Paris By The Book

Just when I think no one (including myself) is paying attention to Thoughts From The Back, some loyal reader questions why I haven’t posted about the book I reportedly finished. Ah, accountability…that’s what it’s all about folks.

For Mother’s Day, D#2 visited her college town for the first time since moving out post-graduation and left me with her sweet, but demanding dog. This all-important holiday was salvaged when she reclaimed her pooch and brought me gifts from Left Bank Books, our favorite St. Louis bookstore.

Paris By The Book by Liam Callanan was a perfect choice to start off the summer reading season. Here’s my quickie Goodreads review:

South of Broad by Pat Conroy was described as a love letter to Charleston and The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabriella Zevin as a love letter to bookstores. Paris By The Book is a love letter to Paris, bookstores, books and family. And with all that, Callanan pulls if off with an engaging story. Very enjoyable.

Leah and Robert Eady met and fell in love because of books, specifically two children’s books set in Paris, The Red Balloon and Madeline. Leah is the quirky, snarky-voiced narrator of this novel and I was drawn to her immediately. There is one rule in their marriage, novelist Robert is allowed to go off by himself anytime he feels the need, as long as he leaves a note. One day he leaves, without a note, and he doesn’t return. Leah and her two teen-ish daughters end up in Paris, in a bookstore, perhaps looking for Robert, definitely looking for a way thru their grief and into their futures.

It’s a love story and a mystery told with lots of humor. The very realistic mother-daughter and sibling dynamics keep the somewhat far-fetched story grounded. If you love books and bookstores, this is a book for you. If you also love Paris (I’m looking at you maisouiparis), this is a must read. Mid-way thru the book, Leah (and Callanan) explains why books are so important to her, ending with this paragraph:

I’ve never told the girls this, but one reason I like our geo-organizing of the store is that it reminds me of Robert’s and my adventures across Wisconsin, the ability to travel such distances – from Moscow to Cuba – in hardly any time at all. But what I also liked of those cities, of every last one of our books, is the hope buried deep within them. Paris, France – or Paris, New York – didn’t work out? That’s fine. Try Paris, Wisconsin. Such hope is resilient; every town, every book, is a way to say, look, there’s a new way, a different way. Every book in a bookstore is a fresh beginning. Every book is the next iteration of a very old story. Every bookstore, therefore, is like a safe-deposit box for civilization.

I’ve read books that have felt more “important,” but Paris By The Book was as enjoyable as any.

Some little things

I’m one of those people who always seems to be waiting for, preparing for, anticipating, and/or dreading some future big thing. It’s good to remind myself to stop looking ahead and appreciate some little things. I also think it’s good to share.

Little things I’m reading:

neckThe Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recommended and pressed into my hands by my niece. I’m enjoying it. I don’t feel fully engaged by her short stories, but the writing is excellent and I need to move her acclaimed novel, Americanah (also highly recommended by the niece) higher up my to-read pile. Adichie is a master of noting the little things; in the story Jumping Monkey Hill, the protagonist Ujunwa is attending a writer’s workshop and has just been introduced to the other participants.

Ujunwa looked around the table and wondered with whom she would get along. The Senegalese woman was the most promising, with the irreverent sparkle in her eyes and the Francophone accent and the streaks of silver in her fat dreadlocks. The Zimbabwean woman had longer, thinner dreadlocks, and the cowries in them clinked as she moved her head from side to side. She seemed hyper, overactive, and Ujunwa thought she might like her, but only the way she liked alcohol — in small amounts. The Kenyan and the Tanzanian looked ordinary, almost indistinguishable — tall men with wide foreheads who were wearing tattered beards and short-sleeved patterned shirts. She thought she would like them in the uninvested way that one likes nonthreatening people. She wasn’t sure about the South Africans: the white woman had a too-earnest face, humorless and free of makeup, and the black man looked patiently pious, like a Jehovah’s Witness who went from door to door and smiled when each was shut in his face. As for the Ugandan, Ujunwa had disliked him from the airport, and did so even more now.

speakI read Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll in one sitting yesterday while I was “volunteering” at the library. Actually, I did accomplish some useful things while I was there, but once I started on Speak, I had to finish. I loved the original young-adult novel when I read it years ago and the graphic novel was excellent, too. It packed a different, but equally visceral emotional punch.


Little things I’m watching:

I had been neglecting the bird feeders in the yard, but I finally got them cleaned up and refilled with fresh seed. This morning I watched a mamma red-bellied woodpecker grab a seed and hop up to a branch and feed it to her offspring. She did this several times before hopping up higher and calling encouragement to the young bird to sample the buffet himself. He was having none of this self-sufficiency business. She grabbed one more morsel for him and then they flew off together. I’ll be keeping an eye out, I hope to soon see this juvenile back on his own.

Little things that amuse me:

I have a bit of a front yard flowerbed reserved as my whimsy garden. Eventually I’d like to create a little fairy garden, but for now I’m using the space for a monthly series of gnomepun displays. Here are pictures of March, April and May.

What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t use it to showcase your own amusements. Here are some hints if you have no idea where I was going with these.


Think small and have a great day.


Oliver Loving

oliverDevastating. That’s the word that came to mind as I was reading and when I finished Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block. Now that a week has passed for me to pause and reflect, the original emotional crush has faded leaving behind memories of another excellent novel by Block.

