The Greatest Books of the 20th Century–As Seen from France

What are the greatest books of the 20th century? Americans might say To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby. The British might push for Ulysses and Brave New World. But what do the French think?

That’s easy to answer, because a giant survey was done a few years ago on exactly this topic, ranking the 100 best books of the 20th century. It should come as no surprise that French classics The Stranger and In Search of Lost Time topped the list. But it might surprise you that French authors made up only half the list. There were plenty of books by authors from the US, UK, Italy, Russia…even Albania!

Learn what the French think about literature, and find out why this list was controversial, in France Today!

Finding That Perfect French Novel

Are you looking for a great new book to read? Then consider trying a French novel. Books that have won the prestigious Prix Goncourt (Goncourt Prize) are a good place to start because most have been translated into English. Some have even become movies, like The Perfect Nanny and The Life Ahead, recently made into a Netflix film starring Sophia Loren.

What’s not to like about the Goncourt? It’s got class! (winners include Simone de Beauvoir and Marcel Proust.) It’s got controversy! (non-winners include Albert Camus and Colette.) And sometimes the prize committee gets hoodwinked, like the time they awarded the Goncourt to an author that didn’t exist.

Find your next great read at France Today!

Fun Stories from France

I’d like to introduce you to my friend Annette Charlton, part-time Frenchwoman and the author of a delightful new book, A French Life.

Some years ago, Annette and her husband bought a house in a small village in Brittany. This, you might think, is not particularly unusual. But they bought the house on their first-ever trip to France. And they live in Australia. All right, you think, this is not your run-of-the-mill couple.

Annette is the publisher of A French Collection, where she writes about all things French. And she occasionally writes funny stories about her life in France. She has now collected these blog posts into a slim volume that I very much enjoyed reading.

Annette begins with a straightforward question—how do you buy a house on your first trip to a country? While others might choose a different path, preferring to visit a few times first, the method she lays out will profit anyone thinking of buying a home abroad.

Then Annette starts telling funny stories about the life that she, her husband, and their three kids live in France. She describes an unusual French specialty, chocolate sausage. She tells how she once accidentally invited an elderly priest for a visit, then had to entertain him when neither spoke the other’s language. And she asks the vital question, what is the proper French etiquette when someone’s hair catches on fire?

Whether you buy this book, read the stories on her blog, or just dip into A French Collection from time to time, I guarantee you’ll enjoy getting to know Annette and her family.

You can purchase A French Life here.

 

Resources to Help You Read in French

One of the best ways to improve your French is by reading. Unlike spoken French, which can sometimes be too fast to understand, reading allows you to go at your own pace. It adds to your vocabulary and can help your pronunciation if you read out loud. No matter what your level of French, reading is a fun and effective way to get better at this beautiful language.

But where to start? I’ve put together a list of excellent resources for readers at any level, from debutantes to advanced. It’s never too late to get started!

Check out my article at My French Life to find some fun things to read!

Fun French Humor: Toto Jokes

With all the craziness in the world today, who couldn’t use some laughs? Let me introduce you to Toto, a little scamp who has been the subject French humor for over 100 years.

Toto is the archetypical naughty schoolboy, always causing trouble and exasperating grownups. Toto jokes usually revolve around school, homework, and talking back to adults. The jokes are short and are popular among elementary school children. Their innocence and simplicity are refreshing!

Check out these Toto jokes, first in French and then in English, in My French Life!

A Delightful Trip to Middle-of-Nowhere France

Oh boy, I love books about France and this is one of the best.

France is full of fascinating places to visit, like Paris, Provence, the Riviera, Normandy, and more. There are so many that it’s hard to decide where to go! Well, it just got harder because Janine Marsh’s description of her tiny village in “middle-of-nowhere-France” is so delightful that you’ll want to go there, too. I know I do.

Fifteen years ago, Janine and her husband Mark bought a wreck of a house in the Seven Valleys region of northern France. They didn’t plan to buy a house; they were on a shopping trip from their home in London and stumbled into a real estate office to get out of the rain. The next thing they knew they were looking at a place that cost “less than a Hermes handbag.” They bought it as a bit of a lark, thinking it would make a nice place for vacations and the occasional weekend getaway.

But life had other plans. The little village captured their hearts and soon they packed up and moved to France. The next dozen years were spent refurbishing the house (including a septic tank explosion that earned Janine the nickname Madame Merde), collecting a vast collection of farm animals (including a demented chicken named Ken) and settling into the local community.

