terça-feira, dezembro 06, 2016

Les Cerfs-volants, de Romain Gary

It's always interesting how one comes upon new books. I am pretty familiar with French literature, and I had heard about Romain Gary for some time, but somehow I never happened to read any of his books. Then, a few months ago, I found him mentioned in the excellent Pumpkinflowers, by Matti Friedman, and that made me want to read him. So, when I was browsing French books at the very good bookstore Mollat in Bordeaux, I checked Gary's books and picked this one to get acquainted with the author.

It was a good choice, even being Gary's last book. It's a very well written and sweetly optimistic story, about love and coping with adversity. It left me curious about other books by the author, and isn't it lovely when books lead us to other books?

terça-feira, novembro 22, 2016

On the Move, by Oliver Sacks

I first heard of Oliver Sacks when I watched the movie Awakenings, that led me to the book, and then to several other books by him, like An Anthropologist on Mars, Uncle Tungsten, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and a few others. I enjoyed his books very much; even if I think he's somewhat too lyrical in his approach to Medicine, I like his honesty and his humanity. So, I was curious to read his autobiography, and I was not disappointed. He was an extremely dynamic, curious and interesting man, with an endless energy and zest for life and knowledge I cannot but admire. I'm not sure about his medical skills, but he really knew how to bridge those skills to a writing career, and he should be commended for that.

domingo, novembro 13, 2016

A weekend in Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a perfect town for a weekend visit - not too big, not too small, with enough sightseeing and liveliness to keep one enjoying oneself and ending somewhat reinvigorated, just like other French cities of similar size. Lots of History, good food, lively cafés, cosmopolitanism and multiethnicity, and the French savoir vivre.

There is not one feature particularly outstanding (except maybe for the Cité du Vin), but there is enough of everything very good to make the ensemble a great city. I stayed in a little hotel in the centre, near the Cathédrale de Saint André and the Hôtel de Ville. The architecture of the city is mostly from the 18th century, with lots of little squares with cosy café terraces, Gothic churches built over Romanesque ones, all kinds of shops and restaurants. I particularly liked Basilique Saint Seurin, the oldest church in Bordeaux, with the Merovingian sarcophagi in the crypt.

Then strolling along the bank of the Garonne, after passing the monument to the Girondins and down the Place des Quinconces (the biggest Place in Europe), by the Pont de Pierre (that I unconsciously named the Pont de Saint Pierre until noticing my mistake reading the city map), and the stately Place de la Bourse with the famous Miroir d'Eau.

Rue Sainte Catherine s apparently the longest pedestrianized shopping street in Europe, it was so crowded I thought at first there was a demonstration - there are always demonstrations in France - but as I got nearer I saw it was only shoppers and other people strolling by. From there I went to the Saint Michel area, with another big church and a lot of ethnic shops, like North African bazaars and halal butchers, but lively and multiethnic, not at all like a ghetto -the kind of European multiethnicity I so much enjoy.

The Musée d'Aquitaine was very interesting, with a good collection; I loved the Roman exhibition with the faces in the funerary stella, that always make me wonder about the real people behind them, and the Medieval Romanesque sculptures, so beautiful and imaginative. There was also the funeral monument of Montaigne, one of the men I most admire as a writer and a personality. Also lots of information about the slave trade and a good collection of art from Africa and Oceania.

I walked along the Garonne bank tothe Cité du Vin, an excellent modern museum, very technological and very informative about everything you want to know about wine, whose visit ends with the tasting of a glass of wine - I had a Médoc quite good.

There is good food everywhere, as usual in France; the local pastry cannelé is nice, somehow between the Neapolitan baba and the Breton kuin amman, and I ate a great galette du sarrasin at a Breton restaurant. I spent the last morning in a wonderful bookstore, Mollat, buying a few books - and exercising restraint, otherwise I would be ruined and carrying too much weight on the plane.

So, it was a very nice weekend and I look forward to travelling again.

sábado, novembro 12, 2016

Researching the Family Tree

As a child, I used to spend long holidays at my maternal grandparents', in a small town in the country. I always loved to listen to my grandmother telling stories about her father, her childhood and several more or less distant relationships, also enjoyed looking at old photographs of my greatgrandfather, a legendary surgeon barber quasi medical authority in the village, and browsing the dusty and cobwebbed filled attic, where I found a small stash of old books signed by some distant ancestors, even a funny old recipe by that greatgrandfather's grandfather, from 1817 (trades were usually passed from father to son then, so I came from a line of surgeon barbers). Being already at that time a History nerd, I wondered who these people were, and started researching the family tree as I could - went to the cemetery to look at their graves (very few, since the cemetery had been relocated in the 1920s), and convincing the vicar to let me browse the church records, where I found a number of dates and of unknown relatives. But the books were very incomplete, I was 14, and after drawing a reasonably complete tree (or so I thought) until the early 19th century, I left it at that and forgot about if for decades.

A few weeks ago, chatting with a colleague, she told me how her sister was excited about researching their family tree, and how nowadays one can find lots of information on the internet, since the Torre do Tombo (our national archives) has scanned most of church registers and they're available online. This reawakened my curiosity about my ancestors, and so I started researching the archives online; naturally I started again on my grandmother's village, with the people I had first heard about as a child.

