Books I Want To Read Before The Summer’s Over

It’s nearly the end of August but Summer’s not over yet, despite what the Halloween candy in the grocery store has been screaming at me. (If I, an autumn-obsessed witch, say it’s too early… it’s way too early.)

I was reading a stack of New York Times Book Reviews from the past few weeks, and a few titles I’d not considered earlier jumped out at me. So before Summer breathes his last humid gasps, I want to check these brand-new-ish books off my list. They were all featured in recent NYTBRs, so check those out for the in-depth reviews.

The Government Lake – Last Poems by James Tate

718lngl2jul

I don’t know much about poetry. As proof of this: I didn’t know who James Tate was until after his death. But these seem fascinating, rather prose-y, more like ideas and fragments than proper verse. I’m keen to give them a try, and will probably try more of his work later. We shall see!

81e0o11mkdl

Recursion by Blake Crouch

This one might be a little too intense for me, as it has neuroscience as a major plot point, but I’m curious to finally read a Blake Crouch book after Dark Matter got so many good reviews. More appealingly, Victor Lavalle reviewed Recursion in the NYTBR and I will try anything that he deems worthwhile.

71yhl4gik2bl

Stay And Fight by Madeline ffitch

I don’t know if this book can possibly be as good as I think it will be, based on the power of the title alone. I just love the phrase “stay and fight.” I want a poster for my bedroom. Anyway, this is about an urban millennial who decides to settle in Appalachian Ohio. Pipelines encroach and parenting is questioned… it sounds good.

I still need at least one seafaring adventure for my trip to Acadia national park in September, but these three will likely be in my bag as well. (On that note, anything similar to Treasure Island!!! or We Are Pirates that’s escaped my notice this year? I’ve got my eye on When We Were Vikings but it’s not quite nautical enough to satisfy this very particular itch.)

Audiobook review: There’s A Word For That by Sloane Tanen

9781478920892_400

Star Ratings:

Story: 4/5

Writing: 3/5

Characters: 5/5

Audio recording: 4/5

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I listened to There’s A Word For That via Libro.fm, which I recommend enthusiastically. A percentage of all purchases helps out indie bookshops! Please go check them out.

This was very much an impulse download; I needed something distracting and contemporary to temper all the unhappy classics I’ve been reading lately.  While I thought the story sounded interesting  — love me a dysfunctional family, any day — I didn’t expect to get so hooked!

Here’s the publisher’s summary of the book:

Introducing the Kesslers: Marty, a retired LA film producer whose self-worth has been eroded by age and a late-in-life passion for opioids; his daughter Janine, former child star suffering the aftereffects of a life in the public eye; and granddaughter Hailey, the “less-than” twin sister, whose inferiority complex takes a most unexpected turn. Nearly six thousand miles away, in London, celebrated author Bunny Small, Marty’s long-forgotten first wife, has her own problems: a “preposterous” case of writer’s block, a monstrous drinking habit, and a son who has fled halfway around the world to escape her.

When Marty’s pill-popping gets out of hand and Bunny’s boozing reaches crisis proportions, a perfect storm of dysfunction brings them all together at Directions, Malibu’s most exclusive and absurd rehab center.

The plot is essentially just that: a family and its satellites hash out their long-festering problems when things finally come to a head at rehab. While the psychology of recovery isn’t necessarily the subject of the whole book, it certainly drives up the stakes and gives each character’s journey emotional clarity.

I hesitate to call There’s A Word For That a comedy, since addiction; suicide; depression; and teenage angst all feature heavily, but I’m sorely tempted to do so. A few moments had me laughing out loud, and many others made me smile, sometimes ironically, sometimes due to the optimism that shines through on every page. This is ultimately a hopeful book about overcoming past obstacles, enjoying the flawed present for what it is, and looking towards the future. I was rooting for each character (especially Janine and Bunny, my favorites) as they faced their self-made demons and cracked jokes along the way.

Therese Plummer does a great job narrating the audiobook with only a few minor exceptions. Her voices for each member of the Kessler family were totally spot-on, from Marty’s ironic old man voice to Amanda’s high-strung, self-important chatter. Bunny and Martin were each unique as well, I only wish the British accents had been better. But once I got over that hiccup, I couldn’t get enough of their chapters.

Bunny, a famous and acerbic writer with a penchant for gin, put words to so many of my secret complaints about the world. She was a ferocious delight. Honestly, I would read an entire book just about her.

Give There’s A Word For That a listen if you like Arrested Development, California sunshine, screwed up families, and a drink or two.

