The One with the Golden Dream of the American in Paris

Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (2000)

I can’t remember who recommended to me “Paris to the Moon”. It might be back in the spring when I was looking for books about expats in Paris for my workplace library, to stock up on English language shelves for the foreign employees. Or maybe in one of those literary  podcasts with an episode on travel writing. I thought it would be fun to see my own city through the eyes of a foreigner, especially one who comes with the reputation of the New Yorker in tow.

This collection of essays, a chronicle of tiny details or brief introductions to life in Paris (French cuisine, cafés, gyms, maternity hospitals, playgrounds, etc.) gives snapshots of his life together with his family (he had a young son, and a daughter was born in France during his stay) in Paris from 1995 to 2000.

The high point of the book is Adam Gopnik’s writing. His sentences are precise and evocative, they carry feelings as much as cultural explanations. He has a great understanding of French people, it’s not patronizing or exotic. The portrait of his kid playing in the Jardin du Luxembourg almost brought tears to my eyes. His voice makes you want to buy a ticket to go… But wait! I’m already here! Or am I?

Adam Gopnik’s Paris is more than 20 years old. I took my time reading the essays, because it was like finding pictures from the past. I know some things never change and we French people are very resistant to change, but still you should not think that the book is still valid nowadays. Yes, the Ritz is still there (but has undergone a 2 years renovation). Yes the Jardin du Luxembourg is still there, but those tiny details that are so precious in the book, well, they mostly no longer exist (just an example: gyms are pretty normalized now in Paris). The impact of globalization has made his remarks on French culture not completely false, but certainly to be taken with a grain of salt.

You might argue that it doesn’t really matter. Beyond the particulars of Paris in the late 1990s, you can see the deep love of Gopnik for all things French and Parisian, the culture shock he goes through, the misunderstandings and the progressive adaptation of the author and his family to a new culture and environment. Missing your own country while wanting to stay… This is universal and I remember all too well the contradictions of my own life as an expatriate in Asia not to relate with everything he writes.

But the thing that made me ambivalent about the book is that Adam Gopnik’s life was very privileged. I don’t know about many Americans in Paris, and I don’t remember if the exchange rate of the dollar at that time helped much, but the flat he rented, the lifestyle he had, the restaurants he patronized regularly, most of it is not within the average Parisian’s budget. The chapter where Gopnik movingly writes about the maternity ward where his daughter was born, brought tears to my eyes because it was so well written, but made me cringe at the same time, because he had selected a very exclusive private clinic, where everything, I’m sure, was perfect, because nothing was paid for by French social security. (ok, right, I might have been jealous)

This book is more literature than journalism. More personal memoir than travelogue. If Americans read it before arriving for the first time in Paris, they might be very disappointed, but it’s not my case. It’s an exquisite, pricey pair of rose-tainted glasses to look around me at the city of Lights, to remember some, to wonder and to explore some more.

The One with the Woman behind the Wild-Haired Man

Marie Benedict, The Other Einstein (2016)

I chose this book on the Netgalley shelves because it had been a while since I’d read some historical fiction, and the cover and title sounded intriguing – I got a lot more than what I’d bargained for! I learnt about the private side of the famous personality whom I really didn’t know beyond the famous photo with the tongue sticking out and the wild hair.

In that overly famous picture Einstein seems cool, old but cool, modern and fun (I’m talking of this picture, which incidentally was taken in 1951, when he was 72-year-old, four years before he died). I never even paused to wonder what Einstein was like as a young man, a student and a groom. Turns out, he wasn’t quite as cool.

He was a university student in Zürich when he met Milena Maric. He was intelligent and charming, she was intelligent and overly serious. A native Serbian from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Milena was gifted but also considered damaged goods because of a hip disability. She wasn’t considered wife material at home so instead she wanted to be a researcher and a teacher. She needed to be serious because being admitted to university, especially in physics was extra rare for girls and her reputation had to be preserved. But she fell under Einstein’s charm. She felt she had found a partner with whom life and research could be shared. But she was a woman, and the year was 1896.

