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Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

Despite a shovel-able amount of snow on Thursday we were one of the only educational institutions  around here NOT to have a delay. Still, bingo beckoned, so I kept working on my squares this week. Actually over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on the “An ebook or an audiobook” square, listening to Paris in Love by Eloisa James, a memoir about her family’s year living on Rue du Conservatoire. At first I didn’t like the format, because the chapters are so brief, but I got used to that. I enjoyed hearing the author read, and what’s not to like about Paris? It was hard not to be a little envious, knowing that a year in Paris would never be possible for my family. But the descriptions of shopping, eating, and exploring the City’s many museums are irresistible. James is the pen name of Shakespeare professor Mary Bly, daughter of Robert Bly. It seems unfair that one person is so successful at two careers — as an academic and a romance writer — and lives variously in New York, Paris, and Florence. Did I mention it was hard not to be envious? But the author’s tone is very down to earth. I enjoyed it.

For “A book with a number in the title, ” I decided to read a Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four. Besides the mystery at the heart of the plot, this book also tells the story of how John Watson and Mary meet and get engaged. I’m a big fan of Elementary (Best. Watson. Ever.) and have also watched other big and small screen versions of the great detective’s tales, and we visited 221B Baker Street when we went to London.But I’d never actually read any of the Sherlock stories or novels, even though I have a library discard copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and I can really see how well Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have incorporated things Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock into their portrayals of him.

For “A book about art or artists,” I am still reading Mrs. Jack but decided it’s really more about Isabella Stewart Gardner, so I read The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which is the official collection guide. If you’ve never been, the ISGM is different than other museums in many ways, one of which is that there are no placards on the walls explaining what you’re looking at. There are laminated room guides but when we visited last, I decided I wanted to buy and read the guide before our next visit. It’s an interesting read, because it tells a fair bit about the artists and their works but also how ISG came to own each piece and how she decided what to put together in the different rooms. It was really enjoyable and I look forward to going back to ISGM soon, I hope.

For “A book from the Children’s Room,” I chose a New Hampshire Downloadable book version of the highly lauded Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, with illustrations by Christian Robinson. It’s a colorful portrayal of a boy and his grandma taking the bus from church to a soup kitchen where they volunteer. Along the way the boy, CJ, asks a LOT of questions, and his grandma gives interesting answers. for example: “How come that man can’t see?” “Boy, what do you know about seeing?” Nana told him. “Some people watch the world with their ears.” CJ and Nana are brown-skinned, and the people in the book are rendered in many shades, ages, sizes, and styles. CJ envies his friends who don’t have to go anywhere after church and don’t ride the bus, and some kids who get on listening to music through a set of shared earbuds. Nana has a reply to assuage each of his longings. It’s a beautiful book, although I was thinking that Nana may find in a few years it’s not so easy to try and explain the world to CJ, who clearly already has a sense of the disparities and disgraces of the world, “How come it’s always so dirty over here?” he asks, as he gets off the bus with Nana. She tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” And they head in to serve lunch. A book that could lead to interesting conversations, for sure.

Feeling at loose ends for reading this weekend, at work I checked out a couple of Margaret Drabble novels I haven’t yet read, to choose one for “A book you haven’t read by an author you like,” and I started an audiobook memoir, Wesley the Owl: the Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl, for “A biography or memoir” on my commute today. That will leave me with “Any book in a series,” “Re-read an old favorite” and two “Reader’s Choice” squares before the deadline, March 3. Stay tuned!

 

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Katherine Pancol‘s book The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles was quite popular at my library when it came out; we actually needed a second copy to meet demand. For some reason I never took a close look at it at the time. But our adult & teen winter reading program is book bingo, and one of the squares is “a book with a color in the title,” so I thought of it again.

It was an entertaining read.  It’s the story of Josephine Cortes and her sister, Iris. Josephine takes care of her daughters and works part time on medieval research, and she’s never been able to get out from under the shadow of her beautiful, stylish, wealthy sister. When her out-of-work husband Antoine leaves her for his mistress and goes to Africa to tend crocodiles for a Chinese firm, she’s left to take care of everything on her own for the first time. The situation is made worse when he can’t send any support and even drags her into his debt.

Feeling frumpy and stressed, she muddles along, doing some translation work for her lawyer brother-in-law that he asks her not to mention to Iris, and trying to love her little girl Zoe and Zoe’s precociously flirtatious older sister Hortense. She is attracted to a fellow scholar she sees at the library but can’t bring herself to approach him. Josephine’s mother, Henriette,  quits speaking to her when they argue after Antoine leaves. When it’s all too much Josephine turns to her neighbor, Shirley, a single mom raising her son Gary completely alone.

But Iris comes to her with a proposition that appears perfect for getting Josephine back on her feet. Iris has flirted her way into a book deal, and she asks Josephine to write the novel she’s described to her publisher as a 12th century story, offering to give her all the proceeds if Iris can pretend to be the author. Josephine agrees, never guessing how how much she’ll enjoy writing it, how over-the-top her sister will become, how successful “her” book will be, and how hard it will be to keep the secret.

