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Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French

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A hilarious, candid account of what life in France is actually like, from a writer for Vanity Fair and GQ Americans love to love Paris. We buy books about how the French parent, why French women don't get fat, and how to be Parisian wherever you are. While our work hours increase every year, we think longingly of the six weeks of vacation the French enjoy, imagining them at A hilarious, candid account of what life in France is actually like, from a writer for Vanity Fair and GQ Americans love to love Paris. We buy books about how the French parent, why French women don't get fat, and how to be Parisian wherever you are. While our work hours increase every year, we think longingly of the six weeks of vacation the French enjoy, imagining them at the seaside in stripes with plates of fruits de mer. John von Sothen fell in love with Paris through the stories his mother told of her year spent there as a student. And then, after falling for and marrying a French waitress he met in New York, von Sothen moved to Paris. But fifteen years in, he's finally ready to admit his mother's Paris is mostly a fantasy. In this hilarious and delightful collection of essays, von Sothen walks us through real life in Paris--not only myth-busting our Parisian daydreams but also revealing the inimitable and too often invisible pleasures of family life abroad. Relentlessly funny and full of incisive observations, Monsieur Mediocre is ultimately a love letter to France--to its absurdities, its history, its ideals--but it's a very French love letter: frank, smoky, unsentimental. It is a clear-eyed ode to a beautiful, complex, contradictory country from someone who both eagerly and grudgingly calls it home.


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A hilarious, candid account of what life in France is actually like, from a writer for Vanity Fair and GQ Americans love to love Paris. We buy books about how the French parent, why French women don't get fat, and how to be Parisian wherever you are. While our work hours increase every year, we think longingly of the six weeks of vacation the French enjoy, imagining them at A hilarious, candid account of what life in France is actually like, from a writer for Vanity Fair and GQ Americans love to love Paris. We buy books about how the French parent, why French women don't get fat, and how to be Parisian wherever you are. While our work hours increase every year, we think longingly of the six weeks of vacation the French enjoy, imagining them at the seaside in stripes with plates of fruits de mer. John von Sothen fell in love with Paris through the stories his mother told of her year spent there as a student. And then, after falling for and marrying a French waitress he met in New York, von Sothen moved to Paris. But fifteen years in, he's finally ready to admit his mother's Paris is mostly a fantasy. In this hilarious and delightful collection of essays, von Sothen walks us through real life in Paris--not only myth-busting our Parisian daydreams but also revealing the inimitable and too often invisible pleasures of family life abroad. Relentlessly funny and full of incisive observations, Monsieur Mediocre is ultimately a love letter to France--to its absurdities, its history, its ideals--but it's a very French love letter: frank, smoky, unsentimental. It is a clear-eyed ode to a beautiful, complex, contradictory country from someone who both eagerly and grudgingly calls it home.

30 review for Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    If you took a poll in the USA, I would guess Paris would likely make the top 10 list for dream vacation destinations. Paris resident John Von Sothen remembers what it was like to wonder about, experience for the first time, and now be completely immersed in what was once literally foreign to him. He somewhat humorously gathers stereotypes and assumptions which he both breaks and confirms by sharing his personal observations/experiences. It does feel at times quite opinionated, borderline judgmen If you took a poll in the USA, I would guess Paris would likely make the top 10 list for dream vacation destinations. Paris resident John Von Sothen remembers what it was like to wonder about, experience for the first time, and now be completely immersed in what was once literally foreign to him. He somewhat humorously gathers stereotypes and assumptions which he both breaks and confirms by sharing his personal observations/experiences. It does feel at times quite opinionated, borderline judgmental, if I'm being honest but if I came across a similar book floating around about Florida's heavy populated tourist destinations, I'd probably laugh my @ss off. It's all about what you know. I'm glad he found a place to call home. Thank you to Viking Books and Goodreads Giveaways for the opportunity to win an early copy of Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Maureen Grigsby

    This is a wonderful, in depth look at what it is like to leave the United States and take up permanent residence in a European country. The author discusses language barriers, museums, child care, health care, parties, etc. in a very Bill Bryson fashion. I laughed a lot reading this book, and cried as well. The life of an expatriate is not an easy one, but very, very rich.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Meagan Houle

