Aquae Sulis and Mr. Darcy

My most recent travels saw me arriving in a beautiful little English town once known as Aquae Sulis. Doesn’t ring a bell? Today, it’s called Bath and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich past. If you’re into history, either of the Roman era or the Georgian period (or both!), this is a destination for you. It’s an easy trip from London, just 97 miles (1.5 hour by train) west of London. You’ll love it even more if you happen to also be a fan of Jane Austen, who lived here at several points in her life.

As you may have guessed, all these things fascinate me. Well, it was much more the Georgian era that drew me to Bath, but I was pleasantly surprised, upon visiting the Roman Baths center, by how the site managed to captivate me. In the interest of sticking to chronological order, let’s talk about that first.

When the Romans arrived in Britain around AD 43, they found a settlement of Celtic Britons around a site with a large natural hot spring and a shrine dedicated to a goddess named Sulis. The invaders duly named the town Aquae Sulis – Latin for “the waters of Sulis” – and built a major bath complex and temple around it (as shown above; click to enlarge photos). They encouraged the natives to continue worshipping Sulis, with whom they identified their goddess Minerva, a factor that helped the Britons to accept the invasion.

In the Roman days, the large bath shown above was covered with a vault roof. After the baths were rediscovered and restored in the 18th century, they were left without a roof and the sunlight stimulated the growth of algae, which is what’s responsible for this green color. There were other baths (hotter and colder ones), as well as various other rooms (saunas, massage rooms) similar to what you find in modern spas today. This center is really well done – in addition to seeing the baths themselves, visitors are taken through the site’s history with interactive museum exhibits and a high-quality audio guide available in some 15 languages.

In 1979, some archaeologists poking around in the Sacred Spring, the innermost pool of the bath complex (shown in the cover image of this post), found a number of “curse tablets” that had been thrown into it during the Roman days. Unhappy individuals would carve requests for vengeance upon those who had wronged them onto bits of flattened lead, roll them up and toss them into the waters for direct delivery to the goddess Sulis/Minerva who, they hoped, would proceed to take action.

The most common complaint was of theft, and the punishments sought tended to be rather harsh, along lines such as “may whoever nabbed my cloak while I was bathing lose his eyesight and his mind and never recover either until such day as he has returned my belongings to me”. Sometimes the accuser would make things easier for the goddess by listing the names of suspects. Did the curses work? We’ll never know, but a simple locker room could have prevented a lot of trouble!

(Don’t miss this great tutorial for making your very own curse tablet! And see if you can figure out what the author’s curse was.)

Also discovered in the baths were beautiful engraved semi-precious stones and colored glass that probably fell out of bathers’ jewelry, loosened from their settings by the heat.

The site does an excellent job of helping you travel back in time to the Roman days. Alongside some of the ruins, reproduction walls have been set up, but with a space between them and the floor to remind you which parts are real. In the various dark spaces of the labyrinthine baths, hologram-like projections of Roman bathers, complete with the sounds of their murmurs and dripping water, spookily recreate the mood of the distant past. These translucent beings were rather like ghosts… I wondered with a kind of delicious frisson whether one of them might turn and look at me.

Today, it isn’t possible to actually bathe in these baths, which are still lined with lead, but you can head to the Thermae Bath Spa for a steamy rooftop swim. Imagine how nice that would be in winter!

Fast-forward about 1,800 years and you’ll have arrived in Georgian Bath, the age of an author so loved by the people of England that they put her on the 10-pound note. I agree with this honor as she’s one of my favorites too. In Bath, you can visit the Jane Austen Centre, located on one of the same streets she lived on. Although it isn’t her former house, the center offers information about her life as well as artifacts from Georgian households and a short film hosted by the guy who played evil Mr. Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. At this point I should confess that Mr. Darcy himself doesn’t really have any connection with Bath; I’ve just shamelessly used him as shorthand for all things Jane Austen, and also because I liked the idea of contrasting him (in the Colin Firth incarnation) with Emperor Claudius above. The city features prominently in some of her other books though, in particular Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

If you’re already very well versed on Jane Austen’s life, touring the Jane Austen Centre probably won’t teach you anything new, but there are nicely done wax statues of her and Mr. Darcy, and you can dress up in Georgian clothing and have your photo taken. You may also like to browse in the gift shop (Darcy and Lizzie Christmas tree ornaments!) or (unlike me) have tea and fancy cakes in their upstairs Regency Tea Room. A brochure for the tea room even mentions vegan options, though I suspect you would want to call well ahead and check on that.

