Monday, May 23, 2016

Books Are Back!

I recently read an article in The Guardian, May 13, 2016: "Books are back. Only the technodazzled thought they would go away", by Simon Jenkins. It made me gloat.

Damn well, books are "back". They never left me in the first place!

It is one thing reading the news online, which I do and enjoy; but reading a book online has never appealed to me.
The news are made for the digital age: there is always something happening, the news are immediate, in the moment.  And the moment passes quickly. Ephemeral is the moment. Ronsard made sure of explaining it to us in verse,didn't he?

A book is made for duration, for lasting. A book is like a relationship: you love it or hate it; it leaves you thrilled, inspired or mitigated. You can come back to a book you read many years ago and still read something new, because you have evolved and read this same book with a different set of mind.  I re-read books all the time.  

At the same time I read new books. I notice a long-time favorite author 's writing evolution or his/her internal transformation, just like one would of a friend. I read new writers also because I like making new friends.
A book has a smell, like a person. It has a texture, like a person's skin. Different publishers make for different  smells, fonts, paper...

A book you hold in your hands, you take in your arms, you fall asleep with or stay awake with.  A book is one's lover, the only faithful relationship in your life, the only one where the dialogue, albeit silent, between the words on the page and your intimate self is permanent, understanding, never incriminating.

Even a book you do not enjoy now will teach you something about yourself. You may even re-read it later and find an echo that did not exist before when you first read it.

A book is for keeping. In paper. On your shelves.

Friday, January 15, 2016

An American Pentastich

Don't think, don't think, don't think.
Don't dream, don't hope, don't speak.
Don't say, don't tell, don't write.
Don't feel, don't feel, don't love.

Being and Nothingness is more than a title.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Summer 2015 Readings

Mid-August I "attacked" Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle (volume 1 of 6). 

I discovered him after reading his Part 1 and Part 2 article in the NYT's Magazine and then a friend's Danish husband mentioned him again when we had dinner and that brought back the enjoyment I felt while I read the long NYT Magazine article . 

Knausgaard is The Proust of Scandinavia and he keeps you entertained and thinking all the while. He is a fairly dark tormented author (not enough sun maybe?) but his style is so delectable... All the 6 volumes focus only on him, they are his "memoirs", a sort of Proust's La Recherche, but with fewer socialites. "As I sit here, I recognize that more than thirty years have passed.";  "When I was at home on my own, every room had its own character, and though not directly hostile to me they were not exactly welcoming, either." Read further: "Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing's location and aim. But how to get there?" BTW, Knausgaard has read Proust and studied French! Of course, the title is a bit of a shocker (Hitler's My Struggle, anyone?) and I am sure the author intended to shock. I am half-way through volume 1 and  will report later on the other volumes.

I also read Per PettersonAshes in my mouth, Sand in my shoes
Another Scandinavian favorite of mine. 
Written solely in the point of view of Arvid (a young boy), it is a collection of short chapters/stories that thread together like a novella on coming-of-age situations from age 5 to 13. Great character descriptions of the adult world around him too. Unusually "light" for another somber author (Out Stealing Horses (2005), To Siberia), but it was in fact its first published book in 1987, just finally translated into English in 2015!

 I read Soumission (in French) by Houellebecq and cannot recommend it enough. Please forget any literary reviews that you may have read when the book was released, which was just a couple of days after the Charlie Hebdo/ Hypercacher supermarket attack. Houellebecq had NOT planned the attack and is NOT a racist. Houellebecq is like a prophet preaching in the desert: no one listens to him or takes him/ his visions or his preaches seriously. The book is more a futuristic and political satire than anything else and for once, not as rude or crude than his previous works in which he denounced sexual tourism (but everyone ended up thinking he was a pervert or a "vieux degueulasse"... which proves that people either did not read him at all - or not properly-  or understood everything literally). I'll say that Houellebecq is more of a very depressed, hopeless man than a pervert or a racist. He denounces our weaknesses and includes himself in the lot. He has no hope for humanity. I am not far behind in thinking the same way, especially after the events in Europe and the Mediterranean sea in the last few days and weeks. For full disclosure: I bought the book in January in Paris, two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo event which was also two weeks after its release, while I was attending the Fondation AF Colloque. I read the first chapter and stopped because it was SO GOOD that I told myself I first needed to re-read Huysmans (a late 19th century / beginning of 20th century writer who is somehow a character in the book)... whom I had last read in 2009... I ended up reading some of Huysmans' pages from a couple of his novels between February and June and then grabbed Soumission on a Sunday in July and read it in one day, it is THAT good!

