A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney

As a reader, I’m kind of a sucker.

It’s easy to take me by surprise. I didn’t see any of it coming in Gone Girl. Life of Pi  came to me from far out in left field.  And I admit it, it never even occurred to me that he would sell his precious pocket watch to buy his wife a beautiful hair pin.

My jaw has hit the floor in shock so many times, I should grow a beard to cover up the bruises.

So the emotional twist at the end of Jennie Rooney’s novel Red Joan struck me to quick completely by surprise.  Neither I nor the novel’s heroine had any idea what was coming.

Red Joan is structured in a series of flashbacks, which is what gives the novel its tension.  Joan, an elderly English widow, is interrogated by agents of MI-5.  She is suspected of spying for the Soviets, passing them secrets about England’s work on the atomic bomb. As she is questioned the novel goes back to Joan’s youth.  She did work on the atom bomb, something she never told her son nor anyone else due to the Official Secrets Act.  She did travel with communist sympathizers back when Stalin was an ally.  She did fall in love with a man who became a Soviet agent and she did become an agent herself.

Red Joan worked for me as a spy thriller, as a character study, as something of a romance and as a portrait of a particular time in England when someone really could believe that giving the Soviets top-secret information was the right thing to do.

And then the ending broke our hearts, Joan’s and mine.

Murder in Memoriam by Didier Daeninckx

On October 17, 1961, thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Paris in a peaceful demonstration against a curfew that had been imposed only on them.  At the time, Algeria was engaged in a struggle for Independence from France which had long held the nation as a colony.

The demonstrators were met with extreme violence from the police who opened fire on them without provocation.  Unofficially, the deaths numbered in the hundreds.  Officially, they numbered three.

This is the background for Didier Daeninckx’s detective novel Murder in Memoriam.  It’s also the occasion for the first murder in the book.  While on his way home from an early matinee, Roger Tiraud is shot and killed during the opening moments of the police violence.  Officially, his death is the result of his participation in anti-government pro-Algerian movements.  Unofficially, his death remains a mystery until two decades later when his son is killed in a nearly identical manner.

What links the murders of father and son?  The son was just a baby at the time of his father’s death.  His father was a simple history teacher, he was a student working on a degree in history.  Why would anyone want to kill them?

Mr. Daeninckx’s detective Inspector Cadin’s investigation will reveal the cover-up that occurred after the violence of October 17, 1961 and implicate high level government officials in crimes dating back to the Nazi deportation of France’s Jewish population.  That Mr. Daeninckx’s murderer bore a striking resemblance to a real life high-ranking official in the Paris police department led many people to conclude that Murder in Memoriam played a significant role in bringing that man to justice, several years after the book was first published in France.

And it’s a darn good book, too.  If you like your detective stories stripped down to the actual work of the detective, if you don’t care who the various officers are sleeping with or which ones bear psychic scars from a deeply troubled childhood and just want the author to get on with the business of solving the crime which really ought to be interesting enough anyway, then Murder in Memoriam is a book you should check out.

While Mr. Daeninckx’s book is concerned with exposing a particular set of injustices that really occurred, these do not work against the story telling.  Instead, actual events become part of the book’s plot which works to entertain the readers as it works to educate them.  The author clearly has two goals in Murder in Memoriam, but neither undermines the other.  It’s a perfect piece of agitprop in that one can still read it, now  almost 30 years after its initial publication, and enjoy it.

And it has a really cool cover, too.

 

Since first running this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2012, I continue to look for these cool covers, books published by Melville House.  They are known for being good books, but also for having very cool cover designs like the one here.  They’ve led me to many author’s I would not have read and enjoyed otherwise. So, yes, go out there and judge books by their cover, at least pick up the ones with good covers, certainly the ones published by Melville House  

Maigret in New York by Georges Simenon

file_000-6The trouble with Maigret in New York is clearly stated in the title.

Inspector Maigret should stay in France, preferable in Paris.  I suppose over the course of 75 novels Maigret was bound to leave the country at least once, but I much prefer him when he is at home.

Certain books are associated with certain places–that becomes part of the fun, maybe part of the comfort, of reading them.  Detective fiction is essentially escapist reading which makes the Parisian setting all the more valuable.  Take away the setting results in a less satisfying read.

