In Search of the Unknown Island

After rereading Jose Saramago’s slim Tale of the Unknown Island again this morning, I wondered if Saramago, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, had ever found a good alternative to reality, or if he just kept searching throughout his life.

The Tale of the Unknown Island is a fifty-one page allegory with the width of my iPhone but with the breadth of a sharp and timely political treatise. Two brave people under the rule of a malevolent king find courage with one another to search for a better life.  I marked the page with the words: “this is the way fate usually treats us, it’s there right behind us, it has already reached out a hand to touch us on the shoulder while we’re still muttering to ourselves.” In the end, they sail away in a boat, content and hopeful, looking for the Unknown Island they’ve already found in each other.

I looked for Saramago’s life story and found In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Saramago recalls the inspiration of his grandfather – “The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write.”

Saramago recalled he wrote Blindness (a morbid tale but appropriate for our times) “to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures...trying to exorcise the monsters generated by the blindness of reason, {he} started writing the simplest of all stories: one person is looking for another, because he has realised that life has nothing more important to demand from a human being.”

Saramago’s stories are full of parables, stories with lessons civilization evidently still has to learn. Find The Tale of the Unknown Island.  This short tale may offer some hope.

Read my review of Blindness here.

Related Information: Saramago’s Nobel Lecture

Books to Give Away

Although I have many ebooks on my phone, I have combined my attempt to support independent bookstores and my yearning to hold pages in my hands with a ton of books now crowding my shelves.  Since the library is not accepting donations, I need to disperse my collection some other way.  Maybe this year everyone I know will receive one of my books (only read once, some pages only slightly turned over, few markings in the margins) – the perfect used Christmas gift.  They should be safe to read, although they have not been tested and some of the contents may have contagious ideas.

Here’s my list of two dozen – want any?

  1. The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian
  2. The Second Home by Christina Clancy
  3. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings
  4. The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black
  5. Feels Like Falling by Kristy Woodson Harvey
  6. Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
  7. Beach Read by Emily Henry
  8. Dumpty by John Lithgow
  9. Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel
  10. Naamah by Sarah Blake
  11. Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
  12. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum
  13. The Confession by Jessie Burton
  14. No Time to Spare by Ursula LeGuin
  15. I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam
  16. How to Find Love in A Bookshop by Veronica Henry
  17. Hell and Other Destinations by Madeleine Albright
  18. Weather by Jenny Offill
  19. Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
  20. Inland by Tea Obrecht
  21. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman
  22. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookshop by Matthew Sullivan
  23. Miss Austen by Gil Hornby
  24. Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan

What books are on your giveaway shelf?

 

Paris By The Book – A Virtual Escape

I desperately needed to get away and quietly sitting on my shelf for over a year, Liam Callanan’s Paris By The Book‘s red cover finally caught my attention and gave me a first class ticket to my favorite city.  Callanan’s descriptions of Paris were as real as being there, as I relived walking the cobblestones streets, climbing up to Montmartre, and eating the buttery croissants.

Of course, the virus is everywhere these days, even in Paris, but escaping to a time and place before the pandemic spoiled everything in the city of Madeline and The Red Balloon offered a respite from reality.

Callahan creates a story around a Wisconsin woman with her two daughters who travel to Paris to find the husband/father who disappeared one morning, never returning from a jog.  He was a writer who would sometimes go away for days to nurture his muse and overcome his creative burnout from tending to the boring essentials of daily life.  He had not written a book in a long time, while his wife supported the family as a speech writer for a university.  At first, his family thinks he just went away on one of his writeaways.

Months later, after finding an itinerary code in a box of cereal, Leah and her daughters follow Richard’s clue to Paris, where they think he might have gone.  On the last day of their Paris vacation, they find a bookstore for sale and reinvent their lives.  Always on the alert for Richard, the girls and Leah sometimes think they see him but he eludes them, as they carry on with their new lives in Paris.

The book teases with clues, keeping the reader off balance, wondering whether or not Richard is alive or in Paris.  The suspense of the search lends impetus to the plot, yet it’s Callanan’s descriptions of the family’s new life in Paris keeping the mood sublime.  Paris is practically perfect, and its problems can be easily overcome in the interest of living out the fantasy of owning a bookstore there. Callanan does solve the mystery of Richard in the end, but not as I had expected.

Books, of course, are central to the surroundings, as Callanan offers classic titles as well as children’s books stacked in Leah’s English language bookshop in Paris called The Late Edition.  The famous Shakespeare and Company has a cameo in the book, and later the author explains in his afterward its significance as well as the real bookstore in Paris he almost bought.

Two famous children’s stories and their authors weave through the story – Ludwig Bemelmans with his famous Madeline stories and Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, both the book and the movie.  I had to stop to revisit both.  The Red Balloon movie is on Amazon, with short clips on YouTube. Watch it and raise your spirits instantly.

