Forbidden Notebook

Years ago a good friend advised me to destroy my journal pages soon after I wrote them, especially if I had used them to vent anger or frustration. Of course, I did not follow her advice. In the introduction to Alba de Cespedes Forbidden Notebook, Jhumpa Lahiri reminds the reader that “ whether intended for publication or not…(diaries and notebooks) are all dialogues with the self. They are instances of self-doubting and self-fashioning. They are declarations of autonomy…”

Recently I found a few old journals in a stack of papers I was going through to decide which could be shredded or tossed. When I read through them, I understood why Jane Austen had left instructions for her sister to destroy her notes after death. I realized I did not want anyone reading my thoughts from years ago when what seemed insurmountable then, feels irrelevant and unimportant now. So I finally took my friend’s advice and shredded them.

The book takes the form of a series of diary entries made by 43-year-old Valeria Cossati in Rome in 1950. She is wife to Michele and a mother of two grown-up children, Mirella and Riccardo. She also has an office job.

One Sunday morning she goes to the tobacconist to buy cigarettes for her husband when she notices a pile of notebooks in the window – “black, shiny, thick, the type used in school”. When she asks to buy one, the tobacconist tells her it is forbidden, as by law he is only allowed to sell tobacco on Sundays. She pleads and he gives in, insisting she “hide it under her coat” so the guard doesn’t spot it. At home Valeria continues to keep her notebook hidden from her family.

By the end of the novel, Valeria decides to destroy the journal, but she can’t eliminate so easily the self- knowledge she’s gleaned from writing it. She writes: “I know that my reactions to the facts I write down in detail lead me to know myself more intimately every day,..The better I know myself, the more lost I become. Besides, I don’t know what feelings could stand up to a ruthless, continuous analysis; or who among us, reflected in every action, could be satisfied with ourselves.”

The book written in 1952 has just been published in a new translation, and its focus on women’s rights and struggles still resonates today. Clare Thorp in her review for the BBC says: “The things that she discovers, she sees, it’s what we all struggle with still, and that was a little alarming. Immediately you’re just so pulled into it and engaged, it’s just amazing. I just feel like everybody should read this book.”

As Valeria struggles to find a safe place for her notebook and her private thoughts, it’s hard not to think of Virginia Woolf’s famous line of a woman needing a room of her own. In Valeria’s world, as with many women, there is no place for her husband and children to see her other than who she is in relationship to them. Having her own life and thoughts is unimaginable and unacceptable to them. The notebook becomes the place where she explores who she really is and is her only private space.

Ms. Demeanor

Elinor Lipton is one of my favorite writers and her latest novel Ms. Demeanor adds to her collection of quirky fun stories. The book started with a scene reminding me of actor Matthew McConaughey being arrested for playing bongo drums on his own balcony – naked. Like McConaughey, Lipton’s heroine Jane is arrested for being naked on her balcony. The story just gets more hilarious.

After being convicted of indecent exposure with a fellow lawyer on her rooftop terrace, Jane has her law license suspended for six months, is fitted with an ankle monitor, and confined to her apartment building in New York City. When her accuser, a prim spinster with binoculars from the building across the street dies suddenly, Jane becomes a murder suspect.

The romance in the story involves Perry, who has received a similar sentence and ankle bracelet for concealing a tea pot lid at the famous auction house where he was an art handler. Luckily, both Jane and Perry live in the same building, and use their six month confinement to fall in love.

Lipton inserts a variety of funny foils to keep the story moving, including Jane’s recipes on Tik Tok, wealthy Polish immigrants with expired visas, and a possible murder in a penthouse. Lots of fun, with twists and turns leading to a happy ending.

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

This short work has all the elements of a noir detective mystery, while also being disturbing and haunting. Having read about the famous Nobel Prize winner but never having read one of his works, I decided So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, published in 2015, translated from French, was the place to start.

The novel focuses on an aging, reclusive author named Jean Daragane living alone in his Paris apartment. One day he is disturbed by a telephone call from a stranger, Gilles Ottolini, who has found Daragane’s lost address book and presses him about a long-forgotten name in it, Guy Torstel, whose name appears in Daragane’s first novel.

