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Posts Tagged ‘France’

cover-somewhere-in-franceBack in November, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness.

As a fan of historical fiction with an interest in World War I stories, I was captivated by the story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, who longs to make a difference in the world, but is constrained by her place in British society.

When war breaks out in Europe, Lilly defies her parents and joins the ranks of WAAC drivers, eventually getting posted to France where her sweetheart, a Scottish surgeon, is working at a field hospital. Their love story twists and turns along with the war, and Lilly does a lot of growing up out there on the front lines.

Jennifer graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my readers, and with the return of Downton Abbey here in the States, the timing is perfect.

My questions and Jen’s responses are below. Enjoy!

Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for Somewhere in France?

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a copy of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of the Great War. At the beginning of the book, Vera isn’t much older than I was then, yet she was thrust into a world of war, death and paralyzing loss when she was still so young.

I remember thinking that I would love to read the story of other women like Vera. They didn’t fight in the front lines, but they made tremendous sacrifices all the same, and their work was absolutely vital to the war effort.

How did you become interested in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the experience of women ambulance drivers?

It began when I was researching the book. I had decided that I didn’t want Lilly to become a nurse—I couldn’t conceive of a believable way for her to acquire the necessary education and training—so I started looking at the other women’s services, and the WAAC, with its wide range of occupations for members, as well as a predominantly working- and middle-class membership, was ideal.

I did find it quite difficult to unearth information on the corps and its members, however, as most official papers relating to the WAAC were destroyed in the Blitz. If anyone out there is looking for a suitable topic for a doctoral thesis on the history of the Great War, a general history of the WAAC is badly needed!

I was particularly fascinated by the ambulance drivers in the WAAC; their work was difficult, dirty and frequently dangerous, often in terrible conditions, and the suffering of their passengers must have been very distressing to witness. I suppose I could have been kinder to Lilly, and let her work as a clerk well behind the lines, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to write about!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I think it was the original forms that applicants to the WAAC filled out when applying to the corps. Those few that survive are preserved at the National Archives in the UK (here’s an example that can be viewed online).

When I looked at those forms, filled out by each applicant in her own handwriting, I felt the hundred years between us slip away: here were young women, most of whom had never been away from home, and they were volunteering to leave everything and everyone they knew in order to do their duty. I was, and continue to be, deeply humbled by their courage.

What do you find most fascinating about the World War I era?

I think it’s the way it straddles a period that feels distant yet also very familiar. The people who fought and lived through the war were Victorian by birth and by outlook, with attitudes and beliefs that can often appear somewhat foreign to modern sensibilities.

Yet until quite recently Great War veterans were alive and among us and able to share their memories. I had the honor of meeting a number of them over the years, and when I spoke to them the war didn’t seem remote at all—it might as well have happened yesterday.

Have you visited any of the places in England and France depicted in your novel?

I’ve visited all of them, with the exception of Cumberland Hall in the Lake District, as it’s entirely a product of my imagination. While I was a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, which is not far from the area of the Western Front depicted in Somewhere in France, I visited some of the battlefields in northern France and Belgium; most moving of all was Beaumont-Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I’ve also visited Paris and London many times over the years and hope to take my children for a visit there soon.

Can you tell us a bit about the follow-up novel you’re working on, about Lilly’s fearless friend Charlotte?

It begins in the spring of 1919, after Charlotte’s return to Liverpool. She resumes her position as an assistant to Eleanor Rathbone, a real-life figure who was a city councillor and one of the best-known suffragists and supporters for the working poor in Britain in that era.

We follow Charlotte as she makes new friends at the boarding house where she lives, works tirelessly to improve the lives of Liverpool’s working poor, and attempts to save an old friend from the demons that are consuming him as a result of his wartime experiences.

Jen has offered to give away a signed copy of Somewhere in France to one of my readers, so leave a comment below for a chance to win! And you can learn more about Jen and Somewhere in France at her website.

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les-mis-penguin-coverI’ve loved the story of Les Misérables for a long time – ever since my friend Kate played part of the musical’s soundtrack for me, one afternoon when we were in about eighth grade. I fell instantly in love with Jean Valjean and Fantine, Eponine and Cosette and Marius, and that plucky, saucy urchin, Gavroche. Then and now, the opening chords of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” send chills up my spine.

Back in January, after seeing the new film version (which made me weep), I picked up a beautiful hardcover edition of the book. At 1232 pages, it’s too bulky for subway reading, so I’ve been reading a few pages before breakfast nearly every morning for the last six months. And as of July 8, I am finished.

(Warning: major spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book or seen the musical or film.)

My husband asked me, early on, if the book was quite different from the musical adaptation, and at the time, I answered, “Not really.” Reading about Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and the Thenardiers, Javert and Marius and Enjolras and all the others, felt like revisiting old friends. The outlines of the plot, from Valjean’s initial encounter with the bishop to his death at the end, were familiar.

Part of the joy of reading the book was tracing the story arc I already knew. I felt a prick of recognition every time I came across a familiar detail: the silver candlesticks; Fantine cutting off her hair; the ABC Cafe; the red flag Enjolras holds up before his death. During the scenes that also appear in the musical, I could hear the songs playing in my head. (Yes, I am a serious musical theatre nerd.)

However, over 1200 pages, Hugo (obviously) has much more room to roam than the writers and producers of the musical. He uses quite a few of those pages to recount the Battle of Waterloo, muse on argot, the dialect of Paris’ criminal underworld, and explore the structure and history of Paris’ sewer system. (The latter was a low point, in several senses.) Although the subjects of the digressions are all at least distantly related to the story, I found myself wishing frequently for a red pen. The man needed a good – and ruthless – editor.

But what I loved about Les Mis – what kept me going through five parts, 1200-plus pages and all those digressions – was the deeper insight into these characters I already knew.

Rich though the musical is, it contains polished-up versions of several characters (Grantaire, Eponine, Marius), and its portraits of others, particularly the Thénardiers, often slide into stereotype. The book contains the full history of these characters, presenting them in all their complexity, filling in the broad strokes of the musical with plenty of shadow and depth.

For example, we find out what happens in the nine-year gap between Valjean’s rescue of Cosette and the rumblings of revolution in Paris (the gap is briefly mentioned midway through Act I in the musical). Hugo serves up a generous helping of political and social context for the 1832 uprising (never mind that I hadn’t heard of half the politicians he mentions). Marius’ grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand (who does not appear in the stage musical) holds the key to understanding Marius himself, and we learn vital information about all the characters, including Gavroche’s parentage, Fantine’s ill-fated love affair (which produced Cosette), and the telling fact of Javert’s birthplace (a prison).

Besides feeling virtuous for tackling such a hefty classic, I was moved by the novel’s themes of grace, hope and redemption amid squalor and despair. I loved peeling back the layers of these characters whose songs have lived in my head for years. The musical and the book are separate but intertwined entities, and I’m glad to know them both now.

Have you read or seen Les Mis? Do you feel the need to seek out the book when you see a theatrical or film adaptation of a story?

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august reads books part 2Peaches for Father Francis, Joanne Harris
Vianne Rocher returns to Lansquenet, the village where she charmed some people and upset others with chocolates and magic (in Chocolat). Eight years have wrought many changes, including a new community of Moroccan Muslims who clash with some of the locals. As Vianne and her daughters reunite with old friends and make new ones, tensions between (and within) the two sides of Lansquenet rise to the boiling point. Caught in the middle are a teenage girl, a mysterious veiled woman, and Vianne’s old nemesis, Father Francis Reynaud. Harris writes lushly and explores deep questions of home and community, strangeness and belonging, and how we often judge people before we know their stories. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 2).

Dog On It, Spencer Quinn
I loved this first book in the Chet and Bernie mystery series, narrated by Chet, failed K-9 candidate and superb sleuth (with a fabulous sense of smell). Chet is tough, no-nonsense and yet endearingly doggy – he loves treats, naps and being scratched behind the ears. He and Bernie (who’s also tough but a little down on his luck) team up to solve the mystery of a teenage girl’s disappearance, and have a few wild adventures along the way. Smart and often hilarious. I’ll be sniffing out the rest of this series.

The Ruins of Lace, Iris Anthony
Through seven different characters’ points of view, Anthony weaves the intricate story of Flemish lace in the seventeenth century. Banned by the king of France but desired by all, lace prompted bribery, theft and a flourishing smuggling industry. Love, wealth, court intrigue, even the use of dogs to run lace are all elements in the story, whose complex plot is its best feature. The characters are a bit vague (maybe because there are so many points of view) and the ending felt abrupt. Still, a fascinating glimpse into a segment of history I didn’t know about before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 1).

