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Book news & reviews
by Scott Steedman

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Savoir Flair


D
on Horowitz, a lawyer from San Francisco, had just arrived in Paris via Borneo, and he was exasperated. “The French don’t 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. It’s a pity they don’t wear bones in the noses: we’d 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 didn’t 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. “It’s full of American cultural artifacts” writes Platt: “How many can you spot?” There are six, starting with “the customer’s 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 d’Argent, 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 waiter’s heart.
Are the French really that different? “They are completely different. I think if you don’t have a 2,000 years of history behind you, you can’t understand it... Anyway their schooling is so completely different, they can’t 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.” Don’t do that Yankee bulldozer hard sell routine, it won’t work over here. “I’m 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 Platt’s 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 Canada’s 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 children’s 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 Fielding’s follow-up “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” (Picador) is lighter beach reading: short chapters, snappy intros, a love interest. And if you’ve ever experienced the horrors of trendy “Cool Britannia” London, it’ll make you very glad that you now live on the right side of the Manche.
You’ll find actual beaches in “Atomised” (Heinemann), the long-awaited English translation of Michel Houllebecq’s 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 scientist’s deadpan approach (he was trained as a biochemist). Like his first effort, “Whatever” (Serpent’s Tail), this novel depressed me deeply, and I don’t 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 he’s not half as deep or provocative as he thinks. And the endless sex gets boring.
Also selling well is “Anil’s 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 “Anil’s Ghost,” a supernatural murder mystery set among the horrors of the never-ending civil war in the author’s 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 Goldman’s 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 “There’s Something About Mary” and weep.
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 journalist’s 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 Blumenberg’s “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 children’s books with an unknown title which isn’t out until July 8, two weeks from now. Younger kids will like Steven Guarnaccia’s 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 son’s Arne Jacobsen chair.

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Polly Platt
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