Demystifying the French

As I told you in my last blog about la politesse, while finishing it up, my friend, Janet Hulstrand, asked me if I would read and review her latest book: Demystifying the French. How to Love Them and Make them Love You (What you’ve heard about them is not entirely true….).  I love reading most anything and, as it turned out, this was a very special read. I learned a lot. The book is small and can be read quickly. You can earmark pages you want to return to and give more thought to it. I highly recommend that anyone visiting France for the first or the twentieth time, read this book. I think that means I give it five stars!

The book is broken down into two parts. The first part is made up of what she calls: Essential Tips for Even Very Brief Encounters. Saying Bonjour is Tip #1!! Only five of them but five that will make a huge difference in how you perceive the French while you are here. The second part: Understanding the French Mentality solved some real issues for me. Ah ha moments, oh that’s why so and so did that.

The following is an interview that I did with Janet. Warning: this is longer than a four minute read. If you have the time, it is well worth it.

When I think of you, Janet, and your writing, writing a “primer” for us étrangers is not the first thing that comes to mind.  Why did you write Demystifying the French, and when did you start? 

I wrote this book because it really makes me sad to hear people from the U.S. and other countries talk about the bad experiences they have had in France, with its “unfriendly” people. The students who come from New York to study literature in Paris with me each summer are often warned by friends and family that the French are “rude, arrogant, and they hate Americans.” This is just sonot true! But it is true that Americans (and other foreigners) often get off to a bad start in their interactions with French people because there are a few simple rules of etiquette that they simply don’t know about; and knowing them can make all the difference in the world. 

I wanted to write a book that would explain what those rules are, and show how easy they are to follow, so that the experience of traveling (or living) in France can be a really good one, even if you don’t speak a lot of French. 

I actually started the book a few years ago, as a few posts on my blog, though I wasn’t thinking of it as a book then. I was teaching a class at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC, called “Demystifying the French.” Last year I realized that this topic could be expanded into a very useful and fun book, and have a wider audience. And so now here it is! 

I love the subtitle of your book (“What you’ve heard about them is not entirely true”).  I love the French, and I have discarded so many preconceived notions that I had before moving here.  How much damage do we inflict on ourselves by not making French culture as important as sightseeing when we are planning a visit?

For me the richest part of a travel experience is always human interaction, much more than sightseeing. I added that second subtitle because as I was working on the book and I told friends and family the subtitle (“How to Love Them and Make Them Love You”), a few people said, “Why should I want to love them, and why do I care if they love me?” I realized these people were a bit resistant to my main message, and were not necessarily natural francophiles. So the added subtitle was an attempt to intrigue those people who weren’t necessarily inclined to care about pleasing the French, and to let them know that I do realize that sometimes the French can “require special handling.” This is NOT the same thing saying that they are rude, or arrogant, nor is it an indication that someone is unfriendly. It’s just that they’re operating according to a different code of behavior. We alloperate according to a particular code of behavior. Often we’re not really aware of this until our code of behavior collides with someone else’s. Which often happens when Americans find themselves in France.

When I finished reading Part 1: Essential Tips for Even Very Brief Encounters, I thought to myself “If everyone read this, they’d have a course in Basic Diplomacy 101!!”  We Americans get away with so much these days, but the French don’t let us slide at all.  How did you pick these five basic tips?

I tried to pick five things that seem to me to be of truly fundamental importance to the French, and also things that, if you don’t know them it can cause unpleasant misunderstandings, or at least uncomfortable interactions. The first tip is one that almost everyone who writes about this topic stresses: that is, the importance of remembering to greet someone properly before launching into conversation. This is really hard for Americans to remember, because we have a tendency to go straight to the business at hand, and we don’t necessarily give a lot of thought to social niceties like saying “Bonjour” first. But in France, you can’t skip over that without being considered rude. So it’s important to know! 

Part 2 is a deeper, more complex look into how, as you say, the French “tick.”  I found it rich and thorough.  You must be quite pleased with how you have presented the French as interesting human beings worthy of being known as they are, not as we think they are. Are you getting a favourable response from expats and from your French friends?

The book has just been released so I haven’t had a chance to get very much feedback yet. The few expat friends I have heard from have been very favorable in their responses, and that makes me happy. I am anxious to hear what my French friends think too, because of course they are coming from an entirely different perspective. I hope they will like the book, though it’s not really written for them; and I hope that it will indirectly help them understand Americans a bit better too, though that is not the purpose of the book. 

I think they will probably be intrigued. The French tend to be very interested in analysis, and in human psychology; and I think they will be interested to see themselves from a different point of view. I hope it will be clear to them how much I love French people and their culture, even though I make a few jokes at their expense. I make plenty of jokes about myself and about Americans in general too, though. Hopefully it’s pretty well balanced in that way. 

When I finished your book, I found myself wishing someone had either handed me a book like this or taken me aside to explain to me the really important social aspects of living here in France before I came. Do you have any suggestions that might encourage prospective visitors to pick up a book like this as well as their sightseeing books on France and Paris?

