The common thread here is international settings, foreign languages, and female protagonists. Another theme could be: Know What You’re Getting Into Before You Read These Books. Because it’s always great to have some idea of things like book length and genre before you commit. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered, and without any spoilers. Let’s get right to it!
|Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset|
I’m proud to say I finished the historical fiction and classic novel Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel-prizewinning author Sigrid Undset. This book is a commitment, but it’s worth the effort and time. Some like Lord of the Rings or Gone with the Wind, I like Kristin Lavransdatter. It’s an epic saga following the entire life of a girl/young wife/mother in fourteenth century Norway. It’s beautifully written and haunting, and it will stay with me forever. Read all about it in my separate review for Kristin Lavransdatter here.
|Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour|
Jasmine and Fire is a non-fiction book chronicling Salma Abdelnour’s return to Beirut, where she spent the first nine years of her life with her family, until a violent civil war caused them to flee to America. Now a food and travel writer living in New York, she decides to move back in an effort to rediscover her roots.
Salma muses on what it is to lose a place that feels like home, and what it means to feel peace in your surroundings and in your heart. She has a wonderful ability to describe the food, the places, and the pace of life in Beirut and the other cities she travels to. Jasmine and Fire took me through the chaotic streets of Beirut to places like the quietly rocky coastline in Amsheet. There is discussion of the shifting politics of the city, as well as the culture, from the generous hospitality of the Lebanese to laws and views that come with life in a sectarian city. She paints a colorful picture of the region and gives the reader what feels like a very inside look.
I found this book to be enlightening, but I wished it had been edited down much more. At times the writing dragged on for me and I found myself skimming and wishing the pace would pick up. I wanted to love it, then I settled for liking it, and basically concluded it was somewhere in the realm of ok-good.
Jasmine and Fire is a travelogue and reads a bit like a diary, which is both a great thing and a not-so-great thing at times. It’s especially worth a read if you like traveling, want to crave dishes like tiss’ye and tea, and feel like taking a virtual tour of Beirut. Don’t expect to be drawn into a story, and you’ll be alright. As a bonus, there are recipes for many of the amazing dishes she describes at the end!
|When in French by Lauren Collins|
When in French is written by an American journalist who is confronted with becoming bilingual after marrying a Frenchman and moving from London to Geneva (spoiler alert: she hates Geneva). It’s part memoir, part linguistics study, and partly an examination of French culture as well. The settings it encompasses include Switzerland, North Carolina, England, and a little bit in France.
The way this book is marketed—the look of it, the subtitle—doesn’t exactly give the right impression, and that’s its only crime. It’s not a lighthearted story of love and all things French (I would have liked that), but a serious look at language itself. I adored some of the funny tales of miscommunication in this book, the lost-in-translation stories, and the fish-out-of-water experiences. But the scholarly discussions take up such a large portion of the book, that I felt a bit too often like I was reading a textbook.
Languages can encode space in three ways: geocentrically, in which the frame of reference is fixed (“I am south of the fire”); intrinsically, in which the frame of reference depends on an object (“I am behind the fire”); and egocentrically, in which the frame of reference aligns with the viewer (“I am to the left of the fire”).
The memoir portion woven throughout is a pitch-perfect dramedy, and her writing here was absolutely wonderful. If the majority of the book had been a memoir, I would be gushing.
All things considered, I enjoyed When in French a lot, but it did take me by surprise. If you’re a fan of linguistics or interested in what it’s like to learn French, I highly recommend it. I’ll end with my favorite quote…it should get you thinking.
French is a secret garden, but English, somehow, is everyone’s property.
Next month I’ll have some lighter choices along the lines of women’s fiction if I can. What have you been reading lately?