Tag Archives: French

Library of Luminaries: Coco Chanel

Similar to the illustrated biography of Jane Austen, Literary Luminaries: Coco Chanel is a delightful biography that provides the main details of Coco Chanel’s life.  Again, charm prevails as delightful illustrations show Chanel’s life from childhood as an orphan to later success with plenty of love affairs along the way.


It’s a good introduction to the life of the sophisticated, brave woman who pared down fashion, gave us the “Little Black Dress” and quilted purses.


I’m thankful to Farah Shamma who led me to this book via her A BookTube Book YouTube channel.

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Posted by on May 5, 2018 in non-fiction, postaweek


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The Honorable Picnic

Donald Richie led me to this delightful comic novel by Thomas Raucat that ends with a surprise, a surprise that’s shocking. It’s the story of an outing for a not so dignified foreign guest who’s attempt at seduction of a Japanese beauty goes awry as his Japanese associates, hotel manager, train station manager and a geisha all offer him hospitality and try to read his mind. Each chapter has a different narrator whose perceptions and misperceptions delight or baffle readers depending on how well you know Japanese culture.

It’s a funny glimpse into the insights of people who try to understand each other and never will.

The Japanese have become more international in their worldview, but as a Japanophile who lived in Nara for 3 years, I believe this was an accurate snapshot of Japan around the 1920s.

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Posted by on January 5, 2012 in fiction


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Celebrating Another Law School Failure

It’s the birthday of Gustave Flaubert, born in Rouen, France (1821). His father was a surgeon, and the family was one of the most respected in Rouen. He was nonplussed about the prospect of leaving Rouen for to Paris to go to law school. He wrote to a friend:

“I’ll go study law, which, instead of opening all doors, leads nowhere. I’ll spend three years in Paris contracting venereal diseases. And then? All I want is to live out all my days in an old ruined castle near the sea.”

Although he enjoyed Paris for its brothels, he didn’t like much else. He failed his law exams and ended up collapsing, dizzy and then unconscious. It was the first of many such episodes throughout his life, probably epilepsy, and Flaubert gave up on law, left Paris, and moved to a house in Croisset, near Rouen.

He worked hard on his first novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and he thought it was a masterpiece. He spent four days reading it aloud to two friends, and he wouldn’t let them comment until the end, at which point they suggested that he burn it. So he stopped working on it although it was eventually published in its finished form more than 25 years later, and even then, he considered it his best novel.

Flaubert traveled for a while, and then he started a new project, a novel about a doctor’s wife named Emma who tries to fill her empty life by having affairs. He wrote carefully, working long hours, agonizing over each word. He wrote to his mistress, the poet Louise Colet: “Happy are they who don’t doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph.” But after five years of work, he finished his novel, which he published in installments in 1856, and it was Madame Bovary.

In 1911, The New York Times reported that Madame Bovary had been voted by the French as the “best French novel.” In 2007, editor J. Peder Zane published a book called The Top Ten, in which he asked 125 contemporary writers to name what they consider “the ten greatest works of fiction of all time,” and Madame Bovary was number two, after Anna Karenina.

Gustave Flaubert, who said, “I can imagine nothing in the world preferable to a nice, well-heated room, with the books one loves and the leisure one wants.”

From The Writers’ Almanac

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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in classic, writers


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Elegance of the Hedgehog

I had the strangest reaction to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I admired the virtuosity of the writing and the characters interested me, but they were so aloof that I never got to like them. I would read the book then put it down for a few days and pick it up again. It wasn’t a chore to read, but it wasn’t compelling either.

The novel alternates between the concierge Renée’s narration about her life in an upscale Parisian apartment building and the musings of a precocious 12 year old girl named Paloma who resides there. Though at different ends of the socio-economic scale. both characters are acutely perceptive and intelligent. They share a disdain for the upper class dolts whom populate the building. The book is very class conscious and I’m not sure to what end. I did want to tell Paloma and Renée to get over themselves.

The two characters’ lives converge when an elegant Japanese man moves into the building and the three realize they are kindred spirits. I enjoyed the references to Ozu films and Japanese culture, but also shook my head in disbelief when at the story’s climax the Japanese man imparts some psychological wisdom to Renée. It just didn’t ring true at all.

The ending comes out from nowhere. Very Deux ex machina. I rolled my eyes as I read it. Though the plot and characters weren’t well developed, the style and little social insights the characters have are entertaining enough.

I wouldn’t recommend it and I wouldn’t reread it, but I don’t regret reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

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Posted by on June 6, 2011 in contemporary, fiction