Leah and Richard first meet and form a relationship over these children’s books; later they read the books and biographies of the authors to their daughters, and through the stories they pass on their love of Paris to their children.  The dream is to visit Paris someday.

I read this book slowly.  These days I have no place to hurry to, and finding a story with familiar scenes  I can relish was a balm I was reluctant to end. Paris By The Book transported me to another place, another time, another life. It was nice to dream of being there for a while.  

 

Women’s Dreams, Decisions, and Defaults

How do choices decide a lifetime?  Two books, sitting for months on my shelf, turned out to be similar in addressing the answer.

The Confession by Jessie Burton

In The Confession, Jessie Burton, the author of The Miniaturist, uses a well-used relationship theme in the lives of two women – one older and famous, the other young and impressionable.  Burton’s story has some of the same elements as Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorite books) but lacks the page-turning thrills I craved.

The plot alternates from present day Rose, searching for her mother in 2017 to her mother Elise’s story as a young woman 35 years earlier.  Elise abandoned Rose when she was a baby, to be raised by her father, who claims not to know why she left or where she went. The secret drives the story, as Rose disguises herself to work as an assistant to her mother’s former lover, a famous novelist who has not written in thirty-five years, hoping to discover more.  Both Rose and Elise have no self-confidence as young women, and both seem to be searching for something or someone to take charge of their lives.

Rose finds Joe, a wannabe restaurant owner, and muddles through years of a bland relationship.  Elise finds love with Constance until Connie betrays her with another woman; in revenge Elsie has an affair with a married man and becomes pregnant with Rose. Both have complicated lives, accentuated with decisions which change their futures.

Burton’s agenda for asserting women’s rights becomes lost in the circumstances, but the search for closure kept me reading.  Sadly, Rose only finds her mother peripherally – not very satisfying, but the open ending leaves possibilities.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Although I’m not a fan of Weiner’s books, this one is signed and had been sitting on my shelf since I missed her author luncheon last year, and it turned out to be a good complement to The Confession.

Mrs. Everything alternates between two sisters, Jo and Bethie (Weiner’s little women), as they grow up in the 1950s era of family values, find their way through the turbulent sixties, until finally landing as adults in suburban Connecticut and a feminist collective in Atlanta.  Elizabeth Egan for the New York Times notes:

Weiner tells the story of the women’s rights movement and the sexual awakening of a woman coming of age at a time when being attracted to women would keep her at the fringes of the world she was raised to join. She opts for the safe route, making unimaginable sacrifices along the way, especially on behalf of her sister, who finds the freedom to live the life they both wanted.

Weiner often cringes when her books are called chick lit or beach reads, and  Mrs. Everything seems heavy on the issues for such a label,

but my next book really is a beach read – says so in the title.  I’ve started reading, and so far, it seems to be a romantic comedy starring Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner in their famous literary feud. The two main characters are writers, accidentally living in houses across from each other and each has a summer to write a book.  To encourage a new muse in their writing, they agree to write in the other’s genre.  The Franzen character, known in the book as serious Gus, will write a happily-ever-after romance, and the Weiner character, with the name January Andrews agrees to write serious stuff.

Should be fun…

 

If You Wait Long Enough, It Becomes a Paperback

Before the pandemic started I read a book by Benjamin Black about two young English princesses evacuated to Ireland during World War II – The Secret Guests.  I meant to pass it on to an old friend who likes war stories with a little romance and intrigue.  As it sat on my shelf over the months, I wondered how I would get it to her, since she is now protected from having visitors, and I was reluctant to stand in a post office line to mail a book.  Suddenly, I saw Black’s book on a paperback list, and I mailed it to my friend from one of my favorite independent bookstores.  At once, I was able to support a small business and thrill an old friend.

Benjamin Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville.  As Benjamin Black he combines mystery and crime in easy-to-read novels.    If you are a devoted viewer of The Crown and a fan of all things royal, this story will feed your curiosity about imagined conversations of the future Queen of England and her sister.  Short and fun.

Paperbacks are stacked on my shelf too, and here’s one I liberated.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop 

Veronica Henry’s slim novel carried me away on an imaginary trip to some of my favorite places – Oxford, Cotswold, and a side trip to Daphne du Maurier’s Fowey.  As charming as its name, Nightingale Books is the center for observing the lives of the town’s characters as they meander through a series of romantic interludes  and some intrigue.

Henry’s predictable storyline is a comfort to follow.  I yearned to be in the bookshop, browsing through its shelves and listening to the owner’s recommendations – Tove Jansson’s adventures in Finn Family Moomintroll sounds inviting.   And the cozy restaurant serving gourmet meals for only two at a time, seems perfect in this time of hazardous restaurant eating.    I could almost taste the “pear mousse, light and fluffy, with a warm rich chocolate sauce in the middle.”