Recent reads round-up

I read a few good books in a row and then went on holiday before writing reviews or even notes on them and now it’s two weeks since I finished the last of them. Oops. So here is my attempt to remember what I enjoyed about them. They’re all great!

her_fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter
by Marie Sizun
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

I loved this book. It is simple and sparse and yet utterly moving. This seems to be a pattern with Peirene books, one that I approve of. The story is told from the perspective of “the child” (she does have a name but it’s rarely used) – a young girl living in Paris during the Second World War. She is the apple of her mother’s eye and despite the Nazi occupation is utterly happy in her little world. Then the father she has never met comes home from the POW camp and the fight for affection begins.

Sizun brilliantly depicts the changing relationships – between mother and child; between father and child; between mother and father; between grandmother and child – against a backdrop of the occupation of Paris ending, and then the war itself ending. Though the child is not the narrator, her perspective filters the story to its essential parts. This at times almost reads like poetry, it’s so distilled. But it isn’t at all abstract in the way that poetry can be. A beautiful, quick read.

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There were no slow degrees of consciousness

books baguettes bedbugsBooks, Baguettes and Bedbugs
by Jeremy Mercer

I’ve seen this book recommended by lots of people over the years, but I must admit, all I knew about it was that it’s about the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, a tourist attraction I’ve never visited, and knew of only as a famous bookshop associated with some famous authors and artists. So I learned a lot, and completely fell in love with the shop and its story.

I’ve been to Paris twice, and travelled through it another two or three times, and it’s a little crazy that a famous English-language bookshop near the city centre wasn’t on my list of attractions to visit. It certainly will be next time, though it won’t be quite the same shop that Mercer describes.

First, I learned that the current incarnation of the bookshop, on Rue de la Bûcherie, is not the same as the first bookshop by that name, which was opened and run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 until 1940. That shop had its own wonderful history with colourful characters who have popped up in various things I’ve read, but Mercer for the most part skips past all that to the second Shakespeare and Company bookshop, which was opened in 1951 by George Whitman. He originally called his shop Le Mistral, but changed it in 1964 to Shakespeare and Company in tribute to Sylvia Beach, following her death.

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The poem is an extraordinary mechanism

reader for hireReader for Hire
by Raymond Jean
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

This is an unusual book, difficult to pin down. It’s comedic bordering on farce, it’s sensual to the point of erotica, it’s intellectual veering dangerously close to literary criticism. All of which can be ignored if you just want a good story to enjoy, but you will need an open mind for this one.

It was her friend Françoise’s idea, but Marie-Constance quickly finds herself having to fight for it. She places an ad in the local paper offering her services as a reader, because her voice is her greatest asset. The newspaper man thinks the advert sounds suspicious. Her old university tutor thinks she will attract the wrong sort. Her husband alone is indifferent.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a paraplegic teenager who initially seems more interested in the length of her skirt than the classic short story she has chosen to read him, a choice that ends in near disaster. Her second client is an elderly woman with cataracts who only wants to read Marx, which bores Marie-Constance to tears. The third is an attractive newly divorced executive who claims he only wants a crash course in literature so that he can appear more cultured. Each new opportunity seems to bring new problems and soon Marie-Constance is on first-name terms with the local police chief.

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Some heavier sensitive reality

paris was yesterdayParis was Yesterday: 1925–1939
Janet Flanner

I chose this book as my next read for the Classics Club on the back of an article Siân Norris wrote last year on For Books’ Sake about the women of the Left Bank. I’m one more of the many people fascinated by Paris of the early twentieth century but I’m also a feminist, so the idea of finding out more about the women writers and artists of that time greatly appeals to me.

Janet Flanner was an American journalist who moved to Paris in 1922 with her lover, actress Solita Solano. In 1925 she began writing the Letter From Paris column for the New Yorker, under the pen name Genêt. This book is a selection from the first 15 years of those columns. It’s a combination of gossip, reviews, obituaries and day-to-day reporting. It’s an at times uneven mix and I don’t know if that’s an accurate reflection of the column or the way this book has been edited.

The book starts strongly, really making me feel the setting and wish I could have experienced it. Flanner clearly wasted no time in getting to the centre of social life in Paris, recounting a series of breathless parties and still-notable first performances. She was there for the première of the Stravinsky ballet Oedipus Rex, with lyrics by Cocteau and costumes by Picasso – can you imagine?

