Pure by Andrew Miller

With a view of eighteenth century Paris that usually does not appear in novels, Andrew Miller uses the cemetery at Les Innocents as the setting for Pure.  Paris, at the time when Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were Americans abroad, was stinking from the sludge of a fourth century burial ground that was a money-maker for the church – until its decaying rot seeped into everything – even the water.  King Louis XVI finally ordered its closing.  Based on real events, Pure has all the draw of the French political intrigue before the Revolution, while chronicling one of the many transformations of Paris.

Although he tells his family in Normandy that he is overseeing structural changes to the church to improve the health of those living in the quarter, the young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, plans the removal of the bones, the total demolition of the church building, and a purification of the grounds to remove the unearthly smell from the open graves and decomposing bodies.  The story follows Baratte through a year “of bones, grave-dirt, relentless work… mummified corpses and chanting priests…rape, suicide, sudden death”; he also finds love and friendship.

Les Innocents Cemetery

Miller’s imagery is so good, you will smell the stench from the rotting grounds and the breath of those who live nearby.  As the story unfolds, Baratte’s task becomes a metaphor for the cleansing of the old French aristocratic rot, with references to the famous uprising that is brewing – Dr. Guillotin plays a minor role in the action.  But the story that kept me reading was that of the young country boy facing his first real job –  a horrible one that he cannot quit – although he tries.   He changes through the experience – just like the landscape – and it was a pleasure to follow Miller’s tale of historical fiction.

Books That Shaped America

A new exhibit – Books That Shaped America – opens today at the Library of Congress.  A good friend alerted me to this celebration of reading through Michael Dirda’s article in The Washington Post – Library of Congress Wonderfully Diverse List of Books That Shaped America.

Books date from 1751 with Benjamin Franklin’s “Experiments and Observations on Electricity” to “The Words of César Chávez” in 2002, and the list includes 88 titles – 27 published before 1900.

Some recognizable classics include:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”
  • Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”
  • Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”
  • Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
  • L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”
  • Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”

Some that might not make a classics list were included too:

  • Irma Rombauer’s “Joy of Cooking”
  • Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  • Benjamin Spock’s “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care”
  • Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat”

Among the modern entries:

  • Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”
  • Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

Read the complete list – here.  How many have you read?

The Washington Wives’ Book Club

Children’s books – “by women named Gingrich, Cheney, and Biden. Could this be an election year?”

Doesn’t take much to have a children’s book published lately – writing talent is not a prerequisite. In Pamela Paul’s article for the New York Times Book Review – The Washington Wives’ Book Club – the list of new bestselling authors married to politicians has exploded. No royalties for these scribners – profits usually go to charities (hopefully not politically connected).  Their reward is a modicum of respectable literacy (until you read the book in some cases).

Famous Americans writing children’s books is not new; Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge wrote Hero Tales From American History six years before Roosevelt became President. Today, some politicians’ wives consider writing a children’s book a perk of position. Lynne Cheney, when wife of the former vice president, wrote six children’s books, all exploring American history. Unfortunately, they all carried a skewed political view – unlike the classic children’s series by Jean Fritz who added humor to Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and other American heroes, without the didactic underpinnings.

Carole Geithner (wife of the current Treasury Secretary), has a new book, and notes “I want people to read the book for the topic (a teenage girl coping with her mother’s death from cancer)… rather than an extension of {my husband’s} persona.” If she were serious about standing on her own, she would use a pseudonym; singer Julie Andrews writes under her less-known married name – Julie Edwards.

Children may be tolerant literary critics, but they are discriminating.   They are grateful to anyone who will sit and read a story; remember President George W. Bush’s reading of “The Pet Goat”?  But for a child to ask for the story to be read again, it better be a good one.

When I taught a course on children’s literature, at least half the students in the class had the dream of writing the next Charlotte’s Web – and often proffered their drafts to me in high hopes of getting published.  But writing good children’s literature is not as easy as it seems.  Regardless of quality, for the politically inclined, getting a byline is easier.

Not everyone can write a good children’s book, but these days anyone can get one published.

Steve Jobs Day

Steve Jobs haunting face appeared every time I turn on my Apple computer, until finally I changed the default page.  Today is Steve Jobs Day; promoters are suggesting you wear a black turtleneck and jeans; you might also want to go barefoot.  Accolades to this genius who revolutionized communication are still seeping into the networks, but Maureen Dowd’s recent column on Jobs’ family background – Prospero’s Tempestuous Family – inspired me to find a new author – Mona Simpson.

Money can buy secrecy or reinvent a public face, but evidently, it still doesn’t buy happiness.  Dowd summarized Steve Jobs’ background as an illegitimate child abandoned by his college student parents to adoption in the fifties, and then his search for them in later years to find not only his mother, married and then divorced from his birth father, but also a sister, who had become a novelist – Mona Simpson.

In Mona Simpson’s roman à clef, A Regular Guy, Steve Jobs is disguised as Tom Owens.  Like Jobs, he dropped out of college, created a multimillion dollar business at a young age, and abandoned his own illegitimate child – a daughter.  Within the first 50 pages, Simpson had already presented a chilling image of the protagonist – a brilliant entrepreneur who carefully constructed his emotionless life; the prose and the story were gossipy but not compelling to read.

Walter Isaacson, biographer of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, has his biography of Steve Jobs ready for publication this month.  It will be interesting to see how much of the family drama he includes.