*John von Sothen. Monsieur Mediocre. One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French. Read by the author. 8.75 hrs. Random House. 2019. Download.
Monsieur Mediocre is a collection of personal essays by American John von Sothen who fell in love with and married a French woman ("She had me at Bah...") and has worked very hard ever since to become "Everyday French." He writes for a living, occasionally acts on television, does standup comedy and has been living in and around Paris for more than 15 years. His children are French and he watched a lot of French television to become more fluent. His goal was to be as fluent as his daughter Bibi. Unlike most Americans, he's never been timid about talking and learning. (Listening to his French here is fun.) His father-in-law is a French aristocrat and celebrity "French folk rock star (which broke with the family's staid tradition). Von Sothen's wife is "technically a countess." Von Sothen also finds much about France and the French annoying. but he goes along. His recollections are eye-openingly honest, frank, occasionally funny, poignant, detailed, informative.
Monsieur Mediocre is different from many other books I have read about traveling through France, moving to France, living in France and is the first account I've read that describes in detail why Americans can never really be French, as much as they would like to be, even if their children are French. The French won't let them be. But that's ok. In many instances just being an American can be an advantage, if exploited correctly, as von Sothen describes in a chapter entitled "Huge in France." He has discovered "Americans have cache," that "the French...are a lot more suspicious of other French than they are of Americans....I've found [he writes] there's an endearing quality about an employable American living in France, something the French always seem to gravitate toward. And since many want to think of their company or produce as global, the chance to work with a real live flesh and blood American is too good to pass up." He also writes about French weddings, the many school vacations, excellent free early child care, schools in general, the amazing medical care (MDs even come to the house in the middle of the night!), how "the wine industry isn't doing so well," renovating a "brut" apartment, French neighborhoods. Von Sothen is "An American in Paris" without the "innocence" and although he still loves Paris he has discovered that "France isn't perfect at all." He believes we "critique the best what we love the most" and this comment seems actually very French?
Von Sothen's mother went to study art in France in the 1950s, on a scholarship from Vassar, and fell in love with France. She traveled there widely but ultimately stayed in the U.S. (illness in the family) and married, late in life, a Washington, DC award-winning newsman and they had one child, von Sothen. Von Sothen's parents were a loving, smart, eccentric, financially comfortable couple. As he was growing up his mother would frequently reminisce about her travel, and, for bedtime reading, would share excerpts from a diary she had kept in France. He was enchanted by her enchantment. He adored her sense of adventure, creativity, easy affability. Von Sothen went to France with his parents when he was 9, on a typical America tourist visit. The toplessness on the beaches in Cassis cemented his attraction. His adoration of his mother and father is vivid; just as he adores his two children and his French wife.
Von Sothen and his wife and two children have enough money to make their life comfortable and to be creative, thus life near, or in, Paris is doable for them. After he moved to a "country house" in the countryside around Normandy not too far from Paris, he describes a growing interest in politics that he had never had. One thing he discovered recently is his theory he calls the "Boulangerie Index" of the country towns around his "country house." The theory is that "the better the bread, the more racist/reactionary the boulanger [baker] is" at least in towns outside of Paris. His description of first renting then buying a country house in Normandy is typically French, complicated and frustrating. He reports even Monsanto has apparently invaded the region with seeds, Roundup, or pesticides.
Monsieur Mediocre is a book that explains to me why I decided I could never live permanently in France though I adore the culture, architecture, countryside, cuisine, wine, cinema, their Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Von Sothen loves France AND lives there in spite of the drawbacks. Von Sothen's narration is charming, entertaining, well-paced, and professional. If you love Paris you'll love listening to Monsieur Mediocre.
John von Sothen is an American columnist living in Paris, where he covers entertainment and society issues for French Vanity Fair. Von Sothen has written for both the American and French GQ, Slate, Technikart, Libération, and The New York Observer; he has written for TV at Canal+ and MTV; and he is now penning a column for the political site Mediapart. Von Sothen often does voice-overs in English for French perfumes and luxury brands, occasionally performs stand-up comedy at The New York Comedy Night in the SoGymnase Comedy Club in Paris (in French and English), and is a routine guest on the French radio station Europe 1 discussing all things US related.