Girl Reading, by Katie Ward

Image from
Image from

One of the privileges of youth is time. Yes, we are all handed the same amount every day, it’s just that, as we get older (and specially after having children) we fill ourselves with so many responsibilities, that some things start to get thrown out of the window (in my case: exercising, listening to music, reading anything longer than gossip blogs and Twitter feeds, sanity, at times). It’s not a completely negative thing, having “less time”: it has forced me to become more decisive and more practical. I’m still hugely indecisive and unpractical, but I’m a little bit better. So for the last couple of years, when I go to the library, not having had any time to read on book recommendations, or be on top of the last releases, I’ve been relaying on the library staff suggestions. I have found some very good books this way and also, like most people, by totally judging books by their covers: my weakness is books with paintings on them. One of these was Girl Reading, by Katie Ward.

More than a novel, this books reads like a collection of short stories very delicately tied together by images that appear in each of them.  The stories start in the 14th century and move through history until we reach the late 21st century. The beautiful cover of the edition I read shows a detail from Annunciation by Simone Martini (1333). “Annunciation”  is also the title of the first chapter and 1333 the year the first story takes place. A young woman, an orphan living in a convent, is chosen to sit for a master painter. She doesn’t understand until much later that she is going to be the model for the virgin in the painting, the very same one that we see on the cover. Ward plays with the themes of the painting (the annunciation, immaculate conception) and they become part of the story itself in a very subtle, but smart way. And so it is for each chapter, where she imagines the story behind the images, the circumstances that may have led to its creation.

Ward writes with a beautiful lightness of touch and seems not only able to capture the time period of each story but inhabit the images and paintings that we associate with it.

In “Angelica Kauffman: Portrait of a Lady, 1775”she writes about a bereaved lover consumed by the sadness and loneliness of death. She is a countess, though she has lived away from her husband for quite some time. Her beautiful lover has recently died. She summons the famous painter Angelica Kauffman to complete the portrait she had started of her lover, the subject of Kauffman’s Portrait of a Lady.  Ward is wonderful in that she gets the time period, the history, the manners, in just a few pages. The poor countess falls from society when one of her many creditors accuses her and her lover, Frances, of being lesbians. Kauffman has been a friend to her, remembers Frances when she was alive. The days go by while she tries to finish the painting from memory and as the countess slowly starts to heal.   It’s a very moving story about love and loss and perhaps also about the healing power of art.

The most thought-provoking story is the last one. It takes place in 2060. By this time, governments have had to lock and protect most of Western art due to some sort of international conflict where art is going to mostly private hands. So most people’s experience of art, books, sculpture-everything, is virtual. Life is experienced in large part through a highly enhanced virtual reality called “Mesh”. Children’s lessons at school are in mesh, games are in mesh and pets, of course, are virtual as well. It is not only about a world where you can live away from your family but still be present through your highly realistic avatar (think of much more advanced Skype dinners and FaceTime, where a far away family member also “sits” at the table), but also about a world where material objects and the pleasures of touching, feeling and seeing in the real world is becoming rarer and rarer. This doesn’t sound unfamiliar at all: we already seem to have access to everything we can imagine on the Internet, but we can still experience real art in the real world if we choose to.

The story touches on the theme of identities as well, both our virtual identities and our real identities, because as we know, they can be quite distinct. A new discovery, or a new scientific creation called Sibil is at the heart of the story. She is not a robot, although she is the definition of artificial intelligence. She is a complex, extremely advanced algorithm. She organizes and classifies information in a way that allows people to experience works of art in a highly interactive way. Through Sibil, a work of art is enriched by all the traces of information that could possible be attached to it and this shapes each viewer’s experience. I already feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of information we are exposed to every day, I think most of us are, so I can’t imagine how we will manage in 2060. I guess that’s the brilliance of Sibil’s discovery. In the end, Ward finds a way to link all the images and the stories together through Sibil.

Every once in a while, when I was reading the book, I would turn to the end and look at Katie Ward’s picture and bio: she was born in 1979 and this is her first novel. It’s an admirable accomplishment. Her book is beautiful, touching and erudite. I really enjoyed it.

De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone)

Image from IMDB
Image from IMDB

I recently won a movie pass from one of the best video stores we have in the city. I’m subscribed to their newsletter and it’s pretty easy to enter your name in the contests and also to win them. The only problem is that, if your name is selected, you must be one of the first 20 or the first 10 people to go get the pass at their store, first-come first-served. Their store is not near my house by any means, so a few weeks ago when I won a pass to see the French movie Rust and Bone, I had to take extraordinary measures to go get the tickets, which basically means I escaped work one Friday evening, called my husband to tell him there would be no dinner for at least the next several hours, waited in the wind and the cold for a bus and went to get the tickets at the store. There was a lineup when I got there. I had phoned earlier, just before leaving work, and they had told me that there were “only 5 left!” and to “hurry up!” I feared and already hated every other movie geek who may get the passes before me. Thankfully, there were enough left when I got there and I got mine.

My husband and I have not had a date for maybe the last two centuries, so I invited him on a date to see this movie. I know that it was a cheap move, inviting him for a movie with a free movie pass, but at this point in our lives, a cheap date is better than no date. Besides, the movies you watch with a movie pass are usually the most special (we watched Persepolis with a pass and it was one of the best movie experiences of my life, but that’s another story). The movie was going to be showing in one of my favourite movie theatres in the city as well, which also happens to be located very close to my brother’s place. So we dropped off our son with him and left for the movie.

