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.”

The Floating World (review)

The Floating World
C. Morgan Babst
Algonquin Books

October 15. Forty-seven days after landfall.

The Boisdore family is collapsing, the levees of their carefully constructed life breached by the destruction that wthe floating worldas Hurricane Katrina. The patriarch Vincent, once a renowned New Orleans furniture carver, drifts in and out of dementia, one moment clear-thinking, the next living in the past. His son Joe, an sculptor, has made his name in the art world with his primitive carvings, and life had been good. Joe’s wife Dr. Tess Eshleman is a successful psychologist with a thriving practice. And family money. Now their daughter Cora is suffering from the trauma of the death and destruction she witnessed during the storm; her sister Del leaves her life in New York behind to rescue them all. Their historic home on Esplanade is destroyed, a life of privilege gone, a marriage in ruins.

Katrina only reveals what has slowly been unraveling all along. It’s a sobering thought.

So Cora’s mental illness is just a symptom of family dysfunction. And Joe and Tess, the biracial couple who years earlier risked everything for their love, had simply glossed over differences they couldn’t deal with. Del finds she can’t save her family because she’s not yet set her own feet on the solid ground of adult life.

Writer C. Morgan Babst peels back the characters’ shortcomings until they are defenseless before us, not certain who they are without the veneer of social niceties.

Ninety-three days after landfall and the rebuilding begins. For some, more than others.

But aren’t we all of us just a hurricane–metaphorically speaking, anyways–away from finding our lives flung open and ripped apart? By disease. Unexpected death. Addiction. Estrangement. It’s how we confront that reality that will define us.

If you want a novel that is gritty and revealing–thought-provoking–The Floating World would be it.

True Love: The Story of Arthur Truluv (review)

The Story of Arthur Truluv
Elizabeth Berg
Random House

Elizabeth Berg’s new novel The Story of Arthur Truluv is, as the title suggests, a story about True Love–not necessarily the love you’ll find in sappy Valentine cards, but the kind of love that is even greater. Like the love that reaches across generations, old to young and back again. And the love that lives across the street in a neighborly sort of way. The love that awakens between a mother and her child at the first little flutter. Or even the love that comes in a home-baked orange blossom butter cookie, shared.

Arthur Moses visits his Nola every day in the cemetery, riding the bus to eat his lunch and have a little chat with her. Since her death nearly six months before, Arthur’s life has become flat. Gray. It’s just Arthur and their cat Gordon making do with hots dogs and beans, toast and soup. There are no more garden bouquets on the kitchen table. Gone is the hum of her sewing machine. And the steady rhythm Nola brought to Arthur’s life? Missing.

Until he meets seventeen-year-old Maddy Harris.

Now Maddy has always been sad. Her mother died when she was only two weeks old, and her father’s parenting was distant, at best. He never talked about her mother, never shared his remembrances.  Maddy loves cemeteries and that’s where she meets Arthur. Distraught after being dumped by her older boyfriend, Maddy finds a warmth in Arthur that she’s never experienced. And they become fast friends.

Arthur’s neighbor Lucille thought love had passed her by sixty years ago until a high school sweetheart returns and they make plans for the future. But Lucille’s plans are foiled and she, too, finds a friend, first in Arthur–and then Maddy.

When Maddy suddenly finds herself in a difficult spot, she runs away–and ends up running towards a love that is big enough to save her. And Arthur. And Lucille.

Now that I’m closer in years to my end than to my beginning, one of my greatest worries is that I’ll feel like Lucille did for a time: useless. What happens when the career is over? Passion has been snuffed out? The children (and someday even the grandchildren!) are preoccupied with their own lives? Our world worships youth and values productivity–what will be my place? Arthur found his calling: “I am the audience. I am the witness. I am the great appreciator … I don’t feel useless. I feel lucky.”

The Story of Arthur Truluv is a deceptively simple story, and it might be tempting to read it as a sweet tale about an old man and a young girl. Nothing more. But as in the best of storytelling, it is Truth. Arthur continued to reach out and offer love even when he seemed to have nothing worthwhile to give. And in doing so, he changed lives.

May this be my own love story, too.

Wonder-ful: Wonder (review)

R. J. Palacio

I might very well be the last reader in the U.S. to have read Wonder, writer R. J. Palacio’s best-selling first novel. I’m kind of out of the middle-reader loop at this stage in my life, and I found the title by clicking on a trailer that popped up on my Facebook feed. Thank goodness (at least in this case!) for click bait because this book was a gem.

Auggie Pullman was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a craniofacial condition that left him facing surgery after surgery (twenty-seven, to be precise) from his first few months of life. Because he was so often hospitalized or recovering from surgery at home, Auggie’s mom home-schooled him. His dog Daisy and sixteen-year-old sister Via are his best friends because Auggie doesn’t get out much. When he was younger, Auggie wore an astronaut’s helmet in public just to minimize the stares from adults and children alike. (Strange creatures we humans are that a boy wearing a helmet is less odd than dealing with a facial difference.)