I also read, (in French too), a couple of really tender and funny (YES!) books by an Icelandic female writer, Audur Ava Olafsdottir. I highly recommend: Rosa Candida and also L'Embellie. One feels much better after reading these two books + you get to discover Iceland! Might prove useful when stopping there on the way back to Paris from DC on Iceland Air or Wow Air. I love the design of the cover of the English version of L'Embellie... translated into Butterflies in November by the brilliant Pushkin Press. A good pun on "butterflies in my stomach". A chance acquisition at a Used Book Sale put this author in my hands. My advice: always browse Used Book Carts. You never know what treasure you are about to find!

I read Elena Ferrante'Troubling Love last week. Ferrante is an Italian female writer, from Naples. Talk about a tormented writer!  Highly recommend her though, terrific style. Plus the translators at Europa Editions are the best in the world...Oh, and BTW, seems like people are whispering that Ferrante and Knausgaard are the current Titans of World Literature! Not surprised really. With sentences such: "I anchored myself to the paving stones of the piazza with the sole of my shoes."  or "I had sat for a while tasting my name like an echo of memory, an abstraction that sounds without sound in one's head." or also: "Amalia had the unpredictability of a splinter, I couldn't impose on her the prison of a single adjective.", her sentences are the strongest and the most beautiful I have read by far (apart from Knausgaard) this year.

In June I mentioned  Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem to a few French friends. 
Tom Friedman is a journalist...
at The New York Times, probably one of the most brilliant ones there is. He was the NYT Correspondent in Lebanon in the 1980s and then in Jerusalem. If you get the book, make sure you get the second edition (2012)... I hope he will release another edition in the next coupe of years, in light of the Arab Spring and its surprising consequences, the rise of ISIS, the destruction of the cradle of humanity (Syria... My heart cries when I think of Aleppo, of Palmyra...) and the likes... But at least I keep up with him as he writes in the NYT. His most recent article two days ago on why people who are against the Iran Deal have probably slept through 9/11 and forgotten that the US's worst BFF is Saudi Arabia is the BEST Editorial on the subject ever. 

My advice: Follow Tom Friedman on Twitter and in the NYT for the best analysis on the Middle East!

I invite everyone to read (for those who have not.. yet!) and re-read (for fans of the books and of the TV show like me, but the books first...) GoT (Game of Thrones, for the uninitiated). 
There are 5 volumes so far. I concede volume 3 is the least entertaining but is necessary to understand what went on, is going on and might happen. I am still feverishly awaiting the release of volumes 6, 7 and 8. I just hope the author does not die before he's finished writing (Valar Morghulis, I know... I know...). If you wonder why I write this, check his picture out! George R.R. Martin is his name. I salute his fertile imagination, this guy is a true story-teller. I hang onto his every page!

A former Washingtonian and a friend, Maryline Gauthier has just published her first book. Well, Maryline and I and a couple of others have been in the same writing group (a virtual group now... we send each other our writings since we all live in different places/continents) and Maryline is the first one to get published!  She released her novel, Kidnapping in May 2015 with Editions de la Difference, the same editor that published.... none other than Houellebecq's first books. So I am sure she is on the road to become a successful author! It is a tremendous treat to read the final product of a book one has read in multiple stages of writing and re-writing. Maryline is a prolific, intense, dark, writer. I have read four manuscripts by her and hope that all of them will be published. Kidnapping is more than just an ordinary kidnapping, it is a multi-dimensional kidnapping, a vicious circle of destruction within one's family which does bear some hope at least for one character. Maryline's strength at landscape descriptions matches the themes and the claustrophobic inferno in which some of her characters are stuck. Her 2nd book should be released in Spring 2016. I hope she comes to the Alliance Francaise de Washington DC for a signature!


