Welcome to my personal page about literature!

All-time Favorites


We Are Legion (We Are  Bob) (Dennis Taylor) ***
Un loup est un loup (Michel Folco) ****
Petit pays (Gaël Faye) ****1/2
Janua Vera (Jean-Philippe Jaworsky) ***1/2
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) **
Le club des incorrigibles optimistes (Jean-Michel Guenassia) ****
Bringing up Bébé (Pamela Druckerman) **1/2
L'appel de l'ange (Guillaume Musso) *
La petite fille de Monsieur Linh (Philippe Claudel) ***1/2
Chanson douce (Leïla Slimani) ****
Soudain, seuls (Isabelle Autissier) ****1/2
Le collier rouge (Jean-Christophe Rufin) ***1/2
Un peu plus loin sur la droite (Fred Vargas) ***
Gagner la guerre (Jean-Philippe Jaworksy) *****
January 2017
Pars vite et reviens tard (Fred Vargas) ****
813 (Maurice Leblanc) ***
Le théorème du homard (aka Rosie Project) (Gareme Simsion) ***
La nuit de feu (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) ***
Cadres Noirs (Pierre Lemaitre) ***1/2
Alex (Pierre Lemaitre) *****
What If (Randall Munroe) ***1/2
Juste une ombre (Karine Giebel) ****
Juste avant le bonheur (Agnès Ledig) **1/2
Du bonheur d'être réac (Denis Tillinac ) *
Les tambours de la pluie (Ismail Kadaré ) ***1/2
Le Hussard (Arturo Pérez-Reverte ) ****1/2
Le Déchronologue (Stéphane Beauverger ) **1/2
January 2016
Complêtement cramé (Gilles Legardinier) *1/2
Au revoir là-haut (Pierre Lemaitre) *****
La femme de guerre (Bernard Clavel) ****
L'enfant de Noé (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) ***1/2
La vérité sur l'affaire Harry Quebert (Joel Dicker) ***1/2
L'île (Robert Merle) *****
Demain est un autre jour (aka Life List) (Lori Nelson Spielman ) *1/2
Le vieux qui ne voulait pas fêter son anniversaire (Jonas Jonasson ) ****
A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking ) **1/2
Le dossier des civilisations extra-terrestres (Ribes & Biraud ) ***
Chasses à l'homme (Christophe Guillaumot ) **
Fortune de France (Robert Merle) ****
Un avion sans elle (Michel Bussi ) **1/2
January 2015
La grâce des brigands (Véronique Ovaldé ) ***1/2
Les bienveillantes (Jonathan Littell) ****
The Martian (Andy Weir) ***
Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) ****1/2
A Fighting Chance (Elisabeth Warren) *1/2
La lumière du lac (Bernard Clavel) **
La vie commence à 20h10 (Raphael Thomas) **1/2
L'homme qui voulait être heureux  (Laurent Gounelle) **
L'armée furieuse (Fred Vargas) **
Les hommes protégés  (Robert Merle) ***
La reveuse d'Ostende (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) ***1/2
Les fruits de l'hiver (Bernard Clavel) *****
Biographie de la faim (Amélie Nothomb) **
Un drame en Livonie (Jules Verne) ***
Les sirènes de Bagdad (Yasmina Khadra) ****
Le coeur des vivants (Bernard Clavel) ****
La ballade de Lila K (Blandine Le Callet) ***
Celui qui voulait voir la mer (Bernard Clavel) ****
Quand j'étais capitaine (Bernard Clavel) **1/2
Malataverne (Bernard Clavel) ***1/2
La maison des autres (Bernard Clavel) *****
La saison des loups (Bernard Clavel) *****
Miseréré (Bernard Clavel) *****
January 2013
Pour l'honneur (Joseph Kessel) **
Les dieux voyagent toujours incognito (Laurent Gounelle) ****1/2
Les Indes noires (Jules Verne) **
Les visages (Jesse Kellermann) **1/2
L'or de la terre (Bernard Clavel)) ****

Deux ans de vacances (Jules Verne) ***1/2
Métronome: l'histoire de France au rythme du métro parisien (Lorànt Deutsch) ***1/2
Odette Toutlemonde et autres histoires (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) ****
January 2012
Amorok (Bernard Clavel) ****1/2
Quel gâchis, inspecteur! (Charles Exbrayat) ***
Une vie française (Jean-Paul Dubois) ****
Le mec de la tombe d'à côté (Katarina Mazetti) ***
Effroyables jardins (Michel Quint) **
Je, François Villon (Jean Teulé) **1/2
Cutting For Stone (Abraham Verghese) ***
Le Prédicateur (Camilla Laeckberg) **
How To Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie) **
A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway) ***
La possibilité d'une île (Michel Houellebecq) ***
Blink (Malcom Gladwell) ****
The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) ****
The Lady in the Lake (Raymond Chandler) *****
January 2011
Au-delà du silence (The Other Side of Silence) (Andre Brink) ***
Le premier principe, le second principe (Serge Bramly) ***1/2
Bang Bang (Chelsea Handler) ****
L'Abyssin (Jean-Christophe Rufin) ***1/2
La fille qui rêvait d'un bidon d'essence et d'une allumette (Millenium Vol. 2) (Stieg Larsson) ****
Sinouhé l'Egyptien (Vol. 1) (Mika Waltari) **1/2
Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost At Sea (Steve Callahan) ****1/2
L'échappée belle (Anna Gavalda) **
Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson) ****1/2
Rouge Brésil (Jean-Christophe Rufin) ***
My Horizontal Life: a Collection of One-Night Stands (Chelsea Handler) ***
Old Man's War (John Scalzi) ****
Chagrin d'école (Daniel Pennac) **1/2
Jean de Florette (Marcel Pagnol) ***
L'homme à l'envers (Fred Vargas) ***1/2
In Defense of Food (Michael Pollan) **1/2
Elle s'appelait Sarah (Sarah's Key) (Tatiana de Rosnay) ***1/2
Des Chrétiens et des Maures (Daniel Pennac) *1/2
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) ****1/2
Infidel (Ayaan Hirsi Ali) *****
January 2010
Night (Elie Wiesel) ****1/2
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Alan Bradley) ***
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time (Greg Mortenson) ****
La demi-pensionnaire (Didier Van Cauweleart) *
Les hommes qui n'aimaient pas les femmes (Millenium) (Stieg Larsson) ***
Le hussard sur le toit (Jean Giono) ****
Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri) **
The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein) ***
Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. (Chelsea Handler) ****1/2
Adieu ma France (Général Bigeard) **
L'ombre du vent (Carlos Ruis Zafon) ****1/2
Un Américain en Picardie (Ted Stanger) ****
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer) ***1/2
La répudiée (E. Abecassis) *
Pope Joan (Donna Woolfolk Cross) **1/2
Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life (Queen Noor) **
Economic Facts and Fallacies (Thomas Sowell) ***1/2
Le maître et Marguerite (Mikhail Boulgakov) ****
Le Pingouin (Andrei Kourkov) *****
The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester) ***
My Sister's Keeper (Jodi Picoult) *1/2
The Last Lecture (Randy Pausch) *****
Water For Elephants (Sara Gruen) ****
Excercies de style (Rayomond Queneau) *
January 2009
The Audacity of Hope (Barack Obama) **1/2
La femme de David (Henry Troyat) **
Trois jours chez ma mère (François Weyergans) ***
Et après (Guillaume Musso) **
Foreign Affairs (Allison Lurie) ***1/2
The Time Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) ***
On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan) ***
L'énigme des Blancs-Manteaux (Jean-François Parot) **1/2
La ville de nulle part (The Nowhere City) (Allison Lurie) ****
La Contrebasse (Der Kontrabass) (Patrick Süskind) ***1/2
La poursuite du bonheur (Douglas Kennedy) *
The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls) ****1/2
Freakonomics (Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner) ****1/2
Les âmes grises (Philippe Claudel) ***1/2
La mise à mort de Jean-Edern Hallier (Dominique Lacout & Christian Lançon) **
Aliocha (Henry Troyat) ****
Le petit Nicolas (Sempré) ****
Suite française (Irène Némirovsky) *****
January 2008
Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles (Katherine Pancol) **
Soie (Alessandro Barrico) **1/2
Tours et détours de la vilaine fille (Traversura de la niña mala) (Mario Vargas Llosa) ****
L'élégance du hérisson (Muriel Barbery) ****1/2
Quatre générations sous un même toit, Vol. 1 (Lao She) **
Fortune de France, Vol. 1 (Robert Merle) *1/2
Mémoires d'outre-tombe (extraits) (Francois de Chateaubriand) ***
Je voudrais que quelqu'un m'attende quelque part (Anna Galvada) ****1/2
Un aller simple (Didier Van Cauweleart) ***1/2
Si c'est un homme (Primo Levi) ***
Oscar et la dame en rose (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) ****1/2
Le collaborateur et autres nouvelles (Aragon) ***1/2
La maladie de Sachs (Martin Winckler) ***
Un animal doué de raison (Robert Merle) ***1/2

I was saddened to recently hear that Robert Merle passed away. French literature is undoubtedly losing an incredibly talented writer as proven again by Un animal doué de raison. The book, which was written at the end of the sixties and was defined as political science-fiction by the author in the foreword, didn't stand the test of time very well; Most passages about the Vietnam war or the military applications of state-of-the-art research in marine biology would greatly benefit from a modernized adaption. Yet, such is the extraordinary talent of Robert Merle that one still gets completely immersed in the story of Fa and Bi.


January 2007
Des hommes en général et des femmes en particulier (Claude Sarraute) *1/2
Shopgirl (Steve Martin) **1/2

I have not seen the adaptation of this story to the silver screen but while reading I often felt as if I was holding a movie script in my hands rather than a novel. As a result, Shopgirl has a curious almost eccentric tone. Who knows, maybe Shopgirl was actually a script that studios initially turned down to later reexamine their position after the book turned a bestseller :) Anyway, Steve Martin's literary debut is certainly not the worst one I have seen. Besides, after close to four years in the city of Angels, I am now highly familiar with the lifestyle and locations described here. Needless to say that everybody will immediately picture Steve Martin as the suave sugar daddy. It makes you wonder if some elements are not inspired by the author's life...After all this book is about LA.


Small World (David Lodge) ***

Small World is possibly the only satire of the academic world. Professors of English literature vie from all corners of the globe for the perfect position: a UNESCO chair with a six-figure tax-free salary and virtually no responsibility nor assignment. Hopping from one boring conference to another, our academic heroes spend most of their time writing self-congratulatory reviews, seducing graduate students and scheming to secure the coveted UNESCO professorship. Boasting a style that is a perfect exponent of British humor, the novel will appeal to any lover of the genre. The seasoned traveler will also be delighted by the humorous descriptions of a half score of cities, from the red light district of Amsterdam to the peaceful setting of provincial Lausanne to the chaos of Ankara. The novel runs out of steam after a while however.


