Paris in July: Murder on the Ile Sordou


When I was a young bride living in Europe, I would often take the time offered to teachers in the summer to flit about my favorite countries. I would put on a shade of Chanel lipstick, which is no longer made, named Explosion; it was a brilliant fuschia which matched my maillot de bain perfectly, and somehow I felt quite comfortable on the beaches of the French Riviera wearing ridiculously bold colors. It was the 1980’s, after all.

Along the coast of the Riviera is a most beautiful city named Aix en Provence. which is about 30 km north of Marseille. It is here that the author of this mystery, M. L. Longworth, writes when she is not teaching in Paris. Her novel Murder on the Ile Sordou takes place on a fictitious island, but one that may resemble any of the islands off the coast of Marseille, and it is a novel with more ambiance than any mystery I have read.

While it may resemble the writing of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or Donna Leon’s Venice, this mystery has a quality all of its own. M. L. Longworth brings France in general, and Provence in particular, to life with her dialogue, her setting, and her characters. Even the meals which they enjoyed after a two hour afternoon nap seemed indescribably delicious.

I’ve made a summer menu, so let’s just forget about the storm out there: we’ll begin with cucumber and melon gazpacho and then red snapper ceviche shooters, followed by vegetable spring rolls. Once we’re sitting we’ll eat roast bass with olive oil, mussels, and cherry tomatoes, and, finally, in honor of our meat-loving host, a rack of grilled lamb with stir-fried summer vegetables, wasabi puree, and a cilantro-mint vinaigrette.

A loud round of applause rang out. “And not to forget dessert,” Emile said, holding up his hand.” A chocolate cake served with fresh strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream, surrounded by a concoction I call ginger and lavender drizzle.”

Oh, the lavender in Provence! The seafood! The cresting waves of the sea on a summer evening…I was there in an instant, enjoying the remembered sensations even more than the mystery itself.

If I should tell you about the mystery, I would spoil the surprise. You must read it yourself to discover which of the guests who have arrived by boat will be murdered and why. But, while you are reading of the case to be solved, you will be immersed in the culture, and for me that was the most special aspect of this book.


Reader For Hire by Raymond Jean (translated by Adriana Hunter)


Young woman available to read to you in your own home. Works of literature, non-fiction, any sort of book you like.

Ever since I distributed novels to the residents of Manor Care for World Book Night 2014, I have thought about reading to people in my retirement. There was such a need for it, such a hunger for not only literature but attention, that I often think about volunteering to read to the infirm when I’m no longer teaching.

In this novel, Marie-Constance follows her friend Francoise’s idea to read to the ill, handicapped, old or single in their own home. And so Marie puts an advertisement in the paper of her small French town to do just that. After all, her husband, Philippe, is “anything but destructive” and does not object to her plan.

Nor does he object to her intimacy with managing director Michel Dautrand, who apparently wants more than a reader now that he is single. In fact, each of the persons to whom Marie Constance reads, seems to want more than simply a reader.

In Marie-Constance’s mind, “A reader should read, and read out loud, whatever is requested.” This is what occurs to her when an elderly magistrate asks her to read the Marquis de Sade; after all, reading “any sort of book you like” is what her advertisement said that she would do.

Furthermore, at the close of the book, she wants to tell Roland Sora, the literature tutor who has advised her on which text to read to which listener, this: “I like to think I’m choosing passages to read, but they’re the ones choosing me. It’s all a very unusual adventure, a misadventure rather, and I’ve had all too much proof of that.”

And so Raymond Jean brings important questions for any of us readers to ponder. How do we choose what it is that we read? Is there a sort of course we follow unwittingly, that the books seem to choose us? And, is there a boundary past which we dare not go especially when reading out loud to someone else?

I loved this book for allowing me to view the inside of another bibliophile’s imagination, both the author’s and the reader’s he created. I loved this book for the titles it presented according to whom was being read aloud to.