After a whirlwind romance (this part of the book is very much a romance and has precious little science), Maric found herself pregnant out of marriage, which was a great cause for social shaming. The relationship never fully recovered from this point. She failed her exams and didn’t finish her physics degree. Einstein proposed only a few years later, because he wasn’t ready to commit before he’d found a job position. He wasn’t interested in children and not particularly in a hurry to do the right thing because he feared for his reputation. When they did get married, Maric was expected to take care of their home, to cook and wash his clothes. She did it without complaining, hoping that they would still work together at their common passion for physics and research.

I won’t spoil it all for you but it didn’t end well for Mileva, because I bet you didn’t know of her existence before starting to read this post, right? And it did end rather well, that’s no spoiler, for her husband.

Apparently the author did a lot of research and had access to private letters between Einstein and Maric, and Maric and some of her friends, but even after finishing the book I’m not clear what is fiction from fact in the book. I understand that might change the reading experience for some readers. This book is put in the novel category, so I’m assuming there are not many factual accounts of the relationship between husband and wife, and that Marie Benedict tells it the way she imagines it. Which is to say, Einstein comes under a very harsh light in this book and I’m not entirely sure he deserves it completely. But given I know next to nothing about the man, I’m not going to guess. Still, it was an enjoyable read (given these caveats) and it was difficult not to feel sorry for Maric.

Thanks to the Publisher and Netgalley for giving me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The One with Teenage Angst in Provence

Rebecca Bischoff, The French Impressionist (2016)

I chose this book because I thought it would be an easy read and that the French setting would be nice. You might find it plain weird, but I don’t dislike foreigners waxing poetic with colorful clichés about my own country, especially since French people are always complaining and focusing on everything that goes wrong in our country. I expected something like “A Year in Provence – the teen version”. Talk about wrong expectations.

In this novel, Rosemary is in Nice to learn painting with a French family. At least, that’s the official story, the one she told to her best friend. But not exactly the one she told to her mother, who believes she is in Arizona. And not the one she told to her mother’s boyfriend, who paid for the trip and believes she is in Paris. That much would tell you that Rosemary is not completely straightforward and has her issues.

I’m not sure if this book is sold as a middle-grade, YA or adult book, as the main character is a 15-year-old with teenage angst in full color: full of contradictions, pent-up emotions, wild impulses and lies and schemes all over. It’s hard to sympathize with her, but it’s a brutally honest portrait of a girl at a difficult time of her life, made even more difficult by an overbearing mother and a speech handicap she has. If it’s an adult book (and if you have little kids like me), you just wish that your own kids won’t be like her.

There was many, many things crammed into the story, and I would be tempted to say too many things. Rosemary has a neurological disorder called apraxia of speech, which prevents her from speaking clearly and fluently (the author is a speech therapist so she knows her stuff). There is emotional abuse, grief, theft, disability, friendship, boys, France. I wished the book was more focused, and chose its battles. The cute cover put me under the impression that it was chick-lit of sorts (I had not noticed, in my haste, that the girl has no mouth), and at the end, when all the plot lines were hastily tied up, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all too neat. Rosemary has lied and schemed her way but she had no bad consequences for all this. I couldn’t forgive an especially twisted lie that she came up with right at the end that put me over the edge.

It was a bumpy read, but at least I discovered this disorder that I never knew about and I think it made it worth the try.

PS. I received an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The One with the Embroidery for Hope and Peace

Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue (2000)

This is the second middle grade novel I read in a row, after the Apothecary. After choosing randomly based on the cover art (which wasn’t exactly a success), I picked a name I knew: Lois Lowry seems like a dependable name to choose from the Science Fiction/Fantasy shelves at the Children Library when I don’t know where to turn. I have read the Giver a few years ago and liked it, and I didn’t even know that this book was the second volume of a trilogy quarter.

It was the idea that the heroin was a embroiderer that sold me the book. Not only that, but also a young girl with a handicap (a twisted leg at birth). It is set in a post-apocalyptic society where only the strongest, the harshest, the most powerful survive. Kindness is not part of this world, emotions are denied, no books exist, women are forbidden to learn how to read and write. Kira was allowed to live despite her physical weakness only by exception, and people aren’t kind to her or forgiving. The only art that is allowed is the one of a handful selected children who seem to have a gift. Kira has a gift for embroidery, and after her mother’s death she goes to the palace to embroider the robe of a singer who recounts every year the whole history of this world in a big ceremony. It seems at first like a safe haven for her creativity, but it also has hidden dangers and secrets.

