Little Paris Bookshop is a Book Lover's Book

Nina George
Crown, 400 pages, 978-0553418774
* * * * *

This is a book for lovers of all kinds, especially book lovers. Where better to set a book about a bookseller than along the banks of the Seine, whose Left Bank is lined with book stalls? The Seine is also home to a number of barges tethered to the shore and connected to the utilities grid. Author Nina George takes us to a special place: a riverside barge that is home to Jean Perdu, who also operates a bookshop and dispensary of non-prescription pharmaceutical supplies. Perdu—French for lost—fancies himself a “literary apothecary” who can take the measure of a person, discern what ails the soul, and prescribe a book that will cure it–and not necessarily a classic either. Perdu loves books so much that he doesn’t discriminate between a medieval medical text, a pulp romance, a Harry Potter novel, or a tome that is fodder for the literary canon. But can Perdu find his own way and heal himself?

Later in the book Perdu will encounter a lovesick Italian chef named Cuneo, whose life is summed by the advice he dispenses: “Eat well, sleep well, make good friends, and have good sex.” None of that is happening for Perdu, who eats out tins, suffers from insomnia, is a loner, and hasn’t had sex in over 20 years though he’s only middle-aged. Jean’s curmudgeonly ways are shaken when he’s prevailed upon to donate a small table from the apartment he seldom uses to a furniture-poor new tenant: the equally lonely and easy-on-the-eyes Catherine. She finds an unopened letter in the table drawer that reveals the depths of Jean’s despair. I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll just say that it deals with the mystery of why the love of his life left him. One of the many joys of George’s novel is how literature and life collide. Her name is Manon, and if you know anything at all about French literature and film you will recognize  Manon as the name of the avenging protagonist in Marcel Pagnol's Jean de Florette saga, a work considered by many to embody the very soul of France.   

George's Manon is not an avenger, but she is certainly a woman of secrets, which George parsimoniously doles out. Call Manon Jean's muse. Or is she more of a Siren? That's precisely what Jean—note the first name—must figure out as he embarks upon an improbable voyage to Manon's native Provence. His spartan voyage to find himself parallels Huckleberry Finn lighting out for the Territory, with Jim replaced by a tag-along famous author, Max Jordan, whose affected quirkiness is his self-remedy for writer's block and disgust with celebrity. Along the way, the two pick up Cuneo–another lost soul. Will this be a healing journey, or the voyage of the damned? Will Manon's secrets be cooling waters (Manon des Sources) for Jean's parched soul, or a dry well? The Little Paris Bookshop begins as a quirky book about eccentricity and evolves into a story about love and grieving. Romance or tragedy?

Read mes amis.  As you read, you can enhance your pleasure by keeping a good literary reference work by your side You will detect references and homage to scores of writers: Pagnol, E.M. Forster, Douglas Adams, Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, Catharine Millet, Muriel Barbery, Robert Musil, Anais Nin, and lots of others that were unfamiliar to me, including numerous German authors whose work hasn't been translated. George's novel has been called a work of "magical realism," though in my view such a label rests too narrowly upon Jean Perdu's uncanny literary apothecary talents. The book is certainly 'magical' in the spell it weaves upon readers, but I found it less a work of unexplained phenomena than one that probes the human heart with such surgical precision that we come to understand how ordinary people can be flung by love, longing, and circumstance into the extraordinary and sublime. It is, simply, beautifully written–the sort of book in which the reader vicariously experiences the tastes, smells, heartaches and hopes of its characters. In short, it's a triumph–truly one of the year's best. For emotional impact, it gets my vote for one of the best I've read this century.   Rob Weir

Postscript: Nina George is quite an interesting person in her own right: a German national who dropped out school and has worked as a caterer, journalist, crime writer, novelist, and non-fiction writer. She has written numerous books under her own name, plus several pseudonyms, including Anne West, the latter used for books on eroticism and sexuality. The Little Paris Bookshop is said to be semi-autobiographical. 


The Green Road: Irish Gloom Worth Exploring

Anne Enright
W.W.Norton, 304 pages, 978-0393248210
* * * *

Though I suspect they 'd happily give up the title, no nationality does gloom and world-weariness quite as well as the Irish. The English are often viewed as the champions at resignation and muddling through life, but it's really the Irish who rule that sad roost. I'm sure it has something to do with Catholicism. Read a novel about a dysfunctional Irish family like The Green Road, and you come away with the feeling that everyone would happily kill themselves—if only it weren't a mortal sin.

The Green Road is similar in style and content to Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread, but without its (usually misplaced) hope that things might get better. If everything I've written so far sounds like you wish to steer a million miles from this book, let me direct you back to it.  Former Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright (The Gathering, 2007) is a skillful writer who knows how to uncoil a narrative. The Green Road, in fact, is a set of individual narratives that collectively tell the 35-year saga of the Madigan family. It opens in 1980 inside a house named Ardeevin in County Clare—a fictional place (probably just outside of Doolin) located near the Cliffs of Moher. Although paterfamilias Pat is present, Ardeevin's reigning queen is his wife Rosaleen. She tries her hardest to be imperious, but her brood—Constance, Dan, Emmet, and Hanna–give her fits, so she resorts to melodrama when things don't go her way—which is often.

