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.  

 

Daisy, Madeleine, Oona, Sartre and Others

One of the good things about not being able to go anywhere is that you have permission to stay put and not go anywhere.  For me, it means I don’t have to make excuses when turning down invitations, and can feel content staying in to read or nap.  It’s not always easy to find a book when browsing is limited but good friends and family usually pass along a few titles, and there’s always my stash on my shelf, thin paperbacks I had planned to take with me on a plane before my travel stopped, or heavy hardbacks I keep putting off until I have the time or inclination.

What are you reading these days?     Here are a few I’ve read lately:

Daisy Jones and the Six

Someone suggested Taylor Jones Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six was a feel good novel to read, so I downloaded the ebook.  Reid’s fictional oral history of a seventies rock band based on Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks was a good distraction, but I couldn’t help stopping to look for the characters in real life, and listening to the real music.

With some of the best lyrics ever written, Fleetwood Mac’s songs resonate still and finding old favorites played live by the band over the years (thanks to you tube) did lift my soul.  Based on the lives of the band members, it’s sometimes hard to remember the story is fictional.  Using the construct of oral history, Reid lends more credibility to the story, and not all the characters match reality, but when she deftly records how the same incidents are remembered differently by the band members, I wondered what had really happened and had to pause to look it up.  Who knows what was going on inside the heads of Lindsay Cunningham and Stevie Nicks, but the Daisy Jones character comes close to having the reader believe Reid knew.

Friends and Strangers

This was another zoom book for me – a book discussion with the author sponsored by an independent bookstore.  I read Friends and Strangers quickly to be able to make the deadline of the meeting, so I may have missed some of the nuances, but J. Courtney Sullivan charmed me as she was interviewed by the bookstore owner in Cape Cod, with the sound of her young children playing in the background.

Ron Charles wrote an incomparable review for the Washington Post you can read by clicking on the link here.  Like many women, having been both a mother who depended on babysitters and a babysitter myself, I connected to both perspectives in the story.  But Sullivan hits on many more issues as she explores class differences,  age disparity in friendships, and immigration.

Hell and Other Destinations 

I have been having breakfast with Madeleine – not the sweet French girl who romps through Paris – but the formidable former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  In her latest memoir, Hell and Other Destinations, Albright has a conversation with the reader about the latest chapter in her life.  The lesson learned is a familiar one – it’s not over until you say so.

Although Albright has authored several books, I have not read one until now.  With the country reeling from the virus, the demonstrations, and the barrage of news, this seems like a good time to listen to a woman who has the voice of reason in her timbre.  Of course, I found the pictures in the center of the book first.  My favorites were Albright sharing a laugh with television’s Madame Secretary, Tea Leoni, and a young Albright ready for college in 1958.

Albright introduces each chapter with a humorous lesson-filled anecdote before chronicling her experiences. In 2001, Albright retired as Secretary of State but continued reinventing herself as an author, a professor, a speaker and a supporter of the Democratic Party.  She takes this memoir through both of Hillary Clinton’s runs for President, remarking on her friend’s abilities as she goes and using her famous line for her book title.  She ends in 2019 with Trump but before the pandemic changed everything.

Her career has had the benefits of networking and connections, but Sanger in his review for the New York Times noted her frustration in the current political climate when he ended with:

” {Albright} got a call in 2017 from Mike Pompeo, the incoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who would soon be promoted to her old office at State. Albright had long served on the C.I.A.’s external advisory board. ‘He thanked me for my service,’ she writes. ‘Then he fired me.’ “

Ooona Out of Order
Margarita Montimore’s age-swap story sometimes had me feeling off balance.  Oona time travels every year on her birthday but not chronologically.  At 18, she travels to her life as a middle aged woman, beginning her quirky adventure. Each year she hops through decades, picking up much-needed stock tips to maintain a life style without working,  but Oona is still a young woman on the inside while changing on the outside.
If you can resist trying to decipher why she is time traveling, and can ignore the obvious anachronisms, you will enjoy Oona’s struggle to adapt to the eighties and nineties and the twenty-first century while she is still mentally back somewhere in the seventies.  The moral of the story is of course to live in the moment and appreciate every day.

