Paris By the Book: review

Paris By the Book
Liam Callanan

Paris By the Book is a love story, plain and simple.
About a girl and her guy.
A reader and the author.
A bookseller and her shop.
A mother and her children.
An artist and Paris.

Leah was trying to finish her masters thesis on Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 movie The Red Balloon when she met her husband in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Met” is just a half truth–he actually chased her down after she shoplifted a copy of the picture book The Red Balloon from a Milwaukee bookstore. One thing led to another, then they were in a bar, discussing which author did Paris more justice: Lamorisse or Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline stories. It didn’t hurt Robert Eady’s appeal that he was an author in his own right. After publishing a few YA novels, he was trying to make his way in the world as a writer. So how do the poor student and the starving artist spend their courtship when they can’t afford to travel to Paris, France? They travel to Paris, Wisconsin–as well as Stockholm, Cuba, Montreal, and Berlin. All small towns in Wisconsin.

Paris by the bookThe rest, as they say, is history. Leah never finishes that masters thesis. She’s too busy working as a speech writer for a university president, supporting the couple while Robert tries to get his Next Big Novel finished. They have two daughters, Ellie and Daphne, and life is a whirlwind of birthday parties and university functions and neighborhood gatherings. Robert sometimes needs to retreat from the day-to-day grind to focus on his writing. He always leaves a note (“I’ll be back soon!”) and stays away for a few days at most. Leah lovingly calls them his “writeaways”–just a quirk of life when one lives with an artist.

That is until life begins to disintegrate. Because there has been no Next Big Novel. Money is tight. The couple argues. And Robert withdraws. So he leaves, presumably on one of his writeaways–but there is no note or phone call. Robert is gone a week, then two. Leah alerts the police and tries to stay calm, but there is no activity on his bank account or credit cards. No contact with friends or colleagues. He vanished. But after four months of limbo, Leah shakes a cryptic note out of a long-forgotten box of granola. It’s a confirmation number, her good friend Eleanor guesses–and within a week, Leah and the girls are on their way to Paris, France. On a flight Robert had booked before his disappearance. Because if he hasn’t shown up in the U.S., he’s sure to turn up in Paris, right?

As if that’s all not a crazy enough plot line, Leah buys an English language bookstore called The Late Edition. The three make some small headway into life without Robert–the girls attend school, Leah finds satisfaction in running the store. But there’s a strange sense that Robert is close at hand. Leah finds a copy of one of his books in the store with a scribbled “I’m sorry” in Robert’s handwriting. And the girls catch a glimpse of him on crowded streets.

The story’s ending fits where author Liam Callanan wanted to take Robert and Leah. And us, the readers. Oh, you might be frustrated. Vexed. And you might not know much more than you did at the beginning of the novel … but it’s a very writerly unwinding.

Paris By the Book also offers a brutally honest picture of a threadbare marriage that will either rip wide open or be darned back together. In fact, I could see my own life reflected in so many ways. I’ll let Leah speak for both of us here:

“I do want many things … to have raised brave independent daughters; to have read and loved every book on the shelves in my store. But more than anything, I had for the longest time, wanted Robert to be healthy, to be happy. To be here. He wanted to be elsewhere.”

“… I think [Robert] was afraid … of how much we loved him. Of how much that love required his presence.”

 “I do know what I saw in his eyes … I saw love, longing. What’s certain is that bodies, celestial or human, have a pull. It’s impossible to imagine he doesn’t still feel our tug. It’s impossible to imagine his fully gone.”

And finally:

“I don’t so much read anymore, but rather teeter, wonder, take flight … Like anyone who has ever started or finished a book, or a love affair, or confused the two, in sweet anticipation of the fall.”

Bookstore memories

Eyes Like Stars@Flickr

In some ways, my life–the life I live now as a teacher and writer–began in a bookstore. When I turned thirty and my last babe was potty trained, I started working part time in an independent bookstore. It was the late eighties and I’d been a stay-at-home momma for several years. It was time to inch my way back into the real world. Claim at least a portion of my life again. Call something my own.

And while there were certainly challenges (pay, for one; retail hours for another), the memories I have of that time are bathed in a warm, lamp-lit glow. Here (in no particular order) are some of my favorite take-aways from those bookstore days.