But now ten-years-old, Auggie is starting school for the first time. A small group of children–Jack Will, Julian, and Charlotte–have been recruited to show him around the building before the school year begins, and it’s a rocky start. Charlotte is overly niceJulian pretty much ignores Auggie and then bluntly asks “What’s the deal with your face?” But Jack Will. Auggie smiled at him, and Jack smiled back.

The first days of school, Auggie keeps his head down and his mouth shut. Except that the tween world is a stratified place and his difference isn’t easy to hid. Fifth grade can be rough. There are whispers. The lunchroom is hell. A cruel game called the Plague circulates around Auggie. Even his English teacher Mr. Browne’s monthly precepts (September’s is “Choose kind”) can’t keep the wolves at bay. But Auggie’s humor and wit win over a few good souls and he finds a tribe.

Of course that’s not the whole story. There’s a betrayal, a violent episode on a class camping trip, a heart-wrenching loss, and some pretty despicable adults. Palacio also gives us the story from the voices of Summer and Jack, true friends both of them. Auggie’s sister Via’s chapters reveal how a condition like TCS affects the whole family. My heart ached for her.

When I saw the movie trailer, I wondered how the movie industry ever put out a call for actors to play Auggie and how the boy with TCS who played Auggie would be recieved. But this is Hollywood, after all, and it was prosthetics and make-up that turned child actor Jacob Tremblay into August Pullman. Shouldn’t have been a surprise.

If you’d like a thought-provoking response from a young woman who lives with a craniofacial condition, read Ariel Henley’s review in Teen Vogue. Invoking the attitude “nothing about us without us”, Henley is clearly disappointed that the movie makers chose Tremblay: “… it was devastating to realize that the directors involved with Wonder would rather cast a healthy, “normal” looking child and put him in makeup and prosthetics, rather than cast someone who looked like me.” If you are a Wonder fan already, please read her article “What ‘Wonder’ Gets Wrong About Disfigurment and Craniofactial Disorders” for another perspective.

In the end, though, August Pullman’s story is fiction. And the most important Truths can be found in story. For me, it’s Auggie’s indomitable spirit that makes me want to be a better person.

Men behaving badly: The Best Kind of People (review)

The Best Kind of People
Zoe Whittal
Ballantine Books

The story is an all-too-familiar one: a beloved teacher is charged with improper behavior towards female students. Headlines scream. Families crumple. Lives disintegrate. I’d venture a guess it’s happened in just about every high school at one time or another. And if a parent or administrator is quick to deny such a thing would ever happen at their All-American High–just ask the kids. They know.

George Woodbury fits the profile: beloved teacher, active community member, loving family man. George was it at Avalon Hills Prep School. (In fact, George is so wonderful he single-handedly took down a school shooter at his daughter’s elementary school a decade earlier.) But one late-summer night, the police show up at the door. Arrest George. Strip the home he shares with wife Joan and seventeen-year-old daughter Sadie of photo albums, computers, files, even family portraits on the wall. Gone.

The charge? Sexual misconduct with three female students and attempted rape. George promises he’ll be out in a day or so–there must be some mistake. Joan pledges to make bail and stand by his side. Sadie is devastated. How could anyone accuse her father of such a ridiculous charge. He’s the one who gave her the rape whistle she wears. He’s the one who preached ‘girls can be anything’. “He even read the Gloria Steinem biography,” Sadie remembers. But is seems there have been rumors–whispers and warnings that George never spoke of to Joan–and some around Avalon Hills aren’t surprised at all.

There’s a fair amount added to the plot that I didn’t need. Sadie has a lot of sex with her boyfriend. There’s a party scene (or the aftermath) that’s raunchy. A based-on-real-events novel gets written about the case. The Woodbury’s live in a wealthy lakeside community on inherited money. Son Andrew can’t open up emotionally to his partner.

It’s Joan I can’t get out of my mind, though.

The woman did everything by the book. She married her sweetheart, she put him through grad school, she kept a beautiful home and grew vegetables and baked cookies and volunteered from here to kingdom come. As if that wasn’t enough, Joan was a respected emergency room nurse at the local hospital. She raised two incredibly bright and successful children. (Sadie’s older brother Andrew is a lawyer living in New York.) She was the Harriet to her Ozzie, the June to her Ward. She did things the. right. way.

How could she not know. She had to, right? That’s what the community thought. That’s what I think when I hear about these cases in the news. Or could it be that George wasn’t even guilty? Maybe he was just set up by some disgruntled, troubled young girls. That’s what the community thought. That’s what think when I hear about these cases in the news.

But we women love our men–even those behaving badly, right? Through thick and thin, ’til death do us part and all that.

We watch Joan grow a pair. She attends a support group for women whose partners are in prison. She finds out the trust money is (surprise!) nearly gone. She asserts herself, cuts off contact with George because of new evidence and starts to think about building a life without him.

Of course you want to know Joan’s decision. George’s guilt or innocence. There’s no spoiler alert here, reader. But the last page was so charged I could have thrown my Kindle across the room.

It’s a doozy.