French Books for the Holidays

December 10, 2013 | By FRENCH CULTURE BOOKS

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good book makes the best gift! This month, we asked a group of influential literary professionals to tell us about their favorite contemporary French books. Writers and readers from the Wall Street Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, Words without Borders, The New Yorker, The New Inquiry, the New York Public Library, and McNally Jackson bookstore have recommended an exceptional selection of recent French publications (all of which make lovely cadeaux!). The majority of these titles have been published in English this year (except for Judith Thurman’s picks, which she read in French and was very excited about!). They can be found on our New Titles page.

Joyeuses fêtes à tous et à toutes !

Laurence, Anne-Sophie, Colombine, Fanny and Alicen


Judith Thurman's Picks

Judith Thurman is a writer, translator and literary critic for The New Yorker. She is the author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, which won the 1983 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, (1999), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography, and the Salon Book Award for biography.

Heureux les heureux, by Yasmina Reza
Editions Flammarion | January 2013

I devoured Heureux les Heureux, glued to my chair. Few playwrights succeed in writing fiction, except for Tchekov, of course, but in this novel, Reza resembles him. Her prose possesses the same balance of tenderness and acuity; subtle language and profound pain, worldly wisdom and the courage to feel. Domestic life, she suggests, is a sentimental, tragicomic shipwreck – but this novel makes you feel better about your own.

Une matière inflammable, by Marc Weitzmann
Stock | August 2013

The uncomfortably searing fiction of Marc Weitzmann, including his latest—the aptly titled Une Matiere Inflammable—is a radical experiment in rewriting the contemporary French novel of manners. Here he takes on le fracas de l’échec de DSK, cunningly intertwined with a neo-Balzacian story of class, ambition, and Parisian intrigue--told with a sauvagerie qui ne se dément pas. Note to French readers: Weitzmann is a heretic.


Steve Wasserman's Pick

Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, served as editorial director of Times Books and publisher of Hill & Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He is a past partner of the Kneerim & Williams Literary Agency and is currently editor at large for Yale University Press.

The Trouble with Being Born, Emile Cioran
Arcade Publishing, translated by Richard Howard | February 2013

The mordant and cutting musings of the late Rumanian-French aphorist are still too-little known. To say that the shadow cast by the looming certainty of one’s (not to say others') extinction both excites the imagination and deepens thinking is to coarsen the pleasures to be had by spending time with the unsentimental Cioran. Henry Miller’s description of Scriabin’s fevered music equally applies to Cioran’s reflections: they are like an ice-cold bath of cocaine and rainbows. Not for the faint-hearted.

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Donald Breckenridge's Picks

Donald Breckenridge has served as the fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail since 2001. In addition he is the author of several novels, including You Are Here, 6/2/95This Young Girl Passing, and Rockaway Wherein. His latest work is the second volume of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology.

Childhood, by Nathalie Sarraute
University of Chicago Press, introduced by Alice Kaplan and translated by Barbara Wright | March 2013

Having Childhood back in print is truly a cause for celebration. I have lent out and/or given nearly a dozen copies of this book away, for Christmas or otherwise, and it was getting harder and harder to find pristine copies of the Braziller edition in used book stores. Sarraute's eye was always keen and her arid touch was never more delicate or deeply nuanced than in Childhood. This is a well-lived and elegant autobiography by one of France's most important authors. Reading Childhood is to be reminded of what a delicate and beautiful miracle it is to be alive.

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Take A Closer Look, by Daniel Arasse
Princeton University Press, translated by Alyson Waters | August 2013

Take A Closer Look introduces the reader to new ways of looking at art while exploring how painting has evolved through the centuries. The art historian Daniel Arasse's expert eye for detail is equal to his gifts for narrative and sly humor as he takes us on brief adventures through masterworks by Velasquez, Bruegel, Tintoretto and Titian. This is a fantastic, lavishly illustrated and truly engaging little book that was expertly translated by Alyson Waters. Take A Closer Look is perfect for anyone who has spent a fair amount of time at the Met but absolutely essential for that jaded, globe-trotting art lover in your life who has apparently seen everything and thinks that they know everything about painting.

