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Things have been quiet over here, so wanted to pop in and just say hi. I’ve been reading and commenting on other blogs and vlobs, tweeting, but lazy about writing my own posts.
Still, I’ve had read a really good book life lately. May’s readings ranged from a Russian historical mystery to Southern family drama, from a Swedish suburbia tearjerker to non-fiction about British early Renaissance. In between I squeezed in some feminist essays and superhero comics.
Also started re-reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. This time around I’m determined to get every single obscure reference. I even got a dedicated notebook. It’s been great in a history nerd kinda way.
I gave into the hype and started The Raven Cycle. No regrets… except about wishing there was more Blue in it. Also worth mention the amazing River of Stars audiobook narrated by Simon Vance. Guy Gavriel Kay recently released Children of Earth and Sky also read by Vance and set in an past Dubrovnik-like city (get out of my brain!). It’ll be the perfect beach audio. I’m almost afraid to start it, the expectations are so high.
Also in May I went back to Brussels for a friend’s birthday and bought some comics in French (they’re double the price here in Geneva).
I’m especially curious about La Dame à la licorne, a collection of stories by different authors (art students) inspired on The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Re-read Tracy Chevalier’s book about them recently and last year finally had the chance to see the tapestries live at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. I was mesmerized. In turn, they (and the whole museum, really) made me want to read more Dunnett. And that’s the way life and books intersect and complement each other 🙂
Credit: Hark! A Vagrant
I have a dysfunctional relationship with the Brontës. I often find myself rolling my eyes at all the DRAMA! in their stories, which I usually go out of my way to avoid in other books. I rebel against Charlotte’s negative portrayal of my beloved Brussels and her snide remarks about Jane Austen. I cringe at Emily’s glorification of an abusive hero. I go a bit easier on Anne because I have a soft spot for her – she has her sanctimonious moments, but I’m anxiously waiting for the day when the world realizes she’s the true ground-breaking feminist in the family.
The truth is: I can’t get enough of them and can’t think of a more interesting family (maybe the Mitfords come close?). It’s almost like I’m also a Brontë sister, always bickering but loving them all the same, vigorously defending them from outside attacks.
I’m also a proud member of the Brontë Society, and its Brussels Bronte Group branch (post about our weekend in London). I’ve read many books about the family and since Charlotte’s birthday is coming up, I’ve decided to start celebrating earlier with a list of my favorites. Have you read any of them?
This is on my top-3 favorite biographies of all time. It’s huge, but it reads like a 300-page Sarah Addison Allen novel. It starts with Patrick Brontë’s youth and arrival in England and goes right through to the family’s growing popularity after everyone’s been long dead.
Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s work. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.
Like Start Trek, each new generation creates a new zeitgeist version of the Brontës. Miller examines the way these perceptions change over time by taking a comprehensive a look at all body of work produced about the family.
The impact of Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë was especially interesting to read, as well as the ripple effect of the cinema adaptations of their works and lives.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
This was the book that started the Brontë myth and crystallized it for many years. Gaskell was a friend of Charlotte Brontë and, for better or worst, it shows. Even if you know little about Charlotte, it’s obvious this is a very romanticized and sanitized version of her life. Gaskell was very keen to keep up Charlotte’s domestic-goddess image – fascinating stuff to read from a 21st century perspective.
I’ve had really geeky conversations with other Brontë aficionados on the best order to read the first three books on this list. The Brontës was the last to be written and it’s a great intro to the family. It talks about how both The Myth and The Life fit the narrative. The Myth describes in detail how The Life impacts how we perceive the Brontës even today. It’s really interesting to read The Life after The Brontës and The Myth, but it would probably be a very different experience if read first.
Oh Branwell, golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of a tragic family. This is Branwell’s biography and a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills. From what I’ve gathered, she saw this book as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.
Confession: I didn’t know this book even existed until I won it in a raffle at the last Brussels Brontë Society Xmas Lunch.
The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
A novel for a bit of change. The Brontës Went to Woolworths is about three sisters that share an imaginary world that threatens to become more real than reality. And it actually does, because after a table-turning session, the Brontë sisters come knocking on their door.
It’s such a witty and fun book and unlike The Eyre Affair (don’t get me started on that one, a pet hate of mine), the Brontës act as I’d expect them to. It’s one of those forgotten diamonds that deserve more limelight. How come it’s not a Persephone?
Any other recommendations?
The blog has been terribly neglected for the last months, but I have good excuses, promise!
Big changes are afoot Chez Sleepless Reader. I got a job offer from the United Nations so, since the world won’t just save itself, we’ve moved. After 9 years in Brussels we’re now further south in Geneva, Switzerland. We finally found an apartment (lovely, close to the Lake), paperwork is almost all done, so I can finally settle down and start obsessing about books and series again.
I’ve been looking forward to a change for a while, but I still have occasional panic attacks: “I loved Brussels, I loved my life there, so many friends left behind… WHAT HAVE I DONE?!” It’ll be ok once the brain makes the click and starts thinking of Geneva as “home”, instead of Brussels or Lisbon. My husband will be a stay-at-home-dad for a while, so that’ll also be a new experience.