Filmmaker Michael Apted once commented, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." In The Green Road, this holds true across gender lines. We see Constance as a controlling child who grows up to be a mother of four who replicates Rosaleen's desire (and failure) to be in control all the time. Youngest daughter Hanna goes off to Dublin to be an actress, fails, suffers from post partum depression, and drinks too much, which means she competes with Rosaleen in the histrionics department. As a teen, Dan announces he wants to become a priest–though he has a sullen girlfriend named Isabelle with whom he's been sleeping. His priestly dreams go awry when he and Isabelle flee Ireland for New York City, where they land at the height of the AIDS crisis. That doesn't stop Dan from pretending he's straight while having it off with every young man attracted to his outward beauty. Emmet is the one who tries to save the world, eventually going off to Mali and burning through a few girlfriends because, as it turns out, he's too sullen and self-centered to be as altruistic as he fancies himself.  

As the complicates their lives the one constant is that only Constance—Does her name doom her?–maintains much contact with Rosaleen and all tend to see her as the root of whatever unresolved difficulty presents itself. Move the needle forward and it's 2005. The economic boom dubbed the Celtic Tiger is already beginning to display signs of being less a Bengal than a sickly domestic tabby, but Ardeevin is well located. Seventy-six-year-old Rosaleen is not only lonely, she's begun to suspect that the only one who ever "got" her was her silent husband and he's been in the grave for several years. Why not sell Ardeevin—after a final Christmas there with her children? Think that will go well?

Enright doesn't invite us to love the Madigans, though she gives character and a strong personality to each of them. Hers is the best kind of tragedy in that it doesn't play upon cheap sentimentality. Characters are realistic in that they have faults and are a mixed bag of traits. Is Dan just a clueless naïf or a manipulative sexual gourmand? Is Rosaleen a spurned woman, or one who reaped what she sowed? Are the Madigans a metaphor form the Irish Republic? You read; you decide.  

Rob Weir


The Slow West: Westerns Retold or a Pretty Mess?

Directed by John Maclean
See-Saw Films/A24
84 minutes, R (violence)
* * *

Depending upon whom you ask, The Slow West is either an intriguing foreign take on American Westerns or an eye-catching mess. From where I sit, it's a bit of both. This Scottish/New Zealand film marks the directorial debut of John Maclean, who hitherto was famed for being part of Scotland's Beta Band, an innovative indie band ensemble compared to Radio Head that blended folk, electronica, and acid rock. Maclean may be used to mash ups, but it remains an open question as to whether this is a Tartan/Kiwi retelling of American legends, or an unintentional parody analogous to bad spaghetti Westerns.  

At just 84 minutes, the film is certainly worth a gamble if you're intrigued, but be warned: the title is both a play on the "Old" West and a statement that the pace will be languid with breaks of action, not vice versa. It opens in Scotland, where 15-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is trying to court Rose Ross (the luminous Caren Pistorious) and must dive under the bed when her protective father, John  (Rory McCann), arrives home early. As movie convention tells us, that's a terrible place to hide, but as John is giving young Jay a brogue-laden tongue-lashing, the local laird arrives to demand rent the Roses don't have. When he has the discourtesy to slap Rose, her father gives him a crofter's fatal heave-ho onto an inconveniently placed rock. This was capital offense stuff in 1869 Scotland; hence father and daughter go on the lamb—to America.

Move the clock forward one year and besotted Jay is making his way across the American West in search of Rose. Every bounty hunter in the region seems to know what Jay does not: that there's a trans-Atlantic $2,000 dead-or-alive bounty (about $37,000 in 2014 dollars) on John and Rose. It's an understatement to say that Jay, a 16-year-old romantic innocent, isn't terribly prepared to negotiate the lawless West.  Luckily he runs into Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who offers to be a pay-for-service guide. Silas is a classic Western loner of few words about whom the only thing we learn for certain is that he once traveled with a motley gang headed by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). Is Silas a free spirit, a stubble-faced paternal do-gooder hidden behind a crusty exterior, or is he playing Jay like a cheap accordion so he can collect the bounty on the Rosses? The two make their way across the indeterminate West—we're never told exactly where we're supposed to be–against a backdrop of casual violence, desperation, hostile Natives, cutout bad guys, majestic backdrops, and capricious nature before secrets are revealed. All of these, of course, are also standard Western tropes, as is Maclean's blood-soaked denouement.
It's surprising to see Fassbender amidst this cast of relative unknowns, though to their credit, most of them are very good. Pistorious (Rose) is especially strong in the limited role she plays. Her bearing alone suggests Jay might be on a foolish boy's errand; in the intervening year, Rose has transformed from a coquette into a confident young woman with weighty things upon her mind. The bigger question is whether the film works, or if it demonstrates little more than Maclean's fascination for Big Sky Country based upon an incomplete understanding of it.

Once again, both readings are possible. Maclean chose New Zealand's South Island (near Twizel) as a stand-in for the edge-of-the–Rockies West. It's not accurate: The Remarkables are more lush and green for a start, nor will you find a preponderance of lupine-filled riverbeds or walls of yellow gorse in the Rocky Mountain plains as one does in the Canterbury (NZ) Plain. Does that matter? Yes if you think a film about the West needs to pay John Ford-like reverence to the landscape. No; if you think Maclean's point is that humans are but pretty puny and fragile dots upon nature's pristine carpet of grandeur. We must also give Maclean credit for avoiding one hackneyed Western trope: the violence he shows is pointless, not redemptive or cleansing. (Note to Maclean: No one used Colt-45s in 1870, as it wasn't invented for another three years.)

This is an odd film in that it looks beautiful and is well acted, yet feels unrealized. It's been a bomb in US markets (under $230,000 in receipts) but you might want to give it a look. If you come away feeling as if it's just a glossier version of an early 1960s TV show, I'd not dispute you, but I'll gleefully watch gloss filmed in New Zealand.   Rob Weir