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[830] The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain


“How many things do we feel obliged to do for the sake of it, or for appearances, or because we are trained to do them, but which weigh us down and don’t in fact achieve anything?”

Set in modern-day Paris, The Red Notebook is the story of a bookseller who finds a handbag in the street one day, takes it home with him, empties out its plethora of contents and decides to look for the woman who owns it. Unbeknownst to him, the handbag belongs to this woman had been mugged the night before.

The book is a gem of a novella. It uses a found object as the pivot on which to turn a tale of happenstance. Laurent Letellier is a banker-turned-bookseller in his mid-forties. Given the handbag provides no information on owner’s contact and identity, he combs through the personal effects and reads through the journal for clues. Ensued is a whimsical experience of nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened or will happen–he gets to know her and her preferences and intimate details through her words but not knowing her in person.

Who is she? What does she do for a living? Why so many keepsakes in a small handbag? The aggregation between owner and finder is lightly spun, but eventually joined by the inventory of objects that bodes well for their kinship. This novella observes the totemic power of belongings. That Laure fought her mugger and grieved the loss of her bag speaks for the value of it—a piece of life that is irreplaceable. Laurain really captures the potent combination of sentiment and association attached to the most unlikely things.

A tale of serrendipity.

159 pp. Gallic Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[829] Inferno – Dan Brown


“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” (Ch.38, 211)

Inferno is typical Dan Brown and Da Vinci Code all over again: somewhat repetitive plot line, famous antiquity-rich cities, hidden, cryptic messages and riddles, scavenger hunt with a fast pace. But all that said, it’s worth a read because Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s visual correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest.

Inferno opens with Robert Langdon being in dulled wits. The professor of symbology awakens in a Florentine hospital disoriented and with no recollection of the past few days, including the origin of a sealed biotube hidden in the seams of his tweed jacket. It’s a carved cylinder (a Faraday conductor) showing Botticelli’s Map of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, but altered. The levels of Dante’s inferno has been scrambled, and that, when they are replaced in the proper sequence, yields a message embedded in a mural by Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. But the shaking opening turns out to be one of the many tricks jampacked in the book, along with his female partner in adventure, Dr. Sienna Brooks, who is not what she says she is.

From there Langdon runs up against macabre symbols of biohazard, plagues, imagery of Dante’s hell, and poems imitated in Dante’s style. It’s soon revealed that Langdon on a global chase to save the human race following a trail of clues about Dante left behind by the plotter, who adopts an extreme but unethical view about the world. So Langdon is not dealing with downright villainy, but sinister cultism of some sort, the dark scheming that involves curbing overpopulation.

The riddles are intriguing and the twists relentless. Alliance changes and reverse about midway through the book, throwing reader on the edge. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem, but still able to draw imagery and allusions from the work whenever he feels that he needs them. Everything that refers to something else generates more codes and symbols and messages. The book is a constant thrill and confirms that Brown is a plot-maker (but only that). It’s a good story combining science and history.

611 pp. Anchor Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[828] The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George


“Memories are like wolves. You can’t lock them away and hope they leave you leave.” (Ch.1, 5)

The Little Paris Bookshop has a very promising start: a bookshop on a barge called the Literary Apothecary on the bank of Seine in Paris, a bookseller who not only loves books but has a nearly mystical ability to assess the deepest feelings and wounds of his customers, and cats that nudge behind bookshelves and keep his company.

For twenty years Jean Perdu is still heartbroken over his lost love, and the room Manon used to live in has been barred by a giant bookcase. But when Perdu reads the letter from her, sealed and stowed away for twenty-one years, everything changes for him. He decides to set sail for the town in southern France where Manon was from, along with a best-selling author who is stuck in a writer’s block. Together they embark on a trip to small quaint towns where they use books as currency to exchange for food and services.

The journey is an emotional one poised on self-reflection. Perdu experiences a self-awakening that frees himself from the compulsion to only make the right moves. There’s a lot of soul searching and conversation in the head, as he wrestles the thoughts that all these years he has endured loneliness because he did not want to trust love again.

