Tag Archives: France

Review: Soft in the Head by Marine-Sabine Roger

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Netgalley.  The book was first published in the original German in 2008 and this English version has been translated by Frank Wynne.

My Review:
Soft in the HeadThis story is told in the first person by a forty-five year old man named Germain who describes himself as being “soft in the head.”  Germain tells us about his current circumstances and his life as well as his childhood and early years.  He vividly describes his experiences in primary school with his teacher, “The strong get off on walking all over other people, and wiping their feet while they’re at it, like you would on a doormat. This is what I learned from my years at school.  It was a hell of a lesson.  All that because of some bastard who didn’t like kids.  Or at least he didn’t like me.  Maybe my life would have been different if I’d had a different teacher.  Who knows?  I’m not saying it’s his fault I’m a moron, I’m pretty sure I was one even before that.  But he made my life a misery.”  I don’t include very many quotes in my reviews, but when I read this part of the book I had tears in my eyes and I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.

Germain has been treated like he is a worthless moron his whole life, not only by his cruel teacher, but also by his mother and some of the other kids at school.  Germain tells us that his mother get pregnant when she had a one time tryst with a much older man at a summer carnival.  Germain’s mother was labeled a “slut” and an outcast; she takes out her unwanted pregnancy on her poor son, Germain.  She is never affectionate, kind or motherly to him and she hits him at the slightest provocation.  Although Germain is very forthright about his mother’s treatment of him, he never uses her as an excuse for not accomplishing what he wants to do in life.

Germain does, indeed, carve out for himself a rather happy path in life.  He moves out to the caravan in his mother’s backyard so he doesn’t have to deal with her and argue with her everyday.  He feels autonomous and quite content living in a caravan even though it is rather small.  He spends his days tending his large, bounteous garden, visiting with his friends at the local pub, and spending time with his girlfriend, Annette.  One of his favorite daily activities is spending time in the local park where he counts the pigeons.  It is a chance meeting on one of these outings that has a profound impact on Germain’s life.

While on his usual visit to the park one day Germain meets a small and kind elderly woman named Margueritte.  As they start talking they realize that they both enjoy feeding and counting the pigeons.  Margueritte always has a book with her and one day she decides to start reading it outloud to Germain.  His bad experiences at school have made him hate and dread anything to do with reading.  But Margueritte’s book, The Plague, by Camus captivates Germain and it plants the seed of learning in him like nothing else has before.  Margueritte never treats Germain like a moron so he starts to gain some confidence by asking questions and discussing and reading more books with her.  Germain says, “When people are always cutting you down, you don’t get a chance to grow.”  It is Margueritte who serves at the compassionate and encouraging teacher that Germain has been yearning for all of his life.

This is a great read for those who love books about books.  Germain and Margueritte read several books together as they explore the world of literature.  Margueritte also gives Germain a dictionary which becomes his prize possession.  A good part of the story further describes Germain’s growth in other areas of his life.  His experiences with Margueritte have made him a more compassionate and confident friend and boyfriend.  This book serves as a reminder that each and every day we all have the capacity and the choice  to either cut someone down or build someone up.  I absolutely loved this book and was smitten with Germains story and for this reason I think it should be on everyone’s “must-read” summer book list.

About the Author and Translator:
Roger-Marie-Sabine-NB-Libre-de-droits-Cécile-Roger-copy-e1467216344165-1024x1024Born in Bordeaux in 1957, Marie-Sabine Roger has been writing books for both adults and children since 1989. Soft in the Head was made into a 2010 film, My Afternoons with Margueritte, directed by Jean Becker, starring Gerard Depardieu. Get Well Soon won the Prix des lecteurs de l’Express in 2012 and will be published by Pushkin Press in 2017.

Frank Wynne is an award-winning translator from French and Spanish. He has won the IMPAC Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Scott Moncrieff Prize. He has translated a number of Spanish and Latin American authors, including Tomás Eloy Martínez, Isabel Allende, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Tomás Gonzalez, whose In the Beginning Was the Sea is published by Pushkin Press .


Filed under France, German Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press.  This was originally written and published in French and this English translation is by John Cullen

My Review:
Exchange of PrincessesIn 1721, the regent of France, Philip D’Orleans, decides that the best alliance that the eleven-year-old King Louis XV can make with Spain is through marriage.  The regent proposes that Louis XV marry the princess of Spain, who is only four-years-old at the time of their betrothal.  The regent will also give his own daughter, Louise Elizabeth, a moody 11- year-old girl, to the Prince of Spain, also just a boy of 12,  as a show of good faith.  If you are already confused about names and ages then please don’t let that discourage from reading the book; I was confused in the beginning as well but the author does a good job of repeating the names and making the characters clear and distinct.  In 1722, both princesses set out on a long and arduous trek on the unpaved and rough roads between France and Spain.  The princesses are exchanged on the middle of the journey and each one proceeds to her new home and position.

