Archive for the ‘Book’ Category

Last summer saw the bi-centenary of Jane Austen’s death; there were events and celebrations across England.  Visiting friends in Winchester in the summer, (more…)

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The Death of Peter Mayle

What sad news to wake up to today. Peter Mayle, the author best known for writing ‘A Year in Provence’, has died in hospital near his home village of Vaugines.

In fact I had just posted this week about visiting his favourite restaurant in Marseille which had prompted me to pick up ‘A Year in Provence’ to reread a few chapters.

Peter Mayle in Lourmarin, Provence in 2006.
Peter Mayle in Lourmarin, Provence in 2006. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

This book inspired an entire genre of Provence-themed memoirs but he really was the godfather of them all.  His descriptions, so incisive and witty, were the product of his skill as an advertising man, added to a benign nature that saw the best in people and places.  His work is always optimistic and sunny, capturing the imagination of the millions who bought his books.

In true advertising tradition, he crafted his product, Provence, giving it an image and personality that so appealed to holiday-makers and people looking for a new life. No wonder the French made him Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 2002.

He was 78.  A sad loss.



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Surviving Provence is a humorous account of the people (and animals) who share author Barbara Farber’s  daily life in the South of France.  It is a far cry, she explains, from an ode to lavender and sunflowers.

She writes: “Although my husband and I were both born in the United States, we have spent the greater part of our lives in Europe, mostly in The Netherlands. Leaving our working years and Amsterdam behind us, we settled into our huge white elephant of a house in Provence. 

The house is the star of the book.  It has been a setting for TV soup commercials, oversized women’s clothes for a Swiss mail order catalogue, and fashion photography of very chic men’s underwear with a sexy Los Angeles male model, who posed in very minimal shorts, outside in November, smiling and shivering the whole time.  The newest model of Peugeot was unveiled on our terrace.  Several TV series, almost always involving a murder or kidnapping, brought film crews for weeks.

The first chapter, The House, tells an intriguing, bizarre and, sometimes, sad tale of this old house we now live in as the first non-family member.  It recounts how we came to buy it, the history of the family, the role it played during the Vichy regime and it’s super-natural vibes.

Of course food and wine play an important role.  The French have very precise eating and drinking habits, quite different from our Anglo-Saxon ways.  There are no restaurant recommendations, only wonderful Provençal recipes and descriptions of disastrous dinner parties, mine, as well as some to which we have been invited.

 “The chapter Social life gives a funny twist to relations with the local garage mechanic, the post office lady, the chicken vendor at the weekly market, the pharmacist, our wine producing neighbour, hunters, beekeepers, and the  sympathetic veterinarian.”  Barbara includes anecdotes on her local plumber with his use of “quaint” Provençal expletives,  super sensitive shutter painters, a tree cutter who talks to their plane trees and a very Zen gardener, all  described with a sympathetic eye to their follies and foibles.

All aspects of living in Provence are described: “Rabbits and wild boars destroy our well-manicured grass.  The post office lady in her yellow car gives cookies to our three dogs when she delivers our mail.  A small dog drinks beer at a local café with his master.”

The author:  Barbara Farber was born in New Jersey, USA but has spent most of her life in Europe.  She has lived in Brussels, Zurich and for 35 years in Amsterdam where she founded a contemporary art gallery.   After moving to Provence, she continued to be involved with art as a collector.  She has written numerous articles for various magazines.  This is her first book.

‘Surviving Provence’ is available from Book-in-Bar in rue Joseph Cabassol, Aix, and will shortly be listed on Amazon.
















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‘Anges et Mascarons’ is the theme for a photo exhibition which begins on Saturday 2nd December. And the photographer will be at the bookstore that evening 17:00-19:00hrs.  He is Mohammed El Hamzaoui who with Léo Purguette has also produced a book ‘Mascarons d’Aix, visages secrets’.

His work focuses on the intriguing and mysterious stone faces that peer out all around us in Aix – from fountains, doorways and above windows.   Who are they and what do they signify?  And what of the angels in centre ville?

Details of the exhibition are on the poster below.  Thank you to Sheila for this info!