    I freely admit I knew nothing of modern French culture when I chose "Monsieur Mediocre," nor had I ever done much thinking on the subject at all. The title was impossible to pass up, though, and I immediately fell head over heels in love with John's self-deprecating style. I'm not sure that the details will stick with me. Ask me in a year what this book talked about, and I probably won't be able to discuss France's dizzying political landscape, or the peculiarities of its education system. What I freely admit I knew nothing of modern French culture when I chose "Monsieur Mediocre," nor had I ever done much thinking on the subject at all. The title was impossible to pass up, though, and I immediately fell head over heels in love with John's self-deprecating style. I'm not sure that the details will stick with me. Ask me in a year what this book talked about, and I probably won't be able to discuss France's dizzying political landscape, or the peculiarities of its education system. What I'm sure to remember is how much fun I had following John on his adventures, and how much joy his narrative voice added to my day. So go on, even if you've never given France a single thought: go for it. You'll like it, I promise.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

    Life is too short to read poor books. I quit 2/3 of the way through and only made it that far because I won the Goodreads giveaway. This author is the “guest who loves to hear himself talk and goes on way too long.” I was expecting some humor like most “man in a new country” books, but this was an endless essay on “how hard French is y’all, and I learned it all wrong.” Each chapter is about the endless parties and social events he goes to and how the French make everything an ordeal. One quote Life is too short to read poor books. I quit 2/3 of the way through and only made it that far because I won the Goodreads giveaway. This author is the “guest who loves to hear himself talk and goes on way too long.” I was expecting some humor like most “man in a new country” books, but this was an endless essay on “how hard French is y’all, and I learned it all wrong.” Each chapter is about the endless parties and social events he goes to and how the French make everything an ordeal. One quote from the book is “There’s a special embarrassment one feels when you know people are reading what you wrote and finding it pompous.” This is that book. The chapter on vacations was the high point since it put into words my worst vacation nightmare. I’ve always wanted to visit Paris but this book made it sound beyond boring. Giving it a 1.5. Thank you to Viking and Goodreads for the giveaway.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Elijah

    This has interesting information about life in Paris, but this guy’s a low-grade asshole and not very funny.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    Off with the Rose Colored Glasses! Monseiur Mediocre http://fangswandsandfairydust.com/201... I voluntarily reviewed an advance reader’s copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted. As the synopsis above says, American's love to love Paris; or the idea of Paris.  I would generalize that further to all of France, and to some extent all of Europe. I don't believe Americans have cornered the market on idealizing other places, it fuels h Off with the Rose Colored Glasses! Monseiur Mediocre http://fangswandsandfairydust.com/201... I voluntarily reviewed an advance reader’s copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted. As the synopsis above says, American's love to love Paris; or the idea of Paris.  I would generalize that further to all of France, and to some extent all of Europe. I don't believe Americans have cornered the market on idealizing other places, it fuels hopeful migration, and gets people traveling.  In Mr. von Southen's case his earliest idea of France was from his childhood his mother regaled him with stories from her time in France.  This led him to learn French and spend time abroad.  It gave him a first hand, but immature and institutional view of  what life in France was like. The opportunity to live in France came through his marriage and the decision to raise a family there.   I think he has a balanced view of France, and America.  And he relates it to us in a  self-effacing manner that is often funny.  He talks about his writing, but not too much.  He talks about his parents, who had him older, and their activities and their decline.  He talks about raising his kids, the political climate of France, and of America. He tells funny stories about how one socializes in France; in particular how one vacations there.  He talks about the great things like the good medicine and family allowances.  His stories about his cultural mishaps are pretty amusing I have been to France twice and before going I entertained the same ideas about it:  French women do not get fat,  French children are always perfectly behaved, all French people are gourmets.  I had bad hotel rooms but some very good meals.  But I also saw heavy people and poorly behaved children.  France still holds wonder but not in the legendary aspects.  He does an excellent job reading his work —  in most cases a non-fiction author is the right narrator for the work — but von Sothen's work in voice-overs and on TV means he isn't afraid of the microphone. And now I know how to say "Anais," his wife's name, properly (Anna-iss). This is a good book for any body contemplating a trip to, or life in, France.  Von Sothen's writing and observations about France are not as funny as David Sedaris's, but Sedaris is the funniest man alive and no longer lives in France. Von Sothen has stuck it out, becoming a clear-sighted, not-so-much-a-stranger in a no-longer-so-strange-land and it resonated with my own travel experiences.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    I wanted to love this book. It had decent reviews and I spend a lot of time in the car listening to audio books. It seemed like a fun book for long commutes. I enjoyed the authors voice reading his book. He was easy to listen to and added context in the inflection of his voice. What I didn't like was the book itself. My French lessons ended many years ago and you almost needed to be fluent in French to understand the book. For an American author living in France, he pushed every bit of French vo I wanted to love this book. It had decent reviews and I spend a lot of time in the car listening to audio books. It seemed like a fun book for long commutes. I enjoyed the authors voice reading his book. He was easy to listen to and added context in the inflection of his voice. What I didn't like was the book itself. My French lessons ended many years ago and you almost needed to be fluent in French to understand the book. For an American author living in France, he pushed every bit of French vocabulary possible into this book. It was as if he was trying to ensure we knew he was an American living in France. I wish he had sprinkled the vocabulary throughout the narrative rather than ramming in down your throat. I felt so much was lost in the fact he had to explain words and phrases repeatedly. This could have been a humorous read (listen) but instead I was annoyed. If you're fluent in French I'm sure you won't want to read the book as many of the concepts were probably covered in your language lessons.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amelia

