Posts from the “Culture” Category

How Dunkirk Brought the de Gaulles Together Before France Fell

Posted on August 1, 2017

Christopher Nolan’s World War II tour de force “Dunkirk” has captivated moviegoers and reviewers since its release on July 21. It’s the story of the harrowing, heroic rescue of 400,000 Allied troops from the French port city of Dunkirk after German forces stormed into the country. Nolan’s film focuses on the rescue mission itself, not the aftermath in France. In THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCE , I write about the havoc Dunkirk wrought on the French population, and how it brought the de Gaulle family together before their beloved country fell to the Nazis. Here is an excerpt:

***

If there was to be a last stand in France against the German forces that laid waste to the country, some military men believed that it would take place in windswept Brittany. Xavier waited for his marching orders that June in a home that teemed with family members. Armelle, her two small children, Genevieve, and Roger awaited the arrival of Xavier’s frail, eighty-year-old mother, Jeanne, who was fleeing German attacks on the port of Le Havre, not far from where she lived with her daughter, Marie-Agnes; son-in-law, Alfred Cailliau; and their children. Jeanne had been a widow since May 3, 1932, when her husband, Henri, died at age eighty-two. In the years after Henri’s passing, Jeanne’s health had begun to decline too, and she became consumed with seeing her sons before war separated them again.

It was not an easy feat, given the situation on the ground. The German Luftwaffe had begun bombing Le Havre on May 19, 1940, and continued their attacks for the next two evenings. British troops fired antiaircraft guns as Nazi planes dropped bombs on warehouses, factories, shipyards, and Le Havre itself. When large numbers of Dutch and Belgian refugees began arriving in the town by train, locals panicked and thought that the Germans were winning. A dark mood descended over the public as air-raid sirens became commonplace.

The bombing continued in June when the British began evacuating at Dunkirk. Not all troops could be rescued, so they escaped to other ports along the country’s northern coast, striving to find a way back to England. Nazi planes tried to prevent their return by bombing Le Havre ten more times. Bedlam ensued as local officials tried to evacuate residents. Many wanted to flee incoming Nazis by heading for Brittany, but trains could not long travel in that direction because they had to go through the train station in Rouen, which was almost sixty miles to the east. That station was closed, but Jeanne was so determined to see her boys that she traveled 475 miles south to Grenoble to see her son Jacques before getting one of her grandsons to drive her 571 miles north to see Xavier.

After Jeanne’s arrival in Paimpont, nineteen-year-old Genevieve comforted the delicate old woman, whose anxiety gave way to vivid memories from her girlhood of France’s humiliation by the Prussians at Sedan in 1870. She felt like she was reliving those dark days, and her weakened heart couldn’t bear it. Her granddaughter reassured her that it wouldn’t happen like that, not again. Charles would come to visit his mother and Xavier’s family en route to London, where he’d meet with British prime minister Winston Churchill on June 15. After that visit Genevieve assured her grandmother that France would fight back — yes, right there in Brittany.

Brittany. The very shape of the peninsula on which the French army hung their dwindling hopes jutted out toward the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean like the hand of a drowning man begging for help. Two weeks before Petain’s radio address, the military devised a plan that would gather forces along Brittany’s Rance and Vilaine Rivers to fend off an enemy assault. As French troops kept up a stiff resistance along those rivers, allies from Great Britain could stream through the ports west of that line of defense to come to the country’s aid. A prolonged fight under this strategy would allow France to keep its lines of communication open with its allies and, in case of trouble, make it easier to relocate the state’s armed forces and government ministers to London or North Africa.

Two days after Petain addressed the nation, Charles de Gaulle, who had been recently appointed undersecretary of war and national defense, held secret meetings with commanders about the feasibility if this scheme. The overwhelming consensus: Such resistance was futile. There were simply not enough troops to hold off a German advance. General de Gaulle bid farewell to his wife and children. He was headed to London, he told them because things were very bad.

“Perhaps we are going to carry on the fight in Africa,” de Gaulle told his wife, Yvonne. “But I think it more likely that everything is about to collapse. I am warning you so that you will be ready to leave at the first sign.”

The signs were everywhere. After securing passports, Yvonne and the children left on June 18 to join Charles in England.

On the morning of June 18, Xavier de Gaulle and several other reservists were ordered to march west in an effort to regroup against the enemy. His family joined him on the crowded streets in an procession riddled with anger, shame and fear. All around them there was a growing feeling that whatever came next would be in vain. Genevieve lingered close to her grandmother, “this little old lady, dressed in black, so tiny and easy to miss,” so she didn’t fall behind and get lost in the crowd. Throughout the day the young woman reassured the matriarch, as she worked through her own tormented emotions about this turn of events.

