The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles (Two Roads 2020?)

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Not an author I’d heard of before this and I though it was due for imminent publication but checking on Amazon it seems to have been pushed back to February 2021 which may mean it is one of the casualties in how the publishing industry is having to deal with COVID-19. If this is the case then this is very advance notification of a books seriously worth your consideration.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the American author of “Moonlight In Odessa” (2011). At one point she worked as programmes manager at The American Library in Paris and it was this institution which is the inspiration for this novel.

Written in two narrative strands, one set during World War II and the other in Montana in the 1980s, both strands feature Odile, who obtains her dream job when she gets to work at The American Library in Paris in 1939. The real-life Library was set up during the previous war from two million American donations with it becoming revolutionary in being one of the first to allow subscribers to browse the open shelves and introducing story-times for children. By 1939 it was a much loved, over-subscribed establishment and its war years are dealt with here very impressively. The author has placed Odile alongside real-life characters who actually did do their outmost to keep the library functioning in Occupied Paris led by the extraordinary Dorothy Reeder (good name for a librarian). Skeslein Charles has turned these staff members into vibrant characters and placed them in a plot which certainly mirrors actual events.

Alongside this we see an older Odile, now living in the US, largely through the eyes of her young neighbour Lucy who is fascinated by the elegance of her neighbour becoming quite the Francophile amidst her small-town American life. I was very involved in both strands and this was a very involving read. I loved Odile’s obsession with the Dewey Decimal System which has her constantly categorising and found the relationship between her older self and the younger Lucy touching and convincing. I loved the whole aspect of the establishment doing what it could to support its subscribers and once again the importance of libraries is brought home as well as in the non-fictional “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean (2019). I also loved the way the fiction was weaved through a fascinating historical situation that I did not know about.

I hope that if this book is to be delayed until the New Year that it can be launched with enough momentum to give it a chance of achieving the sales it deserves.

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The Paris Library is currently scheduled (according to Amazon and I can’t find any information about it yet on the publishers site) to be published in the UK in February 2021. Sorry about confusion here but we might get quite a bit of that over the next few months. Many thanks to Netgalley and John Murray Press/Two Roads for the advance review copy.

100 Essential Books – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018)

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I’ve got round to another of the books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read Post. This is a major prize-winner picking up the Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction, also the Stonewall Prize and gained prestigious shortlist nods for the Pulitzer Prize and US National Book Award. In the UK it has remained fairly under the radar, the paperback (which I read) was published in 2019 but that still didn’t lift this book to the commercial recognition it deserves. (Amazon currently has it as #2727 in Literary Fiction with a 4.4 rating from 509 reviews).

Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. In the Chicago section the Boystown area is being decimated by the AIDS virus and Fiona is losing those she loved. The novel begins with the memorial for her brother Nico whose lifestyle was rejected by his family causing an irreparable rift between Fiona and her parents as she cannot cope with his lover and friends being excluded from saying goodbye.

In 2015, Fiona, now a mother herself, is searching for her missing daughter last known to be a member of a religious cult in the US before a sighting of her is flagged up in Paris. The Fiona in the later narrative is still clinging to the events of thirty years before which has affected her ability to parent. She is a flawed yet very real character.

In the eighties narrative it is her friend Yale who is central. In a relationship with activist and magazine publisher Charlie. Yale is far more conservative, working in funding for art and following a tip off from Fiona regarding her great-aunt’s collection seeks the acquisition which would make both Yale and the gallery he works for names.

I really enjoyed both plot lines (with a preference for the earlier narrative) which are superbly handled but the strength is really the relationships between the characters. The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.

You will find yourself invested in these characters, you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is. Expect me to be recalling this book in my end of the year round-ups. I thoroughly recommend it.

Rebecca Makkai is a straight woman and there could have been potential criticism in this current climate of her immersing herself in a story which is not hers to tell, which should be the province of a gay male writer, especially with so much talk about appropriation but the fact that this has won a major LGBTQ literary award with The Stonewall Prize shows that this is not an issue. This is a novel for everyone, for those whose lives were touched by the events of the time where they will be brought back with chilling clarity, for those aware of them in some degree and perhaps even more importantly for those who were not even born then. It wasn’t easy reading about a killer virus whilst in lockdown due to another killer virus and I really did feel quite purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience. Rebecca Makkai has published three novels before this. I would certainly imagine this to be her masterwork to date but I will definitely be looking out for her other titles.

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The Great Believers was published in the UK by Fleet in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback edition.

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George (Abacus 2015)

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This is the second German novel about bookshops I have read recently (the other being Thomas Montasser’s “A Very Special Year”).  Translated by Simon Pare this has been a big European seller and perhaps unsurprisingly given the title from an author who lives in Brittany and Hamburg it is far more Gallic than Germanic.

It is a novel about moving on and is one that might provoke more response at times in our lives when this feels relevant.  Jean Perdu’s bookshop is on a restored barge and it seems to be a fabulous place.  The owner sees it as his “literary apothecary” and loves to prescribe books for his customers depending on their needs.  I relished this aspect of the story but George is quick to move on and let the books take more of a back seat than I was expecting (certainly more than in the Montasser novel).  Perdu (appropriately French for “lost”) is stuck in his own life from a relationship that ended suddenly twenty years ago.  An attempt to get back into the romance game leads to a discovery and a setting sail for the barge on a canal journey south.  He is joined by Max, a young author struggling with celebrity and a couple of cats together with others with their own issues who they meet along the way.

The experience of the voyage rather than the books themselves provide the stimulus for lives to be put back in order- the books are used as currency and occasional free gifts.  There’s a lot of French food (recipes at the back) and those Francophiles who relish the attitude and way of life of the French (admittedly from a German point of view) will lap this up.  As far as I was concerned it did not hang together consistently.  I was involved, then frustrated, involved then frustrated.  The fact that I did not get wholly dragged into the story did make me feel like a cynical curmudgeon and that’s not the best self-image to be left with after completing the book.

Perhaps if I had read it another point in my life Nina George’s gentle tale of facing up to things which freeze us might have really won me over.  As it is, like the restored barge, it just drifted along.  I wanted the book boat to have a more central role.  I did very much enjoy the main character’s prescription of an Emergency Literary Pharmacy of book titles at the end.

It’s hard not to compare it with the Montasser novel as both are recently published, are on similar themes and translated from German.  I think the Montasser just has it for me, although it is a slighter read.  I think both choices, however, would be good for reading groups or book clubs.

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The Little Paris Bookshop was published by Abacus in 2015.