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The Ladies’ Paradise

Ladies Paradise

In November my book club read Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames which Bill Gallagher’s BBC TV series The Paradise was based on. I loved this book!

It’s quite a bit different, and darker than the BBC program. Denise, the heroine, comes to Paris after her father dies with her two brothers. They’d tried to make ends meet for a year after their father died, but finally had to see they’d never stay afloat in the countryside. Besides Jean, Denise’s teenage brother was dabbling in some dangerous liaisons that were getting him into trouble. Throughout the novel Denise faces greater hardships with higher stakes since her brothers depend on her financially than Denise Lovett on TV.

When they arrive at their uncle’s home cum shop, they find out he’s been having tough times like all the little shops due to the emergence of a white marble monster that’s revolutionizing and ravaging commerce. The Paradise keeps growing and Zola depicts it as a machine that almost has a life. It’s a machine that consumes — its employees, its rivals and in some cases its customers who spend more than they can afford. The machine creates strife and desire and seems unstoppable.

Denise is intrigued by the store and there is no where else for her to work. The uncle has a wife, daughter, shop assistant, who’s engaged to his daughter, and some servants. Zola shows a lot about the toll that the price wars with The Ladies’ Paradise, much more than in the TV program. Here lives are a t stake as I’m sure they really were.

In the store, the rivalry and back stabbing is high pitched. Most of the staff sleeps around and plot to get promotions by betraying colleagues. There’s little friendship in the store. The shoppers also seem to jockey for social position, which is all the more noted and crucial based on what you buy and where you shop. Those at the top of the social stratum have their own dressmakers and feel a sting when they learn that these dressmakers now get their silk from The Paradise.

Stealing is a huge problem and even wealthier women can’t resist and get caught. Pregnant women were drawn to stealing the most. Yet there is an attraction to the lush fabrics and fashions. Zola masterfully sets up a tension between the enticing beauty of the goods and the disastrous consequences the emporium has on the other shops. The Paradise gobbles up the neighborhood as it expands. We also see how wonderful the handmade goods were, how you could buy an umbrella with a hand-carved handle that looked like a parrot or some whimsical creature.

While I’ve enjoyed the BBC series, I found Zola’s writing, which I’ve been told isn’t his best, to be absorbing and exciting. I now want to read all 20 of his novels in his series Les Rougon-Macquart which chronicles the history of the legitimate and illegitimate sides of a French family.

According to my sources (i.e. Wikipedia) Octave Mouret’s family figures into the earlier books. Yet you can pick this novel up and not feel you missed anything.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in classic, French Lit

 

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His Second Wife

Ernest Poole’s His Second Wife follows Ethel as she leaves small town Ohio after her father’s death. She goes to New York to live with her sister, Amy, a socialite and shopper, and Amy’s husband Joe and daughter. Ethel tries to fit in to the shallow scene Amy relishes, but just can’t. The superficial and materialism don’t appeal at all.

She’s after the new and exciting ideals, art and politics New York is supposed to offer. After Amy’s sudden death, Ethel stays to help Joe, but struggles to avoid getting trapped living her sister’s life.

Poole creates an original dilemma that rings true. Ethel isn’t the polar opposite of Amy as a lesser writer would have made her. She doesn’t hate shopping or all of bourgeois life, she just wants more. The novel recounts her struggle to find friends and to find her own identity, while evading Amy’s more manipulative friends who want to control Joe after he’s married Ethel. An original, compelling story, worth getting from Amazon, which offers it for free on Kindle.

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2014 in American Lit, classic

 

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Now Reading

zola

I’m now reading and very wrapped up in Emile Zola’s A Ladies’ Paradise, which the Masterpiece The Paradise is based on. Wow!

The story’s quite different as it’s set in Paris and Denise’s parents died leaving her with two brothers to look after and very little money. Thus she heads to her uncle in Paris, who’s a draper as in the television series. This uncle has more i.e. some customers and yet is more furious at Mouret (Moray on TV). Zola’s Mouret starts out as such a philanderer, with lots of contempt for women. I can see why the TV show lessened that aspect of his character. It’s just amazing to read about how huge the store is and how it’s run.

sin second cityI’m also reading another Horatio Alger book. Again, I’ve just started the story, Joe’s Luck. Joe’s an orphan and a servant in small town New Jersey. He’s had it with the ill treatment of a miserly employer and heads to New York hoping to get on a ship to California while the Gold Rush is in full swing. Just now poor Joe was swindled out of the money for the ship’s ticket.

I’m also in the midst of a book on the Everleigh sisters who ran a high class, super high class brothel in turn of the 20th century Chicago. The Everleigh Club’s opulence is unmatched and the tales! Whoo. The girls. The men. The antics! Often beyond imagination.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2014 in American Lit, classic, fiction, French Lit, history, Masterpiece Theater

 

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His Family

Ernest Poole, author of The Harbor and Giants Gone was the first novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize and he won it for His Family. In His Family, Roger Gale tries to live out his promise to his dying wife to keep his daughters together. Each young woman is distinct and unless they were sisters they’d never cross paths. Set in New York around the time of WWI, the novel follows Gale and his three daughters through a tumultuous era. Deborah throws herself into her work as principal for a tenement school. Edith obsesses over being the perfect mother making sure her children have the perfect childhood and Laura flits about as a “modern woman,” which by her definition means being a fashion plate who dances a lot.

