Book Review: “The President’s Hat”

The President's Hat

By Antoine Laurain
209 pages,
Publisher: Gallic Books, March 28, 2013

Summer’s good for light reading entertainment. And The President’s Hat just fits that bill.And it will charm your socks off.

The President’s Hat is not the hat of Donald Trump or Barack Obama. Not the hat of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. It is the hat of Francois Mitterand, President of France during the 1980s.

Antoine Laurain’s story is how four different individuals come into possession of the extra special hat. A hat that can do magic for its wearer.

The story begins with Daniel Mercier. He is a low level bureaucrat. His wife and son are out of town, so he’s been batching it. The night before they return, he decides to splurge. He goes out to eat. While he’s enjoying his meal, the President of France takes a table next to his. Mitterand is joined by two other men.

He overhears Mitterand say, “As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week…” “Never again, he told himself, would he be able to eat oysters without hearing those words: ‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week.'” (p.20) For the next two and a half hours, Daniel makes his fish platter last so that he can let Mitterand’s person shine on him. He has never been that close to fame before.

Unfortunately Mitterand forgets his black homburg. Daniel takes it. This act changes not only his life. It changes the lives of a semi-professional writer Fanny Marquant’s, a perfumer Pierre Aslan, and the conservative upper class Bernard Lavalliere as they come into possession of the hat.

Bernard Lavalliere’s attitude about so many things change. He goes to a party he wouldn’t have been caught dead at in his previous life.

Riding in a Rolls-Royce on the way to the party: “It was one of those nights that take you back to the magical nights of youth, filled with fun, freedom and boundary breaking–the kind of nights that naturally exist only in your imagination. The makers of this track were at the top of the charts, he was riding in a Rolls-Royce to meet the high priest of publicity and the man behind the wheel could knock any price down by thirty per cent. Winners, all of them.” (p. 155)

At the party: “Leaving the three of them to squabble over the mysterious painter, Bernard picked up another glass of champagne and turned his mind back to his ancestor. Charles-Eduard was a shrewd character, no doubt about, but in common with many of his peers, the Impressionists had completely passed him by. A single Money, a single Renoir–not to mention a Gauguin or a Van Gogh–would now be worth a hundred times the legacy he had built up over his lifetime. The Lavallieres had displayed a dubious penchant for paintings of ruins–as  far as the romantic landscapes went, they had it covered–but had never had the sense to invest in anything of artistic worth. A repulsive image came into his mind: the little landscape with its broken clock.” (p. 158)

This is a tale about how an object can change your life. It reminded me of a story of mine that I had posted called “Edna’s Feet“.

And there’s lots of French cuisine in this short novel. Since I’m not a gourmand, I wasn’t sure what many of the food’s dishes were. But they were delightful. The characters sure enjoyed them.

And I sure enjoyed the book.

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Uncle Bardie’s Creator Spotlight: Ken Burns & The Vietnam War

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Creator is Ken Burns and his magnificent 10-part documentary series, “The Vietnam War” (2017):

The Vietnam War

By Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns 637 Pages Publisher: Knopf September 5, 2017

It seems to be ancient history now. But it’s only forty-four years since the fall of Saigan when the last Americans left. Ken Burns in his ten-part documentary and his book with Geoffrey Ward have parted the curtain that divides then and now. And America left behind a country and a war that costs the lives of over fifty-eight thousand Americans and three million Vietnamese. And countless others who were injured and crippled.

Unlike his other series, this is a series about a disaster. And Ken Burns reveals just how much of a disaster. A disaster that lasted for twenty years from 1955 – 1975. Why didn’t the United States just have the good sense to get the hell out?

First of all, it was over dominoes. President Eisenhower believed that if Vietnam fell to the communists of North Vietnam, it would be the first of a series of Southeast Asian countries–Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, maybe even India–to fall to communism like dominoes.

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon knew that it was a no-win proposition. So why didn’t they just get out? Because they didn’t want to be the first Presidents to be straddled with losing a war. And the generals were like the generals of World War I. They didn’t have a strategy to win.

Without a strategy to win, their mantra became “More. More. More.” Give us more troops. More toys. More time. We’ve got this devil under control. Till we had a half million troops in Vietnam and had spent billions, almost bankrupting the country. And the American people said, “Enough is enough.”