    Before and after traveling to France for the first time this spring, I have devoured books written by ex-pats about their time in France (like Julia Child and David Lebovitz). Prior to my trip, I used these books to prep for interacting with the French; after my trip, I’ve read them out of a deep appreciation for the French culture and a desire to continue learning about it despite being stateside. When I saw the cover of Monsieur Mediocre, I knew I had to add it to my stack. This book was a deli Before and after traveling to France for the first time this spring, I have devoured books written by ex-pats about their time in France (like Julia Child and David Lebovitz). Prior to my trip, I used these books to prep for interacting with the French; after my trip, I’ve read them out of a deep appreciation for the French culture and a desire to continue learning about it despite being stateside. When I saw the cover of Monsieur Mediocre, I knew I had to add it to my stack. This book was a delight, and had me snorting on multiple occasions. I loved that this book took off the rose colored glasses and portrayed Paris and the French in a different light: beautiful, of course, but also frustrating, complicated, and at times nonsensical. It only made me love Paris more. The beauty of Monsieur Mediocre is that it makes you feel like you’ve discovered the “real” France, and it is one I will return to when I feel like stepping back into Paris.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Eugene LeCouteur

    The two best chapters in the book are the first and last both of which are about his parents. The first chapter is how as a child he fell in love with Paris through his mother's reminiscences of being there as a young woman. The final chapter is about the deaths of his parents and his nostalgia for the home he left to become an expat in Paris. The in between chapters are about his life in Paris. The writing is mediocre. It needed a better editor to correct errors and get his writing about freshm The two best chapters in the book are the first and last both of which are about his parents. The first chapter is how as a child he fell in love with Paris through his mother's reminiscences of being there as a young woman. The final chapter is about the deaths of his parents and his nostalgia for the home he left to become an expat in Paris. The in between chapters are about his life in Paris. The writing is mediocre. It needed a better editor to correct errors and get his writing about freshman level. The stories are meant to be funny but I seldom laughed or even chuckled. Some of his observations are interesting, but this is not A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun or any of that genre. It is more snarky, profane, less-romanticized, and less well written. Read the first and last essay and skip the rest.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Helen