  1. Working on Christmas Eve. I took a kind of sadistic glee in selling husbands (because, yes, the last minute shoppers were men) the heaviest, glossiest–and priciest!–book or tchotcke I could locate for his beloved. Because if she loved the British Isles, she was getting that $75 hardcover photo book of England. And if she loved to cook, the latest Martha Stewart was the thing for her. No paperbacks, no sale books. Nope. Buddy, if you waited until Christmas Eve to get her present, I’ll make sure she gets a good one.
  2. Sidewalk sale. Every summer the owners put on a book sale to end all book sales. Tables upon tables were set up in the mall, and pallets upon pallets of remaindered books were hi-lowed in, then stacked-cookbooks, children’s books, art books, history books, fiction. Set up made for a late night, but opening the cartons of books was like the best kind of Christmas morning.
  3. Shelving. I love physical books–their smell, the covers, blurbs on the back. There was no better way to get to know stock, authors, and titles that wouldn’t be my first pick than to take that cart out and shelve new stock. (Unpacking cartons and organizing the cart was pretty darn fun, too.) Our staff had total freedom to arrange shelves and face-out books we wanted to feature. So those three lonely copies of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence? On my watch, I’d face them out.
  4. Hand selling  books. Our staff was small–eight to ten–and our customers were loyal and depended on our recommendations. One of the perks was being able to read ARCs (Advance Reader’s Copies) that publishing reps left with the managers. The new Clyde Edgerton would get passed from one staffer to the next, and when it was published go straight to the We Recommend shelves. Many were the customers who came in for one book and left with three–all because staff raved about the story or author and the customer couldn’t refuse.
  5. Janie’s coffee and strawberry shortcake cookies. The cookie shop down the mall baked seasonal favorites and their strawberry shortcake cookies couldn’t be duplicated. Think Walkers shortbread with a dollop of ooey gooey strawberry preserves in the middle. And the coffee was robust coffee house coffee before Starbuck’s even moved east of the Mississippi. And, yes, we were allowed to discretely snack during work hours.
  6. Putting together mass market dumps. Those cardboard displays of new paperbacks that are sectioned off in neat little compartments are called dumps. They often have an add-on feature of some sort: a cut-out character or scene or blurb to make the display pop. For some reason the ‘insert slot A into segment C’ was incredibly gratifying. If you put them together correctly, they were sturdy and strong. If not, they swayed on the base or tilted off-kilter like a drunken sailor.
  7. Customers. Book people are, well,  different. And I met a lot of characters. Like the Vietnam vet who was a voracious reader of poetry. Or the older gentleman who was as demanding and grumpy a man as I’ve ever met–who also founded a local accordion ensemble. The wealthy businessman who collected first edition hardcover mysteries. Or the woman who took out a purse flashlight and continued reading after the manager started flipping off banks of lights, our signal that we were closing soon.
  8. Staff. Book sellers are, well, interesting, to say the least. So conversations were satisfying. We talked about religion, relationships, recipes, authors, gardening, and the new Anne Tyler or Ken Follett. Readers and book sellers, I think, are people of infinite curiosity. There’s no better conversation to be had than with another person who is eager to know about something outside of themselves. I’ve run into a few of the staff (long since dispersed when the store closed) over the past twenty years and it’s easy to pick back up where we left off. One of my former co-workers is still my #1 Book Buddy (she’s also a blogger) and she, like the book sellers I’ve known and loved, is an incredibly interesting woman. And friend.
  9. Husband. I met my now-husband at the bookstore. See also #2, 4, 5, and 8.
  10. To Be Purchased Stacks. They were hidden under the counter, behind purses and bags, rubber banded together with our names written on a slip of paper. If our favorite author just published her latest, onto the pile it would go until we had the money. Let’s face it, a reader working in a bookstore is like the proverbial kid in the candy store. We needed to exercise some sort of self discipline or we’d never take home a cent of our paychecks.  We’d add books, compare our stacks with other staff, change our minds, re-shelve them in some crazy book buying ritual we repeated again and again.

I mourn the fact that in my Midwest city of 200,000 there is one independent bookstore. Yep–one. Now granted, we have a couple used bookstores, a New Age bookstore, and (this being the Midwest and all) a few religious bookstores. But if you want to pick up a travel book, a copy of the Box Car Children, an Agatha Christie mystery and the new Rachel Ray cookbook? One. The other choice is what I call a Big Box Bookstore and the character and ambiance is just not the same. And I understand. With the blessing (or curse) that is Amazon, that special order won’t take five days–you’ll get it in two. Bookstore margin is slim (40%) and so is profit.

