The Black Notebook

9780544779822_p0_v3_s192x300 French writer Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel prize for Literature, creates a film noir atmosphere in The Black Notebook.  Obscure scribblings in a writer’s notebook  trigger scenes from the seedier side of Paris, and Modiano  keeps the reader off balance by jumping from past to present to dream sequences.  Despite its short length, The Black Notebook is complicated and intriguing.

The story of The Black Notebook revolves around the narrator’s attempt to discover what became of Dannie, a mysterious woman he met in Paris nearly half a century earlier.  When he met Dannie, Jean called himself a “spectator,” noting down everything in his black notebook, which he uses to recall their time together years earlier.

Dannie associates with the “Montparnasse gang,” a shady group of criminals who help her get a place to live and provide her with false identity papers. What she does in return is left unsaid. Although a police detective, Langlais, warns Jean to beware of the gang and exposes Dannie’s many aliases, Jean continues to help Dannie with her strange requests and yearns to run away with her – despite her confession of having killed a man.  Dannie disappears and Jean grows into a famous author, but years later, he bumps into the police inspector who reveals the answers to most of his unanswered questions.

Modiano’s short book reads like a meditation on memory – what we remember and how convoluted it becomes over the years.  The mystery of Dannie is never really solved, and the author ends with more unsettling questions.

The Black Notebook may be a book for our times with its confusion, uncertainty, and elusive promises.  In the end, Jean advises – “…don’t fret about it…”

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood


Have you ever lost some of your “Contacts” as you tried to transfer them from one iPhone to another, as I did?  Would your back-up be the Cloud or an old address book buried in a desk drawer?  In Patrick Modiano’s So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, the lost and found address book becomes the premise for a threatening mystery involving possible murder, blackmail, and a lost past.

Although the story is short, it requires attention to follow the trail, and to decipher the real focus.  The two sinister characters who find the address book and demand information on a name in the book are only vehicles to Daragne’s uncovering a dark childhood secret, but this is not immediately apparent.  The characters fade and disappear as Daragne’s detective-like hunt for clues to incidents evading his memory reappear.

In the first lines of the novel, the real premise is set – a small catalyst (losing an address book) may trigger the path to repressed memories.

“Almost nothing. Like an insect bite that initially strikes you as very slight. At least that is what you tell yourself in a low voice so as to reassure yourself.”

Daragne is telling the story as an older man, a respected and popular novelist – like the author.  As he begins to remember important names and places, he questions his own memory.  How often does memory trick us into a different version than what actually happened?  The story picks up pace, and the evidence pointing to a childhood trauma finally emerges.  The end comes abruptly, with more questions than answers.

Maybe because the novel is translated from the French and is set in Paris, the language has a smoldering aura mixed with the flavor of a film noir.  I  could envision the main character, Jean Daragane, sitting quietly, sipping coffee in an outdoor cafe, as he remembers people and places threatening to upend his life.

Kaiama Glover’s article in the New York Times Book Review section drew me to this small book (155 pages) – a novel promising to reveal the revered author, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. In his summary of the book, Glover notes:

“{the book is} rife with explicit allusions to the real life of Patrick Modiano, as told in his memoir a decade earlier, the narrative {chronicling} the efforts of an isolated and aging novelist to confront an elusive past.”

Although Modiano has a loyal following for his mysteries in France, and has written over thirty books, this author was new to me. So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood is a compelling read – despite the red herrings and McGuffins in the mystery.  Modiano does not follow the formula for mystery – he breaks it – and creates a suspenseful and thoughtful dilemma. Deciphering the possibilities would make for a great book discussion.


Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

The author of It’s A Book, Lane Smith, has a new children’s picture book that you can read aloud and take at face value for its story of great grandpa who likes to create topiaries – Grandpa Green.  Or you can find Smith’s history of the old man who “grew up on a farm…before computers or cell phones or television…” another of his commentaries on what is important – and a caution not to forget it.

Lane’s geometric illustrations beg for discussion and exploration when read to a small child – the last two fold out pages are the best.

A book for children with an adult message.

Moonwalking with Einstein

How’s your memory?  Remembering where you put those keys, or the plot of the last novel you read would be nice, but, if you are like most people, some things you would rather forget. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer, a science journalist,  becomes obsessed with improving his own memory so that he can compete in the U.S. Memory Championship.

Foer is entertaining and informative as he provides historical background for memory training from the Greeks to Mark Twain.   The cases he cites to demonstrate the experimental studies on the subject are easy to follow and sometimes humorous, and  Foer always includes psychological principles for authenticity.  As he interviews two famous “savants,” he concludes that one is real and the other is actually just an intelligent person who has used memory techniques to focus on details – something anyone could achieve – but few try.

To be competitive with other memory champions, Foer learns to memorize with “memory palaces” and the PAO system.   Think wild mnemonic devices (Einstein dancing like Michael Jackson; Dom deLuise hula hooping), and recognizing patterns, but, more importantly, undivided attention and persistence.  As Foer practices his memory retention skills, he asks you to replicate the experience.  This can be fun, and it works.

“Try imagining a bottle of pickled garlic at the foot of your own driveway…”

In the last exciting chapter, you are at the championship match.  Foer wins a round of speed cards in which he memorizes and replicates the order of a deck of cards in under two minutes; he survives several more tests of memory and makes it to the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship – memorizing two decks of cards.  He wins, but his biggest challenge is to pass the entrance test for KL7, the international secret memory fraternity – drink two beers, memorize 49 digits, and kiss three women in five minutes.

Memorizing often has little to do with understanding.  Remember all those babies who were taught to sound out C-A-T, but never connected it to the animal? Foer concludes that

“How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember.”

Moonwalking with Einstein might have you seeing the world differently. You may learn how to memorize a poem, and even pick up some visuals you can use to help you remember where you parked the car.  Foer’s advice:

Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice.”