L'attentat (Yasmina Khadra) ***

The pen name of Yasmina Khadra has received growing attention in the French literary world. I also knew that the novel The Swallows of Kabul from the same author had met with critical praise internationally. All this buzz contributed to a slight disappointment. The author has a strong personal writing style that works remarkably well in the opening chapter. But the rest is often weaker, as if the writer had concentrated most of his energy and creative spirit on the introductory chapter.


Ensemble, c'est tout (Anna Galvada) *****

I have been very fortunate this year when choosing French books and have come across mostly good books. This one belongs to the very best. And even though Malevil definitely claims the top spot for me, Ensemble, c'est tout comes a close second. I was so engrossed in the story of these four misfits sharing a flat in Paris that I read the 600-odd pages in one day!


One Year In The Merde (S. Clarke) ****

While many books have tried to describe what it means to be French, very few attain the degree of closeness and accuracy that One Year In The Merde achieves. And yet, paradoxically, One Year In The Merde looks obviously like a heavily fictionalized biography. As a matter of fact, even the most seasoned seducer would pale in comparison with the young narrator in this book. More to the point, Mr. Clarke hits a home run when he tries to capture the essence of the French lifestyle: the red tape when dealing with civil servants, the house in the country side, the sensual relationship to food, the permanent contradiction between the genuine deep-felt joie de vivre and the conspicuous superficial complaining. And the road to discovering the essence of the French soul is a good laugh thanks to Mr. Clarke's keen sense of humour. Last but not least, he gives us the exact recipe for salad dressing, just like my mom prepares it :-)


The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini) *****

Kudos to Khaled Hosseini for writing such a little gem.

The story of the The Kite Runner is indelible: Amir, a young boy in 1970's Kabul is forced to flee the country with his father after the fall of the Afghan monarchy and the Soviet-led invasion of the country. Fast forward to the late nineties: Amir now a seemingly content middle-aged man who has finally found his place in San Francisco, is forced to face his past when a dying relative unveils a terrible secret. Traveling back to Afghanistan, Amir comes to terms with the demons of his childhood and finds redemption through the adoption of a little boy whom he saves from the taliban regime.

The Kite Runner is a complex novel that has numerous facets: while the story revolves around the central themes of family and friendship, betrayal and redemption, it is also a haunting account of the appalling political transformation Afghanistan undergoes, from a peaceful monarchy as seen through the rose-tainted glasses of a young privileged boy to to the iron-clad, absurdly hopeless Taliban dictatorship the narrator discovers as an adult.

While the end is particularly moving, the middle part that recounts how Amir's dad painfully tries to adjust to America moved me even more: once a successful business man in Kabul, then a struggling immigrant in low-paying demeaning jobs, yet still trying to keep up appearances...I couldn't help but draw a parallel with the Iranian colonel played by Sir Kingsley in the fantastic House of Sand and Fog.


La troisième fille (The Third Girl) (Agatha Christie) **

Certainly not the best Agatha Christie out there.


The funny thing is... (Ellen Degeneres) ***

A light read with strong roots in stand-up comedy. If you like humor à la Seinfeld, you'll no doubt enjoy this book.


L'ami retrouvé (Reunion) (Fred Uhlman) ***1/2

This book is highly reminiscent of Address Unknown both by its theme and conclusion. Both novellas were written by Jews who fled Nazi Germany and emigrated to the United States. My preference, however, goes to Address Unknown whose climax is more powerful.


Quand la Chine change le monde (Erik Izraelewicz) ***

A well-documented essay about the (re)birth of the Chinese economic power and how it is reshaping our world and will continue to do so at an even greater pace in the coming decades. The main point of the author is that contrary to previous Asian dragons and tigers, China poses a more serious threat to other economies because of its sheer size. Some of the figures that M. Izraelewicz advances may be somewhat anecdoctal, they still have a great impact on the reader: just ponder the fact that there are sixty million pianists in China and you can't help feeling worried for western piano manufacturers. No wonder that Pearl River, a Chinese company, already delivers more pianos than anyone else in the world. Yamaha, Steinway, Boesendoerfer: beware the soaring Chinese dragon...


L'amour au temps du choléra (El Amor En Los Tiempos Del Colera) (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) *

I disliked Love in the Time of the Cholera just as I had detested Chronicle of a Death Foretold. I guess it's no use reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, it seems that I am simply not drawn to the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


Vendredi saint (Messiah) (Boris Starling) ***

A serial killer that cuts his victims' tongues and leaves a silver spoon in their place... Messiah is an enjoyable thriller that looks and feels like Silence of the Lambs. Predictable ending unfortunately.


La ferme africaine (Out Of Africa) (Karen Blixen) ***

On the one hand I loved the richly evocative descriptions of East Africa. The first two chapters conjure the most vivid vision of the African wilderness, its natural splendor, the early morning light, etc. I really felt like flying over the savannah and mountains of Kenya. On the other hand, parts of the book describing the customs of native tribes didn't capture my attention as much.


Les coloriés (Alexandre Jardin) **

I had read many good French books of late, so this book served as a useful reminder that not all French books are good. The central theme of Les Coloriés is one that Alexandre Jardin has used many times. An island lost in the Pacific hosts a tribe of naive savages whose lifestyle reveals the vacuity of our little cynical lives. In a word: Alexandre Jardin is not Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not even in his wildest dreams.


L'histoire de ma vie (Lao She) **1/2
Le pain nu (Mohamed Choukri) ****

A relatively obscure and unknown autobiography. Mohamed Choukri, a self-taught writer, who was illiterate until the end of his adolescence, gives us here a haunting description of the brutal word of his childhood in North Africa where poverty, alcoholism and prostitution prevailed.


Le cousin Pons (Balzac) ***
Commissaire Broussard (Broussard) 1/2

The author, inspector Broussard, is looking at making a quick buck with this embellished autobiography. He may try to play the toughie, he still comes across as a dull bureaucrat trying to secure retirement in the Bahamas...


Le rêve de Lucy (Pierre Pelot, Yves Coppens) ***1/2
Fatherland (Robert Harris) **1/2

Fatherland is an alternate history thriller that takes place in the early sixties after Nazi Germany won World War 2 and signed a peace treaty with the United States. We follow a Gestapo agent investigating bizarre murder cases as President Kennedy prepares to fly to the Reich's capital for a world summit. I can't help thinking that this book could have been so much more... Unfortunately, a good idea doesn't always make a good book.


For Whom The Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway) *****

I had already served as a paramedic on the Italian-Austrian front during the first World War (Farewell To The Arms) and hung out with the disillusioned expatriates in 1920 Paris (The Sun Also Rises). This time, I traveled to Spain, in the mountains north of Valladolid amidst the civil war, to mastermind the sabotage of a bridge. And once again, I read a masterpiece. What style. What unique style. Big emotions and yet not a single big word.


La part de l'autre (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) ****

What if Hitler had been admitted to the Arts Academy in Vienna? This is the starting point of the second novel by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt I read. In alternating chapters, the author depicts the actual life of the Führer and a parallel one he might have led had he not been failed a second time at the entrance exam to the art school. Almost as original as L'Evangile selon Pilate and just as entertaining and well-written. I now hold Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt in high regard.


Je l'aimais (Anna Gavalda) ***1/2
Ten Big Ones (Janet Evanovich) *1/2

Well, I skipped eight novels of the series before this one but I don't think I missed that much. All the originality of the first episode is gone. Why an author turns a bestseller into a franchise of this size (twelve novels) is beyond my understanding. I guess it all comes down to big bucks for the author and familiar territory for the readers...A bit sad.


Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) ****
Amok ou le fou de Malaisie (Amok, Novellen einer Leindenschaft) (Stefan Zweig) ****
Les bébés de la consigne automatique (Coin Locker Babies) (Ryu Murakami) **1/2

A best-seller in Japan (the English title Coin Locker Babies is also the Japanese title) that was probably written under the influence of various substances: a homosexual rock star that mutilates himself to alter his voice, a pole vaulting champion searching for hallucinogens in coral reefs, a model who has a giant crocodile pet. Not my kind of book.


The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Mitch Albom) **

Another audio book, on the way back from San Francisco this time. Maybe it's the format which I don't quite enjoy, maybe it's the lengthy story of this old guy meeting people again in the afterlife after he gets fatally crushed by a cart in a roller coaster. Either way The Five People You Meet in Heaven didn't provoke my admiration.


Johnny Angel (Danielle Steel) *1/2

My first Danielle Steel, and probably my last. In my defense, I didn't read Johnny Angel but listened to an audio CD while driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The verdict: tame, formulated, clichéd. It did kill time while I was driving though.


Inconnu à cette adresse (Address Unknown) (Kressman Taylor) ****
La faute de l'abbé Mouret (Emile Zola) *

A clergyman succumbing to carnal desire may have been shocking news in a different time. Not so today.


L'Evangile selon Pilate (Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) ****

A highly original detective story: Consul Pilates launches an investigation into the death of Jesus-Christ! Avoiding blasphemy, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt delivers a powerful well-written tale about the origins of Christianity. I can't wait to read the two other novels the author wrote about the Muslim and Jewish faith.


La jument verte (M. Aymé) *1/2
Malevil (Robert Merle) *****

Simply the best book I have read in years. The story revolves around a small community in a little French town that survives a nuclear cataclysm. From the town's name Malevil, full of delightful double entendres (mal is the French word for evil, vil(le) is French for city), to the riveting ending, not a single line is to be changed in this book. Simply perfect.


Les turbulences d'une grande famile (Henry Troyat) ***1/2
C'est pas bientôt fini (Claude Sarraute) ****

Another French book, another nice book. Claude Sarraute, a journalist by trade and the daughter of Nathalie Sarraute, a renowned French writer, gives us an enjoyable love story between two teachers struggling to enlighten ghetto kids in a troubled high school. The style is great, light yet biting.


Il n'y a pas beaucoup d'étoiles ce soir (Sylvie Testud) ****

Sylvie Testud, a B-list actress in France, wrote here a delightful book. She relates her daily -and not so glamorous- life on movie sets, reminisces about her acting debut, etc. The originality of tone immediately sets this book apart. Her frail voice sheds light on her inner fears, misgivings and contradictions with such freshness and authenticity one can't help loving this little book.


January 2006
Les voyous de la République (Jean Montaldo) *
L'âme du mal (Maxime Chattam) ***1/2
La petite Roque et autres histoires criminelles (Maupassant) ***
The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) *
Bonjour Tristesse (Francoise Sagan) **1/2
The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway) *****
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) ***1/2
Hominids (Sawyer) *1/2

That Hominids was awarded the Hugo tells us one thing: the golden age of science-fiction is sadly behind us. In fact, if Hominids is a good representative of modern science-fiction, its level must have fallen into unfathomable abysses. The only thing that redeems this book a little is the seminal idea: what if croMagnon had become extinct and Neanderthal had conquered the earth? An interesting idea, yet so poorly exploited.


The Lord of the Flies (William Golding) ****1/2

Another classic of English literature that deserves all its praise.


