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Archive for the ‘Books about France – non fiction’ Category

If you’re a weekend Telegraph reader, you’ve probably come across Michael Wright. He’s one of the many Brits who’ve up-sticks and crossed the Channel in search of a better life, subsiding his new farm-country existence by writing a weekly column called C’est La Folie. The column is the inspiration for one of the most entertaining books about the transition to French life that I’ve come across so far, also named C’est La Folie.

The book starts out with entertaining anecdotes explaining why MW decides to leave London and his job as a theatre critic. We don’t need much convincing that he’s right to leave sunny Dulwich for a ramshackle house in need of his love and attention. La Folie, as it’s called, is suitably close to an aerodrome, so MW might be able to take his plane (if there’s ever an opening on the waiting list, that is), and there’s plenty of room for his beloved feline companion, with all the mouse-hunting opportunities that a country house provides.

C’est La Folie follows MW’s assimilation into the community of ‘Jolibois’, a false name for a real place, created in the interests of privacy. His quest for love pops up from time to time, we meet his neighbours, his visitors and the local pharmacist, who helps him with a sensitive medical issue concerning hens. An unexpectedly  important part is played by MW’s sheep. Dwarf-like with wool likened to Rastafarian dreadlocks, their personalities are as individual and vibrant as the people described in these pages. If you’re an animal person, you’ll be laughing one minute and close to crying the next as you work your way through this tale.

When I turned the last page of C’est La Folie, I immediately wanted to read the next instalment. For that, we’ll have to wait, but any curiosity regarding MW’s progress in France can be assuaged by tuning into his column. This is a self-deprecating character who has worked hard to fit into a very different lifestyle from the one he left behind in London. Unlike some other writers in the same vein, he is refreshingly un-snobbish about it. That’s what makes this book even more fun to read. Highly recommended.

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There’s a popular stereotype about French women that conjures images of slim, elegant pouty beauties who grace sidewalk cafés as they puff sexily on cigarettes and sip espressos. These women go everywhere in a garter belt and stockings, never chip a nail and wouldn’t be seen dead in a pair of trainers. It’s a beautiful image to have but in my experience it lacks accuracy, especially if you go to a French suburban shopping centre, where there are reassuringly normal-looking women, not just French goddesses. Yet various writers world-wide are trying to convince us that we are inferior to the French dream woman, so we non-French gals find ourselves forking out a fortune to buy books that will transform us into  garter-belt goddesses who can eat foie gras and camembert on a daily basis without gaining an ounce.

Helena Frith-Powell and other Anglo-Saxones who now live in France do indeed testify to the fact that the habits of the French do contribute to weight-loss. I know for certain that the English lifestyle has seen me gain unwanted pounds which are difficult to shift and in the States the rate of obesity in adult women (and men and children, for that matter) is alarming. I’m certain that if I still lived in sporty New Zealand, this would not have happened, but for the moment home is in London so it’s time to get rid of the weight. Will these guides help? Is their advice going to be wise or ridiculous? I don’t know, but it’s time to take the books off the shelf, blow off the dust and see what they recommend.

First up for analysis will be Mireille Guiliano, author of bestselling French Women Don’t Get Fat and sequel, French Women for All Seasons. (out of interest others immediately jumped on Guiliano’s bandwagon to write about the weight-loss secrets of their own cultures: Mediterranean Women Stay Slim, Too by Melissa Kelly and Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat by Naomi Moriyama are two such examples).

After analysing whether or not Guiliano’s advice is practical enough to incorporate into a busy working life, I’ll look at Entre Nous – A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, by Debra Ollivier.

Then I’ll assess the Chic and Slim series by Anne Barone.

Keep checking the posts because I have a funny feeling there’ll be a lot to say, both for and against these guides.

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The world is certainly not short of francophiles, as can be seen by the number of books under Amazon’s FRANCE category. Quite a few of those books have made it onto my shelf at times, but none of them satisfactorily answer the question: what’s it like to date a French person? Perhaps I’ll end up writing that book myself.

One book that has helped me to understand a lot more about the French and their culture is Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. Written by a pair of baguette-loving journalists called Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, it seeks to answer many of the questions we foreigners have about France: how the French government works, what happened in Algeria, and how France remembers World War II. Among the many topics discussed here, Nadeau and Barlow explain the education system, the importance of food and language, and why the French strike so much.

Nadeau and Barlow, who are both Canadian, based themselves in Paris for two years to research this book. They write openly about their experiences (ordering pigeon in le Marais, joining a caveing club) whilst imparting interesting facts such as why it is illegal to reduce the price of an item outside of national sale dates and what caused farmers to destroy a McDonald’s in Millau in 1999.

Now that we’ve entered the Sarkozy era, there are some things that might need updating in this book, but on the whole it is a highly informative deconstruction of the French psyche. I recommend it to any Anglo-Saxon with an interest in what makes the French tick.

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