If the American strategy was “More,” the South Vietnamese strategy was “leave us the hell alone.” Just give us the support we need to win what we see as a Civil War. For the North Vietnamese, it was a war of national liberation. They had kicked out the French. And they were intent on getting the “Yankees” to go home. Their strategy to accomplish this was “Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.”

Ken Burns begins his story with Ho Chi Minh. In 1919, before he was a communist, he went to the Paris Peace Conference, asking that Vietnam be independent. Mostly his request was ignored. Only the French commented and their comment was “No.”

From then on, he gives us a narrative filled with primary sources and interviews from all sides. From American diplomats and decision makers. From Americans who served in Vietnam. From the journalists who covered the War. From the anit-war protesters. From the South Vietnamese who lived and fought it. And from the North Vietnamese. And like Ken Burns’ document series of “The Civil War”, the viewer–and the reader—get a perspective of the War we may never have had if Burns had not tackled it.

I had not seen the series when it first appeared on PBS. I wasn’t ready to grasp the confusion, the horror, the divisions of the War. Recently I’ve been working on a Sixties project for work, and I thought it was time I made the effort.

In the past, I have only watched the Burns’s series. This time I thought it might be a good exercise to read the book while I watched the series. I am glad I did. Much of the book was the same as the documentary. But there were times when the documentary presented things that weren’t in the book and vice versa for the series.

For instance, the Tet Offensive was covered in depth in the documentary. But the narrative of the Offensive in the book made much more of an impact.

So I highly recommend that this exercise be tried. Not only for the Vietnam War, but also for other Burns series.

It was a process that took me a month. At the end of the whole process, I walked away from the War with four feelings. The first was I wanted to know more. The second was a feeling of tremendous sadness. A third, the impact of the Wall in Washington, DC, not only on the veterans and their families. But also on the anti-war protesters.

One of the lessons that came out of the series, for me, was the veterans from both sides who had forgiven their enemies. It made me realize that there is only one way forward. it is not hate that will save us all. It is friendship and forgiveness.

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Creator: Ray Bradbury’s Adventures in Writing

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. In honor of the upcoming National Poetry Month of April, this week’s Spotlight Creator is the Ray Bradbury. Here is a short documentary of Ray Bradbury and a review of his book, Zen in the Art of Writing:

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Publisher: Joshua Odell Editions (August 1, 1994)

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury shares the sources of many of the hundreds of stories, essays, plays and novels. They come from a vivid imagination that has continued to see things with the eyes of a child. At the heart of many of his stories is his childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois.

Unlike the Thomas Wolfe saying of “you can’t go home again,” Bradbury often returned home to Waukegan. His childhood years in that small Illinois town served as a source for many of his stories in the same way that Hemingway mined his youth in Michigan for his Nick Adams stories and Mark Twain used Hannibal, Missouri for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Waukegan was his Paris, his Oz, his Castle Rock. In Bradbury’s imagination, Waukegan became the Green Town of the Dandelion Wine stories. An encounter at age twelve with Mr. Electrico and his traveling electric chair inspired him to begin his Martian stories.

Though he was writing a story a week in those early years, he imitated the fictions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe and many of the pulp writers he was reading. It was his discovery of word association that broke him free from their influence. Bradbury made a list of words, took one of those words, and made that word a title for a story. Then he came up with memories and emotions for that word.

He turned the phrase :the old woman” into two stories: “There was an Old Woman” and “Season of Disbelief”. “The baby” became “The Small Assassin”. “The trap door” ended up as “Trapdoor” in Omni Magazine in 1985.

Bradbury relates how it cost him nine dollars and eighty cents to write the first draft of Fahrenheit 451. He shares how a visit to catacombs in Mexico caused his imagination to spit up the story, “Next in Line.” His stay in Ireland led to a number of Irish stories, including “The Haunting of the New.” He relates his love affair with skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs and Mars, and how he never lost his childlike wonder for all things strange and exotic and out-of-the-normal.

In the chapter titled “Zen in the Art of Writing,” he shares his process for writing: Work, Relaxation, Don’t Think. He relates how the writer can learn from the archer of Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. Then he reveals his unique approach to plotting. He writes: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal” (p. 152).