In Cold Blood (Truman Capote) ***1/2

Continuing my discovery of american classics, In Cold Blood was on the map after a colleague warmly recommended it to me. The book is written in a strongly journalistic style. The locations, characters and events are minutely described in a detached cold tone, rarely straying to a more poetic mood.


Slaughterhouse 5 (Kurt Vonnegut) **

Hailed as a classic of modern American literature, Slaughterhouse 5 was a disappointment. So it goes. The narrative is choppy at best and the book is definitely a product of its time - the Vietnam-marred late sixties. An important note: the estimated number of people killed in the bombing of Dresden has been revised drastically since the book was written. Historians now believe that the total count was between 25,000 and 35,000 casualties, a figure significantly lower than the 130,000 deaths given in the book. Was the bombing justified? Even historians are deeply divided on this issue.


One For the Money (Janet Evanovich) ***1/2

One For the Money is a light detective story. Chick lit? Possibly. Mushy? Possibly again. In any case, it is the novel that started the Stephanie Plum craze in the 90's and led to a series comprising twelve novels so far (and still counting). Stephanie Plum, a laid-off lingerie salesperson turned amateur detective, does it all: she catches the bad guys, helps the wrongly accused guy to clear himself, and of course falls in love with the good guy. Predictable yet entertaining because of the omnipresent humor.


La Vouivre (Marcel Aymé) ****

La Vouivre is set in rural Franche-Comté, one of the eastern provinces of France, before WWI and revolves around the seemingly implacable hatred and rivalry between two families of farmers.


Qui sème la violence (Caedmon) (Peter Robinson)***
Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser) ****

An eye-opener.


Les trois médecins (Martin Winckler) ****1/2
Léon L'Africain (Amin Maalouf) ***
Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One) (Harlan Coben) ***1/2
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) *1/2

Who hasn't read the Da Vinci Code? If you are not already a member of the sect of Da Vinci coders, well, think twice before joining the club. It's not that good. The bestseller is written in the manner of Umberto Ecco. Unlike Ecco's Foucault's Pendulum, one does not have to be conversant with medieval history nor be a student in theology to grasp every single line...Now, this does not necessarily mean that I think very highly of Dan Brown's offspring. Actually, I have mixed feelings about it. It is a somewhat enjoyable, fast-paced novel but I was irked by a couple of cheap literary tricks, the most obvious one being that every chapter climaxes at the end. Almost like a sitcom where they start kissing and then, "to be continued" appears...Yes, by and large the Da Vinci Code is very much to literature what sitcoms are to the silver screen.


The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence (Dinesh D'Souza) ***

This is the second D'Souza book I read. In this essay, D'Souza contends that techno-capitalism, the de facto economic model of present-day America, has brought wealth to a large number of Americans and is likely to lift out of poverty millions of people the world over. Written in the age of the the dot com bubble, this is an openly optimistic book about the implications of technological advances and their benefit for mankind. As fate would have it, the crash of Internet stocks in 2001 no doubt sealed the destiny of this book. Nonetheless, for all its flaws, this is an interesting thought-provoking essay that touches on subjects such as eugenics, questions the devious use of scientific breakthroughs, and highlights the loss of moral landmarks that accompany affluence and the concurrent search for new values. The conclusion is a warning about the risk of building a brave new world if legal barriers are not erected.


Qu'est-ce que l'évolution? (Richard Dawkins) ***
January 2005
The Valley of Horses (Jean Auel) **

I enjoyed the first volume of the Earth's Children series and picked that one with enthusiasm. After being ostracized by the clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla, now a young adult, embarks on a journey northwards in the hope of finding her own species. The problem with any series is to revive the reader's interest even though the world that is depicted is already familiar. The Valley of Horses simply does not manage to do that.


The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean Auel) ***

Taking up a genre pioneered by French writer Rosny Aine with Quest for Fire, Jean Auel invites us to a journey into the lives of cavemen in Central Europe during the Ice Age. The story begins with Ayla, a five-year-old croMagnon girl whose tribe is wiped out by a violent earthquake. After weeks of solitary wandering in the wilderness, Ayla encounters the clan of the Cave Bear, a sedentary tribe of Neanderthals. She is adopted by the foreign species and we witness her shed her old habits and language and gradually accept those of her surrogate family. Auel depicts a plausible world in which our ancestors exhibit the same attributes and flaws we do today: jealousy, love, xenophobia and other such timeless human traits. This is a fairly good book which should meet a large audience among teenagers.


The Lady and the Unicorn (Tracy Chevalier) ****

Using the same central idea as in the Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier makes up another story that revolves around a famous work of art, presently the tapestry known as The Lady and the Unicorn (which, in passing, is on display in the Cluny museum in Paris). This time, I read Chevalier in English. And again, I was quickly won over by the gripping story and the highly detailed description of the work of the Flemish tapestry-makers. As a bonus, there is a nice little sadistic twist in the fate that befalls Nicolas, the lead character, at the end of the novel!


Stranger in a strange land (Robert Heinlein) **1/2

I thought that Stranger in a strange land was strange. It most certainly possesses all the attributes of a great classic science-fiction novel, and yet I did not really enjoy it that much. I may have to read it again to make up my mind.


The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) **

I picked this book from my local library after reading that Canadian writer Margaret Atwood was a model for Tracy Chevalier. Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian fable that describes a totalitarian society filled with religious radicalism and male chauvinism in which women's reproductive functions are controlled by a theocratic government. The novel presents interesting ideas but lacks the magic touch of Orwell's 1984. And in my view, assuredly, it is not as prophetic as its big brother.


La jeune fille à la perle (Girl with a Pearl Earring) (Tracy Chevalier) *****

Although I'm neither a history buff nor an art connoisseur, I usually like historical novels and dutch paintings of the Golden Age. So I was bound to enjoy the union of both in a compelling novel. Ms. Chevalier weaves a powerful story around the famous Delft painter Vermeer and an imaginary young handmaid, who winds up posing for the artist, thereby infuriating the mistress of the house. The beautiful prose describing the painter's work constantly conjures mental images of Vermeer's magnificent pieces. A real treat!


Le vol des cigognes (Jean-Christophe Grangé) **

Le vol des cigognes is the first book of contemporary French writer Jean-Christophe Grangé, whose popularity has soared with The Crimson Rivers. The opening section of this thriller is riveting but the story unfortunately weakens page after page. Probably inspired by his own experience as a correspondent, Grangé nonetheless manages to instill a picturesque quality in the descriptions of the various countries the hero travels to, most notably the marshlands and salt works of Israel.


L'allée du roi (Francoise Chandernagor) **

Written as an apocryphal autobiography, this French novel relates the amazing life of the Marquise de Maintenon from her birth in a prison to life at the court of Louis XIV to supplanting the Marquise de Montespan and Louise de la Valliere as the Sun King's first concubine. Combining real material taken from the correspondence of the Marquise and fictitious bits written in a convincing imitation of 17th century French, Ms. Chandernagor's novel is an undeniable achievement from a literary standpoint. Some will probably enjoy it immensely. I didn't.


Les illusions perdues  (Honoré de Balzac) Vol. 1 **1/2 & Vol. 2 ****1/2 & Vol. 3

Les illusions perdues (Lost Illusions for English speakers) has a pivotal position in the Human Comedy and is considered one of Balzac's masterpieces, and rightly so for the most part I may add. It's a long novel composed of three volumes of unequal value in my humble opinion. The central part of the novel is without a shadow of a doubt the strongest one. Throughout the novel, several characters come to give up their illusions. However, of all characters, Lucien de Rubempré undergoes the cruelest, most gruesome, life-changing phase. In A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, Lucien, a young, handsome and somewhat naive provincial man, follows his mistress to Paris. There, he endures the sufferings of the would-be poet whose talent is not recognized, and the humiliation of the lover who is dismissed by a woman of higher nobility. After sacrificing his artistic aspirations, he rapidly rises to fame and wealth as a critic for local newspapers. Soon he also is rewarded with the love of a young promising actress. Because of his dubious nobility, however, he begins to meet with a certain resistance in the high society. Parisian socialites eventually unite their forces to ridicule and oust the young go-getter. Despised by the high society he tried to consort with, Lucien falls into poverty and isolation, just like on his arrival in the capital. But his initial circle of friends now shun him on account of his betrayal of their artistic ideals. Driven by impecuniosity out of Paris, Lucien finally returns to his native province heavily in debt. Timeless story.


Le grand secret (René Barjavel) 1/2
Des femmes qui tombent (Pierre Desproges) ****1/2
Le colonel Chabert (Honoré de Balzac) ***1/2
Les étrangers sont nuls (Pierre Desproges) **1/2
La Grande Désillusion (Globalization and its Discontent) (Stiglitz) **1/2
Le temple du passé (Stefan Wul) ***1/2
L'Atlantide (Pierre Benoit) ***1/2
Les racines du mal (G. Dantec) **
Comment je suis devenu stupide (Martin Page) *1/2
Le père de nos pères (Bernard Werber) **
January 2004
Windows on the world (Frédéric Beigbeder) **
L'empire des anges (Bernard Werber) *1/2
Le bûcher des vanités (The Bonfire of the Vanities) (T. Wolf) *1/2
Vers le féminisme ? (Alain Soral) ****1/2
La peste (Albert Camus) ***1/2
99 Francs (Frédéric Beigbeder) ****
L'échiquier du mal (D. Simmons) *1/2
Madame Bovary (G. Flaubert) *****
Uranus (Marcel Aymé) **1/2
Alamut (Vladimir Bartol) ***1/2
L'enfant de Dublin (Peter Sheridan) **
The Bad Place (Dean Koontz) 1/2
Mille femmes blanches (a.k.a. A Thousand White Women) (J. Ferguson) ***
Le joueur d'échecs (Schachnovelle) (S. Zweig) ***1/2
Bouvard et Pécuchet (G. Flaubert) *1/2
Les morts de la Saint-Jean (Henning Mankell) **
January 2003
Le nain (Marcel Aymé) ****1/2
Geisha (Memoirs of a Geisha) (Arthur Golden) *****
Le coq de bruyère (M. Tournier) *
Le dernier jour d'un condamné (V. Hugo) **1/2
Mémoires d'un tricheur (Sacha Guitry) **1/2
What's so Great About America (Dinesh D'Souza) ****
Warum Maenner nicht zuhoeren und Frauen schlecht einparken  (Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps) (A. & B. Pease) ***
Le grand Meaulnes (Alain Fournier) **
Le père Goriot (H. de Balzac) ****1/2
La bête humaine (E. Zola) *****
La maison de jade (Madeleine Chapsal) 1/2
Le rocher de Tanios (Amin Maalouf) **1/2
La rage et l'orgueil (Oriana Fallaci) ***
Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise ****1/2
Les semailles et les moissons (H. Troyat) **1/2
Jusqu'à où va-t'on descendre? (Alain Soral) *****
Pytgahore, je t'adore (Patrick Cauvin) **1/2
Je me souviendrai de ce siècle (Jean Amadou) ***1/2
January 2002
Brothers Karamazov, Vol. 1 (F. Dovstoiesky) **1/2
Harry Poter Vol. 3 (J. Rowling) *
Harry Poter Vol. 2 (J. Rowling) **
Harry Potter Vol. 1 (Joanne Rowling) ***1/2
Sophie's World (J. Gardstein) **
L'éducation d'une fée (Didier Van Cauwelaert) ***1/2
La guerre et la paix (War and Peace) (Léon Tolstoi) ***
Manuella (P. Labro) *
Das Erbe (a.k.a. Morning, Noon & Night) (Sidney Sheldon) :-(
Le coeur sous le rouleau compresseur (a.k.a. Reckless driving) (H. Buten)  :-(
Et si c'était vrai (Marc Lévy) ****
Un si long chemin (Henry Troyat) *1/2
Timbuktu (P. Auster) ****
Miles Vorkosigan (a.k.a. The Vor Game) (Lois Mc Master Bujold) **1/2
Trinity (Leon Uris) ***1/2
Replay (Ken Grimmwood) ****1/2
L'Adieu aux armes (Farewell to the Arms) (E. Hemingway) ****1/2

A nice novel with a sad ending. I wish I had read it in English though.