    John von Sothen sets out to disabuse assumptions about Paris and let you know what it's "really" like--at least for upper middle class people with kids, flexible jobs and lots of connections. The book is a series of essays about his 15 years as an American ex-pat in Paris, a status brought on by falling in love with a French waitress in New York. Some of it's quite interesting and funny--I especially liked the essay on language, a version of which I had read in the Wall Street Journal, which pro John von Sothen sets out to disabuse assumptions about Paris and let you know what it's "really" like--at least for upper middle class people with kids, flexible jobs and lots of connections. The book is a series of essays about his 15 years as an American ex-pat in Paris, a status brought on by falling in love with a French waitress in New York. Some of it's quite interesting and funny--I especially liked the essay on language, a version of which I had read in the Wall Street Journal, which prompted me to get this book from the library. The one about weddings was also good, but but here's the big however: No matter how self-deprecating von Sothen tries to make this book, he comes off as a snob with aristocratic inlaws, a country house and membership in a pony club where his daughter takes riding lessons.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    The author had an uncanny knack for seesawing between chapters from funny, to annoying, to snobbish, then back to caring, self-deprecating, and then to a strange combination of annoying and kind all at the same time. The chapter titled, "The Aristocrats," almost had me close the book for good. I enjoy reading about long dead aristocrats, yet somehow reading about a living man recounting how aristocratic his wife's family is, and it turn, how aristocratic his American family also is, just seemed The author had an uncanny knack for seesawing between chapters from funny, to annoying, to snobbish, then back to caring, self-deprecating, and then to a strange combination of annoying and kind all at the same time. The chapter titled, "The Aristocrats," almost had me close the book for good. I enjoy reading about long dead aristocrats, yet somehow reading about a living man recounting how aristocratic his wife's family is, and it turn, how aristocratic his American family also is, just seemed to rub the wrong way. But I persevered and realized his style takes some getting used to. And the point of reading this wasn't to become friends with the author, but to understand an expat's views about living in Paris. In hindsight, there was a lot to learn that was rather interesting. After all, this was his story to tell and I'm glad I stuck around to the end.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Kim Bender

    Loved these witty essays about life as an American man confronting his fantasy France, propelled by a shotgun wedding to a French actress and the reality of raising kids in a foreign land. Incisive, funny as hell. Enjoyed every minute. The author's simultaneous ability to make fun of all things French while also showing great affection for the culture, peppered by his sharp, self-effacing humor, opens a remarkably well-rounded portal into the ex-pat experience. I was also very touched by his ten Loved these witty essays about life as an American man confronting his fantasy France, propelled by a shotgun wedding to a French actress and the reality of raising kids in a foreign land. Incisive, funny as hell. Enjoyed every minute. The author's simultaneous ability to make fun of all things French while also showing great affection for the culture, peppered by his sharp, self-effacing humor, opens a remarkably well-rounded portal into the ex-pat experience. I was also very touched by his tender reflections on his quirky, older parents. Highly recommend, especially to anyone who toiled away in French class, spent a painful summer or a semester abroad, or is considering ditching America.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    A wonderful, personal, funny and touching....memoire? Sociopolitical critique? Whimsical travel lit? It's hard to classify this eminently readable and enjoyable volume. John (I've known him for 30 years, I get to call him John) has always been a keen observer and deft wordsmith, both in conversation and in short form, but it turns out he's quite the full-length scribe, as well. Of course the final chapter was the real kicker - coup de grâce, if you will. It got me right in the kishkes, as the say A wonderful, personal, funny and touching....memoire? Sociopolitical critique? Whimsical travel lit? It's hard to classify this eminently readable and enjoyable volume. John (I've known him for 30 years, I get to call him John) has always been a keen observer and deft wordsmith, both in conversation and in short form, but it turns out he's quite the full-length scribe, as well. Of course the final chapter was the real kicker - coup de grâce, if you will. It got me right in the kishkes, as the saying goes, and reminded me just how much he and I have in common. Let's just say that people with older parents often have similar stories. Bravo, mon vieux!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I ordered this book after hearing a positive review of it on a podcast during which panelists were recommending “summer reads.” The Francophile in me couldn’t resist, but I wish I would’ve. There were several points throughout the book where I thought about abandoning it, but the last straw was when I got to the chapter about just how hard it is to own a second home in the Normandy countryside. If you enjoy reading about privileged, self-absorbed Americans now living privileged lives in France, I ordered this book after hearing a positive review of it on a podcast during which panelists were recommending “summer reads.” The Francophile in me couldn’t resist, but I wish I would’ve. There were several points throughout the book where I thought about abandoning it, but the last straw was when I got to the chapter about just how hard it is to own a second home in the Normandy countryside. If you enjoy reading about privileged, self-absorbed Americans now living privileged lives in France, then perhaps you’ll enjoy this book more than I did.