Although he cannot immediately remember Torstel, Jean nevertheless finds himself reading through a dossier about a 1951 murder case, given to him by Gilles’s girlfriend, Chantal Grippay, These papers have names that were once familiar to him, including Torstel. Slowly, a half-forgotten history unfolds. Daragane begins to remember periods in his past when, abandoned by his parents, he lived with the showgirl-courtesan Annie on the outskirts of Paris. He recalls “secret staircases and hidden doors”; Modiano hints at a murder, a cover-up, a flight to Italy – a quietly haunting search for the truth of a postwar French childhood, where nothing is certain.

The ending of the novel comes abruptly, leaving the reader wondering which of Daragane’s memories are accurate and which have been embellished from childhood reveries. More importantly, Modiano leaves the reader with the question of how reliable memory is, and how an event or word can trigger long buried or forgotten recollections. I seem to have more of those these days – finding an old photo that recreates a moment long ago. Recently, a comment from someone I have not seen for years brought tears to my eyes, as I recalled a peripheral experience I thought I had forgotten. Or, as Modiano might posit, maybe had not happened at all, except in a dream.

Modiano’s story effectively nudged me from the seemingly unresolved detective story I was reading into thoughtful and sometimes haunting musings in unexpected directions. Short, confusing, and powerful. I will look for more of his complicated, shape-shifting novels.

Perhaps the best way to understand Modiano is to heed the Stendhall epigraph he provides in the beginning pages: “I cannot provide the reality of events; I only convey their shadow.”

Addendum

It seems I have read not only this author but also this book – before in 2015 and 2017. Maybe that only makes the case for memory being unreliable.

Nora Goes Off Script

Formula romances are the Hallmark of a favorite streaming movie channel, and you may have wondered, as I have, who writes these happy ever after romantic comedies, always ending in a chaste kiss. In Nora Goes Off Script, Annabel Monaghan’s heroine not only writes the scripts, she lives them.

In a comedy that follows the formula, Nora meets the handsome hero, a movie star who decides to stay in her backyard tea house to get a taste of how real people live. Of course, he gets involved with the local school play; they fall in love; he leaves to film another movie. After a surprise misunderstanding is revealed, they all live happily ever after.

To keep it timely, she wins an Oscar for her writing, accepting in her six inch heels.

A fun diversion when you need it – just like watching one of those movies.

Flight

Lynn Steger Strong’s Flight centers around a family gathering for the first Chirstmas after the matriarch Helen dies. Maybe it would have been better to read the story around the holidays after watching Home Alone, or maybe the misbegotten grief seemed artificial after having recently experienced it. I read through the book in a couple of days, but was left feeling empty at the end.

The three adult siblings, Martin, Henry, and Kate descend on a house in upstate New York to reconstruct a Christmas that will never be the same since their mother has recently died. Her recipes, her family games, her words of wisdom – all haunt the narrative as they struggle to avoid the usual family squabbles and tension. Helen’s house in Florida provides the bone of contention. Martin, the eldest and a professor recently placed on leave for his inappropriate comments to a student, and his wife, a successful but driven lawyer, want to sell and split the profits. Henry, an artist with a surreal attachment to the environment, and his wife, a former artist but now social worker to pay the bills, want to donate the land to the adjacent national bird sanctuary, and Kate, the youngest, wants the house for herself and her family to live in. Somehow, they thought Christmas would bring them all together and they would more easily come to an agreement. You may wonder what they were thinking, but this is fiction.

Mixed in with the angst and family tension are Quinn, a twenty-three year old recovering drug addict, and her daughter Maddie, both under the care of social worker Alice, who has never been able to have children of her own. This is Alice’s house, and she is a good Auntie, entertaining her nephews and nieces, making gingerbread slabs, buying sleds, and yearning to be a good surrogate mother to Maddie.

The conversations among the adults are anxious and sometimes unnerving, as they try to navigate their own issues as well as their place in a family. Most of the novel has the aspect of a weekly TV series, plodding along with everyday minutia, until Quinn leaves her young daughter alone to go out for a beer, and Maddie goes missing. The overnight search in the snow and forest brings out more inner turmoil among the adults, until a supposedly happy ending brings Christmas mercifully to an end.

The book would certainly provide good fodder for discussion at a book club with its epic family saga vibe and the unique character development offering perspective into sibling rivalry and loyalty. Let me know what you think of it after you read it.