Posts Tagged ‘france’

Cannonball 22: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A friend of mine recently observed: “You’re so funny when you don’t like stuff!” She’d just listened to me lambast the Lakers as they lost Game Two to the Mavs, and I was merciless in my assessment of their lazy passing and sloppy ball-handling (IMO, the Mavs didn’t win the series as much as the Lakers lost it). But the first thing she ever heard me lay into was this book.

We read Sarah’s Key for our book club. I was excited to read it; a Holocaust story? That’s like a free throw. If you miss that shot while standing still with no one defending you, then you have no one to blame with yourself.

Well, Tatiana de Rosnay’s shooting percentage must be awful because Sarah’s Key, a book that should’ve been an emotional slam dunk with de Rosnay hanging off the rim, mad-dogging the shattered reader she just posterized, was instead an airball that sailed into the crowd and beaned the reader right in the face.

kobe poster

Kobe Bryant posterizing Dwight Howard back in 2009. Those were happier times.

There are two main storylines in the plot. The first one is about Sarah, a young Jewish girl living in Paris during the German occupation. The second concerns Julia, an American expat journalist who discovers Sarah’s story. I like to call them “Vaguely Interesting” and “Rage-Inducingly Idiotic,” respectively.

Each chapter alternates between telling Sarah’s and Julia’s stories. Once again, the Sarah part of the book was tolerable; if the book had been entirely about Sarah, it might have merited as high as three stars out of five. But, no: about a third of the way into the book, the author inexplicably decides that Sarah’s story is finished, and the latter part of the book is all about Julia.

Just so you can get a flavor of Sarah’s story, let me sum it up for you. She and her family are rounded up by French police in the infamous Vel d’Hiv Roundup, in which thousands of Parisian Jews were held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor bicycling track, and detained for several days without food or water. Before Sarah and her parents are hustled out the door, her brother Michel refuses to leave, so Sarah locks him into a hidden cabinet behind a wall panel. Because she doesn’t believe they’ll be there for long, she promises him that she’ll come back and let him out when it’s all over.

hiding

Of course, it’s not over for a long time. Sarah is separated from her parents, but she is able to sneak out of the Vel d’Hiv with another little girl. They wander around for a while until they’re taken in by an elderly French couple living outside Paris. But, all the while, Sarah remains determined to keep her promise to her brother. I’ll give you three guesses how that turns out, since it’s a Holocaust book and Sarah’s story ends in the first third of the book.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

Ehay iesday inyay ethay abinetcay ecausebay eshay ouldn’tcay etlay imhay outyay inyay imetay.

That part of the book was decent.

It was the Julia part of the story that I really couldn’t stand. Julia’s been living in Paris for many years, and she’s married to a Frenchman and they have an eleven-year-old daughter. Their marriage is rather rocky, and the most emotionally mature person in the family is, of course, the eleven-year-old daughter. I mean, come on.

But what’s really infuriating about Julia is that she is one of the stupidest characters ever committed to the printed page. She supposedly speaks perfect, accentless French, and complains that her in-laws still refer to her as “l’Americaine.” What do you expect them to call you? The Native Frenchwoman? Because you’re not, you know.

marie catoinette

When she finds out about the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, she excitedly chatters to her husband (with whom she already has a rather strained relationship) about how she can’t believe how the French covered this up and how she can’t understand why no one wants to talk about it with her. Um, maybe it’s because you’re an American writing a a news story about this shameful event in French history and it’s going to make them look bad. And, also, maybe it’s because your husband wasn’t even born when it happened and he really doesn’t know much about it.

Julia is the stereotype of the obnoxious American, always asking inappropriately probing questions and kicking in figurative doors without knocking first and then demanding that the occupants explain why they’re so upset with her as she tap-dances on their battered door.

And, somehow, she manages to make Sarah’s story all about her. Sarah’s story deeply moves her, and she demands that everyone else care about it just as much as she does just because she does. Look, I love the Lakers, but if you don’t, then we can talk about something else. I’m not going to force you to love what I love and then judge you for not loving it as much as I do (especially considering what a crapper their postseason was). But Julia insists that everyone around her obsess about what she’s obsessed with and then complains when people find that off-putting.

Tatiana de Rosnay is French, and she says that she has a lot of expat friends. Well, her friends must be serious bores if this is de Rosnay’s depiction of American women. Don’t do us any favors, Mme. de Rosnay. I may find the need to write a book about snooty French authors who think they can understand what it’s like to be an American expat in France who thinks that she knows what it’s like to be French. If I were friends with Mme. de Rosnay and I read this book, we would have a serious falling out in full “Jersey Shore” fashion with fingers in faces and shoving in high heels after I read this book.

lolcat jersey shore

Hint: I'm the dog.

