Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!

 Twenty notable directors collaborated on a wonderful movie that gives a great sense of the French capital, Paris, Je T’Aime, which celebrates Paris and Parisian life in eighteen short films.  Each film is located in a different neighborhood of the city so it gives the viewer a sense of life and love in the “City of Lights.” The films are very similar in that they each contain the same theme of love and explore the cosmopolitan feel of Paris, its residents and the tourists who fill the city.  Each film ends where the other begins and that gives the entire film a sense of continuity. In the chance that you don’t like the current selection all you have to do is wait 5 minutes for the next film. 

Paris, Je T’Aime has an impressive lineup of stars including Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Nick Nolte and Juliette Binoche.  Directors of the short films include Wes Craven, the Coen Brothers and Gus Van Sant.  Ces’t Magnifique! 

Falling in love in Paris – what could be better than that? How about falling in love in Paris with recipes! Elizabeth Bard lets us tag along in Lunch in Paris as she meets and falls in love with Gwendal, maintains a long-distance relationship (with frequent visits to France), and then at first reluctantly, then whole heartedly, becomes an ex-pat living in Paris.

As a student in London working on her PhD, Elizabeth is able to make frequent weekend trips to Paris to visit friends. Her travels quickly center around food – the sidewalk cafes, the shop with the best croissants, the tiny restaurants known only to the locals. When she begins dating Gwendal, she begins to view meals and eating like the French do – even the simplest meal should be created with care and attention, eaten slowly and enjoyed. She learns to shop like a Parisian, buying just enough food for each meal, going to the fishmonger, the butcher, the farmer’s market for fresh ingredients. Along the way she finds a doorway into the French culture and thought, while gaining new insights into her American heritage.

Bard writes with confidence and wit, unafraid to expose her American learning curve. She is enthusiastic about trying any dish, and an adventurer in the kitchen. Each chapter is wrapped around a meal (or the memory of a meal) that fits the current stage of her life and finishes with recipes for the food she’s written about. While the recipes are mostly French, she has rewritten them for Americans, with ingredients that are easy to find in the US. This a delightful, mouth-watering memoir will satisfy the cook, the foodie and the traveler in all of us.

Coco ChanelToday is the birth anniversary of Coco Chanel, one of the most important and influential designers of the 20th century. The very epitome of effortless French style, Chanel revolutionized the fashion world when she introduced men’s clothing (slacks) for women’s wear. Her signature looks – comfortable and simple yet elegant – included the dramatic use of costume jewelry (notably ropes of pearls), sportswear, collarless jackets paired with simple skirts and the “little black dress”. She was the first designer to put her name on a signature perfume; Chanel No. 5 was created in 1921 and continues to be one of the most popular perfumes on the market.

Chanel’s life story is the stuff of Hollywood – born into poverty, orphaned at age 12, raised by nuns, she rose to wealth and status through talent and hard work. Find out more about this fascinating, controversial (both the Nazi’s and the Allies accused her of being a spy during World War II) woman through these great books:

Chanel: Her Style and Her Life by Janet Wallach

Chanel : the Couturiere at Work by Amy DeLaHaye

Chanel : a Woman of Her Own by Axel Madsen

Coco Chanel : her Life, her Secrets by Marcel Haedrich

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Reminder to our Readers! Don’t forget to leave a comment on last Friday’s blog post about your favorite QC area Staycation destination! Someone’s going to win two tickets to the Putnum Museum and IMAX movie Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa – might as well be you!

s KeyOn July 16, 1942 thousands of Jewish families were rounded up in Paris and held under brutal conditions at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ train station before being shipped to Auschwitz and almost certain death. Although the orders were issued by the Nazi’s, they were carried out by the French police; most of the Jews were French citizens and almost no one came to their defense. Property and homes left behind by the Jews were quickly taken over by Parisians and the incident buried. While France has recently made an effort to acknowledge and apologize for this dark chapter in their history, and public memorials have been erected, it remains a story that is little known and even deliberately hidden.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana  de Rosnay brings this horrific story to life. Alternating chapters follow 10-year-old Sarah Starzynki and her family when they are brutally taken from their home in 1942 and present-day journalist Julia Jarmond who is writing a story about the little known roundup. The secret that Sarah carries with her – that, at his insistence, she has locked her little brother into a secret hiding place, believing she will return in a few hours – as well as the suffering she and her family endure shadows her life. Julia, an American living in Paris, discovers that her in-laws have a connection to Sarah, a family secret that they have tried to deny. Julia’s determination to find answers and to trace Sarah threaten her marriage and forever alter her view of her beloved adopted home.