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Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out

Z

Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler

In case you missed me effusing on Twitter, I loved this book. A lot. I picked it up on a whim in a bookshop, having heard nothing about it and with no idea what to expect. I only knew that I was interested in the subject matter, but of course that was no guarantee. It was a good whim: I was engrossed and tore through it, then regretted having read so fast.

This is a work of fiction, but Fowler did a lot of research, reading diaries, letters, articles and interviews from Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald and their friends, in order to reach her own interpretation of Zelda’s character. What she came up with was a character I felt I had a lot in common with – I know, I’m not an obvious comparison to the original flapper and embodiment of the jazz age, but such is the skill of a good writer!

The story follows Zelda from the day she first met Scott until her death, and the life they led was pretty exciting and event-filled, so on reflection a lot has been squeezed into these 350 or so pages, but it never felt rushed or crammed at all. Fowler has somehow given Zelda space to reflect and reminisce rather than just telling her story event by event, and by doing this the character comes truly alive.

“Before Scott’s success, before people everywhere had been ravaged by war and flu, there’d been little glamour in the literary world. To be a writer then was to be a drab little mole who thought big thoughts and methodically committed them to paper…With this group, though…and the postwar push for life, for fun, for all the things Scott and I were seeking and embodying, the literary world put its foot into the circle of the entertainment world’s spotlight.”

First of all, this is a story about true love. Although their marriage was far from perfect (in fact, arguably they were destructive for each other), Scott and Zelda were unusual among the circles they moved in, in that they were indisputably the love of each other’s life. This is backed up by the fact that, though this is a book in Zelda’s voice and very clearly on Zelda’s side, so that at times Scott is the bad guy, for the most part he is also a warm, relatable character, albeit one with a long long list of flaws! But then the portrait of Zelda acknowledges her flaws too. Until her health problems slowed her down, her drinking and partying was as out of control as Scott’s. They both struggled psychologically with feelings of inadequacy and failure – though for Scott this alternated with him being convinced he was a genius.

As those who know Zelda’s story will already be aware, it is psychological problems that give her and Scott an air of tragedy. She clearly suffered with mental health issues, but, from this novel at least, it seems that perfectly manageable issues were blown up into huge problems by a combination of stigma, prejudice, misdiagnosis and outdated treatments. Add to this Scott’s alcoholism and the intense jealousy that both felt, and you have a situation that was never going to end well.

“There’s a word for people who move from place to place, never seeming to be able to settle down for long: peripatetic. And there’s a word for people who can’t seem to stay out of trouble—well, there are a lot of words for such types…Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out—become expert at some of it, even, so much so that I’ve come to wonder whether artists in particular seek out hard times the way flowers turn their faces toward the sun.”

But for a while there, Scott and Zelda were on top of the world. They were very young when fame hit – they married when Zelda was 20 and Scott 23, and were hitting the headlines and gossip columns pretty much immediately. Fowler does a good job of showing the glamorous, romantic side of fame and the jazz age while acknowledging that Scott and Zelda were never truly as happy or carefree as they seemed to the outside world. She also acknowledges the very many famous names the Fitzgeralds befriended, without it ever feeling like namedropping.

Certainly, I am pre-disposed to like stories about all those artists in Paris in the 1920s, but that’s actually quite a small part of the overall story. What really gripped me most of all was Zelda’s aspiration to be an artist herself, independent of Scott. She was a writer, painter and ballerina, and dearly wished to fully become one or all of those things, but Scott never properly gave her his support. Time and again he would stop her from doing something she loved either in the name of her health or in the name of being a wife and mother. Admittedly, this is Fowler’s interpretation of the situation, but to me it felt that Zelda was a woman born 50 years too soon. Of course there were women in the 1920s (and long before that) working as writers, artists and dancers, but they had to be willing to completely split from conventionality, and Zelda loved Scott too much to risk losing him by doing something he so thoroughly disproved of.

“Imagine your body is youthful, firm, a pleasure to live inside of—and you’re wise enough already to know that this is fleeting, this body and its condition. It won’t last. None of it will last. And because it won’t, you allow the beautiful person who seeks you out to become as much a part of your day, a part of this place, as the poppies that grow beside the rocky path…You let it happen because all of it is illusory anyway.”

