BOOK REVIEWS


Like any country, much has been written, much has been turned into books and guidebooks, narratives and simple travelogues. So, here is a growing selection of books about France; some old, some new.


My Good Life in France: In pursuit of the Rural Dream

Janine Marsh (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd., 2017)
ISBN: 978-1-78243-732-1

Barely a month goes by without the dull thud through my letter box of another literary account of someone’s exploits in moving to live in France. Many are mediocre accounts of tussles with the legendary bureaucracy (as if we don’t have such a thing at home), strained relationships with local dignitaries and neighbours, and, for some, an inevitable surrender and retreat.

More than once on my travels through France I have encountered ex-pat Brits doing their thing: maybe running the village bar, or a B&B, or even producing wine. But a year or two later, the faces have changed; it wasn’t quite the idyll they had imagined.

So, it’s great to read an account of someone who saw the experience less of a triumph over adversity, and more of a blending with the local landscape, its culture, its traditions, and its people. That’s what Janine Marsh (no relation) and her husband have achieved, and Janine’s account is a passionate and warming story of cold Christmas Day’s huddled around a log fire, close encounters with feisty cats, ladies with eggs in their bras, and, ultimately, the warmth of acceptance as someone who stayed and made a success of it.

Sure, there will be red tape and difficulties and builders who don’t understand the concept of keeping appointments. You just have to take that as read, and put it down to par of the ritual of becoming grounded in another country.

What is so often missed is the need to go to live in France as French people, not as Brits (or whatever). At the very least, that means speaking the language, but it also means developing a symbiotic relationship with your new neighbours, and sharing in their way of life.

It would have been so easy for the author to have filled this book with trials and tribulations. Instead, you find happy story after happy story of how that symbiosis has evolved. It’s all about living in France, of being at one with the French people. And what makes this account particularly compelling is that it observes the best travel writing traditions: show not tell; educate; inform. I don’t want to know that there are ‘Some trees at the bottom of the field’; I want to know how many, what species, and maybe a bit of descriptive wafting in the breeze. I don’t want towns disguised as magnets, or views to die for…whatever they might be. I want to be shown through wordcraft description, I want to be educated about life in France. I want to be informed about the good things of attempting the ‘Good Life’.

I read this book remarkably quickly for me, and realised that’s because it was compulsive reading, hitting the nail on the head, literally and metaphorically, time and time again.


Bonsoir Paris
Marin Montagut
ISBN 978-2-08-020240-6

It’s amazing what you can cram into a small space, and that’s just what Marin Montagut has done in this pocket-sized fold-out map, which he subtitles ‘A selection of refined experiences to enjoy after dark in the city of lights’, or Une sélection d'adresses confidentielles pour les noctambules en quête de plaisirs raffinés.

Basically this is a guide for lovers of night-time in Paris, uncovering the best of Parisian nightlife and exposing more than 80 refined ‘insider’ addresses, all illustrated on a waterproof, tear-resistant, fold-out map.

Want to find an Australian chef in Paris? In urgent need of a ‘Love Hotel’, where rooms can be rented by the hour for what is euphemistically called ‘a romantic interlude’? Or maybe you want a bookshop-cum-café, or a great cocktail hideaway, or an ‘alternative’ British scene. Then look no further, you’ll find them all just there…in your pocket guide.

It’s a wacky idea, but these are often the best.


FRENCH HOLIDAY COOKERY:
EASY RECIPES FOR SELF-CATERING IN FRANCE

Liz Garnett
ISBN 978-1-291-36333-3 (3rd edition, 2013)

Among the many joys of visiting France is the pleasure of entering a restaurant within which a talented and enthusiastic chef is doing wondrous things with regional and local produce. Star-ratings may be one thing, but across the whole of France the culinary art, invariably passed down from ‘Maman’, is as poetic as ever on many levels.

But not every visit to France plays on the country’s hospitality service industry; there is a simple, and often cost-effective, alternative in the form of self-catering, ranging from plush gîtes and holiday villas to the unpredictable vagaries of camping…and this is increasingly where my ageing Volvo takes me.

And there is a reason for this, because another joy is the arrival in a town or village on market day – you can find them all on www.jours-de-marche.fr by the way – and the subsequent trawl of the many and varied stalls selling produce familiar, unfamiliar and downright bizarre. In some ways it is a frustration, when I’m staying in a hotel, not to be able to purchase from the market. So, by self-catering, I not only enjoy the pleasure of tasting, touching, smelling or drinking much of what is on offer, but get to buy it, take it back to my base and cook it…and it doesn’t come any fresher than that.

