The “French paradox” that isn’t

April 21, 2008 at 12:18 pm | Posted in books, food, vie quotidienne | 12 Comments
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If you follow French food and culture at all, you’ve probably heard of a delightfully regressive text called French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure. The basic gist is that French women eat pastries, fatty cheeses, five course meals, and buckets of wine, yet remain perpetually slender and never waste a minute worrying about their figures. The book further promises to show sad, dumpy, body-image obsessed Americans how a little bit of joie de vivre can make them thin, thin, thin!

Well, I’m about to let you in on a dirty little secret:

Why French women don't get fat

This is the current window display of the pharmacy down the street from me. Please note that, other than the makeup ad in the corner, every single image is an ad for some kind of dubious “diet aid” (actually, the one bottom left is an ad for control-top stockings, but same idea).

Why don’t French women get fat? Apparently, it’s the same mixture of dieting, disordered eating, and self-loathing that afflicts most western women.

The Other “Petite”

March 3, 2008 at 4:09 pm | Posted in books | 24 Comments
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book cover

Like pretty much every other Paris blogger this week, I recently finished reading Catherine Sanderson‘s engaging blog-to-memoir, Petite Anglaise. And so, some thoughts:

Petite Anglaise, the book, focuses on one wild year out of Ms. Sanderson’s life in Paris — a year in which she started a blog, overshared about the unsatisfactory state of her relationship, and ultimately abandoned her longtime boyfriend and the father of her child to take up with a man she knew only from his comments on her blog. These sketchy details were, of course, already known to those of us who regularly followed her website. The book picks up, however, where the blog left off.

I admit, I had expected little more from this memoir than a patched-together version of Ms. Sanderson’s best posts: charming anecdotes about her young daughter, wry observations about expat life, and the occasional oblique yet tantalizing reference to the ever-swirling drama of her romantic life. I was surprised and delighted to find Ms. Sanderson’s usual coyness all but eliminated in this format — if you ever wondered exactly what went on behind closed doors and glowing screens as Petite left her babydaddy for an internet stranger, this book will satisfy your every voyeuristic impulse.

For readers new to the Petite Anglaise character, there should be much to enjoy as well. Who, after all, can resist a salacious tale of love, lust, and technology, with all the delights of bohemian Paris as a backdrop?

That said, the memoir, for all that it was enjoyable, was perhaps a little schizophrenic — was this the story of one girl’s love affair with Paris? An object lesson about the dangers of blogging? The sordid confessions of an adulteress? A light-hearted kvetch about young motherhood? Of course, the book is all of these things, as reflects Ms. Sanderson’s real life. Still, it might have benefited the story to have a stronger focus, and let the other threads spool into subplots.

Perhaps this is an indication of my own prejudices, but I would have built the plot around the blog, as I think that’s the most unusual element of this tale. Ms. Sanderson does muse occasionally throughout the book on how easily a blogger can slip from merely documenting her life to actually living life for the blog. If only she had taken these musings a little further, Petite Anglaise could have moved beyond the merely diverting to make a strong and original statement about love in the modern world.

Petite Anglaise
by Catherine Sanderson
available now on amazon.co.uk and amazon.fr, coming soon to amazon.com
signed copies available at WH Smith in Paris.

Les Convulsionnaires

November 12, 2007 at 11:23 am | Posted in books, spectacle | 2 Comments
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St Medard

Just a few blocks from me, at the bottom of the rue Mouffetard, is the church of St. Médard. Dating from the 12th century, it’s a completely ordinary, unremarkable neighborhood church — that is, until you know its story.

In the early 18th century, a jansenist deacon known as François Pâris was buried in the (no longer extant) cemetery of St. Médard. Celebrated in life for his piety and asceticism, his grave became a site of prayer and pilgrimage, and before long, there were reports of miraculous events on the site: visitors — mostly teenage girls — were afflicted by ecstatic fits, trances, and “collective psychosis”. Known as the Convulsionaries of St. Médard, these passionate young women barked and meowed, committed “indecent acts” — some even demanded to be whipped, beaten , or strangled by on-lookers to demonstrate the purity of their devotion.

Predictably, crowds began to gather around the cemetery to watch the divinely-inspired theatrics, and eventually a royal ordinance was put in place to close the cemetery. The following day, some local wit had posted this sign on the door:

“De par le Roy, défense à Dieu de faire miracle en ce lieu”
By order of the king, God is forbidden from making miracles in this spot.

From the Guide de Paris Mystérieux.

Anti-Sapin

October 30, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Posted in books, vie quotidienne | 2 Comments
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The other day, I was browsing through Gibert Jeune and found this on their employment-prep shelf:

Pseudoscience

It’s a book on how to outsmart personality tests, presumably administered by your prospective employer. I was immediately struck — personality tests? Handwriting analysis? Wasn’t that sort of thing discredited years ago? Exactly how widespread is this practice?