Every year in September, the city also hosts a Jane Austen festival.

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The Jane Austen points of interest continue at the Pump Room, located right next to the Roman Baths, where people used to go to drink medicinal waters in the hope of curing their various ailments. It was also just a fashionable place to be, to see and be seen. It is here that Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, first meets a special someone. The Pump Room is now a restaurant but still serves water from the spring that supplies the Roman Baths. The illustration above, by Thomas Rowlandson, shows how the Pump Room appeared in 1798. At left in the foreground, we see someone in a Bath chair, an early wheelchair invented in the city for the many invalids who flocked there.

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Another highlight of my visit was a tour through the beautiful Georgian home at No. 1 Royal Crescent, decorated as it might have looked between 1776 and 1796. Those of you who enjoyed my last post can imagine it as George Warleggan’s house (keep that in mind in a moment when you see what’s kept right next to his bed!).

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A cheerful table laid for breakfast. While you ate your toast and sipped your morning beverage (hot chocolate? coffee?), you could catch up on the latest gossip in the local newspaper. Who has lately arrived to take the waters in Bath? Who has just promised their innocent daughter to that gouty old man living on Cheap Street?

A gentleman doing well enough to live in this home would also have had the latest scientific gadgets, including an updated globe (this one appears to be Italian), and a device you can use to cure your own ailments at home using electric sparks (I didn’t get a photo of that).

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All ready for tea in the sitting room. Notice the cups have no handles, in the style of the cups used in China. For this reason, this type of cup is often called “tea bowl”.

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The elegant dining room set for dessert. The curators of this house did an excellent job of recreating the intricate molded blancmanges and other fancy desserts of the day out of silicone. The plates used here each illustrate a different scene from Aesop’s Fables. There’s more I could say about this room, but I should leave some things for you to discover on your own when you visit (don’t forget to ask about the pineapple and what used to happen behind that folding screen in the corner!).

Below stairs, in the kitchen, chunks of sugar were cut off of loafs and then ground up in a mortar. For any food historians reading this: the cookbook on the table is Food and Cooking in 18th-Century Britain by Jennifer Stead. Meat was sometimes cooked on a turning spit powered by a dog in a sort of dismal hamster wheel. The breed normally used for this purpose has since become extinct. Thankfully, this practice was already on its way out by the advent of the Georgian era.

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The gentleman’s bedroom, across the hall from his wife’s. Its furnishings include a washstand chest with a… chamber pot (?!) in its bottom drawer. Or perhaps it’s designed for footbaths. But if it IS a chamber pot, it’s hard to imagine how they could have kept that from smelling terrible even when closed. But then perhaps no one would have noticed, as personal hygiene was shockingly basic in this period. Ironically, given the name of the city and what should have been easy access to healthful spring waters, people bathed and washed their hair just once a year. Women wore their wigs day and night and kept their faces spackled with various substances including lead, followed by an egg-white wash and beauty patches to cover their smallpox scars. They also made liberal use of lavender, orange-blossom and rose essences, but really, how much difference can that have made? The Romans, who not only washed but also exfoliated on a regular basis, would rightly have been appalled if they could have glimpsed into the future.

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Apart from its museums (and there were many more I didn’t have time to visit), Bath is also just a very pretty town. Here, the Avon River is spanned by Pulteney Bridge, famous for being one of the world’s last bridges to still have shops along its full length on both sides. It was used in the 2012 film Les Misérables to recreate the look of Revolutionary-era Paris – Russell Crowe as Javert jumps off it to his (Javert’s!) death.

You can always stroll through Bath on your own, but a nice way to get a broader view of the city is to go on a walking tour. I went on this one with the charismatic and knowledgeable Mr. Elliott and definitely recommend it.

