"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Entries in books (10)


A Few Things I've Learned from Living in France, In No Particular Order





  1. To wear skirts again.

  2. Fifteen ways to wear a scarf.
  3. To embrace cold weather.
  4. To pay attention to seasons for various foods.

  5. To commiserate with French women on the terrible spatial organization of most large markets in Paris, and the remodel hasn’t changed a thing.
  6. To weigh vegetables and put little stickers on them before going to the cash register.

  7. To walk and walk and walk.
  8. And to sit in cafes, enjoying the theater all around you.

  9. To live (quite easily) without a car.
  10. That when your melancholic man says there is only one thing that prevents his happiness and it is having to drive everywhere, and that if he lived in Paris and could ditch the car, all would be well, you should believe him.

  11. That when you tell him you cannot live without your entire library, and that giving away 2/3rds of it will simply mean that you’ll have to replace it all after you move, he should believe you.

  12. To say goodbye to Marley, and accept that no other cat will do.
  13. That your greatest fear about living in another country, losing touch with family and friends, is easily solved by airplanes, phone calls, e-mail and Facebook.
  14. That having international friends is a good idea.

  15. That the street art scene is the most alive visual art in France now, and perhaps in most of the western world.
  16. That it is possible to understand a French washing machine by living with it for three years, consulting a plumber twice, and having a Darty technician come to your home and explain that two soap tablets in the tray are appropriate for a regular wash, but only one can be used for a delicate cycle, and must be placed, not in the tray, but in the machine, and then the water will not leak all over the floor.
  17. There is no cure for the French dryer sounding like a jet airplane taking off.

  18. There is no cure for the French love of bureaucracy.
  19. It takes a year to stop sampling all 365 French cheeses before you can respect your arteries and get a grip.
  20. You can laugh at your doctor when she laughs at you for suggesting that sugar might be bad for your health. After all, she is French.

  21. You can finally listen to your L.A. healer, Dr. Mao, and substitute green tea for coffee and still write.
  22. You can write through grief, you can keep working in spite of losing the woman with whom you are closest on earth, your sister, Jane.

  23. Socialism is fantastic for mothers and families and anyone who is vulnerable (let’s just say, most of us), but it’s not good for entrepreneurs.
  24. But the French are right, you need to take weekends off and you need to, regularly, get out of town.
  25. There are cultures where literature is so important that you can hear it discussed by writers and critics every night on TV if you want.

  26. Ancient is beautiful, and living in a modern city in harmony with the beauty of the distant past increases the power of a place.
  27. Paris is our city, but the U.S. is our country. We can see our own country more clearly from afar, its craziness (guns, greed, hubris and politics), but also its beauty (energy, resourcefulness, freedom of expression, warmth).





Unexpected Pleasures




You can walk out into the world thinking you know what pleasures await you, and have no idea of the treasure in store.

I knew the dinner would be excellent.

I knew that editing a story would be satisfying.

But I'm startled by the acute pleasure of being out in the cold sharp night air after several weeks mostly indoors with the flu. The world is so… solid, so real! Feathers! Flowers! Carytids! The moon! 

The pleasure of crossing a narrow street at the crosswalk, three men talking and blocking my path, the one on the bicycle looking up with great sweetness, "Oh, pardon!" and backing up his bike to let me pass.


The sweetness of men! It moves me even more than their strength. That Celtic douceur that comes from centuries of the troubadour tradition of courtesy (and perhaps from centuries of its opposite, savage wars on one's own soil).

The pleasure of remembering that I have several books to pick up at Shakespeare and Company. I'm carrying a book bag with my laptop and printed-out stories.  Do I want the extra weight? Sure. Better than swinging by too late after they've closed.



I detour, pick up the books. The bookseller with whom I'd been exchanging messages says, "Oh, it's you. I know your face, but didn't know your name."

"Same with me. You have the slightest accent. What is it?"

"I'm French."

"But your English is perfect."

"I lived in the States for a while."

Out into the blue-black cold. The face of Notre Dame across the river makes me think of Rosamond Larmour Loomis. The cathedral reminds me of those four years of boarding school, of memorizing hymns, the strict regimen of classes, study hall, every hour mapped out.