By evening, they had walked forty miles to the town of Locmine and faced their first Nazi soldiers. They looked like war gods, Genevieve thought; their smart black uniforms and chiseled features exuded strength and pride as they breezed past on motorcycles and tanks. Some reservists cried because it was clear that there was no hope left and no will to fight this aggressor. As the crowd grew numb with dismay, a priest ran toward them from the other side of the town square. He was excited because he had just heard a French general speak on BBC radio.

“He said we may have lost a battle,” the priest cried, “but not the war. The general’s name was de Gaulle.”

Thrilled by the news, Jeanne de Gaulle, broke from the crowd and ran to the priest.

“Monsieur le Cure, that’s my son!” she cried as she tugged on the sleeve of his cassock. “That’s my son! He’s done what he ought to have done!”

A country away, Charles de Gaulle couldn’t have known how his mother reacted to his decision to offer France another way, but Genevieve remembered the moment as one of her grandmother’s last great joys. For Charles, it was a lonely affair, because as he heard himself speak into the BBC microphone, he realized his life would never be the same. Up until then he had been devoted to both the army and the nation he served. And yet he was not the sort of man to capitulate, which was why he had broken with his superiors and headed to London, to condemnation. At forty-nine years old, fate had lured him away from all his predictable patterns and responsibilities. He was obligated to the France he once knew, and he summoned his countrymen, uncertain of who might hear or put their trust in him.

Few people caught the general’s broadcast, but the ones who did began risking their lives to spread his word.

***

Excerpted from THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCEpublished by Chicago Review Press. Copyright 2017 by Paige Bowers. All rights reserved.

Mid-June News and Notes

Posted on June 16, 2017

An Event that Inspired a Young Patriot

Seventy-seven years ago this week, German troops stormed into Paris, began their wartime occupation of a portion of France, and inspired a little-known French general to implore his countrymen to keep fighting. That little-known French general was named Charles de Gaulle, of course, and he would later become his country’s president. But during that summer of 1940, his words ignited the flame of French Resistance in the heart of his 19-year-old niece, Genevieve, who became one of his most loyal foot soldiers and risked her life in the process. I tell Genevieve’s story in The General’s Niece, and so far readers say they love this tale about an indomitable heroine who “fought the good fight” until the end of her life. I’m grateful for the reader feedback I’ve gotten so far on Amazon and Goodreads, so if you’ve read the book and would like to share your thoughts, please take a minute to add your review to one or both of these sites. Word of mouth like this helps readers find great new reads, but it also helps authors like me get found by bookworms too. So please make like they did in the resistance and spread the word!

Speaking Monday, June 5 at the Carter Presidential Center and Library.

The Book Tour

I’ve been on the road since June 1, and have met amazing folks at my first five signings. One man actually met Charles de Gaulle. One woman’s father was in President de Gaulle’s diplomatic corps. One woman met Ozzy Osbourne, which I know has absolutely nothing to do with the book, but it is no less riveting. There have been book groups, and librarians, and history buffs of all stripes. I’ve talked about visiting Paris, encouraged people to write that book they’ve been thinking about, sung the praises of a good Bordeaux, and told an old family friend that I hadn’t seen in years that I was 21 years of age. That was a fun little fib (and he knew it…because a lady never reveals her true age, especially when asked), but the bottom line is that I’ve been having a great time meeting readers and hearing their stories as I sign this dear little book of mine.

Come see me on tour! Here’s where I’ll be next. More events are coming, but the latest news is that I’m proud to add the Louisiana Book Festival to my fall lineup.

Media and Other Stuff

This week, I did my first radio interview with Susan Larson, host of The Reading Life. She sent me a friendship request on Facebook prior to our chat, so she cleverly sifted through a lot of my nonsense there, finding out about the brand new pair of red cowboy boots I bought at Allen’s Boots while I was in Austin, for example, and a whole host of other things. She’s based in New Orleans, and I’m based in Baton Rouge, but one thing we both know is that we need to meet in person soon. I can’t vouch for myself, but she sure is good fun. If you want to hear our chat, tune in to WWNO in New Orleans Tuesday, June 20 at 1:30 p.m., Friday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. or Sunday, June 25 at noon. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or at NPR.

What it looks like to talk to Susan Larson about your book.