All of us preserve time. We preserve the old versions of the people who have left us. And under our skin, under the layers of wrinkles and experience and laughter, we, too, are old versions of ourselves. (Ch.19, 137)

But ironically, as much as he prescribes books to his wounded customers, he is the one who is sorely in need of nourishment and healing; and he is not cured by books, but by friendship, time, and love. Hurt feelings have their time distance and they have to run the course.

I appreciate the concept behind this novel, which really should be a short story. Before halfway it has become flat and has exhausted the point it’s making. The book barge Nd the book trade peter out early, and I do not expect the book to be a romance in the most literal sense.

408 pp. Broadway Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[827] The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton


“Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.”

The Luminaries is an entangled, convoluted story, at least told in a convoluted manner, that is set in the 19th century, during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. It’s an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, well-plotted but owing to the stylistic choice Catton so scrupulously pursues, too long due to the reiteration of events. The style is that each successive part is half the length of its predecessor, such that before long the chapter introductions are longer than the text they preface. And Catton’s commitment to delineating a full year’s astrological changes requires looping back to events of 1865-1866 repetitiously for the last quarter of the book.

A string of coincidences is not a coincidence.

The novel attempts to unravel the mystery of a day when a chain of events unfold in the town of Hokitika. A very wealthy man—owner of a gold mine, disappeared. A prostitute tried to end her life. An enormous fortune was found in the home of a hapless drunk, who was overdosed on laudanum. His identity and mining tight had been stolen. These seemingly unrelated events turn out to be part of a bigger plan of an ex-con man. The arrival of a man who is running for councilman kicks off this string of strange coincidences. This ex-con man who has cheated Alastair Lauderback out of his ship then lost the shipping crate by which he had forced the politician’s hand. Inside this crate was a trunk containing gold, a fortune that had been sewn into the lining of five dresses. The seamstress was a crafty woman named Lydia Wells, a brothel owner who was, at that time, posing as the ex-con’s wife, and helping him to steal her ex-husband’s fortune. When the prostitute learned, some weeks after her arrival in Hokitika, that a trunk containing women’s dresses had been salvaged from a wreck, she purchased all five without noticing the added weight since she is an opium user and it as sober.

So a multiple storylines cram the 800 pages, winding up a skein of a mystery that’s rich with sibling secrets, sex, opium and drugs, a doomed love affair, murder, extortion, impersonation, fraud, forgery, and double dealing. It opens like a play, with Walter Moody stumbling upon a clandestine meeting of twelve prominent men in a hotel meeting hall. It’s highly wrought, artificial piece of tale-telling accorded to the astrological framing device. The opacity of this angle results in reiteration of events over and over again. In this respect, the novel appears too clever for its own good. That said, Catton’s use of contemporary slang, circumlocutions, and lexicons befitting the different characters are all spot-on.

830 pp. Little Brown Books. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Celebrate the Freedom to Read

It’s Banned Books Week. Read something that some prudish bureaucrat condemned as mind-polluting trash.

The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available.

[826] After the Parade – Lori Ostlund


“Aaron still had memories of the house his family had lived in and the street where his father died, enough to make his arrival with Walter a homecoming, even though he thought of what he was doing that day as running away. It was all a matter of perspective: whether one was focused on leaving or arriving, on the past or the future.” (Ch.2, 18)

After the Parade is a man’s emotional journey down the memory lane in order to come to terms with who he is. Aaron Englund Is leaving his older partner with whom he has been for over twenty years. The story goes back in time when he was raised in a small Minnesota town, where he led a lonely existence. His parents were in an abusuve, hostile relationship. When he was five, an accident that claimed the life of his father became the defining point for his life and family. At age 16, his mother vanished along with the town’s minister. It is Walter who rescues him from his foster family and gives him his life. He owes it all to him.

