mardi 30 septembre 2008

Le Figaro called it the revelation of the year. Lire called it the masterpiece of the year. It even won the Prix Femina last year. We’re talking about “L’Elegance du Herisson” by Muriel Barbery which recently came out in English. With such lofty praise it seemed almost ridiculous not to see what the fuss was all about.
The story is told in alternating chapters between Madame Renée Michel, the concierge at no 7 rue de Grenelle and Paloma Josse, the precocious daughter of one of the bourgeois families of the building. Renée hides a fierce intelligence, love of literature (notably of Leo Tolstoy) and love of Japanese culture. But, she is forced such shining facets of her personality under the veneer of what the French have come to expect from a concierge—stupid, old, ugly and sour. She only has her friend Manuela, to relieve the tedium and penury of her existence. Paloma on the other hand, is an extremely intelligent (in her own words) young girl who is disillusioned by her family and their privileged, if pointless, way of life and as such has decided to end her existence in a fiery blaze on her 13th birthday. Each seem set on their respective course till an elegant Japanese gentleman comes to live in their building. From such a random occurrence their collective lives change as they discover that there is more to the other than meets the eye.
I have to admit that my main problem with the book was its basic premise that a person, deemed lowly in social station, could not possibly be more than what society thinks the person should be. This book assumes that its (French) readers would take it as a matter of course that a concierge would be lacking intelligence and culture. Even worse was the way it was repeated all throughout the text. Barberry takes pains to drive home the lowliness of Renee’s station every so often that it jars the reader from the text. It was quite disturbing for me, but perhaps as an Anglophone reader, there is a cultural context here that I am missing. The fact that the whole story hinges on this presumption undermines what Barberry set out to do—which in essence is to write a meditative tale on philosophy, art and unlikely friendships. There are passages in the book that are quite lovely especially her philosophy musings on art and beauty and what these concepts mean to us. Or how beauty can be found in the most fleeting of moments. To wit, “the most noble concepts often emerge from the most coarse and commonplace things….Beauty is consonance [but] if you think about it at all seriously, esthetics is really nothing more than an initiation to the Way of Consonance, a sort of Way of the Samurai applied to the intuition of authentic forms. We all have knowledge of harmony, anchored deep within. It is this knowledge that enables us, at every instance, to apprehend quality in our lives and on the rare occasions when everything is in perfect harmony , to appreciate it with the apposite intensity. ..Those who feel inspired as I do by the greatness of small things will pursue them to the very heart of the inessential where, cloaked in everyday attire, this greatness will emerge from the certainty that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way.” Barberry is in her element when it comes to writing these parts of the book and to my mind, they are the best parts.
Read the Elegance of the Hedgehog if you want to have an insight into the French psyche with its deep and abiding interest in philosophical musings on art, beauty and truth.

samedi 27 septembre 2008

On fantasy books and other funny things

It certainly was an exciting week for us at RWB. After two readings, I literally jumped up with joy when we received .....drumroll please..... the new Cornelia Funke and Christopher Paolini books. And I am sure that I am not alone in celebrating this as it has been a rather long wait.

Inkdeath closes the Inkworld (Inkspell and Inkheart) trilogy by Cornelia Funke. It is one of the most well written fantasy series, currently available and dare I say it, more than holds its own against Harry Potter. Not to be disloyal to the boy wizard but Meggie and Farid are memorable characters and their story lingers long after the last page has been turned. While written for the young adult market, there is enough action, humor and fantasy in the series to satisfy the most discerning adult reader. I can't wait to get started on Inkdeath.

Brisinger by Christopher Paolini is the concluding volume to the Inheritance Cyle (Eragon and Eldest being the first two). Paolini had quite a memorable debut since Eragon was published when he was just 17. Pretty impressive and his book has since been turned into a movie! Brisinger promises to be another exciting addition to the fantasy genre.

Eh voila..another week comes to a close but we had another funny thing in store for us when we received the paperback copies of Peter Carey's His Illegal Self. We didn't realize that the publishers had decided to use Jules Le Masson for the cover...Hmmm....maybe we should ask for modeling fees?

jeudi 25 septembre 2008

September readings

I think one of the coolest things about working for RWB is the chance to meet authors we love, whose work we unashamedly recommend to everyone we know. It may arguably be cooler than meeting a famous rock star or celebrity even. I think because they are authors I’ve read (and whose works I love), it frees me to talk and discuss with them, in a way that I probably couldn’t with a famous celebrity. This week we struck gold by having two of our favorites.