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Aren’t we lucky to have a pro-active English-language book shop in town?  Here is their programme for the year end:

Thursday 23rd November, Poetry Corner.  ‘As always in November, we will commemorate the fallen of WW1 and other wars, through poetry and prose.  The war to end all wars ended on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month 1918…but wars go on and on.  “Lest we forget” we read and discuss each November, the poets and poetry through the genre of War Poetry.’

Thursday 30th November, Book Club. ‘The Uncommon Reader’, Alan Bennett.

Friday 15th December, Poetry Corner. ‘This will be a special evening.  We will celebrate the 10th Birthday of The Poetry Corner!  I invite you, my poetry friends, to write a ten line poem on any subject of your choice.  A little surprise gift awaits the winner. We will discuss some of the themes that we have encountered during the ten years of The Poetry Corner’.

Thursday 21st December, Book Club. ‘Last Night at the Lobster’, Stewart O’nan.

All events start at 17:30hrs.

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I have to admit to not being a reader of fantasy fiction, but I really enjoyed ‘Ysabel’ by Guy Gavriel Kay, the Canadian novelist.  I wonder if its setting in Aix made me so mesmerised with this story?

Written back in 2007, it starts in Aix Cathedral where a 15 year old boy, Ned, wanders in and meets Kate Wenger, an American exchange student with a passion for ancient history and an extensive knowledge of the cathedral’s past. A strange and nameless man warns them to leave immediately, stating that they “have blundered into the corner of a very old story”. Kay’s narrative moves between modern and ancient Provence bringing in Celtic tribes, Roman legions and fights played out on the Sainte-Victoire.

To research and write the novel, the author lived  in Aix four times, and will be back in November as part of his 12 day book tour in France for his French publisher, L’Atalante. His most recent book released in France, Le Fleuve Céleste (River of Stars), won the Prix Elbakin last month, and his publishers have just reprinted an earlier, much-loved title, Les Lions d’Al-Rassan (one of the titles he wrote in Aix) with a new cover.


Meet the Author: Kay will be signing many of his novels, and chatting with book-lovers at Librairie Goulard on the Cours Mirabeau at 17:00 on November 11th.

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On Wednesday, local author Jules Farber will be talking about his book, ‘James Baldwin: Escape from America, Exile in Provence’, and entertaining the audience with anecdotes about Baldwin’s writing career as an expat in France from 1970 until his death in 1987.  Jules Farber will be interviewed by Dr Leigh Smith, Dean, as part of the ongoing IAU series of free lectures.

The book contains more than 70 interviews with people who met James Baldwin in the last 17 years of his life, a revealing retrospective on one of America’s greatest literary figures.

Saint-Paul de Vence provided the writer with a refuge from the racism and hatred in America. He became a good neighbour and friend to the locals of the village and hosted guests from around the world. In the book, celebrities, such as Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Bill Wyman, and others, tell their personal reminisces and stories about Baldwin.

Date: Wednesday, 27 September 18:30hrs

Location: Institute for American Universities – Main Hall, 2 bis rue Bon Pasteur 13100 Aix-en-Provence
Here is a full article on this book and info on its author. 
Read on to find out why Baldwin’s house is now under threat:

James Baldwin: His Life in Provence

Lunch at the iconic La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul de Vence turned out to be a memorable occasion for writer Jules Farber, and not just for the quality of the food. He spotted a photograph on the wall showing James Baldwin, the US writer and civil activist who was famously black, gay and an object of scrutiny by the FBI. What on earth, Jules wondered, was his picture doing here?

And so started a quest of detective work during which Jules followed leads world-wide to produce his new book, ‘James Baldwin – Escape From America – Exile in Provence’.

Move to France

Baldwin, it turned out, had fled the hatred and racism in America in 1970, travelling to Paris. There, he was admitted to the American Hospital in Neuilly with a mental and physical breakdown. He was advised to recuperate in the sunny south of France and his friend Simone Signoret helped him find somewhere to stay – and that was Saint-Paul de Vence.

He loved the village and decided to make it his home. Eventually he moved into part of a bastide owned by a certain Mlle Faure, who had fled Algeria and had issues with black people; but gradually she grew to admire and love him.

