Posts Tagged ‘French literature’

I had this theory I wrote more about in the early days of bookconscious which I dubbed the “Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading” (if you’re interested search for that in the blog and you’ll see where I’ve written about it before). On a basic level I think it’s what leads us from book to book, sometimes making subtle connections, sometimes just thinking as we put one book down that it reminds us of another we’ve been meaning to read. On a more complicated level, as I wrote here in 2009, it’s about “the ways that we interpret ourselves through what we read, and the work interprets us, as we interact with it. In the process, we make connections for ourselves and with other people not just in reading, but in thinking about, writing about, discussing, reading reviews, and otherwise processing what we’ve read and placing it in our own mind map of what we know, believe, and love.”

What does this have to do with Smoking Kills? Well on the simpler level, I chose it because I had just finished The Scapegoat and had drawn a parallel between Du Maurier’s writing about men who looked identical and Antoine Laurain‘s writing about the same idea. But on the deeper level, Fabrice, Laurain’s hero in Smoking Kills, made me stop and think about why it is that certain memories, especially those relating to our interests and pleasures, and to what may have reinforced those interests and pleasures in our lives, disappear to us on a conscious level and may need probing to find again later? And even if those memories are not consciously on our minds, how are they working invisibly to reinforce the pleasure we take in our interests now?

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve been called out for being addicted to reading. I probably am. Reading about Fabrice’s undergoing hypnosis to revisit the time just before he started smoking, the incidence of his first cigarette, and the reinforcing experiences that make smoking one of his greatest pleasures made me wonder what those memories and experiences are for me, with regards to reading? That said, reflection is all I want — watching Get Out and reading Smoking Kills, I’ll never undergo hypnosis!

So, the gist of this very intriguing and thought provoking novel, which is brilliant, by the way, is that Fabrice is a successful executive headhunter, married to Sidonie, the editor of a contemporary art magazine, and she wants him to stop smoking. They hear of a friend who used hypnosis to stop, Fabrice goes to the same hypnotist, and his pleasure in cigarettes is gone. But unfortunately for him, the hypnotist was not actually trained and the therapy he underwent had a very strange effect on him . . . he still likes to smoke, but only under one condition. He has to kill someone first.

As well as this page turning plot, there is so much more to ponder in Smoking Kills. Fabrice does not understand, appreciate, or even like much of the contemporary art Sidonie champions. So he spends time telling readers what he finds problematic and what he wonders about art. He also notes, “Having no opinions whatsoever in common with the person whose life you share is risky business. Even, I would say, impossible. . . .  After many years together, I would pay a heavy price for our aesthetic differences.”

How fascinating, even if no one in a relationship develops a murderous tendency! There are indications that Fabrice and Sidonie are still compatible, if not aesthetically. But what if you and your partner completely disagreed about something that one of you valued so much that you devoted your life’s work to it?

So, another wonderful book, less light-hearted and more introspective than some of Laurain’s other books but equally entertaining. And it has led me to pick up another book I recently bought at the new Manchester bookstore The Bookery. More on that soon!

*** I should point out that I read an arc; I thought the book was out next week but that’s the UK edition, and it comes out in August in the US. Worth the wait, however! ***


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At work we’ve started a “RivRecommends” (short for Rivier University) cart where library patrons can put a slip in a recently returned book or DVD they enjoyed and suggest it to the community. One of my co-workers recommended Soft in the Head. It’s a French novel about a man, Germain, whose mother has always told him he was a mistake, who never learned to read properly, who is very tall and is often the butt of his friends’ jokes. Germain lives in a trailer in the back yard of his mother’s house, where he can keep an eye on his garden, he works at a temp agency mostly on manual labor jobs, and he likes counting pigeons in the park. One day he sits on a bench with Margueritte, an elderly woman as small as he is large.

Margueritte doesn’t find it odd that Germain counts the pigeons. She seems to enjoy his company. Eventually, she reads to him. They talk about all sorts of things. As Germain puts it, “. . . I thought that sooner or later she’d end up treating me like a pathetic moron. But she always talked to me like I was a person. And you see, that can change a man.”