Rust and Bone is a love story,  a redemption story, a story about overcoming tragedy, and about survival. It stars with a loser: his name is Ali and he is making his way to his sister’s home to live with her. He has a young son, 5 or 6 years old, and has separated from his child’s mother. He is starting a new life in a different town. His sister is generous, she takes them both in, becomes a mother to the child. But they are not well-off by any means: she is a cashier at a supermarket and her husband drives a truck to make deliveries. Ali is certainly clueless about his son: he doesn’t know him, doesn’t know if he used to go to school before they left, doesn’t know what he likes. But he is there and he tries to make a life for both of them. Ali takes care of his body, is the one thing he knows how to do, so he runs, goes to the gym and eventually finds a job as a security guard/bouncer at a club. He has a chance encounter with a beautiful woman who is involved in a fight at the club. Stéphanie is unhappy in her current relationship, we gather, but that’s as much as we learn about it. She works as a whale trainer at a water park. Later, she suffers a horrible accident where she loses her legs. And then, the real story of the movie starts.

Stéphanie goes through a long depression but one day she calls Ali and they reconnect. He suggests they go out as her apartment is messy and filled with the smell of a place that never has its windows open. So they go to the beach (this is the south of France). One quality that Ali has is that he doesn’t make a big deal of Stéphanie having lost her legs, doesn’t pity her, he simply is. In one beautiful scene, Stéphanie finally decides she wants to go for a swim. Ali helps her get in the water; she doesn’t have a swimsuit but that doesn’t stop her. This being the south of  France, she casually strips to her underwear in the water and feels free for the first time in months.

Marion Cotillard is probably one of the most beautiful women in cinema today and she is sublime as Stéphanie: she is subtly defiant, a fighter, but never aggressive. She is somebody who was used to being beautiful, to being admired, and with the qualities of somebody who goes through life knowing the effect they have on other people. It’s beautiful to watch. Ali is also a fighter, literally. He likes to watch ultimate fighting and eventually starts fighting himself. It’s gruesome to watch. But he is good and starts making money through the fights.

Like many movies about boxers and  fighters, we see how sad their life can be. We see him destroy his body  for the sake of a few euros and make many mistakes along the way, specially with his son and his family. But fighting is the one thing he knows how to do, the one thing he is good at. And in the end, it’s his physical brutality that saves his son’s life and his own, in every sense. In between, Ali and Stéphanie come together romantically but their relationship is presented in the least romantic and sentimental way possible. In an interview Marion Cotillard did recently, she spoke of how difficult sex scenes are always for her. The exception she said, were the sex scenes in this movie, which she cherished for the sake of her character who has gone through so much pain and trauma. Those scenes (specially the later ones) are truly special and for me, unforgettable. This is brave film-making, unsentimental and honest. I’m so happy I took my husband on a date to see this movie; he loved the cinematography. And I did too.

Bel-Ami, by Guy de Maupassant

Bel ami, de Guy de Maupassant,  Édition de Jean-Louis Bory, Gallimard, Folio classique.
Bel ami, de Guy de Maupassant, Édition de Jean-Louis Bory, Gallimard, Folio classique.

I am prone to obsessions, most of them too debilitating to confess at any time. Georges Duroy, the title character of Bel ami by Guy de Maupassant, is obsessed as well. He is a young ex-soldier in 1880s Paris obsessed with changing his life for the better. He is very poor.

On a summer night, wandering the streets around the Parisian cafés, Duroy tries to decide between spending his last 3 francs 40 sous on a drink or spending the last three days of the month hungry while waiting for his next pay. He watches people, men, and women happily drinking at the cafés; they have no apparent worries nor do they seem to have to make any mental calculations to see if they can afford their next drink.

By chance, he meets an old army friend. Life has turned out very differently for him: Forestier writes for La Vie française newspaper, is married, and, as Duroy notices, is respectably dressed and with the look of somebody who eats and has eaten well for a while. Thus starts Duroy’s climb into Paris society.

Soon, Duroy easily finds a job at the newspaper through his connection with Forestier, and from there on he seduces woman after woman to achieve the place he really thinks he deserves in Paris: the top. It doesn’t happen as easily as I make it sound: he is tested by his journalist colleagues who accuse him of not writing his own articles (which is true at the beginning) but slowly he is able to learn the trade and stand on his own. Duroy’s ambition and obsession with power are what guide the story. He has been so poor for so long, is so ashamed of his humble country origins, and is so acutely aware of his lack of talent that he is desperate to become somebody else, a completely new creation far away from what he really is.

Unlike me, who is debilitated by my obsessions, Duroy is not debilitated by his. Quite the opposite, he gets bolder and bolder as the book goes along: at one point he seduces his newspaper boss’s wife and doesn’t even stop there. The most surprising thing about this novel is that, even though Maupassant wrote it in 1885, it feels fresh and modern in many ways. One reason is his writing style, which is highly naturalistic. The book is filled with details about prices, daily routines, the ups and downs of working at a French newspaper, restaurant meals, or women’s dresses. The novel brings 1885 Paris to life in a way I had not experienced before.

But there is, I think, another reason why it feels so modern as well. Duroy reminds me of our current obsession with easy fame and celebrity: he wants to be powerful, admired, desired, and most importantly, respected. He doesn’t know how he will get there or what means he will use, he only knows he will do it and that he deserves it. My younger brother has admirable ambition, the kind I never had: big, slightly calculating, and smart. He looks up to and studies those he wants to emulate. Duroy does the same, he studies those he would like to emulate to try to become like them. The difference is that he doesn’t necessarily admire them and those he wants to emulate are not always irreproachable.

Although this book is full of life, two of my favorite chapters deal with death. Maupassant captures Duroy’s feelings so acutely throughout the book that when he confronts the possibility of his own death and his fear and repulsion at somebody else’s death it feels very real.  At the end of the novel,  Duroy has definitely made it, though we have the feeling he won’t stop there, that he will continue to climb higher and higher into Parisian society and lower and lower into the depths of his own ambition