Rosamond was the headmistress of the school. She died last week at the age of 102, several weeks after her boyfriend Henry.

I remember two conversations with her, one when I was 14, and had been called into her office with Miss Moran, the sadistic assistant headmistress. I’ve already mentioned this once on Paris Play, but it made a deep impression on me, hinted at my future. Miss Larmour sternly addressed a most unfortunate incident involving naked girls in high heels and pearls stampeding down the dorm singing an aria from La Traviata. She said, "We thought you were a leader when you arrived, but this is not what we had in mind."



And later at a school reunion, she was no longer the strict head of the school, but relaxed, warm, ageless. We discovered that we'd both been married for the first time later in life, at the same age, though years apart.

Rosamond died the way I would like to die, quickly, quickly, well past the age of 100, with my beloved and friends nearby. I imagine her on her journey, sailing into the mystery.

It is crowded at my writing café. But maybe, maybe that man is not sitting at my table.

The waiter asks.

No, he's just spread out his packages there from the adjacent table where he's talking with a woman. He graciously makes room for me.



I order salmon and scalloped potatoes, the way my mother used to make them.

I open my new James Salter novel, Light Years, and begin to read. Oh. my. god. Oh! Oh! This is music. I cannot help it, I begin to annotate the page with a pencil, making scansion marks above the words as if the lines were a prose poem.

The rhythm of his sentences, the sculptural quality. The weather, the sensory richness.

I know these characters, their lives rich with art, books, friendship, family, storytelling, animals, weather, beauty. (And later, carelessness, sad choices.)

The dinner arrives. The waiter says, “If you finish that book tonight, I’ll give you a free dessert.”

The couple next to me laugh. It's a joke Parisian waiters make only when it’s clear that you’ve just started a book.

The meal is fantastic.



The man at the next table gets up to use the bathroom. The woman strikes up a conversation with me. She lives for literature. She lives in a small town near Brittany. 

The man returns. He runs a poetry and fiction reading series near us in Paris.

She invites Richard and me to visit her in her small village. She offers to drive us around.

He invites us to come to his poetry series next weekend.

They have just met in the Jardin du Luxembourg.  We all exchange cards.

I am flooded with richness.

When they leave I order a glass of cider. The mild alcohol content won't interfere with my editing.

Oh yes it does. I'd forgotten the lingering effect of the flu, am instantly tipsy. Now, how to balance that out? A coffee would keep me up all night. But a hot chocolate wouldn't. That delicate balancing act we do with food, drink and energy.

The hot chocolate warms and awakens me. I edit the story with the music of Salter's sentences ringing in my ears.





The Best Christmas Gift


How odd it was on Thursday to hear that everyone we know in the U.S.A. was celebrating Thanksgiving, while here in Paris we heard nary a mention of turkey or pumpkin pie.

But we celebrated in our own way with our usual daily gratitude for our work, family, friends, and our lives together in Paris.

Moving on to Christmas: what is your favorite Christmas gift? I mean besides love, money and creativity—something that can be wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree.

For me, it’s always been books. Even as a child, getting a new book was bliss.



Last week, Richard and I and our nephew, Jonathan Edwards, went to Shakespeare and Company Bookstore one night to hear the American novelist, Percival Everett, read an excerpt from his novel. We’d heard him before at Antioch University in Los Angeles. But here in the bookstore, I could immediately buy one of his books.

After the reading I asked him to recommend where to begin. He suggested his comic novel, “I am Not Sidney Poitier.” Both Jonathan and I bought it, and I had the sad experience a few days ago of finishing it. Sad because the world Everett creates in this novel is so rich, so real, I didn’t want it to end. It is about the journey of a young black man, Not Sidney (yes, that is his name) from his childhood with a smart, unsentimental single mother who, through her investments, makes her son staggeringly rich. After a period of living with Ted Turner (and glimpses of Jane Fonda), Not Sidney embarks on a farcical stint at Morehouse College and a terrifying journey through the South where—okay, can’t give that away, can I?



