Vive la France!
With few celebrities (with the exception of Grumpy Cat) at BEA 2013 to distract me, I could concentrate on the serious business of scoping out my picks of the show. I didn’t realize until I took my biblio-booty home that there was a French flavor to my selections.
First catching my attention was Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat (Gallic, dist. by Consortium, Sept.). Winner of the Prix Landerneau Découvertes and Prix Relay des Voyageurs, this delightful “1980s fairy tale for adults” is the story of how a black felt hat belonging to French president François Mitterand transforms the lives of those who possess it. Its gentle satirical humor reminded me of Jacques Tati’s classic films, and, no, you don’t have to know French politics to enjoy this novel. At the LJ’s fifth annual Librarian Shout ’n Share, Kansas PL’s Kaite Mediatore Stover enthusiastically advised fans of The Elegance of the Hedgehog not to miss Laurain’s book. The American Booksellers Association has also included the title in its fall “Celebrate Debut Authors with Indies” promotional program.
We move into much darker territory with Pierre Lemaitre’s twisty thriller Alex (MacLehose: Quercus, Sept.). Praised in Europe for his Hitchcockian plots, the award-winning Lemaitre makes his English-language debut with this devilish tale about a young woman snatched off a Parisian street. But as Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven investigates the kidnapping, he learns that this girl is no ordinary victim. This intense crime novel asks “who is the predator and who is the prey” and will remind many readers of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; interestingly, Lemaitre’s English editor also edited Larsson.
Next year marks the centennial of the start of World War I. Jean Echenoz, one of France’s most distinguished writers, takes the “war to end all wars” as his subject of his novel 1914 (New Pr., Jan. 2014). Opening on a summer day in August 1914, this brilliantly compressed (at 128 pages) yet powerful book follows five Frenchmen, two of whom leave behind a young woman who waits for their return, as they leave for the trenches of northern France and the unthinkable carnage that awaits them.
I love travel memoirs, the more exotic and extreme the better. And what could be more extreme than spending six months alone in a cabin in Siberia with your closest neighbors a day’s hike away? Winner of the Prix Médicis for nonfiction, The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga (Rizzoli Ex Libris, Sept.) recalls Sylvain Tesson’s experiment in isolation and solitude on Russia’s Lake Baikal with only his notebooks, his books, and many bottles of vodka to keep him company: “I’d promised myself that before I turned forty, I would live as a hermit deep in the woods.” Besides chopping wood for his stove, fishing, and skating on the lake, Tesson spent a lot of time reading from his carefully selected library of 70 titles. “When you have misgivings about the poverty of your inner life, it’s important to fill that void in a pinch,” he writes. A philosophy with which I agree wholeheartedly!
Crossing the English Channel, I was taken by two Jane Austen reinterpretations. Longbourn (Knopf, Oct.,) is Jo Baker’s long-awaited alternate take on Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective. At the Random House BEA breakfast, Baker told librarians that Pride and Prejudice had always been her comfort read. But because her family several generations ago had been in service, the author knew she would have never been one of those characters who attend the balls. “I knew my place in P&P, and I began to read it differently. I wondered, who is going to wash the mud off Elizabeth Bennet’s petticoat? When I started thinking about that anonymous servant, my story began to emerge.” Also coming in October is Sense & Sensibility (Harper: HarperCollins), Joanna Trollope’s contemporary reimagining of Austen’s classic novel of the same name. For Austen fans, there is plenty of good reading ahead!—Wilda Williams