Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wordless Wednesday: Best of 2008




Monday, December 15, 2008

A Year of Reading




Here is the annual list of books wot I have read. I've been good at adding books to LibraryThing as I read them, so if you've been an attentive reader you'll have noticed all of these appearing in the sidebar. As usual, the ones I loved are the top, those I didn't are at the bottom and the middling ones are in the ... middle. I'm not providing links this year since due to the recession and because I know you're just as capable of googling as I am.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (pure desolate brilliance)
Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger, Nigel Slater (funny, sad and satisfying)
Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence, Geoff Dyer (alternative auto/biography)
A Lie about My Father, John Burnside (a (mostly) bad man)
Fall on Your Knees, Anne Marie MacDonald (vast story set in provinical Canda and another bad father)
Fascination, William Boyd (16 brilllant short stories. Boyd is a master of all things fiction)
Skating To Antarctica, Jenny Diski (memoir and travelogue)
The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald (childhood Canadian detective fiction)
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O'Farrell (Scottish story of old age and deception)
Crow Lake, Mary Lawson (I seemed to read a lot of Canadian fiction this year and this was another good one)
The Other Side of the Bridge, Mary Lawson (provincial Canada ....again)
Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens, Sofka Zinovieff (one of the best "living abroad" books I've read, recommended by Mike of Fevered Mutterings)
The Accidental, Ali Smith (I loved some of the wordy riffs in this book)
Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer (I'm glad I discovered Geoff Dyer this year)
Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered, Geoff Dyer
Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters (homeless but not completely hopeless)
The Smoking Diaries, Simon Gray (He died just after I read this)
I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away, Bill Bryson (he still makes me laugh)
The Patience of the Spider, Andrea Camilleri (I read about one of these Inspector Montalbano a year - for the Italian food rather than the intrigue)
Quartier lointain : L'intégrale, Jirô Taniguchi (this graphic novel was a present and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it)
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D. Levitt (poponomics)
Saint Maybe, Anne Tyler (one from the back catalogue, as reliable and comforting as ever)
Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe, Nicholas Crane (he walks from Cape Finisterre to Istanbul, with just his two legs!)
The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro (Another Candaina one. Short, sometimes autobiographical, pieces about the past)
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards (twisty)
Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace (I'd like to rad more DFW)
Rosengarten, Janice Galloway (a quirky exhibition tie-in about midwifery)
On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (not his best IMHO)
The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton (bits and pieces of non-fiction)
Michael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin (old friends)
Memoirs of a Highland Lady, Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus (I’m still dipping into this 19th C diary)
The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett (mildly amusing)
The Sea, John Banville (I think I liked this, but I can't remember very much about it)
The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl, Shauna Reid (gaun yersel Shona)
Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones (good if you love Dickens. I don't think I love him enough)
Echo Park, Michael Connelly (beach reading)
Arlington Park: A Novel, Rachel Cusk (mildly depressing novel about women in London suburbia)
The Missing, Thomas Eidson (the film is good too)
The Cone-Gatherers, Robin Jenkins (I thought I was going to like Robin Jenkins, but I didn't)
The Pearl-fishers, Robin Jenkins
Something to Declare, Julian Barnes (only for Flaubertophiles)
The Pilot's Wife, Anita Shreve (I think that this might have been the second time I had read this novel, but it didn't make much of a mark the first time)
Chasing Mammon: Travels in the Pursuit of Money, Douglas Kennedy ( a little dated now)
Sorbonne Confidential, Laurel Zuckerman (cf. last post)
Blood, Sweat and Tea: Real Life Adventures in an Inner-city Ambulance, Tom Reynolds (read the blog, shouldn't have bought the book)
Petite Anglaise, Catherine Sanderson (ditto)
Bananas in Bordeaux: Self-sufficiency for Dreamers, Louise Franklin (a blog that wasn't)
Burning Bright, Tracy Chevalier (I've enjoyed some of Chevalier's other novels but I never got to the end of this one)
Longitude, Dava Sobel (I like popular science but I just couldn't get into this)
Treasure Islands: Sailing the South Seas in the Wake of Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson, Pamela Stephenson Connolly (some people have too much money)

The vast majority of these books were provided by Bookmooch and most of the rest by my Mum - thank you both!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Suck it up at the Sorbonne

A few weeks ago I received an advance review copy of Sorbonne Confidential by Laurel Zuckerman from LibraryThing. Sorbonne Confidential is the story of an American woman in her mid-forties who finds herself laid off from a job in business in Paris, hits on the idea of teaching English as the perfect solution to her unemployment woes and duly signs up for the prestigious agrégation exam to secure entry into the state education system. She then discovers just what a difficult exam the agrégation is and just how French it is.

