May 26, 2017

Jean Echenoz: current French novelist

Although very little known in the U. S., Jean Echenoz may be one of France’s best living fiction writers. Being interested in World War I novels, I came upon “1914,” Echenoz’s slim but elegantly incisive novel on the vagaries of life during the war of trenches, mustard gas and “No Man’s Land.”

As a musician, I was next drawn to his diminutive book entitled “Ravel, loosely based on the composer’s visit to America and his head injury incurred in a taxi accident.

The comedy novel “Piano” is about a fictional concert pianist with debilitating stage fright and rampant alcoholism which alleviates it. Purgatory and banishment to the “urban zone” figure into the pianist’s journey as Echenoz fashions a modern day nod to Dante in this spare novella.

The winner of ten literary prizes, Echenoz has 12 books listed in his wikipedia biography so I have nine more chances to enjoy his distinctive and amusing prose.





All written by Jean Echenoz and published by The New Press

Renoir: Father and Son


Just in time for Valentine’s Day, treat yourself to the ravishingly beautiful movie “Renoir” currently available on Netflix. Director Gilles Bourdos creates a world that is straight out of one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Impressionist paintings. The story takes place at the famed painter’s home on the Riviera in 1915. His soldier son Jean is home on medical leave from World War I and begins a passionate affair with his father’s current (and last) model, Catherine Hessling. This is the same Jean Renoir who will become the highly respected French cinema auteur of such films as “Rules of the Game” and “Grand Illusion.” Most of his first silent films will star the seductive Hessling, the object of his summer’s passion and later his first wife.
You can continue your personal Jean Renoir film festival with seven of his works on Hulu Plus in their Criterion movie collection.

If you don’t have time to go to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris or the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. where many of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings reside, you may want to check out a list of virtual galleries featuring his work.

As a side note, grandson Claude Renoir became a successful cinematographer for movies such as his uncle Jean’s “The River” and Vadim’s “Barbarella.”

Hulu Plus’ Criterion Collection:

Renoir” on Netflix:


“The Returned,” a French TV Series on Sundance

Many of my friends have stated that “they just don’t do subtitles.” They would be missing on out this intriguing French TV series currently being shown on the Sundance  channel. Reminding me of a melange of “Twin Peaks” and “The Walking Dead,” we are introduced to a small town group of people that live near a dam in the Haute-Savoie region of France. As we progress through the eight episodes, new information is added,
connections are made and characters reveal their true identities. You may need to adjust to the slower pace of this European thriller, but look at it this way: it gives you more time to read the subtitles.

“Braquo” on Hulu

Although Hulu has been dragging its feet in getting many acclaimed foreign television shows, they just got a gold star from me for finally featuring “Braquo,” a French TV crime drama that is reminiscent of both “The Shield” and “The Wire.” A tight-knit team of flics (French cops) straddle the line between being the good guys and the bad in this heart-pumping show involving drug lords, murder, corruption and cringe-inducing torture. Unlike Netflix who made all of the episodes of “House of Cards” immediately available, Hulu is making the viewers wait for one new “Braquo” installment every Tuesday, torture of a gentler variety.

“The Paris Wife”

Ernest and Hadley Hemingway on their wedding day, 1921

Several people had recommended “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain to me. Lo and behold, my sister sent me her hard back copy of the book leaving me no excuse not to check it out. The author is also a poet so the word choice is quite beautiful in this based- on-fact fictional account of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. My husband derisively said it looked like a chick lit book, but I countered by saying that literature lovers, fans of the movie “Midnight In Paris” as well as Paris aficionados will find much to delight in this best seller.

Hugo in 3D

I see very few movies in theaters these days, but Martin Scorsese’s movie, “Hugo” in 3D may have drawn me back to the group viewing experience. Wow. What a visual difference the glasses make!

The movie is based on a popular book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” about an orphan who sets the clocks in a Paris train station. The boy’s story line may be fiction, but the character arc of Georges Melies, one of the pioneers of film is based on real fact. He was given a career retrospective at Salle Pleyel in Paris after having spent years in virtual eclipse running a toy and candy shop.

