A Year in the Merde

Author: Stephen ClarkeA Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (2006)
Number of Pages: 276
How long it took me to read: 8 weeks, 2 days
Where I bought this book: Local Borders
ISBN: 9-781582-346175

Like a Moth to a Flame

Instead of buying a book for my husband, which was the only reason I went to the bookstore(!), I found myself handing this one over to the chipper cashier. You see, the book I intended to buy was out of stock but some evil genius ruthlessly positioned the travel section on my way out of the store. Need I say more?

Actually, I will. I’ve bought this book twice already! The first time was for someone who I was trying to entice into the world of globetrotting. In an effort to show her the possibilities outside her window, I perused the travel section of the Barnes & Noble I occasionally visit when in Florida, and picked out three or four books that were fair representations of what living abroad could be like. Trouble is, the books spoke to me too. I resisted the urge to keep them for myself and gifted them to a special young lady (who a part of me hopes will become a future traveler of the world.) The fact that this book leapt off the shelf at me months later isn’t my fault. I simply couldn’t deny myself this fluorescent yellow tome of traveling tales for a second time. Zut alors!

Favorite Five

My favorite 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “His eyes were totally hidden by droopy, unwashed hair, and his old suit jacket now looked as if it had been chewed up by a French pig and excreted all over him.” (pp.236-7)

4. “The Paris transport workers went on strike. And what was this strike about? Job cuts? Safety standards? No. The unions were furious that the government had been rumored to be thinking about considering the possibility of maybe looking into the purely theoretical concept that it might one day (not now, but in, say, eighty years time) be less able to pay for transport workers to retire at fifty.” (pp.83-4)

3. “I saw that I was witnessing an important lesson in Parisian life: I mustn’t try to make people like me. That’s much too English. You’ve got to show them that you don’t give a shit what they think. Only then will you get what you want. I’d been doing it all wrong, trying to win people over. If you smile too much, they think you’re retarded.” (pp.29-30)

2. “It seemed that, as an EU citizen…[a]ll I had to do was take my passport, work contract, three passport photos, a recent electricity bill, and the marriage certificates of any hamsters I’d owned since 1995, all photocopied onto medieval parchment. No problème.” (p.53)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “I was also sick of my neighbors, as most Parisians are. I now knew every second of the morning routine of the family upstairs. At 7:00 am alarm goes off, boom, Madame gets out of bed, puts on her deep-sea divers’ boots, and stomps across my ceiling to megaphone the kids awake. The kids drop bags of cannonballs onto the floor, then, apparently dragging several sledgehammers each, stampede into the kitchen. They grab their chunks of baguette and go and sit in front of the TV, which is always showing a cartoon about people who do nothing but scream at each other and explode. Every minute, one of the kids cartwheels (while bouncing cannonballs) back into the kitchen for seconds, then returns (bringing with it a family of excitable kangaroos) to the TV. Meanwhile the toilet is flushed, on average, fifty times per drop of urine expelled. Finally, there is a ten-minute period of intensive yelling, and at 8:15 on the dot they all howl and crash their way out of the apartment to school.” (p.137)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: scupper (verb)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) waiting in hiding to attack; 2) put in a dangerous, disadvantageous, or difficult position
Synonyms: 1) ambush, bushwhack, waylay, lurk, ambuscade, lie in wait; 2) queer, expose, endanger, peril
Origins: 1420’s; Old French or Middle English
As in: “…I could put him out of action as a businessman and scupper his political ambitions.” (p.268)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Bloody brilliant! Laughing already and not even on page 30!”

“It’s such a shame most people don’t know what a radish leaf looks like or how brussels sprouts grow, or whether a peanut sprouts from a plant or a tree. What have national grocery store chains done to us? Look what convenience has taken away? I’m not even referring to the chronic confusion surrounding the difference between fennel and anise or coriander and cilantro (not the same things, people!). Maybe it’s the school system’s fault. Maybe if they still taught home-economics, men would feel comfortable wearing aprons in the kitchen and women would have a clue how to sew them.”

“I absolutely love how Clarke translates his barbed wire French into challenged English babble. Most of all, I love how it reminds me of how I still sound when I attempt multilingual dexterity.”

“Just finished reading one page of this book after a 3-week hiatus and I’m already giggling. Bloody brilliant! Can you imagine what an effective marketing campaign it would make to simply have people reading this book in public? All the spontaneous laughter would surely coax at least a few passers-by to read the back cover.”

Note to writer self: maybe humor is an essential component of a successful book. Regardless of whether your first book is funny or not, make sure to read it in well-populated areas while periodically bursting into hysterics.

“Finishing a book, especially after a short hiatus during which you frolicked in the freedom of starting new love affairs with unsuspecting titles, is as satisfying as gobbling up the last piece of pie selfishly insisting on occupying the only descent dish you use for all your pies, quiches and other weekly culinary essentials. You finally get to remove the tome from your piles of unread books, which, funnily enough, affords the same secret pleasure as putting that crusty dish in the dishwasher in anticipation of its shiny reentry into your gleaming kitchen. There’s something to be said for following through. Ending a chapter, finishing a book – that’s what life’s all about. Having said that, it can be quite a labor of love to keep up with an author’s manic obsession with words. I guess that’s what pie is for!”

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