Staff Pick: The Changeling by Victore Lavalle

My most recent staff pick at the bookshop:

IMG_7022(1)

Victor Lavalle mixes family drama, horror, folklore, and vivid realism in this absolutely gripping novel about parenthood and American culture. Appollo Kagwa is a “book man” and a father, devoted to his wife Emma and their newborn baby. But Emma’s postpartum depression soon turns into something far more terrifying, and she vanishes with Appollo’s son into unknown and fantastical parts of New York. His journey to find them brings him to the edge of reason, while the people he meets prove that there’s more to America than what fits into the boundaries of imagination. This book is startling and sweet, haunting and harrowing. Highly recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

9781594634659

How does everything Helen Oyeyemi touches turn to gold? Her writing follows some fairy tale logic that meanders off the road, yet never leads you astray. I was smitten with Boy, Snow, Bird and White Is For Witching. I was beyond enchanted by the stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. And I keep coming back for more, an addict, forever surprised by a writer who refuses to get comfortable in any of the nice neat categories that I create in my head.

Here’s the thing about Gingerbread: you’ve got to read it for style, for character, for the shining observations that dazzle throughout. Don’t go in looking for the sort of plot that makes you think “oh, of course!” as you contentedly turn the last page. Suspend your disbelief. In fact, just toss your disbelief into the air, let it hover, and forget about it entirely.

Oyeyemi’s worlds are very like our own, rife with everyday things like London, PTA meetings, and drunk voicemails. But there’s also the hard-to-pin-down (but very real) country of Druhástrana, changeling children hanging out in wells, and houses built by industrious fireflies. Don’t ask me how a book can so charmingly accommodate descriptions of child labor exploitation all the while a sweetly sinister friendship unfolds. In Helen Oyeyemi’s capable hands, you can go from a simmering rage about injustice to delight at a turn of phrase within a sentence or two. I think she may be a wizard of some kind, a warmer Herr Drosselmeyer who has perfect control over the whole stage even when the set feels larger (or smaller) than life.

I realize I’ve not given a proper description of what Gingerbread is actually about, and to be frank I don’t think I’m up for the task. It’s about mothers and daughters and granddaughters, about farms and cities, about extended families doing good deeds for bad reasons. It starts in England, where Harriet’s daughter Perdita has eaten an unusual batch of gingerbread and goes into a coma, supposedly trying to find the country where her mother and grandmother grew up. We then get to witness a friendship form between two young Druhástranian girls, one of whom’s mother happens to own the gingerbread factory where the other toils away.  And then there’s the Kerchevals back in England again, the extremely rich family of dubious origins who take in Harriet and her mother with far-reaching consequences. Margot and Harriet and Perdita are subjected to bullying, heartbreak, betrayals, and poverty. They revel in beautiful spaces and form unbreakable bonds. And all the while there’s gingerbread, gingerbread, gingerbread: in tins in London, in the Kercheval’s kitchen at three am, in Druhá city boutiques and way back in Margot’s old farmhouse.

A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge.

This is not a revenge story, but neither is it a love story, or the sort of allegory aimed to smash you over the head. It’s a fairy tale and a contemporary novel and something so much more delicious than either. I don’t know, they should invent a new genre for whatever Helen Oyeyemi does. She does it very well indeed.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Front Cover

Sally Rooney’s novels have away of finding me right when I need them most, and they always hurt my feelings.  There’s not much I can say about Normal People that other reviewers haven’t already said, so I’ll be brief.

I liked Conversations With Friends quite a lot when I read it this time last year, though again I took it right to heart and needed a moment to recover after. On the surface, Normal People is very – almost overly – similar, in style and structure especially.  Normal People also focuses on the internal workings of some complicated and intense relationships. The settings are even similar: Trinity College, a summer house abroad…  But Rooney’s already good writing has improved tenfold in this second offering. Her characters feel so real I miss them. And the joys and anguish they suffer through, though dramatic, are flawless mirrors held up to the experiences of so many individuals learning to be adults and trying to be people.

The plot, quickly, is as follows: Connell and Marianne are schoolmates in county Sligo. He’s quiet but popular, concerned about how others perceive him, secretly intellectual.  She’s friendless and refuses to alter her abrasive personality to remedy this. Normally the two of them would never come into contact, but Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house for a living and in this pocket of the world the two become something like friends, something like lovers.  The narrative skips ahead days, weeks, months every chapter to show us the progressions and regressions of their entanglement. Eventually, both characters are students at Trinity, where Marianne has found herself among like-minded people and Connell feels isolated. Though their circumstances have changed, their fraught reliance on one another has not.

