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…”

Happy People Read and Drink Coffee

9781602862845_p0_v2_s192x300   Knowing my proclivity for both coffee and reading, a friend recommended Agnes Martin-Lugand’s Happy People Read and Drink Coffee.  I expected a book of affirmation, but the title is the name of a literary cafe in Paris and the story, a delightful romance set in Ireland.

Diane is a young French woman trying to cope with the death of her husband and five year old daughter. A year after their death, she rents a cottage by the sea in Ireland, with an irresistibly attractive Irish photographer as a neighbor.

I read the book in an afternoon, thinking it would end like the Hallmark romance it resembled, but the author surprised me – not at all the happily-ever-after I’d expected but a realistically satisfying one.  If I had noted that Martin-Lugand’s day job is as a clinical psychologist, I might have guessed.

Nevertheless, hope floats for romantics – Martin-Lugand cleverly added the first chapter of the sequel coming in 2017 – Don’t Worry, Life Is Easy – to the back of Happy People Read and Drink Coffee.  

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

9780778319337_p0_v3_s192x300  A sweet distraction – The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick follows the quirky story of a widower who finds a charm bracelet hidden in a boot in his dead wife’s belongings.  Following the clues of each charm from an Indian elephant with a precious emerald, to a tiger from a nature preserve in Bath, and the thimble from a Parisian boutique, Arthur discovers more about his wife’s life than he had known.

Although both the language and the plot are contrived, you will find yourself cheering stodgy old Arthur (although he is only 69) as his odyssey takes him on adventures around the world in search of his dead wife’s true nature.  In the end, of course, he finds himself.

If you are a fan of life-changing stories of otherwise uneventful lives – like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – you will enjoy this new addition to the list.

Related Reviews:

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood

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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.

 

The Muralist

9781616203573_p0_v2_s192x300When I started reading B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist, I did not expect a book about Jews fleeing Europe during World War II for asylum in the United States to be so relevant to the current political posturing about refugees.  Shapiro is best known for The Art Forger, her fictionalized solving of the famous art heist mystery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  In The Muralist, art is again the focus, with the added drama of the war, the beginnings of modern art, and a brave artist working for the WPA.

When Dani Abrams, who works at Christie’s auction house, accidentally finds small abstract paintings hidden behind works by  famous abstract expressionist artists, she sees a resemblance to the art by her aunt, Alizee Benoit.  Alizee, a young American painter working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), along side Pollock, Rothko and Lee Krasner, before they were famous, vanished in New York City in 1940, while trying to free her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. As Dani tries to solve the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance, the story flashes back to Alizee during the prewar politics of 1939 and the forgotten refugees refused entrance to the United States at that time.

Shapiro’s style commands attention to details with references to key players during the war.  Eleanor Roosevelt is neatly portrayed as feisty as biographers have revealed her, and references to artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko include relevant excerpts from their early lives and careers.  Benoit’s fictionalized paintings have the power of Picasso’s Guernica.  Luckily, Shapiro includes an “Author’s Note” identifying which characters and plot lines are based on real happenings in history – some were a revelation.  I still found myself double checking her research with her villain, Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of State who ignored FDR’s Presidential plan to bring Jews from Europe to escape Hitler’s death sentence.  Alas, he did exist – another sad note in American history, and an echo of some of the politics being bandied about today.

The heroine, Alizee Benoit, did not ever exist, except in the imagination of the author, but her work with the WPA, her initiation of new frontiers in art, and the mystery of her disappearance – all fuel a fast-paced mystery while providing historical  information.  The plot twists and turns, as it alternates from present-day to prewar America, leading to a satisfying ending, and finally revealing what happened to Alizee.

Shapiro delivers another gripping story in The Muralist.

Review:  The Art Forger