Wednesday morning, I went on a little stealth operation in Baton Rouge, leaving seven copies of The General’s Niece in Little Free Libraries throughout town. Bookworm that I am, I’ve always loved the Little Free Library concept, because anything that increases access to books and creates community connections is a very good thing. Consider this a little gift to my hometown, if you will. So if you’re looking for an inspiring summer read and are up for the scavenger hunt, go over to the Little Free Library website, pull up the Baton Rouge map and see if you can figure out where I’ve left these little presents. Then, read, enjoy and spread the word with your friends and loved ones. If you’re on social media, you can tag anything you say about the book #thegeneralsniece, all the while being sure to give me and my publisher Twitter shout-outs at @paigebowers and @chireviewpress respectively.  Word on the street is that you just might win something if you do…

No makeup, no dressy clothes, no problem. Here’s me on my stealth book drop mission this week in Baton Rouge.

Today, I was interviewed by Chris Gondek, host of The Biography Podcast, which is available on iTunes. Chris is a good interviewer and great advocate of women’s biographies, which he believes get short shrift. I was very glad to talk about The General’s Niece with him this afternoon, and look forward to hearing the interview when it’s available. He says it should run by July 1, so I’ll be sure to share it when it’s live.

As always, thank you so much for the support you’ve given me since this book’s release. I really appreciate it and love hearing from readers about The General’s Niece. Please don’t hesitate to email me from this site with any questions or comments you may have. You can also shoot me messages on Twitter or Facebook too!

Looking Back and Looking Ahead: An old school story on launch night

Posted on June 1, 2017

This is an older piece of writing, but it’s a long read that was coaxed out of me by an incredible editor and some formidable women in an online writing group. I’ve been looking back on it lately, because it sparked my journey toward the book I’m in the process of launching, though I may not have realized it at the time. This editor and this group asked me how a modern woman could get wrapped up in old stories about long-dead French people. The simple answer was “Because I like those stories.” But the more complicated answer follows in something that amounts to a window into a writer’s soul. I hope you enjoy it, and now that I have the perspective I didn’t have then, I realize there’s a whole new chapter I’m about to write. It starts tonight and I thank you so much for coming along with me on this journey.

— Paige 

 

***

 

He seduced me in the rain.

It happened in Paris. And at the risk of making this story really French, it happened while my husband attended a conference on the opposite side of town.

Now for the part that makes me sound less like Catherine Deneuve:

It happened on a cold September day. We had been in Paris for three days by then, long enough for my four-year-old daughter to decide that the Luxembourg Gardens playground was the only place worth visiting in the entire city. It had that well-worn merry-go-round, that vendor that sold rich hot chocolate, that puppet theater where the characters beat the ever-loving-daylights out of each other with sticks, much to Parisian children’s glee. There were ponies to ride and rope spider webs to climb and big fat pigeons to chase through puddles. It was a veritable kiddie Xanadu, well-shaded by chestnut trees whose leaves were just beginning to turn gold, orange and brown.

Although it was understandable why my daughter wanted to be there, it was also problematic, given the weather that day. So I thumbed through a guidebook in hopes of finding something else we could do, something else that might titillate that part of her that loved sparkly, fabulous princess things and fluffy tutus and rainbows worth of color. That should not have been such a difficult thing to find in Paris, France – it’s a pretty gorgeous place — but on this day it was, thanks in no small part to the discernment of my pint-sized companion, who blithely swung her feet back and forth as she nibbled at her pain au chocolat.

“I want to go to that park today,” she said.

“I already told you that we can’t,” I reminded her. “It’s raining way too much, so Mama is looking for something else to do.”

“But I want to go to the park.”

“I understand that, but we can’t in this weather,” I said. “We’ll do something else that’s just as fun while Daddy’s at his conference.”

“How about the park?”

***

The last time I was in Paris, I was 19 years old. It was my first solo trip outside of the United States. This brings me to the first thing you need to know about me: I have been seduced by a Frenchman before, a fact that is so utterly clichéd that I hate myself for typing it. But alas, it is true, and our romance began the way all great romances begin, with a young French man and a young American woman telling each other they have no earthly idea what the other is talking about.

The young French man in this case – I’ll call him F. — was a 20-year-old Parisian podiatry student who was vacationing in Florida with friends. I had just completed my freshman year in college. My younger sister and I were hanging out on the beach near our house when we met these guys. F. and I spoke for three hours that day. My diary entry from this rendezvous, dated 8-18-1992, describes the experience in a way that Honoré de Balzac never could: “Hubba-hubba.”

Cut me some slack. I was 19 years old.

