Flowers for Algernon / me

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It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about this book in years and if you had asked me to describe it for you just two weeks ago, I would have drawn a blank. But it all came rushing back to me in the days following my quick trip to England last week, when I realized I felt a bit like the main character in the book.

From what I can remember – and I’m sure I’m a little bit off – he is a young man with severe learning disabilities. Then he undergoes an experimental surgery that little by little increases his IQ to the point of brilliance. While he’s on his upward trajectory, a woman who is somehow involved in the study of his progress falls for him, and he falls for her. But then it becomes clear he’s hit his peak intelligence and started a descent right back to where he began. The tragedy is that he is painfully aware of what is happening and that he will soon lose his love once he can no longer hold up his end of the intellectual relationship.

I went to England on the 14th of June sure that I would come back on the 20th speaking much better French because of my week away. This would be in keeping with my marination theory of language, which posits that taking time off after an intense period of learning a foreign language helps it to sink in. But I think I have to amend my theory to include a minimum time away, maybe a month or so. And I also have to adjust for the possibility that perhaps if you spend too little time away, your abilities suffer instead of expand. I came back from England feeling as though my French had slid backwards to its pre-Paris level, which is to say, miles away from the high point it was at on June 13. And now, irrational as I know it is, I’m terrified that my peak French is no longer re-attainable (let alone surpassable).

And much like the guy in Flowers for Algernon, I fear that my descent will have a deleterious effect on all the relationships that I conduct solely in French.

The human mind is such a mystery, though. The fact that I hadn’t thought about Flowers for Algernon since I read it in eighth grade and then the plot magically materialized in my brain when sparked by a connection to the present, is proof of that. Who knows, maybe my French will likewise spontaneously return to me from wherever it is currently hiding in the recesses of my brain. Come out, come out, wherever you are…

[Photo: Kissing Toast]

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my French bookshelf

There are four areas of language learning: listening, speaking, writing and reading. Regarding that last one, I discovered a couple of years ago that the best way for me to actually enjoy reading in French is to skip the difficult classics and turn instead to a genre I usually don’t particularly care for: “chick lit.” The same qualities I find exasperating and/or boring in my native language – formulaic plots, outdated tropes, low reading levels, and a focus on stereotypically “girly” subjects like beauty, shopping and dating – I find refreshingly accessible in French. (I know there are many exceptions to my generalizations. I thought “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” for example, was hilarious, clever and original – not a throwaway in the least.)

I’ve never read Sophia Kinsella in her/my native English, but I breezed through the French version of “Cocktail Club,” about a trio of dubiously fabulous London besties whose friendship is nearly derailed by a crazy revenge-seeking childhood acquaintance of one of them. I’m guessing I could not have lasted more than four pages of it in English but in French I found it positively delightful,… entirely because I understood it all. Also, it was light and fluffy and easy enough to read before bed instead of the English-language books I usually depend on but now can’t because a. I feel it detracts from my French efforts, and b. I finished all my English-language books and haven’t found anything interesting-looking in Dakar bookstores’ tiny English-language sections. (Don’t talk to me about Kindle. Not going there.)

I’ve now established a routine of reading a chapter from one of my three current chick lit books every night, armed with a pen to underline all the words I don’t recognize, so that I can add them to my French vocab list later. (My books look like that scene in “Say Anything” when Lloyd Dobler flips through Diane Court’s dictionary and sees a sea of X’s that mark words she’s looked up.)

But during the day, I get to business. I’m slowly (very, very slowly) reading “Vol de Nuit,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of my favorite book, “The Little Prince”), with a slightly different process than my nighttime one. First, I read a chapter straight through. Then I re-read it while simultaneously looking up words I don’t know. Then I add those words to my vocab list, or rather, I add the ones that are not so obscure or esoteric (it’s a book about 1940s postal aviation) as to be more trouble than the brain space they are worth.