It is a post-apocalyptical novel as we guess that this society has been built on the ruins of some major destruction in our world. I am often reluctant to read post-apocalyptical books but this one is hopeful and readable to young readers. It reads completely independantly from the Giver, only the idea that art, kindness and compassion are necessary in our world is the common thread between the two books. In a sense, the themes are a bit similar and pave the way towards Station Eleven that I loved so much (but is definitely for adult readers) The pace is slow, the ending quite open, but it’s a nice change for this genre that is often too gore and too violent for my taste.

The One with the League of Anti-Atomic Wizards

Maile Meloy, The Apothecary (2011)

I was perhaps in need for comfort reads this fall (guess what, international news haven’t been exactly forgiving, and this is the high season at work too), as I turned towards a few middle grade novels.

Actually, I am sucker for good cover art and so many YA / middle grade novels these days have outstanding covers, that make me immediately want to pick them. I was attracted towards the Apothecary by the historical setting, London in the early 1950s, during the Cold War, but still feeling the deep scars from the war.

In this particular era, Communist spies and atomic bombs are feared everywhere, but particularly in California where Janie’s parents work as screenwriters. They are pressured to go find work in London, and 14-year-old Janie goes to a traditional English school with uniforms and Latin classes. She finds her classmate Benjamin charming, but also intriguing, and he soon brings her into crazy adventures, as it turns out that Benjamin’s father is a sort of wizard who has been abducted by Russian spies.

I liked the premises but I wasn’t quite convinced by the story. Things were a bit all over the place, and only the swift pace of actions and twists tried to make up for unexplained bits of plot. This being the first of a series, it might be due to some revelation in later episodes, but I wasn’t grabbed by Janie and the characters were too one-dimensional. Also, the figure of the Chinese chemist came out so stereotypical (kungfu moves! inscrutable stare! pseudo-Chinese pidgin French –I read in translation) that I rolled my eyes every single time she appeared. The mix between scientifical, historical, and fantasy elements seemed very clunky to me. I would have preferred that the author stick to one genre, and make it more believable and more consistent.

Well, can’t win them all! I should know by now that a nice cover does not make a good novel every single time.

The One with the Laguna in a Messy War

Martin Cruz Smith, The Girl from Venice (2016)

Some places are so full of history that they seem to escape time. So much so that you can’t really imagine these places in a particular, different historical moment. Or is it just me? Such is Venice, Italy. Have you ever imagined Venice during World War 2? Mmh, me neither.

The book was recommended by Annie from A Bookish Type, and I immediately requested the book from Netgalley, because Venice. Yes, I am aware that this is not a good enough reason and that it might expose me to all kinds of disappointments, but here I am. One more title in my Netgalley queue.

I didn’t regret it, but it wasn’t what I thought. It was not Venice proper, in fact, but more of the tiny fishermen’s villages in the Venetian lagoon, and how the end of WWII played out for the people living there.

There’s the good brother, Cenzo, a widower reformed from war, who one night fishes a girl out of the water. More like a Jewish young woman who barely escaped murder in the hands of… who exactly? German Nazis, Italian fascists, scheming traitors, you name it…

There’s the bad brother, Giorgio, who is so cute and ambitious that he has become a famous actor and propagandist in Fascist Italy, and has made his career outside Venice. Except that he too sees the end of war and the defeat coming and  the scores that will be settled, and that he needs to lie low.

There’s also a third, dead brother, but he’s just a piece in a jigsaw that had far too many pieces to my liking. I was confused many times about what, who, where, and luckily the pace was brisk and the dialogues funny enough so that I just followed the motions. I didn’t care enough for the characters and there were probably too many of them.

Part of the book is set in the Venice islands, part of the book in Salo, where the last Fascists and Nazis were waiting for the final victory and clung to this belief until the very end. It is a fascinating period to write about and set an action thriller, mystery and love story, but I felt I missed something.

I received an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The One to view hear loss under a new light

Cece Bell, El Deafo (2014)

I first heard of this graphic memoir through the podcast Longest Shortest Time and I was intrigued: the coming-of-age memoir of a girl who became deaf after a meningitis, translated into bunnies? Ahem, more specifically a super-hero bunny with a phonic ear apparatus plugged into her long floppy ears? I feared it might be super-sappy.

