From the great French novelist Émile Zola, to a combined cookbook and memoir. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.
Bron is reading…
The month of April has been a quiet reading month for me in recent years. A friend in Indonesia decided to read all the Émile Zola Rougon-Macquart series and I agreed to join her.
So, every year since 2013 we read another Zola together to celebrate his birthday on the 2nd April.
Fanda (the friend) is reading his books to suit her mood at the time, but after reading Nana and Germinal I have decided to go back to the beginning and read the series in publication order.
This year I am reading book seven, L’Assommoir, first published in 1877. The series follows one family through three different branches. Zola’s aim as one of the first writers of naturalism is to show how one’s hereditary and environment impact on one’s life. This ‘nature versus nurture’ debate occurs during the French Second Empire.
L’Assommoir follows the life of Gervaise Macquart, one of the working class members of the family. Her story is pivotal to the series, as she is the mother of Claude Lantier, who appears later in L’Oeuvre (1886); Etienne, who is the main protagonist in Germinal; and Anna Coupeau, who is the lead in Nana.
None of Zola’s stories are particularly happy or uplifting. Apparently naturalism, based on real life as it really is, is like that! But his descriptions of 1850s Paris are sublime. In L’Assommoir we are taken on a guided tour through the Louvre and around the streets near the fortification that encircled Paris at the time – the Thiers Wall. We are also treated to a magnificent feast, before everything goes pear-shaped for kindhearted, hard-working Gervaise.
Some nights I’m too tired to read Zola though, so I also polished off Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus as a bit of light relief. And I have just started Nicole Flattery’s Nothing Special. It might not be a lighthearted read either, but it’s interesting so far with its Andy Warhol New York setting and mother/daughter tension.
Kate is reading…
A torturous (but good) novel about love
I tend to be wary around books dealing with love and desire. I’ve had bad experiences with both. The more acutely perceptive the writing – the better the book is – the more agony awaits me, too. All those lush tides take me back to a dark little sea grotto that isn’t very good for me to dwell in.
So when I tell you that Madelaine Lucas’ Thirst for Salt had me feeling really quite wretched, please take this to mean the book is very good indeed. It comes to our shores after being published in the US, with great critical reception too, including from The New York Times and Kirkus Reviews. And it also comes to us just before Roaring Stories event with Madelaine, who happens to be a former worker at our very own store. (Quite cool.)
The book follows a young woman’s infatuation for a much older man, their subsequent entanglement, and the love languages (sexual, gestural, spoken, unspoken) that they use to sculpt their relationship, and other languages that they (sometimes wilfully) misunderstand. The way Lucas portrays the woman as feeling so pathetic, so intractable in her yearning, vibrates throughout. All relationships revolve around power, and so often in this book, the man – in his taciturnity, his distances, his fierce and even heroic independence – seems to have the lion’s share. I kind of loved him, too. (Sadly.)
Another different book about love and desire: Heartbake: A Bittersweet Memoir by Sydney home cook, popular Instagram baker and foodie Charlotte Ree. Both a memoir and a cookbook (an ingenious pairing), it tells the story of Ree’s life so far – as the daughter of a mentally ill mother and distant father; as the wife of an abusive husband; as a woman navigating tough waters of work, friendships and love; and mostly as an intelligent woman full of joy, generosity and creativity – through food. Ree has really bared her soul in this memoir, and her courage shines through. Just as her relationships with people shift, so does her relationship with food. Her appreciation for its myriad nourishing qualities, and its close kinship with memory however, never wavers. Reading this book makes me wish that all cookbooks were also memoirs – it makes the recipes inside all the more meaningful.
Lastly: on a whim, and upon thinking how Big Books used to excite me rather than intimidate me, I’ve started reading Ken Follett’s historical fiction masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth. So far, it’s a vivid and page-turning romp.