“What about food?” you may be wondering. “Are vegan options hard to find?” you may or may not be about to ask. The answer is no, they’re blissfully easy to find, as they generally are in the UK.

As much as Bath is steeped in ancient and less-ancient history, it also has one foot resolutely in the 21st century, so plant-based food is a thing there. I went to and recommend Chapel Arts Café (all vegan), where I had garlicky mushroom flatbreads with cashew crème fraîche, followed by carrot cake, The Green Rocket (mostly vegan), which offers a seitan and leek dish with puff pastry, a salad platter with hummus and tatziki sauce and onion rings, and Zizzi (a UK-wide omni chain with lots of vegan options – ask for their separate vegan menu), where I had “beetballs” and pizza with housemade vegan mozzarella. All really good! There were more veg restaurants than this, but sadly not enough time to try them all.

So there you have the lovely city of Bath, in a very brief and non-exhaustive nutshell. Definitely worth the detour for a weekend if you’re going to be in London. In the meantime, for a closer look at the city, check out the many mini-documentaries on YouTube (like this one about the Roman Baths, or this one about houses in Jane Austen’s day).

Cornish seitan pie

R&D.jpgIf you’ve been watching the hit BBC television series Poldark, a new adaptation of the book series by Winston Graham set in breathtakingly beautiful Cornwall, you may have noticed many meals consisting of savory pies. You’ll have seen them at Ross Poldark’s home Nampara at least, where the fare is simpler and more homespun than at Trenwith House and other wealthier residences. Demelza and Prudie can often be seen pounding dough on the countertop for this very purpose.

Cornish savory pies are traditionally filled with potato, turnip and beef (we’ll use seitan), and are basically a larger version of the well known Cornish pasty, which is a single-serving savory turnover filled with the same ingredients. Miners found them handy to take down into the mine with them for their lunch break. Some say that the edge served as a handle of sorts, so people could eat it with dirty mining hands and throw the edge away at the end.

A savory pie even played a role in the budding romance between Demelza and Ross in season 1 episode 3, as her newly acquired baking skills impress him and she begins to find her way to his heart through his stomach. Or at least in part – he likes other things about her too.

Now you can make a similar pie yourself and impress the dashing redcoat in your own life. But wait, this is the 21st century! So maybe he can make his own pie, but if he needs help getting started, you can share this recipe. 😀

Cornish seitan pie

Makes one 9 in. (23 cm) pie.

2 cups (250 g) seitan, finely sliced
1½ cup (150 g) yellow onion, diced
1½ cup (175 g) firm-fleshed potato, diced
1¼ cup (125 g) turnip, diced
1 tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence or Italian herb blend
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 teaspoon white pepper
1/3 cup (40 g) flour
2 cups (500 ml) vegetable broth
2/3 cup (160 ml) unsweetened non-dairy milk (not rice milk)
2 pie crusts (non-flaky)

Begin by assembling your ingredients. Peel and dice the potato and onion, and dice the turnip (no peeling needed). Set aside.

Slice the seitan into thin, bite-sized pieces, about 2 in. (5 cm) long and 1/4 in. (0.5 cm) thick.

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Heat a bit of olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the seitan a few minutes until the sides are a bit browned. Add the soy sauce, taking care to distribute it evenly, and stir well to coat all the pieces. Set aside to cool.

In a large stockpot, heat a bit of olive oil over medium. Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion is slightly browned and translucent. Add the potato and turnip and cook for five minutes, stirring frequently. Now add the flour and stir to distribute evenly. Allow the flour to “toast” several minutes, again stirring often, and then add soy sauce, herbs and other seasonings as well as the vegetable broth and non-dairy milk. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and turnips are tender (about 15 minutes). Watch over the progress and add a bit more water or milk if the mixture seems to become too dry.

Taste and adjust seasonings to your taste. If it needs more salt, add more soy sauce in small amounts, tasting as you go along. Keep in mind that the seitan will be salty due to the soy sauce it was sautéed in, so you won’t want the vegetable mixture to be overly salty. Remove from heat and allow to cool a few minutes before going on to the next step.

Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Line your pie plate with one of the pie crusts, making sure to press the dough into the bottom edge. Place the seitan into the crust, distributing it evenly across the bottom. Cover with the vegetable mixture. If the bottom crust hangs over the edges of your pie plate, as mine does (see above), measure the diameter and cut a circle of dough to form a top crust that will just cover the filling and then fold the overhanging dough of the bottom crust over the top and crimp the edges with your thumbs. With the remaining dough, you can cut leaf shapes (or whatever other shape that strikes your fancy). To make sure my leaves were all the same size, I cut a template from a piece of scrap paper.

Arrange the leaves symmetrically on the top crust and poke a hole in the center of the crust for hot air to escape. To give the crust a bit of shine, brush unsweetened soy milk over it evenly. Bake the pie on a center rack for about 35 minutes until it’s golden brown and smells scrumptious. 🙂

Remove from oven and allow to cool at least 30 minutes before cutting into it. If it’s still too hot, the filling will spill out from the sides onto the plate and you won’t have a nice solid slice. For this reason, it can be useful to make this dish ahead of time and then just heat it up briefly in the oven before serving.

Ideally, or perhaps depending how much of a Poldark fan you are, you’ll present this pie on a table spread with an old-timey delicate tablecloth like this one that I happened to find at a rummage sale just the other day, and you’ll use vintagey plates and cut it with a rustic-looking knife. A flagon of ale or glass of red wine will be the perfect accompaniment.

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At the end of dinner, bring out a dish filled with fruit native to Europe (I often notice grapes on the characters’ tables on the show). By the way, check out the monogram on my rummage-sale tablecloth! There’s an R for Ross, and an A for…? Hmm, that part doesn’t fit as well.

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After your meal, take a stroll to the nearest clifftop and gaze out at the sea dreamily as the wind blows through your hair.

Variations: Use the same filling to make individual pasties, cutting each pie dough in half and folding each half over once to make a turnover shape. Use other firm vegetables such as carrot or broccoli instead of potato and turnip. Just make sure they’re fairly tender before they go into the pie.

Cathedral spires and Jules Verne

A couple weeks ago, to celebrate a good friend’s birthday, I took him on a surprise day trip to the town of Amiens, just an hour north of Paris by train. Actually, it was only a partial surprise as I’d told him we were going on a day trip, but hadn’t said where to… only that it would take under two hours to get there by train (to throw him off the track a bit, since that encompasses a lot of destinations). He was pleased when he heard the train conductor announce that we were headed for Amiens, since (as I knew) he had never yet been there.

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Luck was mainly on our side, this day. The weather was nice—suitably sunny and warm. We got out of the train station and began heading toward the city center. As we walked, I took a few shots of some cute old-timey building façades. On the white building, in beautiful Art Nouveau lettering, it says North Train Station Seed Company.

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As soon as we started heading toward the river, we began to see the spires of the cathedral appear above the rooftops. A block or two later, after a turn around a corner, the enormous building emerged as a whole.

But before visiting it, arriving as we had at 1 pm, the first order of business was to have lunch. After the Lebanese restaurant I’d planned for us to go to disappointingly turned out to be closed during its normal business hours (the one thing that went wrong on this day, so I can’t really complain), we headed for another one on my list. Fuji Yama, listed on Happy Cow as an especially vegan-friendly eatery, turned out to be a good source of tasty maki, temaki and glazed mushroom skewers. As we savored our postprandial pot of green tea, my friend speculated as to the rest of the activities I had up my sleeve.

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One of the sites we would see was nevertheless easy enough to guess: the cathedral. We paid our check and made our way to it through some narrow streets full of old houses that were very charming indeed—especially to me, the non-European who is still in awe of such things even after eight years here.

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A network of narrow canals criss-crossing a section of town connects to the River Somme, which divides Amiens in half. Here, a canal flows along a street near the cathedral. It made me think of the film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Built remarkably quickly between 1220 and 1270, the Amiens Cathedral is the tallest complete cathedral in France (at 112 m/369 ft)  and the 19th largest cathedral in the world. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981.

A documentary about this cathedral can be seen here.

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I didn’t take many photos inside (to see the interior, check the documentary linked to just above), but this enchanting play of stained-glass-filtered light and shadow deserved to be remembered.

