Reading French Books

Happy 2017! We’re starting the year off with a look at how American Francophiles can satisfy their booklust without breaking the bank.

Whether in digital or print format, procuring classic French literature like Candide and Les Misérables is relatively easy, but for the ravenous bibliophile (or recovering French lit major), finding titles by great modern French and Francophone authors poses a surprising set challenges. A little savoir faire makes those obstacles surmountable.

Recently published French books (and other international titles) can be hard to come by in the U.S.; while they’re often available on e-commerce sites like Amazon.fr or Fnac.com (the Gallic version of Target), shipping fees can sometimes cost more than the book itself.

Yet, stateside Francophiles need not wait until their next trip to France before loading up on coveted volumes. Many major metropolitan cities are home to independent bookstores catering to international tastes. East-coast outposts include Manhattan’s Albertine and Schoenhof’s Foreign Books in Cambridge, MA, while European Books and Media in Oakland, California is another great resource with a robust web presence. Newly released books may still be pricey, however, and others may not be readily available, but independent shops are wonderful for physical browsing and seeking out expert opinions. Some stores also host in-store book talks, signings, and foster an overall sense of joie de lire.

A budget-friendly option is to say bonjour to your local Alliance Française (AF),a global non-profit organization founded by Louis Pasteur and Jules Verne dedicated to promoting French language and culture. Many AF chapters host monthly book clubs based on fluency level, and while fees vary, roughly $120 dollars nets participants ten books and a monthly venue for discussion. I discovered my local chapter a few years ago, and in addition to reading the latest award-winning books, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the material in French among other Francophiles. (Groups are moderated by AF instructors.)

Our book club’s theme this year is “le retour,” or “The Return,” and includes new and recently released books by Pierre Lemaitre, Lola Lafon, Russian-born Andrei Makine, and Leïla Slimani–all prizewinning and internationally acclaimed authors. Slimani’s Chanson Douce just received the prestigious Prix Goncourt in November, and the group moderators swapped out another title so that we could decide for ourselves whether Chanson Douce merited the award. (It does. The story is loosely based on the actual homicide of two Manhattan children at the hands of their nanny. Class divisions, race, and mental instability are deftly explored in this quietly ferocious tale.)

However you satisfy your Gallic booklust, Bonne lecture! 

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