Oh, Paris and some sad news

Began a bender focusing on the Nazi occupation of Paris. It all started in a small French village where a young girl (it actually started in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where a young girl began filching her mother’s library books, like “The Godfather” and lots of Erica Jong, and tearing through them…). In a world where ethnic and racial conflicts (and simply racism) are so common, maybe my subconscious stepped up and chose these.

download-2.jpgMost of “Mademoiselle Chanel” by C.W. Gortner, a bio about “Coco” (Gabrielle) Chanel, was set in occupied Paris. It was hard to switch to reading biography, though I did get that “refreshed” feeling you get from moving from fiction to biography. I know that sounds like a hygiene commercial but it’s true. The author is a former fashion executive who was raised in Europe. With a different genre come different expectations and this bio did not let me down.

download-1.jpgOn to “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana De Rosnay, a Franco-British-Russian journalist and writer. This was a heartrending book whose peak event (spoiler alert!) I could’ve guessed would not be happy. I usually don’t try and guess endings anyhow; too wrapped up in the process of reading.

Sarah’s Key is set in Nazi-occupied Paris at the beginning and intertwines two sets of events: Those of a young girl from a Jewish family living in Paris and another of an American-born journalist who follows the trail of what happened to this girl after her family is captured in the terrible Vel D’Hiv roundup. So well done that I’m interested in reading other novels by Ms. De Rosnay.

download.jpgNow I’m making my way through “When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation” by Ronald C. Rosbottom, which The Guardian apparently didn’t love. Coincidentally I found this work of nonfiction on a Park Slope street [admitting here I’m a book-scrounger but, hey, sometimes there’s gold in them thar hills and the locals can be unusually well-read]. Slow going and there is so much written on this time in France’s history that I could easily find something else on the topic. I’m categorizing When Paris.. as a skimmer and not a close read.

Towards the end of the fiction phase of this bender I had some sad news: An old friend passed away. We were grad school classmates and then friends, and then coworkers (she hired me to work at the Internet agency where she was a manager.) I met my husband at that job. We lost touch for a bit but then I’d run into her at various kid-venues after both of us had children and we reconnected. She was a New Yorker, a mother, a writer, incredibly driven, a world-traveler, a wife, a friend. I’m not sure which one of these she was proudest of; a person can be so many things at once as the forces of one’s life coalesce to form a constantly-shifting being.

Another identity was that of “person who has cancer,” though she never let that one dominate; see her incredibly smart and creative “Identity Shift Project.” It is so hard to accept that I’ll never see her or have a conversation with her again.

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Fish bone

mouth-and-teeth-hiWell, after an absence that was longer than I wished, I’m writing this post with a fish bone stuck partway down my throat (I’m no longer trusting the ocean perch from Costco.) NOT comfortable. Which reminds me of the narrator of the Joshua Ferris novel I’m reading: “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2014.

This narrator, a Manhattan dentist, is uncomfortable with the condition known as life. He’s smart enough to be, unfortunately for his sake, hyperconscious of his discomfort, slingshotting from hobby to girlfriend, wondering if eventually something will scratch his eternal itch and be the thing/person/activity that makes him feel that living is worthwhile.

Life in his office on the Upper East Side is a dramatic piece of theatre: his dialogue with his religious, ascetic dental hygienist; his obsessive observations of his office manager and ex-love. Ferris is adept at showing us characters by way of dialogue and interior thinking.

As much as I can read books with unlikeable narrators–thinking of Martin Amis’s “John Self” in “Money” here–for some reason I’ve stopped reading “To Rise Again..” Our dentist in Ferris’s book isn’t depressed. Rather, he simply doesn’t get the point of living because he hasn’t figured out how the–if you will–“emo” part works. The world he inhabits is pretty bleak, though Ferris’s telling makes it hilarious in parts. Amis’s John Self is limitless in his search for pleasure, in a very 1980s way (drugs before rehab became a thing; unbridled lechery). Mr. Dentist simply can’t find it anywhere.

Ferris’s style and dialogue are great (and I do like how Mr. Dentist refers to his smartphone as a “me-machine”).

I’ll put it aside for now and maybe, when I’m feeling ornery and less content (“Throw away the sunlamp!” “Stop going to the gym, dammit!”), I’ll give it another try and see where it goes. Because I can’t see Mr. Dentist taking me anywhere I want to go right now.

Oh, and the fish bone? Either it’s still there or I’ve abraded the bejesus out of my throat  with home remedies. Could be worse.


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Brooklyn Book Fair

This event was last weekend. Been busy trying to find work (have it narrowed down to either going back to my former incarnation of QA tester, or tutoring).

Highlights were seeing Chris Hayes of C-SPAN interviewed by Heather McGhee, president of Demos a public policy organization. Hayes spoke about his new book, “A Colony in a Nation;” in which he talks about the falsehood of a “post-racial” America.

It was the first time I’ve seen Chris Hayes speak. He had great rapport with Heather McGhee and her questions were right on: Hayes talked about incarceration, school segregation and more. Though I had to wonder which schools his kids go to when he talked about New York being the perfect place to test out challenges to school segregation. In any case, you can view the interview here on C-SPAN.

Other highlights of the fair were seeing Jami Attenberg wandering around in dark glasses (I couldn’t stay for her panel discussion) and just the entire atmosphere: all those readers and writers in one place!

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I’m here. No, not over there; here.

Sorry I didn’t tell anyone I was on hiatus for the summer. Believe me, I had all intentions. We headed north this summer to Toronto for city vacay then outside of Montreal for some country time. I’d like to say I have some Toronto bookshops to recommend, however I really just patronized Joe Fresh (no more of them left in NYC), biked around Toronto Island and hung out in Kensington Market. All with the help of my perennial accommodations-fave, Airbnb, where I found a decent place in Queen West. Housing in Toronto is scarce and new affordable buildings seem to be coming up all over the place.

