winter nonfiction


I finished a French memoir from the ’60s over New Year’s. The Paper House, by Francoise Mallet-Joris (yours on Amazon for the price of one cent!)  It’s a memoir, but more of a catch-all journal of ruminations for this woman who was an intellectual force of her time. She recounts arguments with her housekeeper and tiffs with her husband over household tasks. She has something of an intellectual crush on her aged hairdresser. She smokes, drinks, types on her typewriter, makes dinner, conducts television interviews, attempts to get work done. Her household is populated with her partner, her three younger children, and an older son from a previous relationship, a son she gave birth to when she around 20, who she regards almost as a peer, if not a confident.

The respect she displays for her children and their opinions reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. A book (this one from the ’50s) by another female novelist who also seemed to regard her young children as fellow thinkers that happen to live alongside her.

Francoise spends many, many pages baffled at her household’s constant state of chaos. She describes sitting in her bath with a cigarette to get a moment’s peace. Then her housekeeper plops down with her in the bathroom, also to get a moment’s peace. All of Francoise’s children and her housekeeper’s child troop in shortly thereafter. Every organizational task seems to elude her. She personifies the curtains that never seem to exist–she hopes they will come to visit her someday, she hopes they will settle with her family at some point.


She relays wonderful conversations with her children about religion (she’s roman catholic). She sets out to stay the party line, to tell the doctrinal truth, but is quickly confused and trapped into agreeing to strange things by the way her children phrase their questions. Most of the dialogue she shares depicts her bravely arguing a point only to get talked out of it. Exactly how I imagine my discussions with the girls going someday.

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I don’t really have a clean-clasped way to tell you why you might like to read it, except that you might.

And now I’m reading the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the lady writer of the Anne of Green Gables series. They are quite a different thing. She struggled deeply and lonelily with depression, with isolation and with the terrifically cold and dark winters of Prince Edward Island. She is as wonderful as you’d imagine, but haunted in many ways. I’ll write about them when I finish them, but Francoise handed me off to Lucy in some way. Women. Thinkers. Rejoicers and puzzlers, unedited for the most part and mulling over life.

It is a gift to one’s conscious to read things, honest boring brilliant passing things, like this. Particularly in the winter? They can be metronome, a tick tick of real households to balance your world against.


photos from New Year’s Eve, with one by my friend Elizabeth Mclellan. Because they felt wintery. 


  • Anne

    I’m so glad you reviewed Paper House…it’s been on my list for awhile and I just haven’t gotten to it. I’m a huge Anne of Green Gables fan; I re-read the whole series after the birth of each child because as motherhood changes me I approach the books differently. I didn’t realize Montgomery had published journals! I was so sad when I learned that her life was so difficult. It’s sort of the same sadness I find in the Little House books. I never read them as a child, but I read them all aloud to my oldest and they really haunted me, especially after doing some research and finding that things never greatly improved for the Wilders.

    • Rachael Ringenberg

      I hear you on that. I had the same adult confusion when I learned about the history behind Laura Ingalls story. I did read them as a kid, and absolutely adored them and I want the same for my girls. But yeah…the retelling is a little different from the actual living of those.

      So interesting that you’ve re-read the entire series! I never got past the first three. I shall pick them up after I finish the journals (there are five volumes!).

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Andrea Barnett

    It’s been a non-fiction winter over here too. You are only the second person I’ve ever known who’s heard of The Paper House. I’m glad to hear your thoughts. I had no idea about the LMM journals! I think about “Maud” pretty often these days. (She married a Ewan/Ewen, so go figure.) GG is certainly her best book and the one I keep coming back to as an adult, but it’s also the most hopeful, the most eternally optimistic. It’s hard to revisit the later books. The devastation. The lost children. Maybe I will have to read those journals after all.

  • Hannah Elizabeth

    Your description of this memoir makes me think of another author I am reading a bit of for school: Elizabeth Taylor. Or, as she called herself, the “other” Elizabeth Taylor. She was a mid-century British novelist who writes quiet and perfect (sometimes snarky) domestic fiction. I’m reading “At Mrs. Lippencotes” right now and the women in it talks to her ten year old son as if he is her intellectual equal–since he loves all the same books that she does.

  • noelle

    Just so you know, I read this post of yours on a particularly baffling day and felt better after. And I typed butter instead of better there at first. I am impatiently waiting for the right naptime to read The Magical Art of Tidying Up.

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