I actually require the American students in my literature classes who come here each summer to read up on this topic before they come, and I tell them there will be a quiz! And the reason I do this is because I reallywant them to have the best possible chance to have a good time while they’re here, and to have not only positive experiences with the French people they encounter, but experiences that will show them that all the negative things they’ve heard about the French are just simply not true. I guess from now on I will require them to read my book! J

After five and a half years of living here, I have learned much of what is in your book —usually by trial and error and much embarrassment.  Chapter 4 was an eye opener: “The Importance of Stability, Order and Being Correct.” As your friend, Ellen Hampton says, “Because the French are so socially progressive and liberal about relationships, they are often mistaken for liberals.”  I now understand much better why the French administration drove me crazy in the first couple of years I was here.  Do you think there is any way around the frustration of that emphasis on “correctness?” Or is that one of the important parts of our education of living here?

Well I think one of the most important things that can be learned in living in any foreign environment is patience for the fact that things are often not done the way you feel instinctively they should be. This is in the nature of experiencing a different culture. And I think that patience is probably the best cure for frustration with those other ways we encounter when we’re not living in our own culture. It’s certainly better, and more effective, than wishing others were more like us, or trying to change them. 

Your chapter on “The Importance of Food” is so true.  Because I follow a strict medical regime that excludes alcohol and bread, the French have a hard time relating to me and how I eat.  I’ve been invited to four French dinner parties and never invited back a second time!  Your chapter helped me understand them better, and not make it personal to me.  But I constantly wonder if there is a way to explain my regime that would allow me to have more encounters of eating with the French.  Do you think it’s possible? 

Well, I think things are slowly changing in France in this regard. I was surprised to read just the other day about the number of vegan restaurants in Paris, which was apparently one of the factors that pushed it to the top of someone’s “healthiest cities” list. I think I also just heard something about a Meatless Monday effort in France, which is aimed at improving planetary health. So I think things are slowly but surely changing. It’s certainly a lot different now than when I was first bringing student groups here back in the 1990s and asking if they could make some accommodation for vegetarian students. “Oh, yes, we have a lovely quiche lorraine,” my contact at one restaurant said, very enthusiastically and kindly. When I gently reminded her that quiche lorraine does have meat in it, she said, “Well, just a little bit! They won’t mind that,will they?” And when I said, mmm, yes, they probably will, she sighed and said. “Well, okay…We can make it without meat, but that will be so sad!!!”  

I think today things are getting better for people who have particular dietary restrictions, whatever the reasons may be. If you can find a way to explain briefly what your restrictions are, and assure them that this situation is not “sad” for you, maybe that will help. Because the French really do want you to enjoy your meals! 

Is there anything else you want to add? 

Well, maybe just one thing. I hope people will read the glossary of Demystifying the French through from beginning to end. Unlike most glossaries, it’s really part of the book, and it’s one of my favorite parts.

When will your book be available for purchase? In the US? in France? The book is available for purchase now, and this link to my blog will let readers know where they can purchase it.  Thank you so much, Sara, for letting people know about it! 

If by any chance, the above link did not work, try this: https://wingedword.wordpress.com/demystifying-the-french/

Let both Janet and I know how you like the book. Welcome to enjoying the French!!!

A bientôt,

Sara

Go out and Vote–Democracy depends on you.

I hope the New York Times will forgive me for posting a part of Saturday’s editorial.  It is too long to put the whole thing here but it is good.

“It’s also true that when more people vote, the electorate becomes more liberal. If Americans voted in proportion to their actual numbers, a majority would most likely support a vision for the country far different from that of Mr. Trump and the Republicans in Congress. This includes broader access to health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, more aggressive action against climate change and more racial equality in the criminal justice system.

Republicans are aware of this, which is why the party has gone to such lengths to drive down turnout among Democratic-leaning groups. A recent example: In North Dakota, the Republican-led Legislature changed the law to make it harder for Native Americans to cast a ballot.

It comes down to this: Democracy isn’t self-activating. It depends on citizens getting involved and making themselves heard. So if you haven’t yet cast a ballot, get out and do it on Tuesday, or earlier if your state allows early voting. Help your family, friends and neighbors do the same. Help a stranger. Vote as if the future of the country depends on it. Because it does.”    NYTimes Editorial, Nov. 3, 2018

Unknown-3.jpegI have had quite an education in the last two months.  Thanks to my sister, Margaret Somers, University of Michigan; Nancy MacLean Duke University and Malcom Nance a retired Intelligence Officer, my eyes have been opened to what I’m sure many others have seen but I hadn’t.  The rise of market fundamentalism and, perhaps, the end of Democracy as we know it.  Or as Malcolm Nance said when I heard him speak at the American Library “It’s possible that Tuesday will be the end of the American Experiment”

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This isn’t a political blog but tomorrow everyone in the United States has the right to vote.  Many who want to vote are being prevented from doing so.  Many who can vote don’t.  Because they are lazy?  I’m old enough that I remember being taught about women dying  working to get the right to vote.  We were taught that voting is a privilege and not to ever abuse it.  People who don’t vote are actually voting.  The NYTimes says that the more people that vote, the electorate becomes more liberal.  So not voting is a vote for conservative.