For those of you who like thrillers, Fred Vargas is still at her best with her most recent book, Temps Glaciaires. I also discovered Olivier Truc and read both his books, Le dernier Lapon and Le detroit du Loup. (In English: Forty Days without Shadow and Wolf Strait) What can I say? Apparently I am not the only one fascinated by the Vikings, Scandinavia and all the Northern countries. Fred Vargas's book goes to...Iceland eventually and Olivier Truc has been living in Sweden since 1994. His books take place in Lapland. You'll learn all about "la police des rennes" but also about the greed behind the petroleum and mineral companies in Norway and Sweden that slowly kills off the environment, the reindeer shepherds and the Sami lifestyle and traditions. 

Onto  Muriel Barbery's second book, La vie des elfes. She had not published anything since 2006 L'elegance du herisson, whichto this day  remains one of my favorite books of all times. Her second one is not as memorable. Still great writing, with an attention to style that matches the landscapes and the characters (very well done and exquisite as always) but I must say that I am not much into elves, I hate The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, never went over page 50 and after 1.5 hours of the first Lord of the Rings movie, I was ready to commit hara-kiri (so never went to see films 2 and 3). As much as I LOVED Harry Potter (Read the 7 volumes in 10 days in one go... I had waited for them to be all released before reading them, my idea was that if I loved them then I would not be able to wait the publication of the next one and would suffer some form of withdrawal syndrome... which of course is what is happening with GoT...)
So as much as I am a total GoT-maniac (I root for the Starks... Winter is Coming, The North  Remembers; You Know Nothing, Jon Snow!... ), I cannot, absolutely cannot stand Lord of the Rings and anything elfish... But I'd be interested to know if you like it. I'd say it is worth reading for the style and 50% of the story (the parts in Bourgogne, and in the Italian village). Everything else can go.

Avoid Kamel Daoud'Meursault Contre-Enquete (In English, The Meursault Investigation) No joke, I have been at it since it was released... It is a very slim, thin book, barely 120 pages probably... I cannot get into it. Most boring book ever (more boring than Lord of the Rings). I guess I am too much of a Camus' fan to allow any imaginary sequel with a different point of view on L'Etranger. I guess Daoud's only redeeming quality is that it helps with my insomnia. 

I also read Le Consul by Salim Bachi. Great story (true), great style but too many content and stylistic redundancies kill the broth for me. Still, if you have nothing else, it is worth reading. I much prefer Bachi than Daoud.

And I also re-read two books: FoenkinosLa delicatesse (Good news: I still like it) and Barbery's Une gourmandise (I needed it after La vie des Elfes). I did not re-read L'elegance du Herisson, not because I have already read it 6 times in French and 2 in English, but because I did not want to cry again at the end (I did every single time I read it before...). 

The reason for reading La delicatesse a second time was because Foenkinos is such an amazingly unpredictable writer.  How can someone write La delicatesse and Charlotte? Not so many authors can write in totally different styles. Charlotte should have had the Goncourt last year...

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Culinary Burden of Being French