Still a pretty decent read, though.

Maigret in New York is something of a cross between the usual, dry witted police procedural readers of Simenon expect and a more free wheeling Dashiell Hammet type of tale.  Maigret meets the Continental Op if you will. The plot gets lost and then gets lost again just as it’s about to be found.  In the end Maigret goes home before we’ve found out exactly what was going on.  He reaches a point where he doesn’t care anymore and leaves, generally sick of America anyway.

Which are the fun parts of the book, Maigret complaining about Americans and American culture.  What makes this more fun is that he is complaining about 1930’s America when he could still escape into a theatre showing a Laurel and Hardy film.

Since I escape America of the 2010’s  into Inspector Maigret novels, I enjoyed this one but with is was set in Paris.

Top Ten Favorite Reads for 2016.

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Clovis sitting on my reading sofa.

I’m going to stick to my guns here, enforce my long time rule for selecting the top ten list which is “Do I want to read this book again someday?”  The answer must be yes to qualify. Which means there are many books that I loved reading that will not make the list. Lots of books are great books, great reads, but not something I’ll ever read again.  Plot driven books, the sort that rely on surprise to keep your interest. Once you know how it all turns out, you know how it all turns out.  There’s no need to read it again.

To make this list, a book has to offer something more than a terrific first read.  It’s tough standard which means some good stuff, a few bits of great stuff, will be cut, but that’s my rule.

Here in no particular order are my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Lang A wonderful non-fiction meditation on living alone in the big city, Chicago and New York. Ms. Lang provides fascinating biographical information on the artists she writes about, men who lived and worked largely alone, but it’s the lyrical writing that won me over.  The Lonely City contains some of the best writing I read all year.
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles I loved this account of an old man trying to take a seven-year-old girl, raised by Indians, home to her white family across several hundred miles of post Civil War Texas.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino A catalogue of the cities Marco Polo visited as an ambassador for the great Khan. I loved it and will definitely be come back to it again.  And since it was so much fun, I now have several more by Italo Calvino in my TBR stack.
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin   I have been somewhat haunted by this story of a South Korean family looking for their vanished mother since I read it last summer. While there is an element of suspense in the story, it’s really the tale an entire society masked as the tale of one particular family.
  • The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks I am very late to the party here.  The story of how a small town bush crash affects both the town overall and the lives of a few key people.  Told from multiple points of view in a way that works to make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski  A very small book by a very small press The Cupboard.  you’ll have to visit their website if you’d like to get a copy.  The is a fictional collection of source material the Brothers Grimm decided not to use in their collected tales.  I loved it.  And I love the cover.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante I may not be sticking to my rules here. This is the third book a series of four.  The chances that I will one day re-read them all are slight, I realize. But, in a way, read through to book three should count for something, so I’m listing the third book here.  I intended to start book four today, but found that I don’t have a copy.  Guess I’ll have to go to the book store tomorrow.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Seven Places of the Mind by Joan Didion Classic non-fiction, mostly about California in the 1960’s.  I find quite a bit of non-fiction on my top ten list his year.  The best writing I read in 2016 was found in non-fiction.  This was a surprise, frankly.  If you’ve never read Joan Didion before, this is the one to read. I loved it.  More please.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson I just finish Ms. Woodson’s new novel Another Brooklyn which is very good, but not as good as Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ll be teaching it to my 7th grades late this year.  Wish me luck
  • The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher M.F.K. Fisher invented writing about food.  Maybe not, maybe someone did it before she did, but no one every loved food as much as she did.  Not even me. The opening section on her first oyster is not to be missed. More excellent non-fiction writing.

I’ve already started 2017 with two contenders for the top ten list: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon which I loved and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge which is holding up pretty well. this is the third time I’ve read it.

Since I’m not running the TBR Dare anymore, I was planning on joining in The Tournament of Books this year but The Dare has been resurrected by Annabel and Lizzaysiddal.  They have even given it its own website here.  I admit, I was both flattered and happy to see it continue so I immediately signed up.  However, according to the rules, which are still as loose as ever thank you, I could put all the tournament books on hold now so I can still join in.