My favorite part of the book is reading about the four-year-old Spanish princess;  like any little girl she loves her dolls, playing games, and being lavished with attention.  She is talkative and precocious and all of France and the French court becomes smitten with this charming little girl.  The author describes the very adult tasks that she must endure such as receiving ambassadors from foreign countries and attending balls in her honor.  At one such ceremony the little infanta is described as sucking on her thumb and clutching her favorite doll while a group of academics from the University of Paris pay their respects to her.  The only one who is not taken in by the charms of the princess is her own husband, King Louis XV.

Things do not go quite as smoothly as Philip D’Orleans had expected as far as these arranged marriages are concerned.  But, what did the regent expect when he decided to base political alliances on the lives of children?  Even though the little princess, Marianna Victoria, is a delightful four-year-old, her future husband, the king, is a jealous and petty eleven-year-old boy who is very upset that his nanny is now taking care of his future bride.  As he grows up he has no interest, whatsoever in spending any time with her or getting to know her.  The infanta, on the other hand, worships the king and is so thrilled whenever he is around her.

Meanwhile, in Spain the roles are reversed as Louise Elizabeth, the future Queen of Spain, wants nothing to do with her husband Don Luis.  The future King of Spain is so thrilled to have a pretty wife and he wants nothing more than to consummate their marriage.  But Louise Elizabeth does everything she can to keep the Prince away from her.  I don’t want to give too much away, but nothing works out in the end as the regent had intended.

The Exchange of Princesses actually reads more like a non-fiction history book than an historical fiction.  The author uses real letters from the characters involved as well as newspaper articles from the time period.  There are great details about ceremonies, details of palaces and descriptions of costumes.  If you are looking for a fast-paced, exciting historical fiction novel then this is not the book to read.  However, if you want to learn something about the political situation between France and Spain during the 18th century and the players involved then this well-researched novel is the perfect choice.


About The Author:
Chantal Thomas (born 1945 in Lyon) is a French writer and historian. Her 2002 book, Farewell, My Queen, won the Prix Femina and was adapted into a 2012 film starring Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux.

Thomas was born in Lyon in 1945, and was raised in Arcachon, Bordeaux, and Paris. Her life has included teaching jobs at American and French universities (such as Yale and Princeton) as well as a publishing career. She has published nineteen works, including essays on the Marquis de Sade, Casanova, and Marie Antoinette.

In 2002, Thomas published Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen). The novel gave a fictional account of the final days of Marie Antoinette in power through the perspective of one of her servants. It won the Prix Femina in 2002, and was later adapted into the 2012 film Farewell, My Queen. The film stars Diane Kruger as the titular queen and Léa Seydoux as her servant Sidonie Laborde. Thomas co-wrote the screenplay,and it opened the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. Helen Falconer of The Guardian called the work “a well written slice of history” with “evocative, observant prose,” but criticized it for creating a narrator who “merely provides us with a pair of eyes to see through rather than capturing our interest in her own right.” While disagreeing in its classification as a novel, Falconer did however add that Farewell, My Queen “generates in the reader a real sense of being a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the affairs of the great and the not so good.”

Thomas is currently the director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.



Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Spain

Review: George’s Grand Tour by Caroline Vermalle

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Gallic Books.

My Review:
George's Grand TourGeorge is an eighty-three year old gentleman living a quiet life in the French countryside.  He has been a widower for a few years now and his daughter keeps careful watch over his life.  George does not alter his daily routine of watching television, visiting with his neighbor Charles or napping so it is shocking when George decides that he is going to take a three thousand kilometer road trip.

When George’s overprotective daughter decides to take a two month trip and leave him alone, he makes plans with his neighbor Charles to embark on a trip of a lifetime.  These two elderly men prove that one is never too old, too tired or too feeble to have an adventure.  As George and Charles’ route follows the same stops as that of the Tour de France, the places they visit and the cast of characters which they meet on the way are interesting and delightful.

George’s granddaughter, Adele, decides that she has not seen her grandfather in over ten years and out of the blue wants to renew her relationship with him.  Adele begins texting George as he makes his way on his tour and the scenes in which George figures out how to use his phone and the language of texting are hilarious.  George learns that technology is not necessarily such a bad thing and the daily messages between himself and his granddaughter serve to rekindle their heartwarming relationship.

I must say that there were a few plot twists in this book that really surprised me.  George and Charles have very different reasons for embarking on their trip which are slowly revealed to us throughout the book.  Adele also has some of her own issues as a young woman who is trying to figure out her own place in the world.  There is also an interesting attraction between George and Charles’ single sister whom they stop and visit along the way.

No matter where George goes on his trip, he has a gentle way of winning people over and making friends.  He certainly won me over and I highly recommend giving GEORGE’S GRAND TOUR a try while you are sitting on the beach or anywhere else on vacation this summer.

About The Author:
C VermalleCaroline Vermalle was born in France in 1973 to a family whose French roots go back at least as far as the 16th century. Yet, she is a vegetarian who can’t cook, doesn’t drink, finds berets itchy and unpractical and would rather eat yesterday’s snails than jump a queue.

After graduating from film school in Paris, she became a television documentary producer for the BBC in London and travelled the world, at speed and off the beaten tracks, in search of good stories. In 2008, then on maternity leave, she penned her first novel « George’s Grand Tour », whose international success allowed her to quit her job and indulge in her three passions : books, interior design and travel – slowly this time.