We got married before coming south. After a 2-year engagement and not much wedding organizing done, we finally had the
excuse courage to do it how we really wanted: informal and cozy.
On a sunny morning we walked to the Portuguese consulate with just our moms and brothers, signed papers, took the subway to a nice restaurant, came back to the apartment, took a nap and then had about 40 friends over for a catered yummy dinner. It was perfect!
What you see above is one of the most talked about topics in Brussels and has even made it to international media. Instead of the real tree that usually adorns the city’s Grand Place during the holidays, this year the City Council decided to dabble in the modern arts and try something new.
The result is called “Xmas 3”, a 24 meter high electronic structure made mostly of steel. For 4 euros, you can even climb it and get a 360° view of the UNESCO-protected square.
(what the usual tree looks like – credits)
As you can imagine, it wasn’t a popular decision. Since its inauguration, around 25,000 signatures have been collected in an online petition against it, and it has been a recurrent topic in the media. The reasons that lead to the decision of doing away with the tradition tree vary. While the official stand is that it’s a way to show-case the city’s “avant-garde character”, others believe it’s a politically correct choice, so as not to offend non-Christians, especially Muslims. This sparkled a lot of debate about larger social issues.
Whatever the reasons, no one is indifferent to it. I’ve heard it called “The Scaffolding” and “The Pharmacy” because when green the glowing cubes look like the popular green cross.
What say you?
A video of the daily light show around the tree (it’s quite a sight…)
Last week Joanna and I met Annie Proulx during her stay in Brussels as a Passa Porta resident writer. I don’t know if these resident writer programs exist in other parts of the world, but they’re a great idea. Passa Porta is a literary center that includes a multi-language bookshop, a workshop and a space other literary organisations can use for their projects.
They also have an apartment available to foreign writers who are in the city researching (or looking for inspiration in) Flemish and Belgian culture and literature. Notable authors who’ve passed by include Jonathan Coe and Michael Cunningham.
Annie Proulx is now in residence, while doing research for her ambitious upcoming book. It’ll be a century-spanning novel about de-forestation and it include a local character, a sailor in the (sorry if I got that wrong!) Dutch East Indies Company. Most of the talk focused on Bird Cloud though, a memoir of the building of her isolated and oh-so-lovely Wyoming (the “emptiest State“) house.
She spoke about her love of geology and how the land influences people and culture, the challenges of writing short-stories (“the hardest literary form“) and the upcoming Brokeback Mountain opera (!), but my favorite parts were about her experiences as a reader and how that influenced her writing:
I don’t think of myself as a writer, I think of myself as a reader.
When you read a lot, you get a feeling for what works and what fits. It’s good to read good stuff!
You can go over a sentence 200 times until it feels right. Understanding where to stop is a matter of experience, and that comes from reading.
And here’s a photo of me and my bump getting a copy of Bad Dirt signed.
It’s not everyday I get to read a book set in my adopted city of Brussels, so I got all excited when I found out about The Meantime.
My fellow Brussels expat Joanna and I got together to do a buddy-review, and one of the authors (thanks Monica!) gave each of us a give-away copy (a first for The Sleepless Reader) . So if you’re interested in knowing more about this unique-yet-largely-unknown city, just post a comment with your email and I’ll do the lottery on the 13th. It’s open internationally.
Alex: I sometimes think how cool it must be for people who live in places like New York or London to often see their cities in books. This is the first time I’ve ever read a book set in Brussels, which is strange because it has such a unique history and environment. First impressions: I liked the variety of the authors’ nationalities and was surprised how that translated in stories that made a lot of sense put together.
I though there where some that really captured what I see as the essence of Brussels: the quick connections, the mutability, the melting-pot, the new-comers sense of being adrift and yet the possibilities, the grayness of the sky.
Joanna: I thought the same thing about finally reading a book set in a city I know! Brussels is such a unique city too, international like many others, but more transient I think. I always thought that many aspects of life here would be interesting for others to read about too, just like it’s fun for me to read about the excitement of New York.
In general, I liked some of the stories more than others, but I guess that’s the beauty of a short story collection, there is something for everyone. Several of the stories brought me back to my younger years spent here, the years of not really knowing myself and not really understanding what I wanted and all the confusion offered by the endless choices of life in Brussels.
Which story did you identify with the most?
Alex: I’d have to chose the first one, [insert title + author when I’m closer to the book], about the guy starting to fall in love but at the same time applying for the job in South America. I was also like that when “landing” here – the feeling of being without any anchor, but also of knowing that everything is starting and that the possibilities are endless.
I’ve had job interviews here that went exactly like that… and also loved to see the sentence that starts most Brussels conversations “Where are you from?” I felt this story really captured the essence of my Brussels: transient, definitely, but also full of energy and a true melting pot. A bit of a micro-cosmos that tends to turn towards only itself (isn’t that the criticism of most people who don’t live here?).
