Tag Archives: France

“The Dream of Scipio” by Iain Pears

I’ve putting off writing about The Dream of Scipio because it is the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read in years. It was selected as “summer” reading by a book group I attend only intermittently. During the academic year, the group’s schedule often conflicts with mine. In summer, the group reads a long work and gathers for dinner as well as discussion. I looked forward to this event, but was called for a volunteer service project and missed it. Darn! One friend reported that the discussion was good but “didn’t get to the interesting stuff”. There’s so much “interesting stuff” in this book, how would you know where to begin? (Asking the starting question for a book group is a serious responsibility!)

The “dream” in the book title refers to a dream or vision attributed to the Roman general Scipio Africanus and recounted by both Cicero and Chaucer. The dream bears a warning about the perils of vanity and power. (I’m dipping into Wikipedia and eNotes.com for this.)

Iain Pear’s novel has a fixed geographical focus, namely the city and surroundings of Avignon, France. Three historical eras are included.

  • the later Roman empire
  • the fourteenth century “plague years”
  • World War II

Calling this book “historical fiction” is a serious oversimplification.

The novel begins with a suicide by burning. Not for the faint of heart.

I interpreted the book as a harsh critique of the impact of Christianity on the cultures that came before it.

The sets of characters in each era are so strongly parallel that reincarnation comes to mind. Is the “wise woman” portrayed in each era really the same woman, or in some sense an archetype, Sophia the goddess of wisdom?

I plan to reread this book when I can get my hands on a hard copy. The Kindle is not ideal for a book that requires the reader to skip back and forth. It’s not a good book to put down and then pick up two weeks later. I highly recommend reading The Dream of Scipio with a group, so you will have ample opportunity for discussion.

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“Expensive Habits” and other books by Peter Mayle

Expensive Habits

Expensive Habits is an amusing discussion of the ways you can spend LOTS of money, if you have it.

Other Peter Mayle books I have read:

  • A Year in Provence
  • Toujours Provence
  • Encore Provence
  • Hotel Pastis: A Novel of Provence

This could be tedious, but Mayle is so charming it’s easy to accept his obsession with the south of France. His descriptions of the countryside are so beautiful. But his best prose is saved for food and wine.

Definitely an author for travelers!

“Ride With Me” by Thomas R. Costain

When did historical fiction become such an active and popular genre? This book was published in 1944. The author, Thomas Costain, died in 1965 at the age of 80. Looking at a list of his books, I think read two others, “The Silver Chalice” and “Below the Salt”, when I was in high school.

“Ride With Me” uses a fictional newspaper writer to tell the story of an historical figure, Robert Thomas Wilson, a flamboyant, often disruptive British military officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

I tried, briefly, to find out a bit about the Napoleonic Wars. Some subjects simply can’t be reduced to a Wikipedia article! I was rapidly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the novel had enough of it’s own narrative drive for my ignorance not to matter.

This novel is a romance with some military history thrown in. Francis Ellery, the misfit eldest son of an aristocratic family, falls in love with a glamorous, passionate ex-patriot French woman living in London. Over the years, he rescues her from a variety of dangers, then is finally rewarded with love and marriage.

This is very high quality historical fiction, with wonderful atmosphere and period details, and if you get tired of what contemporary authors are writing, I suggest you try Costain as an alternative.

“Left Bank” by Kate Muir

Another “accidental” read, found in the rented beach house where we spent Thanksgiving. (See December 9, 2014, for a review of the book I found last year.)

  • Genre = “chick” lit.
  • Sub genre = second chances and middle age.
  • Sub sub genre = what’s for dinner?

A fictional look at the lives of rich and sophisticated Parisians. What could be more fun? Lots of details about food and fashion. The book centers around a family. Madame M is an American actress from Texas, just transitioning from film to live stage, doing her best to be more French than a native born Parisian. Her husband thinks he is Jean Paul Sartre. Their seven year old daughter Sabine, raised mostly by hired help, knows her parents are unhappy. In a moment of pique , she “runs away”, and circumstances extend her absence for over 12 hours, enough to scare any parent witless. As the family recovers from this trauma, the adults start to make changes in their lives.

This not-especially-meaty plot is enlivened by a character of considerable mystery, Madame Canovas, the aged and eccentric concierge in the apartment building, who sheltered the “missing” Sabine. A few days later, she jumps to her death from the roof of the building, her secrets dying with her. Was she guilty, delusional or merely eccentric?

By the end of the book, a divorce is functionally complete. Both parents are paying attention to little Sabine, who thrives. But the reason I would refer to this cheerful novel as “chick lit” is that, at the end, Madame M’s career is soaring, while her former husband seems trapped in his intellectual pretensions, and Paris has turned its attention to other philosophers.

“Picnic in Provence – A Memoir with Recipes” by Elizabeth Bard.

This is a warm and fuzzy book about intercultural fun and confusion. The author’s first book, Lunch in Paris, was about meeting and marrying a handsome Frenchman. Picnic in Provence is about moving to a village, having a baby and starting an ice cream parlor.

Along the way, Bard writes about food, culture and child rearing, without slowing down too much or getting too serious. I’m not sure if any of her recipes will work for me, but they will be fun to try!

Inspired by Bard’s description of the French diet, I decided to fix soup for dinner. My main ingredients were a large can of chicken broth (zero fat, low sodium) and a head of cabbage. Also a small can of stewed tomatoes. There were some useful leftovers in the refrigerator – cooked greens, peas. I’ve always got carrots and onions. My husband came home a recommended precooked, smoked turkey sausage. Suddenly it smelled and tasted very good! Even better the next day, with a little grated Parmesan cheese.

The Tour de France : The Good, the Bad and the Just Plain Weird by Paul Hansford

It seemed like I was always watching the Tour de France with experts, who chattered about the “peloton” and “attacks”, so I found this book. Hansford has a sense of humor, and his explanations of Tour jargon are well worth reading. He also includes biographic information on many of the famous riders, and on the founders and developers of the race. I still don’t entirely understand teams and how the riders assist each other. Hansford provides information about the drug scandals without heavy handed judgement. Apparently early riders all used “speed” and related substances. Modern synthetic chemistry gave them more options but also improved detection. Is the sport now “clean”? Too soon to say.

I’ll probably continue to enjoy seeing the lush French countryside as much as I enjoy cheering for the riders and trying to pick the winner, but I’m glad to be better informed about the Tour.