Review: Foreign Tongue by Vanina Marsot

434145Foreign Tongue is a charming and witty first novel by Vanina Marsot. It begins in L.A., where Anna has been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend. In the past, her former boyfriends had “disappeared obligingly into the woodwork” but it’s different with Timothy. He’s everywhere- People, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone. She can’t get away from his face due to his sudden fame in Hollywood. Realizing she has nothing to tie her down (even her job at a PR firm is portable), she takes advantage of her dual citizenship and runs away to Paris, where her aunt has an apartment she can use, rent-free.

Anna, upon arriving in Paris, thinks: “When running away, I recommend arriving with keys. Makes you feel like you’re actually in control of the situation instead of on the lam from your life.” Anna throws herself into her life in Paris. Within a couple of days she has contacted her Parisian friends and is going out and seeing people, eating pastries, doing the two-cheek kiss kiss with lots of old pals. There are friends from college, a gay couple, and one friend in particular, nicknamed Bunny, who is an older father figure she confides in, and who always gives her the “no BS” version of life. Even though she’s busy, she is still privately wallowing in her misery over her failed relationship.

It isn’t long before she’s found a job translating a novel from French to English. It turns out to be an erotic novel, and is parceled out to her one chapter at a time. “Are you discreet?”, the editor wants to know, because the anonymous author is someone very
famous. She quickly finds herself rubbing elbows with the Paris glitterati and hanging out with all the cool people, and dating a hot but not terribly honest actor, Olivier, making another poor romantic choice.

Lisa meets Vanina

Lisa meets Vanina

There is a lot in this book to like. The story is great and there is a sad twist at the end that was completely unexpected (at least I didn’t see it coming). Each chapter starts off with a quote in English or French (with a translation) that pertains to the upcoming chapter. If you speak French or have been to Paris, you’ll love it. I don’t speak French but was able to skip over the French words and phrases (because I have no clue how to pronounce them, even in my head) and not lose the integrity of the story. There are many French swear words, and some amusing translations of English phrases into French, and vice versa. It’s fascinating how certain words can be really dirty in one language and completely mild in another, and how some things just don’t translate well.

I loved Anna. She is cool, but not really cool. Smart but not overly sophisticated. Somewhat gullible, charming, comic, self-deprecating, dazzled by flirtation and good looks. She leaps to conclusions and keeps getting it wrong. She’s beautiful but unassuming, elegant but klutzy. And she loves shoes.

She cracked me up too. In one scene, she bolts from a café then realizes, embarrassed, that she’s left a bag with racy lingerie in it behind, where a guy she likes may find it. She puts on luxurious, expensive body oil after a shower but then her clothes stick to her and she feels like “a roast duck”, realizing “body oil was for women who had the time or patience to recline on lounge chairs in gauzy caftans”. At a party she gets mad because she assumes she’s been stood up- she leaves in a huff then realizes her date couldn’t call because she’d left her phone at home. Doh!

If you are into linguistics, or if you’ve ever struggled for just the right word, you’ll love this book. I enjoyed all the talk of translation. For example, while talking to a friend, Anna ponders the following:

img_2785“”Okay. How do you translate ‘seduire’? In English, ‘to be seduced’ has a connotation of corruption, an inkling of something against one’s will or good intentions; ‘etre seduit’ is closer to being beguiled. ‘Elle a un grand besoin de seduire’ doesn’t mean she needs to seduce people but rather that she needs to be liked- and yet, while there is a notion of seduction that isn’t sexual, it isn’t nonsexual either. ‘Legerete’ means lightness, but in some contexts, it seems to describe an almost Zen-like state of serenity. How do you say ‘lame’ or ‘rude’ or ‘confused’ in French? Why is ‘violence’ in English so physical, whereas the French use it for emotions as well? Why do French people believe in love at first sight, and we think it’s adolescent?””

I feel like I’ve been to Paris, but not on vacation. I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa, but I did stroll down the cobblestone streets, sit at the cafes with my brainy French friends, eat baguettes, stay up too late, drink too much, and discuss words and books. Yeah, that was fun.