From just listening to the podcast I appreciated the purpose of the book, but I could only tell if it “worked” as a graphic novel by reading the book myself. Luckily enough it has very quickly been translated to French and I found it just a few weeks ago among the latest acquisitions at the library. In French, El Deafo has been translated into Super-Deaf. And it was awesome!

I decided to read this book along with my elder son, who is 8, because I thought it might be an interesting topic of conversation that we don’t usually cover in the family. After all, there is a deaf child in his school (who has a cochlear implant, as far as I know), but he’s not a friend of his. His grandparents have some degree of hear loss but he doesn’t know much about disability in general. I wondered how my 8-year-old would react, because I don’t know how I, as a 8-year-old, would have reacted to such a story.

First he was kind of proud that I would read the same book out of genuine interest (and not making him read a book that I’d enjoyed as a child). Then he was really worried by the illness that made Cece deaf. He wanted to know what it was and how anyone would get ill. I didn’t realize it would be scary for him! Then he was completely absorbed into the story and he liked it a lot. I wished he would express himself about his reading experience but I guess I’m expecting too much of an 8-year-old. He summed it up as “Cece’s life sucked a lot! First this sickness, then the ear thing, then his friend hurt her eye too! How unlucky she was!”. Strangely enough, the bunny translation, and the fact that she hides her phonic ear in overalls made my son unsure of Cece’s gender (he assumed she was a boy until a love interest developed during the early teenaged years).

I loved the experience of read-along and it was the perfect book for this! It really explains how hear loss impacts your life, but it is charming and positive and not gloomy at all.

The One about the Legacy of Torn Lives

Sara Novic, Girl at War (English 2015)

I’m really glad of this opportunity to read Girl at War thanks to Netgalley.fr and the French publisher Fayard. Ever since the book was published in English I was curious of this book about a girl who spent her childhood in Yugoslavia, lost her parents during the war between Croatia and Serbia and was then adopted by American parents and raised as a typically American teenager.

Obviously there are many themes woven together in this story: war, trauma, grief, adoption, coming of age, cultural shock, guilt (and I won’t spill it all here), but I first came to this story because I could relate to Ana, the main character who is ten at the start of the Balkan war in 1991. I was in high school when the Balkan war broke off in 1991 and as a West European it was both shocking and senseless. We had been fed the “end of history” and universal reconciliation when the Berlin Wall had fallen two years before, and now people were killing each other on the doorsteps of the European Union. We had been brought up thinking Yugoslavia as a united country and ignoring ethnic differences and historical bad blood. Especially as a teenager, where all things are black and white, the messy war felt as if someone was taking the rug from under my feet and announced that my neighbors were very much likely to kill the people next door.

The war is seen through the eyes of Ana, a tomboyish ten-year-old Croatian from Zagreb. I like this childish perspective on events big and small, with its naivety and adaptability. Ana and her friend seem to take in their stride the sudden change of mood among adults, the food rationing and air raid alerts, the questions about ethnicity and the sudden leaving of men who are going to fight. They don’t get explanations from the adults, so it might be a bit difficult for a reader who would have not heard of the facts.

As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to get a refresher on Wikipedia on Croatia during the Balkan war while one reads this novel, if only to clarify that Zagreb was not where the fighting was (it’s when Ana and her parents have to go to Sarajevo that things turn tragic), and that the role of Croatia in the later conflict was not completely pure. But you don’t need to know all that to feel for Ana, to understand her personal tragedy and to understand how her uprooting to the United States and her subsequent adoption by an all-American family could only be difficult.

We alternate between ten-year-old Ana and twenty something Ana who now is a brilliant student at NYU but suffers from (untreated) PTSD. Her friends and adoptive family don’t know much or anything about her past because it’s too foreign and too difficult, so she lies and fakes. At some point in the book she decides to travel back to her native Croatia to get answers – and get closure. That was another part of the book where I strongly related to Ana’s quest. We visited Croatia a few years ago, a country that is now a very touristic place for Europeans. It was an uncanny experience to realize that this beautiful place full of magnificent landscapes, beaches, historical landmarks was the same country that had suffered in the civil war. It seemed that people had put it all behind hoping to forget. No wonder that the book doesn’t tie all the plot lines neatly at the end with a bow, because there is no easy resolution for Ana.