Fowler has done a wonderful job of giving Zelda a lyrical, living voice that transported me in time, place and emotions. Her Zelda is difficult and destructive but also wonderful and alive, so that her story is all the more heartbreaking.

So aside from the clunky and possibly misleading subtitle (is it just me or could that be interpreted as “a novel by Zelda Fitzgerald”?) I loved this book thoroughly and recommend it heartily. Predictably it has made me want to read Zelda’s own fiction and indeed more of Scott’s work too. And it’s made me feel a lot better about finding Hemingway mostly too brash and macho!

Published 2013 by Two Roads, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: Foyles, Bristol.

Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life

A Novel Bookstore

A Novel Bookstore
by Laurence Cossé
translated from French by Alison Anderson

Have you ever dreamed of opening a bookshop? Have you ever planned what it would be like, how it would be different from all those other bookshops? I can’t decide whether this book would encourage or discourage such an ambition but there’s definitely some wish-fulfilment going on.

The novel opens with a series of attacks on seemingly unconnected people. I don’t want to reveal too much, but the link is The Good Novel, a Paris bookshop opened by rich booklover Francesca and idealistic bookseller Ivan. They discover that they share the same dream of a bookshop that sells only great novels, and pour everything into making their dream a reality, but their shop strikes a nerve in French cultural circles and comes under increasingly severe attacks.

“If I spent my money restoring a Roman viaduct or any other masterwork of our heritage, everyone would think it was a very worthy cause. What we are doing is no different. We are investing our time and money to support and enrich our literary heritage, which is being threatened by forgetfulness and indifference, not to mention disarray in taste. Our cause is undeniable.”

I found that I couldn’t grasp the tone at first. And then just as I was getting the hang of it, there was an odd switch from crime drama to the idealistic story of setting up the dream bookshop. But it’s a surprisingly enjoyable read considering all the action is in the first three chapters.

At the core of the book is the debate between high and low culture. Francesca and Ivan have pinned their hopes on high culture: their choice of “great” novels is primarily classic or overlooked literary works. They opt out of the bestseller lists and new releases, which isn’t the most effective business model and isn’t entirely popular with publishers and other bookshops – it does admittedly smack of snobbery – but of course it’s the authors whose books aren’t chosen for sale at The Good Novel who express the most anger.

“The essential problem raised by the notion of literary value is that this value changes with time. A work that might have been hailed by its contemporaries seems trivial a hundred years later, perhaps even thirty years later. Inversely, another work that was judged unpleasant or uninteresting may now be praised to the skies.”

Personally, I’m torn which side I’m on. Not that I condone the attacks on The Good Novel. And I love heartfelt book recommendations, such as are at the core of Ivan’s bookselling style. But I think getting people reading is always a good thing, and those easy reads and bestsellers – they’re a big part of that process.

“Literature is a source of pleasure, he said, it is one of the rare inexhaustible joys in life, but it’s not only that. It must not be disassociated from reality…There are grown-ups who will say no, that literature is not life, that novels teach you nothing. They are wrong. Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.”

This book is jam-packed with references to “great” books and you could make a very long recommended reading list from it, though how many of them would be available in English translation I don’t know. The other thing it has going for it is a sub-plot that’s a sweet realistic romance. I kept expecting darker things around the corner but this novel’s beauty is its simplicity.

“He had no more imaginary space, nowhere he could escape to, no more expectations, all he could do was make himself available to the present moment, to what was immeasurable, the terrible profusion of moments that make up a day.”

Au bon roman published 2009 by Editions Gallimard, Paris.
Translation published 2010 by Europa Editions.

Source: Won in a giveaway from Savidge Reads.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

To define happiness, its one clean note

Seducing Ingrid Bergman
by Chris Greenhalgh

When I spotted this title in the Penguin Press Newsletter it wasn’t so much Bergman’s name that attracted me – though she was a great actress and some of her films are deservedly classics – but that of the other half of this brief affair – war photographer Robert Capa. Photography interests me as a hobby and as an art form and I was interested to see how that would be handled within a novel about one of the medium’s legendary names.