I was able to meet Vanina Marsot at the LA Times Festival of Books. She was charming and beautiful and kind, and I have no idea what nonsense I said to her, but hopefully I expressed how much I thoroughly enjoyed Foreign Tongue. It was one of my favorite books of the year so far. I loved it!

LA Times Festival of Books and Bloggers!


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Natasha, Amy, Tracy, Ti, Jill, Trish, Lisa

Natasha, Amy, Tracy, Ti, Jill, Trish, Lisa

This weekend I attended a super-fun two day event, the LA Times Festival of Books. That would have been exciting enough for a book geek like me, but what made it super-fun (as opposed to just regular fun) was getting to meet some of my blogger friends in real life.  What a treat!

The plan was to meet in front of the UCLA book store.  As I wandered up to the steps in front, I immediately recognized Jill from Fizzy Thoughts and Ti from Book Chatter from the pictures on their blogs. Hugs all around.  Then pretty soon Amy from My Friend Amy wandered over after passing by and glancing at us suspiciously two or three times, then Tracy from Shelf Life walked over with a big smile, and pretty soon we were all laughing and talking.  Jill and I went to get coffee (she was so nice and gave me a book I’ve been wanting to read- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson- who I would see on a panel later in the day).  When we got back, we saw that Trish from Hey, Lady! (also my partner in TLC Book Tours) and Natasha from Maw Books had arrived.  I spilled my coffee while hugging Natasha (I was mortified and so glad it spilled on me rather than on her cute white jacket!). Trish was telling the story of why she was a little late, complete with colorful adjectives and funny anecdotes and facial expressions and hand gestures.  For those of you who might have been wondering- yes, Trish really is THAT cute and excitable and funny in person!   It was interesting to see how much everyone’s personalities really shine through on their blogs.

Jill and Florinda

Jill and Florinda

The first panel of the day for most of us was the Social Networking and New Media panel.  The very organized Ti had made a spreadsheet for us showing which bloggers were attending which panels.  We knew that Wendy from Musings of a Bookish Kitty and Florinda from 3R’s blog were supposed to be there, but we couldn’t find Florinda and we didn’t know what Wendy looked like.  We were in a big lecture hall and I was standing up looking around and joking that we should call out “Literary Feline!  Where are you?” when I felt a tap on my arm from the woman seated next to me.  “I’m Wendy” she said in this tiny kitten-y voice.  She’d been right beside us the whole time!  We found Florinda just a couple minutes later (she was easy to spot from her picture on her blog, and because we knew she was short height-challenged) and were able to all sit together.

tweet, tweet

tweet, tweet

That panel was a good one, with Otis Chandler (founder of Goodreads.com), Wil Wheaton (author, blogger, twitter-er, and actor from Star Trek: TNG), and Sara Wolf (dance critic-she was out of place).  Otis said he had a theory that reading was “broken” and that in starting Goodreads he had hoped to make reading more of a social experience and provide a place where people could talk to each other about books.  He said we’ve all experienced social pressure to watch tv (like when everyone is talking about who got kicked off American Idol, and if you don’t watch you feel out of it).  He wanted to try to make that true with books, and gave examples like “All the cool kids are reading Twilight”.  

Wendy and Anjin

Wendy and Anjin

The following question was posed to the panel: “What does social media (Twitter) do to readers attention spans?”  Will answered by saying he blames the dumbing down of society on TV, not technology.  Something Will said really resonated with me as a member of the blogging community- “You don’t have to be in the same room with someone anymore to share an experience.” He was referring to internet communities and conversations that go on in places like Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook.  I think our group could all agree with that!  Another question came up about placing limits on and policing social media- having rules- filtering out spam.  Will and Otis discussed that, saying with social media, users “own” it, they make the rules and define how it will be.  Marketers want to tell us what to do on social media i.e. “Here’s how you can profit if you use it my way”, which is precisely why they fail and are seen as spammers. People will use Facebook and Twitter in a way that’s fun for them and ignore the rest.  Meanwhile, the third panelist didn’t seem to have much of a grasp on what Twitter actually is, and was busy talking about the “constellations” in her dance community on Facebook, and how constellating is so great.  Constellating???  Ok….  