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We live in a crazy, crazy world.  France fought off Marine Le Pen.  I heard she was one of the first, along with Donald Trump to congratulate the new President of Brazil.  The papers were asking how could someone like him win when he was so vilified a decade ago?  I think there is an answer.  It means reading and educating ourselves about the Far Right, Extremism and Russia.  It means having to stretch our brain cells to comprehend things that, to me, seem unimaginable.

So go vote tomorrow.  Then read and read some more.  Don’t get distracted by tweets and  stories that rise up and flame away.

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A Bientôt,

Sara

The Washington Decree

Jussi Adler-Olsen, author of The Washington Decree–a stand alone book, has written seven books in the Department Q series ‘starring’ lead detective Carl Morck (in Danish, that o has a line through it!).  I reviewed one of them last Fall.  They are definitely Danish Noir, gripping and full of social commentary.  Often they are laugh out-loud funny which makes them real page turners in spite of the sometimes shocking murders.  If you haven’t read them, I highly encourage you to read them in order but read them!!

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Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Washington Decree is Adler-Olsen’s latest social commentary and he takes on the United States and it’s government.  In fact, it is an American horror story.  Although the way things are going in the US, it sometimes felt too close for comfort.

In the Epilogue, he explains some of his motives for writing the book.  FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was created during the Nixon administration primarily to deal with the effects of a nuclear war but also meant to be useful in the event of any natural catastrophe.  When I lost my home in the Oakland Firestorm of 1991, FEMA was the government agency that came in and created different organisations to help us survivors out.  Included were three months of support groups for those that wished to attend. At three months, we were told the money had run out and we were on our own.

According to Adler-Olsen, FEMA  has a huge amount of funds, enough to build underground facilities, internment camps, train personnel to take over duties of elected officials and, it seems, an entire non-elected governing system could be established with a shadow cabinet and a shadow president.

The Washing Decree is Adler-Olsen’s attempt to describe the quick journey from Democracy to Autocrocy should such an event happen.  In this book, the event was the murder of the incoming President’s wife.  If it weren’t for the fact that he describes in detail all that FEMA can do and the Executive Orders at FEMA’s disposal, this book would seem fantastical, thrilling and a wonderful read but fantastical.

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The book opens with a trip to China that brings five very different people together and then-Senator Bruce Jansen. After the murder of Jansen’s wife, the book jumps sixteen years and Jansen is the Democratic contender for President.  All five of the people on the China trip have stayed close and stayed loyal to Jansen. One of them, Doggie Rogers, arranges for Jansen’s victory party to be celebrated at her father’s upscale hotel.  Jansen is re-married to a beautiful and very pregnant wife who has charmed the American public.  During the  party, Jansen’s second wife is murdered.  Doggie’s father is arrested and awaits sentencing.  Shortly thereafter, President Jansen goes on TV and issues a Law and Order Decree that becomes known as the Washington Decree. It takes away civilian rights and installs a police state.  From there, life in America descends into chaos.  The vice-president resigns in protest and the chief-of-staff becomes VP. Militia groups start hoarding guns and ammunition. People in Jansen’s cabinet are being murdered.  With each new event, another executive order is declared.  America shuts down, no one knows who is friend and who is foe.

This is a thriller with a very bad guy.  There is also a love story.  One at a time, the five friends from China start getting suspicious and wonder if Doggie’s father is really guilty and if not him, who?  It is a huge jig-saw puzzle to put together and each one of them starts fearing for his or her life.

I found the book slow going in the beginning.  But this is Jussi Adler-Olsen!  I was very willing to hang in there.  And after the scenes were set, the pace picked up and things moved rapidly as I turned the pages.  And always in the back of mind was the question “Could this really happen with a bad guy in charge?” It is all the more upsetting now that we have an unstable man in charge of the country.

I have looked up several websites to learn when Adler-Olsen began writing this book or if there was a particular purpose or statement he wanted to make.  I couldn’t find anything.   Having read all his Department Q series and one other stand alone, it is no stretch of the imagination to write that Adler-Olsen has a lot to say about the state of affairs in the world today.  I find him an acute observer, an elegant writer and possessed of an amazing ability to make up stories that go right to the heart of what is happening in the world today.  I am already looking forward to his next book.

A bientot,

Sara

Two Books

Two books have come to my attention lately.  Both are about a boy growing up below the poverty line and getting far enough away to write about it.  Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance is his chronicle of being raised by an alcoholic mother and his grandparents in Appalachia. The blurb on the front of the book says it is a ‘must read’ in order to understand Trump’s America.  The End of Eddy (En finir avec Eddy Belleguele) by Edouard Louis is the memoir/novel of a young man growing up gay in Hallencourt, France and “has sparked debate on social inequality, sexuality and violence.” Quote from the back of the English translation.