The Making of Minty Malone (I. Wolff) **

The Making of Minty Malone bears a great resemblance to Bridget Jones in terms of content. However, Bridget Jones can boast about a bit of originality regarding the form while Minty Malone is highly conventional in this respect. 


January 2001
Le liseur (a.k.a. der Vorleser) (B. Schlink) **1/2

This is the unlikely story of a middle-aged woman who falls for a 15-year old boy after World War II.


Toute vérite est bonne à dire (Claude Allègre) ***1/2

Every read brings its lot of surprises. This one made me discover that two people with opposite political inclinations can still agree on a specific subject. Toute vérite est bonne à dire (the title counterpoints a French proverb) is the transcription of an interview with France's former Secretary of Education Claude Allègre. M. Allègre, a socialist and close personal friend of current Prime minister Jospin, was dismissed after a Cabinet shuffle. In this interview, M. Allègre has his revenge on the teachers' Union and a couple of journalists.


Les Diaboliques (Barey d'Aurevilly) **
La Laisse (F. Sagan) ****
Notre-Dame de Paris (Victor Hugo) ***

From the musical to Disney's animated picture, Notre-Dame de Paris is an all-time best-seller. How about the seminal work? Well, it's great but not as great as I expected it to be. First of all, it contains many Latin citations that are untranslated in the version I read. Quite unfortunate since I really need to brush up on my Latin :) The novel also has some tedious passages here and there. For instance the description of the architecture of 15-th century Paris bored me to death. I acknowledge the minute, immense, historical work of Hugo, but I felt this chapter was irrelevant. At the other end of the spectrum, I loved the dialogues between the clergyman and his protégé. In particular when the former advises the latter against going to the inn by saying (the following is a crude translation of mine into English) "The tavern leads to the gallows". The young man retorts: "The gallows is nothing but a piece of wood with a man at one end and the Earth at the other. It is noble to be that man." The story also has a sad ending that took me completely by surprise.


Les soeurs Rondoni et autres contes sensuels (Maupassant) ****

Maupassant was at his best when writing about fleshly desires. In Les soeurs Rondoni et autres contes sensuels, he shows the extent of his talent on this subject.


Le jade du mandarin (Raymond Chandler) **

My problem with Chandler is that I read The Big Sleep, his best novel, first.


La double mort de Linda (a.k.a. Mother's Day) (Patricia Mac Donald) *

How tame this novel is! It reminds me in a way of dull late Saturday-night TV films in which unknown actors strive to declaim two sentences in a row. In fact, Mother's Day could easily qualify as a winner script for such a TV film. The book abounds in clichéd characters and situations. I have only a vague recollection of the scenario: there's a couple of murders, a stupid teenage girl, a small American town. That's a good sign : this, too, typically happens with second-rate TV films.


Un été dans l'ouest (P. Labro) **

Philippe Labro draws on his own experience to relate the adventures of a Frenchman in his late teens that accepts a summer job as a wood chopper in the Rockies. The novel failed to captivate me owing to its really slow pace.


Quand Mario reviendra (Exbrayat) **

Nothing really fancy about this escape book.


Au delà de cette limite, vote ticket n'est pas valable (R. Gary) 1/2

Au delà de cette limite, votre ticket n'est pas valable is a novel about male impotency. Like Chien blanc, another novel by Romain Gary, I couldn't finish it. And this novel's made Romain Gary enter the list of the acclaimed writers I simply can't bear.


Joséfine Mutzenbacher (Anonymous) ***

Josefin Mutzenbacher is an erotic novel that was originally bootlegged in Austria at the beginning of the 20th century. It was allegedly written by the same person who later wrote Bambi (yes, the one that was made famous through Walt Disney's animated motion picture!). Josefine Mutzenbacher narrates the childhood and teenage years of a young nymphomaniac who yields to any of her precocious sexual urges as well as her neighbors... Among others, she has intercourse with her next-door neighbor, the vicarian, her own father, other relatives, etc. I suppose the book seemed utterly shocking when it was secretly sold in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Not quite so nowadays.


Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck) ***1/2
La France africaine (J-P. Gourévitch) ****

Behind the deliberately provocative title, one finds a really minute study of the latest immigration waves in France. A decade ago former president Mitterrand foretold "La France du 21e siecle sera africaine ou ne sera pas". Whether one likes it or not, M. Gourévitch explains to us that it is already happening. According to the current figures, there will be more muslims than catholics in France by 2050. According to Mr. Gourevitch, this forecast does not take into account the likely increase of the number of immigrants due to the demographic conditions in Africa; Thus, he contends this may happen as soon as 2030.  His goal is to show that this will transform deeply the country and the so-called national identity.


Treasure Island (R. L. Stevenson) ***

The only version I knew thus far was Walt Disney's. I'm glad I read the original because Treasure Island is the epitome of the adventure book. A twoscore of buccaneers, a treasure, a secret island, a reckless young boy, nothing is missing. However, had I been fifteen years younger, I probably would have been more thrilled.


Les Ritals (Cavanna) **

Cavanna's father was an italian mason that came to France in the 20's and  settled down in the outskirts of Paris after marrying a French woman from Normandie. Cavanna relates in Les Ritals his childhood memories in a little busy suburbia town mostly populated by Italian immigrants. He tells anecdotes such as the unfinished construction of his uncle's house, the arguments between his parents,  his runaway on a bike, etc. Albeit funny at times, one quickly gets tired of the deliberately loose writing. Ditto for the phonetic transcription of his father's comical accent. A not very substantial book actually.


Candide (Voltaire) **1/2

I must be the only French that did not get Candide as an assignment in French literature class. I recently dug it out from my mother's bookshelves and its rather engaging size persuaded me to read it. Candide, whose meaning in French can approximately be translated into naive, is a young ill-fated naive man who strongly believes in optimism in the philosophical meaning of the word. It was written by Francois-Marie Arouet alias Voltaire during the Enlightment (in 1759 precisely). The motivation behind Candide is an attack of Leibniz's philosophy. After reading the introductory chapter, it's not very difficult to get that point. On the other hand, many subtleties are hardly decipherable by the general reader, 250 years after the first publication. Besides, the novella is fairly poor from a literary standpoint. There is no transition between the chapters and it all comes down to a succession of tragic events. In the same genre, I liked much more the "public" (as opposed to the censured works) novella by the Marquis de Sade named Les infortunes de la vertu. Better read that one, it easily outdoes Candide in my humble opinion.


L'horreur pédagogique (Loiseau & second author's name escapes me...) ****

This book is written as a testimony by two French high-school teachers aged 53 and 39. Their approach consists of exposing, without unneeded mockery, a few essays written by candidates to the French Baccalauréat. Rather predictably, the essays are disastrous. The rest of the book is dedicated to unveiling the drop of the required level for obtaining the Bac(calauréat). As a person whose elder brother happens to teach history and geography in high-school, I've also witnessed the gradual collapse of the educational system. It's all the more regrettable since it used to be an institution that France would deservedly pride on.
It started in the early eighties when the Asian dragons were experiencing an unprecedented economic growth. The incumbent government hired a team of experts in order to analyze Japan's economic success. The report highlighted, among others, the high level of education of Japan's citizens, even among unskilled workers. So, that was the key to economic success! It was then decided that 80% of the young French should graduate from high-school with their Bac by the year 2000. To put things into perspective, let me mention that the score at the beginning of the 80's was much lower, less than 35%. Unfortunately, this clever policy has worked indeed. As it's much more difficult to bring people to a higher level, the obvious solution has been to lower everybody's level. Isn't that smart? Today, we can assess the results: some candidates to the Bac (aged 17 or 18) think Naples to be a French city, that Cairo is somewhere in Africa but cannot point it down on a map more exactly, have never heard about Goa or Korea. One in ten knows the name of George Bush and only one in thirty can cite the name of Ronald Reagan. Some more cruel examples? Some think Charles de Gaulle is a famous left-winged politician, that Prime minister Jospin is a communist. Scary when one realizes that some of them already have the right of vote. But the most disastrous result of all this might be that France, unlike other European countries, does not restrict the access to university. Consequently, French universities are overcrowded. Worse, some college graduates will inevitably get jobs whose level and pay is not in relation with their education. As some argue, this might lead to a whole generation of frustrated people. It might not happen soon, as the new economy fosters and sustains the economic growth, but nobody can predict what may happen in five or ten year's time.


La stratégie Ender (a.k.a. Ender's Game) (O.S. Card) ****1/2

Ender's Game is an all-time SF best-seller. Does it deserve its fame? Yes. To a large extent. The reader immediately gets into the story of this young, brilliant boy that is destined to save the Earth from a horrendous, bug-like, alien race. He's enlisted in a military academy which trains young recruits from six to twelve. It goes without saying that Ender, the hero, is the school's most brilliant subject. Does the story sound familiar? It does to me, for I read a similar book by Robert Heinlein some years ago (made into the great movie Starship Troopers by the way). The major difference is that, here, the military school teaches extremely  precocious children  instead of young adults.  In summary, Ender's Game is a quick light read that I enjoyed very much. Unfortunately, Mr Card's inspiration runs dry towards the novel's end, hence my rating that isn't maximal. As an aside I bet this book will be made into a movie one day.


The Accursed Kings, vol. 6: le lis et le lion (M. Druon) ***

Le lis et le lion is the last but one volume of the Accursed Kings. The story revolves mainly around one of the central characters, Robert d'Artois, until his death after he got wounded on a battlefield. As M. Druon expresses it, the necessities of history lead him to kill his favorite character, who happens to be mine as well. This volume betrays a certain weariness, either of the writer, or of myself. I'll read the last volume all the same, sooner or later.