F. had a quiet charm and easy smile. “He’s so nice, he probably has a girlfriend back home,” I wrote in my journal. “That sucks, but when he goes home in a couple of days, maybe he’ll be my pen pal or something.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The sick and twisted deal of it all was this: I was rather proud of my seven years of French, and he was rather proud of his 11 million years of English (him being the sophisticated European and all that), but we could always stand to improve ourselves, non? So for months, we sent letters back and forth, each of us torching the other’s efforts to write in our respective mother tongues. We softened the red ink blows with stories about the day to day (yes, right down to what part of the foot he was studying in school) and eventually he wrote to say that his family would like to host me in their home for the summer.

This invitation did not sit well with my mother.

“You met this person on the beach, spent a few days hanging out with him and his friends, and then several months writing him. Now you think you’re going to spend a summer with his family? These people are total strangers. Are you out of your mind?”

C’est possible. Then again, I wasn’t the one using The Simpsons episode about the time Bart went off to become a French exchange student and two unscrupulous winemakers turned him into their own personal slave as a cautionary tale.

I love you, Mom, but really.

Anyway, I spent the summer in Paris, touring museums, looking at art that I had only known from slideshow presentations in class, improving my French, making new friends, eating foods I used to find repulsive and arguing with F. about every topic under the sun.

Then he kissed me. Profoundly inexperienced in the romance department, I finally came to understand what all those arguments were about. The day after this night of much kissing (which was all it ever was, and I swear), we headed for a small town in the South of France where his family camps every year. It was during that ride that he filled me with notions of what our romance could be – leave my family behind, come be with him in France. It was all starting to sound pretty good, even though it seemed like it might require me to turn a blind eye to my ambitions, which were to be a writer. But then he said “So when we are in this town you will meet the love of my life and so it will be complicated.”

I couldn’t believe him.

I wanted my Mommy.

I met Love of His Life over a bouillabaisse feast. And she made no secret of her disdain for The American Girl. F. was quiet through it all. I was mad and then quite drunk.

He liked that I was mad.

Which, of course, infuriated me even more.

Ultimately we did not stay angry with each other. But I also did not stay in France with him because leave-it-all-behind-and-be-with-me style commitment just did not seem like something I could do. Months after I returned to the States to begin my junior year at Louisiana State University, F. had found a serious girlfriend. He called me to ask whether I was jealous. I told him no. I was happy for him. We haven’t spoken since. I did Google him (of course) and know that he has his own private podiatry practice, located in a charming suburb not far from where he grew up. Do I wonder what might have been? No. He and Paris came into my life for a reason, turning me into a slightly braver version of my shy, uncertain self. For that I will always be grateful.

***

“Can we pleeeease go to the park today?” my daughter begged.

In some respects, the 36-year-old Paige who sat in Paris with a child who was blind to the weather was not all that different from the 19-year-old Paige who once stood in Notre Dame Cathedral and realized that seven years of French class can only take you so far with a native speaker. This brings me to the second thing you need to know about me: As I sat in a rental apartment on Left Bank with a youngster full of chocolate and a guidebook on my lap, I felt irretrievably lost and unsure of myself, which might have been what made me so vulnerable to yet another Frenchman’s seduction later that rainy day. After years of defining myself as Paige-who-freelances-for-national-magazines-and-newspapers, the market dried up and I became Paige-who-couldn’t-successfully-pitch-a-story-to-save-her-life-and-now-what-do-I-do? I had a handsome, kind husband and a beautiful child and every reason to be happy. And yet I felt like a failure because, try as I might, I wasn’t able to do much of anything with my head or my pen. So when my husband said we should all go to Paris, it was as if a little light inside of me that I feared had been extinguished began to flicker anew. I hoped the journey would be as personally transformative as the one I took when I was a teenager and also wondered what it would be like to see a city I love so much through my daughter’s eyes.

“I wanna go somewhere today, Mama.”

I looked down at my guidebook and saw the words “Palais Garnier.” Although I had loved French history as a college undergraduate, I didn’t know a lot about the building, an opulent opera house built in the mid-nineteenth century. But it seemed to have everything I needed to persuade my then-budding ballerina to come along willingly: beautiful artwork, gilded décor, miles of red velvet and the additional selling point of being a place where famous ballerinas have danced (none of whom she would have known, but the promise of fame and tutus holds major sway in a young girl’s imagination).

Together, we navigated the Paris Métro to the Opéra stop, and carefully made our way up the steps past fast-moving throngs into the ninth arrondissement. There, we were greeted by golden theatrical masks that smiled down on us from the Garnier’s rooftop. Even in the cool drizzle and mist, the building was breathtaking: ornate Corinthian columns, elegant arches, a symphony of multicolored marble and intricately carved stone. All of it fluttered across the building’s façade, which was emblazoned with winged statues and busts of composers.