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My book group chose Hillbilly Elegy as the January book.  I don’t think anyone in the group accused it of being good writing.  However, most of us thought of it as extremely educational.  I, personally, am one of those people who has been going around confused and baffled as to how Trump won the presidency.  Russian collusion aside, what was his appeal?  He was clearly a liar, a womaniser and a supremicist.  Yet, when those who voted for him were asked why, they said “We know he is all of those things but he speaks for us and we are willing to overlook those details”  Vance’s book helped me to understand who those people are and why they hated Obama not to mention liberal white people like me.  Trump’s way of talking and being wasn’t offensive because that is the way most everyone in Appalachia and working class White American talks.

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Reading Hillbilly Elegy was an easy read.  I never felt brought into his world but I got to know the people in his world.  He described it–one in which the violence of his grandmother and the Marines in which he enlisted  between HS and College made a man of him, gave him the strength to leave Kentucky and Ohio and make something of himself.  He loved his violent Grandma.  I cringed when he described incidents with her.

I discovered The End of Eddy because I went to a talk at the Mona Bismarck Centre on Quai New York.  Mr. Louis was interviewed by a Princeton PhD as to who he was/is and how this book came to be written.  Louis is a very appealing young man and a treat to listen to.  His English is excellent–not only his command of words but his ability to express his deeper thoughts.  I wished so much my french was good enough to read this book in French but feel grateful that I can read it in English.

Louis has nothing good to say about his childhood.  The violence he suffered was also supposed to make a man out of him.  But he was gay and effeminate from a very young age.  He was beaten and spat on as a matter of course almost every day of his young life.  His suffering was such that it has become the nugget that his books revolve around.  The writing is so eloquent that the reader suffers with Eddy, feels the spit running down his face and cringes when the father or older brother are near.  Yet, there is no self-pity, no recriminations.  In fact, listening to Louis, I was struck by his generosity of spirit toward everyone.  Although there is no excuse for violence he said, he understands that everyone is suffering.

I’ve never met J.D. Vance.  Maybe he would touch me in the way that Louis did.  But I suspect not.  But that is not his intention for his readers.  He wanted to tell us, the rest of America “This is the America you don’t see and don’t understand.”  In 2016, Vance quit his job as investment banker, moved back to Ohio and is considering a run for Senate as a Republican.  He is quite conservative.  Louis’ intention is to get a conversation going.  We live in such a violent world that we don’t even recognise it.  Talk about it, tell your story, educate yourself.

Vance’s childhood home voted for Trump.  Louis’s town of Hallencourt voted overwhelmingly for Marine Le Pen.  Vance has gone right.  Louis has gone left.  Two boys, two prisons almost impossible to get out of and two very different directions. ‘For Louis, the tide of populism sweeping Europe and the United States is a consequence of what he, citing the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, calls “the principle of the conservation of violence.” “When you’re subjected to endless violence, in every situation, every moment of your life,” Louis told an interviewer, referring to the indignities of poverty, “you end up reproducing it against others, in other situations, by other means.”’  (Garth Greenwell, The New Yorker, May 8, 2017)

Read them both.  Leave me a comment.  I’d love to hear what readers are touched by and think of both books.

A bientôt,

Sara

 

Edouard Louis:    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/the-end-of-eddy-by-edouard-louis-review

JD Vance:  https://www.nbcnews.com/megyn-kelly/video/going-home-best-selling-author-j-d-vance-opens-up-about-his-painful-childhood-and-the-future-ahead-975925827899

Quality of Life

A number of people responded to my blog about my Uncle Stan.  My friend, Darcy, has been caring for her mom who lives in the same place as Stan.  Her mom has dementia and has a small studio in the Assisted Living side of the Retirement Community.  She wrote this in response to another of her friend’s whose mother is just entering the dementia stage: “that you don’t know who you are when you are taking care of your mom. This made my whole world make sense, finally. Those simple words I don’t know who I am brought everything into perspective for me. Not that I understand all the emotions I went through here in Princeton and all of the emotions I continue to feel now that I have left. This will take years. But coming back, returning to Stonebridge, threw me into the old feelings of emotional chaos and I didn’t expect this. I was quite floored by it all. I felt guilty not spending more time with my mom and yet my body simply gave out on Friday. All I wanted to do was sleep.

I think it’s impossible to know who I am when I’m taking care of her because there are so many different people involved. Internally, there is my little girl, my childhood, adulthood. I am my mother’s daughter, friend, care taker. Added to this is the great unknown, the day to day step to step into aging, the uncertainties that come with this. How will my mother be today? How and where will her mind be? When will she fall again? This alone creates a myriad of emotions. Then throw in siblings and all of their emotions, their uncertainties, the family dynamic surfacing over and over again making us all crazy at times because there isn’t one truth yet we must be looking for that one stability. But it doesn’t exist because we never know what is coming next. The same way we don’t know what our siblings will do next. It’s a constant confrontation of the complexities of the past, present and whatever may be in the future.

