The Creators of CARMEN: Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet


My recent recommitment to learning the piano led me to a passion for classical music. I have a book of simplified classic songs my late grandmother gave me. It is one of my most treasured gifts from Grandma Colleen.

I’ve been working through the pieces for a little over a month. To my delight, I came across one of my favorite songs: Habanera from the opera Carmen.

Habanera is not a difficult song to play. It’s packed with energy that keeps me awake as I’m practicing it. It makes me want to dance in a frilly skirt and sing off-key. I would venture to say Habanera is one of the songs that most people have heard in passing, even if they do not know where it is from.

There is no such thing as a coincidence, but something delightful happened last month, after I had begun practicing Habanera. I was reading the spectacular memoir The Seine by Elaine Sciolino, and she brought up composer Georges Bizet. He wrote the songs for Carmen’s opera adaptation.

Sciolino told the story of the opera’s premiere. With its sensuality and suggestive language, Carmen scandalized crowds, so its first reviews were heavy with outrage.

Those were different times, indeed.

Depressed by this cold reception of Carmen, Bizet fell victim to depression. It became so crippling that when he died, people speculated he had taken his own life. Carmen was the labor of his hard work and tears; any artist could understand the effect of scathing reviews.

That Bizet took his life appears to be a Parisian myth. In reality, Bizet had suffered from health problems throughout his life. He made a rash decision that winter to go for a swim in the Seine river. This is a bad decision because the Seine was freezing–but also because it’s dirty! After his swim, he contracted a violent fever. This induced a heart attack which led to his death on 3 June, 1875.

If only he could have known that the play would become timeless. Like Vincent van Gogh, his work was not appreciated in his lifetime.


When I had read about Georges Bizet in that chapter of The Seine, I was struck with curiosity about the man who wrote the story–the novella off of which the opera was based. 

Prosper Mérimée, born in 1805, was a French writer. He pertained to the movement of Romantic literature. Mérimée was one of the pioneers of the novella, which is defined as a short novel or a long short story. Carmen is a novella, and I finished it in a day.

Mérimée learned Russian and went on to translate the works of important writers such as Pushkin and Gogol. From 1830 to 1860, he became an inspector of French historical monuments, overseeing their preservation. This included the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine his heartbreak if he could see what has become of it now!

A Still from Carmen. Source: The Guardian

Mérimée seemed destined for great things, because he also made an important discovery that would forever change the world of visual art.

Along with author George Sand, he discovered the famous tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. Not only did he write Carmen, a story which become a timeless opera; he also discovered those tapestries that enchant us today!

There is so much more to the story of Carmen and her creators, but it would not fit into a blog post. I’m a history geek and I had a field day reading about these incredible men. When I read Carmen, it dawned on me that a story can take on many forms: written and musical. 

When you read intentionally, you find that underneath every great story is a greater story. History is important because it shows us what humans are capable of. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the lives of these two remarkable men could pass as yarns of fiction.

Never disbelieve that there is wonder in this world: all you have to do is explore history to find it.

Top Three Books – Week 1


This year I decided to start a reading journal and practice intentional reading–which involves taking note of character names and ages. I also record sentences that are powerful or elements that will shape my own writing.

This has helped give my blog renewed purpose–book reviews, thoughts on literature, and history. It’s also a journal as I explore genres such as mystery or thriller. Reading an average of ten books a month (I’m a fast reader) and not having reviewed them all, I’m going to have a weekly feature called Top Three Books.

Some posts will echo praise for titles I’ve written about; others will be special mention for novels I enjoyed but didn’t earn blog post glory. I’m excited to track my journey this way. I hope it will make me a better writer and thinker.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

One of my greatest pet peeves is the claim that literature is somehow in danger.

It’s a complicated topic, but pinning the blame on eBooks or audiobooks simplifies the matter too much. We should not be afraid for the future of books, and Gottschall makes a fantastic argument as to why.

Story comes from the human mind. Humans were telling stories before there were ways to write them. Even if in another universe, paper books vanished–we will never be without story.

I love the smell of ink on paper, but isn’t story the most important aspect of a book?

The Seine by Elaine Sciolino

I love history. This explains my preference for classic novels–I often find more in an old book that was published as a serial than a hastily written novel penned to earn numbers on Amazon.