The book is full of absurdity, from a Morehouse professor named Percival Everett who teaches the Philosophy of Nonsense to his earnest students, to Not Sidney's way of handling the cruelty of frat house hazing, which made me laugh so loud I had to run into the kitchen so I wouldn’t awaken Richard.

But wait—it’s more than his humor that makes this novel so brilliant. It’s the mild temperament and voice of the narrator. While people around him are behaving savagely or absurdly, he simply observes. (Think Candide.) And slowly it dawns on the reader that this is the most eloquent telling of how it might feel to be black in the U.S.A., at least in the redneck states, of anything I’ve read. (I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read James Baldwin’s work, but I’m going to get Giovanni’s Room next.)


Street art by Nice Art


But wait—it’s even greater than this. No one has put into words better than Marcel Proust the deepest purpose of reading. Here is what he wrote in a letter:

“It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books…that for the author they may be called “conclusions” but for the reader “incitements”…That is the value of reading and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.” As Alain de Botton writes in his book, How Proust Can Save Your Life, “Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”

There was something about the surreal sensibility of this book that incited the first pages of a new long story (novella? novel? not sure). Inspiration: the greatest gift any book can give us. 

And with that, I want to recommend a few of the most inspiring books I’ve read in the past year. Who knows, one or two of these might inspire you, or someone for whom you're looking for a gift.



  • The Certificate by Isaac Bashevis Singer (This novel was written in Singer’s sixties and is closely autobiographical, the story of a young Jewish man who arrives in Warsaw from his small Polish village in 1922. He has romantic adventures with three young women while waiting to get his certificate to go to Palestine. This is brilliant writing, the kind of voice that’s so vivid you can’t stop reading. It’s out of print, so you may have to track it down through some online used book store like Abe Books.)
  • Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis. (I can’t improve on Virginia Woolf’s words in a letter to Roger Fry in which she wrote, “My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? …How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.”)
  • The Blue Fox by Sjon (Such a strange and mysterious story told by the Icelandic writer Sjon. It takes place in Iceland and links the destinies of a hunter/priest, a blue fox, a naturalist and a girl with Down syndrome in a tale about compassion. It is a book that seems carved out of ice; it’s minimalist, poetic, and told in a distinctively Scandinavian voice that reminded me of my Norwegian-American maternal grandfather, Julius Heimark’s way of telling a story, colloquial and as simple and straightforward as The Eddas.)
  • Self-Portraits: Fictions by Frederic Tuten (Imagine a series of short stories that combine the sensibility of Luis Bunuel's films with Andre Breton's writing, and you'll be half-way to the flavor of this writer's work. The stories seem to be telling an autobiographical dream narrative, sometimes erotic, sometimes hilarious (laugh out loud), and always as close to poetry as fiction gets.)
  • N-W by Zadie Smith (stream of consciousness narrative of four characters, Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan, in present-day London. It made me think of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. This is one of those books that in the first few pages is slow to get going, then you are truly inside the characters in the most satisfying way, living their life minute by minute, including some surprises that you don't see coming.)
  • This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz  (Interlinked stories about various women in the life of Yunior, a young Dominican-American man whose Don Juan ways end up breaking his own heart. Diaz’s genius is high voltage voice! You can’t put the book down.)


Street art by Miss-Tic


  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Bashō (Seventeenth-century travel writing that chronicles the great Japanese haiku poet's journeys through Japan, interwoven with his poems and his Zen Buddhist vision of eternity in the sensory world around him.)
  • The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson (A free-verse epic poem that approaches the Massachusetts fishing town of Gloucester through its characters, its history, its ecosystem, and the poet’s inspired personal and mythical vision as well. It marked a new freer direction in American poetry. And strangely, it seemed to bring my own paternal ancestral history to life in me, though I haven’t lived in Massachusetts since I was three years old.) 
  • The Iliad by Homer, both Robert Fagles' and Stephen Mitchell's translations  (The greatest epic poem ever written on war. My favorite part is always the way the gods and goddesses are characters as real as the humans.) 