I eventually left to teach high school; the store closed. Now even I buy books on Amazon and my ARCs come from digial galley services. My bookstore days might be out-of-print–but I still occasionally take a memory out and flip through for old time’s sake.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:

Snippets: Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend

Readers of the Broken Wheel (NetGalley)
Katarina Bivald
Sourcebooks Landmark

Katarina Bivald’s Readers of the Broken Wheel is a love letter to books I could have written myself. The reviews of this wonderful little nuggetreaders of the broken wheel are plentiful, so I thought another wasn’t really necessary. There’s Sara, let go from her job in a book shop, who comes from Sweden to visit pen pal Amy in Broken Wheel, Iowa, only to find on her arrival that Amy has died just one week before. The cast of characters in this sad little excuse of a town bring out the heroine in Sara. And there’s also a book shop involved, so what’s not to like? Instead, here are a few of the highlights I marked on my Kindle, and my guess at why I was moved to do so:

Sara had never believed that you had to meet someone in person to be friends–many of her most rewarding relationships had been with people who didn’t even exist.
My own love affair with Book Friends started young. With Rummer Godden’s Little Plum, Miss Happiness, and Miss Flower to be exact. At age eight I was obsessed with the doll characters in her books–in part because, like one of the human characters, Gem, I moved often. Like every year often. So when the threat of a new school, new friends, and new neighborhood loomed over my rather timid little self, the friends I found in books were always a sure thing. I was never the new girl with Book Friends–and even better, I never needed to pack up and leave them behind … because they lived forever between those two hard covers.

All stories started with someone coming or someone going.
Oh-so-true, Sara. Children have come into my life. Friends. Lovers. Neighbors. Employers. Mentors. And, in my own experience anyway, they tend to leave just as readily as they arrive. Estrangement. Divorce. A new job. A disconnect. With stories there’s always another page to turn, another chapter to dog ear, at least for a time … until someone comes. Or someone goes.

Books had been a defensive wall, yes, though that wasn’t all. They had protected Sara from the world around her, but they had also turned it into a fuzzy backdrop for the real adventures in her life.
It’s true that books are often a happy place when there simply is no happy to be found. But on the flip side, oh the places I’ve been. I’ve lived in post-war England with Barbara Pym and Helene Hanff. I’ve raced across the savanna with Isak Dinesen and Elspeth Huxley. I’ve solved mysteries with Flavia De Luce. Run away with T. S. Spivet. Learned the ways of Southern gals from Fannie Flagg and the Ya Yas. Laughed, loved, and cried with Father Tim. Every page and chapter a new and glorious adventure that is often more real than my everyday.

There was something almost insulting about a woman who so clearly preferred books to people.
Loved ones don’t always deal with those real adventures so well. I even had one partner tell me I read too much–that books were the source of my discontent. Well then. You can probably figure out how that one ended, no?

You needed a heroine with a voice of her own–a funny voice, self-mocking, but with a whole load of inner ballsiness. And a proper ending.
The heroine, of course–but doesn’t Every Woman need that ballsiness to face life’s hard knocks head on? A good Book Friend allows us to try on a different size of Self when the present one no longer fits or even just pinches a little around the waist. She can put words in our (sometimes too silent) mouths and help us find our voice.

Life was full of happy endings. 
My own, yours, or just someone, somewhere on the page of a book read long ago. Sometimes we just can’t carry on unless we know The End can be happy.

Summer Reading: My TBR Shelf

I’m almost finished with my summer digital reader’s copies and when I am, man-oh-man, I am diving into this shelf of real, honest-to-goodness print books as soon as I can. I’ll breathe that thick paper and glue smell deeply and bookmark my pages with an honest-to-goodness dog-ear, not a wimpy little icon inserted at the top of a digital page. (I freely admit to being a corner-folder and spine-breaker who manages to ravish her books in those—and many other—ways!)  While I do love me my Kindle, there is nothing that compares to the satisfaction of a book in hand.

Here’s what I have to look forward to:

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography—It’s my goal in the next few year to visit as many of the Laura Ingalls Wilder landmarks as I can and there are more books than one would think to guide readers in their all-things-Laura travels. This book is by far the most comprehensive of the bunch and I’m just starting the section on Little House In the Big Woods since I’m checking Pepin, Wisconsin off my list this summer. If you’re a LIW fan, this should be your definitive guide.

TBRA Week in Winter—This book by Maeve Binchy showed up unexpectedly when my mom returned some books I’d lent her … and included A Week In Winter which I’d gifted her for a trip! But no matter. What’s to protest about a sweet Binchy in which the protagonist, “decides to take an old, decaying mansion set high on the cliffs overlooking the windswept Atlantic Ocean and turn it into a restful place for a holiday by the sea …” Any book whose blurbs use the words “delightful” and “heart-warming” can’t be all bad.

Eleanor & Park—I should probably read more YA fiction. Every summer I try to read a title I can share the next year in my classroom, and I’ve had this one on my radar for a while. Eleanor, Park, star-crossed, high school—and John Greene loved it, so that will sell the book to my kids right there. (And an author whose name is Rainbow can’t hurt, either.)