Germain narrates the book, which keeps it from being a sappy story; my co-worker calls it charming, and I think that’s a good description. Regular bookconscious readers know I have a soft spot for books in translation. I feel like they take a reader somewhere new even more than books set in unfamiliar places but written in one’s native language.

I’ve also always liked books about unusual friendships, and Margueritte and Germain are terrific characters. This was a nice book to keep my mind occupied in this, our first week of being empty nesters — yes, Teen the Younger has gone off to college. And a good book for reading in the sun on a well-earned three day weekend.


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I recently reviewed The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, and I just finished his earlier book, The President’s Hat. Set towards the end of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, the book opens with Daniel Mercier treating himself to a meal at a brasserie while his wife and son are away. President Mitterrand and his party are seated beside Daniel. He’s amazed by this brush with greatness, and when the president leaves his black felt Homburg hat, Daniel does the unthinkable — he takes it.

As the novel unfolds, three other characters end up with the president’s hat: a woman in an unhappy love affair, a famous perfumer who hasn’t been able to create anything new for years and is in a deep depression, and a wealthy man who has come to disdain all that his familiar world stands for. As each of them possesses the hat for a brief time, their lives are changed. Daniel gets a promotion. Fanny finds the gumption to leave her lover. Pierre rediscovers his creativity. Bernard thinks for himself, and discovers a passion for modern art.

Does the president get his hat back? You’ll have to read the book to see. Once again Laurain transports readers to Paris, brings each scene alive with little details like the “ramekin of shallot vinegar” served alongside the seafood platter Daniel orders. Or a scene in which Pierre describes an African fetish in his analyst’s office.

This story seems a little bit like a fable or fairy tale; there’s the implication that the hat has some sort of magic or power and is bringing changes to each of the characters’ lives, but Laurain never quite says, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To me, that makes for better reading. There’s a discussion guide in the back; a book group might enjoy discussing the many social and cultural issues Laurain touches on as well as the charm of the novel itself.

The President’s Hat would be good vacation reading — thoughtful and well done, but not too taxing.

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In Grégoire Delacourt ‘s My Wish List, Jocelyne Guerbette lives in Arras, a small French city she calls “a gray place.” She runs a fabric shop, is married to Jocelyn, who works at the Haagen-Dazs factory, and has two grown children. Her mother died when she was young, her father had a stroke a year later and he forgets who she is every six minutes. Her third child was stillborn, a tragedy her she and Jo both struggled with.

But she has a good life, simple but satisfying. Her blog about sewing and knitting, tengoldfingers, has taken off, and she hears regularly from women who say it is making a difference in their lives. She has her friends and family, her work, summer camping trips and the relative comfort of a long marriage. “It’s not the life I dreamed of in my diary,” she explains, but it’s fine.

Her friends Daniele and Francoise play the lottery every week. One week they talk Jocelyne into playing too, and she wins. Eighteen million euros. But instead of celebrating, instead of cashing the check, she waits. And makes lists of what she’d like to do with the money — simple things, “a lamp for the hall table,” an iron, a flat screen tv for Jo, gifts to make her children’s lives easier. She waits, and thinks, and wonders if this change will open the cracks in her marriage once and for all.

Two things struck me about My Wish List — first, that a man wrote so beautifully in a woman’s voice. Jocelyne’s thoughts and feelings ring absolutely true. Second, it’s a brief book but so full. You know just about everything there is to know about Jocelyne in 163 pages. Her childhood dreams. The way her life has unfolded — moments of crisis and the moments of joy. What she fears. Even the way her husband smells, what he drinks, and what her favorite book is.  I really admire the way Delacourt writes so richly and so economically.

I won’t say what happens, but I will suggest you seek out this little book, perfect for a long afternoon in a lounge chair after your errands are done or the garden is weeded. If you’re a middle aged woman, prepare to squirm a bit — the way Jocelyne looks back on her younger self, examines her body, thinks about her life as it could have been and is may feel a bit more familiar than is comfortable. But also prepare to enjoy. Jo says, “I love words . . . . I love it when words sometimes hide what they’re saying, or say it in a new way.” Grégoire Delacourt has done that with My Wish List, much to the delight of readers around the world.

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