Book news & reviews
by Scott Steedman
Don Horowitz, a lawyer from San Francisco, had just arrived in
Paris via Borneo, and he was exasperated. The French dont wear
tutus or stick bones in their noses, so we expect them to be like
us, he complained to Polly Platt. Wrong! They are just plain
different. Its a pity they dont wear bones in the noses: wed
get the message sooner.
Born in Philadelphia but a resident of the 7th arrondissement
since 1967, Platt is used to that kind of griping, what she calls
the same anguished stories. Since 1986 her consultancy company,
Culture Crossings, has been helping expats and their spouses deal
with the arcane mysteries of the French. Six years ago she put
her advice together in a best-selling book, French or Foe, and
this summer sees the publication of the sequel, Savoir Flair
211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French.
The idea is to lead people who are moving to France by the hand,
to get them started, she explains. Because so many people just
keep telling me that they are intimidated by the French! And the
French are just wonderful! All you need to know is a little bit
about body language and a few polite words.
The new book is meant as a complement to French or Foe, aimed
more at tourists than businessmen or long-term residents. Like
the first book it is based around real stories, which are then
taken apart to show the misunderstandings just below the surface.
It includes a lot of readers letters and subjects she didnt
find space for first time around, like hotels, bathrooms, driving,
walking around Paris and restaurant protocol. The many asides
include the most in-depth history of Paris dog poop scandal you
are ever likely to find.
A lot of the practical tips are standard guidebook fare: much
better is the tongue-in-cheek anthropology that animates long
chapters on shopping and love. Both feature some very funny set
pieces. My personal favorite is a long letter from a very angry
American woman describing a catastrophic bra-buying trip to a
Parisian department store. Its full of American cultural artifacts
writes Platt: How many can you spot? There are six, starting
with the customers right to be right, a concept French shopkeepers
have never heard of.
The counter story, a tale of successful integration, is one told
by a tall Texan called Kevin who managed the unthinkable bringing
his own bottle of Château Margaux grand cru 1987 to the Tour dArgent,
proud owner of Paris greatest cellar, with 400,000 top-notch
bottles. How did he do it? Well, that would be giving it away.
But it reads like a great adventure story, and like all great
French adventure stories, it involves flattery, food,and love.
The three ways to a French waiters heart.
Are the French really that different? They are completely different.
I think if you dont have a 2,000 years of history behind you,
you cant understand it... Anyway their schooling is so completely
different, they cant possibly look at things the same way we
do. I call them the Chinese of Europe. All those rules.
The theme of the book is take your time. Dont do that Yankee
bulldozer hard sell routine, it wont work over here. Im trying
to get people to slow down, to appreciate Platt says. And she
ends by quoting a favorite proverb of Mitterrand: Il faut donner
du temps au temps you have to give time to time.
French or Foe and Savoir Flair are both publishd by Platts
company, Culture Crossings, and include illustrations by her Serbian
husband Ande Grchich. She will be launching the second book at
The Abbey Booksshop on July 12 and at WH Smith on July 22: see
English-speaking Paris for details.
A Story as Sharp as a Knife
Robert Bringhurst is one of Canadas leading poets. He has also
been a Guggenheim fellow, studied linguistics at MIT under Noam
Chomsky, and worked as a translator from Arabic and Greek. But
he is best known as a friend of the great Haidi sculptor Bill
Reid, the driving force behind the extraordinary renaissance of
west coast native art in the second half of the 20th century.
Their long collaboration produced two wonderful books, the photographic
essay The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haidi Gwaii
and The Raven Steals the Light a traditional story that has
become a childrens classic.
Bringhurst started studying Haida literature in 1982, translating
hundred-year-old transcriptions of storytellers, poets, and historians.
The result is his new anthology A Story as Sharp as a Knife
(Douglas & McIntyre), in which he reclaims an entire oral tradition.
He hopes that Haida literature will now find its proper place
in the old-growth forest of the human mind.
Robert Bringhurst will be reading at Abbey Books on July 1: see
community calendar for details.
Books for the Beach
So what 500-page potboiler should you sling into your duffel bag
this summer? The airports are full of new novels from the usual
suspects: Mario Godfather Puzo, John Grisham, Danielle Steele...
And everyone is reading Hannibal, Thomas Harris sequel to Silence
of the Lambs. Helen Fieldings follow-up Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Picador) is lighter beach reading: short chapters, snappy intros,
a love interest. And if youve ever experienced the horrors of
trendy Cool Britannia London, itll make you very glad that
you now live on the right side of the Manche.
Youll find actual beaches in Atomised (Heinemann), the long-awaited English translation of Michel Houllebecqs
extremely controversial French best-seller Les particules élémentaires (Flammarion). This being Houllebecq, the beaches in question
are alive with the grunts of group sex, described with a scientists
deadpan approach (he was trained as a biochemist). Like his first
effort, Whatever (Serpents Tail), this novel depressed me deeply,
and I dont mean that as a compliment. It is thicker and claims
to tackle big themes, but all I could find were pages and pages
of the same cynical adolescent postures love is stupid, our
children hate us, we are all obsessed with youth but doomed to
grow old without dignity. There are flashes of humor, especially
in the comparisons of human and animal behavior, but hes not
half as deep or provocative as he thinks. And the endless sex
Also selling well is Anils Ghost, the first novel from Michael Ondaatje since The English Patient.
People who read that book because they liked the film discovered
that it was hard work, full of lush ideas but confusing and almost
entirely lacking in narrative drive. The same can be said of Anils
Ghost, a supernatural murder mystery set among the horrors of
the never-ending civil war in the authors native Sri Lanka. Ondaatje
is a poet with a wonderful gift for erotic, evocative images.
But John Grisham is easier to turn into a screenplay.
Which brings us to Which Lie Did I Tell? (Pantheon), William
Goldmans excellent sequel to his standard film-school text Adventures
in the Screen Trade. Goldman is a novelist and screenwriter responsible
for 20 films, including Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man and The
Princess Bride. This is his take on how screenwriting works.
It has everything I like about America wit, energy, a lack of
pretention minus what Goldman calls Hollywood horseshit. Read
his analysis of the zipper scene in Theres Something About Mary
Recent biographies include a higly-praised book on Colette Secrets
of the Flesh by Judith Thurman (Knopf/Bloomsbury) and David
Bellos Jacques Tati. Or try Karl Marx, an English journalists
good go at resuscitating the reputation of a great thinker who
never claimed to be a Marxist. A fiery agitator who spent half
his life in the calm of the British Library, a Prussian Jew who
became an English gentleman, a deep thinker who loved jokes and
drinking, Marx was a mass of contradictions: his mother told him
I wish you would make some capital instead of just writing about
it. An excellent portrait, to be read alongside Werner Blumenbergs
Karl Marx (Verso), an illustrated study including every known
photo of the greated bearded one.
As I write, the best-selling book at Amazon.com is the new Harry
Potter story good going for a childrens books with an unknown
title which isnt out until July 8, two weeks from now. Younger
kids will like Steven Guarnaccias award-winning Goldilocks and
the Three Bears (Abrams), which stars a hip, beret-touting Daddy
Bear who lives in a split-level condo with some very cool fifties
furniture. You can imagine how angry he gets when some chick from
the city breaks his sons Arne Jacobsen chair.