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’.

Human Acts by Han Kang

I suppose I’m like most Americans in that I know little of Korea’s history.  We know the war, at least the version of it we saw on television’s M*A*S*H, and the Korean miracle–the economic powerhouse South Korea has become.  But anything in between, certainly the dark chapters many South Korean’s would like to keep buried, we don’t know.

This has begun to rapidly change lately, for me in part because of Korean literature like Shin Kyung-sook’s wonderful novel Please Look After Mom and Han Kang’s equally wonderful book The Vegetarian. Add to this list Han Kang’s new novel Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, which sheds light on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising and the massacre that followed.

Never heard of it?  Me either. But don’t let that stand in your way.

Like The Vegetarian, the story in Human Acts is focused on a character we never get to see first hand or through a first-person narrative.  Here that character is a middle-school boy Dong-ho who is killed in the aftermath of the uprising when hundreds of protesters were massacred by South Korea’s military in the city of Gwangju.  Dong-ho should not have been there.  He was too young, the youngest among the protesters and the youngest of those killed.  Those who knew him, and a few others who simply saw his photograph afterwards, tell their stories through a series of narratives–first, second and third person by the way.

Human Acts shattered some of my illusions about South Korea.  I did not know that at least up until the 1980’s when the massacre took place that South Korea was a full-fledged military dictatorship rivaling North Korea in its oppression of free speech and free assembly and the use of torture to ensure compliance with the state.

One thing I admired about Human Acts was the portrayal of torture’s aftermath, the way it affects victims for the remainder of their lives.  There is no escaping the fact that it’s value does not lie in gathering information but in suppressing dissent.

This is the second time Han Kang has kept her readers from direct contact with the central character of her novel.  In both The Vegetarian and Human Acts the reader circles around the character we are most interested in.  We hear from those who know Dong-ho slightly and those who knew him well, but just as it was with Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian we never hear from Dong-ho directly nor do we ever witness him alone.  This frustrates many readers but its a device at least as old as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights wherein we never once witness Catherine and Heathcliff unfiltered through the eyes of someone else.  Theirs is a great romance that the reader never gets to see first hand as neither character is ever presented except through someone else’s first person narration.

What is Han Kang up to in her books?  I think this could make for an excellent book club discussion or perhaps a paper for a graduate seminar.  Does not seeing the central character first hand make it more possible for the reader to insert whomever we want to, or need to, into that role? If we knew exactly who that character was, would we be more or less likely to identify with that character or to identify that character with someone we care about outside of the book.

While Shin Kyung-sook follows this structure for most of Please Look After Mom, she does give the title character a portion of the book–the reader does see a bit of what happened to the vanished mother.  Her book is no less memorable or moving for doing so.

I will say that I found this worked better in The Vegetarian than it does in Human Acts.  It may be that there were too many different points of view in Human Acts while there were just three in The Vegetarian.  Han Kang has a wider ranging thesis in Human Acts–the personal story of Dong-ho, the suppressed history of the uprising and the massacre that followed, the effects of torture, the collective societal denial of history.  Dong-ho becomes a tool for bringing all of this together while Yeong-hye, in The Vegetarian, always remained a person in the reader’s mind.  It was Yeong-hye who haunted me after finishing The Vegetarian. It’s history that haunts me after reading Human Acts.  One book asks how this could happen to one woman, while the other asks how this could happen to us all.

If you have not read Han Kang yet, you really should.  She’s very good; so is Shin Kyung-sook.  But, in the end I’d recommend The Vegetarian over Human Acts.  

Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Before she was executed, Anne Boleyn’s head was shaved.  Afterwards, her hair was given to the executioner as part of the payment for his work.  He then sold it, at a considerable sum for the time, to a maker of tennis balls, which were often filled with human hair in that century.  Anne Boleyn’s hair was valued material for tennis balls because it was female, reddish in color and from someone believed to be a witch.  Four tennis balls were made from her hair.  One was used in a famed match between Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Another, through the usual suspicious provenance, ended up at  the New York Public Library.

Since C.J. and I are cat-sitting in Brooklyn this summer, I, of course, thought we should go see this tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.   So I contacted the New York Public Library to ask if the tennis ball was on display.  The librarian I spoke with, Nick, said he had never heard of this he would have heard of if they had a tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, but he gave me the number of a department that would probably know more about it.

So I did some on-line research only to discover, in a few minutes, that Alvaro Enrigue made the whole thing up.  There are no tennis balls made from Anne Boleyns hair.  Caravaggio and de Quevedo never played tennis against each other.  The entire book is fiction, historical fiction.

But that I believed it all, or was so ready to believe it all, says something, maybe something about Mr. Enrigue’s book or maybe something about me.

Though I can say what happens in Sudden Death, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, it’s hard to say what the book is about.  Even the narrator admits, just about two-thirds of the way through the novel, that he doesn’t know.  There is the tennis match which is interspersed throughout the novel. Is it a metaphor for something larger? There is a plot involving Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico and the story of how this will bring a piece of feather work to the attention of Italian artists, changing forever they way they use paint.  And some treacherous popes, some surviving Aztec craftsmen, Cortez’s native wife who ends up living a life of luxury in Spain.

It’s a wonderful ride, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I recommend.  One that I’m keeping around to read again someday.

It was also the first winner in the Tournament of Books.  Sudden Death beat out both The Throwback Special which I loved and The Sport of Kings which I have not read yet, though I do own a copy.  I didn’t think Sudden Death would win because it’s such a difficult book to pin down.  What’s really going on is not what’s really going on in Sudden Death.  The plot, as much fun as it was, may just be a cover for a discussion of writing or art or the nature of narrative or the unreliability of story or something someone more clever than I will figure out.  It’s also very experimental in nature they  Roberto Bolano’s work so often is.  After finishing the book, I looked at the back cover to find that Mr. Enrigue is Mexican, not Spanish as I had assumed and that his work has been compared to Roberto Bolano.  Should have known, I thought.

So while I was surprised to see it win the pre-tournament play-in round, I was still pleased.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s see how it does against Francine Prose’s Master Monkey.

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.