It’s not like when we were growing up and we had parental guidelines already established for us. Friendships had their own boundaries, too, ones we navigated on our own. When it came to those friends and the twists and turns in life, we felt we knew what mattered most, even if only at that moment in time. Now there are no guidelines, only the heart. I wonder if peoples’ best and worst qualities come out when caring for an elderly parent.”

Darcy also recommended I read a book which another friend had already suggested I read.  BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a staff writer for The New Yorker and teaches at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.  In his free time!! he writes books.  Gawande poses a question that I’ve never heard said by a doctor–“Do we try to do too much?  Are we just trying to fix the next thing or are we thinking about the ill person in what may be their last years and asking them what they want?”  He calls these the Hard Questions or the Hard Talk.  It is a very provocative and thoughtful book.  He even gives the example of his own father who developed a cancer in his spine.  It is a book all of us should read, to prepare ourselves for the future and to help our elders get what they really want–which may contradict what a specialist doctor wants for them.  We are all going to die but we have choices, up to a point,  where that will be and how it will happen.

I’ve thought of Stan ever since I returned to Paris.  He did not want to be in that bed up on the Skilled Nursing floor.  He didn’t want to be poked and prodded all day long having his blood drawn, helping him sit up or lie down.  What he wanted was to be sitting in front of his computer and doing whatever he enjoys doing.  He doesn’t have to walk to do that.  He has now got an aid 24/7 to help him get his breakfast, shower etc.  But I don’t know if he is back in his apartment or still up in Skilled Nursing.  Being Mortal has given me a whole new way to think about what happens next, what to ask Stan and then to listen.  It’s allowed me to be really honest and say that this fall is probably the beginning of the end.  Gawande says that if he can live the way he’d like to live, in his apartment, surrounded by photos of Enid and all his Princeton Basketball paraphernalia, the end may be further away.  But the Stan that is up in Skilled Nursing doesn’t want to live the way he is living up there.  Neither would I.  A specimen under the light of nurses and doctors and aides none of whom knew him until about 2 1/2 weeks ago.

I recommend this book.  Darcy calls it The bible for caregivers.  Yup, it is the only one I know of that has the questions that we should be addressing now.

And in Paris….Life is cold but at the same time full of activities.  I’m feeling grateful to be here right now, with good friends and activities I love.  Christmas Parties bringing a lot of people all together in the same room maybe the only time all year!!  And the lights!!!! The Champs Elysees is lit up and the Ave Montaigne looks absolutely elegant with lights in all the trees and little tiny blue sparkly lights flashing on and off inside the the white lights.  It’s a wonder to behold.

A bientôt,

Sara

A tall tale to be read in one evening by a warm fire.

I am in Princeton, N.J.  My 94 year old Uncle fell and broke his hip.  This is not fun for anyone.  Fortunately this trip was planned so I have been available to do whatever is needed.

While here, I picked up a small book written by one of his friends here at Stonebridge.  It is not something I would normally read and I thoroughly enjoyed every sing song word.

“I have not written this tall tale alone,” says Dr. Barbara Wright, author of An Irish Tale. “Tall tales are best told at night when the rain patters on the roof and the bug fire burns bright…for the telling of stories is a healing thing.”

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An Irish Tale lets us into the world of Dr. Wrights’s imagination as she creates a story, a tall tale, that presupposes the life of St. Patrick before he became the Patron Saint of Ireland.  She traced her maiden name, Dowd, back to the 5th Century High King called Niall of the Nine Hostages.  This warrior king kept his power by stealing adolescents from Briton and selling them as slaves in Ireland.

One of these young men was named Maewyn Succat who suffered six years of captivity in practically uninhabitable conditions and led him to a belief in the one-God.

Dr. Wright begins her tale by introducing us to the grand-daughter of King Niall. Kiara is a wild girl who is sent away as she becomes a young woman to learn the healing powers of herbs.  Eventually the paths of Kiara and Maewyn cross.  Kiara is an every-child, wild and curious as she watches the doings of her elders.  She has no judgment about the kidnapping, she isn’t old enough to know better.  She does observe and notices when some of the boys seem less afraid than others. And she remembers.

Once she is sent to live with a Healer, her natural ability shines through and she becomes the healer she is meant to be and sets the arc for our story.

Dr. Wright weaves lovely and graceful descriptions of the scenic homes of our characters from the turbulent sea to the Healer’s abode, to the bare side of the mountain where Maewyn tends his sheep and who sleep with him for warmth.  One longs to hear the lyrical music of the Irish language as the tale move along.

An Irish Tale will soon come out on Audio Books.  If you have the choice, I believe this tale, as lovely as it is to be read, is meant for listening.  Dr. Wright has written in the voice of an Irish storyteller and it is easy to hear the lilting sing song quality of the Irish as I read.

An Irish Tale                                                                                                                                        Author: Barbara Dowd Wright                                                                                              Illustrations by Sokyo                                                                                                                   Copyright 2016                                                                                                                             Kutztown Publishing Company                                                                                               Allentown, Pennsylvania

Available on Amazon Prime, Amazon and other places

En

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Until five months ago, I had never heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates. I started seeing ads for his latest book We Were Eight Years in Power on my digital version of The New Yorker. Last week, I was sent an advance copy of the book to review (it hit bookstores on October 7th but I received an unedited version) and my world turned upside down.