The Liar (S. Fry) *

Frankly, I'm not appreciative of this kind of humor. Too British...The only good news is that one of the characters mentions an old philosophical paradox: An ax is usually made up of a handle and a blade. Now, if I replace each part by a newer one, do I still have the same ax in my hands? You have two hours to hand in your essay. Off you go! :-) 


Les prisons de la misère (Loic Wacquant) **

The number of prisoners has dramatically increased in every western country except Germany over the last two decades. M. Wacquant is clearly against this evolution. Throughout the book, he tries to identify and explain the motivations of the politicians that were responsible for this rise. He also tries to parallel the evolution in North America and that in Europe. Last but not least, he blames the zero tolerance policy that originated in the Big Apple. The problem of the writer is that he's overly biased and his judgment lacks discernment: for instance, he claims that there's no such thing as urban violence. Doesn't sound in tune with the times. France, for example, is distressingly plagued by an endemic criminality in its ghettos. Just tune to any French channel during the X-mas season and count the number of burnt automobiles. And don't tell me the audience is manipulated by the media, I won't buy.


Exodus (Léon Uris) ****

Cyprus, 1946 : thousands of Jews, who  have just escaped the Nazi terror, are crowded in refugee camps, awaiting ships that will take them to Israel despite the British blockade... 1948: Israel is officially recognized as a state by the UNO.
Exodus is a gripping story but not history. As a matter of fact Mr. Uris couldn't possibly be more biased: the acts of the Zionists are clearly embroidered while the Arabs and the English couldn't be more stereotyped. It's true, however, that the Israeli did something that the Arabs had never achieved: they managed to cultivate the arid soil and prosper on it against all odds.


Marie Karpovna (Henry Troyat) *****

As soon as I was through reading the first chapter, there was no way I could close the book before the last line. In summary, Marie Karpovna is the story of a Russian, authoritarian, provincial middle-aged mother who tyrannizes her two grown-up sons. As you can see, making up such a plot is as easy as pie. On the other hand, making the characters actually come alive requires a good deal of craftsman. Henry Troyat undeniably has plenty of it. He's also one of these rare persons capable of seeing through most of us and perceiving the torments of our souls. What's more, he knows how to skillfully write all this down on paper ... In no more than two novels I've become a fan of his.


Dave Barry Turns 50 (D. Barry) ***1/2

Although M. Barry now is half a century old, I don't think he's having a real mid-life crisis. In any case, he's as young-spirited as ever. Dave Barry turns 50 is overall funny,  but it has ups and downs. On the downside one finds the chronological account of his life as a teenager and then a young adult. On the upside, the various methods to make sure one's getting old and the subtle tips to cope with the old age.


Persistance de la vision (a.k.a. Persistence of Vision) (J. Varley) **

Persistence of Vision is a collection of four SF short stories. As often, the stories vary greatly in quality. The best story is that of a man whose memory is trapped in a computer, this one is worthwhile. But the collection as a whole is no great shakes.


Small is beautiful (E. Schumacher) **1/2

Small is beautiful is a famous treatise on economics that was first published in 1973. His author, E. Schumacher, a British economist of German ascent has written here an essay on humanistic economics: he puts forward a novel way of making business by placing man above all else. He denounces the idea that the western world, having reached a sufficient level of affluence, sustains its economic activity by continuously arousing the consumer's desire for unnecessary new gadgets (if only Mr. Schumacher had lived to see the advent of the cellular phone!); In a word he raises his voice against the whole consumer's society of 1973 (not very different from today's in my eyes); He also condemns vehemently the globalization of the economy, the large, profit-oriented corporations, the increasing size of the metropoles, etc. Hence the motto: small is beautiful. He suggests, as an antidote, to consider the worker's well-being before any economic consideration (productivity, profitability, etc.). He also advocates the decentralization of the production and that it be adjusted to meet the demand of the locals and not more.
Retrospectively, his principles have not inspired many entrepreneurs. Utopia is not very popular these days! I for one do not believe very much in his theories either, and that's why my rating's rather low. However, some ideas do deserve some interest, in particular his view of the aid to the Third-World. And for all that, it remains pleasant to follow the broad lines of so fresh an economic policy, clearly laid out on paper by an intelligent writer.


The Razor's Edge (S. Maugham) ***

It's always a sheer pleasure to read Maugham's prose because it's wonderfully well-written. But, as it is my second novel by this author, I'm starting to be concerned by the message in his stories, or rather by the lack of it. That's the sore point: it's fun reading Mr. Maugham, but the book can be forgotten as soon as the last page's been turned. I have the notion that Somerset Maugham has that in common with Paul Auster.


Don Quichotte Vol. 1 (Cervantes) *

In a recent issue of The Economist, one could read: "Every country has iconic figures that epitomise its national identity. England, for example, has the royal family and Robin Hood; France has a peasant with a beret and a baguette-and it has Joan of Arc." For Spain, I'd vote for the bullfighter and Don Quichotte. The character of Don Quichotte, imagined by Cervantes four centuries ago, has lived through the centuries. Ask anyone about Spanish literature and Don Quichote is likely to come to mind first. That was my case so that I decided one day to get down to reading this famous novel. I've managed to read the first volume, but I'm not going to read any more of it. The strange thing is I can't explain why I didn't like it, I just couldn't get into the story.


Bridget Jones's Diary : A Novel (Helen Fielding) ***1/2

Bridget Jones is no ordinary person, as clearly shown by her diary. However, I'm sure most women can relate their own experience to Bridget's, one way or another. Why did I read this novel (written by a feminist writer) in the first place? One, because it came by chance into my hands, two because I started reading it as I'd have glanced at a women's magazine (in which case it's basically in order to see beautiful girls and secondarily to get to know the "enemy":-). The trouble is that Bridget Jones's diary is funny and I couldn't let go of it. The only glitch is the calories/cigarettes/negative thoughts daily count. At first, it struck me as funny and original, but the originality fades after two months and gets annoying in the long run. The writing/style is somewhat akin to Erica Jong's, but this time it's really funny and that makes all the difference. To conclude, let's pray there're not too many Bridget Jones out there, as she's not far from being the shallowest person one could ever meet!


January 2000
Dave Barry's Greatest Hits (Dave Barry) ****

Dave Barry has a great sense of humour. Or else, he has a kind of humour that appeals to me very much. Either way, I'm now anxious to read some more stuff he wrote. Mr. Barry perfectly captures these short moments in time that make life so joyous and colourful. The reason why I didn't grant it the maximum rating is that some parts are old-dated (the book dates back to the mid 80's) and too america-oriented. As a European I know none of the TV hosts Mr Barry makes fun of, and I bet I'm missing something there.


Bag of bones (S. King) *

Bag of Bones is allegedly King's best novel in recent years... Thanks God, I didn't read the last fifteen ones! Although I'm usually reluctant to give up on books, I couldn't force myself to finish this one (that's the second time that happens to me with a novel by Stephen King). Eventually, I put it away after three hundred painful pages.
So, what's the story about?
Don't know! Why, what did you think ? After all, I only read three hundred pages, barely enough for King to tell us the name and occupation of the main character. Ok, let's do some guesswork, hum... it's probably a ghost story. My theory is that somebody must once have told Mr King in a storytelling course or something that the slower the pace, the nicer (and more mysterious) the atmosphere. And thus Mr King's been learning the lesson for some decades now: every new novel is slower-paced and as he is a prolific writer (alas!), he has now reached excellence in terms of sluggishness. Alternately, he could also be paid by the word, which would explain why he's so wordy. If only Mr King could suddenly suffer from the writer's block, juste like Bag of Bones's main character!


Le coffre d'Avlen (a.k.a. Goblin Tower) (L. Sprague De Camp) 1/2

You know you have changed when...
you start reading a new book by a writer you have thus far enjoyed reading,
at first,  you have some difficulty getting into the story,
and then it gets worse,
you drag yourself from one chapter to the next,
but you know you're not going to make it till the end.

When I was ten or twelve, I would read lots of heroric fantasy with great pleasure. I litteraly wolved the series Conan the Cimmerian, of which most volumes where co-authored by L. Sprague de Camp. But the times they are a-changin.


Crime and Punishment (F. Dovstoiski) ****1/2

Being unable to understand a word of Russian, I had to read a translation. The french one I chose turned out to be excellent and I was able to sense the beauty of Dovstoiski's (french spelling) style. As to the story, it's a unique blend: a thriller, a psychological study, a social description of nineteenth-century Saint-Petersburg, and a meditation on guilt and redemption. I read L'Idiot some years ago but I've definitely felt more satisfication in reading Crime and Punishment. But I still have to meet the Karamazov Brothers.


A la recherche du français perdu (Jean Dutourd) ***

I came across this book while staying at my grand-mother's place. She's a great fan of Jean Dutourd, a french academician about her age (the age thing may explain why she adores him :-) As foretold by the title that purposely mirrors that of Proust's most famous novel (A la recherche du temps perdu or, in English, Remembrance of Things Past), Jean Dutourd fights page after page -with a certain sense of humour- what he calls the jargon of prestige  i.e. the language spoken in France by the media, the administration, people from the entertainment industry and the high-tech sector. Many would call Mr Dutour a retrogressive person: French after all, like any other language, has always evolved by assimilating foreign words, so why would words like cool or o.k. be harmful? Obviously Mr Dutour must be wrong. Well...
The writer has a point in saying that there's been a decisive shift, over the last thirty years, in the intellectual elite's way of speaking. The elite people used to distinguish themselves by speaking the "proper" French, by which I mean a language that is extremely precise in its vocabulary. Now they distinguish themselves by using a jargon of vague terms as politically correct as possible. A short, clear, precise term is thus replaced by a vaguer, longer (apparently the longer the better!) expression. For example, we no longer say jardin (garden) but espace vert (green area); sourd (deaf) has become mal-entendant (hearing-impaired), un aveugle (a blind person) now is un non-voyant (a vision-impaired person), and les chômeurs (the unemployed) have turned into des demandeurs d'emploi (people looking for a job); Similarly, oui and non are replaced by vaguer terms like o.k., tout a fait (quite so), pas vraiment (not quite) as if people were now afraid of clear-cut expressions. Like Mr Dutour, I'm against the Anglo-Saxon politiquement correct, for it is  generally inaccurate, sometimes absurd, or even non-sensical. Another example to back up Mr Dutour's assertion: the Mass now opens on Mes frères et mes soeurs (Brothers and Sisters), as opposed to only Mes frères in the past. In attempting to be "politically correct", french priests basically make a grammatical mistake: Mes frères means in fact both men and women, just like l'homme, a masculine word, can mean both men and women. There's also an entire page devoted to the slogan of a well-known supermarket chain: Je positive (positiver doesn't exist). From this new verb, Mr Dutour ironically derives the new words positivation,positivationner,and of course positivationnement. Shall I myself make up positivationnementer?:-) The danger is that these neologisms quickly pass into mainstream French because of the omnipresence of the television.


Contes du jour et de la nuit (Maupassant) **1/2

Nothing special about these tales by Maupassant; Moreover I had already read half of them, as they're also included in Boule de suif et autres contes.