Anyhow, books. Later I’ll update with what I read over the summer, but now I’m reading “Outline” by Rachel Cusk (interspersed with “The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline–reason being Cusk’s writing demands closer attention and my need to read is constant.)

All I knew about Rachel Cusk going in to “Outline” was that she’s British, wrote what sounds like a brutal book about mothering (“A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother”) and got divorced during the past few years and wrote about that in “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation”. I’ve read maybe half of “Outline”; not enough to figure out why it’s called “outline” (except to guess that the narrator is in Greece to teach an English Lit class?). Her style is sparse and the narrator’s observations about other people and of human interactions are certainly interesting enough for me to keep going.

School has started for my children so when things get settled in I plan on returning to “Outline”. Or maybe I’ll find a corner in the playground and make better use of the (excessive IMHO) amounts of time I spend there until it gets cold.

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More by Jami Attenberg

The excellent Jami Attenberg, whose book “The Middlesteins” I wrote about here has a new book out, “All Grown Up“. It’s gotten good reviews from The Washington Post and The New York Times.

“The Middlesteins” is, as you may have guessed, about the lives of members of a Jewish family (who live in or around Chicago). The parents are divorced, mother is obese, father beginning to navigate the world of dating after 60, daughter energetically maintaining the rift she’s created between herself and her family. She writes about the down and upsides of being a member of one, and of “letting someone down while saving yourself at the same time.”

Very much looking forward to the newest book. NYT declares it even better than The Middlesteins. As if I care what they think (OK, really, I get loads of reading ideas from the NYT Book Review. Just wanted to play it like I didn’t care what Pamela Paul et. al. thought. Hah.)

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Sherman Alexie. Writer. Brave guy. Activist.

Today’s New York Times has a piece on Sherman Alexie’s new book, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me“, an “assemblage of 156 confessional essays, vignettes and poems 51HiXEEugML._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_inspired by the death of Mr. Alexie’s mother from cancer in 2015.”

A looo-o-ng time ago I read the award-winning “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven“, a short story collection that featured Victor, a Spokane Indian who grows up on a reservation. Mr. Alexie himself is a Spokane-Coeur-d’Alene Indian. From what I remember the stories were great.

What struck me in the article were two things: what a hard life he’s had (born with hydroencephaly, diagnosed as bipolar, but there’s more–you can read the article to find out), and a quote about his typical reader and his ideal reader:

“When asked whom he considers his primary audience, he responded: “College-educated white women. That’s who buys and reads our books in mass numbers. To say otherwise is to either be purposefully or accidentally a liar. That said, my ideal reader is a poor, weird brown kid. And I get enough letters from them. When a weird brown kid says, ‘This story meant this to me,’ that’s the power.”

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Haruki Murakami gets meta(physical)

51DxPPUEYvL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My first exposure to Murakami was “Norwegian Wood“, which was sad in parts but never surreal. 2002’s “Sputnik Sweetheart” had me going “Oh no, not again!” when a main character seemingly disappeared to “the other side” (around 3/4 through). That “other side” was a parallel universe; one where she and her love object could have a physical affair because her adored had never suffered from a trauma in “World #1”. “Sputnik” also became way more wordy at this point.

After finishing the book out I immediately dove into the welcoming, earthbound arms of a Richard Russo novel (“Bridge of Sighs“).

I loved “Norwegian Wood” and also recently read and enjoyed “The Strange Library,” a novella by Murakami–with illustrations by graphic designer Chip Kidd–that had a touch of the surreal, but not as much as “Sputnik” and definitely not enough to drive me to any of Russo’s slowly-developed and non-surreal worlds.

He wouldn’t be Murakami without writing that explores or begins to explore the flip side of reality. Maybe I need to read his memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running“, next.

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Loser. Oops, loner.

Teddy Wayne, you sure do know how to master creepy. Is Loner a gothic, this novel about a lonely Harvard boy from New Jersey who becomes obsessed with an immeasurably more sophisticated fellow student? Which descends into a tale of stalking with a surprise ending?

It’s not really a gothic. Although there is madness and he “..uses diction to build suspense and a sense of unease in the reader.” (Goodreads.com), it doesn’t stand up there with Dracula and Frankenstein. Let’s say it’s a modern gothic, although I don’t remember heavy use of the setting to build suspense. Two out of three ain’t bad.

I can’t say that I liked this book, though I had to finish it because I wanted to know how it ended. The strategic relationship between the main character and the stalkee’s roommate disgusted me, though it did illustrate the degree of his alienation.

Teddy Wayne writes “Daily Shouts” for The New Yorker. If you read those and his book, you’ll wonder how the same person wrote them.

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Jonathan Evison

Jonathan Evison’s wonderful novels are all set in Washington State. I’ve previously read The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (see his Amazon author page for the story behind the story; it’s terribly sad.)

I’m now reading This is Your Life, Harriet Chance, a character study. He treats his characters with such affection and, though a tragic event happens in “The Revised Fundamentals..” there is also so much humor in his writing.

“Harriet Chance” is built around a big reveal maybe halfway in, but there is nothing dull about the first half. He has such a good sense of family relationships, and his eye for detail is spot-on.

I usually don’t write about books before I’m done reading them but haven’t posted here in awhile. Busy with kids (middle school acceptance letters, karate and other activities ad infinitum), volunteer nonprofit work and a search for paid work. And that is all for now.

Note a day later: I finished “Harriet Chance” and, though I liked “Fundamentals of Caregiving” more, I’m very happy I found out about this author. Looking forward to reading All About Lulu next.

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