  • The Goncourt Journals (1851-1870) (Two brothers, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, wrote down everything that happened in their literary and social circles during mid-nineteenth century life in Paris. Casual mention of conversations with Flaubert and Turgenieff spice it up. I loved reading in George Painter’s biography about Proust’s self-pity after he read these journals. Why didn’t he know that many interesting people? And then it dawned on him that he did. Proust spent the rest of his life writing about them.)    
  • Robert Duncan, The H. D. Book (This is a strange, visionary book, part apprenticeship to his beloved poet idol, Hilda Doolittle, part visionary and poetic musing as befits a book about this great visionary poet.)
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (The best writing I know about religious fundamentalism and its intrinsic domination of women, carried right to its ultimate end in the murder of the most clear-thinking, "disobedient" woman, the brother of these two Mormon brothers, and her baby.)
  • Eels by James Prosek (An elegant book about the biology and mythology of this strange fish, from New Zealand to the Sargasso Sea, illustrated with beautiful etchings by the author. Most fascinating are the Maori legends about eels as guardians and monster-seducers.)


Street art by Fred Le Chevalier


Biography & Autobiography

  • Marcel Proust A Biography by George D. Painter (A bookseller at Village Voice Bookshop (sob) lent me his copy. I marked it up with so many colored flags that I had to order a copy for myself, and transfer all the markers in order to have all these treasured facts close at hand.)
  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon (One of the greatest works of Japanese literature, Shōnagon weaves short tales, longer ones, lists, and poems about her life as a gentlewoman in the 10th century Court of Empress Teishi in Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto). Fascinating for the way poetry, wit and okashi (that which delights) are a part of every aspect of life, and for the exquisite attention to sensory beauty, especially the clothes of both women and men.)





Healing the Planet


This article in The New York Times got me thinking about compassion. Here is an official of the city of Girona, who, with more than a million people starving in Spain, put padlocks on the supermarket trash bins in his city.

“It’s against the dignity of these people to have to look for food in this manner,” said Eduardo Berloso…. Mr. Berloso proposed the measure last month after hearing from social workers and seeing for himself one evening “the humiliating gesture of a mother with children looking around before digging into the bins.” 

Humiliating, perhaps, but better than starving. What he really meant was that it was humiliating for the image of the tourist town of Girona. 

To do him justice, he did arrange for vouchers for licensed pantries and soup kitchens to be passed out where people come to forage for tossed-out food, but he ignored the fact that many of these people are not accustomed to hand-outs and would rather go out at night to comb through trash bins, or to food pantries in neighboring towns to avoid being seen by anyone who knows them. Most of these people would rather have jobs.

But Berloso can't imagine others’ feelings. He can't feel their shame. It is a failure of compassion but also, of understanding. Maybe empathy is a better word, since it seems to imply both compassion and understanding.



My first thought was that there ought to be tests given for compassion, for empathy, before anyone is permitted to run for office. But how would you determine that? What would that test be?

As usual, the minute I got into the shower, an answer came. By listening to people’s stories. By observing their actions. By listening to their stories which will tell you about their actions.

The three questions you’d want to ask are:

1)   How does he or she treat animals?

2)   How does he or she treat other humans?

3)   How does he or she treat others’ spiritual beliefs?



I’m thinking of the approaching presidential election in the U.S.A. Which brings to mind three true stories about the Republican party candidate, Mitt Romney.

He tied his Irish setter dog, Seamus, to the roof of the family car for a 12-hour drive to Canada. Okay, maybe not the actual dog, but a kennel containing the dog. Now, imagine you are Seamus. (Shame-us) On returning home, you too might wander away. 

In prep school, he spearheaded an attack on a gay student, John Lauber, whose bleached-blond hair he didn’t like, wrestled him down, and cut off his hair. Now imagine you are that boy.

One of the bullies involved encountered Lauber years later, and apologized. Lauber said, “It was horrible,” and described how frightened he was during the attack. He never forgot it. He died of cancer, after an apparently peripatetic life--and according to his sister, never stopped bleaching his hair. 

Romney wants to remove the rights of women concerning their own bodies, their own health, their own reproductive decisions, in spite of the fact that a majority of American women do not share the fundamentalist belief that men should control women. Imagine you are the woman who has been raped and is told she cannot have an abortion. Or the man whose wife will die without one. Or the mother whose child desperately needs medical care which she cannot afford--she can’t even afford health insurance.