For the fifteen year old Eric, a paralyzed spasmodic, Marie-Constance read Guy de Maupassant’s short stories (in particular The Hand). But, Eric also requested Baudelaire, and Francis Ponge’s poem titled Dressing Things Up. For the Hungarian Countess Pazmany, Marie-Constance came bearing Zola’s The Masterpiece, although the elderly woman requested Marx’ Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. To managing director Michel Dautrand, she read Claude Simon’s book Lesson in Dying. And to the properate manager’s daughter, Clorinde, she reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 

There is not much that would induce me to pick up Lewis Carroll again, as Tom and I were discussing in our read along of Little, Big. But, I have already downloaded the collection of Maupassant’s short stories which I eagerly anticipate reading this summer. (Perhaps for Paris in July should it come round again. Discussions are already taking place.)

Find more thoughts on Reader For Hire by Claire here.


Paris in Juillet: Au Revoir

And so we come to the last day of July, and with it the closing of the event we have been celebrating all month: Paris in July. Of course this does not mean that all things francaise will be put aside for another year. Mais, non! 
I will still be reading what I can find from French authors; in fact, On The Rue Tatin will be recommended to the book club’s reading list by one of its most beloved members. My mother.
I will still be writing on postcards picturing Paris’ most beautiful scenes from obvious state.
I will drink cafe au laits, eat jambon sandwiches, and finish a meal with creme brûlée when it’s available.
And, there will never be a day I step out of the house without wearing a French perfume.
Which beings us to the announcement of who will win the fragrance give-away I hosted several days ago. The winner of the little beach scene, the Chanel No. 5 soap, and the Dior samples is Guiltless Reader. May you enjoy each item and long remember the month that was.
Paris in July.

Paris in July: My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon

I already love him, this famous Inspector Maigret about whom I’ve been hearing so much. By page 20, I see that we have similar feelings, he and I. For example, here’s a passage about work:
“Don’t you like the Mediterranean?”

“In general, I dislike places where I lose the desire to work.”

“That’s because you like working, is it?”

“I don’t know.”

It was true. On the one hand he railed every time a case came along to interrupt his daily routine. On the other hand as soon as he was left in peace for several days he would become restless, as though anxious.”
Or, how about this simple phrase?
“Not yet sure if he was in a good temper or a bad one Maigret grumbled as he fumbled in his suitcase for his razor.”
I don’t fumble for a razor in the morning. But I do often wonder if I’m in a good mood or a bad one; it isn’t always readily clear on any given morning.
Even if the mystery would prove to be disappointing, I can tell that Maigret himself will not be. No wonder Georges Simenon is as beloved an author as the Inspector he created…
When a man named Marcellin is killed (on the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles) for proclaiming his admiration for Chief Inspector Maigret, the Inspector leaves Paris to investigate. He is shadowed by a British policeman, from London, who has been invited by Maigret to see how it is that the French solve cases. (Like a brother in law and his wife, who are perfectly respectful but annoying after five days, Maigret wonders how long he can abide this policeman’s company. Even though Maigret himself invited him.)
While the setting is not in Paris, it sounds like the most appealing French island, where people must take a boat to and from the mainland. It is a perfect description for a summer escape: the air is tropical and balmy; the trees are tamarisk, olive and pine; and white wine is drunk every evening by the citizens who gather at the Arche for conversation and games. 
It makes me long for an era gone by (this novel was first published in 1949), for the south of France, and for people who lead simple lives, albeit with secrets of their own. It makes me long for more novels involving Maigret, a character for whom I feel more affinity than Inspector Clouseau, Hercule Poirot, or even Chief Inspector Armand Gamache himself.

A Meal In Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

“As we ate, and the soup disappeared, the music changed. The spoons made more noise in the mugs and the saucepan. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Emmerich murmured, ‘We should let him go.'”

A white snowflake embroidered on the hat of a Jew held captive. A salami and half an onion to go with the Italians’ cornmeal which will make soup. A hope that a soldier’s son left at home should not start smoking. And what do these things have in common? Nothing but what they represent: a life without hate. A life without suffering. A life without war.