Ten years ago, a former student entered the Bliss Township High School during the homecoming dance and shot five people before killing himself. Four victims died that evening, but 17-year old Oliver Loving survived and has lived for 10 years paralyzed and completely unresponsive. That moment has divided the lives of Oliver’s family into before and after.

The book is written in the third person, but each section shifts the focus between the different characters: Oliver, his younger brother Charlie, his mom Eve, and his father Jed. This structure works really, really well in this novel. I prefer the consistency of the writing, rather than switching fully into the voices of each character. Block’s timeline and pacing of the novel are excellent, also. It felt remarkably real-time and linear to me, even though so much of the past had to be told along the way.

I have always loved Block’s writing style. At the very first I thought maybe the writing was perhaps too descriptive, but I was quickly transported to the world and people he had created and never again stopped to think that maybe he was including any more details than were absolutely necessary.

Why did I love it? The setting was the Big Bend area of Texas, one of my favorite places on earth. Block weaves in a lot of issues for readers to ponder (such as gun control, violence, immigration, racial tension, mental illness, medical ethics, quality of life), without hitting you over the head or preaching. And, of course, the reason that I will love any book, the characters are amazing.

So why did I feel so devastated? The characters are all, not so much flawed, as broken. And as I empathized with each and every one of them, I felt broken, too. There has been no closure for the Loving Family in ten long years. How long can a mother hang on? How long can a brother search? How long can a father hide?

When I finished the first section that gave readers a look into the after life of Oliver’s brother, I looked up from the page and sighed out loud, “Oh Charlie.” I don’t know how I would react to such a tragedy, but how could I not feel for Oliver’s mom? Lines like this, from before, just tore me up:

This conversation….was about the untenable faith in which she (Eve) had tried to raise you: that all you had ever needed was right there, in the very cramped but infinitely loving planet she could enfold in her arms, and that the world beyond could only corrupt that simple, beautiful vision.

An excellent book that I would recommend for bookclubs, too. I just can’t guarantee that your heart will be in one piece when you finish.

The Animators and Goodbye, Vitamin

The young adult novel grows up. The coming of age story morphs into the finding myself story. A well-read friend of mine thought the ToB contained an unusually high percentage of these tales this year, a stat I won’t be able to comment on until I get further along with the list, but I did read two of them back-to-back.

animatorsThe Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker focuses on best friends and collaborators Mel and Sharon. Although they first meet at a fine arts program in college, most of the novel takes place roughly a decade later when they have successfully released their first feature-length animated movie. There were some story lines and a few plot twists, but it was much more of a character study. Sadly, I just couldn’t really care about any of the characters. It felt like a rehash of 60’s era “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll,” only replace the musical talent with artistic talent. I wanted to hear more about a pair of female animators making it in a man’s world, not just that they worked like fiends and had ink-stained fingers. The premise sounded so original, but the execution felt more formulaic. The writing was solid, as to be expected with a ToB pick, I thought she did exceptionally well with a first-person narrative. I am looking forward to hearing what the ToB community liked and didn’t like about it.

vitaminIn contrast, Rachel Khong might have done too good a job with Goodbye, Vitamin. Ruth, 30 years old and still smarting after her long-time boyfriend walked out on her, returns to her childhood home to help care for father, a former college professor who is slipping into deeper dementia. While there, she can no longer run away from confronting the not always happy marriage of her parents. The book is written in a stream of consciousness, diary format. The format itself is actually important to the story, it works, but….here’s where Khong did her job too well. I didn’t really want to read the diary of an angsty 30-year old. It felt like something I could’ve written (especially back in my angsty earlier life) and that is not a compliment. It felt genuine, it was a sweet story, but it never grabbed me.

So. Two books with great, bright covers. Two well-written entries in the ToB. Two books that make me wonder if I am aging out of the target audience for current, popular fiction.

Exit West

exitwestExit West by Mohsin Hamid is the third book I’ve read for this year’s Tournament of Books and my new favorite to win the Rooster. It’s the timely story of two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who flee their war-torn country for a chance at a life somewhere else. But it’s a timeless story as well, the balance between adapting to new cultures and experiences while holding on to pieces of the past. And it’s a bit of speculative fiction, taking a possible peek at the future of mankind’s migration around planet Earth.

The author takes what feels like a theatrical trick, a trap-door under the stage, and turns it into a literary device to shortcut Saeed and Nadia’s journey, making the migration about where they are rather than their journey. I loved it, and I loved all the symbolism behind it.

The writing is beautiful, causing my to-read list to grow with the addition of Hamid’s earlier novels. It was emotionally restrained, somehow, yet powerfully precise. Here are four of my favorite lines:

“…but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

“What she was doing, what she had just done, was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was, and so it mattered, and if necessary was worth a fight.”

“Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done.”

“Every time a couple moves, they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”

In these for passages, I feel like Hamid captures essential truths of moving on, of human dignity, of acceptance, and of love.

In Pachinko, immigration is the focal point of a multi-generational family saga. In Exit West, a love story of two young adults is the focal point of a world-wide human migration saga. I love that both these books are included in the ToB.

Next up: The Animators.