Ripley Underground (Patricia Highsmith) *1/2

Ripley Underground is the sequel to my favourite detective story: The Talented Mr. Ripley. I hadn't anticipated that it'd be such a disappointment. The novel is built in the same fashion as other detective stories written by Patricia Highsmith. She generally portrays criminals that look normal in appearance. The criminal, usually a smart, young man, is inevitably dragged into murder by an apparently unavoidable series of events. Unlike other detective stories, the emphasis isn't laid on the way a clever detective might unravel the mystery, but rather on the psychological portray of the various characters, in particular that of the criminal himself. Ms. Highsmith always does her best to make the criminal friendly to the reader, up to a point where one can nearly identify oneself with the murderer. The Talented Mr. Ripley is particularly thrilling because one wonders until the very last page whether Tom Ripley, the murderer, will get away with it. And the best part is that he does! Of course, in Ripley Underground, I knew in advance that he would walk away as a free man. But that's not what spoilt my reading: what I loathed in Ripley Underground is the preposterous end. It's really absurd, no detective would ever buy the story that Tom Ripley makes up.


Les Médecins Maudits (Chritian Bernadac) ****

Chritian Bernadac wrote down the testimonies of several inmates of German concentration camps as they were the subjects of medical experiments. The stark reality is hard to digest. I won't go into detail about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi doctors. I'd just like to mention an interesting parallel between one of these doctors and Cleopatra who forced her female slaves into pregnancy, then ripped their bellies open so as to understand how a fetus develops. Barbary has a long history!


L'homme démoli (a.k.a. The Demolished Man) (Alfred Bester) *****

This is the second of the ten SF novels I recently bought. Unlike Flatland, this one definitely belongs to the genre. I'd even go as far as saying that's it's a true american classic from the fifties. And I liked it very much. Like in Van Vogt's Slan, some people in The Demolished Man have gained the power of telepathy. As a consequence, it has become virtually impossible to commit a murder, as your criminal thoughts immediately give you away. Yet, the hero, the billionaire chief executive of a universe-wide compagny,  is preparing to commit the perfect murder that will go unnoticed by the telepathic detectives. The premise of the story is undeniably promissing, and the whole novel turns out to be highly entertaining. As often the case unfortunately, the writer has trouble finishing his story, and he presents us with an unrelevant digression as a closure to this otherwise great SF piece.


The accursed Kings (M. Druon): vol. 5 *****
La louve de France.

I just love this series. The fifth volume is 450 pages long, but like the previous ones, I read it in the nick of time. Six years have passed since the crowning of Philippe V le Long, the second son of Philippe le Bel, as related in the fourth volume. The third son now rules France in 1324 and we witness the events that take place in his kingdom: the death of Charles de Valois, the battle against the English (during which canons were used by the French for the first time in history), how Edouard II, king of England, is toppled by his wife's partisans, etc. Once again, it's stuffed with tons of interesting details that are perfectly disseminated in the story. Who knows for instance that Paris had three hundred thousand inhabitants at that time while London had only fourty thousand souls? Or that England had barely two million people, while nearly 22 million lived in France? I confess I had absolutely no idea that numbers were so disproportionate at the dawn of a war that was to last a hundred years between the two countries. By the way, the French and the English waged war against each other twice over a period of 100 years in the Middle-Ages, not just once as I had thought until then !


Flatland (Edwin Abbot) ****

I realized lately I had barely read any science-fiction in the past two years. It was time to catch up, so I picked up a guide, went to the book store, and bought ten novels at once, one of them being Flatland (I found the title intriguing, as a person deeply interested in computer graphics). Well, it is certainly not the classical SF novel I had expected, it's basically closer to Lewis Caroll, or even Voltaire.
Flatland is a plane populated by two-dimensional polygons, whose number of edges determines their rank in the society. The narrator, Mr Square (a polygon with...yes, that's right, four edges), describes his world to us in great many details. One fine day, a 3D character, namely a sphere, visits Mr Square. This one starts having real trouble grasping Mr Sphere's third dimension... As unconceivable the height of Mr Sphere is to Mr Square, so is a fourth dimension to us, and that's what Edwin Abbot tries to show us (read: any person who is not a graduate in maths or physics) by analogy. Speaking for myself, that's not the side of the novel I enjoyed most.  In fact, I even found some "mathematical" parts to be somewhat boring. I prefered the nice satyre of the Victorian society (Flatland was pusblished in 1880). It's very interesting to read how high-order polygons came to forbid the use of color in order to maintain their privileges. This chapter really looks like a French philosophical tale by Voltaire or Montesquieu. Another example: women, who are lines in Flatland, find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy as they only have one edge. Some would argue that Edwin Abbot might be one more phallocrat, but I don't think so.
Philosophical and ethical issues like eugenics are also discussed: the goal of each couple in Flatland is to give birth to children with one more side since this is the only way to climb up the social ladder. Children that have as many sides as their parents undergo a reformation or are simply outcast of the society. Some characters in Flatland even have recourse to plastic surgery to improve the regularity of their shape ! Doubtless, even though Mr Abbot was a clergyman, he was well ahead of his time.


Le Prince: Commentaires (Jean Anglade) ***1/2

I first intended to read Machiavelli's Il principe, as many other famous characters did before me :-),  but after browsing through the first fifty pages, I jumped to the comments section at the end of the book. By the way, judging from the lessons of history, half of the famours readers (Talleyrand, Cromwell, Fredrisch II, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, De Gaulle, etc.) probably misread Machiavelli's opuscule !
The annotator, Jean Anglade, starts with a couple of witty remarks (yet fully justified), such as "there are probably even more Machiavellian people who haven't read a single line by Machiavelli than Marxists that haven't read Karl Marx". Then, he itemizes the various interpretations of the book, in particular that made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered it a republican book (recent studies tend to refute this theory). Key phrases are also highlighted. All in all, I think I gained more insight into Il Principe by reading these comments than by reading half of it ! In any case, I learned lots of things without being bored. Now, I know that Fredrisch II of Prussia wrote an anti-Il Principe, although he, as an emperor, applied most of the principles stated by Machiavelli...


Chronique d'une mort annoncée (a.k.a. Cronica de una muerte anunciada) (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) *

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a classic short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one if not the most renowned writers from Latin America and Nobel prize winner. And it's another contemporary (i.e. written in the second half of the 20th century) classic that makes me think that, perhaps, modern literature is not to my liking.


Le labyrinthe magique (a.k.a. The Magic Labyrinth) (J.P. Farmer) 1/2

This is the pathetic conclusion to the Riverworld saga, a series losing momentum since the first line of the second book. And yet, it started in a terrific manner with To Your Scattered Bodies Go, a real prize piece in any SF collection and certainly one of my favourite SF novels. Since then, alas, each new book has been a terrible disappointment. I understand that a series has ups and downs, but the Riverworld series has only been flowing downhill since the second book. In fact, the river has turned into a waterfall, and that's still an understatement.
The magic Labyrinth,  the fourth and supposedly (oops, did I say hopefully?) last volume, gives the answers to most of the questions we, the readers, have been asking ourselves since we got hooked on by To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Sometimes it's best not to give answers...especially when you have to make them up and your inspiration has dried up altogether. In conclusion, follow the advice of an angry Amazon reader: "definitely read To your scattered bodies go, but avoid the rest of the series like the plague."


Les dieux eux-mêmes (a.k.a. The gods themselves) (Isaac Asimov) ***

The Gods themselves contains some interesting ideas, but it can not compete with more famous works by Isamov such as Foundation or Nightfall (the short story, not the book). The book is clearly divided into three parts: "Against Stupidity", "The Gods Themselves", "Struggle in Vain". Forget the first and third bits (the first part is actually fairly good, but it's best to skip the last one), and concentrate on the second, which describes a parallel universe populated by tri-sexual aliens. Asimov at his best! This part deserves five stars. By the way, as it's SF and not literature, and written in addition by a no-style writer, do not expect beautifully written prose but rather something like a high-school essay.


Leviathan (Paul Auster) **

I must say I'm very puzzled by Leviathan. I haven't read anything else by Paul Auster, but  this book alone showed me that he has a genre of his own. Now, I understand why he has so many fans. His prose is very fluid and pleasant to read, which accounts for the fact I enjoyed reading it. But when I finally closed it, I realized I was unable to tell what the book actually is about. In a certain way, it's like eating a chocolate bar: it tastes good, but it's not very nutritive. There's another thing that bothered me: the narrator points out that the debut novel of a would-be writer usually is a disguised account of his/her own life. I was glad to read this statement, since I couldn't agree more with it. Yet, paradoxically (or ironically?),  Leviathan's two main characters are both writers and live in New York just like Paul Auster. Hence, it's not too farfetched to suppose that their lifestyle is pretty much the same as Auster's. What to make of this? Finally, I'm wondering whether the character refered to as the "Phantom of liberty" is named after Bunuel's movie. Or is it just another coincidence? A strange book.


The accursed Kings (M. Druon): vol. 2, 3 & 4 *****
La reine étranglée, Les poisons de la couronne, La loi des  mâles.
Virginités (a.k.a. Losing my virginity) (R. Brandson) ****

Losing my virginity is the autobiography (up to the mid-90's) of Richard Brandson, the talented businessman at the head of the Virgin empire.  The tag line says: how I've survived, had fun, and made business my own way. And it seems indeed that Brandson's never stopped having fun for the last 25 years, ever since he dropped out of school and co-founded the magazine Student at the age of 16. Loaded with tons of unknown facts (Brandson and his friends came up with the name Virgin, because they were completely new in the music business), this autobiography shows how this extraordinary iconoclastic entrepreneur managed to spawn so many successful ventures, while challenging death time and again in his private life (I've lost count of the number of times he got caught in a gale, either in the air, or on water).  Amazing to see how much Brandson had achieved by the age of 25. Were it not for the known facts, one could easily believe Richard Brandson turned his autobiography into a hagiography.


The accursed Kings, Vol. 1: Le roi de fer (Maurice Druon) *****

Les rois maudits (a.k.a. The accursed Kings) is a series of seven historical novels that takes us back to the Middle-Ages in the kingdom of France. It is also the cornerstone of Maurice Druon's works. Le roi de fer, the first volume, refers to the king Philippe le Bel, grand-son of Saint-Louis, who ruled France with an iron hand in the beginning of the 14th century. The story begins in 1314  at the end of the trial of the Knigth Templars leaders. Sentenced to be burnt at the stake, Templar Jacques Molay curses king Philippe, Pope Clement and Guillaume de Nogaret.
Le roi de fer shows perfectly what a historical novel should be like: both extremely entertaining and educating. The talent of Maurice Druon is such that the characters literally spring to life. The story is gripping yet completely true and sound historically. The style is simply perfect and this book alone justifies Maurice Druon's membership of the Academy. Put another way, this is better than any history course I've ever been taught. Having read the first volume, I know I'll read the entire series and watch the TV series again. Speaking of which, I should say it ranks easily among the best French series ever produced for TV: every single performance is outstanding and judging from the first volume, it's as faithful to Druon's work as can be. The actors are all perfectly cast (they even look like the characters of the novel), and it's absolutely marvelous to see Robert d'Artois or Tolomei fleshed out so faithfully.