“Pick me up, Mama,” she begged.

Huddled under a cheap black umbrella, I sloshed across the Rue Auber with her in my arms. When we reached the other side of the street, I put her down for an instant so I could switch my too-large-for-that-moment handbag from one shoulder to the other before picking her back up again. That’s when I looked up and saw him for the very first time. He stood still and calm outside the opera’s entrance, a soulful type with artfully tousled hair that framed his piercing eyes and well-chiseled face. Who is he? I wondered.

His name was Charles Garnier, he was a famous French architect, and he had been dead almost 110 years by the time I hustled across the street to get a closer look at his statue, which stood outside the opera hall that was his life’s work. When he lured me across the street and into the building that bore his name, the rest, as they say, was history.

There was no line for self-guided tour tickets that day. So we paid and wound our way through dimly-lit corridors full of intricately carved stone, past a bronze statue of Pythia, a priestess known as the Oracle of Delphi, and then up slick marble stairs. There were more stairs, after that. Grand ones, familiar ones. Why were these stairs so familiar? Because I had seen a couture-clad Audrey Hepburn stomp down them past Republican Guards in the 1957 Stanley Donen film Funny Face, about a bookish girl who was discovered by a major fashion magazine and then turned into a cover model overnight. It was one of my favorite movies and I was tickled to be standing in the midst of where that particular scene was shot, all the while wondering how Audrey made it down those steps without slipping and breaking her swan-like neck. Then I imagined ladies in crinolines and beautiful gowns, their hair piled high, fanning themselves as they climbed the steps to their seat as admirers watched their grand entrance from the surrounding balconies. This was the grand staircase from the Broadway musical and Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera and I had never even made the connection until that point. This building was the backdrop for the world’s longest-running and most iconic musical, a show I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager meeting strange Frenchmen on the beach. This place was gorgeous and opulent and dizzying. I looked down at my daughter as we climbed the staircase together and her mouth was wide open.

“What do you think of this place?” I asked her.

“Whoa,” she said.

Whoa was right. I wondered what it would be like to see a performance there, how much it might cost, how fancy you’d have to dress, how much of a scene it all was both on and off the stage. I wondered how you dreamed up something like this, if you were that guy who caught my attention down on Rue Auber. I wondered how much it cost and how long it took to build something this grand.

Again, who was this Charles Garnier?

My daughter and I walked into a box and looked out across the red velvet seats and gilded ornamentation, up at the several-ton chandelier that hangs in the middle of a Mark Chagall mural, out at the faux curtain that rises on ballerinas eager to make their mark. My girl took it all in, her little delicate hands on the balcony, before looking up at me to say “I want to dance here someday, Mama.”

“When you do, I will watch you all the time,” I said.

We walked around the foyers, underneath more chandeliers and Byzantine-style frescoes that looked like dark, starry nights. We walked and walked and sat on the stairwells and took pictures together, of the ceilings, of the floors, of the blackamoors, of the lighting, of our feet. And then we left. At least I did physically. Mentally, my head was still hovering over the red velvet seats. By dinnertime I was thinking that maybe I wanted to come back to the Palais Garnier and dance too, although not in a ballerina way, but in a nerdy, I-want-to-know-more-about-this way. Because I had a feeling there was a good story there, one that had a lot to do with that statue on Rue Auber.

The sun came out the next morning. After breakfast, my daughter and I walked to the Luxembourg Gardens and headed straight for its old wooden merry-go-round. I helped her climb onto a white wooden horse with a pale green bridle, fastened a safety belt around her waist and then paid the attendant, who handed her a foot-long stick she could use to grab rings as she galloped around and around on her steed. I sat down on a green park bench and watched my daughter reach for the rings, sometimes grabbing them successfully, sometimes flinging them through the air. I snapped a few pictures of her, then pulled my guidebook out of my purse, flipping to the pages about the Luxembourg Gardens in hopes of finding out more about this ride. I never managed to read past this sentence: “One of the park’s treasures is its merry-go-round, whose much-loved wooden animals were designed by none other than Charles Garnier, the 19th-century architect of the Paris Opéra.” Rather than read the rest of the entry, I wondered how you went from designing a posh opera to designing a kiddie ride for a park and where I could find a book about this person who had captured my imagination.

As the ride slowed to a stop, I realized that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t as lost as I thought I was.

***

We had been back in the States for a week when I told my husband that I might want to go back to graduate school and might want to study French history, because I was curious about the Palais Garnier and this Charles Garnier person and thought I might want to write about him.