I did not like this book. I found the carping complaints about the whole system irritating, especially after the discovery that the candidate had failed the exam. I sympathise with a native English speaker who finds the competitive exam route to teaching in France élitist, fastidious and archaic, I really do. I am willing to accept, however, that it is a profoundly French institution respected by the vast majority of those who have taken and passed it and that if you want to be part of the system you have to accept that. Neither do I agree that as native English speakers we are all automatically qualified to do the job of teaching our language.


It's a little unsettling that Zuckerman give no reason for wanting to be a teacher other than the financial stability it would offer her. She seems to believe that her American origins and her voracious reading habits are qualification enough for the job. What she fails to recognize is that education is culture; that language teaching is deeply ideological; that loving to read is not the same as teaching literature. She also makes the wrong choice - the agrégation is a prestigious qualification requiring a robust literary or linguistic background — her background suited her for the more modest Capes. Had she been properly advised, she could have prepared for both, would probably have passed the Capes and ended up with the job security she craved.


I'm not sure about the trajectory this book followed to publication. It appeared in French last year (to mainly positive autocritical reviews) but won't be published in English until next year. Did the author write the original in French? I'm not sure, but some clumsier passages certainly ring like English badly translated from French and there are a few grammar mistakes that would make an agrég jury shudder (eg. "there are no less than six pharmacies") and a piece of jewellery is twice somewhat bizarrely referred to as a "broach".
And let's not get into the red-rag question of why "pigs trotters" is not some obscure term unknown to the entire English-speaking world.

I was curious about what Laurel Zuckerman had become since failing the agrégation and writing this book, so I googled her name. I have no idea what she is doing now, other than giving interviews, but I did discover that she is on
Facebook and listed as a fan of Valérie Pécresse the minister for higher education who is currently engaged in trying to scrap the concours system - to massive outcry from university teachers throughout France.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens

I nicked this one from Ms Mac. A hundred things I love in no particular order. I tried to make this into a scrolling text but my first version got eaten up so these are really my second hundred.

1. good wine 2. mediocre wine 3. sausage rolls 4. chubby cheeks and dimples 5. Guerlain perfume 6. BBC Radio 4 7. Bookmooch 8. giggling in the staff room 9. the Dordogne in autumn 10. twinkly lights 11. Dr Gregory House 12. fresh sheets 13. thoughtful blogs 14. verbena 15. "I love you Mummy" 16. new words 17. long lies 18. purple velvet 19. bagpipes 20. Taratata 21. a wood fire in our hearth 22. the shape of my iPhone 23. slideshows 24. Bordeax trams 25. interpreting 26 tapas 27. fishing boats 28. silver 29. antiquarian book shops 30. mysterious parcels 31. Frankie Boyle 32. the smell of bracken 33. long walks 34. mulled wine 35. Lebanese restaurants 36.coriander 37. Sunday markets 38. Carl Larsson prints 39. Homes & Gardens 40. sleepy children 41. Talisker 42. cookery books 43. Mastermind 44. speculos 45. travelogues 46. steaming pots 47. attics 48. Devendra Branhart 49. white walls 50. railway stations 51. Hayao Miyazaki 52. Pompom's polar bear 53. long dinners al fresco 54. tablet 55. The Broons 56. chintz 57. peony roses 58. botanic gardens 59. wool shops 60. very old pubs 61. Daniel Mermet 62. Kenneth White 63. black labradors 64. watercolours 65. Spanish villages 66. islands 67. Nespresso 68. very bright scarves 69. squeaky hair 70. reminiscing 71. smoked salmon 72. wooden floors and kilims 73. Indian head massages 74. Highland cows 75. maps 76. hot showers 77. hearing Italian 78. vast open spaces 79. department stores at Christmas 80. collages 81. interested students 82. going off the beaten track 83. libraries 84. black patent shoes 85. Crocs 86. old postcards 87. new places 88. office supplies 89. pizza in front of the telly 90. home movies (but not other people's) 91. babies 92. Richard Scarry picture books 93. hummus 94. RLS 95. biographies 96. Le Zapping 97. windy beaches 98. San Sebastian 99. attics 100. old-fashioned campsites