Versailles is the architecture of power

However insane and over-the-top you think the Chateau Versailles is, double it at least.

It’s lovely, don’t get me wrong. But the whole complex includes not one, not two, but three palaces, an opera house, gardens large enough to have bike rental services, and Marie Antoinette’s fake village.

This is not my most successful photo. I was trying to capture the yellow room I was standing in, the green one that followed, the blue one after that, and the red one in the distance, all with the same texture on the wallpaper. It was an interesting effect in person (there was clearly not a hallway here).

The Hall of Mirrors was very fancy and very crowded.

There is just so much gold leaf everywhere. Dial it down a notch or two. Yeesh.

The gardens are both gorgeous and ginormous. You can rent boats to take out on the Grand Bassin (the rectangle of water in the distance).

This is the Grand Trianon, one of the two smaller palaces at Versailles.

And this is the Petit Trianon, the other of the two smaller palaces at Versailles. I tend to think that if you have to build smaller palaces for people to escape the spectacle of the main one, you may have gone too big.

Can I interest you in a fake Greek temple to Artemis?

I find Marie Antoinette’s village kind of hilarious. I said it looked like Disneyland while my husband marveled at its existence in the first place.

I understand that she craved not being in the spotlight the whole time – she did not seem like the kind of person who enjoyed the fame that came with being the Queen of France. Not to mention that when the French Revolution started, she was basically blamed for everything when almost none of it was her fault.

But to build an entire village and then hire people to live there, just so you have a place to go escape…. Well, it seems very 1% of her, you know? (She literally didn’t know any different and she was not the type of person who could go live amongst the people… I have some empathy for her terrible situation, but she was also pretty tone deaf.)

(Beyond the fountain is the City of Versailles.) Anyway, Versailles is a day trip out of Paris and if you’re going to Paris you should go once. But I don’t know that you need to go more than that.

How to do what’s right?

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis. It is the early 1960s and he is a fan of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr – it appeals to his innate sense of right and wrong and if he can just keep doing the right thing, everything will be fine.

It’s not. He, while trying to get to his college-level classes that he is taking whilst still in high school, hitches a ride with someone who’s just stolen a car. He gets sent to a reform school, Nickel in the book, but based on Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Elwood becomes friends with Turner, a boy who has come back for his second time.

Their friendship is good and realistic and also a metaphor for how to live responsibly: do you always stand up for what is good and right (Elwood) or do you do what you have to to get by (Turner)? What is the better way to live? The book is not always clear.

It also brought home the precariousness of being Black in the South during and before the Civil Rights Movement, and not for the first time. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Emmett Till, you know how precarious life was for Black Southerners. But I mourned for Elwood and his intelligence and his promise, getting sent to a reform school where terrible things happen because he hitched a ride with the wrong person.

I read The Nickel Boys in one sitting, basically, getting up only to eat dinner. The prose is good and the story is tight. Highly, highly recommended.

Musée Rodin

The Rodin Museum is a lovely place in Paris, and it wasn’t too far from our Airbnb. So when we had a couple of hours to spare one morning, it was the perfect place to visit.

The gardens are well and truly amazing. They used to sell garden-only tickets (no longer an option), and it was worth it to bring in a lunch and relax for an hour or two. It’s a proper indoor-outdoor space.

Fierce.

Aristocratic.

Famous.

In all seriousness, Rodin had a thing for hands – there are so many disembodied hands that he sculpted. There’s a great one in the Legion of Honor in San Francisco that we always joke is the Zombie Hand.

But I love that they’re his thing. Everyone needs an obsession, and sculpting realistic hands, with their knuckles and muscles and gnarliness, must have brought him great joy.

There is a story to be written about how this woman got trapped in this block of marble. If you look closely, the marble surrounding her face is all her hair, some braided, some not. It’s just incredible.

I’m a fan of the Rodin Museum and it makes a great stop on a longer tour of the Left Bank.

I might like science fiction again

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a collection of short science fiction stories by NK Jemisin, who I had never read before.