A spiritual matter? Oh yes it is. The need to control women is seriously disrespectful of their autonomy and comes almost entirely from men (and women) who believe in patriarchal religions or are still living as if they do. If you cannot picture goddesses as well as gods or God, that is your model of ultimate value. Men have divine power; women must be subjected to that power.

Disrespect for animals.

Disrespect for humans.

Disrespect for others’ spiritual beliefs.

Well, that’s simple. Not qualified to hold office.



That Portuguese water dog, Bo, in President Barack Obama’s family seems pretty content to me.

I’ve never heard a story about President Obama’s disrespectful treatment of another human being. Have you?

Obama doesn’t mock spiritual beliefs that are not his own, and is respectful of Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews, agnostics and atheists, as far as I know. He doesn’t seem to believe that men should control the destiny of women, including women who believe that abortion is unthinkable. He respects others’ spiritual beliefs.



Last week Richard and I were lying in bed watching clouds flow by above our zinc roof, and talking about this and that. He told me about a terrific book he’d just finished, Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” He talked about the closeness of fundamentalism and patriarchy that is uncovered in the book.

That’s a subject that interests me, so I said I’d like to read it.

He said he hadn’t recommended the book to me, because he knows how much I hate violence, and it was very violent.



But I read it anyway. It’s the story of a family of fundamentalist brothers who have broken away from the Mormon church, but are shaping their new sect on the Mormon principle of personal divine revelation, and a return to polygamy. The youngest one is married to Brenda, who was a top TV anchorwoman, until—naturally, in a patriarchal marriage—she has to give it up.

But she is educated, smart, warm, fearless, strong and outspoken, the least submissive of all the brothers’ wives. When another of the brothers, Ron, becomes more and more fanatical, crazed, and abusive to his wife, Dianna, she talks with Brenda, who encourages her to divorce, and Dianna summons the courage to leave him. 

Brenda continues to tell the other wives to stand up for their rights and think for themselves. She refuses to obey the demands of the six brothers. What can a man do with a disobedient woman? With absolute conviction in the rightness of their act, which they claim God ordered through a personal revelation, Ron and Dan murder Brenda and the infant daughter of one of their own brothers.



The story of these brothers and other fundamentalist Mormons and how they treated their wives, how they married and raped pubescent girls, and abused and crushed the spirits of the women in their lives was repulsive. These are men who claim they receive direct revelation from God, vision that a woman cannot receive, men who cannot be dissuaded if they hear voices telling them to marry their wives’ daughters from earlier marriages, to murder a wife who dares to question them—it’s the ultimate power trip. Empathy does not exist in their world.

My sleep was disturbed for days. I couldn’t finish the book. But based on what I did read, I’d say it’s the best book on the unholy alliance between fundamentalism and patriarchy I’ve ever read.

I think we’re lost on this planet unless we give animals, women and other marginalized people, and, yes, goddesses, equal power. The planet’s health depends on it.


Sculpture by Louise Bourgeois  



An Orgy of Readers

If you've been reading Paris Play for more than, say, a week, you know we are bibliophiles. And that may be putting it lightly. Of all the possessions we moved to Paris, the majority were books. Even then, we had to give so many away, and leave so many behind. It was like severing digits.

Luckily, they LOVE books here. Just to prove it, every March Paris has a Salon du Livre, a book fair, which resembles the BEA (the old American Booksellers Association convention, now called BookExpo America), except that it's wide open to the public, too.


For the equivalent of $13, anyone can come.  And everyone does.

Not only that (this is the really joyous part), students are allowed in free.  So the giant convention hall crackles with the energy of thousands of enthusiatic children and teenagers, consuming everything from manga and The Simpsons, to Anne Frank, pirate tales, and Descartes (the latter in the original French, of course).


It was the first big event we went to here in Paris last year, and we were delighted to attend the four-day Salon again last weekend with cameras, and to see so many readers. Radio France broadcasts live from the show floor, and there were long lines for author signings, and cash registers. And to fire the imagination, there were costumed creatures and blow-up manga heroes to emulate.


Of course, various technologies were demonstrated, from old-fashioned printmaking to the newest way to offer up that marvelous search for lost time.