After writing 7 novels in different genres and different languages, going on a world tour with her family and building a wooden house in a forest, Caroline now lives between a small seaside town in Vendée (France) and a small seaside town in the Eastern Cape (South Africa) with her son, a black cat and her husband, South African architect-turned-author Ryan von Ruben.




Filed under France, Literature in Translation, Summer Reading

Review: Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Peirene Press.  This novella was first published in French in 1986 as La Lectrice and has been translated into this English version by Adriana Hunter.

My Review:
Reader for HireMarie-Constance is looking for some kind of occupation to fill her time; even though she never finished her university degree, she loves literature and decides she will hire herself out to strangers for reading sessions.  When she puts an ad in the local newspaper offering her services, the editor is skeptical and warns her that people might get other ideas about what she is offering.

The novella almost reads like a series of short stories as Marie-Constance meets and reads to a very different and interesting cast of characters.  Her first client is a disabled teenager who goes into an epileptic fit when Marie reads him Maupassant’s short story The Hand.  After this traumatic experience, she decides that poetry might be a better choice for him and as she reads to him he seems to be emotionally and physically moved not only by her reading choices but also by her voice.

Marie-Constance also takes on an old woman who is a Hungarian countess that was married to a former French general.  The countess still staunchly clings to her communist roots and has Marie read to her from the tomes of Marx.  The old woman also tries to participate in the local unions attempts at a rally by waving her communist flag out her bedroom window.

The men who hire Marie for her services are the most interesting characters in the book.  On the surface, they all want to better themselves by learning more about literature.  But as Marie’s voice lulls them into feelings of peace and tranquility, their other manly senses seems to kick in as well.  The final scene in the book is hilarious and Marie learns that the editor at the newspaper might have been right after all about what her listeners are expecting from her services.

This is a clever, funny, unique and interesting novella from Peirene Press.  This is the perfect title to bring with you to the beach for a quick, delightful read.

About The Author and Translator:
Raymond Jean (1925–2012) wrote more than 40 books during his lifetime – novels, short-story collections and essays. He was awarded the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle in 1983. His novella La Lectrice (Reader for Hire) became a cinema hit starring Miou-Miou. The film won the César Award for Best Supporting Actor and was named the best feature at the 1988 Montreal World Film Festival.

Adriana Hunter has translated over 50 books from French, including works by Agnès Desarthe, Véronique Ovalde and Hervé Le Tellier. She has already translated for Peirene, Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, for which she won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize, and Under The Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda. Adriana has been short-listed twice for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.


Filed under France, Humor, Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: Alien Hearts by Guy de Maupassant

The New York Review of books had a fantastic winter sale and I bought several books, including this one, at a fantastic discount.  This book was originally written and published in French in 1890.  This English version has been translated by Richard Howard.

My Review:
Alien HeartsAndré Mariolle is wealthy enough to pursue various arts without having to make a living from them.  He dabbles in a little bit of everything from playing music to writing.  He is content with mediocrity in his life and he is happy to surround himself with other artists and move in the creative and intellectual circles in Paris.  One day he is invited to the salon of Madame du Burne and his quiet, unassuming life is changed forever.

Madame du Burne survived an abusive, although brief, marriage and when her husband dies and leaves her a widow at the age of 30, she puts all of her wealth and energy into entertaining the most creative minds in 19th Century Paris.  Novelists, sculptors, musicians and singers all attend her salon and an invitation from her is the most coveted one in town.  But we learn that Madame du Burne has some deep-seated psychological issues as far as relationships with men are concerned.  She is an unrelenting coquette who makes men fall in love with her and she collects men like she collects art.  She toys with their emotions, but once they fall in love with her she never returns their feelings.

When Madame du Burne meets Mariolle he seems to have a different affect on her; she favors him more than the other men in her “collection,” but is she really capable of truly loving someone in return?  Mariolle falls hopelessly in love with her and writes her beautiful love letters and tries to be around her as much as possible.  Despite her sad experience with marriage, it is hard to feel sorry for Madame du Burne.  She appears to appreciate artists and intellectuals but it becomes obvious throughout the novel that she is just using them for her own selfish and vain ends.

Maupassant’s language, especially when he is describing the process of falling in love, is poetic and melodic.  His metaphors aptly capture the burning ardor of Mariolle’s feelings as well as the torment he feels when his love is not returned.  I was reminded several times throughout the novel of similar sentiments expressed by the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid who are also pulled in various emotional directions by romantic love.

The ending of this book is abrupt, unexpected and puzzling.  ALIEN HEARTS is a short read full of passion, love and frustration and I highly recommend this emotionally charged novel.


About The Author:
Guy de m.Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was a popular 19th-century French writer. He is one of the fathers of the modern short story. A protege of Flaubert, Maupassant’s short stories are characterized by their economy of style and their efficient effortless dénouement. He also wrote six short novels. A number of his stories often denote the futility of war and the innocent civilians who get crushed in it – many are set during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s.

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Filed under Classics, France, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books