Emmerich, Bauer, and the narrator beg their commanding officer to be allowed to go hunting. For if they set off in the freezing cold, succeed in finding a Jew, and bring him back, they will not have to be a part of the executions on the base.

When Emmerich sees a group of trees with less frost on them than others, he discovers the hiding place of a young Jew. As the four of them make their way back to base, they discover an abandoned house along the way. Stopping there, they put the Jew in the storeroom, and proceed to make a meal which requires burning almost every piece of wood they can find: chairs, cupboards, doors.

The hot meal gives them comfort, until they must face what to do with their prisoner. For by including him in the merest resemblance of life, a meal, they have taken away his prisoner status.

It is a dreadful irony; who is the hunter and who is the hunted? Surely our guilt, surely our memory, surely our humanity, will torment us about all the others even if we let one prisoner get away.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupery

I have read The Little Prince. I have read Night Flight. But this book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery unites them under the larger umbrella of flight. Of what it was, exactly, to be a pilot in the 1930s. I can scarcely imagine how a pilot can also be so skilled a writer. After two evenings, I am only on page 38 because I must stop and contemplate all the things he has to say.
On courage:
“You’ll be bothered from time to time by storms, fog, snow. When you are, think of those who went through it before you, and say to yourself, ‘What they could do, I can do.’ “
On money:
“True riches cannot be bought. One cannot buy the friendship of a Mermoz, of a companion to whom one is bound forever by ordeals suffered in common. There is no buying the night flight with its hundred thousand stars, its serenity, its few hours of sovereignty. It is not money that can procure for us that new vision of the world won through hardship…”
On loneliness:
“When we exchange manly handshakes, compete in races, join together to save one of us who is in trouble, cry aloud for help in the hour of danger-only then do we learn that we are not alone on earth.”
On fear:
“He knows that once men are caught up in an event they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes the known.”
It is quite interesting to read this book on the heels of The Sorrow of Angels. Imagine two mail carriers, one from Iceland and the other from France, who face the elements with indomitable courage. I couldn’t have planned a better pairing of novels if I’d tried.
More on this one, Wind, Sand and Stars, when I finish. Thanks to Therapy Through Tolstoy for the inspiration to pick it up.

Within A Budding Grove: An Invitation

“Like a flight of gulls, performing with measured tread upon the sands, the girls’ mysterious purpose was as obscure as it was unforgettable.” ~Marcel Proust

One of my favorite reads of 2013 was Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, Volume 1 in the collection Remembrance of Things Past. I read it with Arti of Ripple Effects, which made the book all the more enjoyable as we could share our ideas together. We have now decided to embark on Volume 2: Within a Budding Grove, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1919 and brought Proust instant fame.

No one should read Proust alone. His ideas are too lovely, and sometimes too elusive, to ponder over by oneself. So we invite you, Arti and I, to read (or perhaps reread?) Within A Budding Grove along with us. There will be a post about midway through the volume at the end of October, and a final post at the end of November.

You are so welcome to join us as we venture onward in Remembrance of Things Past.

(The painting, Within a Budding Grove 1, in the upper corner of the collage was painted by David Creffield in 1980. The Girls on The Beach can be found here.)