The Talisman (S. King, P. Straub) *1/2

It seems everyone loves this book...but me.
King and Straub united to write this epic fantasy that tells us the story of a young American (Jack Sawyer) who sets on a long journey to fetch the Talisman, the only cure that can save his dying mother. We discover quickly that Jack has the ability to flip in and out of a parallel world called the Territories. This parallel universe is a medieval-like version of the U.S., where one travels much faster but where things and rules are also a lot different.
I can clearly remember I once read a tale (by brothers Grimm, or was it Perrault?) that told basically the same story: a child setting out on a long, trying journey to find the only remedy that can cure his dying mother. In that case, if I recollect correctly, the talisman was a Swiss edelweiss... As you see King and Straub score little as far as originality is concerned. What about style? Wordy. Very wordy. Extremely wordy. It takes the authors nearly 800 pages to tell us a story that could fit in 300-400 nicely-written pages. King is always prolix but this one might top all his other novels in that respect. By the way I stopped at page 487.


Hygiène de l'assassin (A. Nothomb) **

A famous writer and nobel prize winner, who's said to be one of the most intelligent men on earth, is about to die from a very rare disease.  Four journalists interview the writer, who turns out to be a horrible person (both physically and mentally: he's obese, bald and misanthropist)  and a murderer. The first half of the book is enthralling because of the strange but effective combination of irony and witticism in the dialogues. It's funny to note that the main character, who is by all accounts the most dislikeable person on earth,  becomes likeable to the reader because of his extraordinary good sense of repartee. Unfortunately, the second part of the book does not live up to the first one, and the end is particularly predictable and disappointing.


Le pull-over rouge (G. Perrault) ***1/2

Gilles Perrault relates in this book the arrestation, the trial, and the execution of a young French man in the mid 70's.  Christian Ranucci, aged 20, accused of savagely murdering a young girl, was found guilty by a jury, and guillotined in 1976. This book was written a couple of years later, shortly before death penalty was eventually abolished in France.
As the writer is a journalist by trade, the book has a clear journalistic touch, on the verge of a documentary. It appears Perrault investigated the case very minutely, which makes his account of the facts horribly frightening. Upon reading I couldn't help thinking that young Ranucci had hit the worst stroke of bad luck as all evidence militates agaisnt him... in addition to the confusion with another affair that occured at the same time and the natural thirst for vengeance. As fate would have it, he was not even reprieved by incumbent president Giscard d'Estaing, who was yet against death penalty.
Perrault goes back over the facts again and again, bringing out in a very persausive way all the details that just don't fit in. The book does not claim to let the truth come out, but it shows on the other hand how unlikely Ranucci's guilt is: he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Wrongful convinctions do take place around the world, and this book shows how it can happen.


The last of the Mohicans (J.F. Cooper) *

Cooper is famous for imposing the American western as a literary genre, taken up by the movie industry in the 20th century. I've never been very fond of western movies (I'm refering to the classic genre, not to spaghetti westerns which I love on the other hand). Although I enjoyed reading an abridged Last of the Mohicans as a child, I couldn't find much interest in the unabridged version, probably because I grew older (and more cynical?) in the meantime. Still, this book might please western lovers.


La fortune des Rougon (E. Zola) ***1/2

The background is set during the revolutionary unrest of 1848 just before Napoleon III rose to power. Zola mixed actual facts and fiction, perhaps in order to make the story appear more real. More importantly, La fortune des Rougon is the first book in the series that relates the (mis)fortunes of the Rougon-Macquarts (a 19th century French family). Thus, many famous characters are introduced: Gervaise (L'Assomoir), l'abbé Mouret (La faute de l'abbé Mouret) etc. Some parts also serve as an introduction to the following novel in the series (namely La  curée). I've always liked the idea of building an entire series around a single family.
In La fortune des Rougon Zola mainly draws a satirical portrait of the provincial bourgeoisie in a small southern french town. It's very funny to read how the petits bourgeois pass themselves off (sucessfully) as heroes. Their storming of the townhall quickly becomes the counterpart of the storming of La Bastille! During this event a gun is mistakingly fired and the stray bullet shatters a great mirror. Our heroes take advantage of this single bullet to glorify their deed. Thus, they hold the accidental shot to be the evidence they've faced a real danger. In truth the revolutionaries surrendered without any bloodshed, simply because they were outnumbered and caught by surprise in their slumber:-)
Eventually the main characters manage to rise to afluence by taking advantage of the unrest. Interestingly, they get away with it... And yes, I fully approve of this kind of happy ending for the bad guys! Down with happy-ending Hollywood films and Victorian English novels :-)


The Empire of the Sun (J. Ballard) *****

I was intrigued when I first saw this book because I thought Ballard wrote sci-fi exclusively. Besides, I had heard a lot about the movie made by Spielberg although I hadn't seen it (and still haven't). Is The Empire of the Sun just another book about World War II?
The Empire of the Sun tells the life of a young boy (Jamie/Jim) in Shangai during WWII. Jim witnesses the war's outbreak, the bombing of Nagasaki, the liberation of Shangai. It's hard to tell what the story in this amazing novel is about because there are so many facets: it's a novel about starvation, about the resistance of the human species and its capacity to adjust itself to any environment however hostile it may be, but it's also a novel about a child coming of age in a prisoner camp...The semi-detached style makes the descriptions even more real and unbearable: the stench of the rotting corpses, the constant fight against hunger, the emeciated faces and bodies, the dying soldiers, the starving civilians... This novel is said to be semi-autobiographic. Hopefully very little of it!


Un meurtre sera commis le... (a.k.a. A Murder is announced) (Agatha Christie) ***

I used to read lots of Agatha Chrities but that was quite a long time ago. So before I started this one, I was wondering whether I would still enjoy this sort of detective stories. The answer is: I still do. Quoting from my favourite movie (Sleuth) detectives stories are the perfect recreation for noble minds. That may be exaggerated :-) but still, Agatha Christie's stories are definitely entertaining and A Murder is announced is no exception to the rule. The culprit is as usual the least suspicicious person and yet, I found myself suspecting the wrong character as always. No doubt Agatha Christie knew how to subtly mislead her readers.


La Valse aux adieux (M. Kundera) *

I admit that my rating is severe because La Valse aux adieux is not a really bad book. In fact, what irked me is that this is the fifth book by Kundera I've read and it looks perfectly like the fourth, which in turn looked like the third. In short I'm wondering whether Milan Kundera is capable of writing anything else besides stories about Tcheck men sleeping about, loyal wives, communism, musicians etc. If Kundera were a film director, his name'd be Emir Kusturica...


The Merry-go-round (S. Maugham) ****

The merry-go-round is my first encounter with Somerset Maugham's literary world. It's quite hard to explain why I felt satisfaction in reading this book, but I really did. What's obvious to the reader at once is that it's marvelously well-written. What's more, it's not written in this Victorian naive style I depise or even hate. Perhaps because it was written in 1905? By the way, what I mean by Victorian naive style (Does it exist in English or have I coined it, I know not :-) is when everything is always seen in black and white: the good guys are nice, brave, virtuous whereas the bad guys are vicious, cunning and malicious, let alone the fact that the good guys (or should I say the morality?) always triumph... Although The Merry-go-round looks like this at times, it is not such a book on the whole. I was particularly fond of the old lady's character. She witnesses the misfortunes of several young people and couples and sees everything with an unexpected clear-sightedness.


Le bal (I. Nemirovsky) **1/2

I picked up Le Bal enthusiastically because I had enjoyed L'affaire Courilof quite a lot. In Le Bal a couple of nouveaux-riches make their debut in the mundane world. The relationship between the already-aging mother and her teenage daughter is well underscored. The language is fine as I had expected but... something is missing though I could not say what. Perhaps it is because the story is so short?


Quand j'avais cinq ans, je m'ai tué (a.k.a. Burt, a.k.a. When I was five, I killed myself) (Howard Buten) *****

This novel is absolutely fascinating. The story is delivered to us as a young boy's diary. Gill, an eight-year old boy, seems to suffer from emotional disorder. That's why he spends half his time under observation in a specialized children home. As the story develops, we realize that Gill is in no way psychologically unstable but rather misunderstood by the adults around him including his own parents. For example he expresses his love for one of his schoolmates named Jessica in various ways, all of which are beyond adults' comprehension. The only person that actually understands him is a young psychiatrist. Unfortunately, his opinion is laughed at by an older colleague and as fate would have it, the young psychiatrist is finally sacked. The climax is reached as Gill tries to express his love to Jessica in the last scene. Mimicking his father (with his mum), he starts hugging her. The children are still playing innocently when Jessica's mother comes in. Naturally, she gets completely mistaken about what's actually going on in her daughter's room and wrongly thinks Gill a sexual pervert.
Since Gill is only eight, the syntax is often incorrect as shown in the French title. This can be regarded as an easy trick from a literary standpoint but it also gives some credence and power to the story and is thus fully justified (to draw a comparison, To Kill a Mocking Bird is also told by a young child but whithout using children's talk, resulting in a slightly less convincing work). Howard Buten does here a marvelous job of desconstructing children's mentality and showing how much their actions can be misunderstood by grown-ups. If you want to grow young again, read this book.


Une Vie (Guy de Maupassant)*****

If you're a big fan of Maupassant like me, you'll love this book. If you're not, you'll love it all the same. Believe me, it's a real masterpiece despite the fact that it's Maupassant's first novel. But beware, that's the kind of story that makes your eyes blurred.
As partly suggested by the title, the story spans (almost) the entire life of a French woman at the beginning of the 19th century. The novel starts as she returns to her parent's estate in Normandy after spending most of her teenage years in a convent. She soon becomes acquainted with a  young handsome aristocrat and starts feeling attracted to him. Urged by her loving parents who think he's a good match, she marries the young man within a month. Then, the true soul of her husband is disclosed: he's a miser that betrays her with her own chambermaid. So long for her love... To make a long story short the rest of her life is also a series of misfortunes. The only gleam of hope - and it's a faint one - comes with the last page, when she's become an old woman!
The 19th century provincial world pictured by Maupassant is awfully depressing. It's a world of boredness, loneliness in which stupid untold rules prevail, a world awfully unfair to women. Still, all that happens to the poor heroin is extremely credible. For example her parents who are good-hearted, well-meaning people do her unwittingly more harm than good. They insist that she marries the young aristocrat they think handsome, charming, and if not rich, of noble birth at least. And indeed the young man appears as such...until he gets married. As a conclusion, I shall say I've liked Une Vie much more than Pierre et Jean and just a trifle less than Bel-Ami, which remains my favourite Maupassant.


Les particules élémentaires (Michel Houellebecq) **1/2

I wouldn't be much surprised if I were told that Michel Houellebecq smoked a couple of joints while writing this book. He's also probably horny, but all men are, aren't they? What I did not like in this fiction is that it reminded me too much of the daily life of reasearchers. But that's not Houellebecq's fault if I happen to be a would-be researcher myself...