“Why can’t you just write about him?” he asked.

By this point, my passing interest turned into a full-blown mission. I looked for a biography of Garnier on the internet, but found several books about his architecture. I bought the sole book in English about his work that included a chapter-long treatment of his life, but also a couple of GRE study guides so I could spend the next couple of months cramming for the test I’d need to take to be admitted to graduate school.

“I can’t just write about him because I feel like there’s a lot more I need to learn before I can do it,” I said, a response that had as much to do with the nineteenth century as it did with me.

Less than a year later, we sold our house in Atlanta and moved back to my native Louisiana where I began studying Modern France under the direction of a professor who had tried to convince me to get a master’s degree in French history when I was an undergraduate. A month after we moved into our new house in the Baton Rouge area, I watched my daughter make her way up the steps of the school bus that would carry her to her first day of kindergarten before I got in the car for my first day of school in fifteen years. By the time I met the twenty-something classmate who introduced himself to me as “not much of a morning person” and sat through a history department orientation with the rest of my soon-to-be-footnoting peers, I began to realize a lot of things, one of which was that I had actually forgotten how to write an academic paper.

I walked out of the meeting and down the hallway to my advisor’s office even though he told me the day before that he wasn’t going to be there.

He was.

Because he knew what was coming.

I sat in the chair across from his desk, broke down in tears and said “Oh my God, what in the hell have I done?”

He shut the door and I reached for the Kleenex, which were right where they used to be. And then he went about the ugly business of reminding me that I could do this, that everything would be fine, that I’d see.

***

That was almost seven years ago. The advisor was right. I would be fine. And the seemingly strange, brave step I took on that rainy day in Paris has become one of the best things I ever could have done. For now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to write about a brave young woman who fought against a world that had become unacceptable to her. She’s an inspiration, and I can’t wait to share her story with you. Thank you for that privilege. It’s one I don’t take lightly. 

Schooled

Posted on October 6, 2015

freefrance

 

The past month has been busy, between the work I’ve been doing on my book and the class I’ve been teaching for LSU Continuing Education. I’ve spent the past four weeks talking about the French Resistance with a truly lovely and engaged group of folks. Judging from some of their questions, comments and the like, I suspect there may be a massive run on resistance histories and memoirs over the course of the next week or so. So I am tickled as can be about their interest in the subject and, most importantly, their continued support of my classes. If any of them are reading this now, a big, big thank you for trusting me with your mornings. Until we meet again…

fightersintheshadows Now, part of one’s ability to become a figure worthy of a group’s trust is a willingness to not only admit that one has goofed up, but actually go about the business of fixing one’s blunder. And class, I misspoke yesterday when I said Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows was coming out today. I could say that in my zeal to read this tome, my error was aspirational, i.e. “Dear Lord me, I really hope that Dr. Gildea’s book comes out today because I have been reading so many fantastic reviews about it all over the place, that I just can’t take waiting any longer.” But sadly, the truth is quite simple. This was a case of my very own and very human error. When I went to Amazon to order it this morning, I found that Gildea’s book is not, in fact, out in the United States until November 30. Surely there will be oodles and oodles of more fantastic reviews that will make this wait even more torturous for me and for the others who may have gone online today in search of this bloody thing that their well-meaning instructor told them about in class. Know that you are not suffering in solitude, my friends. May this tome be the gift we give each other this coming holiday season. Vive la Resistance!

In the meantime, I will be reading Patti Smith’s latest memoir M Train because I loved Just Kids oh so very much. Unlike Fighters In The Shadows, M Train actually did come out today.

What are you reading right now? Anything that has captured your imagination? Please let me know what it is and why I can’t live without it in comments.

***

nasaspecialedition

One of the more recent freelance assignments I’ve taken on was for USA Today, which does an annual NASA Special Edition. This is the second consecutive piece I’ve done for them on the agency’s exoplanet research initiatives, which never cease to capture my imagination, especially considering recent reports about the discovery of water on Mars. Is there life out there beyond our planet? The people I’ve talked to for this story are devoting themselves to this question, and it seems we’re getting closer and closer to an answer which very well could be “Yes.”

***

IMG_0903

 See these little nuggets of amazing? They are cocoa sables and I brought a few dozen of them to my class yesterday morning. I live in a household of chocoholics, so when I found the recipe for these cookies in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Tablethey became a pretty beloved sweet (but not too sweet). They’re crumbly and buttery and rich with dark chocolate flavor. They’re just as good served with a cold glass of milk as they are with a nice Malbec.

