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BITTER GREENS: The facts behind the Fiction of the Sun King & his Court

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BITTER GREENS, the winner of the ALA Historical Fiction Prize 2015, is set in the corrupt and glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Here are some fascinating and little known facts about France at that time ...




In recent months, I’ve been visiting a lot of Book Clubs who have read my novel Bitter Greens. Some have cooked me French onion soup; others have poured me fine French champagne. All of them have been full of questions.

Most questions begin ‘Is it true ...?’

Some of the most eagerly asked questions were about the court of the Sun King, and so I thought I would write a little more about this most imperious of kings. It is all really quite fascinating. 


Yes, it is true that the Sun King used to ride out in a coach with his wife and his two favourite mistresses. 

Yes, it is true that he married his bastard children’s governess (although he never acknowledged her as his wife).

Yes, it is true no-one except another royal was permitted to ever sit in his presence (except at the gambling tables, one reason why gambling was so popular with his footsore courtiers). Even his own sons had to remain standing, though his daughters were allowed to squat on little footstools, a privilege that they fought over bitterly.

Yes, it is true that courtiers had to bow or curtsey to any dish being carried to his table.

Yes, it is true that it was considered rude and vulgar to knock at a door. Courtiers grew the nail of their little fingers long so they could scratch at a door.

The etiquette of the court at Versailles was extraordinarily rigid.

Take the King’s daily routine.

He was surrounded at all times by his courtiers and soldiers – three or four thousand was the usual number.

Every morning, a chain of servants and courtiers passed each item of clothing to the king. For example, the Valet of the Wardrobe brought the King's shirt, passed it to the grand chamberlain, who handed it to the Dauphin, who passed it to the King. 

He had one servant whose only job was to present him with his golden goblet of wine. 

The King ate alone, watched by up to 300 people at a time. At one meal he is said to have eaten "four platefuls of different soups, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a plateful of salad, mutton hashed with garlic, two good-sized slices of ham, a dish of pastry and afterwards fruit and sweetmeats."

The King expected all noblemen to live with him at Versailles. Anyone who preferred to live on their own estates soon fell from favour. The King would simply say, ‘I do not know them’, and favours would be passed to those who danced attendance upon him. 
 
Louis XIV was Europe’s longest serving monarch. He reigned for 72 years and 110 days. He out-lived his son, and his two eldest grand-sons (all three were named Louis too). He was succeeded by his five year old great-grand-son, Louis XV. 

And, yes, it is true that vichyssoise was invented because it took so long for the King’s soup to reach him after being passed along a long chain of tasters to ensure it was not poisoned. If the King ate cold soup, everyone must eat cold soup. 


Read more about Bitter Greens here and BUY IT HERE 

BITTER GREENS: some recipes from the feasts described in 'Bitter Greens'

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gourmet Delights from Gascony

My books are filled with feasts. 

From larks’ tongue pies to gypsy stew, the food in my books is always carefully researched and vividly described. Part of my research always involves cooking, as far as possible, the meals I describe. (Larks’ tongue pie was a little difficult to achieve, I must admit).

My novel Bitter Greens has a feast scene set in the Chateau de Cazeneuve in Gascony, in which the baroness of the chateau rather reluctantly puts on a meal for the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his corrupt and decadent court.

Gascony is located east and south of Bordeaux, and is a beautiful, rolling, green landscape of orchards and vineyards and tumbledown chateaux, with the snow-capped Pyrenees floating high on the horizon.   

It is famous for its duck dishes – there are far more ducks than people in Gascony – creating the most delicious foie gras, confit and rillettes. Gascony is also the land of the cassoulet, a hearty peasant dish made with duck, sausage and white beans. Pigs hunt for truffles in the forest, and in spring the chestnut trees are in glorious flower along every road. 


Its other most famous invention is the delicious and heady Armagnac brandy.

I tried my hand at a few of the more famous Gascon dishes, with the most delicious results. Here are my favourites: 

Chestnut soup (Soupe aux Chataignes)
Soupe aux Chataignes is a very popular Gascon soup due to the abundance of sweet chestnuts which are grown here.
The primary problem of cooking with chestnuts is peeling them. The old-fashioned way is to score the chestnuts with a knife then bring to the boil in a large pan and simmer for about 10 mins, drain a few at a time and peel off the inner and outer skins while still hot. 
I find it easier to boil a few days in advance and leave– the skins seem easy to remove then. 
Easier still, buy a can of chestnut pureé from your best local delicatessen (cheating, I know, but infinitely easier). 
Serves 6
1 kg of peeled chestnuts or can of chestnut pureé
whites of 4 leeks, washed and chopped
55g of butter
3 potatoes peeled and chopped
4 carrots peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons of crème fraiche
salt and pepper
thin slices of French bread, brushed with oil and toasted
Melt your butter in a large pan with a lid, add leeks and sweat gently for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and chestnuts, 2 litres of water and salt and pepper, then bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 45 mins.
Pureé with a blender and season to taste, stir in the crème fraiche, add the French bread and serve.


Gascon Cassoulet with Duck Confit and White Beans
I travelled to Gascony with my three children, and spent a week staying near Saint-Émilion. We ate this cassoulet  in a tiny stone cafe overlooking the Romanesque church, on a chilly spring evening. I’ve done my best to recreate the dish at home
Serves 4
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
250g pancetta, diced 
1 medium onion, cut coarsely
1 pound dried flageolets or Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 2 hours and drained
4 fresh thyme sprigs from the garden
2 litre chicken stock
1 large garlic, broken into cloves and peeled 
salt to taste
4 pieces of duck leg confit, trimmed of excess fat
½ kg of French sausage – duck, pork, garlic – whatever you can get - sliced crosswise 
100g bacon, cut into cubes
2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
In a large saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook over moderate heat until the fat has been rendered, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the beans, thyme sprigs and stock and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring and skimming occasionally, until the beans are al dente, about 1 hour.
Add the garlic cloves to the beans and simmer until the garlic and beans are tender, about 15 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Season the beans with salt and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate the saucepan overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Rewarm the beans over moderate heat. Transfer the beans to a large, deep baking dish. Nestle the duck legs, sausage and bacon into the beans. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the cassoulet is bubbling and all of the meats are hot. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes.
In a skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the bread crumbs and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and the parsley over the cassoulet and serve.


Apple and Armagnac Croustade (Croustade à l’Armagnac aux Pommes)
This looks and tastes amazing! It’s a little fiddly to make, but well worth the effort.
around 10 tablespoons butter 
6-8 large apples, peeled, cored and sliced as thin as you can
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup Armagnac (use brandy or Calvados if you can’t find it)
8 sheets filo dough
1/2 cup caster sugar (or more, as needed)
1/3 cup sliced almonds, divided


For this recipe, I like to use a soft-sided silicon cake pan so you can remove the cake more easily. Spray with cooking oil.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the apple slices in a bowl. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and, using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds over the apples and drop the pod on top. When the butter is foamy, add the apples with the vanilla and the sugar and cook, stirring very gently but frequently, until the apples are soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Transfer the apples to a bowl and allow them to cool to room temperature.


Heat oven to 180°C. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter and set it aside. 
Unfold the filo dough on your work surface and cover it with a damp towel.
Remove the top sheet of filo (re-cover the remaining sheets), brush it lightly with butter, and dust it with sugar. Gently and loosely crumple the dough into a circle and lay it into the cake pan. Sprinkle it with about one-fifth of the almonds. Repeat this procedure three more times, until you have four buttered, sugared and almond-sprinkled sheets of filo lightly layered in the cake pan. 
Spoon the apples into the centre of the croustade, leaving a border of a few centimetres depth. Working as you did before, butter, sugar and crumple a sheet of filo, fitting it over the apples. Sprinkle this layer with the remaining almonds, and cover this with another crumpled sheet of buttered and sugared filo. Do a little styling and draping; arrange the filo so it looks good.


Slide the croustade into the oven and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes, watching the top of the tart carefully to make certain it doesn't brown too much. The top should be just lightly browned. Remove the croustade from the oven.


Increase the oven temperature to 200°C. Butter and sugar another sheet of filo, loosely crumple it and place it on the last layer to make a light, airy crown. Bake the croustade for 5 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned, then remove it from the oven again.


Butter the last sheet of filo and, once again, crumple it to make a crown. Place it on top of the croustade and dust it heavily with the remaining powdered sugar. Return the tart to the oven and bake until the top layer caramelizes evenly, about 5 to 10 minutes. Check the progress of the sugar frequently because it can go from brown to burned in a flash.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!




BITTER GREENS: The Facts behind the Fiction of Charlotte-Rose de la Force's life

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

First off the rank is Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the 17th century fairy-tale writer who is best known for having written the best known version of 'Rapunzel'. I drew upon the true events of her dramatic and tempestuous life to write my novel Bitter Greens . 

This blog was first published in September 2014.


My novel BITTER GREENS is, of course, a work of imagination.

However, in weaving a tale of fancy I have used as the immovable pegs the known facts of Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s life, few as they are.

Even the year of her birth is open to argument, ranging from 1650 to 1654. I travelled to Château de Cazeneuve in Gascony and, with the help of her baptismal records, was able to confirm it as the earlier date. I also saw her baby pram and the simple white family chapel where she was baptised.

Chateau de Cazeneuve, in Gascony, France


Of her childhood, we know only that she met King Louis XIV in 1660 at the Château de Cazeneuve, and that two years later her mother was imprisoned against her will in a convent in Bordeaux.

Charlotte-Rose went to court at the age of sixteen, and was maid-of-honour first to the queen and later to the Duchess of Guise.

She had an affair with Moliere’s protégé, the actor Michel Baron, who notoriously left his nightcap in her bedroom one night.

Michel Baron, the 17th century French playright


Later, Charlotte-Rose was engaged to the Marquis de Nesle, the betrothal ending in scandal after a pouch she had given him was found to have toads’ feet and spells in it. As a result, Mme de la Force “came to the attention” of the King during the infamous Affair of the Poisons.

Her love affair with the much younger Charles de Briou caused more scandal, particularly after she dressed up as a dancing bear to gain access to him. They wed, but their marriage was annulled in the courts.

In 1697, she was banished to the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie after writing some satirical Christmas verses and under suspicion of having an affair with the Dauphin.

 

The Dauphin


She wrote ‘Persinette’ and various other fairy tales while imprisoned there, publishing them anonymously the following year.

 The mystery of how Charlotte-Rose de la Force came to know of Giambattista Basile’s fairytale ‘Petrosinella’ may have been solved in 2007 by the fairytale scholar Professor Susanna Magnanini. She conjectures, in ‘Postulated Routes from Naples to Paris: The Printer Antonio Bulifon and Giambattista Basile’s Fairy Tales in Seventeenth Century France’, that a copy of his fairytale collection may have been brought to Paris around the time of the explosion of literary fairytales by French writers Charles Perrault, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier and others. If so, these French storytellers would have had to have read Basile in his original Neapolitan dialect, which is strikingly different to both Latin and Italian. 

The story ‘La Puissance d’Amour’, told by Charlotte-Rose in the novel on the night she first meets Charles de Briou, is a paraphrasing of one of her actual fairytales, which has never before been translated into English.

Similarly, ‘Bearskin’, the story about a princes turned into a she-bear, is one of Henriette-Julie d’Murat’s most famous fairytales, and she was indeed a cousin of Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

I first heard about Charlotte-Rose de la Force in an essay by Terri Windling, 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair', in Endicott Stduio's Spring 2006 Journal of Mythic Arts. This was the first seed that led me on my journey to discovering the life of this extraordinary writer.

My primary source for the facts of Charlotte-Rose's life come from "Mademoiselle de la Force:  auteur mèconnu du XVIIͨ siècle", by the French academic Michel Souloumiac, which I had translated into English, again for the first time. My secondary source was "Letters from Liselotte: the collected letters of Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine and Duchess of Orléans, 'Madame', 1652-1722", in which she recorded the gossip of the Sun King's court. Charlotte-Rose is mentioned a number of times.


Researching and writing the life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force was like assembling and putting together a gigantic jigsaw - it required patience, dedication and persistence. I feel, however, that I have discovered one of the most fascinating women ever forgotten by history.

Read more about BITTER GREENS or BUY IT HERE!

BOOK REVIEW: The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece - Carola Hicks

Thursday, December 08, 2016

BLURB:

One of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. 


For all its fame, its origins and story are complex and somewhat cloudy. Though many assume it was commissioned by Bishop Odo—William’s ruthless half-brother—it may also have been financed by Harold’s dynamic sister Edith, who was juggling for a place in the new court. 


In this intriguing study, medieval art historian Carola Hicks investigates the miracle of the tapestry’s making—including the unique stitches, dyes, and strange details in the margins—as well as its complicated past. For centuries it lay ignored in Bayeux cathedral until its discovery in the 18th century. It quickly became a symbol of power: townsfolk saved it during the French Revolution, Napoleon displayed it to promote his own conquest, and the Nazis strove to make it their own. 


Packed with thrilling stories, this history shows how every great work of art has a life of its own. 


MY THOUGHTS:

I have always been interested in the Bayeux tapestry and made the trip to see it in its little French stone village this year. 


It really is a fascinating artefact, the world’s longest piece of embroidery and quite possibly the first real comic strip. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, in a series of small scenes sewn with extraordinary vigour and humour. 


I bought Carola Hicks’s book in Bayeux, and read it over the next few nights. It begins with the story of how the embroidery came about, and then the extraordinary story of its survival over the next three thousand years. It survived the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, years of being kept in a damp church cellar, and the Nazis who tried to steal it. A really lively and beguiling story about an utterly unique piece of art. 


Love books set in France? I have a list of my favourites here


Do you love non-fiction books that illuminate history for you? Any suggestions for me? Please leave a comment for me.

SPOTLIGHT: A Brief History of Fairy Tales

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A BRIEF HISTORY OF FAIRY TALES

For your enjoyment ...  a brief history of fairy tales!



Myth, Legend & Fairy Tale

The differences between myth, legend, fairy tale & fable can be can simply described as:

Myths: narratives about immortal or supernatural protagonists
Legends: narratives about extraordinary protagonists
Fairy Tales: narratives about ordinary protagonists
Fables: narratives with animal protagonists which convey a moral


History of Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales have their roots in ancient oral storytelling traditions.
 
All cultures have their own myths & legends. Many fairy tales wear ‘the easy doublet’ of myth.
 
A.D. 100-200, Ancient Greece – “Cupid and Psyche” written by Apuleius 

A.D. 850-860, China - The first known version of “Cinderella” is written


C. 1300 – Troubadours and travelling storytellers spread tales throughout medieval Europe 

C. 1500 - One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is first recorded 

1550 & 1553, Italy - Gianfrancesco Straparola publishes The Pleasant Nights - he has been called the 'grandfather of fairy tales'

1600s, Italy - Giambattista Basile writes The Tale of Tales – published posthumously in 1634. This contains 'Petrosinella', the earliest known version of 'Rapunzel' 



1690-1710  - The French Salons invented and played with fairy tales - Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy invented the term 'conte de fées'

1697 France - Charles Perrault's Mother Goose Tales is published in Paris 

1697 – Charlotte-Rose de la Force publishes her collection which includes the tale we now know of as “Rapunzel”

1740 France - Gabrielle de Villeneuve writes a 362 page version of “Beauty and the Beast”

 1756 France – Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont publishes much shorter version of “Beauty and the Beast” - first tale written specifically for children.



1812 Germany - Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm publish Vol 1 of Childhood and Household Tales

1823 Great Britain - Edgar Taylor publishes the first English translation of the Grimms' tales in German Popular Stories. The book is illustrated by George Cruikshank

1825 Germany – Grimms’ first edition for children - known as The Small Edition - illustrated by Ludwig Grimm

1835 Denmark - Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children

1889 England - Andrew Lang publishes The Blue Fairy Book -  the first multicultural fairy tale collection 


1890 Russia - Tchaikovsky's “The Sleeping Beauty” premieres in St Petersburg 

1893 Great Britain - Marian Roalfe Cox publishes her book, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O' Rushes’- the first fairy tale scholarship



1910 Finland - Antti Aarne publishes ‘The Types of the Folktale’. Later, Stith Thompson translates and expands it into English in 1961


1937 United States - Walt Disney's first feature length animated film is released, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs



Now – fairy tales have never been hotter! They dominate our TV and movie screens, and influence advertising, music, and fashion. Plus of course ... fairy tale retellings ...



Fairy Tale Tropes
Pure distillation of plot

Setting is anywhere and nowhere

Traditional sentences & archaic language: Once upon a time ... Long long ago … Once, twice, thrice …. 
‘Abstract style’  - dark forest, brave youth, golden bird

Fairy tale numbers and patterns: the numbers 3 & 7 & 13 i.e. the third sister, the thirteenth fairy

Magic & metamorphosis – talking mirror, prince into frog, girl into bear

Binary oppositions i.e. good & evil, rich & poor, beautiful & ugly, strong & weak

Memorable language i.e. rhythm, rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia 

Motifs & metaphors: ‘the language of the night’

Structure – a series of trials & tribulations (often three)

The Fairy Tale ‘happy ending’ .. 

(Though not all fairy tales end happily. Many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are very sad, for example) 



FURTHER READING




INTERVIEW: Miranda Richmond Mouillot, author of A Fifty Year's Silence

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Interview with Miranda Richmond Mouillot (first published in Good Reading magazine)



In 1936, two young Jewish students met in a café in Strasbourg. 

In 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, the young man Armand walked three hundred kilometres to find Anna, the beautiful young Romanian he had met that day, who was hiding out in the French Pyrenees. Two years later, they managed to escape France by climbing the Alps in a snowstorm. In Switzerland, as war refugees, they were married.

In 1945, Anna gave birth to a beautiful little girl and Armand worked as a translator at the Nuremberg Trials, giving voice for the first time to the full horrors of the Nazi regime. 

In 1948, the couple bought a tumbledown stone house in a tiny village in the south of France.

In 1953, Anna fled their home with her two children and just a few souvenirs of their life together. She and Armand never spoke again. 

In 2015, Miranda Richmond Mouillot - Armand’s and Anna’s only granddaughter  - published an extraordinary memoir entitled A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War & A Ruined House in France. Although it tells the story of Armand and Anna’s tumultuous love affair and its tragic end, Miranda’s book is as much a meditation on memory, storytelling, and the dark shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over the descendants of those who survived. It is also the story of how the author fell in love with France, and with the Frenchman who would become her husband. 





Questions: 
Miranda, you wrote in your Author’s Note that you “sought to maintain the vertiginous sense of poetry that their silence provoked in my life.” Could you please expand on this idea? 

Fairy tales and poems are a powerful part of the human experience because they are like little symbolic capsules for carrying big ideas and emotions. They help us to remember and pass on what would otherwise be too vast and complex for us handle. We connect to those little capsules long before we understand them fully because we sense all the meaning packed into them. And I sensed before I could give words to it that grandparents’ silence was like that, a capsule tightly packed with a lifetime of experiences, of love and loss and hope and heartbreak. It was so palpable – and they themselves were such extraordinary people – that it made me alive to that symbolic potential in all things. And when you walk around sensing that symbolic potential in all things, it’s a bit dizzying: you are keenly aware that everything around you contains an infinity of stories. In A Fifty-Year Silence I sought to make the reader aware of that world of infinite memory, not only in my own family, but everywhere.  




Why do you think your grandparents’ tragic love story took such a hold of your imagination? 

For two reasons: first, I think that it was imprinted in me. There’s research showing that the methyl group that gets attached to your genes in certain traumatic situations causes epigenetic changes that are actually passed on from one generation to the next. I literally felt it in my bones. Second, to say my grandparents fascinated me would be an understatement: there was simply no one like them on earth. And they were so beautiful, both as I knew them and in the few pictures we had from when they were young. They were larger than life, more brilliant, difficult, and original than anyone I knew. I wanted to follow them into their originality and find out more. 


Your grandmother had a knack for finding four –leaf clovers, told fortunes with playing cards, and ‘viewed death as an interesting dance step she’d eventually get around to learning.’ She sounds so wonderful! Can you tell me more about her? 

She was wonderful! A brilliant psychiatrist, a staggeringly well-read woman, equally at home in Samarkand and at the supermarket and would strike up a conversation with anyone she met, anywhere she went. She made every part of life into an adventure, loved postmodernist literature, and made catastrophically bad cakes from whatever she had lying around in the refrigerator – squishy kiwis, grated carrots, old raspberry jam. And she was generous – she wasn’t a wealthy woman, but she supported her artist friends, gave to charity, and kept up with old patients long after they’d left treatment. 


Your grandfather cooked elaborate feasts, sent you poetry to read, and had a library of books on the Holocaust. He sounds like such an intelligent and deep-thinking man. Can you please tell us more? 

My grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War, and then as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trial just after, left his confidence in humanity shaken to the core. I don’t think he ever fully trusted another human being again. But he wanted to – he wanted to desperately. And that desperate want drove him on a lifelong intellectual quest for the best and most hopeful of parts of human existence, which he located in two places: in the human capacity to create beauty, and in the human potential for kindness to others. That intersected for him in literature, so he read all the time. (After he retired, when he wasn’t reading, he was volunteering for Amnesty International, seeking justice for writers.) No matter how difficult and tyrannical he was – and he was, he sent back my letters with corrections written on them, wouldn’t let me wear my hair down in his company, and nearly cut off our relationship because I disagreed with him on the Shakespeare authorship question – he threw me the lifeline of literature. 


As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, you describe your childhood as being ‘bafflingly full of terror.’ You kept your shoes by the front door so you could grab them if you had to flee in the night, and always looked out for possible places to hide. I find this evidence of the long shadow cast by the Holocaust deeply moving. Can you tell us some of the stories that engendered this terror in you? 

A lot of those stories are in the book, so I won’t give them away, but I believe the thread connecting them is uprootedness, the possibility of being taken away from your life at any moment, or having to leave it. Of everything you’ve created and grown accustomed to shattered in an instant. One thing that stands out to me is footsteps in the night. My grandparents were nearly arrested many times, but the first time, as far as I can tell, they were lying in the dark morning in the south of France and heard boots on the stairs. There was a pounding at the door, and two French milice officers demanded they rise – to go interpret for them as they arrested my grandparents’ upstairs neighbours, who had grown to be very dear friends. My grandparents had to stand and not only watch, but enunciate the brutal arrest of two people they had grown to love, and were only saved from the same fate by one of the officers, for whom my grandmother had (through a chance encounter) knitted a pair of wool gloves. 


Tell us about the first time you saw your grandparents’ house in the south of France.

I was fifteen, and in boarding school in Geneva, and my grandfather drove me down there one Sunday, with absolutely no explanation as to where we were going or why. The house is in a little medieval hamlet, a tiny fortified village with just two streets. A lazy, half-dry river runs by it and it is dominated by a gigantic rock, some six stories high, with the ruins of a fort on its flat top. When my grandfather propelled me down one of the hamlet’s two narrow streets and showed me the house, it was as if he’d thrown a brick into the still, unruffled pond of my teenage imagination: in an instant, I knew I had to live there. 


You had trouble establishing the truth of your grandparents’ love affair and subsequent marriage. Even the date of their wedding was hard to pin down. Explain some of the challenges you had to overcome in your search for your grandparents’ story.

The main challenge was them! No matter how many times I interviewed them, and how many questions I asked, it was as if they’d lived through the war in parallel, matching universes. They would tell stories about the same times, and the same places, with absolutely no mention of one another. And when I did get them talking about the other, it was like finally grabbing the bar of soap you’ve lost in the bathtub: they’d slip irretrievably off onto another subject before I knew it. Talking to them was also challenging because I loved them so dearly, and knew what suffering they were carrying in them, and how hard it was to for them to talk about. 


You moved to the south of France to life in your grandparents’ long abandoned house. Can you explain some of the emotions behind that choice, and some of the consequences?

I moved there chasing an ideal, in many ways: like many young people starting out to study history, I believed there was a single truth to uncover, and that the house would lead me to it. I also, as many children of refugees and immigrants do, grew up with a sense that I had no real home, and I was chasing the dream of finally finding my home, which I thought was a physical place. Moving there showed me how much more complex life really is – not only was there no clear-cut connection between the house and my grandparents’ love affair (though the complex connection I discovered in its place is just as strong), there was no way I could make this house my home! It wasn’t mine, for one thing, and for another it was nearly uninhabitable. Half its windows had been shattered, one of the doors had rotted nearly away, it was freezing cold and infested with spiders and scorpions. But I moved in anyway (I had no real choice) and learned more about my grandparents’ experiences with hardship than I ever would have in a cushier place. And of course the best consequence of all was meeting my husband – who is my true home. 


One aspect of the book which I found utterly heart-wrenching was the scenes in which you explore your grandfather’s work as a translator at the famous Nazi trials at Nuremberg. On one occasion, he broke down while translating Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command. What kind of scars did this experience leave on your grandfather?

Interpreting is usually thought of as highly intellectual work; certainly it requires a great deal of knowledge and quick thinking. But it is also intensely physical: the voices of the people you are interpreting enter your body through your ears, they vibrate into you, travel through your brain, and then you perform the work of transforming it into another language, and vibrate it back out into the world with your vocal cords. My grandfather once said to a journalist that he felt as if he had been a black box into which all the Trial disappeared, which he carried with him without being able to see inside it – and which I know tortured him and weighed on his soul for the rest of his life. 




What happened to your grandparents’ ruined stone house in the south of France?

It’s still there, still in the family, and I still hope to one day fix it up and live there. But who knows what life will bring? 

REVIEW: PICNIC IN PROVENCE by Elizabeth Bard

Monday, December 14, 2015





THE BLURB

The bestselling author of Lunch in Paris takes us on another delicious journey, this time to the heart of Provence. 


Ten years ago, New Yorker Elizabeth Bard followed a handsome Frenchman up a spiral staircase to a love nest in the heart of Paris. Now, with a baby on the way and the world's flakiest croissant around the corner, Elizabeth is sure she's found her "forever place." But life has other plans. 


On a last romantic jaunt before the baby arrives, the couple take a trip to the tiny Provencal village of Céreste. A chance encounter leads them to the wartime home of a famous poet, a tale of a buried manuscript and a garden full of heirloom roses. Under the spell of the house and its unique history, in less time than it takes to flip a crepe, Elizabeth and Gwendal decide to move-lock, stock and Le Creuset-to the French countryside.


When the couple and their newborn son arrive in Provence, they discover a land of blue skies, lavender fields and peaches that taste like sunshine. Seduced by the local ingredients, they begin a new adventure as culinary entrepreneurs, starting their own artisanal ice cream shop and experimenting with flavors like saffron, sheep's milk yogurt and fruity olive oil. 


Filled with enticing recipes for stuffed zucchini flowers, fig tart and honey & thyme ice cream, Picnic in Provence is the story of everything that happens after the happily ever after: an American learning the tricks of French motherhood, a family finding a new professional passion, and a cook's initiation into classic Provencal cuisine. With wit, humor and scoop of wild strawberry sorbet, Bard reminds us that life-in and out of the kitchen-is a rendez-vous with the unexpected.





WHAT I THOUGHT:

Picnic In Provence is a memoir of a Jewish American princess who marries a Frenchman, and moves to Provence to make honey & thyme ice-cream, among other wonderful dishes. Charming , romantic and poignant, this book is full of delicious-sounding recipes and lots of wry observations on the cultural differences between the two countries (fast food, wearing sweatpants in public, and the like). It made me want to move to Provence and cook stuffed zucchini flowers and fig tarts drizzled with lavender honey, always the sign of a good food memoir. I’ve since cooked quite a few of the recipes – délicieux!

Alors , qu'avez-vous pensé ?




SPOTLIGHT: Camille Claudel, sculptor and RODIN'S LOVER

Friday, October 16, 2015

Heather Webb is the author of RODIN'S LOVER, a heart-wrenching biographical novel about the French sculptress Camille Claudel. On the blog today, Heather writes about the story behind her novel ...  




For the Love of Art

By Heather Webb

Being a female artist in Belle Époque France was a challenge to say the least, yet young sculptor Camille Claudel would carve out a name for herself—at all cost. Attending proper art school with nude models was frowned upon, and in most cases forbidden, as was wearing trousers to do the intense lifting, scrubbing, and chiseling that came with being a sculptor. To make matters worse, women seldom won the coveted positions at the Champs-Elysée Salon. On the rare occasion a female artist was nominated for her work, she garnered lesser awards, leaving the prestigious Salon prizes for their male counterparts—allegedly the most creative and intelligent of the sexes. 

Yet Camille managed all of these feats. Not only did she work with live, nude models, but she received commissions for her work, as well as a prominent award for her sculpture Sakuntala; a depiction of an Indian woman resting her head atop her lover’s, who pleaded for her forgiveness. Still, Camille’s sensual work was deemed indecent by many, and her Sakuntala  (among other pieces) was not accepted everywhere. 

On one occasion in 1895, Camille sold an Alexander Harrison painting she owned to a museum in Châteauroux to support herself—buying stone, clay, and tools for sculpting, never mind rent for her atelier cost a small fortune, and she, among other artists struggled to make ends meet. Camille was so relieved by the museum’s purchase that she donated a copy of Sakuntala to the museum as a thank you. Delighted, the art committee featured her work in the main hall. 

Camille visited the museum to view how they displayed her piece, and received a warm welcome, prompting the committee to submit an article praising her work in the town newspaper. Once again, Camille met strife. Several conservative bourgeois from the town were shocked—as other critics in Paris had been—by the sensual nature of her work. They pushed back against her and the art committee, ridiculing her skills and making both sexual jokes about the Hindu legend she had depicted, as well as mocking the committee for their choice in showing it. One article even suggested hiding the sculpture behind a curtain.

Luckily for Camille, she had gained the support of a few well-known critics who came to her defense. Gustave Geoffroy said, “Those who saw [Sakuntala] retain in their memory…the anatomical science and the passionate expression of these two figures.” Rodin, Camille’s collaborator, teacher, and lover, offered his unfailing support of her as well.

In my novel RODIN’S LOVER, I explore the politics of art, the tumultuous affair between the famed Auguste Rodin and his volatile, yet brilliant student Camille Claudel, and the fine lines between obsession and madness. 

For those interested in seeing some of Camille’s works, a few of my favorites are: The Waltz, The Wave, Maturity, The Gossips, and Clotho. I have photos on my website under FOR FUN, as well as a Pinterest board packed with photos of her work as well as Rodin’s. For more information, check out my website www.HeatherWebb.net.

Heather Webb is the author of historical novels BECOMING JOSEPHINE, RODIN’S LOVER (Jan 27, 2015), and A FALL OF POPPIES: An Anthology of Armistice Day to be released from HarperCollins in 2016. In addition, she is a freelance editor and contributor to award-winning writing sites WriterUnboxed.com and RomanceUniversity.org. Heather is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

INTERVEW: Heather Webb, author of RODIN'S LOVER

Thursday, October 15, 2015




Heather Webb is the author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE, which tells the story of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine Bonaparte, against a background of the French Revolution; and RODIN’S LOVER, which chronicles the passionate and tragic story of Camille Claudel, sculptor, collaborator, and lover to Auguste Rodin. 

Please welcome her to the blog!

What was the first flash of inspiration for RODIN'S LOVER?

I fell in love with Camille while in my French film class in college. The film called Camille Claudel, was multiple award-winning in Europe and the U.S. with stars Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu playing the roles of Camille and Rodin. Their tragic love story gripped me and I swooned at the beauty they created both together and separately. After the film, I became rather obsessed with sculpture in general. Many years later, I had not forgotten Camille, and knew I wanted to delve more into her life. When I kept seeing renditions of Rodin's "The Thinker" all over the place the month I was choosing a new topic, I knew it was a sign. (I'm one of those! Signs are important to me.) 



What do you love most in the world?
Beyond my children and family, I'd say a great meal while I'm on the road traveling. I love, love, love to travel and I'm a foodie so there we have a perfect marriage.


What do you fear most in the world?
Again, beyond something horrible with loved ones, I would say war coming to U.S. soil. Oh, and cockroaches. Those bugs are crunchy and NASTY. They carry over a hundred diseases and I'm convinced they'll be around long after the apocalypse. 



What are your 5 favourite childhood books?

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene

 

What are your 5 favourite books read as an adult?

This is so difficult! It changes based on the phase in my life and my mood, but here are a few favorites I still think about:

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Longbourn by Jo Baker

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Mystic River by Denis Lehane



What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Probably the variety. I read lots of young adult, historicals, and literary, but I also read the occasional romance, mystery, or science fiction.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

How would you describe perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness is sitting on a beach in the sun, listening to the waves and the gulls, sipping a glass of wine. Knowing everyone you love is safe, knowing that life is short and precious and being content with all you have. Being free from fear of what comes next in my career, life, love...

What are your dreams for the future?

Like many writers, I'd love to hit one of the big lists or win some literary prize, but mostly, my dreams involve continuing to write good stories that capture the public imagination and heart. I dream about my kids growing up happy and having families of their own. And lots more adventure! 

REVIEW: Children of War by Martin Walker

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Children of War (Bruno, Chief of Police #7)

by Martin Walker

THE BLURB

Bruno, chef de police in the French town of St Denis, is already busy with a case when the body of an undercover French Muslim cop is found in the woods, a man who called Bruno for help only hours before.

But Bruno’s sometime boss and rival, the Brigadier, doesn’t see this investigation as a priority – there are bigger issues at stake.

Bruno has other ideas.

Meanwhile, a Muslim youth named Sami turns up at a French army base in Afghanistan hoping to get home to St Denis. One of Bruno’s old army comrades helps to smuggle Sami back to France, but the FBI aren’t far behind. Then an American woman appears in St Denis with a warrant for Sami’s extradition.

Bruno must unravel these multiple mysteries, amidst pressure from his bosses, and find his own way to protect his town and its people.

MY THOUGHTS:

I’ve really been enjoying this series of contemporary murder mysteries set in the Dordogne in the south-west of France. 

The first few books were gentle, warm and character-driven with lots of descriptions of Bruno cooking delicious meals and looking for truffles in the forest with his dog. 

The later books have become more like hard-edged thrillers, with a bit of sex and a lot of political intrigue thrown in. I am still enjoying them, but not as much. Bruno was such a lovable character to begin with, but now he’s bed-hopping a little too much for my taste. I’d like less torture and more romance and feasting. 

Ah, well! Still a very enjoyable read.



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