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Life at Versailles in 100 Questions

Mathieu Da Vinha

(Tallandier, 334 pages, 2018)

 

 In the 1660s, the area surrounding the future Palace of Versailles was an inhospitable swamp, unpleasantly windy and without direct access to spring water. Yet it is in that very place that, in 1682, Louis XIV decided to move the court and the government. So why did he choose Versailles?

 Mathieu Da Vinha, the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center, deftly answers that question as well as ninety-nine others. Using a playful question-and-answer approach, Da Vinha invites us to understand Versailles from different and complementary perspectives: architecture and garbage disposal; food procurement and sleeping arrangements; transportation and hygiene; entertainment and working conditions for all those who contributed to the realization of the Sun King’s grand vision, one that was not fully completed by the time of his death. Was Versailles a safe place? Was the food good? Who could visit? Did you have to be rich to live there? Could you die there?

 Da Vinha takes pleasure in challenging common misconceptions and legends surrounding the habits and customs of the royal court. Did courtiers live in cramped quarters, no better than “rats’ nests”? Is it true that the Sun King only took one bath in his life? These simply framed questions serve as a point of departure to explore broader themes. Thus the story on Louis XIV’s bathing preference leads to observations on seventeenth-century medical practices, and the co-opting of mirror craftsmen from Venice exemplifies European commercial and artistic rivalry in the Age of Enlightenment. Strict etiquette—the hallmark of Louis XIV’s reign—defined an art of living that became famous throughout Europe.

 Foreign observers were particularly taken by another aspect of the life at Versailles: the wide public access to the palace’s grounds. Just about anyone, they marveled, could stroll around in the gardens and catch a glimpse of the Sun King from afar. He constantly lived in the public eye. To maintain that legacy could be a burden to his successors, and most famously so for the Queen Marie-Antoinette. The chapter entitled, “Did the king and queen appeared naked before the courtiers?” details the intricate rules attached to dressing the queen. The anecdote is amusing, but also perfectly captures the absurd and oppressive quality of court protocol.

 Da Vinha brings his erudition and expertise to answer the questions that someone visiting the palace might ask. The responses he provides offer a vivid and comprehensive portrait of the first two hundred years of Versailles, from its conception up to the French Revolution. Beyond the myths of royal opulence that continue to hold sway over the public imagination, he illuminates the lives of the thousands of people who built, maintained, and populated the palace. With Life at Versailles in 100 Questions, Da Vinha offers the perfect resource to gain an accessible, entertaining, yet knowledgeable understanding of Versailles.

 

Mathieu da Vinha is currently the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center. He is the author of several studies and biographies relating to life under the reign of Louis XIV, including Versailles: Enquête historique (Tallandier, 2015), Au service du roi. Dans les coulisses de Versailles (Tallandier, 2015), Alexandre Bontemps, Premier valet de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2011), Le Versailles de Louis XIV: Le fonctionnement d’une résidence royale au XVIIe siècle (Perrin, 2009), Louis XIV et Versailles (éd. Arts Lys/Château de Versailles, 2009), and Les Valets de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2004.) He is also the co-author of Versailles. Histoire, dictionnaire et anthologie, published by Robert Laffont in 2015.

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Bacchantes

Céline Minard

(Payot & Rivages, 112 pages, 2019)

  

“We should always drink that way.”

“How?” asks The Bomb.

“I don’t know. Aware. Naked. Cleaned out.”

Bacchantes

 For the past fifty-nine hours, Chief Jackie Thran and her Police Tactical Unit have laid siege to ECWC, Hong Kong’s most prestigious wine cellar, where former English army bunkers have been converted into underground caves providing a perfectly climate-controlled environment. Yet, despite the highly sophisticated security system, someone still managed to break in. Three hundred fifty million dollars’ worth of rare grand crus is now held hostage, and time is running short: typhoon Shanshan is on its way. . .

 The indication that something is amiss comes in the form of a cryptic tweet sent directly to the local media: “You cannot enter anymore. We have opened everything . . . ECWC.” At first, Ethan Coetzer, the cellar owner, hopes it is a hoax. He had planned to use the typhoon as a marketing ploy, and organized for the occasion an exclusive dinner for clients “with a certain taste for danger,” mitigated, of course, by “the certitude of optimum safety.” The first raid failed, and a negotiator is called in to assist in the standoff. Now they all have to urgently figure out the who, the how, and, not least, the why.

