Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review: First French Essais: Venturing into Writing, Marriage, & France

American Kristin Espinasse has compiled 28 pleasant essays about her life in France after she met and married a French man. The book grew out of her French Word-A-Day blog. As with each blog post, she includes a few French words and definitions in each chapter, as well as interesting photos. Essays touch on quaint customs, colorful observations, small human dramas, family anecdotes. Reading this book feels like strolling through gently rolling French countryside, finding a grassy spot for your blue-and-white-checked picnic cloth, and resting against your wicker picnic basket all afternoon to gaze quietly over farms and villages as little everyday French scenes play out before you.

I have subscribed to and enjoyed Kristin’s blog for several years. As an American, I like discovering differences in French culture (like doggy bags and parking meters) along with Kristin. I like learning handy French words and expressions (like la bagnole for car) that often don’t show up in textbooks or even dictionaries. I believe First French Essais has more vocabulary than the blog, and I like that. In the book, for some odd reason, Kristin teaches that la belle-mère means the mother-in-law at least three times. After the first mention, she could have used the space on her vocabulary blackboard graphics for fresh words.

And I would say that for the book’s language lessons to stick, a reader would have to already have some foundational grammar pegs to hang the new expressions on. Even if a reader did not pick up a single new French word, however, First French Essais: Venturing into Writing, Marriage, & France is an enjoyable read. The simple stories are charmingly well-told, and you can identify with the emotions of the people in the stories. Two bonuses at the end: a hidden-word puzzle and a dual-language story of how Monsieur Farjon, “the plant man,” ended up on the book’s cover. I enjoy Kristin’s openness to cross-cultural experiences and her candor about both failures and successes.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

If you decide to read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, pack a steamer trunk because you’re going on a voyage. Several voyages, in fact. You’ll take literal journeys, twice across the Atlantic on steamer ships, and side trips in and around Ireland and Brooklyn, New York. Not long after World War Two, young Eilis Lacey goes to Brooklyn to find a better life than she might have had in small-town Ireland

This novel will take you on figurative journeys, too, as Eilis goes from having decisions made for her to deciding what she wants; as she leaves lifelong friends to forge new friendships; as she falls into a new, unfamiliar culture custom by custom; as she leaves insecurity and heads toward confidence. Brooklyn represents a triple trip—immigration from Ireland to America, another cross-cultural adventure when she dates an Italian boy, and still another when Eilis is chosen to be the first worker to serve black women at the department store where she works.

Quiet, serious Eilis Lacey thinks and feels her way into each new culture, and into womanhood. She tests the waters before she trusts. She distances herself from office, college, dating, and boarding house politics as she observes others and her own reactions. She deliberates about what secrets to reveal to whom, when to speak, when to remain silent. Eilis has no shortage of temptations to return to familiar comforts of her Irish family and life; as each temptation unfolds, she fields it with steady thoughtfulness. In this novel, she travels from gawky and unsure to poised and sophisticated. She navigates the choppy waters of complete upheaval with some angst but mostly admirable composure.

Eilis Lacey is a heroine I cared about. I liked her honesty, her strength, her vulnerability. I also liked Colm Tóibín’s portrayal of the early 1950s, when tradition, courtesy, and respectability reigned—and resulted in Eilis’ finding new family. Customs in Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian neighborhoods, and the role of the Catholic Church, were interesting as well. Back then, television was newfangled, and Eilis’ house mother deemed it a fad that wouldn’t last due to a dearth of programming. Ha! Tóibín’s writing style in this book (I’ve not read anything else by him, so don’t know what style is typical) was plain and simple, which fit Eilis’ character.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review of The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper is a gentle read—a cozy mystery to curl up with in your favorite armchair. I liked that the story is a multigenerational journey; the characters who are 30 delve into their small town’s history to solve a mystery begun by their 90ish grandmothers. In the process, the 30-somethings work out issues with their parents. A number of subplots keep the reader in suspense. The romantic ones are fairly predictable, although some subplot discoveries surprise. And the overarching plotline—the story behind the skeleton unearthed during remodeling of the old mansion—intrigues throughout. That The Peach Keeper is at its core a story of loyalty and friendship is what I most enjoyed.