The truth about Joel Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert

I’ve now read 40 pages of this ludicrously long book. I’ve been reading it in French. These are the truths.

(1) Assuming that it should have been published in the first place, it is nonetheless perhaps hundreds of pages too long. Every single notion is repeated ad nauseum. There is not one idea stated once that isn’t repeated a dozen times. In a row. Just like that. The book should be much shorter. It’s too long. It repeats things to the point of insult. Oh, let’s go further than that. Its use of repetition adds injury to insult. I could keep repeating myself here in slightly different ways, but I hope you get the picture. Too. Offensively. Long. By far.

(2) Fabulously badly written.  After going to see Hobbit 3, I wrote:

I had no idea that Tolkien was such a great writer. The line where the dwarf dude says to the kungfu-elf-chick ‘You make me feel so alive’. And where she says in a marvellously anguished way about love ‘It hurts so much’. That I could think up such lines.

The Truth about Harry is like that for 670 pages. So, yeah. If you thought that the dialogue in Hobbit 3 was pushing the boundaries of literature as we know it, then absolutely this book is for you.

(3) The book is B1 standard. Seriously. A 670 page novel has been written in French which is B1. Theoretically B1 can be challenging. Camus’s The Outsider is supposedly B1, but I’m still finding it painful to read because it is sparing in its use of words and the ideas expressed by the words are not easy. The Truth about Harry, on the other hand, because it spells everything out over and over, leaves the reader in no doubt. Even a bad reader. Even, I imagine, the very worst reader in the entire world ever.

(4) I’ve had my suspicions about the literary taste of the French since discovering how much they like Eliot Perlman.  But their admiration of Truth about Harry is way beyond a joke. It was awarded their highest literary prize. The mind boggles, I have to say. Does it reflect their ignorance of American literature (this book claims to be an American Novel in French, whatever that is), or the dire state of French literature. There isn’t a good answer.

(5) And yet presumably many people like the book, it’s a big seller, translated into many languages; apparently there is a film on the horizon. I can only assume that the secret is that Dicker has managed to make a book which is defined as being for adults, not children, but which is even simpler than a lot of YA adults rely on for their reading material. I’m guessing, I admit it. Whereas prior to this book, adults who couldn’t cope with proper novels had to read YA, now there is something entirely new available to them. Extremely simplistic books marketed to adults, not children. How very interesting. At the same time, it won a French award in which school kids vote for the book they think is best, so although I don’t think it is marketed to children, clearly they recognise their level when they see it.

Who should read this? If you are a B1 French reader and need to read something that encourages you to feel like you must be okay, this is the book for you. I certainly don’t know every word, but trust me, you don’t need to. I sit there with a dictionary in hand because it’s my wont, but I doubt that there is a paragraph in the book of which I would not have an adequate, if not good,  understanding, without looking up words. But I find myself stymied now. Camus is too hard. The problem with this one, on the other hand, isn’t its simplicity but that it is too patronising and takes tedium to a new level. Simplicity does not have to be boring.  Even at my really bad level of French I am not incompetent enough to deserve this constant heavy handed spelling out of everything. In case you are wondering, yes, the characters are cardboard. I don’t know if the author thinks that this is the case in the American Novels he apparently admires.

The patronisation isn’t just about making sure you get the storyline. It’s about how to write, which is a major ongoing theme. We are given gems like The Importance of The First Chapter – who knew? This got me wondering. Is there a huge market out there of would-be authors, is that the real audience of this book. Sucking up these bits of advice that they could get from anywhere. Forty-three things you need to know about Writing Novels.

And yet, the bottom line is, the dude’s written a book which is bought and read all over the world. That means something. I just don’t quite get what.


Verbs, the brussel sprouts of language learning

I’ve been writing about brussel sprouts on my cooking blog, so it only seemed fair to mention verbs here. Putting brown sugar on sprouts before roasting does indeed make them palatable, but what’s the equivalent for the ingestion of verbs?

In the end I suspect plain rote drill as we used to do in school when we were little is imperative, but there are many attempts online through games, tests, puzzles etc to make the process of addressing verbs less painful.

Here are a couple I’m using at the moment.

Language Gym has interactive tools for verb practice.  There are the odd typos and the harder sections may be down to opinion from time to time. For example in the section indicative present, one of the sentences you have to translate is ‘I drink two litres of water a day’ and there is a required translation ‘Je bois deux litres d’eau par jour.’ Might one say ‘chaque jour’ instead? Or even ‘tous les jours’?

One of the things that Geneva University’s CALL (computer assisted language learning) projects permit is optional responses so that one can learn in a more natural conversational way. You can see the sense of that as you notch up error after error trying to get this sentence right!

However, perhaps because of this, most sentences are even simpler with no possibility of variation. ‘We play cards’ ‘I do nothing’. Still, challenging enough for a beginner whilst getting verb practice in as well. Despite the odd frustration, I like this site. for French is excellent for many things, not least nicely laid out conjugation pages. Sound files are good quality human recordings. Mousing over the asterisks gives example sentences, though these are not audio. You can then move on to quizzes. It might ask for the ‘tu’ form of travailler, and after you key in travailles, it will mark you correct or not and provide one or more example sentences, in this case: Je travaille à la mairie. I work at the town hall.

Okay. Je finis, tu finis, nous finissons!


Places you shouldn’t go….

Update: although I wrote to the site about this, and although they responded that it was old content that they were deleting, it is still there now as of Easter 2017.


I guess if I was an idiot in regards to the following site, then you might be too.

I was looking for simple sentences with examples of verbs and came upon this list of French verbs. I had it printed out before I could stop myself. So the first item is this:

1. Acheter – to buy

  • J’ achète du pain tous les jours. –> I bought bread every day.
  • -Achète is the past participle of the verb acheter.

