becomes part of the Underground railroad. As he works with the other dedicated members to free brothers and sisters, literally, family takes on a new meaning to him and drives him in ways he never could have conceived.

I don’t pretend to even begin to know what it is like to be Black in America, what the word Freedom means to a man enslaved for real or by what we white people put on them, what it must be like to watch the US going backwards in this Age of White Supremacy. This elegantly written book that seems more dreamlike than factual has brought me as close to “understanding”, to “feeling” the losses that never end, as anything I’ve ever read.

My admiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates and his many forms of language continues to grow. This is a book, I will read again.

The Water Dancer A Novel Historical Fiction Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World

A bientôt

Sara

David Milch

I think everyone in the world has seen David Milch’s name somewhere on TV. Maybe it’s never registered with you. I’ve been seeing it a lot lately because I’ve been watching reruns of NYPD Blue, in order, here in Paris. I never saw it when it first came out on TV in 1993. I was busy rebuilding my house that had burned down in the 1991 Oakland Firestorm, busy watching the Oakland A’s in the evening and just busy. Together with Steven Bochco, Milch created a new kind of prime-time police drama. It ran for 12 seasons. Here in Paris, there are two episodes every weekday night. We’re just starting Season 9.

I love NYPD Blue. I love the flawed characters, I love the characterisation of New York and I love the writing. Imagine my shock when I returned from vacation, picked up my New Yorker and learned that David Milch has Alzheimers. He is 74 years old and was diagnosed in early 2015. He knows he has Alzheimer’s and has a whole list of things he wants to do. The article “Hello Darkness” was written by Mark Singer, a long time contributor to The New Yorker. Singer first met Milch in 2004 when Milch was writing the second season of “Deadwood”–which I have not seen but intend to having read this New Yorker article.

Milch is a complicated man. He is very smart and educated. He is a surviver of many addictions and many relapses. He also has bipolarity. As Singer says, somehow through it all, “he remained in command of prodigious gifts.” He was a writing professor at Yale and Robert Penn Warren was his mentor when he was an undergraduate there. While I’m reading a long list of academic achievement, I’m picturing Sipowicz muttering obscenities under his breath just loud enough so that Danny and Diane can hear. They roll their eyes. Sipowicz is one of a kind. Wikipedia says that Milch was inspired by his relationship with Bill Clark, a former member of the New York City Police Department who eventually became one of the show’s producers. But still…..I know how academics talk, I was raised by two of them and my sister is one. They do not talk like Sipowicz.

Photograph by Ryan Pfluger for The New Yorker

The more I read (New Yorker May 27, 2019), the more admiration I felt for Milch, for his talent, for his journey, for surviving addictions (among other things he made a fortune and lost it all to a gambling habit), for his family that has stuck by him. When Singer quotes him, he sounds like a gentlemen’s gentlemen. And how unfair this diagnosis of Alzheimer’s seems. “More than anything else, one would like to think of oneself as being capable as a human being. The sad truth, imposed with increasing rigor, is you aren’t. You aren’t normal anymore. You’re not capable of thinking in the fashion you would hope to as an artist and as a person. Things as pedestrian as not being able to remember the day. Sometimes where you’ve been. There have been a couple of times when I haven’t been able to remember where I live. And then there are compensatory adjustments that you make in anticipation of those rigors, so that you can conceal the fact of what you can’t do. It’s a constriction that becomes increasingly vicious. And then you go on.” p. 28 New Yorker.

Here is France, the name of the Director is always put above the name of the stars on a movie advertisement. Sometimes the stars names aren’t there at all. But the director always is. He’s the smart one. If you ask a french person about a movie and now, more and more, a good TV show, s/he’ll tell you who the director is. I’ve always sat through all the credits at a movie. I sit through all the credits for TV shows. I like knowing who did what even though I don’t know any of these people. After a while, you start recognising names. Like Danny Elfman composes a lot of movie music. So I knew the name David Milch very well. To me it was always Milch and Bochco. Which isn’t correct. Milch has gone on to do a lot of excellent work without Bochco. Things I’ve seen and not seen. So strange as it seems, reading this article was almost like reading about a friend who had become very, very ill. Only I don’t know where to send flowers. So I’m writing this tribute to a man who has entertained me for years, who turns out to be a complex, brilliant, interesting man who has struggled with some of the same demons I have. I pray he gets everything done he wants to get done.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 15: Creator David Milch at the “Luck” Press Conference at Four Seasons Hotel on February 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)

I’m told that the movie Deadwood will air on HBO this week. Having not seen the first two seasons, I’ll probably wait but if you are a fan and I hear there are many of them……

A bientôt,

Sara

Gloria in Paris

Fabienne Gondrand (translator), Gloria Steinem, Lauren Bastide (Interviewer)


In honour of Women’s History Month (is there a Men’s history month or is that just called history?), Gloria Steinem was invited to speak at the Mona Bismarck American Center for the Arts in Paris. I was one of the lucky few invited to hear her be interviewed. In spite of the fact that I wrote my dissertation on a particular organization in the Bay Area of women helping women, I realized on Tuesday night that I knew very little about her.

First of all, she is eighty-five years old! Or about to be the day after next. Yes, that woman you see in the photo is eighty-five years old. She doesn’t look it and her voice certainly doesn’t sound it. She has a strong voice, not a shake in it and she is just as clear a thinker as I remember her back in the 70s when she started MS magazine.

She wrote her book, My Life on the Road, in 2016. The french translation (Harper Collins) arrived in time to celebrate Women’s History Month. The book is riveting (I’m reading the English version) and centres around the fact that she is always traveling and cannot see her life any other way. She grew up on a farm in Michigan and her family would probably have been called gypsies if they had lived over here. Her father made his living by going to flea markets, trying to find good jewellery and then selling it to stores. They never had a dime to their name. Gloria didn’t go to school until her teens but instead wandered around with her father. She says her traveling to India, ending up as a journalist, much of her twenties were what she considered “things I was doing before I settled down, got married and had children” As she turned thirty, she began to realize that she was her father’s daughter. She liked life on the road. She wasn’t waiting to start her life. This was her life and she loved it. To this day, she spends more days each year traveling than she does in her apartment in New York.

Gloria Steinem and Lauren Bastide

So with traveling as the theme, she tells her story and what a story it is. How she became the symbol of feminism even though black women were far more active in the beginning of the feminist movement than white women. How she dealt with being “pretty”; how she learned to overcome her fear of public speaking and how the Lakota Indian women became so important to her.

English version

Towards the end of the interview, Lauren said she had to ask her a personal question. She had mentioned many times that Gloria was a heroine to her. She prefaced her question by saying her heart breaks when she sees the pain and cruelty in the word, she never sees her children because she works so much, she is getting a divorce and that she has only been a journalist for three years. With tears, she imploringly looked at Gloria “How did you do it, how do you still do it?” Many of us leaned forward to hear the answer. Gloria is the epitome of equanimity. There is a quietness and humility about her. I’m sure we were all wondering how she stays so calm when she deals with so much injustice every day. She shook off the question as unanswerable. She seemed to be saying “It’s just what I do, who I am.”

I left the evening having had my eyes prodded open one more time. Someone in the audience asked her about being a privileged white woman and yet she was the perceived head of the feminist cause. She took a breath and said “yes, privilege is an interesting concept. White women have the privilege to be dominated by men” which took me aback. And yet when I think about it, how many of my friends and I spent years and years of our lives looking for a man we could marry and who would take care of us.

A bientôt,

Sara

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