As it turns out, nearly everyone in the book has a secret. There’s an entire subplot about Marcel, Iris & Josephine’s stepfather, and his mistress Josiane. Shirley’s backstory is another source of intrigue. And Iris has a history of bending the truth. Josephine is a good person, but she is so easily manipulated at first that it’s hard to get involved in her story. To Pancol’s credit, her character does grow, and throughout the novel, being a jerk costs people and being decent pays off. I won’t spoil it by telling you specifically what happens, but I will say some of the characters seemed meaner than was strictly realistic (maybe I’m just lucky not to know anyone like that), and a few celebrities appear just off-stage, which felt a little forced to me.

If it sounds relatively light, it is (although there’s some amount of musing on what it takes to be happy, and what success really is) but that’s ok. After something as intense as Station Eleven I was ready for a change of pace. I enjoyed The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles. But what is it with Princess Diana showing up in French novels? This is the second one I’ve read. Granted the other, An Accident in August, features her death fairly prominently, while she plays a much smaller part in this one. Anyway, if you’re looking for a fun read, and have some tolerance for annoyingly narcissistic and selfish characters, or characters who take a little time to stand up for themselves, or random insertions of celebrities into the plot, this is a decent book to spend a few evenings with.

 

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I recently reviewed The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, and I just finished his earlier book, The President’s Hat. Set towards the end of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, the book opens with Daniel Mercier treating himself to a meal at a brasserie while his wife and son are away. President Mitterrand and his party are seated beside Daniel. He’s amazed by this brush with greatness, and when the president leaves his black felt Homburg hat, Daniel does the unthinkable — he takes it.

As the novel unfolds, three other characters end up with the president’s hat: a woman in an unhappy love affair, a famous perfumer who hasn’t been able to create anything new for years and is in a deep depression, and a wealthy man who has come to disdain all that his familiar world stands for. As each of them possesses the hat for a brief time, their lives are changed. Daniel gets a promotion. Fanny finds the gumption to leave her lover. Pierre rediscovers his creativity. Bernard thinks for himself, and discovers a passion for modern art.

Does the president get his hat back? You’ll have to read the book to see. Once again Laurain transports readers to Paris, brings each scene alive with little details like the “ramekin of shallot vinegar” served alongside the seafood platter Daniel orders. Or a scene in which Pierre describes an African fetish in his analyst’s office.

This story seems a little bit like a fable or fairy tale; there’s the implication that the hat has some sort of magic or power and is bringing changes to each of the characters’ lives, but Laurain never quite says, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To me, that makes for better reading. There’s a discussion guide in the back; a book group might enjoy discussing the many social and cultural issues Laurain touches on as well as the charm of the novel itself.

The President’s Hat would be good vacation reading — thoughtful and well done, but not too taxing.

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If you’re a regular here at bookconscious you know I’m a fan of fiction in translation. Over the past few nights I’ve enjoyed The Red Notebook by French author Antoine Laurain. As the book opens, we see Laure Valadier being mugged. A few pages later, Laurent Latellier, owner of Le Cahier Rouge (The Red Notebook) bookstore, notices a handbag on top of a garbage bin.

With the wallet and phone missing, Laurent can’t see who it belongs to. He tries his local police station but they are too busy to help. Still, he can’t bring himself to give up on finding the owner. So he goes through the contents. In the purse he finds . . . a red notebook.

And much more, including a copy of Patrick Modiano‘s Accident Nocturne, signed, “For Laure, in memory of our meeting in the rain.” Laurent is stunned. “Modiano, the most elusive of French authors. Who hadn’t done any book signings for years. . . .” Laurent remembers that another bookseller has seen the Nobel laureate walking in Luxumbourg Garden. He goes for two mornings, waiting to run into the great man, and is rewarded with a description of the woman whose bag he found.

I don’t want to give away any more of the investigation, but you get the idea. Laurent’s headstrong teenaged daughter Chloe plays a part, and so do another author who visits Le Cahier Rouge and Laure’s friend and coworker William. It’s not a straightforward matter of finding the purse’s owner and all living happily after. Laure has her own part to play, her own mystery to solve.

Reading this book was like watching a beautifully done foreign film — I wanted to be in the scenes, eating Laurent’s pot-au-feu, stopping in the cafe’s, riding the “lift” in Laure’s building, “The kind of museum piece found only in old Parisian apartment blocks . . . ” to the “left-hand apartment . . . dimly lit by a tulip-shaped lamp on the landing.” Charming, but not saccharine.

I not only wanted to be in Paris, I wished I was friends with Laure, with William, with Laurent. I wanted to meet the cats in the book, and the people in the gilding workshop where William and Laure work. Just reading about people gilding things for a living transported me to a more exotic life. The Red Notebook is not a flimsy escapist read, though. It’s a thoughtful book. A gentle mystery, but also a reflection on what is mysterious. A romantic story that examines what we reveal to others, even those closest to us, and what we keep hidden.