Being French is my culinary burden. Everyone assumes that I am a genuine gourmet, a connoisseur of wines, cheeses and la haute cuisine. Far from that!
I reached half a century a couple of years ago and had some time on my hands, having just resigned from my position.I could dive into more culinary experiments.
I was raised in the West Indies until age 6. My nose and tastebuds were trained into strong fragrances and flavors: chili peppers tickled my nostrils and burnt my tongue; coconut meat and cream helped me through my allergy to cow’s milk; fruit carried the sun into my mouth. I was not a big meat eater and still remember one memorable day when I absolutely refused to eat the steak I was served at lunch. I was about 5. My mom left for the beach with my sisters and ordered the nanny to serve me the steak again for snack. The battle lasted 24 hours during which I ate nothing, as I was not allowed to eat anything else until I had eaten the meat.
A few years later, back in France, at a restaurant in the Gers, where the family must have been celebrating something or holding a family reunion, I stubbornly refused to eat: snails, frog legs and horsemeat roast.  By this time, my mother was used to my picky eating, but my refusal to taste the French delicacies nailed me as a food eccentric. In the same way, at home, I also refused to eat beef tongue, tripes, kidneys, and fried sheep brain.
For many years I also entertained a dislike for mushrooms and for lamb. The science teacher in my middle school had given us a lesson on the dangers of mushroom-picking that I will forever remember: out of a family of 2 parents and 5 children, only one child survived -the one whose rambuctious behavior had him punished and forbidden to eat the mushrooms. As for the lamb, I had a pet goat when I was living in the West Indies: one of those sneaky little black and white goats, smart and quick, whose favorite food was the shower curtain in our bathroom. She would get into the house as the weather allowed the windows to always be open, and dashed out as soon as my mom discovered her munching away on the colorful plastic. When we left, we could not take her with us to France, so my dad gave it away. To my childish questions: “Whom did you give her to? Is she going to be alright?”, his answer was: “She will make a good colombo.” (A curry dish made by the Indians who had moved to the West Indies after slavery was abolished). To this day, I am still reluctant to eat any lamb or mutton dish…Or kid goat for that matter!
Living on my own as a student, I was finally able to experiment beyond la cuisine du Sud-Ouest. I dared invite my parents to the restaurant with my first pay. In the 70s and 80s in France, racist rumors spread “the tale of the rat”, as the main protein staple in Chinese reataurants… So I took my parents to their first ever Chinese restaurant.
Later on, when I had my first child, I became committed to organic food. Back in 1989, it was rather new and it added to my reputation as a hell-raiser. Coming to the US in 1995 and discovering the obesity epidemic, the use of antibiotics and hormones in meat and dairy products, the use of GMOs in corn and other produce, the sugar and sodium addictions, made me even more of an activist. I have read all of Michael Pollan’s books…
Now I am a member of a bio-dynamic CSA for dairy, eggs, bread, vegetables and fruit, legumes and grains. I signed up on the Buying Club List of Polyface Farms(If you have seen Food Inc, you know I am talking about Joe Salatin) and I also grow my own vegetables year round, because one can never have enough greens. I make jams, pickles, relishes, chutneys, sauces and all kinds of preserves, as well as foie gras, chicken broths, cookies, cakes and breads. I cook what I receive every week or what I grow, rarely something else. Local, seasonal and organic is my motto!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas 2014

I contemplated the muddy waters of the Potomac
The wrinkles the wind blew
I felt the vacuum
The emptiness within
And wondered whether
A soul could fill a torn envelope
Whether the tears could mend
Again and whether so many patches on life
hardened the heart
Or whether it was about to give up
Leave Die Live a little longer
But how much more can a little longer be
Before the end.

December 25, 2014

© Sarah Diligenti

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What's In A Name?

I am standing at the cashier counter in my favorite shop, Red Orchard, Wildwood Manor, Bethesda (The place is a real heaven on earth for unique gifts.) With the new Square system, the owner asks me if I want my receipt emailed to me, to which I heartily agree: the fewer trees we cut the better; the less BPA on credit card receipts, even better!

Upon hearing my last name “Diligenti”, he asked: “Does it mean the same as in English: “diligent”?” “Absolutely! It comes from the Latin: diligentia, ae…. Which means “haste”.” “And are you “diligent”?” “As a matter of fact, I am.”  Then I said: “It is my maiden name. Because you see, with my married name, I had too much trouble. It is rather difficult to carry around the last name: “Pickup”. You do not know all that I had to endure!” “Your husband’s name is Pickup?” “Yes! A British name… So imagine me on the phone and being asked to spell my name, and I usually say: “Pickup, just like the truck.” At this time, he and his wife started to giggle….