Only slightly less annoying is de Rosnay’s portrayal of Julia’s eleven-year-old daughter, Zoë. Zoë is always there to comfort her mother and to reason with her and encourage her. She’s always calm. When she finds out that her parents are (SPOILER!!) ettinggay ivorcedday, she responds with understanding and reassures her mother that it’s the right thing to do. No eleven-year-old I know, no matter how precocious, would respond this calmly to this kind of news. Sounds to me like she’s a sociopath. I’m guessing that, when she’s not comforting her mother, she’s burning holes into her dolls’ eyes and torturing kittens.

Ultimately, I disliked the book because it was supposed to be a Holocaust story, and it wound up being about a whiny, self-absorbed American instead. It’s been a long time since I was this angry at a main character.

By the way, de Rosnay seems especially fond of a very thin trope in which she doesn’t tells us the names of people until it’s “naturally” revealed by others. We don’t even see Sarah called “Sarah” directly until the third or fourth chapter about her. “The girl” does this and “the girl” does that, and her identity is supposed to be a mystery, but it’s like, come on, the book is called Sarah’s Key. Obviously, her name is Sarah, so can we stop pretending we don’t know who she is and move on, already? I don’t know if de Rosnay was trying to make the book more mysterious or what, but, either way: FAIL.

fail

Writing a compelling Holocaust story: FAIL.
Moving the plot along effortlessly: FAIL.
Subtly revealing various facts about the characters: FAIL.
Writing a sympathetic main character: EPIC FAIL.
Book as a whole: You tell me what you think I’m going to say. If you’re a fan of de Rosnay’s you’re probably going to string me along without telling me what you really think before answering a completely different question that I didn’t even ask.

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Cannonball 39: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s like I was born to read this book. Or that this book was written just for me.

I love, love, loved Julia Child’s memoir of her life in France. Not only was it a firsthand account of a remarkable experience, but her nephew, Alex Prud’homme did an excellent job of capturing her voice and personality in the book.

I never really thought about how much work goes into a cookbook. She not only had to research the recipes and make sure that they worked, but she wanted to explain why she did things a certain way and how things should look and feel and smell and taste.

This cookbook changed the face of the American home cook, and it amazes me to look at my cookbooks now and think about how she impacted the way that they were written and even how we look at cuisine today.

She made French cuisine accessible to the American housewife, but, in doing so, she opened a door. She encouraged cooking enthusiasts to be open to new experiences, to try new things, to fail miserably and try again, and to believe that they could create these culinary masterpieces with the right ingredients, a little know-how, and the confidence that anyone can be a good cook.

I want to be her. Like, I want to move to France and take classes at Le Cordon Bleu and learn how to break down chickens in nothing flat. I want to breathe beurre blanc and steam fish and make a really “chickeny” roast chicken.

julia child

This could be me. This SHOULD be me.

Unfortunately, my oven’s broken right now. But I’m excited about seeing all of the wonderful things I can do in my kitchen without one. Thanks for the inspiration, Julia. I owe you one.

On a side note: YAY!! I’m all caught up with my reviews for Cannonball Read!! No more backlogged reviews!! Now I can just review ’em as I read ’em.

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Cannonball Read 9: One False Note (The 39 Clues #2) by Gordon Korman

One False Note (The 39 Clues, #2) One False Note by Gordon Korman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I firmly believe that writing for kids should still reflect good writing.

Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean that you should throw in a bunch of explosions or fighting to keep them interested. No, I believe that children, like adults, learn how to write from what they read. I’m not just talking about grammar, here. I’m talking about style, descriptions, expression — the whole shebangbang.

And the better the writing is now, the better it will be in the future, when today’s kids grow up and write books of their own.

This is why I’m so disappointed with this book. Gordon Korman wrote This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall when he was only twelve — it was published when he was fourteen. The Bruno & Boots series was full of fun and energy — I wanted to move to Canada and attend Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies so that I could engage in shenanigans with the boys at McDonald Hall. His characters were believable and had a lot of depth under all the fun.

How can it be that Korman’s writing got worse as he got older?

After reading The Maze of Bones, the only things that made me read the second book in the series were that: A. my nine-year-old buddy BN was looking forward to lending it to me, and B. the second book was written by Gordon Korman. I figured that if anyone could rescue this series from a crappy second installment, it was Korman.

I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.