Zen in the Art of Writing encourages the writer, and anyone pursuing his chosen dream, to never give up. Persistence pays off. If we’re putting in the work, there will be a reward down the line. His advice is: Do the work for the joy of it. Don’t worry about the destination. Love the process.

Mr. Ives’ Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas By Oscar Hijuelos Harper/Collins, 1995.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas is not just a good novel. It is a meditation on grief. It is also a meditation on faith and weathering the worst of storms a human being can weather. The loss of a beloved child.

And the book is also about commitment, love, family and friends with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. And everywhere there is Hijuelos’ love affair with New York City, its sights and sounds and smells, and its neighborhoods.

A good man, Edward Ives, loses his son, Robert, to a cold blooded murder. Robert is standing in front of a church, talking to some friends. He’s there for choir practice.

A thirteen-year-old kid walks by Robert. He doesn’t like the look on Robert’s face. In an instant, he turns, pulls a gun, and fires bullets into Robert’s body. Robert drops onto the sidewalk. He is dead.

Robert wasn’t just any kid. He was special. He was one of those kids who did everything right. Likeable to everybody he met. Never an unkind word for anybody. Never gave his parents trouble. Close to both of his parents and his sister. But especially close to his father. The next year he was going to go off to seminary to become a priest. That was Robert. And it doesn’t help that his death came close to Christmas.

Annie, his mother, and Caroline, his sister, are devastated. But his father is the most devastated of all. At one point, Ives reflects: “You know what it was like? It was like drowning.” Ive’s grief is a river of sadness, so sad it fills his entire life. As his wife, Annie, puts it, “Robert’s death had become the defining event of his middle-aged life.”

Ives never stops grieving. Annie and Caroline find a way to go on with their lives and live with the grief without it destroying them. But not Ives. He cannot find any joy in life anymore. It’s almost like he quit breathing at the moment he heard the horrible news.

On the outside, his acts are of a saintly man, a compassionate man, showing care for those around him. Even for the murderer of his son. On the inside, he is wounded deeply, walking around in a purgatory that is as much hell as it is life. A purgatory he cannot escape no matter how good he is. His only thought day after day, night after night, is the loss of his son. His grief is immense.

This is not a novel written from the head. This is a novel written from the heart. With detail upon detail, Oscar Hijuelos has mustered all his tremendous talent to breathe life into the Mr. Ives of the title. In so doing, it’s possible to believe that Hijuelos suffers with Mr. Ives.

Ives with his memories of his beloved son finds himself in a lifetime of solitary confinement which he cannot escape. He cannot bring himself to love again, even his wife and his daughter.

Not once does he ask, “What would Robert want?”

So Mr. Ives grows into a bitter man despite everything he tries.

On that day the kid murdered Robert, he had a second victim. Mr. Ives. Robert’s death was instant. Edward Ives’ is long and slow and torturous. Mr. Ives is a good man, but  goodness is not enough to heal all the grief that he carries.

In the end, Mr. Ives emerges from a long dark night. For Mr. Ives, the sunrise comes from a place he least expected.

At the end, I realized that this is Osar Hijuelos homage to the great Charles Dickens. It seems like Dickens is hovering above every page of this novel, encouraging Hijuelos to write on and smiling when the writer had completed the journey of his story. As I finished the novel, I began to think that Edward Ives had a lot of Bob Cratchit in him.

In 248 pages, Hijuelos has packed the life of one man and his family, his faith and his love affair with life, and then the great tragedy. When the novel is over, I was left with a love for Ives and Annie, Robert and Caroline, Ramirez and Carmen and their son Pablo. I will miss them. But Hijuelos has left me the opportunity to dig into their lives again. All I have to do is open the pages of Mr. Ives’ Christmas.

Book Review: 1000 Books to Read Before You Die

1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich, Published by Workman Publishing, New York, 2018.

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for the reader in the family or among friends, here’s a suggestion: 1000 Books To Read Before You Die by James Mustich. And while you are at it, treat yourself to a copy of this wonderful  book.

James Mustich is the co-founder and publisher of the former book catalog, A Common Reader. It is obvious from his introduction that he loves books, and the joy they bring to their readers.