 The first inkling of evidence—proving that the intruder might be female—is a black Jimmy Choo pump popping up through the half-open armored door of Bunker Alpha. A bottle containing an unknown substance rolls on the tarmac. Other bottles follow suit, mysteriously appearing in front of the Headquarters entryway. The least-valuable bottle is noticeably left untouched, while the more exceptional one is open and three-quarters empty. Whoever invaded the cellar clearly knows their wine, and thoroughly enjoys it! And judging by the alarming noises relayed by the sound system, they also seem to be having a lot of fun playing ninepins with vintage bottles.

 In their own time, the intruders introduce themselves. There is Silly, the tall seductress, alias: The Brunette; Bizzie, hyperactive and unpredictable, alias: The Clown; and an unnamed, seasoned ex-commando, working in symbiosis with her highly trained rat, Illiad, alias: The Bomb. Taking advantage of their upper hand, the three women demand various designer make-up products from Chief Thran and her team. Coetzer, as worried as he is intrigued, decides to take matters into his own hands. He enters the bunker, bringing in person the frivolous items the ladies have requested. The terms of negotiation they offer him, however, are nothing like he would have expected.

 Delivered with fast-paced and razor-sharp prose, Bacchantes is a subversive and burlesque tale that can be savored in one sitting. Minard displays her caustic sense of humor and cinematographic flair as she interweaves the technical minutiae typical of the heist genre with lyrical musings on the sensual pleasures of wine. Her audacious and sassy heroines are not driven by the folly of youth. Rather, they have lived long enough to know that, in today’s hypercommodified world, an appreciation of the Dionysian aspects of life can be a radical act in itself.

 

Céline Minard is the critically acclaimed author of eleven novels. So Long, Luise (Denoel, 2011) won the prestigious Franco-German Franz Hessel Prize. She also received numerous awards for Faillir être flingué (Rivages, 2013), including the Virilio Prize in 2013, and the Prix du Livre Inter in 2014. Her most recent novel before Bacchantes is Le Grand Jeu (Rivages, 2016). Critics assert that her work inaugurates “the return of hardline fiction in the French literary landscape.”

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The Bite

Fred Dewilde

(Belin, 44 pages, 2019)

 

The Bite, illustrated with finely drawn pen-and-ink sketches, is as much a parable of transcending fear and hatred, as it is a memoir.

                                                                                                — New York Times

 On November 13, 2015, the graphic artist Fred Dewilde was attending a rock concert at the popular Paris venue, the Bataclan, when a group of jihadists attacked. He survived the massacre, his body miraculously unscathed but his mind in tatters.

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In this gripping black-and-white graphic novel, Dewilde turns to the cathartic power of drawing to express his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the ups and downs of his long journey to recovery. In the opening panels of The Bite, the author and his family leave the city behind for a three-week vacation in the countryside. This is the first summer after the Bataclan tragedy, and Dewilde hopes to find peace in nature and comfort in life’s simple pleasures—playing cards, picnicking, and taking a walk in the woods with his young daughter. For a while, it seems to work. Sleep comes more easily. But the respite is short-lived.

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The news of yet another terrorist attack shakes his fragile mental equilibrium. The doctors had warned him: the bite is deep. The poison of fear and hatred, once injected, is easily reactivated by seemingly ordinary incidents. Planes flying over the bucolic landscape remind him of war, and he obsesses over the prospect of sending his son to fight on some distant battlefield. Fear, manifesting at first in a black stain festering on his right arm, threatens to engulf him once more in the crushing embrace of serpentine tentacles. Battling anxiety, he leaves his retreat and runs to the local village in search of Wi-Fi. The black stain on the village bartender’s arm—the same as his—reminds him that his fear and anger are not his alone.

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At the book’s end, Dewilde’s character realizes that to heal, he must accept that his life is forever changed by the horror he witnessed that November night. His deep humanism and the love he feels for his children eventually bring him back from the well of anguish and anger into which he fell. Dewilde is well aware that, as a victim of contemporary terrorism, his trauma is both personal and collective. In The Bite, he turns to his preferred artistic medium to process the violent emotions triggered by the attack, as well as to take a firm stand against the politics of fear.

