Wednesday, November 30, 2011


La Lecture, Georges Croegaert, Musée Carnavalet, Paris  

The spotlight is on France in this year's edition of Travel Oyster's Great Books. I've chosen an incredible novel set in 1940 war-torn France; a delightful cookbook/memoir; a guide to good, inexpensive restaurants in Paris; and a beautifully-written travelog that is very, very funny.

Suite Française
by Irène Némirovsky
Alfred A. Knopf, New York
338 pages.

Suite Française may be the first work of fiction about World War II. Even if you are so inclined, do not let the subject matter of this book deter you from reading it. It is a stunning, insightful, humane, beautifully-written work of art. 

Suite Française has two independent, but interconnected parts. The first, "Storm in June," opens amid the mass exodus of Parisians from the capital on the eve of the Nazi invasion in June of 1940. Némirovsky's finely-detailed characters, some courageous, some heartless, represent a multitude of French citizens, struggling to preserve a world that has ceased to exist. The chaos of the the first section gives way to part two, "Dolce." As its name implies, it is softer and more contemplative. It  takes place in a German-occupied French village. With nuance, perception and incredible objectivity, Némirovsky shows us the complex emotions and the humanity not only of the conquered, but also of the conquerers. 

The novel has the feel of a work written with the long perspective of history. Incredibly, Irène Némirovsky, a successful French writer of Ukrainian, Jewish descent, wrote Suite Française as events were unfolding in occupied France. She envisioned three more parts to her book: Captivity, Battles and Peace. "Captivity" came to Némirovsky herself when she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. She died there two months later, three years before peace was declared in 1945.  

Némirovsky's two daughters, who survived the war, saved their mother's papers from oblivion. The manuscript of Suite Française, however, only came to light in the late 1990s. It was published in France in 2004 and became an immediate best seller. In this edition published in 2006, the French is faithfully and beautifully rendered into English by translator Sandra Smith.

A Gastrnomic Memoir With Over 250 Recipes
by Madeleine Kamman
Ten Speed Press, Berkeley
357 pages.

Like a Proustian madeleine, Kamman's book, part memoir, part cook book, recalls a France that exists now only in the author's memory. Written 35 years ago, it is a cook book that takes the reader on a gastronomic voyage from the rugged coastal lands of Brittany to the isolated volcanic hills of Auvergne to the sun-washed land of Provence. Along the way, in eight delightful, nostalgic vignettes, Kamman introduces us to the women - great cooks all -  who fostered her love of traditional food and led her to become a renowned chef and teacher. Among others, we meet Mimi Chérie, the author's great-grandmother, whose earthenware casserole in which she cooked almost everything, was always simmering on the old corner stove. We go mushroom hunting with Victoire, an Auvernat cousin of Kamman's grandmother, whose recipe for potatoes and wild mushrooms - made with brown veal stock, "the essence of French cooking" - is included in the cookbook. 

With its more than 250 regional recipes and careful instructions, the book is almost as good as taking a course in French home cooking. Although some recipes may be too complicated for anyone other than a complete devotee of la cuisine française, others are surprisingly simply.  All of them are mouth watering and will take you sweetly back to a time when as Kamman says: "the air smelled nice; clean, fresh, and permeated with the happy essences of bread baking, the nostalgic aroma of wood burning, or the earthy smells of cattle ruminating in nearby barns."

Adrian Leeds Top 100 Cheap Insider Paris Restaurants

by Adrian Leeds
Insider Paris and France Guides

Take a walk in Paris any evening at dinnertime, and you're sure to see groups of bewildered-looking tourists wandering from one restaurant to another, reading the menus and trying to decide where to eat. Often as not, they end up in a very ordinary restaurant with a mediocre, overpriced meal. That will never happen to you if you get a copy of this great guidebook.

I've known Adrian since she moved to Paris from Los Angeles in 1995 with the then novel idea to produce an online guide to Paris restaurants. She's gone on to develop a business that includes property management, rentals, language groups and guidebooks. In recent years, she has made frequent appearances on HG-TVs House Hunters International. Through it all, however, she has continued to produce her Paris restaurant guide. Her research is extensive and hands on: she eats in restaurants twice a day. I can attest from personal experience that Adrian, herself, is a great cook, but most days her refrigerator contains just the bare necessities, including, of course, a chilled bottle of champagne. 