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I also happened upon these three gilded feathers, which took my imagination to some fanciful places as I imagined cherub statues coming to life and flying around under the vaulted ceilings at night. Perhaps they soared a bit too enthusiastically and lost some plumage along the way.

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I am not overly fond of either heights or very narrow, endless stone stairs in a spiral configuration, but Birthday Guy is, so I indulged him and we went up the tower for some panoramic views of the city.

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There are about 300 steps up, in total. But don’t look down before you reach the top!

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Some people from bygone days (to whom the cathedral was already ancient) left names and dates on the staircase walls.

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Views from the first level. Already quite high enough for me… but there were still more steps to climb.

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At the very top, we walked around among the tower’s uppermost stone encrustations under the watchful eye of a guide. In any case, it would have been harder to fall from this level than from the lower (but still lethal) one.

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A view of Amiens and the River Somme.

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I had to admit the views were rather worth the stomach-fluttering climb up those steps (and the seemingly interminable descent).

Next, we moved on to what I knew would be the highlight of our visit to Amiens: Jules Verne‘s house! Although born in Nantes, the prolific and visionary proto-sci-fi author lived in this house with his family for eight years just before the turn of the century. Today, it is a museum honoring his life’s work.

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A globe structure sits atop the building’s tower in homage to his most famous work, Around the World in 80 Days (1873). In front of the home’s winter garden, an elegant Art Nouveau verrière stretches out to shield visitors from the elements.

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Beautiful tiles on the house’s façade featuring the typical colors and organic floral shapes of the art movement.

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The music room.

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An imposing fireplace in the dining room.

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Jules Verne’s own personal shoebutton hooks, nail buffer and… toothbrush?

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Another impossibly elegant room.

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A parlor with sofas that were graced by the bottoms of many famous Victorians, back in the day. George Sand was one of them, but I have forgotten the others.

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Copies of Verne’s writings on his desk.

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A recreation of the interior of one of Verne’s boats, which may have inspired the vessel featured in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871).

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An undated letter accompanying the gift of a gold-handled walking stick from the Boys’ Empire League in England. My favorite part, from a description of how the funds to buy the gift were raised: “Boys are not much burdened with pocket money, as you know…”.

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A set of Around the World in 80 Days dessert plates! What I wouldn’t give to have one of these.

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Period Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea board games.

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Around the World in 80 Days trading cards.

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I couldn’t help taking a moment to admire these embroidery-upholstered chairs!

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Here, we have a framed section of some Around the World in 80 Days wallpaper from the time of the book’s first success. Who wouldn’t like to have a room papered with this?

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An 1881 essay titled Ten Hour Hunt, in which Verne describes the trials and tribulations of his first and only experience hunting. “There are some who do not care for hunters,” it begins, “and perhaps they are not totally wrong.” Verne was a visionary in the realm of science; perhaps his forward-thinking extended to other areas as well.

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A wheeled lobster with bat wings… or, alternatively, a model of one of Verne’s imagined flying machinges.

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Cross-section of a model of the rocket used to travel through the heavens in From the Earth to the Moon (1865). A top hat is a must when exploring space—especially if you expect to meet with high-ranking representatives of moon people. You’ll also be glad of the table lamps, wallpaper and velvet-upholstered chairs when they come round for tea.

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A poster advertising an 1892 theatrical production of From the Earth to the Moon in Reims. Those moon women look suspiciously corseted.

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Ten years later, cinematography pioneer Georges Méliès would make a silent film adaptation of the story. You can watch it here in a restored version with a wonderfully otherworldly 2012 soundtrack by French band Air.

Visiting this house made me realize I haven’t yet read much Jules Vernes at all. Only Journey to the Center of the Earth, ages ago, and in English! This lamentable oversight is something I hope to correct in the very near future. One book that I’m especially eager to read is Paris in the Twentieth Century. Written in 1863, its depiction of the dystopian world of 1960 was deemed too unbelievable by Verne’s publisher and so was never published during his life. It was finally released for the first time in 1994 and the predictions apparently proved remarkably prescient. Still waiting for the monorail at Bastille though…

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The end of the house tour. Time to head home!

