The One with the Golden Dream of the American in Paris

Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (2000)

I can’t remember who recommended to me “Paris to the Moon”. It might be back in the spring when I was looking for books about expats in Paris for my workplace library, to stock up on English language shelves for the foreign employees. Or maybe in one of those literary  podcasts with an episode on travel writing. I thought it would be fun to see my own city through the eyes of a foreigner, especially one who comes with the reputation of the New Yorker in tow.

This collection of essays, a chronicle of tiny details or brief introductions to life in Paris (French cuisine, cafés, gyms, maternity hospitals, playgrounds, etc.) gives snapshots of his life together with his family (he had a young son, and a daughter was born in France during his stay) in Paris from 1995 to 2000.

The high point of the book is Adam Gopnik’s writing. His sentences are precise and evocative, they carry feelings as much as cultural explanations. He has a great understanding of French people, it’s not patronizing or exotic. The portrait of his kid playing in the Jardin du Luxembourg almost brought tears to my eyes. His voice makes you want to buy a ticket to go… But wait! I’m already here! Or am I?

Adam Gopnik’s Paris is more than 20 years old. I took my time reading the essays, because it was like finding pictures from the past. I know some things never change and we French people are very resistant to change, but still you should not think that the book is still valid nowadays. Yes, the Ritz is still there (but has undergone a 2 years renovation). Yes the Jardin du Luxembourg is still there, but those tiny details that are so precious in the book, well, they mostly no longer exist (just an example: gyms are pretty normalized now in Paris). The impact of globalization has made his remarks on French culture not completely false, but certainly to be taken with a grain of salt.

You might argue that it doesn’t really matter. Beyond the particulars of Paris in the late 1990s, you can see the deep love of Gopnik for all things French and Parisian, the culture shock he goes through, the misunderstandings and the progressive adaptation of the author and his family to a new culture and environment. Missing your own country while wanting to stay… This is universal and I remember all too well the contradictions of my own life as an expatriate in Asia not to relate with everything he writes.

But the thing that made me ambivalent about the book is that Adam Gopnik’s life was very privileged. I don’t know about many Americans in Paris, and I don’t remember if the exchange rate of the dollar at that time helped much, but the flat he rented, the lifestyle he had, the restaurants he patronized regularly, most of it is not within the average Parisian’s budget. The chapter where Gopnik movingly writes about the maternity ward where his daughter was born, brought tears to my eyes because it was so well written, but made me cringe at the same time, because he had selected a very exclusive private clinic, where everything, I’m sure, was perfect, because nothing was paid for by French social security. (ok, right, I might have been jealous)

This book is more literature than journalism. More personal memoir than travelogue. If Americans read it before arriving for the first time in Paris, they might be very disappointed, but it’s not my case. It’s an exquisite, pricey pair of rose-tainted glasses to look around me at the city of Lights, to remember some, to wonder and to explore some more.

The One that Missed The (Dark) Point

Pascal Garnier, The Eskimo Solution (French, 1996, English 2016)

I fell in love with Pascal Garnier last year (all the more metaphorically that the poor guy died in 2010) when I discovered “Too close to the edge” and “The front seat passenger“. So I was ever so grateful when a nice publicist at Gallic Books contacted me for another helping of my Garnier discovery. I love that they have set to make Garnier more visible and available to English readers!

Unfortunately, this particular book didn’t quite resonate with me as much as the previous ones. There was this narrator, Louis, a loser, who is a writer in Normandy trying to finish his book for the deadline. The narrator in his book, though, is another loser, another Louis, who comes up with the idea that getting rid of elderly people could be a sort of gift to humanity – especially to his friends who have problems with their elderly parents or who badly wish to inherit some money. He compares it to the Eskimos who apparently put their old ones on ice to starve to death (I didn’t it, ugh).

As you see, this theory firmly puts the book into cynical and dark humor territory, but I didn’t really manage to follow it all the way there. Perhaps it was me, but I have the feeling that this book was a bit all over the place, and switching from one Louis to the other didn’t help. Also, I learnt that this book was his first published, so it might be an explanation. As losers go, I much rather enjoyed the pathetic one from The Front Seat Passenger.

But one occasional miss doesn’t make me less enamored with Pascal Garnier’s books, and I’m just getting ready for the next one!

The Start of the Never End

It’s been a while since I was looking for a successor to Harry Potter. And I finally might have found one.