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
I became a fan of author Sarah Bakewell while reading How to Live: or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  If you have not read the book, now is the time.  Check out my review HERE.
Over a few of my own cocktails while reading At the Existentialist Cafe, I found myself swept away by thinkers – so rare in these times – Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger.  Don’t worry if you slept through Philosophy 101 in college and barely recognize some of the names. Bakewell’s narrative will have you appreciating how exciting it is to think and ask questions.

The Fountains of Silence

In The Fountains of Silence, Ruta Sepetys unpeals the layers of horror inside Francisco Franco’s Spain.  His dictatorship lasted over 30 years, while Europe turned a blind eye and the United States made deals to profit itself, often at the expense of Spain’s poorer citizens.  Within the context of a Spanish family still suffering the consequences of the 1930’s Civil War in 1950, and a young American blissfully ignorant in his bubble of wealth and privilege, Sepetys writes a story with sound historical notes.

Photography and romance wield strong influences on the young hero, eighteen year old Daniel Matheson, when he returns to Madrid to visit his mother’s homeland with his Texas oil baron father.  The newly constructed Hilton creates a backdrop for privileged American businessmen and their families, while the underbelly of the building keeps the secrets of the impoverished locals who serve as maids and bellboys.  Daniel falls for Ana, the hotel maid assigned to his family, and through her discovers the hidden world of Franco’s Spain.

Sepetys periodically inserts letters and speeches with quotes from real sources, providing a provocative perspective on how the American government and capitalist leaders forgave fascism to do business with Franco’s regime. The well researched details brought Franco’s Spain and its people to life, while reflecting greed, political corruption, and the determination to overcome them.

At the heart of the story is an ongoing mystery. Babies are separated from their parents at birth and redistributed as orphans to be adopted by more “desirable” families.  Daniel becomes inadvertently involved in the intrigue and tries to use his photojournalism to stem the corruption before he returns to Texas, but without success.

The ending jumps to twenty years later, with Franco dead and  Daniel returning to Spain with his younger sister.  The finale is both romantic and nostalgic, with hopes for a promising future for both the characters and the country finally resurrected from years of oppression.

This was a time and place I knew little about, and I found it an easy way to learn history, while enjoying a love story with a happy ending.

 

Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?

Chances Are…

Do you have a friend you haven’t seen in years, yet when you finally get together, you fall into a comfortable conversation as though you had seen each other just yesterday?  Good friends are like that.

In Richard Russo’s Chances Are... three college friends reunite on Martha’s Vineyard after years apart, and find they connect as they had years earlier, with an easy camaraderie but haunted by the ghost of the woman they all loved.  The old Johnny Mathis song in the book title creates the theme for Richard Russo’s latest story of relationships as Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey struggle through a long weekend of memories and surprising revelations.

I always imagine Paul Newman as one of Russo’s character, reprising his role in the movie adaptation of Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool.” None of the three main characters in Chances Are seem to have Newman’s charisma but together they present a dazzling composite.  Lincoln is a successful realtor in Las Vegas, who has inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from his mother, and is now considering selling it. Teddy is owner of a small publishing house in upstate New York, who suffers from debilitating episodes.  Mickey, who went to Canada for a few years to avoid the Vietnam War draft, is a musician living on the island.

As their pasts are revealed, fathers figure prominently in their influence, all strangely different for each man, from Lincoln’s strict Calvinist father who tolerated no one, to Teddy’s pseudo intellectual father who had no time for anyone, to Mickey’s father of a large family who expected his youngest child and only son to follow his lead.  But the key character and major influence on the three college boys who bonded over working as hashers in a sorority house on campus was one of those sorority sisters – Jacy.  A seemingly free spirit, Jacy was the mascot to their group – their fourth Musketeer.

The mystery of Jacy’s disappearance years ago provides the suspense as the story evolves around the discovery of what really happened.  Russo delivers a surprising solution in his big reveal at the end of the novel, but the satisfaction of reading how each man developed and maintained a sense of community overwhelms the finale.

Russo, with acerbic wit and irreverence balances stories of his characters coming of age after college with their inevitable struggles as they are entering old age years later when they meet again. Their bond seems to have been the girl but Russo confirms they still have a strong connection beyond their youthful adoration of Jacy. They were there for each other as young men and Russo refreshes their connection years later.  Can their friendship last after all the secrets are revealed? Chances are their chances are awfully good…