So I went on: “20 years ago, going to the dry cleaners or the photographer’s, whenever they asked for my name and I replied “pickup”, they would say: “yes, we know you are here to pick up stuff, but what is your last name?” My adrenaline usually went up at this stage. But the worst part happened when I went to renew my driving-license. I asked for my maiden name to be added next to my married name. This woman berated me for 30 minutes, telling me I should be ashamed of myself for not wanting my husband’s name, that a wife should always be proud of her husband’s name, and so on and so forth… I tersely replied to her that if she had been called a pickup, she would probably want to change her name too. Especially considering that one time when, after hearing my last name, a guy asked me how would I like to be picked up?” 

By this stage, the owner of Red Orchard and his wife were laughing out loud. I added: “And when I had to go to the main MVA for a car tag a few years later, they asked me for my ID and then told me it was not good… The woman at the driving-license renewal booth had hated me so much for not just using my husband’s name that she had NOT put the three digital numbers along my throat on the picture ID! So for a few years I was unaware that I was driving around with a totally not legit ID!” “OMG! She did not!!! You should have filed a complaint!” “Well, she was looking like she was way over 70 at the time so I gathered she had probably retired, but I must say after all these years I am still wondering what’s in a name that people react so strongly… But at least it does make for an entertaining story…”

Little do they know that my maiden name itself had been the butt of many a joke when I was growing up in France…

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Surviving in the Siberian Wilderness for 70 Years (Full Length)

The incredible story of Agafia Lykov and the Lykov family, in the Siberian taiga, 150 miles South of the city of Akaban.
The Lykovs voluntarily disappeared out of the known world in between 1936 and 1942, at a time of tumult in the former USSR: Stalin's purges and the Nazi invasion that ended with USSR's participation in World War 2 and the Cold War.
The Lykovs had been fleeing East since 1653. They are "Old-Believers", Orthodox deemed heretics by Alexey Romanov (the first tsar of the dynasty) and Patriarch Nikon who wanted to reform the Orthodox Church by returning to the Greek texts, whose many translations since the Baptism of Kievian Rus in 988, had suffered many incoherences. Alexey and then his son, Peter the Great, persecuted the Old Believers, boyars and peasants alike, at best forcing them into exile or cutting their sacred long beards, at worst executing them.
The Lykovs fled East like many other Old-Believers, and eventually disappeared in the taiga to be found again totally unexpectedly by geologists in... 1978. In 1982, a journalist from the Komsomolskaya Pravda, the late Vassili Peskov, started to write a few articles about the two surviving members of the family: Karp Ossipovitch and his daughter Agafia. The mother, Akulina, had died back in 1961, the result of a famine and of self-sacrifice to ensure the survial of her four children. The two sons, Dmitri and Savvine and the other daughter, Natalia, died between 1978 and 1981, and to this day one does not know whether it was the encounter with the geologists and therefore the potential exposure to unknown microbes that may have precipitated their demise, like what happened to the Native-Americans when they first met the White Explorers.
Karp Ossipovitch died of old age in his 80s and his daughter, Agafia, is now 70. She still lives in the wilderness, but she has made concessions to "the century". One of the earlier geologists who helped her family, Erofei, now a victim of post-sovietization and a leg amputee, lives on the estate with her. Relationships between the two friends are not as amiable as they were when Erofei was a foreman, as the documentary reveals.
Vassili Peskov fell sick in 2010 and died in 2013. His articles were compiled into 2 books, Lost in the Taiga and News from Agafia, covering 1982 -his first visit to the hermitage- to 2009. I highly recommend reading them, even before watching the 2013 documentary. I am not sure what to make of Agafia's surprising revelations regarding Erofei's behavior, especially in the light of all he had done for her before joining her in the taiga as an amputee. Is Agafia telling the truth or is she not?
A full review of the two books appear, in French, on my other blog:  Exercices de Plume: