Book Review : Suite Française

Yet another one of my delightful finds at the now-famous books by the kilo sale from December 2012, “Suite Française” is an excellent addition to my growing collection of books based on the Second World War. A veritable masterpiece, though written in 1941 during and after the siege of Paris, when the author herself was arrested and transported to Auschwitz, the book was only discovered sixty five years later, making the book even more remarkable. (Read more about her life and how the book came into being here.)

Suite Française – Irène Némirovsky

Irène Némirovsky’s tour de force comes in two parts, the fiction composed itself of two novellas, “Storm in June” and “Dolce” and a second factual section containing her notes during the writing of the book.

Set in the year France fell to the Nazis, “Storm in June” starts with the great exodus of the Parisians towards the South just before the Naris invaded the French capital and traces the struggles of not one, but several characters as they flee towards the countryside, surrounded by chaos, overcrowded trains and roads, a shortage of supplies and the constant dread of being bombed by the enemies. The crisis treats everyone equally: the Pericands, a haut-bourgeois family, Gabriel Corte, a rich and extremely egoistic writer, Maurice and Jean Michaud, a middle-aged couple that works in a bank, Monsieur Courbin, the Directeur of the Bank where the Michaud’s worked, Arlette, his mistress, Charles Langelot, a rich collector of porcelain objets d’art and antiques, and several other people from all walks of life are all embroiled in a desperate struggle to survive. It was a survival of the fittest and this section ends as the French surrender, leaving us with the survivors who straggle back to their city.

“Dolce” the second is based far from the tumultuous capital, in the French countryside and follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small village in the by then occupied France. The villagers, unprepared for French defeat, are forced to accept and welcome the Germans in their village. While they sway between the stereotype of the bestial “boche” (French slang for “blockhead” and a reference to big heads of the Germans) and the smiling, polite foreigners who were often not much older than their own boys, Lucile Angelier whose philandering husband Gaston has been taken as prisoner of war falls in love with Bruno von Falk, a German officer.

Irène Némirovsky balances facts and fiction very deftly in this amazing narrative that celebrates human courage in the face of conflict, leaving us with a very deep and interesting insight into human psychology and more specifically French society and manners at that time.

Her notes reveal that she had planned to create a chef d’oeuvre with three more sections, “Captivity,” “Battles” and “Peace.” Though “incomplete”, Suite Française is nevertheless an extremely poignant and incisive narrative that must be read.

Related reading:
The NY Times review by Paul Gray
The Guardian Review by Helen Dunmore

The Birth of a Book: The Honey Hunter

A serendipitous collaboration is how Anita Roy of Zubaan Publications described “The Honey Hunters,” written by Karthika Nair and illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet. Developed initially for DESH, a dance show, The Honey Hunters was born out of a discussion about the age-old diasporic problem of the loss of a language. “None of my friends speak Bengali, nobody in my class speaks Bengali and so it can’t be a real language.”

The first thing that struck me about the book was not its title, but the cover with the tiger and his bright fluorescent pink tongue. I have to admit that I attended the meeting with the author, not so much to learn about the book, but more for its vivid illustrations. I have never before seen a book with such bright, intense and rich illustrations.


Fortunately for me, the event was organised primarily for design students, so the focus was on the process of illustration, the choice of colours and motifs. It was truly fascinating to see how much research and work goes into the illustration of a book. Since Joëlle is French and has no contact with the culture in the Indian sub-continent, she spent months studying and doing research on traditional motifs, architecture and colours of Bangladesh, where the story is based. The end result is the most amazing set of illustrations depicting the richness of the topography, the flora and fauna, the people and the myths of the region.

Karthika Nair and Anita Roy hold up the book and the first drafts of the illustrations during the presentation.
Karthika Nair and Anita Roy hold up the book and the first drafts of the illustrations during the presentation.
Comparing the book and the illustrations that Joëlle  created.
Comparing the book and the illustrations that Joëlle created.

My favourite is the double page featuring the six seasons: Seet (winter), Bashonto (spring), Grishma (summer), Borsa (monsoon), Sarat (autumn) and Hemanto (another autumn).

The story itself is beautiful narrative about a boy who loves honey and ventures into the forbidden Sunderbans to get it, rekindling an ancient conflict between Bonbibi, the Guardian Deity of the Sundarban and Dakkhin Rai, the demonic tiger. I moved from page to page, devouring the images and narrative hungrily, captivated by the story spun by Karthika. An open ended narrative in the beginning, Karthika created the denouement specially for the book. Though the ending is rather sudden and abrupt, I don’t think there could be a better lesson for children, for whom the book has been published in any case.

I would really love to get my hands on the French version and see how Dominique Vitalyos has translated this magical tale. But for now, I shall content myself with this equally captivating trailer released by Hélium Editions.

Book Review : Diary of an Ordinary Woman

DiaryOfAnOrdinaryWomanFlitting desultorily looking for an interesting book to pick up at the second edition of “buy books by the kilo” sale, I chanced upon Margaret Forster’s “Diary of an Ordinary Woman” just as I was about to give up hope of getting anything worthwhile. A good six months later, forced to stay in bed for what seemed like an unbelievably long 72 hours, wiped out of action by a virus, having already devoured a lighter read from the second heist, I pulled the book from my bookshelf. I read through more than half the book on the first night itself and had to force myself to put it aside and sleep.

Margaret Forster, best known for Elizabeth Barret Browning : a biography and Daphne du Maurier : The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, presents us a novel in the guise of an edited diary of an ordinary woman, whose life spans the entire twentieth century. Born in 1901, Millicent King starts writing a personal diary on 26 November 1914, when she is just 13 years, recording the dramas of her life till the age of 94.

Starting on the eve of the first World War, the diary entries reveal the thoughts of an intelligent and extremely self-willed adolescent girl, her first crush, her preoccupations and her complaints against life, as she is forced to start dealing with the horrible realities of life. The family, touched by war several times during the narrative goes through a period of financial crisis, but survives to see some good times, as does Millicent who grows into a smart, independent career woman in the 1920s and 1930s. As a young adult Millicent’s professional experiences range from teaching in a school to being a governess for young girls, of which she befriends the latter for life. As she strikes out more and more on her own, refusing to “settle down” like society expected her, seeking adventure in her love life, I sunk deeper into the narrative, marveling at how so many of the dilemmas she faced back then are those of so many women even today.

1 August 1930

“I really do not know if I am attracted to Percy in that way or not. I like him. We get on well….I would like to feel within me when Percy touches me what I feel for Frank – oh that is clumsy and badly put but I know what I mean. But I don’t like Frank as much as I like Percy and I am not nearly as comfortable with him.”

She refuses to marry both Frank and Percy, much to my surprise. Yearning for something meaningful, she finally settles down when she moves from her teaching career to social work and that’s where she meets Robert and falls in love. But Robert is a married man and she is forced to keep the relationship a secret. And then war is declared.

3 September 1939

“Oh God, it has happened, war declared and no hope any more, and yet I still cannot believe it. Why has it happened again, so soon after all that nightmare which went before? If only women were in charge, such a disaster would never have been allowed.”

Alone once Robert leaves to fight for England, Millicent joins the WVA (today the Royal Voluntary Service) and drives ambulances through the bombed streets of London. As the war rages on, Millicent loses most of her siblings, but the biggest blow comes when her sister Tilda and her husband are killed in a blitz bombing, forcing her into the role of a guardian and mother. Her life turned upside down, the diary’s tone changes…

Even though the book is a fictional account and Millicent never lived, the social and political background are meticulously accurate, from the accounts of the two wars to the discussions of women’s right to vote and the feminist movement. The narrative has everything one would expect from a personal diary – accounts of personal drama, with periods of apathy and petulance, signs of petty prejudices and selfish rants completing the diary writer’s personality.

Margaret Forster made me forget that this was but a novel, as I shed tears over Millicent’s losses and smiled at her victories. Though labeled “an ordinary woman” Millicent’s story is far from ordinary.

A must read.

Recently published book reviews


Book Review : Monet’s Cookery Notebooks

Monet's Cookery NotebooksLike most people, I love the Impressionists and I started my lessons in Art with Claude Monet’s beautiful works. Sue Roe’s “The Private Lives of the Impressionists” waits patiently on my bedside table to be finished, giving way to a more recent purchase, “Monet’s Cookery Notebooks.”

Acquired at the first edition of the books by the kilo sale, this coffee table book by Claire Joyes is a perfect addition to my library and proved to be a wonderful companion on a lazy Sunday afternoon. My only regret? I wish I had the original book in French for the English Translation by Josephine Bacon of Pholiota Translations, London, is quite strange at times. I had to translate it back into French in order to understand some of the sentences.

Claire Joyes, along with her husband Jean-Marie Toulgouat (guardian of Monet’s legacy and grandson of Theodore Butler who married one of Monet’s stepdaughter) has provided a delightfully detailed picture of Monet’s life in Giverny with a focus on the kitchen and the culinary habits of the Monet family.

Monet, a moody and normally reserved person who preferred spending most of his day painting “en plein air,” entertained a lot and many artists and literary figures are known to have paid visit to his lovely home in Giverny.  Replete with delightful details about life in Giverny with his first wife Camille Doncieux (whom we know from “Poppy Field in Argenteuil”) and his companion after her death, Alice Hoschedé, the book is a perfect introduction to Monet’s personal life. A stickler of routine, Monet hated it when people arrived late and went to great lengths to ensure that his guests were picked up, lest they got late. Marguerite, the cook, reveals that one day she thought he would sit down at table without his guests, so annoyed was he at having his routine disrupted!

Florimond's Kitchen Garden - an entire chapter dedicated to the vegetable garden!
An entire chapter dedicated to the vegetable garden!

One reads about his famous flower gardens as well as the kitchen garden, a work of art in itself. “In his (Monet’s) mind, the vegetable garden was inseparable from the other things that…were a part of the good life – his flower garden, the farmyards, a well-aged wine bottled by Sylvain, a well-cut suit, Marguerite’s excellent cooking and a good read in the studio drawing room.” 

“Everything that was banned from the flower-garden was strongly advocated in the kitchen-garden. There was a strict geometrical plan and paths were laid out in straight lines, to enable the work to be carried out logically, rapidly and with minimum effort.”

The Monet family only ate the freshest of ingredients and even the herbs came from their own garden, ensuring that their food was always perfectly seasoned.

Christmas at Giverny
Christmas at Giverny.

Every page is filled with discoveries about life in Giverny, Monet’s routine, his preferences, the way the house was run by Alice, the menus for daily meals, picnics and for special meals such as Christmas when the table was resplendently laid out with sweets, cakes and other gastronomic delights all accompanied by large quantities of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

The book is beautifully packaged with Jean-Bernard Naudin’s beautiful photographic recreations of the meals at Giverny and over 150 recipes from Monet’s cookery notebooks, which include Cezanne’s bouillabaisse and the original Tarte Tatin which he got from none other than the Tatin sisters – Stéphanie and Caroline. I can’t wait to try out the recipes – a visit to the market seems to be coming up ! 🙂

Recently published book reviews :

Book Review : Cobwebs and Cream Teas

The title conjured images of a rambling house and high teas with pots and pots of English tea and cream scones, stuff that filled the novels of my childhood…so when I saw the book thrust between hundreds of others at the unique “buy books by the kilo” sale I attended last year, I promptly put it in my already overloaded basket.

Image courtesy Lilac Farm, The Burtle Teapot.
Cornish Cream Tea – don’t miss the teacups ! (Image courtesy Lilac Farm, The Burtle Teapot.)

Though I started it during my Christmas holidays, I didn’t get around to seriously reading it until last week, when all I wanted to do when I got home was curl up in bed with a cup of tea and read. I spent a delightful evening turning the pages of this funny little book, at the end of which, I had but one thought running through my head. “I have to go to England and visit Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk.”

FelBrigg Hall in all its splendour.(Image courtesy The Green Pavilion)
FelBrigg Hall in all its splendour.
(Image courtesy The Green Pavilion)

Cobwebs and Cream Teas follows Mary Mackie (author of historical fiction) and her husband during the first year in this magnificent National Trust House. Life for Mary and her husband Chris changed completely after he took on the mantle of Houseman at Felbrigg Hall. Living in an apartment which was part of national heritage, open almost throughout the year to visitors, must have been quite an experience and Mary Mackie’s account does complete justice to it. She has written the book like a personal diary, replete with interesting anecdotes in a witty and humorous style.

My copy of Cobwebs and Cream Teas.
My copy of “Cobwebs and Cream Teas.”

Though her language is sometimes rather quaint (and strange), I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and at several points I was tempted to set the book aside and look up Google to see if the pictures in my head matched reality. I did finally give into temptation and wasn’t disappointed.

The Great Hall at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.(Image courtesy National Trust House)
The Great Hall at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.
(Image courtesy National Trust House)

I devoured the accounts of how the staff of Felbrigg Hall meticulously cleaned each tiny object in the many rooms of the large house, of how she found herself playing the roles of assistant drain-cleaner, doorbell answerer, ticket seller and even a “not-quite-Constance-Spry” flower arranger ! I loved the idea of the “Living History” project and wondered why we don’t have similar initiatives in India. I was entranced by the descriptions of the gorgeous gardens, of the trees overladen with fruits, of autumn walks in the forests surrounding the Estate and of clear starry skies. The many passages about the discoveries, refurbishing and renovation work, school tours, quirks of the many visitors were filled with the warm humour that made this book such a wonderful read. The descriptions of the numerous concert evenings and special candlelight dinners organised for the members of the Trust were magical, despite the fact that they were accompanied with detailed accounts of the hard work that went into organising such events.

The Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.(Image Courtesy National Trust House)
The Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.
(Image Courtesy National Trust House)

There are so many passages in the book that I would love to share, but I shall content myself with two passages that seem to best summarise the essence of the book.

“Having tried to unblock the washbasins manually, Chris went to a distant store room and found some caustic soda, but as he was making for the gents’ room again, he heard the doorbell and detoured to answer it. No, it was not the expected delivery, it was two workmen arriving unannounced to replace the flooring in the base camp. […] while they made a start on their work, Chris returned to the gents’ with the caustic soda. With a good deal of poking and prodding, eventually the blockage moved and the water drained freely again.”

“…the evening was a great success. The visitors marvelled at the romantic aspect of the mansion with its lamps throwing pools of soft light across antique furniture and carpets while from the walls family portraits veiled in shadows looked down on the scene.[…] as Chris and I closed up the house, pulling down blinds, closing shutters, switching off heaters and lights, he felt that his long busy day had been well worthwhile. He always enjoys sharing his love of the Hall with other people, showing it at its best for them.”

…a love that comes shining through in his wife’s account of their first years at Felbrigg Hall that has made me want to procure the second book in the series “Dry Roy and Daffodils” and plan a trip to Norfolk as soon as I can afford it !

Book Review : Toast

I used to be a waif-like girl with no particular interest in food, even though gourmands and amateur chefs surrounded me. Then I went to France…and then I took up a sedentary job profile for a year, which gave me time to think about my meals and start widening my food horizons. And somewhere along the line, I discovered that I was quite the gourmand (though not yet a ravenous eater) !

Reading “Toast” on a solitary Saturday evening, with a mug of steaming coffee for company.

My new found pleasure in food has led to quite a few interesting experiences in the kitchen, but more importantly it has opened my eyes to a whole new genre of books – food literature. And so it is that I chanced upon Nigel Slater’s “Toast” tucked away in the food section of Blossom Book House. The title called out to me.  I pulled the book out from the bottom of the pile, dusted it, saw the cover…and I just knew I had to read it.

“The story of a boy’s hunger,” Toast is a bittersweet autobiographical account of Nigel Slater’s childhood, narrated through a series of food anecdotes. The story starts in Nigel’s childhood, with an account of his mother burning toast, “My mother burns the toast as surely as the sun rises each morning” and ends with Nigel landing in London, “with a backpack and just enough money for a couple of rounds of toast…” The pages in between are replete with food experiences that tease the imagination and tantalize the palate.

The reader accompanies Nigel through the rollercoaster of his food experiences, watching him grow up from an awkward 9 year-old who to a young adult and budding chef. Unlike any traditional autobiography, Toast pays no heed to chronology of events or characters, weaving the events and people of his childhood adroitly to recreate a platter of gourmet experiences for us. We are introduced to home-cooking in sixties suburban England, stews and pies cooked in his mother’s Aga, trifle puddings and lemon meringue pie made by his stepmother Joan Potter, prawn cocktails (a rage in sixties England) and a whole range of gourmet delights in the kitchens of the restaurants and hotels where he worked or those he visited to expand his culinary experiences. Experiences that connect the taste buds to memory and emotions, much like Proust did with the madeleine in “À la recherche du temps perdu.”

Exquisitely written, Toast left my mouth watering with the descriptions of food, much like this one of the perfect Apple Crumble:

“Even bad crumble is good. The perfect one is that whose juices have bubbled up through the pale rubble of the crust, staining it deep claret or gold…” 

Woven through Nigel’s likes and dislikes, his aversion to eggs and weaknesses for all things sweet is also a wonderfully evocative account of a solitary childhood, peppered with the loss of first one and then the other parent, a strained relationship with this stepmother, a not-so-ordinary adolescence and sexual awakening. I must admit, however, that I was so taken up by the food which he has brought to life so brilliantly in the pages of the book, I almost missed the fact that this was also a childhood memoir ! At his father’s funeral, Nigel says : “The flowers were lovely, as you could only hope for a man for whom the joys of gardening were on a par with that of sexual intercourse.” I’m sure for Nigel, the joy of food is on par with that of sexual intercourse. 🙂

Toast was a delightful read in so many senses – a book I will happily re-visit and recommend to anyone who enjoys food as much as I do.

Book Review : Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

“…my entrée to Austen was via Colin Firth prancing around in tight pants for the BBC. “

I couldn’t help but identify with Courtney Stone, the main character of Laurie Viera Rigler’s “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.” It wasn’t till I discovered the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice and fell in love with Darcy aka Colin Firth, that I truly started enjoying Jane Austen’s novels. I owe that enlightenment to my exchange programme classmate, a Jane Austen fan. I would have never signed up for the Austen film analysis class, if not for her.

Perfect companions for a lazy Sunday afternoon

Courtney is a typical modern LA girl who suddenly finds herself single when she discovers her fiancé making out with the wedding cake maker just a few days before the “D” day. She wakes up one morning to find herself in Regency England in the skin on Jane Mansfield. Confused and convinced she is dreaming, she decides to play along and enjoy this marvelous extension of her Austen addiction…till she realizes that the dream isn’t ending and that she does seem to have teleported to the 19thcentury.

Horrified and almost terror stricken at first, she decides to make the most of the opportunity to visit the world of Austen’s novels. “I’m sure wherever the real Jane is, she’s just as eager to get back to her own life as I am to mine. So why not just relax in the meantime, experience the sensation of living in another body and another time. Jane Austen’s time, no less, and have faith that real life will return soon enough. At least in this world some else does the shopping and cleaning up.”

As the days unfold, however, Courtney discovers that life in Regency England is not just about being waited on, leisurely strolls in the garden and decadent meals. It’s also about dealing with a “wicked” mother who wants her married at any costs, strict societal rules about how she should conduct herself in public, whom she could befriend and where she could go. As if all this wasn’t enough, she also had to grapple with the attentions of the dashing Charles Edgeworth, who reminded her of Wes, her closest friend in the 21st century who had let her down by covering for her fiancé. Were Edgeworth’s attentions genuine? Was he to be trusted like Darcy or was he a Wickham?

A postcard from Bath used as fitting bookmark for “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.”

As Courtney stumbles along the beautiful pathways of the English countryside, Bath, “with its elegant buildings of stone that look white in some lights, golden or pink in others” and London with its high society balls, she gets many occasions to comment on the manners of society in the 19th century. “It seems that while giving way to the grosser bodily functions seems to raise nairy a blush in the Lord’s house, having one’s period makes one a social outcast in one’s own house.” Witty comments such as this make the book an enjoyable read. Courtney’s chance encounter with Jane Austen, however could have been made more interesting. All that seemed to come out of those pages were Austen’s reticent personality and the anachronistic nature of Jane aka Courtney’s character. The denouement of the novel also left me a little dissatisfied. The sudden merging of the two worlds didn’t seem plausible enough. The distinction between the dream world and the real world, between the 19th and 21st century faded away in just a few paragraphs, leaving me a little befuddled.

The book is definitely a must read for all Jane Austen fans, but I would go as far as to recommend it to anyone who enjoys a novel set in Regency England. Pick up the book on a lazy Sunday. I guarantee you a blissful afternoon lost in the Austen’s England.

Related reading :
Review by Francesca Segal on The Observer
Review by Jayne  on Dear Author
Jane Austen Addict official site (I had no idea such a thing existed till I read this book)