 

Fred Dewilde is the pseudonym of a French graphic artist. He is one of the survivors of the terrorist attack at the Bataclan theatre in Paris on November 13, 2015. His first graphic novel, Mon Bataclan: Vivre Encore (Lemieux, 2016) was published in France, Belgium, and Switzerland.

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When Israel Dreamed: The Life of Rachel Bluwstein

Martine Gozlan

(Les Éditions du Cerf, 233 pages, 2018)

  

Celebrated as the matriarch of modern Hebrew poetry, Rachel Bluwstein is one of Israel’s most beloved cultural icons. Her portrait graces the new twenty-shekel note, and her most famous poems have been turned into classic songs that are now an integral part of the national heritage. Simply known by her first name, Rachel, her life—and her solitary death at forty-one—took on mythic proportions. She was the muse of a small group of Zionist thinkers and visionaries who, like her, belonged to the Second Aliyah—the second historical wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1909 and 1914. In this lyrical and evocative biography, Martine Gozlan retraces the poet’s poignant personal journey while evoking the cultural, social, and intellectual ferment that gave birth to the state of Israel.

 Born in the Russian town of Saratov, Rachel was nineteen years old when she first visited Palestine on her way to Italy. She intended to study art but, swept into the Zionist pioneering spirit, she decided to stay. She first worked in the orchards of Rehovot and then in an agricultural girls’ school on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. During those early, happier years, she met, and mesmerized, men who left their mark on the nation’s history: Noah Naftulsky, an ecologist avant la lettre; Zalman Shazar, the third president of the future state of Israel; and Aaron David Gordon, the prophet of the first kibbutz to whom she dedicated her first Hebrew poem. Rachel was to leave Palestine one more time, to study agriculture in Toulouse. But the war came and she was forced to return to Russia.

 The tuberculosis she contracted during those harsh years shifted her destiny. Back in Palestine, she joined the kibbutz of Dagania, but was evicted because of fear of contagion. After years of wandering, she eventually settled in Tel Aviv, and it is there, in a simple room facing the sea, that she wrote most of her work between 1925 and 1931. Berl Katznelson, the theorist of Labor Zionism, invited her to contribute to his newly founded newspaper, Davar. The publication of her poems and weekly columns gave her some measure of recognition among the male-dominated intelligentsia of the times. Yet she died alone, admired but also reproved as a woman without a husband or children.

 Martine Gozlan’s eloquent and limpid prose conveys the joys and sorrows of Rachel’s life, her love for the landscape of Galilee, her beauty and fierce intellect, and her solitude. She was fully committed to the Zionist dream yet she remained at a distance, a “free bird landed on the land of Israel.” For the author, who has spent years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rachel remains a much-needed inspiration, the face and voice of an Israel dreamed by “the poets, the lovers and the Just.”

 

Martine Gozlan is the Editor-in-Chief of the weekly Marianne. She has covered the Middle East and the Maghreb as a major reporter since 1988. She has published a dozen of books included Les Rebelles d’Allah (L’Archipel, 2014), Israël contre Israël (L’Archipel, 2012), a series of books on Islamism for Grasset, Le Sexe d’Allah (2004), Le Désir d’Islam (2005), L’Imposture turque (2011), as well as a biography of Hannah Szenes (L’Archipel, 2014.)

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GRANNY LUGER

Benoît Philippon

(Les Arènes, 464 pages, 2018)

*** TRANSLATION SAMPLE AVAILABLE ***

Granny Luger definitely has some skeletons hidden in her closet. At 7:00 in the morning, in the Auvergne region of France, Berthe’s neighbor has been shot, the police have her cottage surrounded, someone has seemingly stolen her old Renault 4L, and her chamomile tea has gone cold. Brandishing her .22 rifle, the 102-year-old-woman launches verbal assaults at the cops until they break down her door, and take her in for questioning.

By 8:00, Berthe is in custody, her shotgun confiscated, and her car still missing. This morning proves the most mind-boggling experience of Inspector Ventura’s career. Never has he had to interrogate a smart-mouthed, squirrely, witty grandmother. Through a lot of miscommunication (mainly because of Berthe’s failing hearing aids) and jokes at his expense, Ventura finally gets Bertha to confess to hiding two fugitives, Roy and Guillemette, but what she tells him isn’t quite what he expects.