The first thing you notice about this treasure trove of an advisory is the loveliness of the physical book. Workman Publishing has given the purchaser not only a wonderful read but a delight to the eyes. The cover and the open leaves and the photographs and art with many of the one-thousand essays make this volume a thing to be cherished for years to come. Workman reminds us what publishing can be.

Then there are the essays. Mustich has written one for each of his one-thousand selections. Each essay is short and sweet, not lasting over a page or two and sometimes less. They often supplies not just a summary but some of the context of the book’s creation as well as interesting tidbits. In addition to these major essays, there are even more suggestions with a final total of over than six-thousand titles by thirty-five hundred authors. Mustich does not limit his selections to one classifcation. His choices are a sampling from across the full sweep of human knowledge and endeavor.

Unlike other Reader Advisories, the selections are not laid out by category or timeline. Rather they are alphabetically placed by the name of the author from Edward Abbey to Carl Zuckmayer. In the case where the author is unknown, the selection is placed by title. Occasionally an author will be found out of order. There will be a note letting the reader know where they can find the entry.

Though Mustitch includes many of the usual suspects, such as Shakespeare, Austin and Dickens, he does not limit his selections to just the classics or to fiction or to non-fiction.And the fiction ranges across a variety of genres such as literary fiction, mystery and suspense, humor, espionage, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, And the writers come from a slew of places, including Japan, Russia, Africa, China, Europe as well as the United States, Ireland and Great Britain.

There are children’s books and books for young adult readers as well as selections of travel, science, biography, poetry, short stories, novels, history, drama, sports, letters and diaries among others. He has even included an essay on The 9/11 Commission Report. And also included are a few graphic novels.

To see the ecumenical nature of the selections, here are a list of the first ten entries:
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (Nature, Memoir).
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott (Novel, Mathematics).
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Novel).
My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley (Animals, Memoir).
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (Science Fiction).
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams  (Autobiography, History).
Watership Down by Richard Adams (Novel).
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Novel).
The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Drama).
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (Essays, Photography, Sociology).

Popular bestsellers have their essays too: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Gillian Flynn’s Gone GirlThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even James Bond gets a write-up. And if a title you love isn’t included in a main entry, it still may be found among th e 5000 other titles.

Many of the titles for essays are humorous, often tongue-in-cheek. The title for the lives and times of archy and mehitabel is “The Greatest Cockroach Poet of All Time;” “Still Crazy After All These Years” for Wuthering Heights; for The Phantom Tollbooth, “Boredom Banished;” and The Count of Monte Cristo, “The Fastest 1200 Pages You Will Ever Read.” But there are some serious titles as well. For Oranges,”The fruit of One Writer’s Inspired Curiosity”; for The Boys of Summer, “A Grand Slam of a Baseball Book”, for Lord of the Rings, “A World of Narrative Wizardry,” and Alice Munro’s Selected Stories, 1968 – 1994 is given “A Nobel Laureate’s Astonishing Gallery of Life”.

From time to time there will be a quote from a work or about the work colored and in a large font. At the end of each essay is a footnote section, listing what genre, when the work appeared, awards, editions (if any), also by, further reading (a work that brings insight to the work), try (similar works) and any adaptations to literary or other media such as movies, theater or radio. In addition, there are Booknote and More-to-Explore boxes that call attention to further titles in a genre or a category the Mustich wants to mention to the reader.

At the end of the book are three indexes. “A Miscellany of Special Lists” “curated by subject or style or with a particular audience in mind.” Here are four of the lists: “Reading in a Sitting,” “12 Books to Read Before You’re 12,” “LOL,” and “”From the 21st Century.”

All in all, this is a generous helping of delights. Here’s a couple of suggestions. Read one of the essays a day. If there is another selection under “Try,” make that the next day’s essay. Or find a book listed you’ve always wanted to read or a title you aren’t familiar with. Read the essay and see if the work appeals to you. If so, maybe it’s time to read it. Perhaps, in a century or two from now, you will have covered all six-thousand  books.

To close, I want to quote from the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai found in the selection of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji: “From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shape of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with….When I am eighty you will see real progress….At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist.”

And Good Reading one and all.

I have in no way received a remuneration for this review.