I liked it so much I’m going to go back and read Antoine Laurain’s previous book, The President’s Hat, next.

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I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for over a year, and finally read it for Gibson’s Book Club. I’m very glad I did. The hare in the title is a netsuke, a small Japanese carving that attached to the end of a cord on a small pouch that men hung on their kimono sashes to serve as a sort of external pocket. And The Hare With Amber Eyes is about how the netsuke came into the author’s possession, and where it was before.

Edmund De Waal‘s great uncle Iggie owned a collection of 264 netsuke. De Waal, a world-reknowned ceramicist, studied in Japan, and often visited Iggie and his partner, Jiro, in Tokyo. He learned that the netsuke belonged to Iggie’s parents, Emmy and Viktor Ephrussi, and that Iggie and his siblings played with them as children. They had come to rest in their vitrine in Emmy’s dressing room because Viktor’s cousin Charles Ephrussi had given them to the couple as a wedding gift.

When The Hare With Amber Eyes opens, De Waal recalls learning after Iggie’s funeral that Jiro wants him to “look after the netsuke.” He tells readers that back home in London, he carried a netsuke of a medlar fruit around in his pocket. He thought about where it had come from. He wrote down “the bones” — what Iggie told him about the collection. And he realized he wanted to learn the rest of the story.

He knows “my family were Jewish . . . staggeringly rich, but I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” Instead, he writes, “I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object I am rolling in my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been…. I want to know what it has witnessed.” And a few paragraphs later, “I realize that I’ve been living with this netsuke business for too long. I can either anecdotalise it for the rest of my life – my odd inheritance from a beloved elderly relative — or go and find out what it means.”

And so he does. He really goes — to libraries and archives in London where he can hunt down clues. To Paris. Vienna. Tokyo. Odessa. And in the end, home. And what he learns is fascinating, heart breaking, incredible, and finally, life affirming.

At the book club (and in some reviews) some felt De Waal should have told a more complete story of his family, but he never meant to. Some audiences have asked whether the writing of the book led De Waal to epiphanies about his identity or caused him to pursue restitution — his family’s riches were confiscated by the Nazis. I think all of this misses the point. This a book about connections, between generations, between collectors and object, between what has survived and all that is lost.

De Waal’s approach is to chronicle his imposing relatives as a means of tracing the netsuke, because they connect him to the past. The family is part of his story, yes. The way Charles was cut out of Paris society after the Dreyfus affair (and snubbed by anti-Semite friends Renoir and Degas) the way they were robbed of everything, even their names, by the Nazis. The way Iggie, Elisabeth (De Waal’s grandmother) and their siblings were scattered around the world after the war. The way they became  “. . . a family that could not put itself back together.”

DeWaal writes, “I’m not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago.” He learns how the netsuke moved from 1880’s Paris to early 20th century Vienna to post-war England and Tokyo and now back to London. The family are certainly fascinating. Especially Charles, a friend of many of the Impressionists as well as Proust. And Iggie, the great-uncle who passes the netsuke on to De Waal and who ran away from Vienna and the family bank to be a fashion designer before serving in Normandy as an intelligence officer and becoming, after all, a very successful banker in post-war Japan.

Equally fascinating is the Viennese maid, known only as Anna to De Waal, who stayed with her mistress even after the Anchschluss, and even then played a key part in the story of the netsuke while the Nazis made her work in the Palais Ephrussi as its riches were plundered. And Elisabeth, De Waal’s indomitable grandmother, who got her parents safely out of Vienna, and “provided a kind of centre” for the family diaspora from her new home in England. The incomplete nature of their story is the story — this is a family whose story was fractured, repeatedly, by anti-Semitism in several generations.

Through discussions of literature, art, aesthetics, culture and society, De Waal traces the netuke’s path, as well as his family’s, and tells us what the rooms looked like where they were displayed, what the people who held them wore and talked about and what their lives and cities and world was like. But he doesn’t tell the entire story, and he can’t. He explains, “There are the places in memory you do not wish to go with others.” His grandmother, his great-uncle offered some remembrances, but De Waal notes, “I remember the hesitancies when talking to Iggie in old age; hesitancies that trembled into silences, silences that marked places of loss.” Elisabeth would not talk about Emmy.

“Stories and objects share something, a patina….Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so the essential is revealed . . . . But it also seems additive.” De Waal has added his patina to the story of the netsuke – he has revealed the humanity in the story of these collectible objects. He has added the staggering wealth and staggering loss, the disrupted lives, and the small moments when people — Proust and Renoir and children and Japanese cocktail party guests and faceless visitors to Charles’ salon or Iggie’s apartment — picked up the netsuke and rolled them, like he did, in their fingers.

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