I didn’t look for myself, but for my son who is hooked (who am I kidding here? for my son and myself!). The deal for my son is that he has to read the book before he watches the movie, but I’m not sure it’s exactly an incentive, because he wants to read all of Harry Potter all the time. We started when he was 7, and I read aloud part of the book, letting him read a few pages during the day before I picked up the book again at bedtime. The second book of Harry Potter was for Christmas, and the third came with his 8th birthday in June. The book was finished midway into our trip to Scotland (bringing an anxious discussion about what should he read next, and what kind of French book for kids is available in Scotland – answer: none, so we tricked our way to downloading some titles on my Kindle!)

The road leading to the 4th tome of Harry Potter will be long, so I was looking for sagas and bestsellers appropriate for him, but then a few days ago, when I opened my internet browser at work, Google had a Doodle celebrating the 37th anniversary of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I knew I was on to something big!

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a pair of chubby little hands

Anyway, I just couldn’t wait for the next trip to the library, where I grabbed a copy of The Neverending Story, and I started reading it to my boys. It was an instant hit! Dragons, boys on a quest, creatures of all kinds and dimensions (my little one was fascinated by the tiny people who ride on racing snails and beat up the other delegations – clearly a personal fantasy of revenge).

We have been reading every night, and as I don’t know the story myself it’s also fun for me to discover new adventures (I don’t know where I was in the 1980s when the movie came out… mmh, I bet I was immersed into The Hobbit). We love it so much that, before returning the book to the library tomorrow, I had to buy the book (hardback no less, since the paperback is no longer available).

A few descriptions are a bit too long for the kids and the little one often interrupts to make sure he understands which character is good and which one is evil, but my 8-year-old is riveted. He clearly projects himself into Bastian and Atreju. We’re about one third into the book and it has done miracles to our evening routines so far.

Have you read it as a child or later? Do you remember the movie?

 

Two Maigret for the Road

Georges Simenon, L’amie de Madame Maigret (1950 / Eng: Madame Maigret’s Own Case)
Georges Simenon, Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue (1950)

Coming back from holidays, I find my WordPress drawers accumulating dust and drafts. Quick, quick, I want to mention a few more books before the summer ends!

In June when I went to the writing retreat we were lucky to have a wonderful library at our disposal. They were second handbooks, old paperbacks and yellowed classics, but I found the crime shelf particularly inspiring.

I borrowed several Maigret mysteries because I wanted to study them rather than getting absorbed by the plot itself. After all, I’d come to write and not to read! Simenon may have been a not very nice person in life, but as a writer he’s certainly an impressive figure to behold. He wrote hundreds of novels and hundreds of stories, often completing a full draft of a novel within one week! He’s famous for his enormous production, but also for his very simple and straightforward style, very concise yet highly readable, and for fleshing out a character in just a few words, one sentence or two, enough to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind.

Researching this post I stumbled upon an article by Peter Foorde about the inaccurate translations of Simenon’stories into English, that demonstrated that in the 1930s and 1940s a certain amount of padding was added to Simenon’s texts because his style was deemed too simple.

How did he achieve this without characters being mere clichés? Taking random paragraphs of one novel was a very good exercise, as was the systematic comparison of first paragraphs for his short story collection “Maigret and the tail-less piglets”. I had watched the TV version of several of these stories and so the story became easily secondary compared to the characters and description. Not one word was wasted. Sometimes it is even terse, and it’s not particularly flattering for characters presented this way.

When the two books were finished, I was awed by Simenon’s craft. The stories were nuanced yet simple, the characters had depth yet were shown with few sentences. Simenon said that the most important piece of advice he received on writing was not to be literary. He sure isn’t, and yet his books are literature, not just commercial pulps.

What an inspiration! What a teacher!

 

The one in Bombed-Out Hamburg

Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, On the Other Side (1979, Persephone 2007)

This precious Persephone book is a collection of letters written from October 1940 to January 1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg to her children while she was living in Hamburg, separated from them by war (4 of her 5 children were living overseas by then, most in Allied countries). She wrote moving letters of her life under the constant air raids, especially the bombings in 1943 which practically destroyed everything in the city. She wrote letters but had no means to send them, so it actually reads like a rather down-to-earth diary, although perhaps the cool tone and the stiff upper lip are all for the sake of her children (and maybe the Nazi snitches who might have stumbled upon them, so she barely touches any political subject before the very last days of the war).

Is there anything more depressing to read that the diary of a woman who survived the massive terror bombings in Hamburg, Germany during WW2? Well, to start, I could think of a few even more depressing ones about that period, to be honest (If you want to go that way, there’s the diary of the anonymous woman from Berlin, or of course the Diary of Anne Frank). Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg wasn’t your average German citizen on any account: even without knowing anything about her, I knew, from having been to Hamburg, that there is a big street named after her family and a metro station too. Born in 1879, Mathilde was married to a university professor who was never a Nazi, but she was indeed a woman of considerable means. She had domestic help throughout the war and knew people who could help her with permits, with resources, who could secure a hospital stay when needed and sometimes a letter from the overseas children. Luckily, her home was never bombed out and she didn’t lose everything in the fires or destructions. In short, there were many people a lot worse than herself.