Focus for the Famous…

He was always broke’, explains Jules, ‘but he became a focus of creative life and had numerous visitors from America but also entertained locals’. To get a rounded portrait of the man, and his community at that time, Jules Farber has interviewed visitors like Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Angela Davis and Rolling Stone Bill Wyman who lived nearby and became a great friend. Nina Simone, Josephine Baker and Ray Charles guesting at Cote d’Azur jazz festivals would also drop in. And stay.

and the Locals

The tourist office in Saint-Paul turned up trumps and pointed Jules in the direction of several locals who were happy to add their reminiscences…like the post-man. He was just a youngster in the post office at the time but, as the only one with a smattering of English, he had the job of transcribing Baldwin’s telegrams. He delivered them and so often stayed on for lunch at the ‘Welcome Table’. Baldwin had a local lady to shop and cook – she used to arrive on her motor-cycle wearing wrap-around sunglasses presented to her by Miles Davis.

Baldwin either charmed people into working for him or issued IOUs. For example, his driving was far too erratic for the challenging roads of the Provencal interior and so he had a series of chauffeurs. They often left, unpaid, and one actually took off with the car in lieu of earnings and was never seen again.

His Work

During this time, Baldwin was prolific. He spent his days at his typewriter producing his last works as well as essays and interviews. During the 1980s, he discussed homosexuality frankly and became an important figure for the emerging gay rights movement.

His House – Now Under Threat

Incredible though it seems, this house which has provide shelter and happiness to such an important writer and which has seen so many famous literary, musical and cinema stars passing through and enjoying the ambiance and hospitality, is now threatened with demolition.

The house remained empty for 20 years from the writer’s death in 1987 because of a complex legal situation between a cleaning lady who cared for owner Mlle Faure who had moved into the village as she became elderly, and remote family of Mlle Faure. The estate of part-owner Baldwin bowed out early from the struggle. And while the legal processes between the two families have taken their course, the house has deteriorated and been vandalised. A property developer is currently making plans to preserve the main house but demolish the side wings and build villas in the grounds.

Lots of info here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/04/arts/battling-to-save-james-baldwins-home-in-the-south-of-france.html?mcubz=0

* Published by Pelican Publishing. As well as Amazon, it is available at Book In Bar, rue Joseph Cabassol, Aix.

Jules Farber

Jules retired to Provence after a successful career in public relations in Amsterdam where he had his own agency. During this time, he was a free-lance journalist for international media and wrote 4 books in Dutch and English. Since then, he has been busy with his writing career with books including ‘Talking About Cezanne’, ‘Classic Cats by Great Photographers’ and ‘Les Juifs du Pape en Provence’. Both Barbara and Jules are passionate contemporary art collectors and are kept busy with their family of 3 children and 5 grandchildren.

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Peter Mayle certainly started something back in 1989 when he published ‘A Year in Provence’.  What a best-seller that turned out to be; and it launched a whole genre of ‘newcomer-to-Provence-buys-old-house/olive-grove’ books that document the inevitable cultural differences that we all bump up against. Is there anything more to be said?

Well Keith Van Sickle certainly thought so.

He and wife Val wanted to leave the US to live in Provence, but there were two problems: they weren’t French speakers and they had full-time jobs.  So, taking advantage of new technology, they left their jobs, became consultants and split their time between the two countries.

‘One Sip at a Time’ charts their progress mastering the new language and making friends with the locals.  Of course long meals are the order of the day so the ‘one sip’ in the title relates to our delightful Provencal wine, but also to the short chapters of the book, each with its own central observation.

I did enjoy this approach as he comments on:

  • the right and wrong ways for men to kiss each other
  • the French addiction to Nutella
  • when to pronounce the final ‘s’ as in Carpentras, but why the ‘x’ is pronounced in Coudox and not in Velaux when they are next door to each other
  • being the subject of waiters’ scorn for liking milk in coffee
  • the preponderance of tail-gaters in France…..and so on.

The couple had three extended stays in the area – Molleges, Le Thor and Ventabren, near Aix – and did their best to fit into each community, making good friends along the way.

It’s an easy and light-hearted read: both M. Aixcentric and I enjoyed it.