Lunch

Lunch

After a quick lunch together, we went our separate ways to the various panels.  Trish, Natasha, Amy and I attended Problem Child, which was a panel with Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Winter Girls), Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole-graphic novel), Jacquelyn Woodfin (Hush, Locomotion, Peace Locomotion) and Suzanne Phillips (Burn).  Laurie Halse Anderson said she “feels so lucky to be able to wake up, listen to the voices in her head, and write down what they say.”  The moderator said that one thing their books had in common was that they all have a really strong, immediate narrative voice.  One comment I jotted down from this panel was that most YA-middle grade novels have a “problem child” because they need a central conflict to make the book interesting, but the characters in these books go way beyond the norm.  We’re talking about eating disorders and cutting, mental illness, kids with real issues. This was a great panel but I had to leave early in order to get to my next panel on time, because there was no way I was going to miss seeing Lisa See!

Lisa meets Lisa

Lisa meets Lisa

Several of us went to Fiction: Window on the World with Lisa See (Shanghai Girls, Snow Flower, Peony in Love), Jonathon Rabb (Rosa, Shadow and Light), Vanina Marsot (Foreign Tongue), and Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)  and her translator.  

I’m a huge Lisa See fan.  She talked about Shanghai Girls, set in both Shanghai and Los Angeles, and said it asks the question “How do we define home?  Is it where you grew up, or in the place that you make?”  An excellent question for a midwestern transplant like me.  She spoke about China City in LA from 1937 until the mid-50s, how it was built to look like a real Chinese city with a mini-Great Wall of China surrounding it, but how much of it was created from Hollywood props and sets.  

Lisa meets Vanina

Lisa meets Vanina

I’m also a new fan of Vanina Marsot, having just finished her book Foreign Tongue a week ago (review coming soon!). I was completely enthralled by it!  Vanina said she wanted to show the non-Disneyland version of Paris, a real city where real people live, not vacation-land. Her protagonist Anna, living in Paris with dual French/American citizenship, is translating a book from French to English.  It’s an examination of both cultures, how things are expressed in both languages, and how some things don’t translate well.  She shared an expression that French mothers use with their children that translates literally into “Stop your cinema”.  Those of us with little drama queens immediately knew what she meant!

Muriel Barbery brought along a translator and was utterly charming.  Jill and Tracy had both read The Elegance of  the Hedgehog and were really excited to see her.  Tracy mentioned later that she had a “girl crush” on her, and I can totally relate.  She was elegant in that effortless French way, hair pulled straight back into a sleek chignon, minimal makeup and jewelry, yet still looked stunning.  She spoke in French and while I couldn’t understand a word, her smile and laugh and sweet tone spoke volumes.  I wanted to buy her book and get it signed but they’d sold out. I did, however, get to say hello at the signing.  She’s adorable.

img_2747I gushed and babbled all over Lisa See!  She signed my beat up ARC of Shanghai Girls (coming out in May) and said that she remembered me from our book club conversation last fall.  Then I gushed and babbled some more all over Vanina Marsot.  She was surprised that I’d already read her book.  I told her the publisher had sent it to me, and that I was a blogger.  She said, “Oh, do you know Jennifer?”  I said, “From Literate Housewife?”  She nodded, and said, “Yes, isn’t she wonderful?”  I, of course, agreed with her (Hi, Jen!) and told her I’d enjoyed her interview on Jen’s blog and loved the pictures. Whatever else I said is a blur.  Did I mention I gushed and babbled?

Amy, Tracy, and I blew off our 4th panel of the day in favor of walking around in the beautiful sunshine, picking up some freebies (mostly bookmarks), and talking. Amy did some shopping and bought gifts for her mom and sister (that’s her with Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark).  

Trish and me

Trish and me

We all met back at the UCLA bookstore, where Trish was once again a teensy bit late, but with good reason, and was oh so excited to tell everybody about the panel she’d attended (she is so darn cute.  I just love her!)  

Then we headed over to Jerry’s Deli in Westwood for dinner.  This is getting really lengthy, so let’s just say a good time was had by all.  Here are a couple pictures from our evening together.  Around the table, starting on the left, we have Trish, Ti, me, Amy, Florinda, Wendy’s husband Anjin, Wendy, Natasha and Jill.  In the last picture, taken outside, we have (left to right) Jill, Natasha, Ti, Florinda, me-Lisa, Wendy, Trish, Amy.  