We follow Marianne through abuse, genius, friendships, and attempted self-destruction. We watch Connell struggle with class, creativity, love, and depression. All the while, I was desperately hoping they’d be there for each other. And sometimes they are.

Even though the characters in Normal People are teenagers, it’s definitely a book for adults. I would have enjoyed it as a young person, but part of the magic here is that they were slightly younger than me, and I felt oddly protective of their feelings even while they were destroying mine.  (There’s also quite a lot of sex and misery, so, like, not a book for people under 13.)

It will take me a few weeks to get my heart back on straight(ish) after reading this.  Normal People comes out in the states this April. Buy it – locally! independently! – and fall right in.

Top 10 Reads of 2018

Ahoy there, long forgotten and much-missed corner of the internet.  I’m just dropping in to forcefully recommend my ten favorite books that came out in 2018, then I’ll probably forget to post for another year or so. Sad but true!  Let us not delude ourselves with thoughts of extra-curricular productivity in this shiny new year.

Anyway, here are the ten new books that brought me the most joy in 2018. Not included: old books, dead authors, advanced copies of books that will come out in 2019.

  1. Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  2. French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
  3. The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
  4. City Of Crows by Chris Womersly
  5. Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
  6. A Very Large Expanse Of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
  7. The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
  8. City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab
  9. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
  10. Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery

Diary of a Bookseller

https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781612197241

I cannot over-emphasize how much I adored this memoir. I’ve read it three times, and have underlined so many wonderful observations I have barely any blank space left. Shaun Bythell puts into words what so many of us booksellers can only think to ourselves, and I love him for it. It’s impossible to choose a favorite line because the whole book is just so damn quotable.  Not only are Bythell’s observations incredibly spot-on, his descriptions of the customers and his idiosyncratic staff are the stuff of a masterpiece. Excuse me while I go read the whole thing again.

French Exit

9780062846921

Is this a black social comedy? A tragedy of manners? Akin to Fitzgerald or Waugh or Daniel Handler?  I have no answers for you, I can only say that French Exit was an absolute delight to read, with incredible characters (most of whom I wanted to slap at one point or another) and ruthless observations about the wealthy, expats, and life in general.  If you’ve had your doubts about De Witt before, I promise this is nothing like his previous books – it’s an entirely new creature and my favorite of his to date.

The Hazel Wood

9781250147905

Books about books are my favorite books. Inkheart has been a favorite forever. Melissa Albert’s magical debut has a bit of that same vibe: the feel of a classic but with contemporary stakes. It’s beautiful in places, spooky in others, and totally engrossing. You can read my full review here.

City Of Crows

9781609454708

I’m a sucker for stories that make me wonder “is it fantasy or is this all just a coincidence?” City Of Crows made me wonder that at first, then convinced me one way, then another, and left me thinking about it for days after. The setting – 17th century France – and all the true historical details – witches! charlatans! plague! – left me with a new appreciation for how dismal life was back then, as well as how mysterious it could be. Another win for Europa editions.

Small Spaces

9780525515029

Katherine Arden’s first middle grade novel kept me reading late into the night.  Set up in the spookiest corners of Vermont, it has everything one needs for a chilling October read.  Arden mixed classic ghost story tropes with a fast-paced adventure, and the results were fantastic. I couldn’t stop recommending this to customers, but I did have to mention that it frightened even me at times.  And I was a scary kid.

A Very Large Expanse Of Sea

9780062866561

I was never 100% sold on Mafi’s earlier YA thriller series, but this standalone YA novel has me convinced of her talent.  A Very Large Expanse Of Sea takes place one year after 9/11 and follows Muslim teenager Shirin as she navigates the hatred directed at her from other citizens.  It’s not disheartening, though, because Shirin is a strong main character and the descriptions of the strength she finds in break dancing made me truly happy.  Mafi is writing what she knows and she shines on every page. Also, the romance was both sweet and realistic.

The Cruel Prince

9780316310277

It’s impossible for me to describe how much I love Holly Black’s new series in coherent sentences. Fairy courts! Changelings! Murder! Betrayal! Enemies who can’t stop looking at each other! Siblings! Poison! The sequel just came out and I cannot wait to start it.  This might turn into one of my favorite YA series of all time.

