These Dividing Walls

Far back on the Left Bank, there is a secret quarter.

A warren of quiet streets sandwiched between boulevards where little traffic moves. On a corner stands a building with a turquoise door – Number 37

These Dividing Walls

Set over a hot summer in a shabby corner of Paris we are introduced to the residents of Number 37. Heat is central to the novel and it is what binds the stories together –  from a city tense with heat and boiling tensions over nationality and immigration, to feverish dreams, and the languid and stifling air of the apartment block.

A debut novel from Fran Cooper this book is character driven, and if you don’t like or at least empathise with them then maybe this won’t be the book for you. Some I liked better than others and for some the more I knew about them the less they interested me. But others have stuck in my memory.

This novel is really a series of vignettes about the neighbours loosely coupled by the building they share and the city they live in. Sometimes their lives overlap and sometimes they are oblivious to the lives of others around them.

Through Edward we are introduced to the building. Edward has come to Paris to escape his own grief and an offer of an attic room by his friend Emilie brings him to Number 37 and the world of Frederique and her bookshop, Anaïs and Paul, Chantal and Cesar, Madame Marin and her beige husband, Isabell Duval, Monsieur Lalande, Amina and Ahmed, and the homeless man, Josef, who watches all the comings and goings at Number 37.

These Dividing Walls depicts a microcosm of society and features a cast of troubled characters – those living with grief, or looking for escape from it, night-time keyboard warriors, misguided ‘everymen’, and those lost in their own lives. “This is not the Paris you know” but maybe you may recognise these same characters living in your own community.

These Dividing Walls
by Fran Cooper
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473641549

C’est si bon – French books

French women don’t get facelifts or get fat.
Their children don’t talk back, throw their food, and eat everything.
French parents don’t give in

We yearn for their food and their markets, and spend a year in a villa admiring their sense of interior design.

The guilty pleasure of buttery french pastry is now replaced with the Parisian diet, and A Skinny french kitchen.

We assume that French women know all about love, sex and other matters of heart, but also don’t mind sleeping alone!

Even the French cat and dog outclass the common kiwi moggie or hound.

It would seem that by putting French in the title you have an instant bestseller.  Substitute Kiwi, British or American and it not only doesn’t sound as good – probably no one would believe you either!

Cover of The French dog Cover of What French women knowCover of French parents don't give inCover of Why French children don't talk back


A Tale of Paris: Edward Rutherfurd at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

cover: ParisEdward Rutherfurd has known Paris well for most of his life and in his latest book he puts that knowledge to good use. Paris crosses centuries in the history of the city of light, following the fortunes of several families as they rise and fall through wars, revolutions, occupation, love and art.

Rutherfurd is a master of the big book. You may be relieved to know this is one of his shorter efforts – less than 800 pages and only spanning 700 years. It’s less of an orderly progression through history than his others; Paris alternates between the late 19th century and the eras before and after it.

Most of the action is set it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the French Revolution dealt with in one chapter, but Rutherfurd still manages to get lots of facts into his richly detailed story.

Wearing a jaunty black beret he told his second sold-out session of the festival why he changed the structure – his publisher and he wanted to shorten the book.

Rutherfurd and Wayne Macauley are very different writers but they both said the exact same thing at their sessions – “You’ve got to love your characters”.

Rutherfurd finds his plots and human stories in research. For Paris he used stories from his own family, but he also achieved the detail he is famous for by his usual methods of  reading a lot of history and visiting the best historical museums. He also swears by the little museums and the local historians.

So will he ever run out of capitals? Fans will be relieved to know it’s unlikely – he always has six or seven books at the back of his mind at any one time; books he has actually done research on. Perhaps next time he’ll get it down to 500 pages.

Italian Joy and more

I loved Italian Joy, it reminded me of everything I love about Italy, great photography, inspiring, rich, colourful, tasty.  Carla’s take on the beauties of Italy and travel were so easy to relate to, a must read for all those lovers of everything Italy has to offer.

Carla Coulson is an amazing photographer. She has links to travels in France too, her work having illustrated  My French Life and Paris Tango.

On a French theme again (with author Vicki Archer) Carla’s photographs form part of the upcoming book French Essence : Ambience, Beauty and Style in Provence.

If these titles are your style, you may also enjoy reading Marlena De Blasi. Her books are very romantic and also include recipes for your culinary delight. Marlena has been a chef, a journalist, a food and wine consultant, and a restaurant critic.

See the library catalogue for more books on travel in Italy and France – travel books with striking photos are a colourful way to travel the world.

Valley of Grace by Marion Halligan

Last year at the Christchurch Writers festival I went to hear Marion Halligan read from one of her books. She is obviously very popular in her homeland Australia, but she was not an author I knew anything about, and unfortunately I found the excerpt she read to be a bit dull.

I was therefore quite surprised when I was intrigued enough by a review of her latest book, Valley of Grace to reserve it. I then spent a couple of days sick in bed, and found myself (and my dripping nose) transported to Paris, the setting for this book, and obviously somewhere that Halligan is very familiar with.

Central to the story is Fanny, who seems to embody all that is French; elegant, understated and chic. She meets and marries Gerard, a talented restorer of old Parisian buildings. Fanny works in an antiquarian book shop, so there is a ample opportunity via their two professions for Halligan to recount fascinating historical titbits about the history of the city, as well as the story of these two people and their desire to have a child.

For smallish book there are a number of side stories, including memories of the French resistance, a lecherous lecturer and his long suffering wife, death and the process of dying (with a wonderful visit to Lourdes), a heartbreaking story of a hidden and abandoned child, friendships, sexuality and the agonies and pleasures of raising children. There are detailed and luscious descriptions of houses and interiors, gardens full of fresh produce and dainty flowers, descriptions of cakes that sent me diving to the pantry, and a feeling that I wanted to pack my phrase book and head off to Paris tomorrow.

I’m wondering now if I judged Marion Halligan too harshly, perhaps she was just having a bit of a bad day at the Readers and writers festival and chose the wrong passage to read, (or perhaps heaven forbid, it was me, and I had festival fatigue), but whatever the reason I wish she had read a piece from this novel, because I know that I would have been first on the reserve list if she had.

The Beautiful Fall

How appropriate is the subtitle of this book “fashion, genius and glorious excess in 1970s Paris”. It is not new – published 2006 and I’m not a follower of fashion – but the cliche “I couldn’t put it down” certainly applied to me when I read this book recently. I couldn’t wait to see what happened to the whole unlovely cast of characters Alicia Drake assembles in her book The Beautiful Fall.

The story follows the lives and careers of fashion giants Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent as well as their various hangers on (boyfriends, muses, business partners, court jesters, employees) and the changing directions and fortunes of French haute couture. It is a story of amazing talents, vaunting ambitions and the siren lure of escaping the provinces to reinvent yourself and become famous (even for a short time) in Parisienne society. Throw in an industry that allows successful designers to make huge amounts of money, the heady days of disco and gay excess followed by the spectres of heroin, cocaine and AIDS and you have conflict and tragedy a plenty.