Of course, flipping through the book was even more illuminating: it’s chock full of pseudo-scientific games and puzzles designed to separate the “loyal, hardworking employee” from “devious sociopath”. And how does one outsmart these wily psychologists? Well, for starters, don’t ever admit a fondness for evergreens:

Bad trees!

And don’t even think about sketching a whimsical, imaginary tree like the one on the right. Either of these are a very bad sign. Instead, stick to happy, fluffy, socially-approved trees like this one:

Good tree

But remember: no roots, no visible branches, and make sure to get the proportions of trunk to foliage precisely right — otherwise you risk being doomed to a life of professional failure.

Tante Célibataire

August 30, 2007 at 7:40 pm | Posted in books | 2 Comments

I was wandering around Fnac today and came across this item, prominently displayed right next to the English version of the seventh Harry Potter book:

Harry Potter dictionary

The French translation of Deathly Hallows won’t be out for another couple of months, but loads of French adults and children are obsessed enough with the books to attempt to read it in the original. And that, apparently, is where this slim volume comes in.

I kind of laughed when I first noticed it, thinking it would be full of unwieldy French equivalents for words like “muggle” and “wizengamot,” but it turns out it’s so much more than that! Opening it up at random, I found French translations for words and phrases like “goatee,” “maiden aunt,” and “banana fritters.” It had never really occurred to me before, but with phrases like that, of course the Harry Potter books must seem positively inscrutable to someone who has learned all their English out of a textbook.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether the Harry Potter books have truly succeeded in creating a generation of committed readers, or whether all those kids who grew up with the books will return to video games and tv now that they’re done. But whether or not Harry has made a dent in British and American literacy, I’m pleased to see he’s striking a blow for bilingualism around the world.

The Perils of Reading in Translation

August 2, 2007 at 1:02 pm | Posted in books | 9 Comments

From an essay in Esquire by author Benjamin Percy:

Sometimes I’m struck most by the authors who say the least. “Mother died today,” wrote Albert Camus in The Stranger. That one gets me every time. For a couple reasons. First of all, we’ve got a death, which means I’ve got a reason to pay attention. And then there’s that voice, so blunt and distanced, so stripped down. He doesn’t say Mom, he says Mother. He doesn’t say passed, he says died. Does this guy have a heart, I’m wondering?

Of course, as everyone knows who has read Camus in the original, the narrator of the story doesn’t say Mother at all — he says Maman, and that, for me, makes all the difference.

Maman is certainly closer to Mom than to Mother, but it might actually be closer to Mommy or Momma…  It’s a child’s word, sentimental and emotionally charged.  For a grown man to use this word, especially in contemplating her death, is anything but distanced or heartless.  Miss this point, you risk misreading the entire novel.

Shelf Monkey

July 20, 2007 at 11:32 am | Posted in books | 3 Comments

shelf monkey

Shelf Monkey, by Corey Redekop (ECW Press, 2007; $18.95)

The inquisition is back, but this time it’s not agents of the papacy examining us for religious orthodoxy, but a bunch of self-proclaimed “booknerds” on a moral mission to rid the world of low-brow literature.

This, at least, is the premise of Shelf Monkey, an intriguing thought-exercise of a novel by first time author Corey Redkop.

The Shelf Monkeys, it turns out, are a group of book store employees and rabid bibliophiles, who entertain themselves by getting together on moonless nights to burn unworthy texts amid much hokey pomp and ceremony. Their nemesis is one Munroe Purvis, an Oprah-like talk show host who has gotten filthy rich by pandering to his audience, recommending a series of uplifting (and unreadable) “triumph of the human spirit”-style novels, all published by his own company. And Thomas Friesen is our narrator and anti-hero, one of the slightly less insane Monkeys, the only one who recognizes that it’s all fun and games until someone winds up with a criminal record.

Continue Reading Shelf Monkey…

Book Review

May 14, 2007 at 1:18 pm | Posted in books | 14 Comments


Eeeee Eee Eeee
by Tao Lin
Melville House Publishing

Tao Lin‘s Eeeee-Eee-Eeee may be considered a 21st century follow-up to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger — only instead of an Arab being shot to death by a confused and amoral colonialist, Elijah Wood is clubbed to death by a dolphin.

If you’re the kind of person who read that last sentence and immediately wondered how an aquatic mammal with flippers could club a human to death, then this is probably not the book for you. Eeeee-Eee-Eeee is Tao Lin’s world, and you’re going to have to learn to go with the flow — talking dolphins, teleporting bears, nervous hamsters and all.