But still, the book is a harrowing read, because Mathilde is such a nice little old lady and she sees her life gets smaller and smaller every day. Every comfort disappear until very little is left. Parents and friends die around her. She’s never sure if she is going to come back home alive when she goes queuing up for hours to get some food. Very little food. She’s left with her memories of past family reunions, of past Christmas, of past luxury, and you can’t help but feel for her.

The quality of this writing is that it hasn’t been retouched later on with the knowledge of what was going to happen next (or at least it doesn’t feel so). Each letter is written with the mood of that day, the latest peril still fresh in mind. It’s heartbreaking to feel that at the armistice her hopes were so high that the situation is going to improve soon, and yet the state of Hamburg and the German population at that time is in such disarray that the situation actually worsened before it could improve. For an Anglophile such as Mathilde, the general distrust of the occupying British army, that often regarded the whole German population as Nazi collaborators without exceptions, was a bitter disappointment too.

I had a summer job in Hamburg once while I was a student. The city seemed very unwelcoming to me. Very unromantic, tough and cynical. There were traces of the bombings if you knew where to look: so few buildings were dated pre-1945, and so many were just ugly concrete, hastily built buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, and there was the lone spire of Nikolaikirche, an old Gothic church that was destroyed during the attacks except for its tower that is still standing as a memorial against war. The city must have changed beyond recognition within just a few years.

I guess my appreciation of the city would have improved if I’d read Mathilde’s letters back then. I’m glad that the letters were saved and published, it’s a precious testimony, both intimate and universal, from a viewpoint that rarely gets to light, especially for the immediate after-war period.

The One with Sex And The City of Hong Kong

Amy Cheung, Hummingbirds Fly Backwards (Eng. 2016, Cantonese 1995)

I don’t normally go to Netgalley to look for foreign books (which I usually read in French anyway), but when I saw the name of the author, distinctively Cantonese, and saw from the short line of bio that she was *not* Chinese-American but a popular writer in Hong Kong, I realized how few such titles are featured on Netgalley. And I also knew that it was high time I read this title and certainly, if possible, a few other Chinese books in the coming months.

I used to read a lot of Asian books but I fell off the bandwagon a few years ago, because they were harder to find and also nobody gushed about them on the Internet (in the English or French Internet, at least, and I don’t have a clue where to look for Chinese book-bloggers, if such thing exists). All this to explain how I was delighted to read this book translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie and published by AmazonCrossing. Hong Kong writers are so little known in the West, you see. Even in Asia, as other Asian capitals love to argue that Hong Kong is only a business place and not a place with soul.

Amy Cheung is apparently categorized in the romance category (see this Chinese article in English), but I’d rather put her firmly into chick-lit territory: her heroines are cheeky and spunky. They are fiercely independent and buy sexy lingerie for themselves, and if some thug tries to steal it from their balcony (imagine flats stacked by the dozens…) they aren’t afraid to hide and give him the fright of his life. They are both pragmatic and romantic and reminded me of the 4 friends of Sex in the City. I’ll let you guess you’d be the Carrie, the Charlotte, the Samantha and the Miranda (well, to start with they’re only 3, so my comparison only brings me so far), but you’ll probably have a better grasp of the book.

The lingerie bit is not a detail that I put here to attract dirty spammers, no (hell no!), it plays a role to highlight the freedom (financial, emotional) and the struggles of each of the women (insecurity about one’s body is universal). The main character, Jeoi, owns a lingerie shop, she reunites with an old friend who comes shopping there, and the story was originally published under the title 《三个A Cup的女人》(Three women who wear A-cup bras). AmazonCrossing decided that this title  in English would *not* attract the right kind of readers, and I totally see the point (I searched under this name and… oops, you don’t want to try, trust me). As other Cheung’s bestsellers, and if my Chinese skills are not too rusty (I would never manage to read novels in Chinese, but I grasp the overall meaning of Wikipedia articles), this novel has been serialized in a popular newspaper, but it doesn’t show in the final edition.

I may be biased because I had this strong nostalgia of Hong Kong places while I read it, and I don’t usually read romance books of any kind really (although my venture into Amish territory might qualify) but I enjoyed the trio of girls. Even if the book is not meant to be highbrow literature, these women may epitomize Hong Kong spirit as I understood it, a blend of Chinese and Western, and I am grateful that AmazonCrossing gave me a chance to discover that author and that book.