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Sam Sacks's Picks

Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and is an editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Pierre Michon

Pierre Michon has long been renowned in France but he's managed to remain largely unknown in the U.S. So it was nothing short of a revelation to discover him by way of Yale University Press's Margellos World Republic of Letters series, which has issued new translations of the novel The Origin of the World, the story collection Masters and Servants, and, best of all, the densely poetic anti-biography Rimbaud the Son. Michon's approach to his subjects (he is most drawn to artists and the mysteries of creation) is elliptical to the point of abstraction--but the force of his language is stunningly immediate, as though composed in the throes of inspiration. His translators have done a remarkable job conveying both its beauty and its moody ferocity.

Masters and Servants, by Pierre Michon
Yale University Press, translated by Wyatt Mason | October 2013

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Rimbaud the Son, by Pierre Michon
Yale University Press, translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays | October 2013

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The Origin of the World, by Pierre Michon
Yale University Press, translated by Wyatt Mason | December 2013

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Susan Harris's Picks

Susan Harris is the editorial director of Words Without Borders. She is the former director and editor in chief of Northwestern University Press, where she founded the Hydra imprint in literature in translation.

Horses of God, by Mahi Binebine
Tin House Books, translated by Lulu Norman | March 2013

I'm always delighted to see the publication of books from which we've run excerpts in Words without Borders. One of my favorites this year was Mahi Binebine's compelling Horses of God, loosely based on the 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca and marvelously translated by Lulu Norman. Narrated by one of the teenaged bombers from the afterlife, Binebine's novel traces the seeds of fundamentalist martyrdom in the tales of four childhood friends growing up in the Sidi Moumen slum. The film version premiered at Cannes last year and is Morocco's entry for the 2014 Academy Award for best foreign film.

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The World Is Moving around Me, by Dany Laferrière
Arsenal Pulp Press, translated by David Homel | January 2013

Other books from which we published extracts included Dany Laferrière's sorrowful memoir of the Haitian earthquake, The World Is Moving around Me.

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Rébétiko, by David Prudhomme
Harry N. Abrams, translated by Edward Gauvin | September 2013

David Prudhomme's Rébétiko is a striking graphic novel, set in Greece during the fascist military dictatorship of the late 1930s, with art drawn from Italian neorealism.

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Blue White Red, by Alain Mabanckou
Indiana University Press, translated by Alison Dundy | September 2013

Alain Mabanckou's Blue White Red is both a satire of a dandy's return to his village from Paris and a searing commentary on the lives of Africans in France.

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Elizabeth Bird's Picks

Elizabeth Bird is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library and a reviewer for the blog "A Fuse #8 Production."

Benjamin Bear in Bright Ideas!, written by Philippe Coudray
Toon Books, Translated by Leigh Stein | March 2013

Simultaneously subtle and clever, this easy reader series exemplifies the best that Toon Books has to offer.  No comic lover should go a day without reading this.

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Akissi: Feline Invasion, written by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Mathieu Sapin
Flying Eye Book, Translated by J. Taboy | July 2013

This book has everything going for it. Great characters, a fun plot, and the world's most disgusting plot twist right at the end.

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Pomelo's Opposites, written by Ramona Badescu, illustrated by Benjamin Chaud
Enchanted Lion Books, translated by Claudia Bedrick | August 2013

My two-year-old has recently become Pomelo obsessed.  This is the book that taught her the true definition of the term "fleeting".

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Ballad, by Blexbolex
Enchanted Lion Books, translated by Claudia Bedrick | November 2013

Almost meta in its impressive structure, this is a book that defies easy categorization.  If you want something fun and exciting that will also cause your child’s brain to expand, consider handing them Ballad.

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10 Little Insects, written by Davide Cali, illustrated by Vincent Pianina
Wilkins Farago | May 2013

It's Agatha Christie for kids. Adapting her famous And Then There Were None into a graphic novel starring short-lived bugs, it's hard not to find this kooky little title a hoot from start to finish.
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The Bear's Song, by Benjamin Chaud
Chronicle Books, translated by Claudia Bedrick | September 2013

Chock full of details on every page, you'll thrill to the myriad details hidden in this book as a concern papa bear chasing his wayward bee-obsessed infant.