The introduction to the book, which talks mainly about how she became a writer and the importance of short stories in that development, made me realize something. Her quote: “How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future.” I am embarrassed to say that this book made me understand how not having people of color in science fiction means the reader could think all those people are just gone from the world in the future. That’s 100% bad and not OK.

The stories, though. The stories are amazing. I loved The City Born Great, about how cities around the world, when they develop enough energy and culture from the people living in them, are born into their own thing. New York is the city in question in this story; Sao Paulo, Paris, and Lagos are just three cities who were born in the past. Los Angeles will be next. Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is a story about a man living through what seems exactly like Katrina flooding New Orleans, except there are dragons and the floodwaters have woken up the Haints, who want to destroy and eat everything. Tookie and the winged lizard fight it to save their city.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is highly recommended. I’m looking forward to reading more from NK Jemisin.

Sainte Chapelle

Sainte Chapelle is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a chapel, not a cathedral or even a full church. It’s not that big, but it is striking. The first floor – which was where the servants had their services – is lovely, but nothing to write home about.

I love the colors and patterns – that deep, rich blue and the brick red. There’s also an emerald green that gets used that’s not in that particular photo.

The detail is amazing, and this is how they decorated for the servants! Sainte Chapelle is beautiful.

But the upper floor is where your breath gets taken away. I love the gasps and wows that you hear from people entering the chapel for the first time. There are 15 HUGE stained glass windows (that’s one of them, above), all dating from the 13th century. (The wikipedia page gives a brief overview of its history.) The richness and color and light are striking and sublime.

It is one of the places where the beauty of the building might be enough to make me religious.

A friend once told me that he had a head cold when he was visiting Paris. He went into Sainte Chapelle for the first time, and sat down to rest and relish the beauty of the place. After about 20 minutes, his head cold was gone. It’s neither a traditional miracle nor a big one, but I’ll take it.

My recommendation always and forever is, if you’re visiting Paris, make sure to stop by Sainte Chapelle. It is worth it.

Absurdism + Depression makes for good storytelling

The Bell Jar is a classic, and classics… well, lots and lots and lots has already been said about them. I find it difficult to write about them.

There are two things that I found striking about this book. First, the visceral-ness of Esther’s (the main character’s) depression. She is depressed and Plath, who committed suicide, communicates that very effectively. Second, and in marked contrast to the downer of the depression is the absurdity of so much of the actual plot of the book: food poisoning an entire room, at least one failed deflowering of the main character, and the ridiculousness of Esther’s quasi-fiancé Buddy

In fact, these two things play off each other very well. Esther’s depression highlights the surrealism of the plot and the surrealism of the actions throws into relief just how far gone Esther is. She should be having very emotional reactions to everything that’s happening. But all the action is presented very flatly. It’s very effective.

I would recommend The Bell Jar very much. It’s short but effective.

Le Musée de l’Orangerie

The Musée de l’Orangerie is a small little museum in the corner of the Jardin des Tuileries that you would miss if you didn’t know it was there. It serves two different purposes. First, to house Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. Second, to house the art collections of Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume.

Monet’s Water Lilies are ginormous paintings that were some of Monet’s last. They’re all of his gardens in Giverny; he donated them to the French government when they were finished because of WWI – he wanted to honor peace. When we went to the Monet exhibit last spring, I wrote that I didn’t like them that much – lots of blobs of color. But here’s the thing: I enjoyed them way more for having been to that exhibit. I learned a lot more about Monet’s later life, his frustrations, his gardens, and how he worked.

So, lesson learned: the more you know about a subject, the more you’ll like it. Or at least be able to react to it in a smart way.

The rest of the collection is of late impressionism and early cubist paintings. They work together in a personal-taste kind of way, not because they’re all of the same artist or the same style of painting. It’s one of the reasons I like the Orangerie better than some of the other museums in Paris. It’s not overwhelmingly big and the collection is more eclectic.