The Moving Finger, Agatha Christie
Jerry Burton, injured airman, takes up residence in a nondescript village with his sister to recover from his wounds. But when many of the villagers – including Jerry – begin receiving anonymous hate mail, the peace of the place is shattered. Miss Marple solves the case, as always, though she’s rather a minor character in this book. The mystery kept me guessing, but it didn’t intrigue me as much as some of Christie’s other plots. Still fun.

The House of Velvet and Glass, Katherine Howe
I loved Howe’s debut, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and also enjoyed her second book. Sibyl Allston, daughter of a posh Boston family whose mother and sister died on the Titanic, struggles to deal with her grief, manage her father’s house and help her dissolute brother (who has just been expelled from Harvard). There are also flashbacks to her father’s seafaring youth and his time in Shanghai. A fascinating glimpse into World War I-era Boston and its Spiritualist movement (seances, scrying glasses, opium dens, etc.), a sharp contrast of two worlds (strait-laced Back Bay and seedy Chinatown), and musings on whether we really determine our own fate.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
A wry, heartbreaking story of two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. Never maudlin, though sometimes I felt the sarcasm veered into callousness. Hazel, the narrator, is keen-eyed and witty, yet intensely vulnerable, as is Gus, who shows up at a cancer support group one day and catches her eye. They’re trying to live while knowing they won’t see adulthood, and this makes everything rather fraught, even while they attempt to enjoy being teenagers. Wise and sad and yes, sometimes funny.

What are you reading these days?

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links. Graphic by Sarah.

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Three years ago this week, I was in Paris, shivering in my old black peacoat and wrapped in a paisley pashmina, strolling narrow streets with Moose and drinking chocolat chaud in cafes with Jacque. I can’t fully explain the mystique of Paris – but I agree with Sabrina Fairchild that Paris is always a good idea. (And I long to visit the rest of France – so there are a few gems from there in here too.)

1. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
The quintessential tale of a writer’s life in Paris – I read it in Paris, which is partly why I love it so.
2. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, T.E. Carhart
A fascinating story of how the author makes friends with the owner of a Paris piano shop.
3. My Life in France, Julia Child
Utterly beautiful, hilarious and fun – I love Julia’s tales of life all over Europe, but she loves Paris best.
4. Left Bank Waltz, Elaine Lewis
This was an Oxfam find, and a brave tale of an Australian bookshop in Paris.
5. Almost French, Sarah Turnbull
An Aussie falls in love with a Frenchman and his city – and much hilarity results.
6. Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik
Lyrical tales of adapting to life in Paris with a small child.
7. Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard
Just what the subtitle says. Completely delicieux.
8. A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg
Set partly in Paris – which she loves like I love Oxford – and again, utterly delectable.
9. Paris in Mind, various (ed. Jennifer Lee)
Essays on the City of Lights from various authors – I enjoyed the different perspectives.

And, not from Paris, but also beautiful:
10. The Price of Water in Finistere, Bodil Malmsten
Musings on the expat life in Brittany, and on trying to write about the unwritable.
11. Perfume from Provence, Lady Winifred Fortescue
Tales from a gentler time, of life as an expat in Provence.
12. Words in a French Life, Kristin Espinasse
A “dictionary” of French words – so fun!
13. A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle
The classic tale of an Englishman moving to France – home repair stories abound.

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Here, dear readers, is a belated (two-weeks-later) post about our trip to Paris. Due to the fact that I danced the night away at the St Aldates Thanksgiving Ball last night, I am fairly knackered, but just thought I’d share with you a few photos of our trip to the City of Lights.

Here’s a shot from the boat cruise we took on Thursday night:

We went under all the bridges of Paris, and though it was pouring rain when we began, we were able to go out on deck at the end.

I spent Friday morning wandering with Moose, and between a tour of Notre-Dame and lunch at a creperie, we went to a place I had long wanted to see:

Sylvia Beach founded this bookshop as a lending library to the likes of Hemingway and Joyce. (It figures prominently in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I read on the Eurostar train to Paris.) And it’s book heaven…piles of books everywhere, and there are rumours of a resident cat. I found a 1965 edition – my favourite edition – of The Two Towers for 4 euros. And Moose was kind enough to indulge me in a long browse.

I spent a good part of the afternoon here:

The Musee d’Orsay has quite a lovely array of Impressionist and a few other styles of art…my very favourites were the dancer portraits by Edgar Degas.

And this is me with sweet Erin…we had such fun wandering the city together.

More pictures to come in the next post!

*title from “I Love Paris,” which runs through the film French Kiss

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