 

The One with the Lonely Curious Daughter

Marie-Pierre Farkas & Marianne Ratier, Françoise Dolto, L’Heure Juste (French, 2011)

I find myself a bit slow and stupid that it’s only after reading the third graphic novel that I realized that this small press, Naive, has set to publish a whole collection of famous women biographies in graphic form (I got Isadora Duncan to Mr S. and he got me Virginia Woolf). This time, it was about Françoise Dolto. Do I need to introduce her to you, reader?

In France anyone born from the 1960s on has been raised according to the principles of our “national pediatrician” Dr. Françoise Dolto (or against them). She’s a household name, maybe like Dr. Spock on the other side of the Atlantic (he’s not well-known here). In the 1960s she even had a radio show that helped spread her ideas nationwide. So nobody in France starting this biography comes with a blank slate. I haven’t read anything by her, but as every French I feel that I know something of the style of education that she advocated for: she considered that the child is to be listened to, trusted and respected, that parents need to talk to their babies and children about everything, even if they think their children are too young to understand. She was specialized in psychoanalysis for young children and was fiercely against lies and family secrets. She also defended women’s rights.

What I knew nothing about was her own education. And that’s what the book focuses on, from her very first years until 1939 when she finished her studies in medicine, a few days or months before the war. She was born in 1908 in a very traditional family. Her mother was a fervent Catholic and believed that educating women was a waste and damaged a girl’s marriage perspective. Her daughters were educated at home by a nanny and later by a governess. It was also clear from the start that the mother’s favorite was Jacqueline, Françoise elder sister. Françoise was short, plump and rather awkward, while Jacqueline was fair, graceful and perfect. Françoise asked difficult, impolite questions. So when Jacqueline died in 1920, not only did the mother sink into a deep depression, but she blamed 12-year-old Françoise for not having prayed hard enough for her sister. Even though Françoise was brilliant in her studies, her mother didn’t allow her to study, she even took away her graduation certificates so that she couldn’t register to university!

What a dysfunctional family! No wonder Françoise Dolto was so interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. Her family had nothing to envy to those of Freud’s Viennese clients suffering from hysteria. The graphic style of the book, with a fine, almost trembling line and lots of white space successfully convey the impression of loneliness and the stuffiness of bourgeois upbringing, where children are supposed to be quiet and behave.

The subtitle of the book is “L’heure juste”, the right time. During those years where Françoise had to fight her mother to win the right to study and choose her own life, she thought she was wasting precious time, that she was coming late. But when she finally got her professional license, it was exactly at the right time. Just two days after, a government decree forbade women to become physician.

A very interesting and thoughtful book where art and content go hand in hand. I can’t wait to see what are the other titles in Naive’s collection of women biographies.

The one with the problematic translated title

Pascal Garnier, The Front Seat Passenger (English 2014, French 1997)

Oh my, two Garnier in less than a month’ time, you can tell how much I’m hooked! I liked my first better than this one, but only by a thin margin, because I could hardly put it down. Like the previous one, it’s a novella easily read in one or two sittings.

The difference is that the main character of this story has hardly anything for him. Let’s see, what are the stereotypical features of a hero? Successful, daring, loving, courageous, honest, a good son, good friend, good husband …? Fabien Delorme is the opposite of all this. He’s weak, untrustworthy, egoist, unlucky and bland, judgmental and narrow-minded. Definitely too narrow-minded to make sense of what happens to him. He just lost his wife in a car accident, a wife for whom he had no longer feelings but still remained married out of comfort and convenience, and he discovers that she was in a car with a lover. Widower and cuckold in the same instant! His life is upside down, and will be even more so when he decides to get in touch with the lover’s widow.

It’s hard to root for Fabien, while it was so easy to root for Eliette in Too close to the edge. But we can’t help but follow him and find him excuses for his poor choices. What a loser! Even when he thinks that he has all the cards in hands, he’s being played. It’s slightly ironic, very down-to-earth and very very dark. The ending is a bit hasted but it could have been way worse.

If I had one reservation about the book, it’s the English title, which is technically, literally translated from the French. Fabien’s wife was seated next to the driver, her lover, in the front passenger’s seat when she had her fatal accident. I guess it’s called riding shotgun? But in French we have a colloquial expression for this seat: it’s the dead person’s place (because it was a very dangerous place to be back when cars didn’t have safety belts and that rules were nonexistent on the road). The French title is clever because “place” has so many different meanings. More than just a car seat’s question, it can read as the dead person’s space in the widower’s life. Or it can be Fabien’s attitude, metaphorically or literally, especially as Fabien doesn’t know how to drive a car and has to be driven or take a train to go somewhere. I felt that the book’s English title was narrowing it down, but I have no clue what else they could have chosen.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gallic Books for giving me a copy of the book!