Thérèse Raquin (Emile Zola) *1/2

This is one of the few books that are unrelated to the Rougon-Macquart saga. In the broadlines, the story runs like this: Thérèse Raquin is a young lady who married her unhealthy cousin.  Although she did not fully approve of this marriage, she did not refuse it altogether either. After a few months however, she takes a lover. The two lovers' passion is such that they decide to get rid of the skicly husband. After having murdered him, they start feeling remorse, up to a point where they can no longer stand each other, for they remind one another of their hideous crime.
Why rate this highly-praised French classic so low?
Two reasons. Firstly, this book completely slipped out of my mind in less than two years' time. When I picked it again recently, I did not even notice I had already read it until page 150 or so! Secondly, I did not find the story very compelling. Ok, it's well-written, but I liked La curée (my favourite so far) ten times better. Rather read this one or L'Assomoir.


La peau sur les os (a.k.a. Thinner) (S. King) **1/2

Billy is an obese thriving lawyer who leads a perfectly quiet life in a small town, until he accidentally runs over an old gypsy and kills her. To avenge themselves, the gypsy's relatives cast a spell on Billy: from that day, Billy starts losing weight and the process is seemingly irreversible. The idea behind this novel is undeniably good (but is it original?), as often with Stephen King. The style is not literary but King knows how to captivate his audience, so you're likely to read Thinner very quickly as I did.  However, the story has some flaws. First, if King intended to scare the readers with gypsy curses and the like, well, that could do if readers are under twelve. Second, I'm under the impression King simply did not know how he could finish this novel. At some point (about halfway through the novel), the story goes adrift and a sterotyped Italian maffioso comes into play, which I found particularly ludicrous. And finally King throws in a pretty obvious ending. Too bad, the idea was great but I just can't stand such predictable endings.


Ma seule certitude, c'est d'être dans le doute (P. Desproges) ****
The Feast of All Saints (Anne Rice) *****

The Feast of All Saints is by far the best American novel I've read lately. I hardly knew anything about les gens de couleur libre, a free black people descended from slaves in southern America, chiefly around New-Orleans, so I cannot deem the historical soundness of this novel, but my bet is that Anne Rice researched the subject thoroughly beforehand. Besides, who cares ? The characters are so powerful they seem to be alive, the language is so delicate one feels like reading poetry, and finally, Anne Rice even manages to bring up profound themes without us becoming aware of it! This sort of story could have been really corny, but it turns out it's not. On the contrary it does make you feel you're part of another Gone with the wind. The only shadow is that the middle of the book (the second volume) is not as good as the rest but still, it certainly deserves five stars. Needless to say I recommend this book to anyone.


L'affaire Courilof (Irene Nemirovsky) ****

Irene Nemirovsky is yet another Russian-born writer whose family moved to Finland in the midst of the October revolution before finally settling down in Paris (unlike Henry Troyat, she hasn't changed her name). Despite her literary achievements, she was deported by the German-friendly regime of Vichy and her life tragically ended in a nazi concentration camp.

L'affaire Courilof takes place in Saint-Petersbourg at the beginning of this century. In a few words, the story goes like this: the narrator, a Russian anarchist, is ordered to assasinate in public a Russian politician named Courilof. He passes himself off as a Swiss and soon becomes Courilof's personal physician, which enables him to get to know Courilof's habits and timetable. What I especially liked about this book is the psychology behind the drama. All the chararacters's layers are gradually laid bare and their humanity is disclosed as the story develops, especially that of Courilof as seen through the narrator's eyes. For example, Couriloff 's main traits are ambition and love. Thus,  he continuously wavers between his true love for his wife and an irresistible thirst for power.  Finally, Nemirovsky's French is exquisite and should appeal to all lovers of the French idiom.


Homage to Catalonia (George Orwell) ****1/2

This is the second Orwells's non-fiction book I read so far and it is definitely a must read (the first one being In and Out in Paris and London, which I also highly recommend). In Homage to Catalonia Orwell describes thoroughly his life as a militiaman in 1937 during the Spanish war. First of all, I am a great admirer of Orwell not only as a writer but also as a man who has always lived up to his political opinions, his taking part in the Spanish war to fight the Fascists led by Franco exemplifying his commitment. I think that the book perfectly renders the atmosphere in Barcelona during the early stages of the civil war. My only reproach could be that Orwell goes on at length describing the political intrigues within the government and the militias, which turns out to be a bit hard to follow. Fortunately, these descriptions are deliberately kept in two clearly separate chapters, which Orwell introduces by saying that they can be skipped by the uninterested reader. As for the rest, no detail about the squalid life in the trenches is omitted, and that is completely justified since there is no such thing as a clean war. Orwell also gives us a vivid account of when he is hit by a bullet: his first thought was, rather conventionally (as he puts it) for his wife, the second one for the Spaniard who shot him (he nearly congratulated him mentally for being such a good shot !).


Sur la route (a.k.a. On The Road) (J. Kerouac) 1/2

After reading two hundred pages I couldn't help drawing a parallel between this novel and Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit, which, incidentally, I have not managed to read till the end. As I went back to the foreword I came across a note saying that the French writer Céline had been as a matter of fact the greatest source of inspiration of Kerouac! What bothers me in Sur la route and to an even greater extent in Voyage au bout de la nuit  is the total lack of story. In a way Sur la route could be described as a road book (analogously to road movies like Thelma & Louise). The problem is that we never get to know the characters involved in the story, which makes them completely shallow.  The narrator spends most of his time drinking, trying to pick up girls or hitchhiking...on the road. But we're not given a single chance to find out what he really thinks (of his mishaps for example) and seldomly what he feels. Some may argue that the chief interest of this book lies in the style, the atmosphere it conveys, partly thanks to the slang that is used in the right places. I agree but it is just not my kind of book.


Looking Back  on the Spanish War (George Orwell) *****

This is not exactly a novel but rather some thoughts about the Spanish war and World War II and a few general remarks about war and its usefulness (with a fitting reference to Im Westen, nichts neues). It really gave me some insight into the way European countries supported (or not) the Spanish War as well as how they reported on it at the time. Interestingly, this essay was written in 1943. Though Orwell's left-wing inclination clearly stands out, he tries to be fair in his judgement. Some remarks about communism in the Staline-ruled Soviet Union also prefigure 1984.


Mostly Harmless (Douglas Adams) ***

As usual, it is often hilarious but since it's the fifth book in the Hitchiker's Guide trilogy, I couldn't help having at times this feeling of deja-lu :-)


Le malentendu (Albert Camus) :-(

I usually like the works of the French writer Albert Camus (e.g. La chute or L'Etranger). To my surprise this short play was awfully disappointing. The whole plot is extremely classical and hence predictable.There only remains the precise and compelling use of the French language. I should add that I am usually against reading plays since I think they are primarily conceived to be performed on stage and watched. Yet, ironically, I do enjoy reading Shakespeare.


Hoechste Zeit (Harry Mullish) ***

This book was recommended to me by a Dutch friend of mine and I am glad he did. As Harry Mullish puts it, not without a certain sense of humour: "In Holland I'm world famous". As far as Hoechste Zeit (German translation of the title) is concerned he certainly deserves some recognition abroad. The book juggles with various philosophical issues like the difficulty of ageing, the five minutes of fame in a life's time, the duality of the theater etc. The end is particularly moving.


La chute (Albert Camus) ****

A well written 140-page monologue about the meaning of life. Quite hard to comment on this one.


To Kill a Mocking Bird (Harper Lee) ****

Three stories are interwoven in this powerful coming-of-age novel. What connects them all together is that they are all seen through the eyes of a little girl. The main story is that of a lawyer named Atticus Finch, who is appointed to defend in court a young negro that has been wrongly accused of raping a white girl. The prejudiced South in the 30's is depicted in an extremely interesting fashion because of the writer's choice to deliver the story as it is perceived by an unbiased young girl aged 10. Slowly, we see the young girl grow older and lose, in a sense, her innoncence as she steps into the brutal world of grown-ups.


Le monde selon Garp (a.k.a. The World According To Garp) (J.Irving) **

I was not acquainted with J. Irving when I started reading The World According To Garp but I had heard a good deal about this book. At first I was thrilled and could notput the book down for the first two hundred pages. Alas, the remaining four hundred pages are nothing but a repetition, or maybe variations, of the beginning, so I gradually lost my interest. Yet, the style is funny,  full of a good cynical humor, and though the book did not meet my expectations, it is still worth being read.


Vol de nuit (Saint-Exupery) 1/2

Without a shadow of a doubt, Saint-Exupery drew the inspiration for this book from his own experiences as a pilot. Yet, I was extremely disappointed by this French classic. Vol de nuit tells thestory of a man who runs an air mail service in South America in the 20's, at a time when night flights still meant great danger.

My conclusion: why didn't I read again Le petit prince instead ?


Le portrait, la perspective Nevisky, le nez, le manteau, le journal d'un fou (Gogol) ****

I found these short stories extremely interesting. They have nothing in common except that the action takes place in Saint Petersbourg in all of them. Le nez is utterly absurd -how could a nose be stolen ?- but quite funny and le journal d'un fou (the diary of a mad man) is a real masterpiece. Unfortunately, some satyres of the 19th century world in which Gogol lived have become meaningless to us, modern readers, which sometimes reduces the impact of the story. This is particularly noticeable in La perspective Nevisky.


Snowcrash (Neal Stephenson) :-(

An extremely boring novel, similar to William Gisbson's Neuromancer, but even worse. I may not be very much into techno-thrillers but still, I have trouble seeing why people make such a fuss about this book. The cyberpunk world depicted here is uninteresting, jargon is overused, the plot is very thin, etc..  In short this fantasy is equally boring from the first page to the last.


Im Westen, nichts neues (E.M. Remarque) *****

One of the finest war books ever written. It depicts the life of German soldiers during World War I. Interestingly, unlike most war novels, it is not written from the winner's side. By its subject and its period, this book is closer to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Paths of Glory than Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. I consider it one of the best descriptions of the absurdity and uselessness of war I have ever read. Some scenes seem awfully true, in particular this one in which the lead character, trapped behind the enemy lines, has to stab a French soldier to avoid being driven out from cover.


Le choc des civilisations (Clash of the civilizations) (Samuel Huntington) ****1/2

A great book  about geopolitics in today's world. The author's theory is that our world is no longer divided into geographical entities, that is countries as was the case during the Cold War, but rather into clashing civilisations. Quite interesting, especially the bits about the causes of the Gulf war and the conflict in Bosnia.

There is also an interesting part concerning languages and their evolution throughout the world. The author contends that, contrary to popular belief, the dominance of the English language is declining. His supporting argument is that the Chinese, the main demographic group in the world, do not speak English.

The book did not alter my vision of today's world altogether, but I certainly learnt a few things. I would only reproach Mr Hutington with repeating the same ideas over and over instead of exposing them clearly once and for all. A note about Switzerland: the author claims that Swiss-german businessmen often talk English with their counterparts of the French-speaking region. He then adds they could as well converse in their native language, which is very optimistic according to my own experience.


April 98