This is not a scholarly review.  This is a review of a citizen of the United States living in Paris trying to understand how and why Trump happened.

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The book consists of eight essays that Coates wrote for the Atlantic where he is now a Senior Editor. Each essay represents one year that Barak Obama was President. He prefaces each one with a present day writing telling us specifics of why he wrote what he wrote and how he sees the article now, 2017. He ends with an Epilogue about President Trump “our first white president”. The Guardian review calls him “the laureate of black lives”.

I am a seventy year old white woman living in Paris, France. I was raised in academia, my father taught at Princeton University. I say that I was released from behind Ivy League walls at eighteen years old a very naive young woman. I have always considered myself a liberal (my sister says that is a four letter word) and always voted Democrat. Never have I felt more naive and uneducated about the realities of the class system in the United States than reading Coate’s book.

Coates has a unique way of presenting his material in a New Yorker-type style while searing you with some very unpleasant truths. Truths that, the minute I read them, I knew were true though I’ve had my head in the sand for a long time. The Guardian says “Coates has the rare ability to express (it) in clear prose that combines historical scholarship with personal experience of being black in today’s America.” He calls all types of slavery, the Klu Klux Klan, White Supremacy ‘Domestic Terrorism’ which, of course, it is. Slavery was outlawed over 150 years ago, Blacks have the right to vote and the Civil Rights movement, of which I partook, was supposed to have ended all the inequality. Yet Blacks are consistently murdered and the murderers not indicted. Laws have been passed to stop Blacks from voting at the polls. Coates probably sited 100 instances of domestic terrorism. Some I knew about, many I did not. All done in the name of keeping the White class the superior class.

His eighth chapter was specifically about Obama. What made Obama unique and able to become President of the United States was the fact that he was raised by three white people who adored him and let him know how much he was loved. He was not educated to be suspicious of white people. He was not cautioned about going into certain neighborhoods that were too dangerous for black people. He was encouraged to learn and encouraged to strive for the best. Coates stated that 71% of Republicans still believe he is Muslim and many still believe he was not born in the United States. Trump began his political career by openly challenging Obama to produce his birth certificate. For years, he stated everywhere he could be heard his “Birther” beliefs. Obama was our first black president. However, if he was not born in the US, then he couldn’t be president and for the majority of people who are threatened by the idea of a black president, the string of white presidents remains unbroken.

I couldn’t put Coate’s book down. I learned that he was a fellow at the American Library in Paris where he wrote parts of his last book “Between the World and Me” I didn’t join the Library until after he had left France and want to turn back the clock. I feel cheated. I have watched his interviews on YouTube and his presentations at ALP. He seems a soft spoken man who is very funny and still a bit overwhelmed by his fame. He told Chris Jackson, his editor and publisher of One World books, that it felt like being hit by a Mack Truck. A Mack Truck with money but still a Mack Truck!

Coates is a man who has a lot to be angry about. But he has chosen to channel that energy into educating people like me about “Reality”. He is not surprised by a Trump presidency. I was. We Were Eight Years in Power felt like a fist to my gut. It hurt. I needed the painful punch. I didn’t choose what color my skin is anymore than Coates did. I have been fortunate. A whole class of my compatriots have not been.

If you are interested in reading The Guardian review:                                                                 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/ta-nehisi-coates-our-story-is-a-tragedy-but-doesnt-depress-me-we-were-eight-years-in-power-interview

A bientôt,

Sara

 

The Scarred Woman

It’s about time for another book review of a favorite author.  So while I prepare my blog on my very first ‘Destination Wedding”, get out your reading glasses and prepare yourself with one of the earlier books while waiting for the release of the The Scarred Woman.

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The Scarred Woman

by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Pub Date 19 Sep 2017

After I discovered and read, along with the rest of the world, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy by Steig Larsson, I scarfed down every Scandinavian mystery/crime thriller I could find. I didn’t care if I’d never heard of the author, experience was teaching me that the books were sometimes good and often great. I don’t remember reading a poor one.

I was excited to discover two books by an author I’d not heard of, Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Dane, at a neighborhood book sale. They were both in practically perfect condition. Either the owner prior to me took extraordinarily good care of paperbacks or s/he was put off by the length of these mysteries. Her loss.

The two books I picked up happened to be the first two books in the series about Department Q. One certainly doesn’t have to read them in order–there are seven in all including The Scarred Woman–but I have loved being witness to the evolution of the main characters and Department Q itself. The first book details the beginning of Department Q, a demotion for Carl Morck who, although an excellent detective, is surly and on the outs with many of his colleagues. Department Q is created, in the bowels of the basement, for him to work on cold cases. He is given an assistant, Assad, a Muslim Dane, with a mysterious and dubious history. The two attempt to solve unsolvable cases.

