red poppies

What I Read: June 2023

Spending two weeks in France meant one thing was certain: I was going to read books set in France, about France, or by French authors. This was interspersed with a couple of airport books since I have acquired the habit of buying books whenever I am about to board a plane. The fact that so many airport bookshops offer a wide selection of rubbish, makes the challenge to find something worthwhile all the more challenging.

This month’s theme was meant to be “nature” (covering anything from conservation and climate change to animals and farming). After two weeks in France, and a few days at home trying to finish my final French book, I managed to conclude the month with a few fitting (and some not-so-fitting) tomes.

tree in field
Hiking through the French countryside. © Claudia Hauter

Ruth Galloway #13: The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths
Before I left for France, I had to take a work trip to Cape Town. At Lanseria, I bought this book, having immensely enjoyed the first in the series. While Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries remain contemporary (for the most part), her recurring characters tend to stagnate, barely aging through the decades.

Griffiths’ main character Ruth Galloway, however, progresses through the various books, both in age and story. That’s why this instalment, written 12 years after the first, sees her with a tween daughter. I enjoyed #13 just as much, which is why I went right along to Audible to download another.

“Funny how it’s endearing to hear animals eating loudly but horrific when it’s humans.”

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
Now it was time for my first French book. This is written by a British author about a Belgian detective but takes place in France. It’s not a very well-known Christie book but, not seeing the twists and turns coming, I found it entertaining and brain-stumping – just want I want from a murder mystery. And thankfully, despite the title, there’s not any golf involved.

cottage core
A walnut mill that looks like the perfect setting for a Christie mystery. © Claudia Hauter

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke
This was another book about France written by a British author. I’ve read Clarke’s other book about France – an amusing, historical tome called 1000 Years of Annoying the French, focusing on the history of the oft-contentious Anglo-French relations.

Clarke is a witty writer with a clipping pace, which is why I picked up A Year in the Merde, inspired by his time living in France. With the same brand of humour firmly in place, I enjoyed it. It was, however, a bit awkward trying to explain to a French person who could barely speak English, what it was about…especially considering that the word “shit” is in the title.

It plays off mostly in Paris, which I did not visit (bar the airport, which involved an hour on the plane due to a delay). But it does include chapters on the protagonist’s attempt to buy a place in the French countryside, which is where I spent most of my time, eating cheese, bread, and snails, admiring copious castles, and using Google Translate.

“There’s no room for human rights in a government waiting room.”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
This was completely off-topic, not being about France or nature; but I bought it at OR Tambo on my way to France and decided to do a most unusual thing for a bookworm: read it mere days after purchase. The Buried Giant is described as a fantasy novel, but I do not agree with that categorisation, despite the presence of a dragon.

It follows a Briton couple who leave home to look for their son, hampered by a mysterious mist that muddles their memories. Along the way, they encounter a Saxon knight who rescues a boy, and both accompany them on their journey. It sounds a bit like an adventure novel, and I suppose, what with all the horses and hiding out and swashbuckling swords, it is. But the manner in which it is told relegates it beyond fantasy to a close study of its enigmatic characters who know as little about themselves as the reader does.

French cheese
Of course I ate plenty of cheese. © Claudia Hauter

Ruth Galloway #2: The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths
Since the Kindle app no longer allows you to purchase books on Android, I was forced to buy this on Audible. But mysteries are a genre I find easier to listen to than others. Barrelling back in time, this second instalment covers Ruth’s discovery of her pregnancy…along with another murder that needs solving. Knowing how her personal relations pan out (having read the thirteenth book) does not at all detract from the enjoyment of joining Ruth for another murder mystery.

French castle
One of the many castles I saw. © Claudia Hauter

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
It’s a trifle strange how no one writes female characters quite as well as male novelists from several centuries ago – William Thackeray being another fine example, while Stephen King remains an example of the god-awful mess some contemporary male writers make of depicting women.

A lot of the characters in Madame Bovary really should be very unlikable (not least, Madame Bovary herself) but Flaubert imbues them with all the stress and strife of life, making their philosophical musings not only lamentable but relatable, as the fairy tale we envision life will become steadily fades and dies in front of Madame Bovary’s eyes.

“Whereas a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on a bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze that blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that constrains.”

Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh
My first “nature” book for the month. Even though Hanh touches on climate change and species extinction, this is about saving the planet in much broader terms. Hanh’s reflections will make you introspect a lot, but they become very repetitive. I liked a lot of what he had to say, but overall I found the book’s approach much too broad and there are few practical solutions provided – although having the calm, positive, caring frame of mind Hanh encourages is also important when it comes to saving the world.

French forest
The entry to the forest I hiked through. © Claudia Hauter

Earthed by Rebecca Schiller
This is a memoir that – given the title and description – I thought was about managing a small farm. It would have been an apt choice since I had just spent ten days living on one. However, Earthed is actually a memoir about the author coming to grips with her mental health diagnoses. There’s an anecdote now and again about life on her smallholding, and she weaves in stories about those who lived there before her, but there are ultimately so many different strands, I got into such a tangle, finding the results dull and tiresome. It may have been easier to follow had I read it instead of listening to the audiobook, but given that I thought it was about working the land, and got very little of that, I found it disappointing and misleading.

strawberries in trunk of car
My friend on the way to market to sell freshly-picked strawberries from her farm. © Claudia Hauter

The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell
Durrell was a naturalist, zookeeper, and conservationist, so I was a lot more optimistic that this book would deliver on the nature theme. And boy did it! Durrell was an excellent writer with a wealth of experience in the natural world. This book covers his trip with ornithologist John Yealland to the British Cameroons to collect animals for English zoos.

However, while Durrell certainly loved animals and appreciated the local people’s habits and attitudes, this book is a clear product of its time. The careless way animals are collected and the patronising manner in which the locals are treated is cringeworthy. His collection methods and human interrelations aside there is no denying his skill with the written word as he barrells along at an exhilarating pace, engaging you with his wit, alacrity, and awe, recounting his many and multitudinous adventures filled with a raucous riot of animal life.

two horses
My friend’s horses on the farm. © Claudia Hauter

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
I enjoyed Durrell’s work so much, and still had time to squeeze in one more nature book, I hopped right into My Family and Other Animals. This autobiographical work relays the time Durrell spent as a youngster on Corfu with his family, getting to know the locals and collecting all manner of critters and creatures. This was even more enjoyable than The Overloaded Ark, with delightful descriptions of the charming Greek island and its abundance of animal life and colourful people. But best of all are the humourous recollections of the family’s many misadventures that had me literally shaking with laughter.

“You only die once.”

Feature image credit.

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