  15. 4 out of 5

    R Fontaine

    The book reasonably held my attention although I quickly got to the point of not caring at all for Van Southan. I completely checked out as he dragged out the tiring political diatribe when he became so mortified that Trump was elected President that he couldn’t go to the various social functions due to embarrassment, I guess, for all the American people foolish enough to elect such a person to lead our country. Get over yourself !

  16. 4 out of 5

    Min

    This is the kind of ex-pat book I like to read; tales of the quirks of their new home nation- as compared to their native land- and how the circumstances stacked to bring them to this, their adopted country. There is enough French words (translated), and culture expressed to give an honest taste of one person's experience.

  17. 4 out of 5

    William Jordan

    Amusing, ultimately touching story of an American man who marries a French woman and lives in Paris. I was put off initially by his dwelling on his upper-crust upbringing in the US, with its considerable distance from normal people. Similar level of society in Paris. But I eventually got over it and enjoyed the many anecdotes about interesting people and experiences in France.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    My favorite genre - ex-pats who tell the story of how they ended up in another country. I seem to be drawn to books based in France and Italy. This was a good tale, the author sounds like he is a real character! In a good way. He has a very wry and sarcastic sense of humor which I truly enjoyed. I was just sad the book ended!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    This book wasn't quite what I expected. I'm not entirely sure what I thought I was getting into. There are parts that made me laugh out loud - particularly the road trip engine chicken. But other parts I thought could have used a bit of streamlining/editing/focusing. The first couple of flashbacks to his life in the state took me out of the French world he was constructing.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    In the beginning, it seemed line the author did not like France and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue reading. But, eventually a more positive, funny spin emerged and I enjoyed it. Learning a bit about France, even if only from one person’s point of view was interesting.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lesley

    This was entertaining and self-effacing - an interesting look at Paris from the perspective of an American AND a parent. Not laugh-out-loud-bust-a-gut funny like Me Talk Pretty One Day (Sedaris) or magical like From Paris to the Moon (Gopnik).

  22. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    Insightful essays on modern-day France of the past 15 years. Hilarious, laugh out loud chapters. Not a fast read if you really want to enjoy his writing style and absorb all the nuances and language faux pas. A lot of fun to read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Michaela

    3.5 stars. I was half way through and not really loving it. Probably fed up with his privileged lifestyle. But then came the vacation chapter and I laughed out loud. Also fascinating was the voting chapter. Must say the idea of a 48 hour campaign blackout and no polling results is appealing.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Veronique L

    As a french born and raised and lived there til i was 30, i was very disappointed. This book is very cliché and full of biased half truths... i applaude the effort of trying to make it sound humourous but that s aboit it....

  25. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    I always find it interesting to learn how someone moves to another country and builds a life. John von Sothen describes his journey to Paris with humor and honest reflection. I particularly enjoyed the last chapter as he grapples with the passing of his parents and in turn, his past.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    I really liked this--it was funny in the right places, smart in the right places, sweet at the end. Very entertaining.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Cathryn

    No spoilers, but that last chapter brought a lump to my throat from its only-child accuracy. Such a lovely book!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Carol Lynn

    Surprised this was lauded as comedic...a couple of chuckles, period, for me. I appreciated the insight into everyday living in Paris, and completed the book for that reason.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Rita Ciresi

    An hysterically funny (and ultimately poignant) look at how the author adapts/does not adapt to his adopted country. If you need a good laugh--and a sob at the end--this should be your next read.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Keith

    Fun, adventurous, sometimes unexpected, insightful and well-observed, touching at times, but especially humorous. Great book John!

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