Nasreddine, written by Odile Weulersse, illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer
Eerdmans, translated by Kathleen Merz | March 2013

A gentle folktale takes on new life, as readers follow one boy and his clever solution to an ungainly problem. Included on NYPL's 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2013 list.

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Jane, the Fox & Me, written by Fanny Brittn illustratedy by Isabelle Arsenault
Groundwood Books, translatedy by Christine Morelli | September 2013

Heartbreaking and wonderful by turns, this quiet middle school graphic novel is perfect for anyone who has ever wanted to disappear from the eyes of the world. A New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2013.

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Ariol #1: Just a Donkey Like You and Me, by Emmanuel Guibert and Marc Boutavant
Papercutz, translated by Joe Johnson | February 2013

Everyday school stories are told with farm animal characters, creating something original and surprisingly honest in the process.

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McNally Jackson's Picks

McNally Jackson is an independent bookstore in New York City.

Astragal, by Albertine Sarrazin
New Directions, introduced by Patti Smith and translated by Patsy Southgate | April 2013

A passionate novel about crime and prostitution, but also love and naivete.

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The Last Days, by Laurent Seksik
Pushkin Press, translated by André Naffis-Sahely | November 2013

Beyond belief extraordinary.

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The Summer of the Elder Tree, by Marie Chaix
Dalkey Archive Press, translated by Harry Mattews | July 2013

Like most of Chaix's books, this one is autobiographical: the story of her fight back from an eleven-year period during which she never completed a book. It begins where stories begin: with intrigue. Then it digs deep into the places where writers write with blood.

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From Nondecision to Heresy: Experiments in Non-Standard Thought, by Francois Laruelle
Urbanomic, translated by Miguel Abreu, Taylor Adkins, Ray Brassier, Christopher Eby, Robin Mackay, Nicola Rubczak and Anthony Paul Smith | January 2013

A thoroughly engaging line of inquiry into nondialectics.

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L'Amour, by Marguerite Duras
Open Letter Books, translated by Kazim Ali and Libby Murphy | July 2013

No other writer understands the incessant, insatiable nature of desire like Duras.

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Ethics: An Essay in the Understanding of Evil, by Alain Badiou
Verso, translated by Peter Hallward | January 2013

Badiou sets the course for ethical thought for the twenty-first century.

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Theory of the Subject, by Alain Badiou
Bloomsbury Academic, translated by Bruno Bosteels | April 2013

In our age of austerity, occupation, and the domineering politics of parliamentary capitalism, this book feels more necessary than ever.

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On the Names-of-the-Father, by Jacques Lacan
Polity Books | October 2013

Invaluable as the trace of a seminar that never was, and for its insight into one of the analyst's integral concepts.

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Malavita, by Tonino Benacquista
Penguin Books, translated by Emily Read | June 2013

Malavita is enjoyable for its ripping and roaring crime farce, as well as for Benacquista's idiosyncratic representations of American Mafia culture.

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Pierre Reverdy, by Pierre Reverdy
New York Review Books Poets, translated by John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth and Lydia Davis | October 2013

For Reverdy, isolation is preferable to companionship, stasis easier than change. But this does not mean that he does not desire release from solitude, and the beauty of his poetry lies in this contradiction. He may not convince us that he says yes, but my goodness is there affirmation in the struggle.

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Max Fox's Pick

Max Fox is an editor for the New Inquiry. He writes, edits and translates from New York.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic by Chris Tysh
Les Figues Press | October 2013

A friend told me that for her, queerness is above all theft. I'm stealing that line from her. I lifted a copy of "Our Lady of the Flowers" from a bookstore when I was a teenager. I'd stolen books before but none had throbbed in my jacket the way Genet's did. His lurid, exquisite prose made me feel simultaneously dizzy and brave. This new translation is a perfect gift for anyone whose innocence you want to steal.

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