Roger owns a clipping service, not the usual business featured in novels. His perspective of his daughters and life in this era was perceptive and genuine. He cares and yet feels unable to influence or understand his daughters. Life hands them surprises and tragedy, catching everyone off guard. Roger is as shaped by his daughters, particularly Deborah, as they are by him.

Here are a few favorite quotations:

“He saw each of his daughters, part of himself. And he remembered what Judith had said: ‘You will live on in our children’s lives.’ And he began to get glimmerings of a new immortality, made up of generations, an endless succession of other lives extending into the future.”

“Queer, how a man can neglect his children, as I have done … when the thing he wants most in life is to see each one …happy.”

“He had thought of childhood as something intimate and pure, inside his home, his family. Instead of that, in Deborah’s school he had been disturbed and thrilled by the presence all around him of something wild, barbaric, dark, compounded of the city streets, of surging crowds, of rushing feet, of turmoil, filth, disease and death, of poverty and vice and crime.”

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2014 in American Lit, classic

 

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Mary Poppins

mary poppins

This month’s book club selection was the children’s classic Mary Poppins. Saving Mr. Banks prepared me for some differences between the film starring Julie Andrews and the actual book, but it led me to think the father was a prominent character, who needed redemption. Well, not in the book, he doesn’t. He’s not a big part of the story.

In fact the book is more of a collection of delightful, imaginative experiences that happen while Mary is with the Banks family. More happens in the novel. Michael and Jane have baby fraternal twin siblings who can understand the communication of animals, stars and all of nature. When they go Christmas shopping with Mary, they meet and help Maia one of the stars in the Pleiades constellation who appears like an almost naked child wearing a simple blue cloth.

Mary is a mystery, a strict mystery. She comes to a family that lost their nanny, but the children weren’t bad so there was no dire need for discipline. Sure they’re not keen on chores, but they get along with each other and seem to obey.

I rewatched the film on my flight to Beijing and Mary’s not all that nice in it either. She’s a stick in the mud and very strict. For some reason though she’s magical and loves imagination, she constantly hides the fact. I was startled that a classic children’s book would end with an adult who pretty much abandons children. Yes, she told everyone she’d leave when the wind blew and she never was one for explanations, but really? Abandonment is terrible for kids and just leaving a job without giving notice is not something we want to encourage. What would Freud say?

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2014 in British Lit, Children's Lit

 

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Playback

Raymond Chandler delivers his usual, one-of-a-kind, cool-guy style in his final novel Playback. Here Philip Marloww, whom I always think of as Humphrey Bogart, is hired to tail a red head who arrives on the Super Chief from D.C. As usual, Marlow gets tangled up with this bomb shell and beaten up by thugs who’re tailing her too.

Great passages include:

On the dance floor half a dozen couples were throwing themselves around with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis. Most of them were dancing cheek to cheek, if dancing is the word (p. 44).

Do you believe in God, young man?”
It was a long way around, but it seemed I had to travel it. “If you mean an omniscient and omnipotent God who intended everything exactly the way it is, no.”
“But you should, Mr. Marlowe. It is a great comfort. We all come to it in the end because we have to die and become dust. Perhaps for the individual that is all, perhaps not. There are grave difficulties about the afterlife. I don’t think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer. I’m a snob, I suppose, and the remark is in bad taste. Nor can I imagine a heaven presided over by a benevolent character in a long white beard locally known as God. These are foolish conceptions of very immature minds. But you may not question a man’s religious beliefs however idiotic they may be. Of course I have no right to assume that I shall go to heaven. Sounds rather dull, as a matter of fact. On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo? How strange it is that man’s finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world-how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth. That has to be somehow made reasonable. Don’t tell me that honor is merely a chemical reaction or that a man who deliberately gives his life for another is merely following a behavior pattern. Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?”
“You’re a wise man, Mr. Clarendon. You said something about reversing the pattern.”
He smiled faintly. “You thought I had lost the place in the overlong book of my words. No sir, I had not. A woman like Mrs. West almost always ends up marrying a series of pseudo-elegant fortune hunters, tango dancers with handsome sideburns, skiing instructors with beautiful blond muscles, faded French and Italian aristocrats, shoddy princelings from the Middle East, each worse than the one before. She might even in her extremity marry a man like Mitchell. If she married me, she would marry an old bore, but at least she would marry a gentleman” (p. 112-113).