The guidebook includes restaurants in all the 20 arrondissements in Paris - charming, local places with reasonable prices that tourists would be hard-pressed to find on their own. Every entry has a detailed description of the food, the service and the ambiance. There are maps, a glossary of French food terms and some helpful dos and don'ts of French dining etiquette. The book (click here to order) is available in both a print and electronic version. Don't go to Paris without it.

by Terry Darlington
Bantam Books, London
397 pages.

Narrow Dog to Carcassonne is the tale of Terry and Monica Darlington, a retired British couple who decide to pilot their canal narrowboat across the English Channel and down the canals of France to the Mediterranean. They are joined in their excursion by their narrow dog, a whippet named Jim. Since Jim hates boats, he is always eager to get on to dry land where he can roam the countryside and meet the local French people. Darlington describes it all in a wry, comic style that will have you laughing out loud. This is Darlington's first book - one that the Daily Telegraph called "A rich and winning comic debut, destined to become a classic."

Lots of people dream of drifting through France on a canal boat, but it's never appealed to me - too slow, too inactive, too many canals. With Terry Darlington as captain, however, I might reconsider. You may want to sit down with this book when you have plenty of time because it's possible you'll find yourself reading it from cover to cover in one sitting.  

A bientôt,


  1. Geraldine, I'm always happy to see a new post on your blog. My RSS feed makes sure I don't miss any of your postings. I've been following you for a few years but this is the first time I've been tempted to comment. That's because Narrow Dog to Carcasonne is one of my most favorite books and because I seem to be the only person who really dislikes Suite Francaise.

    "Narrow Dog" is more than funny and charming. The adventure of the Darlingtons sometimes involved very real danger -- as when they crossed the English Channel in a boat that was only 7 feet wide. It is also beautifully written -- Mr. D. is a true poet. And it's a love story -- this couple truly enjoy one another.

    On the other hand, I found "Suite Francaise" to be bitter and filled with hatred for the French people. The author ridiculed the normal reactions of very ordinary people at a time of enormous stress. She seemed to have no compassion at all. (Just my opinion -- I know everyone but me likes this book.)

    I would love it if you'd write more often!

    Libbie in North Carolina

    P. S. Is "When French Women Cook" in print?

  2. Libbie. I've very glad to hear you enjoy the posts. We will be leaving for Paris on December 31 and then I'll begin posting more regularly again.
    Everything you say about Narrow Dog is true. I loved this book, but perhaps I wasn't effusive enough in my review. Interesting that you had the reaction you did to Suite Francaise. I thought the author was pretty even handed in showing the good and bad of people. As to "When French Women Cook," it is in print. The last printing was in 2002.

  3. When we were in France a few years we by chance stayed in a b&b in Issey L'Veque which we didn't realize was where Irene Nemirovsky lived and where she was captured. There is a plaque on her house, right on the town square, attesting to this. Very moving. Good book.

  4. Hi Geraldine,

    Thanks for the great post! Do you have any recommendations for books based in Rome? I really enjoyed reading Gertrude & Alice and Down and Out in Paris and London whilst I was in Paris last year; I'd like to recreate that for Rome this year. I leave on 19 Dec.

    Kind regards,

  5. I would recommend "A Traveler in Rome" by H.V. Morton. (I recommended his "A Traveler in Italy" in Great Books II.) If you like Henry James, read "Italian Hours" or his novella "Daisy Miller." Another very interesting book is "Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" by Ross King.

  6. Thanks for the recommendations. I just finished "Daisy Miller" and was unimpressed. It was my first Henry James though. Perhaps I'll give him a second try with "Italian Hours". I've started "Michelangelo" and am liking it. If I don't finish before we leave, I'll bring it with us. I'm already bringing "A Traveller in Rome" with us. They're big books and I'm flying EasyJet but I'd rather have them along than an extra sweater. Grazie!


Thanks for your comments.