Firstly, the French sentence is in the present tense and it has been translated into the past. It should be ‘I buy bread every day’.

Secondly, this is not the past participle of acheter. It is acheté as you might discover at a specialised French learning site. My conclusion is not to go to those generalised learning sites that do a gadzillion courses and have bloggy posts. If I’d looked into it I would have seen that the same person writes on cats, hiphop, science, maths, what to do in the vacation, business…you name it.

Obvious? Yeah, well. It is now!

Expanding your vocabulary

How to do this has to be related to your goals. In my case, I’m more motivated to learn to read than to speak. I’ve been using memrise for vocab development, in particular two courses:

5000 most common French words and French nouns 1 There is some overlap.

To begin with I was slowly and painfully practising each word, which is undoubtedly necessary for speaking. The French word for police is the same as in English. You won’t know that to speak it except through a memory exercise, but for reading that isn’t the case.

As there are a large number of such words, I’ve sped up my acquisition of vocab enormously by ignoring all the words I will recognise in French if I see them. This is only increasing my passive vocabulary, but for the aim of making reading enjoyable it is working really well.

I’ve been in Australia for 5 months and did almost no French while I was away, but nonetheless, I’m finding simplified Simenon much easier to read than I did before I started that plan, as well as some of the other books I’ve been dipping into like a couple in the Petit Nicolas series.

As far as I can see, it’s all horses for courses, and this is working for me. Perhaps it was obvious, but it took me a while to think of it! Most online French is very talk oriented; a memrise course which cut straight to the chase – words for reading you’ll need to work on if you are an English speaker would be good.

Finally: the two courses I link to above both have generally good audio which is not synthesised. Much as my focus is on reading, I still want to know how to pronounce everything, so audio quality is important.



Is Brian with the monkey?

It’s interesting to note that the content of language learning has been brain-numbingly boring for ever. Why is it that for a million years the French have been forced to dwell upon the presence or not of Brian in various bits of his house, whilst the English have to be able to identify a monkey in a tree?

There’s an interesting episode of WRS’s Word of Mouth this week that really made me laugh. ‘My tailor is rich’ is the English sentence which has passed into French culture at the oddest opportunities – film, song, name of band. I recommend listening to it here and the standup comic who discusses the existential aspects of Brian can be heard here. It’s in French, but would I send you anywhere without English subtitles? Absolutement not!

Meanwhile, I can’t recall if I’ve linked to this before, but there is no grass is greener here. The English have it just as bad learning French – Duolingo ought to be ashamed of themselves for the stuff they make people ‘learn’ on their site. Eddy Izzard’s sketch on learning French is deservedly famous. See it here.


Listening comprehension continued

FLE has a youtube channel which includes a large number of videos which consist of the text of simple dialogues and the audio – the list of these is here. My suggestion for using these is to first play the audio without looking at the text, see what you can get from just listening and then going over it again looking at the text – even if you recognised it from the audio, you’ll get a lot out of looking at it at the same time as listening, the two processes being so entirely disconnected. If you don’t look, you’ll have no idea how the words are spelled.

CIEL has nice listening comprehension exercises here, starting at A1 and going up to B1.

RFI Journal en française facile is news read slowly by French standards. It feels both faster and more difficult than the News in Slow French podcast, but it has a complete transcription and that makes it invaluable for learning to recognise spoken French.

RFI also has a learning section which, as one might expect for a radio station, has a lot of audio complete with some involvement on the listener’s part to show comprehension. It starts at A1 and ends at B2.






Listening comprehension

I’m back in Geneva after some months in Adelaide during which, despite my best intentions, I did NO French! I’m trying to make up for that now and I’ve decided to put this  topic at the top of my list of things to do. ‘Listening comprehension’. Everybody says it’s the hardest thing to do, much harder than talking because when you talk you at least know what you are trying to say. But somebody starts talking at  you? If running was something I did, I would.

So, I’m looking around the internet for resources and here are a few to start with.

From the great site Bonjour de France come some very VERY simple listening exercises with a few questions to answer if you with to demonstrate to yourself that you really did get what was going on. Comprendre une invitation is a small series of short conversations about invitations. Others include Présentation d’un professionnel and une journée typique au collège. This site also has some oral DELF practice exercises such as here. Disappointingly the audio is sometimes missing from oral comprehension exercises on Bonjour de France.

Lawless French also has oral comprehension starting from the simplest level such as this A1 proficiency test. You can find them all the A1 audio here. I think she takes the videos from elsewhere, but adds translation and places to go next to explore the grammar etc found in the audio.

Parapluie French is a new site to me – it goes to show however far you dig on the internet, there is always something a bit further down to discover. Monsieur Parapluie (who knows?) has a youtube channel which contains some typical French learning videos – discussing grammar, that sort of thing. But he also has some terrific listening comprehension videos. There are three guided listening videos, where the learner starts off just listening and hoping for the best, but then it is all dissected, discussed, analysed. He also has something called A La Une, which is learning from the news. There are three so far in this series and may there be more. Again, you listen first and then the whole thing is analysed.

The first thing I listened to on Parapluie was a radio discussion of pocket money for children. To my surprise, although I scarcely recognised a word, when we then went through it with the transcript, I could see that I could easily understand the written words.

That’s the gap, then, that I’m trying to address now. Along the way, I can see I’ll pick up other stuff too. One of the A La Unes compares the speech of the French President after the US election, with that of Le Pen. The one is reserved and clearly not happy, the other pleased as punch. It was really interesting to be given the comparison, the way in which language and sound is used to convey the sentiment. This is the sort of thing that is hard to appreciate in another language, at least as a beginner, so I thoroughly recommend the video.

I think that Parapluie’s methods of approaching listening comprehension are great and I do hope he comes up with more in the future.