Elaine Sciolino went to extraordinary lengths to learn the history of the Seine river in Paris. The Seine is a diva, moody and vengeful. Sometimes she’ll save a life, but sometimes she’ll take it.

This quote from The Seine forever changed how I see Paris:

Without the Eiffel Tower, Paris would still exist; without the Seine, there would never have been a Paris.

If you want to learn French history without plunging into complicated details, Sciolino’s account is written in a language that’s easy to follow. It’s absolutely gripping.

You might not be able to travel this year, but let a book take you to Paris.

All The Good Girls by Willow Rose

I did not review All The Good Girls for the simple reason that it’s a quick read. I didn’t take many notes; it’s so fast-paced that I couldn’t have found the time to set it aside and jot down quotes.

It’s a murder mystery which in my humble opinion (I’m new to the mystery genre) was worth the time. As a writer, I thought some plot twists could have been handled better. The characters might have been written with more depth.

I liked All The Good Girls; I’ll read the rest of the series. There is a focus on God and prayer in this novel, so Christians would enjoy it. There are no “skippable” scenes, if you’re looking for a clean read.

I wonder if the focus on writing a clean book took away from what it could have been. All The Good Girls still deserves mention for its breakneck pace and the sheer fact that it was a page-turner.

Conclusion

Where I wrote blog posts reviewing a book, I linked to it in the title. Click on them and read for more thoughts.

This was a fun selection to make. Do you have comments on any of these books? I would love to hear your opinion!

River of Life: THE SEINE by Elaine Sciolino


If we made a list of the magical properties found in literature, we would have to include that of transporting us to a different place. When a person can’t afford vacation, a good book can take them to streets far away.

Before visiting Paris with my mother and brother, it was a dream of mine to know her streets. They are works of art; the city was designed over the centuries by her leaders to be aesthetically pleasing. You can call the Louvre a museum, but the streets are mesmerizing. Statues and bridges provide wonders to gaze upon.

When a visit to Paris was still but a dream, I satisfied my wanderlust reading books set in the City of Light. They were written in different time periods and different genres. It might have been ink on a page, but each time I finished a book set in Paris, I felt that I knew France a little better.

This was true in a way; I learned about Paris in the way you know a place after reading about it. If a book is well-written, it can be a powerful tour guide.

The reality is that you never know a country until you’ve been there. The vision of Paris I built in my head with each novel was lovely–but it cannot compare to the reality.

The City of Light is a marvel of human artistry. It’s a testament to development as a civilization as time passed. France boasts of a rich history that most never learn of. There’s more to France than the guillotine during the French Revolution.

I learned so much history in the pages of The Seine by reporter Elaine Sciolino. This book is not heavy like a textbook; Sciolino’s writing style is light and talkative. I never once felt that I was dragging through boring events or struggling with names I couldn’t pronounce. This is history that anyone can appreciate.

Sciolino paints a different perspective of Paris. This perspective is from the river, that ancient body of water pulsing through Paris like a vein. Sciolino has traveled far and wide in search of Seine lore, learning about the river goddess Sequana. She even lived on the Seine during a great flood, when water spilled over the banks.

Elaine Sciolino has witnessed many of the Seine’s moods.

I didn’t have enough time to see all of Paris; it’s bigger in person than you probably think! One thing I remember was the sparkling water of the Seine. I remember how the water shimmered as the sun set. The Seine was the first thing I saw when we arrived; before I had a clear view of the Eiffel Tower, I saw the Seine, dark and mysterious in the moonlight.

The Seine is a treat for the history lover and travel junkie. Sciolino has painted for us a panoramic view of this river. She hiked to its “origin,” a stream way up north. She visited places where the Impressionists painted their works of art, capturing the nature of France in all of her elegance.

The Seine takes us on a fascinating ride through the history of the country, following the course of her famous river. It ends with a sobering chapter about the fire which destroyed Notre Dame in 2019. Sciolino us how water from the Seine was used to help stop the fire.

I will continue to read books about Paris until I can visit her again. I hope that, when the time comes, I will know more about this city. The Seine is one of my favorite books; let it take you across oceans to the place where art and history was made.