I was engaged with the story, but the use of three dimensional imaging was the real delight for me. A vicious Doberman feels like he is in front of your face. When Hugo is on a high ledge, I felt vertigo. Paris panoramas make you feel you are looking out a window with the incredible sensation of depth. Trailers for 3D versions of “Titanic,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Star Wars” whetted my appetite for more three dimensional viewing. Can “Blade Runner” in 3D be far behind?!


     I recently had a delicious lunch at Bistronomics, a cozy restaurant in the Rush Street area, owned by stellar French chef Martial Noguier who used to helm the Pump Room kitchen when I was there. This  makes a wonderful addition to the restaurant choices in walking distance of Water Tower Place. A Chioggia Beet Salad with white truffle oil, hazelnut vinaigrette and capriole goat cheese was the perfect starter along with a cauliflower veloute with brioche croutons, creme fraiche and shavings of Pleasant Ridge cheese. The “everyday brunch” selections have a French flair, but Noguier tips his beret to American cuisine and Chicago in particular. The Gold Coast salad boasts ingredients of lobster, fennel, French beans and beets. Housemade gnocchis, raviolis and pastas lend a whiff of Italian cuisine.

Chocolate hazelnut bars capped the meal with their bittersweet chocolate mousse, crispy praline and orange sauce. Bistronomics has cheese flights from “less than 300 miles” and “more than 300 miles” if you’re in the mood for a dairy dessert. I can’t wait to go back for a dinner of filet of beef au poivre with carmelized endives and cognac sauce with a white bean cassoulet side. Zut, alors!

Give up sweets?

I keep trying to cut out sweets but several Chicago venues keep tempting me with their toothsome treats. Kopi sells something called the kitchen sink cookie, oatmeal-based with walnuts, raisins plus dark, white and milk chocolate chips. Sugar coma, here I come.
Whenever I’m near the Third Coast on Dearborn, I find myself being irresistibly drawn to their scones to go. How do I choose between raspberry, blueberry or chocolate? If I want a dessert experience, it’s definitely the chocolate. Yum!

If a yen for a really authentic and buttery croissant descends upon me, I can count on the chocolate variety found at Vanille Patisserie. This place wins the award for the most Parisian patisserie in Chicago. They also have award-winning brownies with caramel.
For a really intense chocolate fix, try the insanely rich chocolate cookies at Sweet Mandy B’s.  

There’s a theme here, all of my favorite items contain chocolate. Stay tuned for a list of my favorite chocolate purveyors. I guess I will start the sweets moratorium next week, or maybe next month?

Kopi Cafe, 5317 N. Clark St.

Sweet Mandy B’s, 1208 W. Webster Ave.

Third Coast Cafe, 1260 N. Dearborn St.

Vanille Pâtisserie, 2229 N. Clybourn Ave.

French Food Market in Chicago

When in the downtown area, I make a bee-line for the French Food Market in the Metra building at 131 N. Clinton Street (between Washington and Randolph.) My mind reels at all of the dining options.

On a recent visit, my husband had a delicious Croque-Monsieur
sandwich from the recently opened French Market outpost of LM, owned by Stephan Outrequin Quaisser, the original LM being in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. I had a healthful, yet fantastic lunch from a booth entitled RAW where none of the food is cooked. Both of us were utterly satiated by our choices.

If you’re in the mood for made-to-order crepes, head to the Flip Crepes stand. Want Vietnamese food? Try the Saigon Sisters. For Belgian Fries and Beer, Frietkoten is the ticket. The taste-tempting Vanille Patisserie has an outpost here. I have found unusual produce selections as well. Pasta, pizza, nuts, chocolate, baked goods plus wine and cheese can all be found under one roof. There’s also a juice bar and a Lavazza Espression coffee franchise. Live music at selected times adds to the charming ambiance.

You can eat indoors, at outdoor tables during warm months, or order your provisions to go. If you purchase $20 or more at the market, parking is free for up to an hour in the MetraMarket parking lot just north of Randolph.

