January 2019 book reviews
Connexion journalists read the latest French releases. To be fair, each gets 20 minutes’ reading time
Are you the foie gras correspondent?
Chris Bockman, Matador, £13.99 ISBN: 978-1788034-654
There are plenty of books about Britons who have moved to France and done up a rural property – but while this one seems to be another one at first, it gives quite a different take. Bockman moved to set up a press agency in Toulouse, despite warnings that there would not be enough to write about. This is a memoir of a working life through the lens of quirky or dramatic tales that proved the naysayers wrong.
He first thought there might be more to the area than met the eye when a visit to a local gendarmerie showed a ‘double homicide’ on a map of recent crimes (though the duty officer ‘couldn’t remember’ if they had caught the killer). Many jobs ended up more ‘frivolous’, such as tracking down the holiday home of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten to find his dogs which had become famous after he could not bring them back to the UK due to quarantine.
Rugby and its links to local politics was also a fund of stories and we learn there is a Notre Dame de Rugby church in the Landes which features a stained glass window of the baby Jesus holding a rugby ball.
Other topics range from the ‘risky PR stunt’ of wine growers who dubbed their wine vin de merde, to shadowing the pretender to the throne or going to a remote farmhouse to interview a Briton released from jail for murdering his wife, whom the author photographed chopping food with a large knife – part of a chapter where he warns that the rural good life in isolated areas is not always what Britons expect.
Interesting to dip into, though frequent jumping between personal memoir and verbatim reports from the time jars at first.
Conflicts of Interest
Terry Stiastny, John Murray £8.99 ISBN: 978-1-444-79439-7
This novel by a former BBC news journalist is – at least partly – set in rural southern France, where the main character, a has-been TV journalist has moved after his marriage and career ended. His life is turned upside down by the arrival of an old friend on a cycling tour, a PR man who moves in Westminster circles and is on the verge of a peerage, whose seemingly perfect life seems to contrast with his.
The opening sets the scene in a sleepy village before the aging former war correspondent finds himself hiding under his café table at the sound of guns being fired – but it is just hunters firing into the air as part of a traditional festival.
The descriptions of the setting in Provence are well-observed and evocative and French references and characters pepper the book. But it is just the start of a story that is going to become much more complicated and eventually drag Lawrence back towards his old life.
At a house party Lawrence meets Martin’s mistress, a doctor involved in a charity in Africa, and he ends up being persuaded to go back to the Congo, a place that holds bad memories for him, to film for the charity.
Ably-written, the plot twists and turns, revealing past traumas and new ones, themes of media and politics and the titular ‘conflicts of interest’.
A Taste of Paris
David Downie, St. Martin’s Press, $26.99 ISBN: 978-1-250-08293-0
From the opening lines it is clear we are in the hands of someone who knows his subject and loves it as he describes how his ‘treasure hunt’ through Parisian gastronomy started in the 1980s as he moved into a chambre de bonne on the seventh floor (with no lift) near the Arc de Triomphe and sought to understand the city’s ‘gastronomic topography’ and how dining there had evolved over the centuries since Roman times. To his younger self the place “exuded an attainable past, a flavourful, redolent history to be studied and consumed”. The fruit of these decades is the topic of this fascinating book, written by an American writer who has lived in the city ever since.
His enthusiasm and meaty prose make you want to gobble up the book with its titbits of foodie facts as it goes beneath the surface with plenty of tales about its eateries, food shops and inhabitants’ dining habits. You will learn how, for example, the Romans of Paris loved foie gras from geese fattened with figs (the word foie came from the Latin for ‘fig’, Downie says) or how the first French gastronomic critic, Grimod de la Reynière, used to offer his guests 52 courses with 15 wines, three coffees and 17 liqueurs.
Every page has surprising information, such as the fact that, according to 17th century socialite Mme de Sévigné, the royals at Versailles were obsessed with eating peas, then a novelty. She wrote: “The impatience felt waiting to eat them, to have eaten them, and the pleasure of eating them are the three topics on our princes’ tongues.”
This is not a conventional guide to eating out – in fact only the last pages specifically concern the modern city, but throughout there are references to famous institutions which still exist, or links made between fashionable food Meccas of the past and modern ones. However, despite fears of restaurants heating up ready-meals (he notes that the fait maison logo is not well-policed and is best used as an ‘icebreaker’ to discuss the cooking with the waiter or chef) he concludes that reports of the death of French cuisine have been greatly exaggerated – you just need to know where to shop and eat, he says.
Georges Simenon / William Hobson Penguin Classics £7.99 ISBN: 978-0-241-30401-3
Like Hergé, Brel, or Poirot, Simenon was a francophone Belgian often wrongly assumed to have been French. However, his creation le commissaire Jules Maigret, one of the great literary detectives, is French, a senior officer in Paris’s police judiciaire which investigates complex or organised crime.
This episode, originally from 1963, is part of a plan to produce new translations of all 75 novels about the character.
Maigret, a bon vivant known for his pipe smoking, is often found following up leads in the city’s bistrots and brasseries, which is where we find him at the start of this book.
Simenon fans love his simple language and attention to detail and the story of this book, which opens with an investigation into a murder, in mysterious circumstances, of a strip club owner from the seedy Pigalle entertainment district, gets straight to the point without literary flourishes. The anger of the title comes after a lack of clues and progress which puts Maigret’s reputation on the line.
Worth checking out if you enjoy well put-together police mysteries though the dialogue-led, plot-focused style also means the book is not very introspective or psychological, so you may sometimes feel a little detached from the character.