Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Wednesday, 29 February 2012
I knew little about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, before I picked up Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. I’d seen only a few black and white photos of her in Boris Vejdovsky’s Hemingway: A Life in Pictures and a library copy of the Biography Channel’s episode on Hemingway. I haven’t even read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s portrait of his life in Paris with Hadley, which has been on my to-read list since high school when I saw it quoted in that terrible romantic tragedy, City of Angels.

In her first work of historical fiction, Paula McLain gets inside the head of Hadley, the 28-year-old who captures the attention of a much younger Ernest Hemingway in 1920s Chicago. The pair begins an affair that intensifies through letters after Hadley’s trip to Chicago comes to an end. It’s in one of these letters that Ernest proposes, and before long, the couple finds themselves on a journey to Paris. As Hadley waits for each letter to arrive, I found myself waiting, too, captivated by McLain’s ability to capture the young Hemingway’s charm. Though most of Hemingway’s letters to Hadley haven’t survived, Hemingway kept each of the hundreds of letters she sent him, which helped McLain to illustrate the couple’s chemistry in The Paris Wife.

Most of The Paris Wife is written in Hadley’s voice, though a few passages are seen through the eyes of Ernest. At times, I wanted to shake the naive Hadley awake, frustrated as she stands by Ernest's side, even when he's pining for the nurse he fell in love with during World War I and when he begins to show signs that he's the womanizing brute known to history.

I read a lot of fiction and a lot of books about history, but The Paris Wife was my first exploration of historical fiction, at least since I was devouring books about witch hunts and the Underground Railroad for middle school book reports. Because I'm such a lover of history, I'm always skeptical of authors giving voice to real people who can no longer speak for themselves; however, I walked away from The Paris Wife with a new-found appreciation of the genre. Though McLain's Hadley was often sickly sweet, she was endearing, and without The Paris Wife her story may have mostly been told through scattered black and white photographs and the odd footnote in biographies about Ernest Hemingway.

Quotable: All Over the Map by Laura Fraser

"This man I have loved, off an on, is leaving tomorrow, and, as usual, I don’t know when or whether I’ll see him again. The men in my life are always like the countries I visit: I fall in love briefly, and then move on. I visit, regard the wonders, delve into the history, taste the cooking, peer into dark corners, feel a few moments of excitement and maybe ecstasy and bliss, and then, while I am often sad to leave — or stung that no one insisted I stay  — I am on my way."

— Laura Fraser in her memoir All Over the Map

Review: Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Thursday, 23 February 2012
I’ve written before about Joan Didion’s ability to punch me in the gut and send me into fits of nostalgia. Her lyrical sentences entrance me, stinging my heart as they percolate in my mind. Somehow, Didion’s reflections of her own life always cause me to pause, forcing me to recall the times and places and people I’ve known that are now long gone. Her latest memoir is no exception, stirring up feelings of nostalgia, and at times, melancholy.

Blue Nights is murky and sorrowful, recalling the grief and questions that filled Didion’s mind following the death of her only daughter, Quintana Roo, in 2005. Didion offers vague and sparse details about her daughter’s life and illness, which irritated some reviewers; however, Blue Nights isn’t a book about Quintana Roo. It’s a book about the survivor scars that Didion bears, especially those of grief and regret.

Didion doesn’t only mourn her daughter’s death in Blue Nights, but also the deaths of countless friends and family members, including her husband, John Dunne, who died suddenly in 2003.

“I find many mass cards from the funerals of people whose faces I no longer remember. In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”

Unlike other memoirs about loss, Blue Nights does not leave readers feeling hopeful or optimistic that life regains purpose after a loved one dies; rather it seems that the weight of Quintana Roo’s death is heavier than frail, aging Didion can carry. Unlike in her last memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion contemplates her life without her husband while Quintana Roo clings to life at a nearby hospital, Didion does not exude any feelings of hope. Instead, she simply goes through the motions of her daily life, visiting doctors for various ailments and trying to write, an action that no longer comes easily to her.

Didion’s stark honesty about loss and aging is startlingly authentic, if not ominous, to readers, yet this is what makes Blue Nights a must-read. While I realize that I risk sounding cheesy by saying this, the greatest thing about Blue Nights is the book’s ability to subtly urge readers to pay greater attention to the moments and people before they pass, before they become symbolized only by mementos strewn and abandoned in shoe boxes and drawers.

Canada Writes: Edible Non-Fiction Challenge

Thursday, 2 February 2012
I sit at my computer most of the day, writing and editing manuscripts that will boast other people’s names. Often, because of this, the last thing I want to do when I’m at home at night or on the weekend is sit in front of my computer pounding out words on my keyboard. With the exception of a few book reviews a year and my blog posts, I rarely prioritize my own writing like I wish I would. Soon, I will … I tell myself, but life gets in the way.

I made a lot of promises to myself at the beginning of 2012. (Some that I’ve kept; some that I haven’t). One of them was to write … write … write, and submit things (even if they’re bad!) as an exercise for myself. I’ve made these promises before and never followed through, so I was so pleased with myself when I submitted a short piece to the Canada Writes Edible Non-Fiction Challenge.

My piece trails off at the end, and it focuses too much on our travels, and not the food itself. (I’m always thinking like an editor!) However, I hit the submit button, sending it out for someone else in the land of the Internet to read, and that makes me pretty damn proud.  

Canada Writes: Edible Non-Fiction Challenge

Travelling anywhere with a chef has always been a unique experience, whether I’m on the receiving end of a satisfied grunt while he eats a Colville Bay Oyster in Halifax or a disapproving grimace as he slices into an overpriced entrée in downtown Toronto. This uniqueness has never been more evident than when we travelled to France, wandering the streets of Paris before crossing the country by train to the Côte d'Azur.

We couldn’t help but feel native to Nice on the morning we woke up just after the sun, walking to the daily fruit and vegetable market on the Cours Saleya, which only hours before had been brimming with tourists devouring seafood platters and pizza. It was here that my chef gathered the necessary ingredients for the most memorable meal of my life.

While he filled his bag with black and green olives, garlic, olive oil, and fresh chèvre, I tasted sundried tomatoes warmed by the sun. His quest for fresh ingredients didn’t end there. We took a short walk to Place St-François where an older lady’s ungloved hand ripped the guts from two mackerels before rinsing their blood in a nearby fountain at the fish market. She packed the mackerels in paper, alongside our final additions, two gigantic prawns and some squid.

The mackerels marinated in a bath of olive, oil, and garlic housed in a tiny fridge usually reserved for university dorm rooms, while we strolled the Promenade des Anglais. Hours later, my gracious chef placed them in the oven, their aroma quickly filling our shoebox-sized apartment. Finally, we each cut into his delicious creation, finishing each bite with a swig of obscenely inexpensive champagne.
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