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Category Archive for 'France'

Giving birth alone in Guadeloupe after her lover, Lansana Diarra, returned to his home in Mali, Simone Némélé waited in vain for the ticket he had promised to send her so that she and their newborn twins, Ivan and Ivana, could join him in Mali. Simone worked in the sugarcane fields, but she tried hard to ensure that her children would have an education and be able to pursue their own interests during their lives. Though they were very different in personality, Ivan and Ivana dearly loved each other, but as they grew up, responding to the political and philosophical movements to which they were exposed, they began to move in different directions. As author Maryse Conde tells their stories, she creates two young people and their friends who feel real to the reader – characters who have many unique personal characteristics – but she clearly wants to tell a bigger story than a simple family saga set in exotic parts of the world. Here Ivan and Ivana ultimately become examples of a broader population of twenty-first century youth who must deal with displacement, racial and gender issues, and political and social issues. Some disaffected youth, as we see here, are often open to radicalization to solve social problems, while some others remain open to change and are willing to help bring it about through more peaceful means.

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When author Marc Petitjean was contacted in Paris by a Mexican writer named Oscar, who wanted to meet him to talk about Marc Petitjean’s father Michel, the author’s interest was piqued. His father, a “left-wing militant” journalist, and associate of avant-garde artists and writers in Paris, had been dead for twenty years. When they met, Oscar pulled out a short manuscript he had written with information acquired from the archives of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, indicating that she had had an affair with Michel Petitjean during the three months she had been in Paris from early January to late March, 1939. An affair between the author’s father and Kahlo was new information to son Marc Petitjohn, who almost dismissed it as “overblown.” Still, Frida Kahlo had given his father one of her best paintings when she returned to Mexico after that three-month visit in 1939. Ultimately, “Oscar’s curiosity kindled my own, and I in turn embarked on researching the lovers’ lives.” The developing love story of Frida Kahlo and Michel Petitjean is inextricably connected with the fraught pre-war political atmosphere of Paris in 1939, the boiling artistic and philosophical ferment of the period, and the close, interconnected friendships among Joan Miro, Kadinsky, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and “other big cacas of Surrealism.” When she finally departs from France after three months, Michel Petitjean has thought ahead to have letters and notes delivered to her along the way.

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Sonia Purnell’s biography of Virginia Hall honors an American woman whose war-time exploits from 1940 – 1945 were so well planned, so well executed, and so successful in saving lives that she was honored by three countries for her efforts. Born into an upper middle-class family in Baltimore, Virginia Hall graduated from private schools, a highly popular student there for her unconventional attitudes and her leadership capabilities. Always independent, she attended both Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges, then continued her education in Europe, where she also worked in several consulates. She was fluent in five languages. With the German takeover of France and the establishment of the Vichy government, she connected with the newly established British Special Operations Executive there, and in April 1941, she started preparing for her first secret mission in France in an attempt to overthrow the Vichy government and the Nazis. Insistent on maintaining absolute secrecy and taking no other agent for granted, she was able to slip through the traps that often nabbed other SOE agents less meticulous in their behavior. Highly successful, she performed heroically, eventually working for the American OSS. Almost unknown by the American public during her lifetime, she is celebrated here in a meticulously researched book by Sonia Purnell which is both momentous and inspiring to the reader – a true story of heroism for the ages.

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While I cannot speak to the experiences of others, I found SCHRÖDINGER’S DOG to be one of the best and most insightful debut novels I have read in years. Reading it in two sittings, I was completely engaged both emotionally and intellectually, and I still cannot stop thinking about it, coming to new realizations each time I reflect on its themes of perception, reality, time, and death and their interrelationships. Except for the novel’s title, in which a dog is substituted for “Schrödinger’s cat,” a “thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, the physics principles that make this story so hypnotic and its conclusion so satisfyingly elusive are hidden within, just as Schrödinger’s cat or dog, hidden within its box, is both alive and dead. Although may seem like an odd and highly esoteric principle around which to mold such a sensitive and emotion-filled novel about a man and his dying son, debut novelist Martin Dumont uses it as the unobtrusive crux of his story and part of its dramatic conclusion. In doing so, he achieves a kind of originality I myself have never before encountered in literary fiction.

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In a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly at the very margins of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two women who live on their own terms at the very margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends when they first meet in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow up, they become part of the avant-garde artists and philosophers in Paris, eventually being forced to leave for the Channel Islands as World War II breaks out. Following their story from 1920 to 1970, Rupert Thomson creates a fascinating story of two very unusual women.

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