Janine and Mark are those rarest of birds, expats who have really become members of a French village. They drink at a local bar that looks like someone’s living room circa 1955. They play charades with their neighbors, where everyone fights to play Johnny Holliday or Edith Piaf. They chat with the bread delivery man—their village is too tiny to support a boulangerie—who occasionally has questions about English (“What means the expression, ‘It sucks?’”)

The best part of the book is the way Janine writes about of her neighbors, a friendly and occasionally eccentric crew who have welcomed Janine and Mark with great warmth. There’s Jean-Claude, who teaches them how to trim hedges and make crow pâté. And Claudette, always ready with a hot cup of coffee and a plate of something tasty. And “Miss Pepperpot,” the tiny lady who occasionally needs help getting wayward cows out of her flowerbed, and offers jars of homemade jam as thanks.

I love Janine’s writing and laughed when she described a young couple falling in love over a shared passion for mushroom hunting (“one fungi led to another…”) And her description of a strong local drink (“Calvados can blow your socks off, and after a couple of hours we were all pretty much sockless.”)

If you are stuck at home and looking for something to brighten your day, think about taking a trip to this delightful corner of France. I just loved this book and I think you will, too.

You can find My Four Seasons in France on Amazon.

Armchair Travel in France with Robert Louis Stevenson

Bored at home? Missing France? Here’s a pleasant way to while away a few hours.

Known for his classic novels like Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson was an adventurer. Born into a family of lighthouse designers in Scotland, as a young man he longed to see the wider world. As he put it,

“I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers.”

His first great adventure was in France, in the wild and rugged region known as the Cévennes. At the age of 27 he made his way to the tiny village of Le Monastier, where he gathered (too many) provisions, had a sleeping bag made, and bought a donkey named Modestine. Then he set out—admittedly, not really knowing what he was doing—on a 12-day march into the unknown.

Read all about this fun book in France Today!

Book Review: Lavender, Loss & Love at the Villa des Violettes

“Families come in all shapes and sizes.”

This phrase, spoken by one the women in Patricia Sands’ new novella, is a good summary of what this lovely book is about. And what families they are! United by love, friendship, and sometimes even biology. Sands shows us how families bind us together, forming the center of a life well-lived.

As with all of her books, Sands does a wonderful job of capturing the sights, smells, and flavors of this unique part of the world. We see the stunning ocher mines of Roussillon, the austere beauty of the Abbey de Senanque, and the magical sound & light show inside the Carrières de Lumières. We learn about Provencal traditions like la vendange—the grape harvest—where each new vintage begins with a joyous celebration. And of course, there are meals, lots of meals, with tables bursting with the bounty of Provence.

Learn more about this fun new book at Perfectly Provence!

Reading in French–How to Get Started

French is a beautiful language, but like any foreign tongue, it can be intimidating. I remember the first time I was in Paris and a local spoke to me. I froze because I had no idea what she’d just said! It was so embarrassing. Let me tell you how reading in French can help you, as it helped me, no matter what your level.

I didn’t begin studying French in earnest until I was in my late 40s.

I improved little by little and today, a dozen years later, I can speak the language comfortably. I subscribe to a French newspaper and watch French news. And one of the things that has helped me is reading.

When I first started, I could only read the short handouts I got from my French teacher. Eventually, I tried newspapers and magazines, and finally made it to simple books—my first one is very popular with 12-year-olds!

Now I’ve enjoyed a number of French novels, including some of the classics.

I offer my tips for getting started with French reading in My French Life.

Try a Graphic Novel for Easy French Reading

Let’s say you know some French and would like to try reading something more challenging that a magazine article. Here’s an idea for you: a bande dessinée, or BD, what we call a graphic novel in English.

When native English-speakers think of illustrated stories, comic books like Batman and Spiderman usually come to mind.These are considered ‘kid stuff’ rather than something an adult would read. Sure, there is the occasional graphic novel that reaches an adult readership, like Persepolis or Maus (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), but those are exceptions.

Not so in France.

No, in France the BD is a serious and respected art form, with an annual festival in Angoulême that attracts hundreds of thousands. And while comic-book-style BDs are popular, those dealing with adult themes are also widely read. And they are a great way for a French learner to read in French. The text is limited and the illustrations help you understand the story.

I’ve written an article on the advantages of BDs for French learners, along with an explanation of the different kinds that are available (history, humor, contemporary social issues, and more.) You can read all about it at My French Life!