The Woman Upstairs—This came out in 2013 and has been on my wish list for just about that long. I heard Maureen Corrigan review it on NPR’s best books for the year segment and it sounded intriguing. Probably a little dark, but that’s okay—it will counter-balance Maeve Binchy.

The Road to Character—I’ve been in love a fan of the pundit David Brooks for years. He is honest, fair, and balanced in his political critique (but not in the Fox News way). In the past few years he has branched out, writing more about character in our culture. My hunch is he finds us lacking. Go figure.

The Miniaturist—I loved the cover, plain and simple. And I’m pretty sure friend Denice liked it.

Sycamore Row—This one was in the re-sale bin in our local independent bookstore and for three bucks and 637 pages (!) it was the bargain of the century. It’s got all the good John Grisham stuff: a rich guy who’s dying, a revised will, bratty adult children, and a black maid. I should also say here that everything I know about the law I’ve learned in John Grisham. Like never, ever join those large settlements you see on late night TV because even though the lawsuit is for a bazillion dollars, you’ll only get ten thousand. If you’re lucky.

It’s an odd assortment, I admit. Suggestions I got from a review here and there, a little bit of serendipity, nothing too cutting edge. And that’s just fine with me.

Happy summer reading!

Books about books

What reader doesn’t like reading about books … or bookstores or libraries or authors, for that matter? I’m surprised, really, at how many I’ve read over the past year or two: A.J. Fikry, Small Blessings, Mill River Redemption, The Bookman’s Tale. Here are two recent releases, one about a powerful book and the other about a bookseller with remarkable gift.

The Little Paris Bookshop (NetGalley)
Nina George

Monsieur Perdu’s bookshop Literary Apothecary was a re-purposed barge (replete with two bookstore cats), moored along the Seine. For a bookseller, Perdu was unusual—while a customer might come in looking for the latest best seller, they’d leave with a book that he chose for them, one that they needed. Perdu had a rare gift and could read his customers (I guess one could say) like a book; “transperception” his father called it. Armed with this sense, Perdu Little Paris Bookshopseeks to treat “feelings that are not recognized as afflictions … [like] the feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end … or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn’t develop as you thought … or those birthday morning blues …” And for each of the ailments, Perdu “prescribes” a book.

But as we read about Perdu’s gift of perception and learn a bit about his own inner life, we realize that Perdu himself is in need of some healing. A lost love haunts him, a new love beckons, and in a burst of resolve, he casts off the Literary Apothecary’s ropes, starts up her engine, and begins to motor into the harbor—with first one, then two, unexpected passengers.

The heart of Little Paris Bookshop pulls in the right direction. There are lyrical passages about reading and books (“Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book, he did not see them purely in terms of stories … he saw freedom on wings of paper”) and toss-away mentions of contemporary novels (“The customer teetered on her smart high heels, but instead of offering her his hand, Perdu handed her The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”). But once Perdu’s bookshop becomes unmoored, the novel also begins to drift. Perdu motors down the Seine past Marseille (and also towards some healing and resolution) but it’s a winding affair that is sometimes failed to satisfy this reader. (I even wondered if something had been lost in translation.) But if you’re a bibliophile, by all means give Monsieur Perdu a chance.


The Book of Speculation (NetGalley)
Erika Swyler
St. Martin’s Press

In dilapidated house high on a bluff above Long Island Sound lives a lonely librarian, Simon Watson. His mother was a mermaid–a sideshow act who held her breath underwater for ten minutes–who drowned; his sister Enola is a tarot card reader in a carnival. One day a book arrives that changes his life, sent to him by an antiquarian bookseller by the name of Martin Churchwarry. The book is older than old–sixteenth century. Its pages are water damaged, filled with notes and sketches and a ledger. Churchwarry sent it on to Simon after finding his grandmother’s name inscribed in speculationthe cover.

As any good librarian would do, Simon begins to research the book’s original owner, a Mr. Hermelius Peabody, and connect the book to his own family. About the same time the book arrives, Enola and her sideshow boyfriend Doyle (The Electric Boy) show up—and maybe it’s not a coincidence that both occur around the anniversary of their mother’s drowning. Like most antique books that show up unbidden, this book has some powerful magic between its covers. As Simon connects the dots between his grandmother and mother and Enola and Peabody, he thinks maybe he can break the curse he’s sure has plagued his family.

In between connecting the dots on the family hex, Simon manages to lose his job, fall in love, and discover a terrible family secret—all this as his family home begins its descent over the bluff.

I had a fun time working my way through The Book of Speculation even though I know nothing about tarot cards (which feature largely in the story) or circus and carnival life. I think, again, it was the fact it was book about the power of a book that kept me reading.