I went back to the Festival on Sunday for Day 2, but just attended one panel (a middle grade fiction one) with my daughter and did a little shopping.  I picked up some books for my kids and stopped at the Vroman’s booth for The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (he was on a panel Saturday that I didn’t see, but other bloggers loved!) and The Elegance of the Hedgehog (I was so glad they had it!)  I’ll tell you about my kids’ “adventures in book signing” in another post.

Thanks to all my wonderful new friends for making this a really special weekend for me.  It was a thrill and a pleasure to meet you all and I hope we can do it again next year!

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Sunday Salon – 4/5/09

img_2438Good Morning!  I hope everyone is feeling refreshed and relaxed today!

We woke up to a whole lot of soggy toilet paper on our lawn this morning.  Even my car in the driveway was wrapped in TP.  This is the second night in a row.. paybacks, I suppose, for my kids’ antics of a couple of nights ago when they did the same thing to their friends.  They’re excited and are calling and texting their friends to see who did this.  No one is ‘fessing up.

img_2436We had a mid life-wake up call this week.  On Thursday, my husband, a big strong man who thinks he’s still in his 20s but is really twice that, had sudden chest pain.  He said it felt like a lightning bolt through his chest and into his back that lasted for 10-15 seconds, then after that what felt like a sore muscle in his back.  I was out doing my daily 4 mile walk with a friend when it happened, but when I came home he was standing there, pale and scared.  My first thought was ‘heart attack’.  I said- we better go to the hospital, and he said- I don’t have time!  I have too much to do! But I insisted, so off we went.  

At the hospital they took him immediately (now THAT was a first!), put him on oxygen, took all his vitals, drew blood, did an EKG.  They take chest pain very seriously.  Over the course of 6 hours in the ER he had 2 EKGs, a chest x-ray, 3 blood draws, and a stress test, and it was determined that he did not have a heart attack (whew!  dodged a bullet!).  They said the problem appears to be muscular-skeletal in nature- his heart and lungs are fine. I asked if it could be a muscle pull, because the day before he had been lifting and moving furniture into his new office.  I said to my husband (in front of the doctor), “Maybe you’re a little too old to be lifting heavy oak desks, what do you think?” and he just gave me a look, like- mind your bizness, woman.  

Seriously, though- he doesn’t get enough sleep, eats crappy food, doesn’t exercise, works long hours, and is constantly stressed.  That’s a recipe for disaster at his age. I do the best I can but I can’t force him to act like an adult and take care of himself. I hope this episode will be the catalyst for him to at least think about a healthier lifestyle.  I’m not sure, though, since he’s been working in San Diego all weekend.  I can’t monitor if he’s eating, sleeping, etc. when he’s not even here!  I do know that he and a couple of the guys went out for a big steak dinner at 8 pm last night, and I’m sure cocktails were included, so..  no major changes yet. Fingers crossed for next week.

So.. reading.  Let’s see.  I finished The Mechanics of Falling by Catherine Brady this week for an upcoming TLC tour stop.  It’s a top-notch short story collection.  Then I started Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  I love her writing.  LOVE it.  I love being wrapped up in the little worlds her books create.  I can’t wait to see her at the LA Times Festival of Books.  She’s on a fiction panel on Saturday called Window on the World, along with authors Vanina Marsot, Muriel Barbery, and Jonathan Rabb.  

I’m also reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aloud to my youngest.  This child drives me crazy..  her AR reading level is the 2nd highest in her fourth grade class, yet she insists on reading the Magic Treehouse series and Katie Kazoo books.. way beneath her level.  She doesn’t like to read- to her it is a big chore, so she goes for whatever is easy.  Her teacher requires 20 minutes of reading a day as part of their homework and she wants the students to get 50 AR points by the end of the year, but the books my daughter reads are one and two points each, so she’s not even close to her 50 points.  The Harry Potter books are 12 points each but she didn’t think she’d like them- she thought they’d be too hard (almost anything is going to be harder than what she’s been reading).  I’m reading the first one to her in the hopes that she’ll get hooked, and so far it seems to be working.  I overheard her very animatedly telling my mother about the mail delivery system with the owls in HP so I guess she’s becoming interested.  