The One with an ounce of happiness hidden inside

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear (2015)

I was so looking forward to reading Big Magic, and I want to say upfront that I thoroughly loved it. Yet, it might not be for everyone, and even for people who know me, it might come as a surprise.

Elizabeth Gilbert looks like a wonderfully nice person, but the thing she is definitely not is quiet, reasonable and low-key. Internet pegs her as an ENFP, and I’m an ISTJ (sorry non-MBTI people, in this very case this particular frame of personality analysis is very very apt, so Google it if needed and bear with me). The problem is right there, we don’t have even one letter in common. Where I am rational, she is emotional. Where she wants to hug you, I want to keep my distance. Where I organize and analyze, she just wings it and flashes forward. Where I follow up and feel guilty if I don’t finish, she lets go and moves on to the next dream without regret or remorse. ENFPs and ISTJs are normally a match from hell.

Except sometimes it works out fine! (albeit from a distance)

Yes, many pages made me cringe, especially when she gets all woo-hoo about divine inspiration, about the Muse jumping from one person to another via a hug (a hug of all things, how American!). It makes a fun story for my kids but I didn’t find it particularly useful for me. Yet her analysis of our Western culture that insists on being serious and passionate to the point that one must suffer alone like a martyr in order to create fascinated me. It resonates a lot with my own findings that french writers are supposed to be lonely geniuses writing their chef-d’oeuvre in their Parisian attic (it’s better to be in Paris to get published) and the distrust on any formal training in the literature art (MFAs don’t exist in France, you either have genius or you don’t). She offers an alternative model, the trickster’s, where play and fun and fearlessness and not-taking-yourself seriously are paramount. I love it.

Elizabeth (yes, something in her makes you want to be on first name basis) is such an antidote to that serious, elitist, privileged way of thinking: the way her book Eat Pray Love was a product of privilege had disturbed me before, but this one is not self-centered and more like a gentle, universal encouragement to follow one’s own creative outlet wherever it takes you.

It’s an antidote to bad mood, to self-doubt and to guilt trips. I would recommend it to anyone who suffers occasionally from these symptoms, and I bet there are quite a few of us!

PS. Good news : I have listened to her Magic lessons podcast with pleasure, and apparently a second season is coming soon!

The one with the crazy lemon cake’s family

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010)

Oh my, how I wanted to love that one. From the back cover, it seemed exactly like my kind of book. A girl who suddenly has the ability to taste the emotions of whoever cooked the meal she is eating. Who can read sadness in a lemon cake, anger in a cookie, or nothing at all in a bag of industrial snacks. Given that the heroine is very young (9) when she discovers her “gift” and that the family secrets she gets access to “thanks to” her ability are rather depressing and heavy, no wonder that she eats as little home-made food as possible.

It’s quirky, and a special blend between realism and surrealism that is often labelled “magical realism” -but not the Garcia Marquez kind. I liked Rose Edelstein because she is a very normal teenager despite her gift, and she doesn’t make anything special with it. Most of the time she wishes she could live without this gift. She also thinks her parents are losers, which is a totally normal view for a teenager, and she grows up to discover that they are slightly more complex than what she credited them for. I loved that part.

Where Aimee Bender lost me was with the brother. Up to that point I could have loved this book, but at that precise moment I wanted to throw it away and stop my reading. Rose’s brother also has some gift, but it doesn’t really show before half or two-third of the book. At first, we assume he might be autistic or Asperger’s or just a selfish nerd. Then I assumed he was mentally ill, or that his instability just grew worse. I was quite unprepared to the “revelation” and it was all so bizarre that I didn’t know how to handle it. I would rather have Bender go overboard and give him something really huge, like to be able to fly or something. But that? Meh. To me it looked like it was weird for the sake of being weird, without adding anything to the plot. On the contrary, it was even detrimental to the plot, because at that point it slipped into absurd and I stopped caring for any of them.

I guess I could have done with Rose being an only child and Bender delving deeper into Rose’s parents evolution, instead of just alluding to it. Still, I thought that the book had a lot of potential and I’m not against trying another book by her!