The Market is open Monday through Friday, 7 AM to 7:30 PM, Saturday, 8:30 AM to 6 PM and closed on Sunday.

French Rom Com Picks

To fend off the blues, is there anything better than to sit back and watch a French romantic comedy? Some of these suggestions have absolutely no nutritional value while others have quite a bit of meat on the bone.

Amélie (2001) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This is just a delightful film from start to finish including the charming soundtrack. Other non-rom-com Jeunet works include “The City of Lost Children” and “A Very Long Engagement” with a French-speaking Jodie Foster.

After You (“Après Vous” – 2003) Directed by Pierre Salvador. Daniel Auteuil as a maitre d’ of a Paris bistro becomes entangled in a love triangle to comic effect.

L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) Directed by Cedric Klapisch. Set in an apartment building in Barcelona, Spain, a group of European young adults see their lives unfold. With Audrey Tautou. See “Paris” below.

The Closet (“Le Placard” – 2001) Directed by Francis Veber. Starring Daniel Auteuil as a man who pretends to be homosexual to avoid being fired. With Gerard Depardieu. You may remember Veber’s earlier 80’s comedies, “La Chevre” and “Les Comperes” or 1998’s “The Dinner Game.” See “The Valet” below.

Cote d’Azur (“Crustacees et Coquillages” – 2005) Directed by Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau. A French family of four goes to the south of France for their seaside vacation with romantic embroilments from all sides.

5 X 2 (“Five Times Two” – 2004) Directed by Francois Ozon. A French love affair is depicted in five scenes from ending to beginning. Other notable Ozon films include “8 Women” and “Swimming Pool.”

The Hairdresser’s Husband (“Le Mari de la Coiffeuse” – 1990) Directed by Patrice Leconte. Other of his films include “Monsier Hire,” “Ridicule,” “Girl On the Bridge,” “The Widow of Saint-Pierre,” and “Man On the Train.” See “My Best Friend” below.

Director/actor Yvan Attal

And They Lived Happily Ever After (“Ils Se Marierent et Eurent Beaucoup d’Enfants” – 2005) Directed by Yvan Attal. The director is the real-life husband of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, a busy actor and the voice dubber for Tom Cruise in French versions of American movies. See “My Wife Is an Actress” below.

The Housekeeper (“Une Femme de Menage” – 2002) Directed by Claude Berri. Newly divorced, Jacques played by Jean-Pierre Bacri becomes enamored with his new cleaning lady. “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring” were also directed by Berri.

My Best Friend (“Mon Meilleur Ami” – 2007) Directed by Patrice LeConte. A middle-aged antique dealer played by Daniel Auteuil discovers that no one loves him. See “The Hairdresser’s Husband” above.

My Wife Is An Actress (“Ma Femme Est une Actrice” – 2001) Directed by Yvan Attal. A sports writer grapples with his marriage to a famous actress. With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yvan Attal and Terence Stamp. See “And They Lived Happily Ever After” above.

Paris (2009) Directed by Cedric Klapisch. A romantic comedy entry despite the main character, a dancer facing his mortality from his Paris window. With Juliette Binoche. Some comparisons with Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” See “L’Auberge Espagnole” above.

Toi et Moi (2006) Directed by Julie Lopes-Curval, the sole female director in this list. Two sisters, a writer and a musician investigate their romantic options.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (“Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” – 1964) Directed by Jacques Demy, a member of the French New Wave who made films from 1960 to 1988. Demy also directed musicals “Donkey Skin” and “Young Girls of Rochefort.”

The Valet (“La Doublure” – 2006) Directed by Francis Veber.  With Daniel Auteuil, Gad Elmaleh and a French-speaking Kristin Scott Thomas. A car valet and a top model pretend to be lovers at the behest of a cheating CEO. See “The Closet” above.

Young Girls of Rochefort (“Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” – 1969) Directed by     Jacques Demy. Catherine Deneuve and her real-life sister Francoise Dorleac sing and dance their way through a Michel LeGrand score along with a young George Chakiris and the still fleet-footed Gene Kelly. See “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” above.