31 July 2012

Paris in July - Le Scoop!

Although, as per usual when I try to give myself any blog 'challenges', I haven't really achieved half as much as I would have liked with Tamara and Karen's 'Paris in July'. A wonderful theme for a particularly blustery, rainy month. As I concede that I have again failed to live up to (at least my own) expectations on the book reading/film watching/croissant baking front, I am devoting this little 'à bientôt' post to a few frenchie titbits I have been considering this month...
The first is a guidebook to Paris that, I must admit, I purely picked up due to the beeaauuttiful, art-nouveau style front cover that Alex so proudly showed off at the Manchester Book Club following her second book haul from Sharston Books. (Read her review here).

Metrostop Paris by Gregor Dallas is a pleasant guide to the city for someone who already knows it very well - like London, you do tend to navigate yourself around in relation to which metrostop you're closest to - however, I found myself wondering how those who don't know Paris so well enjoy Dallas' frequent tangents off into realms of time and space unknown that veer wildly away from the metro stations themselves. I personally enjoyed reading a little fact for a change, bombarding the boyfriend with particularly fascinating snippets and thoroughly enjoying the random points, obscure characters and themes in the city's history. However, I am, I have realised, a literary fiction girl through and through and I very naughtily skipped one chapter towards the end, desperate to leave the real world behind and return to some make believe instead......tralala.

My second mini-tangent comes in filmic form; Le hérisson, directed by Monica Achache, the beautiful screen adaptation of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I enjoyed reading earlier this year.

Josiane Balasko stars as Renée and delivers a completely authentic, heart-wrenching portrait of the lonely concierge, superbly supported by child actress Garance Le Guillermic and the chap of the Go Cereal Bar advert! (Togo Igawa :)). The film, quite necessarily, ditches the over-your-head philosophical, slightly narcissistic french musings and thus compliments Barbery's novel wonderfully. It is also far funnier; with Paloma's old fashioned video camera replacing her 'Journal of the Movement of the World' and her 'life through a lense' view on the people around her is both more amusing and far more intense. Paris is beautiful, and this film makes it all the more real and beautiful....I really should make the time to watch more french film...


The all important conclusion to my bitsy post today comes in the form of my very best friend Joe who has taken the idea of 'Paris in July' quite literally and moved back there for good this very weekend! Utter envy aside, I will miss him very much and wish him the best of luck....but no better excuse to visit I say!  

29 July 2012

Les Aventures de Tintin

At the age of nineteen, in a desperate attempt to improve my French, I spent two months working as an admin assistant in a gas bottle factory on the outskirts of Strasbourg; capital of the Alsace-Lorraine region of Northern France.

Despite the pretty scenery you see to your left, times were tough. My French was too rusty to communicate properly with the Alsatian (the Germanic local language) speaking natives and my British approach to life (fairly free and liberal, partying into the early hours of the morning, etc ...) clashed with the deeply traditional Alsatian attitudes.

However, like any self-respecting bookworm I found salvation at FNAC; a European bookchain that, although rather pricey, is so aesthetically pleasing, with a great selection of both French and foreign literature and deliciously effective air conditioning. It is here, and in the homes of my work colleagues, that I became acquainted with Les BDs or bandes-dessinées; comic strips of all shapes, sizes and genres that both young and old go crazy for over there and that has become a huge feature of French and Belgian cultural tradition, your typical comic section looking something like this:

It is in corners like these (being careful to avoid young 20-something geeky men reading the kinky adult comics in public..a w k w a r d) that my love of Hergé and his wonderful Tintin comics blossomed and, since then, I have made an effort wherever possible to expand on my collection of colourful, entertaining, sometimes slightly racist books (a sign of the times I assure you! - see Tintin in the Congo :-O); where promising young reporter Tintin, his dog Milou and a hilarious cast of characters and companions travel the globe in search of adventure, mystery and magic. Although his creator faced many obstacles throughout his career including the Nazi occupation of Belgium that severely restricted the scope of Tintin's adventures and harsh criticism leveled at the overly political and colonial flavour of his earliest works, these stories and characters have endured and been translated into countless different languages for publication across the globe. With an international presence and now a Hollywood 3D extravaganza courtesy of Stephen Spielburg, Tintin's stories are still very much alive and I love him. Beautifully crafted illustrations and an excellent way to practice French, I am determined to collect them all!

23 July 2012

The Girl at the Lion d'Or

July always turns out to be such a busy month that, like last year, half of what I had planned for my Paris in July simply hasn't materialised and it's suddenly dawned that I have precious little time to settle into the Manchester Book Club's choice for July; The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt - a distinctly none-Parisian tale of two hired gun men in the Wild Wild West --------->

Much like my approach to food ;-) I hardly ever restrict myself with my reading and Paris in July is the only real 'challenge' I ever commit myself to, mainly because the boyfriend and I feel such an affinity with that wonderful wonderful place :-) My lack-of-blog-rules approach means that I like to be a bit freer with the challenge and almost have my very own 'France in July' ..... well, all roads lead to Paris after all! (apparently).