When the police find Berthe’s Luger, a forbidden Nazi artifact, she must explain why it’s in her possession. Bluntly she asserts that she killed a Nazi, and he’s buried in her basement. Sent to retrieve the body, the police find several other bodies buried throughout Berthe’s basement. And so, with nothing else to lose, Berthe explains the bodies, and, in turn, relates to Inspector Ventura her life story.

The Luger-strapped grandma’s account of her life is nothing short of explosive. If the law isn’t on her side, morality and circumstance would almost make her innocent, for her story intersects that of the twentieth century, and the struggles women endured to own their bodies and their rights. Benoît Philippon gives us, in Granny Luger, a formidable exchange exploring feminism, racism, and morality. Above all, he gives us a violently funny, charming, and strong old woman. She makes you laugh, but makes you cry as well, of emotion and admiration, for the incredibly free granny speaks volumes to our own contemporary history.


Born in 1976, Benoît Philippon grew up in the Antilles, then moved between France and Canada. He became a screenwriter and film director. After Cabossé, published as part of the Série Noire (Gallimard), Granny Luger is his second noir novel.

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They All Wound, the Last One Kills

Karine Giebel

(Belfond, 744 pages, 2018)

*** TRANSLATION SAMPLE AVAILABLE ***

To rebel is to live. But it is also to suffer. It is above all to suffer. So, that night, between two chattering teeth, between two moans, between two floods of tears, I promise. Never again will I revolt. In the middle of my horrifying delirium, I vow to bend my back, forever.

—Excerpt from the book

They call her Tama, but that’s not her real name. She does not have the right to utter her real name. And yet every evening before she goes to sleep, she murmurs it to herself several times so that she never forgets.

At the age of nine, Tama lives near Paris in a large and attractive house, but it is not her own. She does the housework, cooking, and looks after the children. Not entitled to a bedroom, the little girl sleeps in a cupboard next to the washing machine. She washes herself in the sink before the family wakes up, given only one towel and one change of clothes. Tama is not like the average child; she is a slave. The slave of the Charandon family, whose members continually bully, beat, and degrade her. It makes no difference that Tama is docile, intelligent, and kind—she is theirs. She has no identity papers, no name, no future. She is nothing.

By the age of fifteen, Tama has lived a thousand lives. Denied the education every child deserves, she has taught herself how to read. Now she lives with Mrs. Charandon’s cousin, Mejda, as her teenage body becomes an embarrassing temptation to Mr. Charandon. Her new nemesis mentally and physically tortures her. Fortunately Izri, Mejda’s enigmatic son, is protective and kind toward Tama, and brings her to his place when he becomes aware of the extent of her injuries at the hands of his mother.

Because initially Izri is benevolent and comparably nicer than his relatives, Tama falls in love with him. However, Izri proves to be manipulative, abusive, and adulterous. His presence in Tama’s life becomes a toxic paradox; her heart is filled with love and joy, but Izri’s controlling and possessive nature imprisons Tama in an inescapable world of abuse.

Gabriel lives in the middle of the country. He has turned his back on civilization and retreated to the mountains. Tortured and vengeful, he only strays from his secluded home to kill those who participated in his daughter’s murder.

When a gravely injured and amnesiac young woman stumbles into his home, Gabriel resolves to kill her to protect his vigilante mission, but strangely finds that he doesn’t have the heart to finish the job. He becomes attached to her, and vows to help her recover her memories and, ultimately, save Tama.

In They All Wound, the Last One Kills, Karine Giebel renders a heart-wrenching and powerful story. Through her gripping prose, she tests in her protagonists a terrifying and unbreakable conviction. In denouncing the reality and horror of contemporary human trafficking, Giebel explores the dynamics of power, manipulation, and abuse.

Karine Giebel is a recognized psychological crime author, and has published novels as well as short fiction and poetry. Her characters constantly find themselves fighting an unfair, selfish, and often cruel society. Her work has been translated into nine languages, won several literary prizes, and her books have sold more than a million copies.