It’s a great story that has all the right ingredients for becoming a great film, but it didn’t immediately click for me. Despite a dramatic, well judged opening that contrasts Capa parachuting into enemy territory and being shot at in March 1945 with Bergman receiving an Oscar in a glittering ceremony in Hollywood, I found myself noticing the writing, tutting at all the similes that would have served better as metaphors and the slightly obvious parallels drawn with photography wherever possible:

“…involuntarily she repeats the way Pia had wrinkled her nose, closing both eyes at the same time as though taking a photograph.”

However, I think perhaps I just took a while to get over the fact that these were real people and that I had been expecting something that felt a bit more like historical fiction or even biography. Because this is solidly a novel, ascribing thoughts and fears and feelings to its characters and even using first person for about half of the narrative (always as Capa). And as I gradually got pulled into the story I began to thoroughly enjoy it and even to pick out well written passages:

“We watch as the light rises, giving the world shadows. The grey shapes of the trees on the boulevards hold their breath for the heat of day. And behind the buildings the sun comes up with its liquid edges.”

The bulk of the story is set in Paris, where Bergman is sent to entertain troops and Capa is based in-between assignments. Greenhalgh does a good job of describing Paris, primarily in a romantic light but with the occasional touch of realism, such as very funny observation about a high class cafe having a hole-in-the-floor toilet, and Capa imagining all the fancy ladies in their high heels squatting over the filth and being impressed by them emerging looking flawless.

I must admit, and this may be largely my own cynicism, that I found the early descriptions of the affair saccharine to an annoying degree:

“I don’t know whether it’s the music or Ingrid sitting there, her spoon poised over her ice cream, but everything merges at this moment – the leaves, the sunlight, the scent of vanilla, the street with its sliced shadows – and if I had to define happiness, its one clean note, well, this is the closest I’ve come to it.”

For me, it was everything else in their lives that captivated me, for instance when Capa had flashbacks to wartime and was terrified and yet would profess later that day a desire to get back to work, meaning another war. Or descriptions of Bergman making films I know and love, such as Notorious.

Perhaps I would have been better off reading biographies of these people and an anonymous love story, but the one advantage this novel does have is that you know from the start (or at least I did) how it ends, you know that this was not the only love either person experienced in their lives, nor even the most dramatic one, and yet while it lasted it was all those things and more, because that’s how life and love are. And I do now want to go back to Capa’s photographs and Bergman’s films, which is after all their legacy, not who they loved.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published November 2012 by Penguin Books.

Light on the heavy

Petite Anglaise
by Catherine Sanderson

Having been a fan of the blog for years it’s not a huge surprise that I loved this book. It was the first blog I ever read and opened up a whole new world to me. Now the book has filled in many of the blanks that were necessarily kept out of the blog at the time.

I will add that, had I not read the blog, I very much doubt I would have been attracted to this book. I am not a fan of chick lit with all those pink covers and hapless heroines. That was a phase I went through as a teenager and even then I knew that the books were rubbish. This book is being marketed as chick lit and it does have some things in common with that genre – loveable heroine, an emphasis on the romances in her life, an easy-to-read style, approachable sense of humour. However, Petite Anglaise also deals with some serious, painful, life-altering events (and I don’t mean getting married) and a quick scan through the comments on Amazon proves that lovers of chick-lit are not the right market. Not to mention that it’s very well written.

For those who don’t know the background, Catherine Sanderson started the blog Petite Anglaise in 2004, documenting life as an Englishwoman living in Paris with her French partner and their baby daughter. As her relationship began to fall apart the writing became both more serious and more enticing, laced as it was with intense emotion. She eventually left her partner for a man she met through her blog and the story became one of the effort to be a good parent to her toddler while in the passionate throes of a new relationship. In 2006, Catherine was dumped and fired in a short space of time. Her employer cited her blog as the reason for firing her. Having taken great care to keep her real name, line of work and indeed any detail about that side of her life out of the blog, Catherine took her former employer to court claiming unfair dismissal and won.

Obviously much more has happened to Catherine since that day, but this is where the book ends and it is a suitable full stop. She is now a full-time writer and in 2009 announced that she was no longer going to blog, except for updates about her books. Her writing was always so good that you felt this was where she should end up and I look forward to reading more of her output.

Published 2009 by Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-1410-3119-4