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"The Little Paris Bookshop" by Nina George

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Translated from the German by Simon Pare

One thinks of Hawthorne’s dictum about a book that takes the name of “Romance.” The definition of his day (please don’t think of modern-day bodice-busters) held that a Romance could play faster and looser with facts and with fictional effects than could the more demanding Novel, in which characters and events would have to conform to a more exacting standard. At the outset of The Little Paris Bookshop author Nina George introduces us to Jean Perdu (yes, John Lost). He has grieved for the last twenty years that the love of his life has left him.

He has abjured all female companionship, stayed out of the social and cultural whirl from the age of 30 to the age of 50, content the entire time to operate his floating bookshop at its mooring in the Seine. Ms. George goes to considerable lengths to establish that this was a love for the ages, and that M. Perdu’s protracted pain is a rational reaction, given his temperament. We don’t really have to get too used to these ideas because early on, Jean’s entire world comes crashing in on him, and he takes off, like Huck Finn, and starts to ride the river -  his life and his heart are undergoing wrenching change.

This is an intriguing and elegant stroke for the author: the charms, the happy diversions, and the good turns we yearn for for Jean commence when Jean’s odyssey commences. This very artful device carries us onward; the vivid descriptions of sunsets, emotional breakthroughs, charming company, and riveting French countryside form a rare and lovely reward for the reader.

And … as the narrative curves toward its anticipated resolution, it begins to sink into some overwrought emotional scenes.
These are not out of place; they don’t force the reader into any new or unwarranted territory. It’s only that the spigot is open too fully, particularly in the scenes between Jean and Luc, his former lover’s husband. Other descriptions, however, remain at an understated level.

Between the 20% mark and maybe the 90% mark, this book boasts lovely scenes, richly described and beautifully paced, of a man’s re-blossoming into the world of the living. His physical and symbolic journey along a series of French rivers and canals rewards the reader again and again. I would only wish for the tiniest bit of restraint as Jean faces - and tearfully handles - his ultimate emotional roadblocks. If you’re hankering for a moderately paced emotional reawakening for a sensitive, sympathetic man, this entry definitely will fill the bill.

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

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It appears this soul-sucking story had more legs and arms and disposable bodies than David Mitchell could get rid of in The Bone Clocks. This piece comes to us as the mantissa to Mitchell’s acclaimed novel published earlier this year. It’s come out just in time for Halloween, and it’s yet another highly professional set of pyrotechnics.

The author revisits Dr Marinus from Bone Clocks, and this time she carries out her vigilante justice against the Grayer twins, who have lived for 120 years or so … These are spooky tales with spooky effects, always carried off with assurance to spare, but I begin to wonder if Mr. Mitchell is approaching something a little deeper, about our fear of death and longing for immortality. But these companion-pieces seem too dependent on fun special effects and thrilling plot twists to try to pin anything more on them. He has always sailed very close to a current of fairness and moral behavior - see Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - and this pint-and-half pint of stories has the same slant.


I liked Slade House. Its closeups of characters before they’re dispatched have great verisimilitude to lives lived and emotions suffered, and the spooky effects are pulled off well. This book does feature a badass hero giving the normal comeuppance to a couple of dirtbags; the whole amounts to an exercise in waiting for this payoff. I expect Mr. Mitchell’s next effort will be on new topics, with new characters (well, maybe not all new), and different metaphysics.

"Daughter of Fortune" by Isabel Allende

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Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

In Daughter of Fortune Isabel Allende has crafted an epic novel of change. Many, if not most, novels feature change in their characters, but in Daughter everything changes: the main characters, the principal mode of oceangoing transportation, the United States, San Francisco, science, the press - you name it. This full, diverting novel is a paroxysm of change.

And where better to set such fiction than in Gold Rush California, a setting and metaphor for wrenching alteration if there ever was one? The prime and preeminent change occurs in fifteen year-old Eliza Summers in Valparaiso, a small, stultifying port on the Chilean coast. The year is 1847, and Eliza has just been stunned into rapture by the existence of Joaquin, her uncle’s employee, when he supervises delivery of goods to her home. This captivated glance evolves into a clandestine affair and Eliza ends up stowed away on a sailing ship - to the Gold Rush in California - as she chases after her errant lover. It nearly costs her her life.

Ms. Allende has skillfully put together a highly enjoyable epic of historical California. It’s a pastiche in which many of the epoch’s stock characters make an appearance: the heavyset madam with the heart of gold; the upstanding Quaker blacksmith who falls for a “soiled dove”; the yellow press journalist who deals more in fiction than fact. But the pastiche forms a mere backdrop for the drama unfolding in the lives of the two highly sympathetic main characters, Eliza and her friend, Tao Chi’en. That, and the human face she effectively places on the
legendary Gold Rush. In Daughter of Fortune the racism, genocide, greed run amok, frontier “justice,” excessive and grasping paranoia, all get a full treatment. Then, the inexorable change to more reliable wealth -  mercantilism, the professions, construction, and the sometimes deceiving trappings of civilization find their way into this nuanced and encyclopedic work.

Extra praise belongs to Ms. Allende’s conclusion. She sets every necessary trend and direction into place, and simply lets us imagine it. This is lovely, sweeping, and balanced - a unique and highly recommended combination.

"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois

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Given its theme and aims, The Souls of Black Folk has the potential to polarize its readership. There are those who would pooh pooh its weight and relevancy, but for me Du Bois propounds his theses with honesty and just the right level of plaintiveness to convey his message quite effectively. It is just these virtues that have made this important book part of the academic and social canon of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

And this is no dry academic tome. Du Bois mixes personal anecdote with his social scientist’s discerning eye to produce a very informative history of Negroes in America, slave and free, and a heartfelt polemic for equality. Du Bois’s language has a formal stateliness to it which never flags. He remains uniformly honest about the sometimes self-inflicted problems of blacks in America, but is convincing about the source of the problems, and the ways in which blunders and maliciousness in the wake of Emancipation have exacerbated them.

This book surprised me with its highly personal combination of careful research and homespun look at social trends. The personal also encompasses Du Bois’s own life: we encounter him as a young teacher and parent, as a highly respected educator, and as an early appreciator of that singular contribution of African Americans - their music. As literary output, this piece deserves its eminent status in American social letters. It deals directly and honestly with racial prejudice, serves as a central and important source on the history of race relations in America, and exhorts its audience to consider the state of relations and how it can be cured. It’s necessary reading for any person interested in the subject in America.