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

It seems rather presumptuous of me to write about Proust’s Swann’s Way in a few paragraphs when it takes him four pages to describe waiting for his mother’s goodnight kiss. Or, the lushness of the hawthorn blossoms. Or, the shades of colour found in a bunch of asparagus, or the way the afternoon sunlight cast its gaze upon his Aunt Leonie’s lemon wood furniture. But all of this was in the first part of this novel, entitled Combray. For that is when he reminisces about being a child, leaving Paris for the country, and describes for us in such great detail the peaceful way of life he encounters there that it makes me remember a similar simplicity from my own youth.
How well I remember trying to find hiding places in which to read:
“But my grandmother, even if the weather, after growing too hot, had broken, and a storm, or just a shower, had burst over us, would come up and beg me to go outside. And as I did not wish to leave off my book, I would go on with it in the garden, under the chestnut-tree, in a little sentry-box of canvas and matting. In the farthest recesses of which I used to sit and feel that I was hidden from the eyes of anyone who might be coming to call upon my family.”
Or picnics my mother had prepared for us:
“It was time for us to feed. Before starting homewards we would sit for a long time there, eating fruit and bread and chocolate, on the grass over which came to our ears, horizontal, faint but solid  still and metallic, the sound of the bells of Saint-Hillaire, which had melted not at all in the atmosphere it was so well accustomed to traverse, but broken piecemeal by the successive palpitation of all their sonorous strokes, throbbed as it brushed the flowers at our feet.”
Rather abruptly, as Combray ends, we then find ourselves immersed in Swann in Love, which details Swann’s relationship with Odette. She is neither bright nor sophisticated; she does not even attract him very much at all when they first meet at the banal gatherings of the ‘faithful’ held in the Verdurin’s home. What is it, then, that makes Swann fall in love with her? The possibility that she might not be there, of course, and missing her one evening when he actually arrives and she is gone.
“As a matter of fact, she had never given him a thought. And such moments as these, in which she forgot Swann’s very existence, were of more value to Odette, did more to attach him to her, than all her infidelities. For in this way Swann was kept in that state of painful agitation which had once before been effective in making his interest blossom into love, on the night when he had failed to find Odette at the Verdurins’ and had hunted for her all evening. And he did not have (as I had, afterwards, at Combray in my childhood) happy days in which to forget the suffering that would return with the night.”
How tragic it was, to me, to learn that though he longed “to escape not so much from the keenness of his sufferings as from the monotony of his struggle” concerning Odette, he did in fact make her his wife. We discover this unhappy fact in the final portion of the book, which comes back to our young narrator and the affection he feels for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. It is, perhaps like her mother’s lack of affection for Swann, a one-sided relationship. All the times that he plans to meet her at the park, hoping that she will arrive when he is there, or saving a special marble which reminds him of her eyes, are for naught. She cares for him with nothing more than a simple friendship.
Proust ends his first volume of the Remembrance of Things Past with rather melancholy thoughts, ones which often echo my own. It is easy for us romantics to look at the past as if it was better than the present. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it isn’t. Regardless, we cannot go back. We can remember with great fondness the days of our youth, accompanied by our hopes. But we must bravely face the future, for those days gone by are only the thinnest slice of our long lives.
“The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places that we have known belong not only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the continuous impressions that composed our life at that time, remembrance of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive alas! as the years.”
Proust’s recollections cause me to reflect on my own life in the same manner, and I found myself slowing down my thoughts to match the pace of his narrator.
It was a lovely feeling.
(Inspired to read with Arti of Ripple Effects at her suggestion; her latest post is here.)