Here’s the recipe:

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed

1/2 tsp salt

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature

2/3 cup of sugar

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/4 lb. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (the recipe says this is optional, but I believe it’s a must)

 

1. Whisk the flour, cocoa and salt together.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and smooth. Gradually add the sugar and keep beating, scraping the bowl as needed, until the mixture is creamy, but not airy. Mix in the vanilla.

3. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture, little by little, making sure the ingredients are well-incorporated. Then, stir in the chopped chocolate.

4. Scrape the dough onto a cutting board and divide in half. Roll each piece into a log, then wrap the logs in plastic wrap and chill for at least three hours.

5. Preheat the oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

6. Slice the logs into 1/2-inch thick cookies. Arrange them on the baking sheets, leaving a good amount of space between the rounds.

7. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes. Then transfer the cookies to racks to cool to room temperature.

Enjoy!

Coco the Spy

Posted on December 3, 2014

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

On Monday, French historian Franck Ferrand said that documents locked away in French Ministry of Defense archives since World War II proved without a shadow of a doubt that Coco Chanel spied for the Nazis. Although her affairs with high-ranking German officers have been known about for years, this is the first time a French broadcaster has said that she actually gathered intelligence for occupying forces. Three years ago, American author Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy shed the first light on the story with documents he culled from various archives in Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.

Ferrand spoke in a France 3 documentary called “The Shadow of  a Doubt” and said that Chanel used the code name “Westminster” — a reference to the fling she had with the Duke of Westminster in the 1920s — when she passed information to the Abwehr, Adolf Hitler’s secret military intelligence agency. The documentary went on to claim that the designer used her influence with the Germans in an effort to reclaim her perfume business, which had been sold to a Jewish family in 1924.

Ronald C. Rosbottom’s acclaimed history When Paris Went Dark shows how the French faced difficult choices during the Nazi occupation. The France 3 documentary illustrates this further with the information about Chanel. But it also questions the roles of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier, whose careers thrived due to Germany’s policy of promoting French popular culture during the war.

It has been a good year for fresh looks at this complicated historical period. France 3’s historical drama “A French Village” has also been acclaimed for the realism with which it depicts Frenchmen during the Occupation. If only I could stream it here in the States…

Ballets Russes Program

Posted on October 23, 2014

Gallica.fr has a new feature on its site that allows you to embed some of its digitized treasures on your blog, etc. I’ll be experimenting with ways to use that feature here from time to time. In the meantime, I found this neat old Ballets Russes program from 1920 that may be of interest to the folks who just took my Lost Generation class at LSU a few weeks ago. Take a peek and let me know what you think in comments.

Bust of Napoleon III

Posted on October 23, 2014

A photo posted by @paigebowers on

I spent part of last week in Atlanta, visiting some of my favorite people, places and things. I love that no matter where I go and what I do, I always manage to find a bit of France. This time: It was Napoleon III in all his mustachioed glory.

Gerald and Sara — Many Fetes

Posted on July 23, 2014

saraandgeralddancing

 Photo:  © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I’ve been preparing a new class for LSU Continuing Education that I’ll teach this fall about the Lost Generation. Although it will discuss how World War I impacted the mindset of people in this time and influenced creative disciplines from writing to painting and dance to theater, it will also look at some of the personalities that became so famous — and infamous — during this era.

Obviously, my class will hear about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But it will also learn about Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, the Ballets Russes and many others that were pushing the creative envelope in one of the world’s greatest cities — Paris, France. And it will also learn about some lesser-known, but no less influential folks, like the dancing couple up above. They’re Gerald and Sara Murphy, they were American and well-to-do and they mingled with pretty much everyone who was anyone creatively during this period. Ever heard the saying “Living Well Is The Best Revenge”? Well, Gerald Murphy coined it, and anyone in the Murphys’ orbit knew that few lived better and more interesting lives than that particular duo. Random facts about them: They were perhaps the first people in France to own a waffle iron, they had one of the best private collections of African-American spiritual music (which they sang in perfect two-part harmony at their cocktail parties), and they used to enlist Man Ray to shoot their family portraits.

Here is a 1962 profile written about the couple in The New Yorker.

The bottom line is that these were people you really needed to know. And I can’t wait to introduce them to my class in September.

One of the reasons why I can’t wait to talk about the Murphys is because you don’t really hear about the them a lot, unless you read very deeply about the Roaring Twenties. But you might have come across them (sort of) and not realized it, if you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is The Night.

