"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Loving Paris--and Madeline--for 65 Years

Our recent trip to Paris and this show in New York have me thinking about Ludwig Bemelmens and his wonderful book Madeline.

Madeline is the first book I ever borrowed from a library. It was brand new, the year must have been 1947 or 1948, and I saw it in a display of new books. You had to have a library card to borrow and to get a card you had to be able to sign your name, so, dyslexic me, I made my mother help me practice until I got the "Mary" down pat. The librarian let my mother sign my last name, as I remember.

 And I suppose in a way my love of Paris and my desire to travel began there.  The French city is a long way from Walla Walla, WA where we were living, and the vision of a city with little girls living in an old building covered with vines was wonderfully exotic. 

It turns out that Bemelmans wrote the book just before World War II, and his drawings of the pre-war city may have een part of its appeal to adults.  But the story about a brave little girl (was she an orphan? why was she living with all these other children?) captured the fancy of lots of kids then, and now.

Still love the book, and read the French version recently to Jeanne.  I'm happy to report that she liked it, even though France is far from exotic for her.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Love Story from a Muslim Country Unlike the Others

Ali and Nino, Kurban Said's charming love story set in Azerbaijan, took place a hunded years ago.  Ali, a Muslim prince, tells it--how he is in love with Nino, the Georgian princess as World War I begins, how their home town Baku is rich from newly found oil, how a Muslim and a Christian may, perhaps, if they're very lucky, beat the odds and find happiness.  Along with the ups and downs of their romance, we learn a great deal about the politics of the region, Islam, the countries around the Caspian Sea and how close some of them came to being folded into the Western sphere of influence in the earlly part of the 20th century. 

That would be enough to recommend the book, but the mystery surrounding the identity of the author is an added reason to read it. I first heard about the novel when Tom Reiss did a profile for The New Yorker about its author, who may not have been Said, a distinguished Muslim journalist, but an Azerbaijani Jew, Lev Nussibaum who died during the Second World War in Italy.   Or maybe, Reiss suggests,  the book was written by a German noblewoman who spent the end of her life holed up in a castle.  Intrigued, I went looking for the book, but after reading it  I found myself no nearer to knowing the truth.  Azerbaijan, however, appeared on my radar, and I've been following its trajectory ever since.

Oil  continues to float the Azerbaijani economy, and the country--about 90 per cent Muslim--is one of the rare places where fundamentalism seems not to be rising. Ali and Nino is considered a national treasure. A stainless steel sculpture of the pair (above) by  artist Tamara Kvesitadze shows them as two separate figures who slowly approach each other until they literally become one.  The book has been made into an opera in Paris, and will shortly, it appears, appear in an English language film.

Before then, though, read the novel.  The romance is just what you need on a late summer weekend, and the back story will help you undertand what's going on in the world right now.