City Of Ghosts

9781338111002

V.E. Schwab’s fantasy novels are pretty good, but her middle grade ghostly stuff is fantastic. She captured the atmosphere of Edinburgh so bloody well, and managed to write a creepy book without alienating her more sensitive readers. I so rarely read more than the first book in a series, but I’m committed to following Cass wherever she goes next.

Dread Nation

9780062570604

I’m not usually a fan of Civil War novels, and I’m very rarely a fan of zombie stories, but Justina Ireland combined the two and suddenly I’m a real big fan.  She focuses on the people who got the worst end of the stick in that time period: Native Americans and Black people.  In the world of Dread Nation, these exploited groups fight the undead that have started rising up from the battlefields.  But it’s not just a zombie hunting novel. There’s mystery, social commentary, conspiracy, and some incredibly bad-ass characters.

Born To Be Posthumous

9780316188548

Edward Gorey was massively influential to my personal style as a youth, though I refuse to post a photo to prove it.  This biography was my first in-depth peep into his life.  What a dude. What a fella.  I can’t get enough of his illustrations and comics, and knowing more about the man behind the pen only made me love him more.  I’m not always a biography enthusiast but sometimes a subject is enough of a character to keep my interest, and this was definitely one of those times.  And what a perfect title, right?

Alright, friends. That’s all I’ve got today. Please remember to shop indie! All these titles are available at indiebound , and I’m sure your local bookshop would be delighted to order them for you, provided you ask nicely.

Wildfire At Midnight by Mary Stewart

wildfireatmidnight

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Writing:***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Oh, hello, it’s been nearly a year since I re-visited this dusty old page. I’ve moved house and made some Frighteningly Big Life Decisions in the meantime, so please forgive the lapse.

Big changes in life bring with them an urgent need for escapist literature and comfort reading, and I’ve started 2018 with a large dose of each. Just this evening I finished reading Mary Stewart’s Wildfire At Midnight. Mary Stewart wrote The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, etc: Arthurian fantasies my dad gave me to read as a pre-teen. I ate those up, so I can’t believe this book had escaped my notice until I found it just this week, in a four-volume hardcover from the library, patiently awaiting my attention with all it’s descriptions of Skye landscapes and Scottish hotels and ritual murder. (These are a few of my favorite things…)

Gianetta Brooke, our heroine, is a young dress-model, divorced from a proud writer-type and looking for a rest from the bustle of 1950s London. Her mother suggests a trip to a nice hotel in Camas Fhionnaridh – or Camasunary – on Skye. “…it’s at the back of beyond, so you go there, darling, and have a lovely time with the birds and the – the water, or whatever you said you wanted.” Reached by boat, beautiful, mountainous, and remote, Camasunary is exactly the majestic, timeless setting you would want for a trip to untamed Scotland.  Also a great location for a series of COMPLETELY BONKERS MURDERS.

When Gianetta arrives at the hotel, she is dismayed to learn that a local teenager was murdered in a style that can only be described as “sacrificial,” her body laid out on a bonfire on the inhospitable face of the Blaven mountain. Possibly even more upsetting, Gianetta’s ex-husband Nicholas is a guest at the hotel, acting smug and flirting with a famous guest. In fact, all of the hotel guests are fascinating and unexpected people: an accomplished mountaineer, two women excited to “conquer” the peaks, a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, a travel writer with a pseudonym, a handsome country man, an admiral with a staunch moral code… If you’re thinking this is a great, albeit slightly predictable, set-up for a closed-room detective story, you’re entirely correct.

What Wildfire At Midnight lacks in originality of plot it makes up for in sumptuous descriptions of mountains lakes, bogs, the sky, and the birds that fly in it. Even while Gianetta discovers body after body, the scenery demands attention. Rightly so, too, because in the end, those peaks and lochs directly inform the method and meaning behind the murders. The traditional twists of “oh I know it’s that guy who did it,” and, inevitably, “wait, no, I was wrong?” made me way more jumpy when a choking mist has blinded our narrator from the murderer in pursuit. And I say this as someone who has spent not a little time in big, old, mostly empty Scottish hotels: A+ atmosphere on the interiors as well.

Gianetta isn’t as strong a main character as some of Mary Stewart’s other women, true, but I admired her determination to know the truth. Even when the police arrive at the scene, Gianetta is determined to keep searching, keep helping, keep smoking like a chimney. Her naturally generous disposition balances out other characters’ animosity towards one another (though who can blame them, since someone in the hotel is a crazed murderer). Even so, when push comes to treacherous shove, she’s a resourceful girl, heroic to the end of this city-girl-in-heathen-wilderness mystery novel story that kept me riveted and rather nervous until the last page.