Paris In July: Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac

by Honore de Balzac
published in 1833
Penguin Classics edition: 248 pages
It just so happened, while I was reading this little novel, that we lost the electricity in our home. I sat by candlelight, much as Eugenie herself might have done, and was immediately thrust into the darkness of her life.
Hers is a life which is dominated by a rich father. He is a cooper, and a winemaker, who owns acres upon acres of land. He is wealthy beyond belief, but does this make him happy? Or, generous? He is a miser, a tight-fisted, manipulative, selfish man with a hard heart which can only appreciate his accumulated gold. As Balzac reminds us, “Misers thrive on money and contempt.” (p. 131).
When Eugenie’s cousin, Charles, comes from Paris to visit them in Saumur, he is unaware that his father has lost everything. Now bankrupt, Charles’ father sees no other option but to shoot himself in Charles’ absence, thereby leaving his son his debts as sole inheritance.
Eugenie’s great sense of compassion flares, and she comforts her cousin with every delicacy she can find to put on the table (such as a whole bowlful of sugar rather than the tiny lumps her father portions out). She even goes so far to give him her entire collection of gold, coins her father has given her each year on her birthday, for of what purpose is it to her when she can offer Charles a future? Off he sails to India, after leaving her his valuables, and promises for a future together on which she rests all her hope.
This hope, and the memories she has of their two kisses on the garden wall, sustain Eugenie through great distress when her father discovers what she has done. He cannot abide the fact that she has given her gold away, given it to help someone else, and he confines her to her room with bread and water. Thus begins the demise of her mother, distraught over all the anxiety in the home, while Eugenie remains strong and calm.
‘To put a girl of twenty-three on bread and water!…’ exclaimed the President de Bonfons. ‘And without just and sufficient cause! But that constitutes actionable cruelty; she can proceed against him; inasmuch as…’
Eugenie heard them talking about her, and came out of her room.
‘Gentlemen,’ she said, as she came forward with dignity, ‘I beg you not to do anything about this matter. My father is master in his own house, and so long as I live in his house I must obey him. What he does should not be subject to the approval or disapproval of other people; he is answerable only to God. If you have any friendly feeling for us, you will say nothing whatever about this; I beg you not to talk about it. To criticize my father is to belittle us all in the eyes of the world. I am very grateful for the interest you have taken in me, but you would oblige me much more if you would silence the offensive rumours that are going about the town: I heard of them only by accident.’ (p. 203-4)
Eventually, Eugenie’s parents die. We wait for Charles to come back and fulfill his promise to her, for surely such a good and noble woman deserves such a happy ending? But Balzac determines to show us two important lessons instead. One, that money in and of itself can never satisfy. And two, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)
May our hearts be in the right place.
(I read this novel for Paris in July, 2012, and also with Richard, whose views can be found here.) 

Paris in July: Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Bonjour Tristesse
by Francoise Sagan
translated by Irene Ash
published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics
first published in 1955
pages: 130
With a name like Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), you know something bad is imminent in this novel. And the way that our narrator tells her story, with heavy foreshadowing throughout, one reads with one’s heart in one’s mouth.
“I will pass quickly over this period, for I am afraid that if I look at it closely, I shall revive memories that are too painful. Even now I feel overwhelmed as I think of Anne’s happy laugh, of her kindness to me. My conscience troubles me so much at these moments that I am obliged to resort to some expedient like lighting a cigarette, putting on a record, or telephoning to a friend. Then gradually I begin to think of something else. But I do not like having to take my refuge in forgetfulness and frivolity instead of facing my memories and fighting them.” (p. 115)
I was reminded of Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. While some maintain that she was innocent in terms of meddling in her sister’s affair, I will always believe it was intentional. In this case, Cecile meddles with her father’s affairs quite purposefully. They had enjoyed a life together of rather shabby morals; she accompanied him to bars, smoking and drinking like an adult, taking on Cyril has a lover when they vacation in the summertime. He went through mistress after mistress, never taking any of them seriously until Anne. Anne was a friend of Cecile’s mother, now deceased, and when she re-entered their lives Cecile’s father quickly abandoned his current amour, Elsa, for her. At first Cecile is happy about her father and Anne. But then she concocts a plan for this relationship’s demise.
Why does she do this? Because she wants to test her powers over her father? Because she resents Anne’s intrusion into their happy life? Because she can? At any rate, it is decided that Cyril and Elsa will cavort around the beach, and in the woods, purposely creating the effect that they are lovers in order to distress Cecile’s father. Cecile never thinks that anything will come of this; she seems to assume that her lover, and her father’s ex-lover, will play this game until everyone returns to Paris and their normal lives.
Sadly, this isn’t what happens at all.
Francoise Sagan wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old. While I question the power of its writing (such foreshadowing! Such telling of emotion rather than showing!) I can attest to the fact that she captures the heart of a selfish young woman spot on. And the suspense one feels while reading to the end is rather incredible. But, I will not tell you what the tristesse is. That you’ll have to discover for yourself.

Read for Paris in July 2012 hosted by Tamara and Karen. Find Chinoiseries’ reivew here.