Marie Laurencin is a painter that I’ve not seen displayed elsewhere. I enjoy her works, mostly of women and dogs. Stuff You Missed in History Class recently featured her on their podcast, and I was glad to learn more about her and her style of painting.

This painting is by Chaïm Soutine, and I love the Loony-toons quality of it. This looks like it should be in a cartoon of a town that’s being blown around by a storm.

So, like I said: the paintings aren’t the most famous and it features some less-well-known artists, and I quite enjoy it. The Musée de l’Orangerie is a good one, and I would recommend setting a couple of hours aside to visit it.

Don’t read this book

The Art Forger looked like it should be good. It really did: a struggling artist solving a puzzle, exploring ideas about authenticity and what it means for something to be real, art history, drama around a theft…

But I just didn’t care. I really didn’t. The Art Forger might have been the wrong book for me right now, but I didn’t enjoy it and I stopped reading it after my required 50 pages (I allow myself to stop reading a book after 50 pages in – that’s enough time for me to get over any initial adjustment period).

Le Louvre

The Louvre is the world’s largest art museum and certainly a huge building. I’ve been there a number of times, and this was somehow the first time I went to the exhibit on the history of the building itself. True, that’s not necessarily the point of going to the Louvre (and we spent only a small amount of time on that part), but it was interesting to learn about how it changed and grew over the years.

These are the original walls that date from the 1100s, when the Louvre was a functioning fortress as a part of the Philippe Auguste walls.

But, the art is the point of the Louvre, and here is a small selection of the not-super-famous works that we saw:

This is a sculpture of Hermes that is in the sculpture gardens under glass in the Richelieu Wing. I’ve been on a bit of a Hermes/Mercury kick lately, so it was good to see him in his silly, Flash-esque hat, putting on his winged sandals.

I am forever and always in love with the blue in this mosaic.

Napoleon III was as over the top as you might think he was. The rooms that they’ve preserved are kind of incredible.

It’s also vaguely ridiculous that so much excellent Flemish art is in a French art museum (why, exactly?), but you should enjoy this Rembrandt.

And this Vermeer. I’m a big Vermeer fan.

I am forever and always here for the Winged Victory of Samothrace, aka the statue that Megan Rapinoe reminds me of when she celebrates goals. She is athletic and in shape and she is celebrating because she has just won. And there are so few statues of women, especially from antiquity, that celebrate strong women.

I like this Da Vinci that you can get close to and enjoy – a portrait of Anne, Mary, and Jesus – without the insanity of the Mona Lisa.

Here is an actual famous piece of French artwork, Liberty leading the troops to victory.

The Louvre is full of amazing artwork, but the Tuileries gardens (just outside the museum) are also amazing and worth your time. Especially at the end of a day that you’ve spent on your feet in a huge museum that could be the basis for a semester-long art history class.

It’s full of tourists, but it’s full of tourists for a reason. Visit Paris in an off-season, make your plan of attack ahead of time, and then go enjoy the amazing artwork.

A book about books

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a book you have to work at reading because it is Weird. What makes it weird?

First, it’s written in the second person. You know first person (the book is told from the I/me perspective) and third person (she/her perspective). Second person, though, is you/yours. It puts the reader into the story in a way that is very video-game-esque, but the reader isn’t making the choices, the author is. Given that there’s a central mystery about publishing errors that keep happening – the first chapters of ten books are showing up in different books, and You, the main character, are trying to figure out what’s going on because you just want to read the damn books!

Second, it’s weird because those chapters? They’re interspersed with the action. So there’s a chapter written in the second person about the “real world”, and then the first chapter of the book that the main character is looking for. And they alternate back and forth, between the story action and the first chapter of the next book the main character is tracking down.

Third, the dislocated book chapters and the story may end up converging at the end of the book? It’s confusing. But there is definite dovetailing of the stories. It’s trippy.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is designed to make the reader think about narrative structure and what makes a complete story. It’s also maybe a shaggy dog story? I would recommend it if you like a challenge in your reading. But it’s not a book I would pick up for pure entertainment.