As the series moves on, Carl and Assad get another member of the team, Rose. Rose is as off beat as the other two and the interactions between the three of them provide a levity much needed to balance the gruesome Nordic mystery and murders.

By the seventh book, years have passed, Carl and his team have become famous for solving hideous past crimes. They have saved each others’ lives and there is a strong if unspoken affection between all the team members that keeps the reader involved in these lengthy books. A fourth member has joined the team. Gordon has a serious crush on Rose and, as The Scarred Woman moves along, is traumatized by the fact that something is seriously emotionally wrong with Rose. The Chief of Police has retired and he, too, is falling apart after the death of his wife. However, a recent death looks to him like a murder as it is so similar to one seventeen years ago that he worked on. He is intrigued and asked Carl to look into it.

Meanwhile, another story of three beautiful but lazy, entitled girls, determined to marry rich men while living off their lies to their Social Worker, seems completely unrelated. Nothing happens without a reason and nothing happens quickly. For me, this is part of the charm of this series. We think along with Carl and Assad and sometimes the murderer. There are many many threads going at the same time much as life and the juggling of priorities and time are not unfamiliar to most of us. We are amused by the repartee between Carl and Assad especially and astounded by the many sides of Rose. The books are long, 500 to 600 or more pages but Adler-Olsen is such a good writer and so adapt at bringing the reader along far a wonderful ride that one feels we’re reading about distant friends. I never wanted any of the books to end.

I’ve always wondered how authors like Ruth Rendall, Adler-Olsen and a number of the Scandinavian writers come up with people and crimes that are pure evil. Some authors spend time making sure the reader understands that the murderer is a victim also, hostage to his or her past. I wouldn’t call Adler-Olsen’ books psychological thrillers as a number have now been labeled. He entertains us, he scares us and, often, he provides background to explain some of the horror but doesn’t dwell on it. As someone who worked in a psychological profession, I can say that he has definitely done his research. But then to create these masterful jigsaw puzzles from his research and extraordinary mind is true literary genius to me. One of the books says he is the No 1 bestselling author in Denmark. I didn’t know that as I’d never heard of him before this summer but I don’t doubt it.

If you are a true mystery/thriller fan and also like good writing, read this book and oh by the way, read the other five books also so that you became part of Department Q!.

 

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Carl Valdemar Jussi Henry Adler-Olsen (born August 2, 1950) is a Danish author, publisher, editor and entrepreneur. Jussi Adler-Olsen’s career is characterised by his great involvement in a wide range of media related activities. In 1984, he made his debut as a non-fiction writer. 1997 saw his debut as a fiction writer. His latest novel is The Boundless (Den Grænseløse) (2014) is the 6th volume in the Department Q series.
Bio from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Photo by Lesekreis (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
A bientôt,
Sara

La Grange

On Monday past, four members of my book club, The Mountainview Literary Circle, along with with four friends, went on a Field trip to La Grange in Rozay-en-Brie.  The Chateau at La Grange was the last home of Lafayette and his wife, Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles .  La Grange lies in the Provins region of France which is still part of Ile de France.  Lafayette lived there for 30 years after the peace of Amiens.  His wife, however, who had became very sick when she refused to leave him while he was imprisoned in Austria during the French Revolution and the Terror, lived there only eight years.

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A year ago November, I attended the American Library Book Award ceremony held to give a monetary prize to the best book of 2015.  The subject matter has to be about France or French-American relations.   The winner in 2015 was a book by Laura Auricchio entitled Le Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered.  It sounded so interesting that I recommended it to my book club.  At the end of the book, the author urged us all to visit La Grange explaining that it is probably the best museum of all things Lafayette as well as his wife, Madame Adrienne de Noailles La Fayette , a very interesting person in her own right.  So I made all the plans and got a date and then learned that the Chateau at La Grange is a private museum and one has to have special permission to visit.

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Marie Adrienne de Noailles La Fayette

The Chateau today belongs to the Foundation Josée-and-Rene-de-Chambrun which is responsible for the management of  the inheritance and property of the family La Fayette. Interestingly enough the Chambrun family was instrumental in keeping the American Library open during WWII.   As a result of Mme Chambrun’s son’s marriage to the daughter of the Vichy prime minister, Pierre Laval, the library was ensured a friend in high places, and a near-exclusive right to keep its doors open and its collections largely uncensored throughout the war. A French diplomat later said the library had been to occupied Paris “an open window on the free world.”(Wikipedia)

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Lafayette in Prison during the French Revolution

One of our book club members is a “son of the American Revolution”  At a press meeting at the American Library, he met another SAR and together they requested permission for a visit.  It was very iffy until the last minute.  The Chateau will be closed for the next eighteen months while it undergoes renovation and it wasn’t clear if the renovation had actually started.  Three weeks ago, we were given the date of Monday, Dec. 12th for our visit.