Quite honestly Faulks' The Girl at the Lion d'Or certainly didn't have priority out of all of the titles in our mini-library at home, it probably didn't even have a spot on Mount TBR yet I caved in to its small size and the promise of easy-reading after June's Bulgakov marathon. I read Birdsong last year and, although it hardly changed my life, it is immensely readable and provides us with a very important, if fictional, account of life during World War I. The Girl at the Lion d'Or, as part of Faulks' 'France Trilogy' therefore promised something I could dip into with ease. (Charlotte Grey, however, is another matter entirely...) 

Faulks focuses on the life of waitress at the Hotel du Lion d'Or; Anne Louvert, at first glance your typical girl next door but, in reality, a lonely young woman with a dark mystery that seriously hampers her struggle to maintain a tranquil, anonymous existence. Throw in a cast of intriguing French characters and a married lover; Charles Hartmann and we have a neat circular story that, without blowing me away, was a pleasant, speedy read to pick up whilst sheltering from the monsoon-like Manchester weather.

Despite the huge shadow of WWI that permeates this novel; i.e. Anne's Father and Hartmann's (who also appears in Birdsong) war experience, I unfortunately found myself feeling a little indifferent about the story and a fair few of the two-dimensional characters' within it. Even Anne, whose endearing normality and calm acceptance of her precarious existence can be so attractive, does irritate at times and I found myself being fairly unsympathetic towards the adulterous relationship between her and Charles that literally seems to spring up out of nowhere at the beginning of the novel.

Slight superficiality aside, Faulks clearly has a firm grasp on this period of history and it is undoubtedly interesting to explore the lives of those living in the wake of the devastation of the war and the then glorious decade that followed. Those living in the 1930s, anticipating further conflict yet mindful of the dark past are an intriguing lot to be introduced to and Faulks' domestic, occasionally more intimate portraits of these people suit the anxious times perfectly.

Not Faulks' best work but a nice little break and, since Anne hails from Paris, another little tick for my 'Paris en Juillet.' 

P.S: Alex (in Leeds) did make me giggle when she told me that she read this novel whilst looking after a sick friend since it was, by the sounds of things, the only book without a cheesy looking lilac cover in the vicinity....

I think that probably sums the novel up, nice, but nothing to write home about....

17 July 2012

Aimez-vous Brahms...

Before I get started on my second read for this year's Paris in July, I would like to give a quick mention to the lovely Manchester Book Club and our utterly satisfying fourth meet on the 3rd July at Home Sweet Home in the centre of Mancland.  A nicer, cosier corner was nabbed and we welcomed both old and bright new faces (including a couple more boys which was particularly nice for the mix!) and had a good old dissection of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (more on this to come soon) The lovely Louise gave us no less than seven interesting titles to choose from to read in July, with us finally settling on The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt. I've seen this out and about and simply would never have gotten around to picking it up had it not been for Book Club, yet this is precisely the beauty of meeting a group of very varied, very interesting bookish people every month. I have however, a Parisian plan to fulfill before I get around to that...

After a thoroughly Russian June, I have really had to force myself to let my brain hang out a bit and get into the Frenchie Frenchiness I crave. After reading Françoise Sagan's novella Bonjour Tristesse earlier this year and really appreciating it, I was absolutely ready for another swift dose of precocious, aloof and sexy French  characters, wrapped up in their (in the grand scheme of things) unimportant love affairs and struggling to release themselves from their ground hog lifestyle, however stylish it may be.

In Aimez-vous Brahms we are treated to the classic love triangle that Sagan favours; Paule, a 39 year old interior designer is a woman at the end of her tether. Emotionally neglected by her long-standing, yet apparently rather dashing lover Roger she is unexpectadly swept off her feet by  the young, headstrong son of a wealthy client. Simon is strikingly beautiful and lovestruck, standing in sharp contrast to the philandering bully stringing her along.

This is may sound such a silly thing to say but this small book is so French. The shallow relationships between the three characters, the grandiose sentiments ending in disillusion and abandonment are so existential it almost made me laugh out loud. But that isn't to say Sagan is laughable.

Although I would never go as far as to say that her work is hugely deep and meaningful, there is a certain philosophy here that I find attractive. Although irritatingly wrapped up in themselves and their own problems I found Paule in particular to be pretty realistic. Beautifully flawed, weak and confused you could say she was the Everywoman, the French Everywoman that is, and her lapse back into mundanity left me feeling, well, rather reflective really...

16 July 2012

The Reader Summer Book Club 2012

Whilst popping together my thoughts on Françoise Sagan's Aimez-vous Brahms... which I finished this weekend, I thought I'd share the slightly mortifying yet highly amusing experience of listening to myself rattle on at Savidge Reads' Simon and Gav Reads' Gav for their Summer Book Club. The boys have developed an incredibly entertaining, insightful and fairly hilarious bookish Podcast; The Readers, that I enjoy listening to on my ramble home from work every evening. They were kind enough to invite me on to natter about Andrew Miller's Pure that, as you all know, I loved, precluded by an interview with the author himself. Any excuse to chat books!