The second installment in the series takes the kids from France to Austria to Italy. This time, they’re chasing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. We get a lot of nice Mozart factoids along the way, but I’m dubious as to the accuracy of some of them. For example, the book claims that Mozart had a twin sister. He did have a sister, but they weren’t twins. What’s up with that, Korman?

But my biggest beef with this volume wasn’t the inaccuracies. It was the lack of style.

Maybe it’s because he was given such crappy characters to work with in the first place, but the book was just as two-dimensional as its predecessor. I guess I was expecting too much — if Korman read Rick Riordan’s installment and then tried to copy his (flat) style, then he did too good a job. Korman, sometimes, it’s okay to turn down a job.

Really, the only thing One False Note really does is get the Cahill kids from France to Italy, from whence they will fly off to Japan. *sigh*

Man, I miss Ellen Raskin so much.

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Cannonball 4: The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues #1) by Rick Riordan

The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues, #1) The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
So, it’s already been established why I like reading children’s books.

One of my favorite book buddies is my eleven-year-old friend JN, who introduced me to Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society.

I enjoy borrowing books from JN because it’s fun to see his eyes light up when we talk about books together. And it certainly doesn’t hurt my street cred amongst the younger generation.

When his little brother, nine-year-old BN, wanted to lend me a book, I nearly died at how adorable it was. “Miss Jeena, you have to read The 39 Clues! It’s so good!” All italics and enthusiasm, God bless ‘im. So of course I agreed to read the first installment of the series, The Maze of Bones, so that I could see the same light in his eyes that I saw in his brother’s when we discussed our favorite parts of the books.

Alas, young BN, how will I face you on Sunday? I must give you back your book and tell you honestly that I thought it was… *gulp*… just okay.

The Thirty-Nine Clues is a mystery series by Rick Riordan. Quite frankly, it’s a sloppy re-tread of The Westing Game (still the best children’s mystery EVER!! If you haven’t read it, get your hands on a copy! Post-haste!) with a dash of The Mysterious Benedict Society and none of the style of any of its predecessors. There are clues, there is intrigue, there is sabotage, good guys and bad guys – all of the ingredients for a successful children’s mystery serious.

So what’s missing? Two words: character development.

Dan and Amy Cahill are orphans. They, along with a bunch of relatives (all of whom happen to be evil), have forfeited their $1 million (each!) inheritances in order to participate in their recently deceased grandmother’s inheritance competition. Nobody knows what the prize is, but Grace Cahill promises fame and intrigue for the winners! No money, though! But fame! And intrigue!

Since we no longer live in the days of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (another book superior to this one. *sigh*), Dan and Amy can’t very well go gallivanting off to trot the globe unaccompanied. Enter Nellie, their equally two-dimensional au pair. Nellie is half French and half Spanish. She’s trilingual and listens to loud rock music and probably cuts herself when she thinks the kids aren’t looking. She worries herself to a frazzle when they ditch her, and they ditch her quite often.

As for Dan and Amy themselves, they’re supposed to be fourteen and eleven, but they act more like they’re nine and six. Heck, Olive has more self-control than they do, and she’s supposed to be twelve.

(Sidenote: I must confess that, after reading this book, I began to wonder if Olive, Henry, and Sting argued too much. But the truth is that we did argue about stuff like this. It’s very gritty and real for elementary school kids.)

They’re constantly bickering about the stupidest stuff – and at the most ridiculous times. If you’re being chased by murderous relatives, the last thing you’re going to do is say, “Hey, I want to stop and make a charcoal rubbing of a tombstone!” It makes me think that Riordan is allowing his characters to act stupid just to move the plot along, which smacks to me of lazy writing.

And all of the villains are flat, two-dimensional evil. Why would these two supposedly smart kids fall for the obvious traps that these villains set for them? Lazy writing strikes again.

There are a few redeeming qualities to The 39 Clues. The first is that it’s fairly educational – compared to, like, Goosebumps and whatever other crap kids are reading these days (HEY! Get off my lawn!!). You learn a lot about Benjamin Franklin from this book – that is, if you never had to do a report on him in fifth grade (truth: I learned a lot more from the report. But what you learn about him in The Thirty-Nine Clues is better than nothing).

The second is that there’s an online community (www.the39clues.com) for readers of the series. Each book comes with a few collector cards in it, and you can enter the secret codes on the cards at the website and actually win prizes and money by playing! Say what you will about Rick Riordan’s writing, but this is a cool idea. If his writing wasn’t so awful, I might actually visit the website.

All in all, there’s worse crap out there that a kid could be reading. At least this series encourages a bit of critical thinking.

Sorry, BN. Wish I could say I liked it more. But crazy, old Auntie Jeena will take “well-written” over “adventure-filled” any day.

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