Not quite so comforting as I’d intended, perhaps, but definitely an escape from my surroundings.

Now I’ve got to seriously commit myself to posting at least two reviews a year, which will be an improvement on my past streak. Apologies, appreciation, and adieu.

Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

20821043

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris part II: Unbecoming

Earlier this month I noticed that my reading habits had taken on a brief trend: books about secretive young woman hiding from their problems in Paris.  Patrick Modiano’s In The Café Of Lost Youth introduced me to the inscrutable, magnetic, restless Louki.  The book’s three other narrators found themselves consumed with interest in Louki’s past, her motivations, and her preference for the “neutral zones” in Paris, where everything seems either suspended or in transit.  The next book I picked up to read was Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm.  It so transpired that Unbecoming also features a secretive, no-entirely-heroic female protagonist who tries to hide by melting into the Paris scenery.

unbecoming

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

“The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name.” That’s the first line in Unbecoming.  Grace was the beautiful, accommodating, clever girl from Garland, Tennessee.  In Paris, she introduces herself as Julie “because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue.”   Already, we’re focused on a woman lying about her name in Paris.  Excellent.

The tense descriptions of Grace’s furtive life in Paris immediately made me curious about what had happened in Tennessee to make her so determinedly ignore-able. In a small antique refurbishment workshop, with only her co-worker as anything like a friend, Grace repairs gold plating, oils hinges, and worries constantly that the boys she knew in Garland will find her.  In between scenes at Parisian flea markets and intriguing peeps into the goings-on at Zanuso et Filles (where not all the antiques are necessarily being repaired), hints at Grace’s reasons for leaving America transform into the real story.

The real story is that Grace wanted to be part of Riley Graham’s perfect, loving family ever since she was a child.  The real story is that she learned how to be a good girlfriend, a good daughter-in-law, a good member of the group, and perfected it to an art form.  Grace’s motivations for this assimilation into a life of Southern charm were largely innocent – the scenes in which she adores Mrs. Graham’s lifestyle and looks after Riley’s feelings show how sweet she can be – but in her practice at becoming what other people want her to be, she honed how to use her skills of manipulation more seriously.

Falling in love with Riley’s best friend definitely wasn’t part of the plan, but it shakes Grace up so much that her relationship struggles lead to a bigger, badder, better plan: robbing the historic Wynn house for it’s overlooked valuables.  With her knowledge from a stint with antiques at college in NYC, Riley’s unimaginative but impressive painting techniques, and two slightly unhinged cohorts (one of them Alls, the aforementioned best friend) the nervy crew of teenagers sets about to pull a heist that goes from a funny hypothetical to potential disaster real fast.  Not everyone can hold up under the pressure.  When the boys get caught, Grace hopes that she’ll be able to disappear from the town’s memory in Europe, but the two men get let out on parole right where the first chapter of Unbecoming begins.  We don’t know who Grace is afraid of, but she’s sure one of them will try to find her, and she desperately does not want to be found.

Grace’s morally ambiguous, totally conniving mind kept me racing to catch up with her every step of the way in this gripping but occasionally over-dramatic debut novel.  I don’t know if I liked Grace by the end of the book, but I was always interested to see what steps she would take to ensure her own security.  The best moments, in my opinion, were the ones in which the (anti?)heroine recognizes what sort of person would succeed in a situation, then takes careful internal steps to become that person.  The idyllic Graham house could have seemed too cloying had not their comfortable family scenes been shown through the lens of Grace’s intense desire to play a role in their daily life.  Grace’s introduction to the outlandish world of New York art students almost had me convinced that she was really an innocent country girl at heart, had she not then betrayed the only truly innocent country heart in the whole novel soon after.  Even in Paris, where I thought she was trying to become a better person, Grace – or Julie – has a really big trick up her sleeve.

The plot twists weren’t nearly so clever as those in The Goldfinch, which stopped my heart, but Unbecoming does have a plot that might appeal to fans of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner.  This is a much lighter book, without the deft touches of characterization, but there’s old stuff and plotting and best friends who make enemies superfluous. Plus, women being mysterious in Paris!  The differences between Garland – where everyone knew everyone, where Riley painted pictures of beloved buildings that the whole town called “art”, where Grace thought she would be a good wife in her favorite family – and Paris were jarring and nicely done.  I closed the book feeling a little annoyed at the note on which it ended, which was satisfying if not terribly thoughtful, but I also wished, at the end, that Grace had been able to experience Paris the way she dreamed she would: with her husband, loving the scenery, absorbing the art.