The town’s full of Hellwigs, some with other names, but all of the family one way or another. Some are rich and some work. I guess Miss Hellwig works harder than most. She’s eighty-six now, but tough as a mule. She don’t chew tobacco, drink, smoke, swear or use no make-up. She give the town the hospital, a private school, a library, an art center, public tennis courts, and God knows what else. And she still gets driven in a thirty-year-old Rolls-Royce that’s about as noisy as a Swiss watch. The mayor here is two jumps from a Hellwig, both downhill. I guess she built the municipal center too, and sold it to the city for a dollar. She’s some woman. Of course we got Jews here now, but let me tell you something. A Jew is supposed to give you a sharp deal and steal your nose, if you ain’t careful. That’s all bunk. A Jew enjoys trading; he likes business, but he’s only tough on the surface. Underneath a Jewish businessman is usually real nice to deal with. He’s human. If you want cold-blooded skinning, we got a bunch of people in this town now that will cut you down to the bone and add a service charge. They’ll take your last dollar from you between your teeth and look at you like you stole it from them” (p. 129).

Every page sings with style, but the plot is nothing to write home about and fizzles out by the end. In a writer with less style, I’d be disappointed, but Chandler is more about style that detecting. His villains and victims are all cut from the same cloth so it’s no surprise when justice isn’t served and life just moves on.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2014 in fiction

 

Playback

Raymond Chandler delivers his usual, one-of-a-kind, cool-guy style in his final novel Playback. Here Philip Marloww, whom I always think of as Humphrey Bogart, is hired to tail a red head who arrives on the Super Chief from D.C. As usual, Marlow gets tangled up with this bomb shell and beaten up by thugs who’re tailing her too.

Great passages include:

On the dance floor half a dozen couples were throwing themselves around with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis. Most of them were dancing cheek to cheek, if dancing is the word (p. 44).

Do you believe in God, young man?”
It was a long way around, but it seemed I had to travel it. “If you mean an omniscient and omnipotent God who intended everything exactly the way it is, no.”
“But you should, Mr. Marlowe. It is a great comfort. We all come to it in the end because we have to die and become dust. Perhaps for the individual that is all, perhaps not. There are grave difficulties about the afterlife. I don’t think I should really enjoy a heaven in which I shared lodgings with a Congo pygmy or a Chinese coolie or a Levantine rug peddler or even a Hollywood producer. I’m a snob, I suppose, and the remark is in bad taste. Nor can I imagine a heaven presided over by a benevolent character in a long white beard locally known as God. These are foolish conceptions of very immature minds. But you may not question a man’s religious beliefs however idiotic they may be. Of course I have no right to assume that I shall go to heaven. Sounds rather dull, as a matter of fact. On the other hand how can I imagine a hell in which a baby that died before baptism occupies the same degraded position as a hired killer or a Nazi death-camp commandant or a member of the Politburo? How strange it is that man’s finest aspirations, dirty little animal that he is, his finest actions also, his great and unselfish heroism, his constant daily courage in a harsh world-how strange that these things should be so much finer than his fate on this earth. That has to be somehow made reasonable. Don’t tell me that honor is merely a chemical reaction or that a man who deliberately gives his life for another is merely following a behavior pattern. Is God happy with the poisoned cat dying alone in convulsions behind the billboard? Is God happy that life is cruel and that only the fittest survive? The fittest for what? Oh no, far from it. If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all. There is no success where there is no possibility of failure, no art without the resistance of the medium. Is it blasphemy to suggest that God has his bad days when nothing goes right, and that God’s days are very, very long?”
“You’re a wise man, Mr. Clarendon. You said something about reversing the pattern.”
He smiled faintly. “You thought I had lost the place in the overlong book of my words. No sir, I had not. A woman like Mrs. West almost always ends up marrying a series of pseudo-elegant fortune hunters, tango dancers with handsome sideburns, skiing instructors with beautiful blond muscles, faded French and Italian aristocrats, shoddy princelings from the Middle East, each worse than the one before. She might even in her extremity marry a man like Mitchell. If she married me, she would marry an old bore, but at least she would marry a gentleman” (p. 112-113).

The town’s full of Hellwigs, some with other names, but all of the family one way or another. Some are rich and some work. I guess Miss Hellwig works harder than most. She’s eighty-six now, but tough as a mule. She don’t chew tobacco, drink, smoke, swear or use no make-up. She give the town the hospital, a private school, a library, an art center, public tennis courts, and God knows what else. And she still gets driven in a thirty-year-old Rolls-Royce that’s about as noisy as a Swiss watch. The mayor here is two jumps from a Hellwig, both downhill. I guess she built the municipal center too, and sold it to the city for a dollar. She’s some woman. Of course we got Jews here now, but let me tell you something. A Jew is supposed to give you a sharp deal and steal your nose, if you ain’t careful. That’s all bunk. A Jew enjoys trading; he likes business, but he’s only tough on the surface. Underneath a Jewish businessman is usually real nice to deal with. He’s human. If you want cold-blooded skinning, we got a bunch of people in this town now that will cut you down to the bone and add a service charge. They’ll take your last dollar from you between your teeth and look at you like you stole it from them” (p. 129).

Every page sings with style, but the plot is nothing to write home about and fizzles out by the end. In a writer with less style, I’d be disappointed, but Chandler is more about style that detecting. His villains and victims are all cut from the same cloth so it’s no surprise when justice isn’t served and life just moves on.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2014 in fiction

 
 
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