Reading to the boys

I take a break from writing about books I read by talking about books I read… aloud to the boys.

I like the idea of read-aloud as a family moment and an evening routine to look forward to. Until last fall my two boys (2 and almost 8) had separate sleeping time so I could in theory read to each his own, but now that they go everywhere together (the little one is always on the big one’s footsteps) I “have to” read the same book to both and make it a big bonding time… in theory.

The practice can be a little bumpy depending on everyone’s mood and level of cooperation (the grown-up isn’t always displaying the best behavior). Part of the challenge is that I have an almost 8-going-on-13-year old and a two year old who really wants to understand what’s going on and isn’t afraid to ask for clarifications.

Luckily they are both boys and the small one looks up to whatever the big one does so there are some thematic overlap, but I have been wondering about book choices a lot. And learning about what makes a good book for read-alouds.

Much to the big boy’s sadness Harry Potter is *not* a good choice. It mesmerizes him to the point that he had learnt full sentences by heart, but it can’t hold the little one’s attention for more than a few seconds. The plot is too difficult, the vocabulary above his head and soon every sentence is interrupted with “cekoissa” “kekife?” (“what is that?”, “what’s he doing?”). Then everyone is yelling at each other to shut up and calm down and that defeats the purpose.

I have been reading favorites lately such as Pettson and Picpus, a Swedish series of big picture books of a scatterbrained farmer and his rather stubborn cat, and we all love their goofy and tongue-in-cheek adventures, except that some of the jokes rely on visual cues and I can’t be next to one boy’s bed lest the other one wants to have a look at the very same instant. As the plan is to have them calm and sleepy, I prefer to read in semi darkness.

A recent book that worked like a charm was Michael Palin’ Mirrorstone, a book with wonderful drawings and holograms set within the drawing. The plot was rather sketchy, but there was a boy and a wizard and a treasure to find, and both boys were eager to hear a few pages, and drift off with magic on their minds.

I also tried “Five children and it” (the only E. Nesbit in French that my library had), but the text was rather long-winded and dated and not suited to both boys’ ages. I had to skip whole sentences and read ahead. And the whole setting seemed quite weird to me. But for a few days after I quit, they both still asked for the sand fairy, so I might try again in a few months.

Another success that didn’t repeat itself was Moomin. I got the first one in the series: The Moomins and the Great Flood, and we all enjoyed it quite a lot. Baby S was particularly relieved to see the Moomin family reunited, and I found so sweet when he inquired (rather repeatedly I’m afraid) about Moominmamma. But then I borrowed The memoirs of Moominpapa, and it was a bust. Moominpapa is rather full of himself, and the adventures took a while to really start, and second degree reading is not a thing with eight year old and two year old.

So these days the safest bet is to go back to traditional fairy tales. Each boy takes a different level of meaning from them and I try to focus on structure and storytelling so that we all enjoy this daily time together.

What books do/did you enjoy for read-aloud? Any suggestion?

The one with the widow looking for excitement

Pascal Garnier, Too close to the edge (French 1999, English 2016)

I’ve never read Pascal Garnier before, which is obviously a shame, and it seems ironical that an English translation would be my first introduction to this French writer. As a matter of introduction, I have to thank Marina Sofia for her titillating review which in turn made me request the book through Netgalley.

Pascal Garnier’s text starts in a deceptively quiet and banal way. Eliette is a retired, recently widowed woman who lives on her own in the Alps. Her adult children live in Paris, far away, with their own lives and worries, and she gets along with her neighbors well. But her loneliness leaves her slightly discontent and bored. She wishes something unexpected would happen to derail her routine. It’s a classic tale of be careful what you wish for, except that Garnier pushes it to the edge, metaphorically and literally. More than once I turned the page wondering where he’d take us readers and muttering to myself “did he really dare?”. It’s a roller-coaster read and a slim book you can easily read in one or two sittings.

It’s dark and realist, perfectly right for my taste. It’s not a Scandinavian thriller but the homegrown equivalent. As I take a few days off in the French countryside, where I always wonder about those tiny villages we cross on the way, with so many closed businesses, small farms with perpetually closed shutters and a rotting 2CV in the yard. So much for romantic countryside and sunset over the mountains! It’s often depressing, but Garnier manages to make it terrifying. Those old biddies who go to the supermarket, I’ll certainly be careful not to cross them. Especially if they look nice.