You can see why I have never 300 books in my TBR stack.

The Appointment by Herta Muller

Honestly, I think Nobel Prize Winner stickers should include the word ‘warning.

Warning: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

Put it in bold face red type as well.  Buyer beware.  Difficult literature ahead.  “Sit bolt upright in that straight back chair and get set,” as Laurie Anderson said in her song “Difficult Listening Hour.”

Herta Muller, born in Romania, lived under the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.   She lost her job as a teacher because she refused to cooperate with the secret police and eventually emigrated to Berlin in 1987 where she now lives.  She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 for a body of work depicting life under one of the worst communist regimes of the late 20th century.

The Appointmentt is a good book, make no mistake.  The Nobel Prize is not given lightly, which may be part of its problem.  (Can you name an essentially comic writer who’s won it?)    It’s also given for a body of work instead of for a single piece of literature.  Since the entire world is eligible for the award, the entire printed world anyway, the Nobel tends to go to authors who represent the best of a nation, sometimes the best of a language.  Highly significant writers.  Important people.  People who tend to write difficult books.  You won’t find much in the way of easy, entertaining reading.  An author like Philip Roth, who is no slouch, is a controversial choice for the Noble Committee:  he just isn’t serious enough.

All this is a long-winded, round-about way of distracting you before I bring myself to admit that I just couldn’t follow Herta Muller’s The Appointment well enough to write a decent review.  The premise is simple: a woman receives notice from the government that she is to appear at police headquarters for interrogation.  Her crime is putting notes into the pockets of men’s slacks in the factory where she works asking for someone to marry her and take her away from Romania.  The pants, bound for Italy, are intercepted by her boss who turns her in.  During the course of the novel the woman rides the tram from her apartment to the police headquarters.  She observes the people around her as she reviews key events from her own life through an extended series of flashbacks.

I found the extended tram-ride premise wore thin about halfway through the novel and the flashbacks became too difficult to follow since they were not in chronological order.  In my defense, I will point out that this is the basic structure for The Day Last More than a Hundred Years which I reviewed earlier this month and which I’m probably going to put on my yearly list of favorite reads.

I’ve no way of knowing how accurate Ms. Muller’s portrayal of life in Romania under Ceausescu is–I’m willing to take the Nobel Prize committee members recommendation as proof it’s accuracy; they are very serious people–but its is an interesting one.  What struck me was how ordinary everything was. People go to work, ride trams, try to live their lives in an situation of extreme poverty but not in one that felt at all socialist or dictatorial.  A man sells illegal T.V. antennas on the black market but everyone pays rent to a landlord, and works for wages they can save or spend as they choose.  The cast of characters would have felt right at home in a novel by Emil Zola depicting the poorer classes of 19th century France.  It’s not until one takes action to leave the country, even a feeble one like leaving notes in the pockets of soon-to-be-exported pants, that the state begins to clamp down.

For that depiction of life in a totalitarian state, Ms. Muller’s novel is worth the effort.  But make no mistake–effort is required.

You have been warned.

 

I’m not purposely posting articles based on current events in America, but it’s starting to look that way. This is the second Soviet influenced book this week.  I must have been going through a phase back in 2011 when I first posted this review on my old blog Ready Whey You Are, C.B.  

Memory: A Novel by Philippe Grimbert

A young boy, an only child, believes he has an older brother.  He carries on imagined discussions with his brother, building him into a real person.  One day he finds an old plush toy, a dog, in his family’s attic.

A man meets the love of his life on his wedding day. He manages to keep this secret from his wife, even though the woman he loves is her sister-in-law.

A man who has never considered himself a Jew is forced to abandon his business and flee Paris after the Germans invade.  He prepares a home for his wife and son who await their chance to escape.  All goes well until his wife’s sister-in-law arrives ahead of her own husband.

A desperate woman commits a Medea like betrayal.

What if the sequence of events that led you to unite with the love of your life included your own family’s death?

Philppe Grimbert’s novel Memory is not really about memory, nor is it really about secrets though its French title is The Secret.  It’s really about how much damage love can do.

Surrender to it at great risk.

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2011.  It’s kind of a mysterious review, drops a few hints but gives no clear view of the story. Sounds kind of good to me.