This book is a real page turner – both stories are dramatic, full of twists and revealing of human character both at its worst and its best. There are interesting insights into how the people of Occupied France reacted to the persecution of the Jews, and how many modern French continue to dismiss or ignore their past.  At one point someone asks Julia why she, an American born long after the war and with no connection to the tragedy, is so determined to find Sarah. Julia replies that she wants to apologize, “Sorry for not knowing. Sorry for being 45 years old and not knowing.” Reading Sarah’s Key can help all of us correct this error.

Bastille DayAnd you may be wondering how to commemorate this joyeux July 14th.  As all foodies know, no one takes more delight in their cuisine than the French. Why not check out Joanne Harris’ Chocolat? (in book or dvd format), a fable about the magical quality of chocolate. The film version is a sensual celebration of all forms of chocolate (and Johnny Depp).

A paperback copy of A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle was my constant companion on a trip through the Northeast, and became a scrapbook of sorts (stuffed with pamphlets, snack wrapper bookmarks and smeared with chocolate ice cream eaten in downtown Bar Harbor). Mayle loves his food so much, it’s impossible to feel guilty if you eat while reading his book.  The deep and abiding love of food and drink formed a bond with his Provencal neighbors – though their actions were often perplexing to him.

From Paris to the Moon is a more cerebral collection of essays, about a year in which Adam Gopnik moves from New York to Paris to immerse his family in the French language and way of life. He dissects cafe culture and the “crisis in French cuisine,” among many other things; what could be dry is instead a personal and fascinating insider’s view of an American in Paris.

dday1D-Day was June 6th, 1944.  This year marks its 65th anniversary.  For those who served so long ago, let us take a moment to remember them.  As members of that generation die out, we lose those incredibly precious first-hand accounts.  For those of us born later, we can always rely on the history that has been faithfully recorded  in books and videos.

Check out D-Day:Reflections of Courage, a DVD put out by BBC Video. Shot on location and told from the various point-of-views of American, British, French and German participants, it is an excellent overview of this historic day.

ten-days-to-d-day1If you prefer a written version, try Ten Days to D-Day by David Stafford. The Normandy invasion was the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time, landing 160,000 troops on that fateful day in June. An operation that large, involving several different governments and armies required unprecedented planning. Told from several points-of-view, from the Generals and Presidents to the soldiers and civilians, this is a gripping story of courage and sacrifice.

the-longest-dayYou might also want to take a look at The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, the acknowledged classic of the invasion. Ryan interviewed participants shortly after the war while memories were still fresh and skillfully weaves their personal stories into the overall history. A must-read for history buffs.

And watch for the ongoing Honor Flights, now being conducted throughout the country (Davenport just sent a group in April; another is scheduled for October) Volunteers fly veterans of World War II to Washington D.C. to visit the recently built World War II Memorial. All expenses for the veterans are paid by contributions – a small return to these everyday heroes from a grateful nation.

Today marks the anniversary of the official beginning of World War I on July 28, 1914. Now often overshadowed by the popularity of fiction and non-fiction of World War II, the First World War saw the introduction of many aspects of modern warfare including the first use of armored tanks and airplanes as fighters as well as the horrors of trench warfare and mustard gas. And although it was known as the “war to end all wars”, in many ways it contributed to the causes of the Second World War.

Poignant, horrific yet ultimately hopeful, the French language film A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou is set against the backdrop of the end of the war and it’s aftermath. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Mathilde refuses to believe that her fiance has died in the war. She launches an investigation, a search that introduces a multitude of interlocking stories and incidents. The movie shifts from the couple’s courtship before the war to the horrors of the trenches to Mathilde’s determined search after the war and back again. Throughout, Mathilde’s charm, intelligence and most of all faith remain unshakable and will make you believe too.