So I did a lot of browsing in the last few weeks, and finished the available registers online from that village church; not only I found lots of unknown relatives and some more distant ancestors, even one decorated with the Ordem da Torre e Espada, one of the highest honorific orders in Portugal, but most of all it has been extremely interesting to look at the picture of a 19th century rural village in Portugal that emerges from these records (covering mostly the second half of the 19th century). It's impressive what a small and backward place it was, and how much life changed in 100 years (fortunately!).

It was a very sedentary place - people were born, lived all their lies and died there. I think there were no more than 3 dozen family names, in several combinations as people married each other, so they were all more or less related; there were a small percentage from nearby villages, and I found a Spaniard from Toledo - God knows how he got there. They were not very imaginative about first names either - tons of Manuel, Joaquim, António, José, João, a few Vicente, Eduardo, Diogo, Pedro. The girls were mostly Maria, also Antónia, Joana, Joaquina, Isabel, a few Gertrudes, Tomázia or Ana (there was one family, the Beirão family, that was a little more creative, with names as Alberto or Matilde). Only the abandoned children (the exposed ones, so named as in ancient Rome) got different names, probably from the saint on whose day they were found, so they were named anything, from Severino to Escolástica.

The trades were not very diverse either. Lots of shepherds, day workers (jornaleiros, the ones who worked by the day, probably in peasantry), some farmers, carpenters, stonemasons, a few landowners, shopkeepers, tailors, shoemakers, barbers, hatters (there were the chapeleiros, hatters, and the sombreireiros, maybe they made umbrellas? I'm not sure, sombreiro is derived from the Spanish word for hat), even some muleteers, and a few beggars, also found one describe as destitute (indigente) and even a hermit, from the small Saint Appolonia's chapel. It was a very class conscious world - most people were marked out as "poor", meaning they couldn't pay the fee for burial, and the most affluent ladies were marked out as Dona, unlike the ordinary women. If one died at the hospice, one was marked out as "housed" (albergada). Most people couldn't write, so the vicar signed for them over a cross.

The infant mortality was appalling: for every adult's death there were about 5 children, most of them in the first months of life. It was common for the newborns being baptized by the midwife - "as of necessity", unless they would die before they could be taken to church, my own greatgrandfaher was baptized that way. In the year of 1865, for instance, there were 17 adults' deaths, against 38 legitimate children and 20 exposed babies. (The amout of exposed babies was somewhat surprising - lots and lots in the 1860s, then less until no mention of them in the 1890s,) Sometimes the vicar would register the cause of death: "forte apoplexia" (a stroke), garrotilho (diphtheria), "súbita e inesperadamente" (sudden death), "anazarca" (probably heart failure), drowned, "falta de forças" (anemia? heart failure?).

And then there are the human, often moving, details. Like the woman who died "dashing herself down a well" (precipitando-se em um poço) - of course she didn't get her sacraments, my greatgreatgreatfather who couldn't take the "viático" (last communion) because of vomiting ("but he showed willingness to take it, so I showed him the Lord and it was as if he had taken it"), the young woman who couldn't take the sacraments because she was "stricken down by a shotgun" (fulminada por um tiro, then he body was sent to the city for autopsy - a murder?) and above all the obituary of two little girls, aged 3 years and a few months, that were "consumed by fire in a hut where the two innocents had been left unattended" (consumidas por um fogo em uma choça onde as innocentes estavam desamparadas").

So, all in all, this research has been extremely interesting, and I'm going to research more, from other villages and other sides of the family.

(The photo is from the village, Alcains, the street where my grandmother was born.)

terça-feira, novembro 01, 2016

What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell

I first heard of Garth Greenwell through Saleem Haddad, I read a text by him in Haddad's Facebook wall and liked it very much, so I ordered Greenwell's novel from Amazon. And I'm glad I did; it's a wonderful novel, a true masterpiece about desire and longing. Mitko comes up as a kind of Albertine: bought but unpossessed, available yet unattainable. It's extremely well written, moving and sad. I look forward for Greenwell's next book.

sábado, outubro 29, 2016

Other People, by Frances Partridge

By this time, reading Frances Partridge's diaries feels like returning to an old friend's life - I like her very much. This volume is not as interesting as the precedent (Hanging On), one feels somehow that her son's death didn't affect her as much as her husband's, or perhaps she was better fitted to withstand loss by that time. But anyway, it depicts very nicely the way a life loving woman coped with her solitary life, focusing on her friends' lives to keep interested in living and enjoying life, and most successfully. One cannot but admire her for that.

Malabourg, by Perrine Leblanc

A good enough novel, somewhat a dark tale with a redemption, set in French Canada (it caught my eye in the bookstores of Montreal last year). The writing is beautiful, and it's interesting to read Canadian French, very different from France French in many ways, but the story left me unmoved.

sexta-feira, outubro 21, 2016

The Story of the Stone - The Golden Days, by Cao Xueqin

I don't remember where I read about The Story of the Stone, maybe it was in the Times Literary Supplement or in the New York review of Books, but it roused my curiosity so I ordered the first volume. I enjoyed it very much - it starts as a picaresque novel, and it grew on me, depicting a lost world of beauty and privilege, about a civilisation - the Chinese - I know very little about. It's a surprisingly modern novel, considering it was written in the 18th century. After some time, the narrative gets a little tiresome, with the silly pointless intrigues and pettiness of the characters' lives, curiously so reminiscent of the Ancien Régime, that was their contemporary across the world in Europe. But the characters are extremely lively and convincing, and they really come to life. So I think I will read the next volumes in the saga.