I though that some of the stories were only set in Brussels and didn’t do much towards capturing the unique spirit of place. A missed opportunity, I guess. What was you favorite?
Joanna: I don’t know if I have a favorite, I identified aspects of several of the stories. In “The Lovely Streets”, I liked the mention of all the choices available to a 20-something, but also the mention of none of those choices involving passion or love. So we make our choices based on what a great opportunity they are in general, but we don’t stop to think about what we REALLY want to do with our lives. I was like that too and only recently stopped chasing ‘great opportunities’ to figure out what makes ME happy.
I also loved the small talk in ‘A Belgian Wedding Picture’. I think all the weddings I’ve been to here have been exactly like that! And I loved the “The Commissioner and the Pig”, the working life was really realistic… until the ending, which I didn’t think rang true of anything.
Oh and all the languages worked into “From Brussels South to Ottignes” and the sad, distant relationship in “Bear Dance”.
Basically, I can’t say I loved any of the stories, but I liked aspects in many. I also disliked a couple, I didn’t think they fit in with the rest of the collection…
Alex: There were also some stories that didn’t do it for me (or maybe it’s just a Brussels I don’t recognize?). But it surprised me how the big majority felt like they were part of a set, probably because they were all told in the first person and the main characters had more or less the same age – I understand that was part of the challenge set in a Creative Writing class that kick-started the whole project?
One last thought: when finishing I wondered if people who don’t love here would get the Brussels thing. Why it is such a unique and interesting place to live. I think it’s likely they would, that’s why I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to everyone.
Joanna: Yes, it was a Creative Writing group that ended up writing this book – their requirements for the stories were that all the stories should be written in the first person, the main characters should be 25-35 years old and the story should take place in Brussels. They ended up with such a variety of stories and I think that people would definitely get the Brussels thing based on them. Recommended to anyone who wants to read an original collection about a place that’s underrepresented in literature.
Lately my Google Reader has been full of posts about food – is it the season? I’m not a very interested cook, but I’m a committed foodie. Fortunately I found a fellow-foodie partner and a not insignificant amount of our family budget goes into trying new restaurants and bringing home local specialties (olive oil, honey, tea, wine) from our travels.
To follow the food blogging trend, I’d like to introduce The Brussels Food Club to the world. It’s the brain-child of my friend Inês, a talented amateur cook and professional graphic designer (check out her site at The Avenger Butterfly).
The idea was to challenge our group of friends to try new things and share established favorites with others. Each month we choose a theme, bring one or more dishes to that month’s host’s home, present them to the others, and then… we eat!
So far we’ve had four meetings:
The “Food From My Childhood” Edition
There were probably about 10 different nationalities in a group of about 15 people. So interesting to see the cultural differences. I made my mom’s chocolate salami.
The “Cookies, Cupcakes and Muffins” Edition
This was a special gathering because we all cooked together, divided into three groups (go Cookie Team!).
The “Out of Africa” Edition
My favorite Club so far for the sheer deliciousness of the food. The theme was dishes from Africa, any country. I brought two experiments and mint tea from Tunisia.
The “Exotic” Edition
Last weekend we got together to present our experiments with unusual ingredients. I used persimmons to make a tarte tatin.
Next month it’s the Christmas Edition and I might go to Nigella for some ideas. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Yes, what you see there are 21 of the 34 books (so far) of the Morland Dynasty series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. What makes it even worse is that the first one has been on the TBR for years now… (*blush*). They were so cheap! And they do look like the sort of books I’d love!
The others in the loot:
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – I’ve heard great things about it;
- The Olive Tree: A Personal Journey Through Mediterranean Olive Groves by Carol Drinkwater – because I’ve always been fascinated by olives, olive oil and olive trees;
- The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell – I really liked The Hand That First Held Mine and wanted to try something else by her;
- The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore – I know nothing about this one other than the blurb. It’s my blind choice of the year.
This month: Local Bookstore
Let me introduce you to a fantastic place: Cook & Book. It’s a bookstore/restaurant concept, but they’re also a publishing house and a place to have concerts and other cultural events. What makes them unique is the way they organize the space with impeccable taste and into nine completely different atmospheres (comics, travel, children’s, arts, music, lifestyle, literature, English books and cook books).
It’s without a doubt my favorite bookstore in Belgium and probably anywhere else as well (see more awesome photos). Flavorwire also recognized it and included Cook & Book in their list of The 20 Most Beautiful Bookstores in the World.
Cooking Books section – trattoria style, complete with a classic Cinquecento
English Books section – lush carpet and dark wood, reading tables like an old English library or University.
Literature section – books hanging from the ceiling and a game of mirrors
Here’s a video that’ll give a better idea of the space(s) (in French):
I’m a bit lazy today, so I’ll just post a few photos of a recent night visit to the Royal Library of Belgium.
The garden by night (the Library is the building on the left).
Each locker is dedicated to a Belgian author.
Exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the publicaiton of Les Misérables. A Belgian first edition in 10 volumes.
The Librarium, a permanent exhibition space on the history of books, writing and libraries.