That’s not how unhappy women being mysterious in Paris end up, though.  Grace gets what she deserves, and I’ll admit that the person she becomes at the end of Unbecoming is much more her style – more glamorous, happily manipulative, and even more mysterious than before.

Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris Part I : In The Café Of Lost Youth

in_the_cafe_of_lost_youth_1024x1024

In The Café Of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

When one of my favorite regulars at the Bookshop recently asked me what I’d been reading, the only thing I could think to say was, “Mostly novels about unhappy women being mysterious in Paris.” What a genre! It turns out that there are all sorts of enjoyable books on the subject, and for a week I was stuck on them. Something about the notion of disappearing into a city full of history and art, seedy cafes and “neutral zones,” clearly appeals to morose young women struck by wanderlust. Louki and Grace (from Unbecoming, the next book I will review) feel it as they try to camouflage themselves within the scenery in their novels. And I felt it too, reading from my unseasonably damp corner of New England.

In The Café Of Lost Youth is the first Modiano novel I’ve read, though he blipped onto my radar with his Nobel Prize win in 2014. It’s a short little book, just over a hundred pages, but reading it made me feel like I’ve lived in Paris for years. The novel is broken into four sections, each narrated by a different character, but it all revolves around Louki, “the waiflike figure” who draws their interest like planets circling a sun. Even the section narrated by Louki makes her only more attractively unfathomable. Aside from Louki, In The Café Of Lost Youth also considers the places where the atmosphere broadcasts exactly what part of Paris you are in versus the places where time has no dominion.

“There was a series of transitional zones in Paris, no man’s lands where we were on the border of everything else, in transit, or even held suspended. Within, we benefitted from a certain kind of immunity. I might have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more precise.” (p 83)

These neutral zones could exist anywhere, and it’s easy to see their appeal to people looking to hide out from their pasts. Louki, who makes a habit of disappearing from whatever family life begins to form around her, sort of becomes the patron saint of these places. Roland, who struggles to put his thoughts about these spaces into words, is powerfully moved by their potential, struck by their propensity for the “eternal return”. On the other hand, certain scenes near the Moulin Rouge; on certain hilly streets; or in the cafe where we meet our characters for the first time, are so vivid they could never be neutral for a moment.

I particularly like the first narrator’s description of the Conde; he a shy student entranced by the regulars:

“Along with Le Bouquet and La Pergola, it was one of the cafes in the neighborhood that closed the latest, and the one with the strangest clientele. I often ask myself now that time has passed, if it wasn’t her presence alone that gave this place and these people their strangeness, as if she had impregnated them all with her scent.” (p 7)

I’ve no clue if the characters make the settings in this book, or if the settings amplify the characters, but the sense of place is a fine reflection of both. While the writing occasionally becomes sorrowful, hung up on the unattainable past, Modiano finds the perfect location for every scene and redeems the tone with astonishing details.

After reading, I learned that some of the characters were real people among the political and bohemian set in 1950s Paris. Ed van der Elsken’s photos are a great illustration of the novel’s atmosphere and characters. Not knowing the first thing about the theoretical groups of this time period didn’t stop me from enjoying the abstract conversations and tangled gossip at Condé. Being a chronic cafe-dweller myself, I relished every scene that took place at regulars’ tables or in garish late night public spaces. The novel, especially the first narrator’s chapter, is immensely satisfying for the eavesdropper in all of us.

My one major gripe with In The Café Of Lost Youth has to do with its conclusion. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that there are a few events which seem to befall beguiling, unpredictable young women in novels written by men. It’s gotten to the point that every time a character such as Louki – ethereal, charming, secretive – gets introduced into a male narrator’s story, I hold my breath and hope she won’t be just another chick who does something drastic, teaching dudes that they can never really know a person. Modiano is a tremendous writer and handled Louki’s character very well, I thought, but he does give her one of the plot twists I was dreading just at the end of the story. Does this make since given her character? Sure. But I still think that enigmatic women deserve a few more options at the end of their stories.

In perusing his Wikipedia page, I’ve learned that the majority of Modiano’s novels deal with the reigning themes I detected in The Cafe. Questioning identity, the puzzling permanence of time, the unknowable nature of people, all in a French accent. (A note: Modiano’s Wikipedia page is actually quite interesting to read.) If all of his books send me into a similar stupor of introspective moodiness, I might wait a while before picking up another one. But I felt right at home among the cafe tables and the midnight streets, so the next time I want a mental trip to vintage Paris, I know where to look.