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On our way back to the train station, I noticed this decidedly modern building, which provided a curious kind of contrast to all the 19th-century (and Victorian retrofuture) images I had just been steeping in. Also, it strangely reminded me of a cute United Nude shoe, which has nothing to do with anything else I’ve been talking about. 😉

But I digress. What I wanted to say, to conclude this post, is that Amiens is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Paris for a longer stay or are just a huge fan or cathedrals, Jules Verne, or both! If you reserve your ticket a couple of weeks ahead of time, train fare is only 10 euros each way.

My best reads of 2016

For 2016, I set myself the goal of reading 30 books, and managed to pull it off, finishing the 30th one (José Saramago’s The Double) in the last few days of December. As you will see, these are not books published in 2016, just the ones that I happened to read in that year.

It has occurred to me that if you like my blog, you might also share some of my taste in literature. And who knows, perhaps you’ve set yourself a reading challenge for this new year and would like some recommendations. So, without further ado, here are the books I liked most, presented in the order in which I read them.

Lady Susan (1794) by Jane Austen

lady-susanWith the advent of the Kindle, it has become very easy to collect public-domain classics and to make your way through an author’s entire œuvre. I acquired the novella Lady Susan in this way and, since my goal is to read all of Austen’s works, began reading without taking the time to check what exactly it was about, or whether it was considered one of her best or a lesser work. I was thus pleasantly surprised by this very witty story. The exploits of scheming socialite and recent widow Lady Susan Vernon, as she attempts to find husbands for herself and her daughter regardless of the cost to others, are revealed in clever and comical ways by the epistolary structure, which also allows for multiple points of view. Published posthumously, this book suffers from a rather abrupt ending that may be due to Austen’s simply not having had time to finish it, or not intending to publish it. But the story is such a good one that this does not detract much from the overall experience and is not, in my opinion, enough cause to skip it. In fact, it has generated so much interest that two modern novels inspired by or even retelling the story have been published: Lady Susan (a novel), by Phyllis Ann Karr (1980) and Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, by mother-and-daughter authors Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway (2009). Whit Stillman’s 2016 film adaptation, titled Love & Friendship in homage to an early Austen work, has been much praised. I have not seen it yet myself, so this is one of my goals for 2017! [EDIT: I’ve now seen the film, and it’s only so-so. But the novella is great.]

Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna (2003) by Peter Singer

9780732290016In the spring of 2015, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was asked to interpret for Australian philosopher Peter Singer at a press conference prior to his talk at an animal-rights event in Paris. Although I do not normally do interpretation (my specialty is written translation), it was an honor and a pleasure to meet Singer and to help facilitate his interviews with the French media. In between things, I had the chance to chat with him a bit and he mentioned that he had done some translation work himself (from German) for a book he wrote about his grandfather, the Austrian classical scholar David Oppenheim, who perished in a Nazi concentration camp. I found a copy of Pushing Time Away during my next visit to the US and delved in. I was immediately captivated by this unique work, which is part biography, part history (of Vienna, its psychology circles and the war years) and part personal reflection (Singer’s musings on love and courage). To learn about his grandfather, whom he never met, Singer traveled to Vienna and searched through his aunt’s old papers in the hope of finding something that would shed more light on this man’s life. He found letters exchanged between his grandfather and grandmother that tell of an unusual love story and a great deal of open-mindedness for the day. Singer also found academic papers and research Oppenheim carried out for Sigmund Freud before breaking with him over a point of honor and becoming a supporter of Alfred Adler. In all his dealings with his fellow man, Oppenheim showed thoughtfulness, compassion and loyalty. As I read, I came to greatly admire this man, and after getting to know him in these pages felt all the more keenly the tragedy of the way he met his end. It is an important life story that everyone can benefit from, especially at times such as these when the consequences of ignoring George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” are more chilling than ever.

Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s (2007) by Jennifer Worth

call-the-midwifeThis book, which is actually the first in a trilogy, came to my attention after I saw the excellent television series based on it. In Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth recalls her experiences and the stories of people she met while working as a midwife in post-war London’s East End slums and living in a convent with a group of nuns. From the mother of 24 who gives birth to her 25th prematurely under dangerous conditions to the 14-year-old Irish girl who has run away from her unstable home and become involved in prostitution, as well as stories about the lives of the nuns and Worth’s fellow nurses, the book paints a detailed picture of this page in history. You also learn many fascinating details about childbirth that cannot be conveyed in the series as they would be far too graphic (and in any case are undoubtedly better to read about than to see!). It is thus one of the many cases in which the film or television adaptation, while good, is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m hoping to read the rest of the books soon, and then to catch up in the shows. Another goal for 2017.

The Patience Stone (2008) by Atiq Rahimi

the-patience-stoneI learned about this novel when I discovered Ann Morgan’s A Year of Reading the World project of a few years ago, in which she challenged herself to read a book from each of the world’s 196 countries in the space of one year. And as she went along, she posted reviews of each book on her blog, which she continues to update. I browsed through the entries alphabetically and was fascinated by the very first country. For Afghanistan, she wrote, she wanted something not written by the mega-famous Khaled Hosseini. After some digging, she found Syngué Sabour, written in French by Afghan author and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi, who came to France as a political refugee in 1985. The story, for which Rahimi won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, focuses on an unnamed woman who tries to care for her comatose husband alone at home in a city in the clutches of war. His condition creates a complete reversal in the dynamics of their relationship: whereas she has always been under his thumb, he is now dependent on her mercy for survival. As time goes by and the situation in the city grows more desperate, she finds her tongue loosening and begins to confide her frustrations, longings and secrets to the unresponsive man. I was attracted by this plot but also by the fact that I could read it in the original language (as a translator, I am all too aware of how nuances of meaning and effect can be lost in translation, even in the most skilled hands). In an interview, Rahimi explained that he first tried to write this story in Dari but that the words would just not come. It was only in an outside language that he could speak of topics such as the ones in this book. As I read this novel in French, I cannot vouch for the quality of the English translation (by Polly McLean), but judging from her positive review of the novel, Morgan seems to have liked it. I also highly recommend the beautiful 2012 film adaptation, which was directed by the author himself.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) by D.H. Lawrence

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I had been familiar with the title of this book for years but didn’t know about its contents or the scandals it created until I saw the series A Very British Romance. In it, host Lucy Worsley tells us about the major English romantic novels that influenced not only later literature but also society as a whole, and more specifically people’s views and expectations of romance. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is mentioned among these, although with its explicit descriptions (and they are quite explicit!) of the protagonists’ sexual adventures, it proved too risqué for its time and was banned until the 1960s. It tells the story of an aristocratic woman with a passionate nature whose husband sustains a spinal injury early in their marriage. He wants a child to carry on his family name and, unable to help his wife conceive himself thanks to his injuries, encourages her to seek outside assistance. He does not, however, count on it being someone from the working class. And neither does she, initially. I sympathized with the plights of most of the characters and found the love story between Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper lover quite touching. The novel has been adapted for film and television many times, but Jed Mercurio’s 2015 version for the BBC (also the only one I have seen so far) was quite good.

Deaf Sentence (2008) by David Lodge

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This intelligent and very funny novel, which I picked up by chance in the foreign-books section of my local library here in Paris, deals with the unlikely combination of deafness and death, although not in a causal relationship. Its central character is a recently retired and increasingly deaf linguistics professor who wants nothing more than to relax and enjoy his new-found freedom, but who must contend with his difficult elderly father and an attractive female grad student with strange demands. Author David Lodge manages to find the right balance between comedy, as his protagonist attempts to rein in his stubborn father’s eccentricities and to conceal his own deafness in a series of improbable but humiliating situations, and poignancy, as he watches the fire inside his proud father dim. The linguistics enthusiasts out there will enjoy the academic points that Lodge (a former literature professor) weaves into his hero’s narrative in a subtle enough way that the lay person will not be put off, as well as his witty plays on words around the concept of deafness. With regard to this last point, Lodge wins extra points from me for the preface in which he acknowledges the difficulty his translators of this book face and expresses appreciation for their efforts.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) by Karen Joy Fowler

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I had not heard much about this book, apart from its title, prior to receiving it as a birthday gift this past fall, but was intrigued by the gift-giver’s injunction not to read anything about the book before starting it. And after finishing the book, I can say that she was right! There is something quite unexpected in this story that you will not want to have spoiled for you, and so I will say only what is already revealed in the official synopsis. It is about a young woman who lost her sister, and then her brother, under mysterious circumstances during her childhood and struggles to deal with these losses in a city far from her home where nobody knows her past. We watch her struggling to keep on blocking the memories but inevitably yielding to a pull to uncover and solve them. A very touching story that has much more beneath the surface than one expects.