Many scholars agree that Fitzgerald modeled Dick and Nicole Diver after the Murphys for about the first half of the book, recreating their very charmed life in Paris and on the French Riviera for his readership. In the second half of the book, the Divers seem to become an entirely different couple and I’ll be talking about who that couple was and why scholars seem to think Scott seemed to have no qualms about such a mashup in his manuscript. He dedicated his book to the Murphys, but when they first read it, they felt betrayed.

One year after Tender’s publication, the Murphys were undergoing a terrible family tragedy. At that time, Gerald wrote Scott, saying “I know now that what you said in Tender in the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life — the unreal part — has had any scheme any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed. In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in our only vulnerable spot…”

The Murphys have a wonderful and ultimately tragic story that I look forward to telling in about a month and a half from now, one that provides an interesting framework for a time and a people who may have felt likewise blundered, scarred and destroyed. If you’re in the Baton Rouge area, I hope you’ll consider taking the class to find out more about them. If not, please stay tuned here as I share anecdotes, pictures, videos and music that I’ll be featuring in the class.

And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask away in comments.

Monday Reader: Bastille Day Edition

Posted on July 14, 2014

bastilleday

 

Today is Bastille Day, the French equivalent of our July 4. Here are a few interesting reads and things about it from around the web:

From Deceptive Cadence, NPR Classical’s blog, here’s a quiz about the French national anthem, known as ‘La Marseillaise.’ I scored six out of six on it. But then again, I am just the type of person whose ears perk up and eyes get misty every time this tune is played.  For a wonderful old recording of the song, visit Gallica.fr, the web site of the Bibliotheque Nationale, for this treat from 1908.

From USA Today, an explainer about why Americans should care about France’s fete nationale.

From France24.com, an interview with Christophe Bertonneau, the mastermind of this year’s breathtaking fireworks display, which was fired straight from the Eiffel Tower. If you can get your hands on YouTube video of this spectacle, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of World War I, you won’t regret it.

From The New Yorker’s News Desk, an item about this annual military display and the struggle to acknowledge contributions from colonial troops from countries like AlgeriaThe Christian Science Monitor reports that for the first time ever, three Algerian vets were invited to take part in the parade. But it also gives a good primer on the complicated relationship between the two countries, which has existed since the early nineteenth century.

From cbsnews.com, a slideshow about the celebration.

From The New York Times’ T Magazine Blog, a timely ode to le grand aioli complete with a recipe.

Did you read anything about Bastille Day that you found interesting? If so, what was it? And if you have any questions about Paris, Bastille Day, or France in general, please don’t hesitate to ask me in comments.

 

 

Monday Reader: 5/19/2014

Posted on May 19, 2014

I hadn’t been to Miami in a good, long while. This past weekend made me need to visit it more. More on my South Florida sojourn at some other point this week. For now, let’s check out a few interesting, eclectic and/or engaging reads:

There aren’t many people who’d want to cling to a stained cotton night shirt that has been in their family for centuries. Then again, there aren’t many people who have the last nightshirt that Napoleon I, emperor of France, ever wore. The NYT’s Elaine Sciolino tells the story about how the descendants of the diminuitive emperor’s servant — Achille Archambault — are at odds about whether to auction off the relic or keep it in the family forevermore. As Sciolino writes: “The stakes – and potential profits – are significant. In the last several years, objects linked to Napoleon have attracted global interest and exorbitant prices at auction. In 2007, a gold-encrusted sword Napoleon wore into the battle of Marengo in Italy was sold for more than $6.4 million, quadruple its estimated value, by the Osenat auction house. That same year, a letter written by Napoleon to his then-lover Josephine (later the Empress of France) sold at Christie’s in London for $556,000, five times more than had been estimated.” In a year when Napoleon-mania is as strong as ever (it’s the 200th anniversary of his exile to the island of Elba), the nightshirt would likely command top dollar. It will be interesting to see how the fight between Archambault’s descendants plays out, and whether this storied shirt remains with one branch of their family, or with an entirely different owner.

We’re a couple of weeks away from the 70th anniversary of the D-Day assault, where American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate France from the Germans. Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner writes about war photographer Robert Capa’s iconic images of the assault. Meanwhile, France 24 writes about how American veterans are angry that France won’t be flying them over for a commemoration of the event. France never promised these vets anything of the sort, one unnamed source said. It just said the vets would be welcome to come…at their own expense. Meanwhile, this week the Hotel Lutetia, which was known for housing Nazi officers during World War II, will be putting almost everything inside of it on the auction block this week. The historic Left Bank property will be closed for the next few years as it undergoes an extensive renovation. More than 3,000 objects are up for grabs, from sculptures and wine, to the reception counter and cream pitchers. More than 10,000 visitors have already filed through the hotel in search of treasures worth their bid.