Got Milk?

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I was planning to see old friends in California and attend the annual Literary Conference to meet authors and pick up ideas.  My airline ticket is still outstanding and I won’t be using it because the conference will be virtual this year.  I do plan to log on but it will not be the same.

Reading is not the same.  When I can muster the motivation to open a book, it’s more likely a sequel to the  Bridgerton saga or the wonderful fable by Jane Smiley – Perestroika in Paris – recommended by my good friend.  And I read much more slowly, but perhaps the story of the horse, the dog, the raven, the rat, and a couple of ducks in Paris – and the map inside the cover – was one I was reluctant to see end.  How else could I vicariously be in Paris, and will I ever be there in person again?

The newsletter announcing the virtual literary conference had a few recommendations for books, and one title inspired me to look for it in Libby.  Neil Gaiman, author of so many of my favorites – The Good Omen, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and more – delivered another gem in 2013 I missed – Fortunately, the Milk.

The story is simple: Dad goes out to get some milk for his kids, taking a long time,  but eventually returning with a carton. When asked why he took so long, he tells them a fantastical tale involving a spaceship of green globby aliens.   But it was the first paragraph that grabbed me – possibly because buying cartons of milk has become the bane of my existence these days when I fully expect to meet virus laden aliens in the grocery store.  It could be my story.

“There was only orange juice in the fridge.  Nothing else that you could put on cereal, unless you think that ketchup or mayonnaise or pickle juice would be nice on your Toasties, which I do not, and neither did my little sister, although she has eaten some pretty weird things in her day, like mushrooms in chocolate…”

Maybe I’ll read a little Gaiman today and pretend it’s green globby aliens who’ve taken over the world.  Oh wait, they have.

Review of the Year That Shall Not be Named – in Books

With the end of a year like no other, I am again looking back to list the twelve books, one for each month, I especially loved reading.  This year, however, is tinged with the evolution of 2020 from high expectations at January to slow disintegration as the months wore on.

One of my favorite authors, humorist Dave Barry, offered his observations in his Year in Review 2020 – giving a few laugh out loud moments in following his monthly reminder of a year gone awry.  He inspired me to think about how my reading morphed with my own view of the world as history marched through a challenging year.

Here is my list of twelve books read and reviewed (click on the title to read the review) throughout the year.  My favorite has a star.

January:  What better way to start than a book with January in the title and doors magically opening to new worlds- Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January

February: The world news was getting a little scary, so I kept escaping to fantasy land with A.J. Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten

March: The world was really looking grim by now, so I turned to Jose Saramago’s story of how it all could be worse in Blindness

April: Spring didn’t really look like a flowery bower, so I buried myself in Eric Larson’s epic observation of Winston Churchill in The Splendid and the Vile

May: As the pandemic raged on, many of us wondered what life would have been like if 2016 had brought a different president; Curtis Sittenfeld filled the void with Rodham

June: By now, I was looking for a fictional world I did not live in; thankfully, Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, came through with a delightful The Redhead by the Side of the Road  *

July:  We all knew the pandemic was real when we heard beloved actor Tom Hanks had it in March, but his recovery led to his role in the movie adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ News of the World in July.  In July, I enjoyed Jiles’ new book Simon the Fiddler 

August:  By now it was clear my European travels were going to be curtailed for a while, but my dreams of Paris were fed vicariously by Liam Callanan’s Paris By the Book

September: Although I couldn’t visit my Los Angeles family, I could revisit favorite landmarks in Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

October: Graphic novels with short but philosophical views of life are hard to find these days. Calvin and Hobbes is in retirement, but Allie Brosh has her own brand of art and humor, easy to read and fun to explore, in Solutions and Other Problems

November: By now I was watching more TV than reading, and Netflix lured me into a series called “The Undoing.”  When I discovered it was based on a book, I had to reread Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known

December: The year is finally coming to an end, and I have been drinking a lot of coffee to wash down all the cookies, but none taking me back into the past like the Japanese translation of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold

* Although I am still careful to drink up all my coffee before it gets cold, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road was my year’s favorite.

What books do you remember from this year?  Any favorites to recommend?

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.  

 

The Light of Paris

9780399158919_p0_v3_s192x300  Unhappy with your life decisions?  Feeling unloved?  Want a change?  Paris is the answer, according to Eleanor Brown in her second novel – The Light of Paris.  With alternate chapters telling the story of Madeleine, a frustrated artist with frizzy hair, and Margie, her grandmother who is sent on the world tour to escape being an old maid at twenty-four, Brown focuses on the life changing decisions of both.  Separated by a generation, both face the consequences of choosing – is it better to be safe and do what is expected or follow the riskier path to your own bliss?  Both women are determined to escape the low expectations of family and friends.

Brown uses old letters to reveal Margie’s secrets from the nineteen twenties when she spends three months in Paris, after refusing her parents’s choice for her husband.  Of course she finds romance – this is Paris – and her life neatly reverts to type when she gets pregnant.  But during those glorious months when Margie finds herself, Brown uses vivid  descriptions of the city and the people who used Paris as their muse to counter the triteness of the story line.  Margie discovers Paris in one of the best times to be there.

As she is reading her grandmother’s letters, Madeleine is struggling with her own demons.  After years in an unhappy marriage with a controlling husband (he tells her she’s fat and won’t let her eat chocolate – grounds for divorce right there), she returns to her childhood home just as her mother has decided to sell it.  Making peace with memories of her miserable youth lead her to an epiphany – life is too short to waste trying to be something you are not.

Without the quick wit and Shakespearean quotes of her first novel, The Weird Sisters, this book falls a little short.  But with heady romance and life altering role modeling, The Light in Paris delivers a quick easy read.  It is Paris, after all – too bad we can’t all solve our problems by running off to be there.

Review of The Weird Sisters

 

 

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…”