Of course, there are human beings in Lin’s world, and not just celebrities. Unlike the animals, however, the human characters find themselves incapable of acting, despite a universal longing to engage with the world around them. Andrew, a morose and underachieving pizza-delivery boy/writer, fantasizes constantly about going on killing rampages but finds he lacks the energy and stamina for murder. Mark hopes to find authentic experience in pop culture, but is regularly frustrated by Andrew’s sarcastic jibes. Ellie seeks purpose in political activism, but is stymied by philosophical contradictions. Ultimately, all the characters are so overtaken by anomie and ennui that they can’t even conjure up more than the mildest bemusement at the talking menagerie around them.

Which brings us back to those dolphins. It’s not clear to me whether Lin is portraying an alternate reality in which hyper-intelligent animals have always coexisted with humanity, but I prefer to think that the animals are a new feature, and are acting as harbingers of some great societal cataclysm. The biggest hint of this is a conversation between Andrew and a hamster, during which the hamster seems to be trying to convey a warning of some sort. Unfortunately, the hamster isn’t very bright, and keeps forgetting what he wants to say. Eventually, he’s attacked by an owl, and Andrew is left as befuddled — and unconcerned — as ever.

And so it goes in Tao Lin’s world — everyone is so deadened by the banality of existence that even the truly absurd fails to make an impression. Even more tellingly, the bears and dolphins are almost as depressed and disillusioned as the humans. In fact, the only characters who seem to have found any pleasure or meaning from their existence are the celebrities — Jhumpa Lahiri on her diamond yacht, Salman Rushdie feeling proud and famous, Elijah Wood and his (apparently unreturned) respect for dolphins.

Maybe Lin’s point is that pop celebrity is the only truly authentic experience available to us in a postmodern world. In which case, I hope Elijah Wood hears about this book, and how in it he was murdered by a dolphin, and I hope it makes him so mad that he sues Tao Lin. And I hope Tao Lin manages to milk the controversy for all it’s worth, until he attains the kind of celebrity status that may one day redeem us all.

Bonnes Paques

April 10, 2007 at 12:28 pm | Posted in books, food, vie quotidienne | 9 Comments

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.

I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, “The rabbit of Easter. He bring the chocolate.”

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on hop of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. “You mean a rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and food.”

The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country. “No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome.” I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?” “Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”

It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That’s a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth–and they can’t even do that on their own power.
________________________

David Sedaris has been accused recently of exaggerating some of his stories for comic effect (horrors!), but I can assure anyone who questioned this story from Me Talk Pretty One Day that, yes, Easter chocolate is indeed bestowed in France by a giant bell.

Easter bell

But of course, that’s not the whole story. Mr. Sedaris failed to mention the Easter fish:

Easter fish

I did some research, but from what I can tell, no one is exactly sure why fish turn up on Easter in France. Some suggest it might have something to do with Lent, but isn’t the whole point of Easter that Lent is over and you can stop with the fish already? Others say the fish are left over from April Fool’s, but there isn’t any clear explanation what fish have to do with April 1st either. Is it something to do with Pisces? With the Gregorian calendar? With procuring prostitutes? I can’t tell.

What I can see, however, is that French fish apparently lay eggs from a large orifice near the gills.

Upstream

Happy Easter!

On n’y peut rien.

March 15, 2007 at 2:49 pm | Posted in art, books, spectacle | Comments Off on On n’y peut rien.

Nothing

Tuesday night I attended the opening of the Samuel Beckett exhibit at Pompidou. I have to admit, I was a bit curious what an exhibit about a writer was doing at a visual art museum, and well… I’m not sure I got a very good answer, other than this year happens to be the Centennial Samuel Beckett Festival, and Pompidou wanted in on the action.

The first part of the exhibit was devoted primarily to various artists’ interpretations of and riffs on Beckett’s work, and I found it a little haphazard and vague. Representations of mouths, bodies, skulls (see above) were supposed to hint at Beckett’s reductive, minimalist approach to the human condition, I guess. But while the pieces on display might have worked in a different context, next to a few pages of Beckett’s writing they seemed (as they were) derivative and a little banal.

Further along in the exhibit, however, Beckett’s own voice emerges in various teleplays and experimental films, and that part resonated with me a lot more. I particularly liked his 1964 collaboration with Buster Keaton on the themes of perception and concealment, plus the adorable (if puzzling) video projection of men running around a square in colored robes (sorry, it really defies description). And though I was too tired to properly appreciate it at the time, the prescient video piece “What Where” is still running through my mind days later.

All in all, it was a pretty challenging exhibit, and Beckett’s own work came off a lot better than any of the works he inspired (or was inspired by). Still, I don’t know that I would recommend the exhibit to someone who was completely unfamiliar with Beckett’s work, so you might want to brush up by reading En Attendant Godot before you go.

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