Aaron regarded the world as fraught with symbolism, a place where something as ordinary as knotting a tie became a commentary on one’s life.” (Ch.3, 42)

The book begins with Aaron leave his long-term partner, who has supported him all the years. But Aaron feels his life has been controlled by Walter. He leaves their home in New Mexico and moves to San Francisco, where he hopes to start afresh and continues his career as an ESL teacher. Through flashbacks reader gains an understanding of what has shaped Aaron into the man he has become. He is big-hearted and self-conscious but not feeling closure of his past. Any ordinary object could evoke his memories; the world he lives in is fraught with symbolism that justifies his beliefs and feelings.

It is obvious the past heartbreaks, disappointments dictate his mentality in the present. His angry, abusive father, a police officer, was killed in a freak accident. But it was what happened the night before—so horrified and deciding—that unhinged his mother and led to greater consequence. His mother, before her vanishing, vacillated between smothering and distant. His teacher never warmed up to him. He had never felt at ease with himself and was always an object of ridicule. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he learned to “feel invisible” (221) and enjoy it. He encountered a number of people whose differences were either physical or emotional, yet he felt at home with these misfits. Along the way he wrestles his gamut of contradictory emotions and makes sense of them.

After the Parade is a moving story about feeling isolated, feeling different, and how our relationships and personalities are shaped by the things that occur in our lives. Much of the book is about how Aaron, who keeps the world at an arm’s length, is translating into an emotional distance. The story is provocative, but unfolding very slowly as flashbacks often intersects thoughts. The language has multiple layers of meanings.

340 pp. Scrubber. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[825] Paradise Lost -John Milton


“The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven . . . Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” (i, 254-5, 263)

Paradise Lost is about Adam and Eve—how they came to be created and how they came to lose their place in the Garden of Eden, also called Paradise. It’s the story of Genesis retold, expanded by Milton into a long, detailed, narrative freedom free of rhyme. It also includes the story of the origin of Satan, for whom Milton is actually empathetic. Originally, he was called Lucifer, an angel in heaven who led his followers in a war against God, and was defeated, and ultimately sent with them to Hell. Thirst for revenge led him to insinuate as a serpent, plotting deceit, and causing man’s fall by tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.

… whatever thing death be, / Deterred not from achieving what might lead / To happier life, knowledge of good and evil; / Of good, how just? Of evil, if what is evil / Be real, why not known, since easier shunned? (ix, 695-9)

The epic poem dramatically confronts the fallen Christian nation with its failures, and offers some distant and doubtful hope of an eventual return to grace. While most of the narrative concerns with the events leading to the fall of mankind and the redemption, its focus is on Satan. Paradise Lost acknowledges from the outset that God’s ways are not self-evident, any more than God is. It’s hinted that God sets Satan up to fall. He gives a stern warning that anyone who disobeys him or his son will be cast out of heaven. But since there’s no sin or evil at the time of his speech, why give the warning?

An idea that resonated throughout the poem ponders on the question how one knows anything except by trial? This is why Milton is showing empathy toward Satan, portraying him the most human character whose psychology and motivation are more relatable and comprehensible to us. Milton is courageous to acknowledge our ties are more profoundly with Satan than with God. This is why Satan is not presented as hideous and perverse. It’s rebellion that makes obedience meaningful—what good is the good without evil?

The fall is hardly anything but an easy transgression. It is an intricately linked series of small actions no one of which is clearly understood by any of the participants; and the final outcome is far more the result of ignorance and inexperience than of intentional disobedience. It really boils down to free will and the right to know. What is forbidden to man is the knowledge of good and evil, and specifically the ability to distinguish between them and thereby choose between them. Therefore, the sin has been committed as soon as it is acknowledged that there is another way of looking at things.

This book is very dense, but filled with artistry of lines and archaic lyricism. It has great cosmic vistas, it describes gods and monsters, and creation of the world. And the sublimity of its subject matter is matched by the sustained beauty of its language. Adam and Eve are more human than they are in the bible, with Adam putting his value in his love for Eve. It’s a story about losing perfection, coming to take responsibility for that loss and going on despite it.

330 pp. Oxford World Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]