The Double (2002) by José Saramago

the-doubleI discovered this Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author ten years ago, when I happened upon a copy of All the Names in Switzerland. Saramago is famous for his very original punctuation style. Rather than setting dialogue apart from the narrative, he flows from one into the other and back again, and uses only a capital letter at the start of a new turn to indicate a change in speakership. Sentences can be very long, composed of series of independent clauses separated just by commas. When Saramago actually uses a period, you know that he really wants to make an impact. While many hate his books for this, it is one of the things that endear them to me. I enjoy the challenge of having to work a bit to follow a story rather than being more passively entertained. I also love Saramago’s subtle dry humor, and the way he has of getting you to simultaneously cheer on and shake your head over the underdog heroes of his works. The protagonist of The Double, a high-school history teacher with an unfortunate first name who seems to be drifting through his life without attempting to direct it, is no exception to this. We are privy to the teacher’s every thought as he struggles with the challenges of his everyday life and then his discovery of an actor in a film who resembles him identically. New characters pop up to complicate things, including his own common sense, which appears at various points to try to make him see reason but most often exits the scene in exasperation. Translated brilliantly by Margaret Jull Costa, the novel’s original title is O Homem Duplicado (The Duplicated Man). It incidentally inspired a recent film titled Enemy, which I saw not long after finishing the novel. All I can say about it is… read the book instead! I will be stubborn and not even link to it here because it falls so far short. Most of the book’s value and humor resides in the main character’s inner experiences, and this is completely lost in the film version, which is also much more of a high-tension psychological drama than the book seems meant to be. But I can imagine Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson doing a good job with it. Let’s hope one of them gives it a go at some point!

Honorable mentions

The following are other books I read in 2016 that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone, but that I personally got something from, either because I was fascinated by the story/topic or because analyzing its structure was useful for identifying and reflecting upon various literary techniques and strategies.

Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself (2013) by Sarah A. Chrisman. The author’s account of what wearing a corset and incorporating more and more Victorian-era clothing into her daily life taught her about the past and how it changed her present. The book contains some digressions, but I enjoyed it overall and admire what Chrisman is doing. Over time, she and her husband have created a lifestyle for themselves that probably comes as close to the late 1800s as it’s possible to get in our day and age. Photos and more stories can be found on her blog, This Victorian Life.

Helen Keller in Love (2012) by Rosie Sultan. It was recently discovered that Helen Keller (1880-1968), the world’s most famous deaf-blind person, had a brief romance with a man hired as her temporary secretary. Little is known about what happened apart from the fact that any plans they had together were foiled by her family. In this novel, Sultan imagines what Keller’s experiences with this man might have been. Writing from Keller’s point of view is certainly an ambitious thing, and I found some parts of her experience to stretch the imagination a bit much, but it was a fascinating topic to contemplate.

Below Stairs (1968) by Margaret Powell. This book caught my eye because of my interest in shows like Downton Abbey, and in particular the life of the servants. I have to confess that I feel a kind of connection to them due to my experience working as a waitress, a job that makes similar (albeit far less extensive) demands upon the body and soul. The content of this book—stories of Powell’s work as a kitchen maid and then cook at a series of grand houses in the early 20th century—was interesting, but I wished it had been better edited and that she had not glossed over certain potentially more exciting parts of her story, such as how she met her husband, who was her long-hoped-for ticket out of that life. If you begin this book already knowing that it reads like a lightly edited transcript of an informal monologue, you will not be too disappointed.

What were your favorite books from 2016? Share them in the comments. 🙂