It would make a welcome pressie for new arrivals to the area.   I’m sure ‘Book In Bar’ could order it for you or…https://www.amazon.co.uk/One-Sip-Time-Learning-Provence/dp/0998312002 have it in paperback or Kindle.


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Paris is a much-loved and well-known city, well documented too, but increasingly visitors are seeking out new quartiers to explore, whether through neighbourhood guided tours or staying in Airbnb accommodation.

Writer Susan Cahill has tapped into this vibe with her guide to Paris following in the footsteps of famous Parisians.

She includes medieval lovers Héloïse and Abelard, King Henri IV, scientist Madame Curie,  chanteuse Edith Piaf, and the writer Colette. We are told the life-stories of twenty-two famous Parisians and then taken to the quartiers where they lived and worked. Every tour begins with a Metro stop and ends with a list of “Nearbys”―points of interest along the way, including cafes, gardens, squares, museums, bookstores, churches, and, of course, patisseries.

To follow artist Alberto Giacometti for instance, the visitor must go to the district of Pernety in the 14th arondissement to find his studio.  It was a rural area back then but now artists have colonised the old stables.  Susan Cahill describes the area: ‘It’s scenic and charming like a movie set of a secret Paris though it feels – it is – lived in’.  The chapter tells us lots about the artist and his years living there. Bordering Montparnasse, he visited all the artistic haunts – La Coupole, Le Select and Le Dome – often walking miles at night with Samuel Beckett.   After the walk through the neighbourhood, the author directs us to Place Flora Tristan to join the locals at this terrace-café.

It’s a great idea for a book with loads of ideas for exploring Paris – lots of photos too.

For some reason, it is currently only available to order through http://www.amazon.com which means a dispatch here in France from the US.  Here’s the link:https://www.amazon.com/Streets-Paris-Following-Footsteps-Throughout/dp/1250074320



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Van Gogh’s Ear

Yesterday I met up with local author Bernadette Murphy whose book ‘Van Gogh’s Ear – The True Story’ has been such a success.  It was chosen by BBC Radio 4 as their book of the week and was also the subject of a BBC2 TV documentary.

It’s a fascinating and gripping story of detective work as Bernadette travelled extensively and exhumed endless archive material to find out exactly what happened that night in December 1888.

When I visit, it always strikes me how little must have changed in Arles.  The back streets are still as quiet and dusty as they must have been in Vincent’s time, although his Yellow House was destroyed in 1944.  The tourist offices in both Arles and Saint-Remy have done a good job of placing boards with his paintings in key places – now is a good time

The old hospital in Arles is now a mediatheque – but the garden is as he painted it, and described in a letter. A lovely space.

to visit before these places get too crowded.  Plus the Fondation Van Gogh is showing ‘Calm and Exaltation. Van Gogh in the Buhrle Collection’ with 8 of his paintings, until 17th September.


Bernadette’s book is on sale in Aix’s Book In Bar, and from this week is available in paperback.


More details of the book below:

On a dark night in Provence in December 1888 Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear. It is an act that has come to define him. Yet for more than a century biographers and historians seeking definitive facts about what happened that night have been left with more questions than answers.

In Van Gogh’s Ear Bernadette Murphy sets out to discover exactly what happened that night in Arles. Why would an artist at the height of his powers commit such a brutal act? Who was the mysterious ‘Rachel’ to whom he presented his macabre gift? Was it just his lobe, or did Van Gogh really cut off his entire ear? Her investigation takes us from major museums to the dusty contents of forgotten archives, vividly reconstructing the world in which Van Gogh moved – the madams and prostitutes, café patrons and police inspectors, his beloved brother Theo and his fellow artist and house-guest Paul Gauguin. With exclusive revelations and new research about the ear and about ‘Rachel’, Bernadette Murphy proposes a bold new hypothesis about what was occurring in Van Gogh’s heart and mind as he made a mysterious delivery to her doorstep that fateful night.

Van Gogh’s Ear is a compelling detective story and a journey of discovery. It is also a portrait of a painter creating his most iconic and revolutionary work, pushing himself ever closer to greatness even as he edged towards madness – and one fateful sweep of the blade that would resonate through the ages.



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