Rozay-en-Brie is approximately 1 hour southeast of Paris.  Easy to get to.  We had lunch at one of those funky looking restos where you hold your breath hoping there is good food and leave thinking “imagine that, really good food in this place.We must be in France!”  We met our guide promptly at 2pm.  I was slightly handicapped as I was the only one who doesn’t speak fluent French.  Visually the place is an homage to La Fayette and the American Revolution. A copy of the Declaration of Independence hangs on the wall along with letters, gifts and reproductions of battles.

No one actually lives in the Chateau.  There was no heat.  I had a very definite feeling of what it would be like inhabiting one of these gorgeous old places before modern day comforts were invented.  We went from room to room enjoying the memorabilia.  There is a James Fenimore Cooper bedroom.  Cooper met General Lafayette when the latter visited the US in 1824, a reunion trip that took Lafayette to many states and many cities named after him.  Cooper later moved his family to Paris hoping for a better audience for his books and became good friends with Lafayette.

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It’s easy to imagine Lafayette’s love affair with all things American as there was a long canoe like vessel in the barns next to the Chateau.  I wasn’t clear who had sent it to him but it looks very similar to the boat depicted in the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware.  While living at the Chateau in La Grange, Lafayette participated in politics but gradually grew very disillusioned.

On 20 May 1834, Lafayette died on 6 rue d’Anjou-Saint-Honoré in Paris (now 8 rue d’Anjou in the 8th arrondissement of Paris) at the age of 76. He was buried next to his wife at the Picpus Cemetery under soil from Bunker Hill, which his son Georges Washington sprinkled upon him.

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Picpus Cimetière

To be able to visit this chateau was a treat and a privilege.  One most people won’t be able to have.  After we had visited all the rooms that were open, our guide invited us to tea.  She took us into a beautiful, oak-lined small dining room set out with a full English tea.  We were thanking her profusely and she said “no, it is I who should thank you.  It is a pleasure to show this place and these rooms to people who understand the context and the history”  Once again, I was reminded that our hero who had at least one city named after him in every state of the Union, who is synonymous with the American Revolution is not seen with the same eyes here in France.  He was an aristocrat at the time when aristocrats were suspect and the French were never quite sure what his motives for doing anything were.

http://www.balades-en-brie.com/brie/courpalay/chateau-de-la-grange-bleneau.html

A bientôt,

Sara

 

Le French Book

Once I no longer HAD to read good literature, I joined a Book Club so that at least once a month I could say I had read Literature.  But for pure reading pleasure, I started my life-long love affair with Mysteries and Thrillers.  Some would say that there are plenty of mysteries that are also well written literature.  I’m not a judge.  I know that I love to while away the day lying on the couch reading Lee Childs, Alexander McCall Smith, John Sanford, PD James, etc.  All written in English by American or British authors.

I don’t know when I discovered that the French write mysteries!  At my Alliance Française, they are filed under Policiers.  Anne Trager, editor and translator, says the French call them Polar — pronounced “pole-ARE”.  Whatever they are called, I love them.  And thanks to Ms. Trager, I get to read them in English.  I’m not exactly proud that my french isn’t good enough to read these books but I’m making progress.  In the meantime, there’s

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Anne Trager founded Le French Book in 2011.  Her website says:   “The company’s founder—American translator and editor Anne Trager—loves France so much she has lived there for over a quarter of a century, and just can’t seem to leave. It’s not the baguettes that keep her there (she’s sans gluten), but a uniquely French mix of pleasure seeking and creativity. Well, that and the wine. After over a quarter of a century of experience in the translation business and nearly as much in publishing, she decided it was time for her to focus on the books she loves to read and bring them to a broader audience.”

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Anne Trager, Editor and Translator

You can go to the website: https://www.lefrenchbook.com and discover all the books that she and her team have translated.  I want to tell you about one series in particular The Winemaker Detective Series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen.  I must have written Anne to thank her because I am now able to read advance copies of this series.  They aren’t quite The Cozies that some people steer clear of.  There is always a mystery and some are darker than others.  There is also plenty of wine as our hero ‘detective’, Benjamin, happens to be a renowned Wine Expert.  He and his assistant, Virgil, make the rounds of the vineyards of France, eating delicious meals, drinking fabulous wines and solving mysteries.  And, as with many series these days, one gets to know Benjamin’s family, Virgil’s love affairs and the state of wine production year after year.  The books are not lengthy so each one is an easy couple of afternoons reading.  Plus if you live in France as I do, it is so much fun to say “I’ve been there!”

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I wrote Anne last Spring and asked her if a TV series had ever been made of the books. Yes, she said, Blood of the Vine.  I subscribe to MhZ International Mysteries and found the series there.  I think I watched all four seasons in two weeks!  The series is loosely based on the books–once I got passed the fact that the shows were different, I fell in love with them also.

While writing this blog, I went on LeFrenchBook website and discovered that you can get 3 of the books free.  You just need to tell the team where to send them. Unless you only like violence that comes at you on every page, you will not be disappointed.

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You can read an interview with the two authors from November 20, 2016:             https://www.lefrenchbook.com/le-french-book-blog/2016/11/20/revealed-the-winemaker-detective-and-winemaking

A bientôt,

Sara