But, and for many it is a big but, holiday kitchens and camping cookers are not home kitchens, and what might be achieved in the comfort of your own home, may prove a challenge when constrained by limited utensils and cookers, and, sometimes, limited space, too.

Enter ‘French Holiday Cookery’. In this simple and direct compendium, Liz Garnett, a travel photographer specialising in France – and no mean cook, too, by all accounts – presents a solution to the issues of cooking in a tent, out of the back of a car, or in a small, strange kitchen with just a single- or double-ring cooker.

Of course, you might think that the end result is likely to be simple and undramatic, but as ‘French Holiday Cookery’ shows, there is no reason why chicken Provençal, sole Meunière, or pork with apples and Calvados, shouldn’t be a feature of your daily diet. Moreover, there is some, probably, perverse pleasure in eating lamb cutlets cooked with thyme and garlic, while sitting in your car parked next to your tent…in the pouring rain…with a glass of sauvignon blanc to hand…and Debussy issuing from your car’s stereo.

But not everyone thinks like that, which is why French Holiday Cookery came into being, targeting self-catering holidaymakers, quite possibly those with children, too, for whom a nightly restaurant bill can have an unsettling impact on your bank balance.

Thoughtfully, the book is divided into sections: one involving no cooking at all, another for those cooking on just one hob, and a third for those with the luxury of two hobs. Throw in a detailed food glossary, and many of the mysteries of the French market will be revealed, although – very minor quibble – while the French-English glossary is itself divided into sections, e.g. meat, fish, poultry, it may prove helpful to also have a comprehensive and purely alphabetical English-French-English listing, especially when it comes to fish.


BRITTANY

Wendy Mewes
Signal Books Ltd., 2014
ISBN: 978-909930-06-3

Forty years of visiting Brittany on a regular basis left me with a sense that I had a fair grasp on the place, its people and its culture. But then along comes Wendy Mewes excellent book, serving very effectively to put me in my place and let me know how much I had yet to learn. What is immediately evident in the author's keen interest in the relationship between historical reality and story creation, and what she calls the 'psychology of landscape'.

Applied to this book, the result is a synergy of intrigue, myth, folklore and anecdotal legacies bound up with history and life in the 21st century. Quite a mélange...and a beautiful one at that...a masterpiece of meticulous observation and research.


ONLY IN PARIS

Duncan J D Smith
Brandstatter, 2013
ISBN: 978-3850337106

If you love Paris...and idiosyncrasy, and off-the-beaten-track, and weird and wonderful, and 'I never knew that' and 'Did I really see what I thought I saw?' - then you must not go to Paris without this book.

This borderline-bizarre compendium of nooks and crannies gives you far more than you could ever hope to gain from a conventional travel guide; it does what it says on the tin, and then some. 

Moreover, Duncan Smith is just the person to lead you by the hand, metaphorically at least, into a world where you can enjoy mint tea beneath a minaret, search for the bones of Louis XVI, or check out the curse of the Chateau de Vincennes.

Discover wonders of the East, a counterfeit museum, concealed courtyards and secret squares and even Monet's Soleil Levant...a Paris, in fact, of ancient ruins, eccentric museums, hidden communities and underground worlds....more than enough to organise your own expedition through the City of Light, in 98 easy chapters.


FRENCH CHEESES

Kazuko Masui and Tomoko Yamada
Dorling Kindersley, 2000 (revised)
ISBN: 978-0751308969

This book is for all those who love French cheese, including those who shouldn't eat cheese at all. You just can't resist.

Cheese in one form or another is what we have been eating from time immemorial, one of the earliest food products that derived from the domestication of animals. Of course, you can always count on the French to take anything foodie to the highest levels, and cheese is no exception.

There are between 350 and 400 distinct types of French cheese, grouped into eight categories 'Les huit familles de fromage'. In addition, there can be many varieties within each type of cheese, leading to claims that the actual number of cheeses is closer to 1,000 different types. Moreover, the count could be higher still if you include local, home-made cheeses that are rarely found beyond the region of production, indeed sometimes no farther afield than the local market.

Use this excellent book to guide you through cheese ecstasy...but don't forget the wine to go with it.


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