Once I get through that one I’ll move on to the Senegalese classics that have been recommended to me and that I bought months ago:

“So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ is part of the African feminist cannon. When her estranged husband dies, a woman practices the traditional mourning customs alongside his second, younger wife. (Polygamy is legal and common in Senegal, which is about 95% Muslim.)

“The Belly of the Atlantic,” meanwhile, is a contemporary novel about two siblings, one of whom has emigrated to France and one of whom remains in Senegal.

I’ve also been dipping in and out of a collection of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry. Senghor was Senegal’s first president following independence, and he was also an accomplished poet and one of the founders of the Négritude movement in Francophone writing. (Aside from Václav Havel, I don’t know of any other president-poets – do you? I think that electing a poet says beautiful things about your country, though I’m biased since I’m half-Czech.) What I’m realizing about poetry as I read it in a foreign language, is that the cadence of the words is as important as their meaning. I am totally and completely adrift when reading these poems – I am lucky if I even get the general gist – but they are nevertheless so lovely to read because of the sound and flow of the words. Which I guess is all to say: there’s poetry in poetry.

And God knows I need poetry these days.

I can’t believe this is what I’m reading now

Tomorrow Is Another Day by Lori Nelson Spielman

After weeks of laboring through one inscrutable page per sitting, I finally finished my French Patti Smith book and was ready to move on to something kinder and gentler on my French reading disposition. While in a convenience store at Charles de Gaulle on the way back from France, I realized that the airport would be the best spot to find exactly what I was looking for: super easy and formulaic chick lit whose thread I could not possibly lose even in a foreign language.  Continue reading

continuing the French food mood…

Edible French

It was our intern Kieu Anh’s last day at work today so we took her out to lunch, and she surprised us with parting gifts. (Isn’t that lovely? So unnecessary but so appreciated.) Throughout her internship I have repeatedly subjected Kieu Anh to impromptu French conversations, since I know she studied abroad in the south of France. She, in turn, knows I’m heading to Paris in a few weeks with the intention of spending 85% of my time eating, and she very thoughtfully gave me the perfect gift: “Edible French: Tasty Expressions and Cultural Bites.” It’s a colorful guide to French food-related idioms as well as a recipe book, and it’s beautifully illustrated with watercolors.

I actually mentioned wanting to read this very book a few weeks ago, but Kieu Anh had no idea since she didn’t even know about my blog til today. She’s just got a gift for good gifting!

Now I know what I’ll be reading on the plane… Thank you, Kieu Anh!

Pop quiz: What does it mean to say someone has “un coeur d’artichaut” (the heart of an artichoke)?

Albertine

Albertine bookstoreI visited the new bookstore in the French Embassy because a. it looked like a beautiful space – cozy and snug and perfect for escaping the frigid temperatures last week, and b. because I want to read in French for 15 minutes a day as a way to review grammar and vocabulary without opening up a textbook.

I asked the bookseller for a beach read because I figured I need simple language and an easy but engaging plot to overcome the boredom I’ll inevitably feel at moments when I lose the thread of what’s going on. Somehow I ended up instead with a translation of a Patti Smith short story collection. I understand every third word. Good thing the stories are about three pages each, so that by the time I get exasperated enough to abandon one, I’m already on to the next.

Once I’m done “reading” this book, I’m excited to go back to Albertine. It’s such a gorgeous space, and I already have my next book picked out: a young adult novel called “Dentiste Diabolique” that I spotted on my way out. Promises to be a much easier read. 🙂

(Photo: Albertine interior)

stockpiled links

bathroom readers

Have been meaning to share these for awhile… Luckily none of them are time-sensitive and perhaps they even get better with age. 🙂

Awesome idioms from around the world (my favorite is the Polish one)

Andre in Argentina! (My personal motherlode – French practice & Argentine nostalgia)

Ways (beyond Duolingo) to learn Spanish on your phone

A new (beautiful) French bookstore has opened in NYC

How to be French

This book sounds right up my alley

So does this one about French food idioms