OH!  I have winners to announce!  I almost forgot!  The second winner of The Blue Notebook is Zibilee from Raging Bibliomania– congratulations!  And the (long overdue) winner of Hope’s Boy is Ti of Book Chatter and Other Stuff- congratulations!   (Ti’s in Palm Springs this weekend so she’s probably a little too busy to care about winning a book.)

Well that’s it for me.  What are you reading this week?

The Sunday Salon: The Weekend in Books

We’re having another scorching hot weekend here in Southern California, but the heat (hovering around 90) wasn’t enough to keep me away from the 13th Annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA.  The festival is a huge special event that brings writers, publishers, book sellers and readers together.  We visited dozens of booths and it was all very exciting for me.  Authors are like Rock Stars in my world.  Not so much for my kids, though, who did a lot of complaining about the heat while spooning frozen lemonade into their mouths and soaking their feet in the big fountain on the quad.  I should have left the whiners at home!

We talked to Lori Nelson, author of a delightful book for girls called Hillary’s Big Business Adventure , about a 5th grader from Baltimore who has all kinds of entrepreneurial ideas.  This was right up my kids’ alley as they are Lemonade Stand Queens and are always dreaming up new ways to make cash.  My 5th grader actually has brochures and business cards made up for a business idea she has.  The book was written for kids a bit younger than mine, though, so I didn’t buy it, but 4-8 year olds would love it.  The illustrations are outstanding.

We also had a celebrity sighting.  Marilu Henner was at the Borders booth signing her new book Total Health Makeover.  She looked cute in a spring dress and sun hat and laughed when my husband called out, “We loved you on The Apprentice!”

Of the many panels and workshops at the festival there were three I’d hoped to attend, but we got there just in time for the first only to discover it was way on the other side of the sprawling campus.  The other 2 were happening at 2:30 and 4, but by 1pm we were melting in the heat and couldn’t take any more.  We all agreed it was time to leave.

I was excited to find a signed first edition of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin in my mailbox when I got home, sent to me by the author himself!  I look forward to starting it today.  Josh is going to do a guest post for me in the next few days about book clubs, and I’ll be giving away a copy of his book, so keep an eye out for that.  Matrimony is also the May selection for the online book club at Every Day I Write The Book Blog.  You might be able to score a copy of it over there if you hurry!  They are (were?) giving them away to those who want to participate in the discussion.

Last night we had a neighborhood BBQ to attend.  Our friends across the street recently hired an au pair from Brazil to care for their 3 year old twins for the next year. A new Brazilian au pair is a great excuse to party, I always say! 

By the time we came home at 8:30 I was so pooped from being out in the heat all day that I didn’t feel like reading (or maybe it was the massive amounts of bbq’d meat and the 3 beers I consumed that made me feel couch potato-ish).  Luckily Juno arrived in my mailbox from Netflix this weekend, so I popped it into the dvd player, not expecting too much, but I loved it! I laughed, I cried, I marveled at Ellen Page’s talent, her range of emotions, her character’s extensive and colorful vocabulary.  It is smart, funny, touching.  If you haven’t seen it, I insist you go check it out right now!  Or later.  Whatever works.  But do it!  You won’t regret it.

Ok, back to books.  I just gobbled up The Next Thing On My List by Jill Smolinski for my book club.  It’s a breezy whirlwind of a book, quick and light and fun, but also thought provoking.  June Parker gives an acquaintance, Marissa, a ride home one night after a Weight Watchers meeting.  They get in a crash on the freeway and Marissa dies.  Later June comes across a list in Marissa’s purse of 20 things she wanted to do before she turned 25.  There are large and small items on the list, ranging from “kiss a stranger” to “change someone’s life”.  The book is about June’s mission to finish the list for Marissa.  My book club is meeting on May 4th to discuss TNTOML, and the author has graciously agreed to join us by speaker phone.  I’ve asked everyone to bring their own list of 5 things they’d like to do before their next big birthday, but now I’m having trouble coming up with 5 things for my own list!   I keep reminding myself that they don’t need to be profound, just something new, but it’s not easy.  What would be on your list?    

Have a beautiful Sunday!