You can find the podcasts below and I apologise in advance for how squeaky and Northern I sound (squeakier than expected!) Though BE WARNED, if you make it to my section at the end, SPOILERS are abound and I would hate to ruin this wonderful book for any of you :):

The Readers

8 July 2012


Paris in July 2012I am very happy indeed to be kick-starting my 'Paris in July' (hosted by the wonderful Bookbath and Thyme for Tea) with a book that, as I hammered home to Simon and Gav last week, I simply really enjoyed reading. No strings attached.

Pure follows the career of Jean-Baptiste Baratte; a country boy with ambition. An engineer whose main successes include the construction of an ornamental bridge over a lake in his home town in Normandy. Despite a humble background and unassuming demeanor, Jean-Baptiste likes to think of himself as a philosophical and forward-thinking kind of man, a man determined to see himself equal to the Minister's nightmare task of destroying the poisonous cemetery of Les Innocents in the center of the city; where the fat of partially putrefied bodies, packed in too tightly with thousands of others to decompose properly, rises to the surface and the air sickens the bodies and minds of those unfortunate enough to live around it.

To assist him in this logistically impossible and deeply disturbing task Jean-Baptiste enlists the help of a former colleague and friend from the Normandy mines; Lecoeur, along with a small group of the unfaltering miners themselves, hoping that with their highly specialised experience and hardened hearts they may disinter the thousands of bodies at Les Innocents in as timely and respectful a way as possible.

The story Andrew Miller has created here is so entertaining. Drawing inspiration from the real disinterred bones that lie for all to see in catacombs under Montparnasse in modern day Paris, Miller has done what many fail to do (myself included) when stumbling across this macabre Parisian sideshow which is to consider not only the bones themselves but just who in the world became responsible for carrying out this grim task, the problems they encountered and how this huge project tied in with the tense pre-revolutionary politics simmering over every aspect of life at the time.

I am not familiar with this city. Andrew Miller's Paris is one from dark fairy tales whose history has always enticed me; one of winding backstreets and open sewers, a far cry from Baron Haussmann's spacious and regimental construction we all see today. Whilst being hauntingly vivid (you can almost smell the decay rising off the page) Miller's prose is also beautifully spare and readable. He also manages, in a very literary way that stands completely apart from your traditionally 'trashy' historical fiction, to create a period setting, dialogue and characters without abandoning himself to 'ye olde' français; modern yet believable writing that reminded me of the likes of Michael Faber's Crimson Petal and the White.

Pure is firmly focused on the French Revolution and, therefore, reality. Despite Jean-Baptiste's normality and very human insecurities (insecurities that result in him pawning his simple clothes in favour of pea-green haute couture and a becoming a bystander to midnight revolutionary escapades) make him a sympathetic character; a mere mortal trying to stand firm against the monstrous task ahead, one which results in unimaginable and life-changing events for all involved. This novel is so symbolic it could almost become too obvious and hammed up for its own good; modern v traditional, pure v impure, light v dark, Jean-Baptiste or 'Bêche' (French for spade) as he is known, becomes a micro-symbol for the change that is happening on a grander scale (and that we readers know lies just a couple of years away.) Characters and themes are so sensitively drawn however that as readers we don't end up feeling beaten into submission by allegory. This is real life, with all its tragedies and nuances, where even the addition of the notorious Dr Guillotin (namesake of the guillotine itself - how symbolic can you get?)  onto the stage cannot distract from the story Miller is trying to tell; one of revolution and of the witnesses of that revolution who, in the end, were merely bones and dust like the rest of us....

5 July 2012

Out of order

This week Literary Relish has been mostly...

Out of order.

My poor dear old Toshiba, which has been with me through thick and thin for the past 5 years - two dissertations, one wine spillage and a whole lot of hammering with the blog, finally expired this week. RIP laptop :-(  To be honest I really had pushed the poor thing to the very boundaries of its capabilities and on Sunday, puffing and wheezing to the finish line it finally exploded in a puff of smoke! (I am clearly giving myself a little artistic license here...)

However, although this brief post was planned to be done in rushed fashion from the City Library I am finally all hooked up to the world at home again and raring to go, though my introduction to this years' Paris in July has taken a bit of a hit! Tonight however has hopefully given me a flying start as I have been chit chatting (and, I fear, rambling totally off the point) with the lovely Gav and Simon for their hugely entertaining podcast The Readers and the bookclub they have kindly been hosting over summer.  Once what I am concerned will be an extremely cringe-worthy (for me at least!) interview of me reviewing Pure by Andrew Miller materialises I will be sure to post it here. In the meantime I will just have to banish all thoughts of everyone hearing my 'Liam-Gallagher-on-helium' voice immediately preceded by Andrew Miller's dulcet (probably) tones....

For now though, I am back in the land of the blogging and all Frenched up, oooo lala! What next?