Last night we were privileged to have the wonderful Amy Bloom with us at the RWB. We never tire of telling everyone that her book Away is one of our favorites and its true too. It was with great excitement that we asked Amy to come for a reading and luckily she accepted right away. In person, she is smart as a whip and despite her jet lag was witty and funny. I loved how the way she read Away gave an extra dimension to Lillian, its memorable heroine. And I’m glad that she didn’t kill her off because we learned that she actually contemplated killing Lillian while writing the novel. Lucky for us that her editor talked her out of it! Because we were a rather intimate group last night, we were able to have a good discussion with her. Our questions ranged from what inspires you to advice on the writing process. I thought it was really interesting how she made the distinction between sentimentality and romanticism. The line between the two is clearly a blurry one and a less skilled writer can’t or doesn’t always distinguish between the two. If you think about it, there are a great number of sentimental novels passing themselves off as romantic ones. What’s great about Amy’s work, whether in the short story form or the novel, is that she is able to cut out all the extraneous sentimentality to leave the bare bones of feeling in the stories that make them even more unforgettable. Before we closed our evening with her, we asked her who her favorite authors are and we were surprised (though I don’t know why it should be surprising) to learn that she is a great fan of mystery novels ,P.D. James and Ed Mcbain being some of them. I thought that was a nice segue into the next author to have a reading with us who just happens to be a great mystery writer!

It is none other than Cara Black who was with us tonight. She is famous for her Aimeé Leduc mystery novels. Eight novels so far, each set in different arrondissements of Paris. Despite her cold, Cara was en plein forme, wonderfully entertaining and lively. She is a great raconteur and we were treated to stories behind her books. She did a great job whetting the audience’s appetite for Murder in the Rue de Paradis which is set in the 10th arrondissment of Paris. And while I knew that an enormous amount of research goes into each of her books, it was clear from tonight just how much really goes into each one. We are fortunate for her attention to detail because the books really come alive for their authenticity and richness of details. It was a lively group tonight with people peppering Cara with questions on how she came to write about a female detective. And it was interesting to learn that she in fact based Aimeé on a family run detective company, whose office is in a street on Rue du Louvre. A switch of the syllables and from Deluc we have Leduc. One of the most interesting things to come out of our reading tonight was something Cara said. She said that a mystery novel is a really great way of telling a story. Why? For the simple reason that there is a neat and tidy resolution to it that we rarely have in real life.

Books to already look forward to in 2009--the new short story collection of Amy Bloom and the 9th Leduc mystery--Murder in the Latin Quarter by Cara Black!

dimanche 21 septembre 2008

As you all know by now, all of us at RWB loved Amy Bloom’s Away. It is one of our favorite books. Since we have the pleasure of Amy’s company on the 24th (Wednesday 7PM), I thought I would read one of her earlier books. I picked up Come To Me, her debut collection of stories and was happy to discover that her gift is just as strong with short stories as it is with a full length novel.
The running theme through this collection is love, in all its forms and all the ways by which we seek, destroy and nurture love. But this is by no means a fairy tale collection of maidens and princes with their happy ever after stories. Instead we have stories of flawed people struggling with death and crippling grief (Love is not a Pie, Sleepwalking and Semper Fidelis), madness and illness (Silver Water) and loneliness (Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines and When the Year Grows Old). What leavens the potential for despair is the luminous prose and the palpable sense of hope that permeates these stories. Underlying each story is the rich empathy with which Bloom writes. In this day and age where a true happy ending begins to seem like a myth, Bloom offers us stories of the next best thing—the possibility of happiness and that all important second chance.

mardi 16 septembre 2008

Before diving into Amy Bloom and Cara Black's books in preparation for their readings next week at RWB, here are the newest books in fiction and non fiction for your reading pleasure...

New in Hardcover Non-Fiction
1. The Definitive Guide to Stuff White People Like by Christian Lander
2. Eat Me--The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin
3.Turkemeniscam by Ken Silverstein
4. An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
5. Churchill's Wizards by Nicholas Rankin
6. Left in Dark Times by Bernard-Henri Levy
7. The Terminal Spy by Alan Cowell
8. Moving to Higher Ground by Wynton Marsalis
9. The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank
10. Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

New in Hardcover Fiction
1.Indignation by Philip Roth
2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry
3. Fine Just the Way it is by Annie Proulx
4. The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent
5. Home by Marilynne Robinson
6. Spook's Mistake by Joseph Delaney

New in Paperback Fiction
1. The Believers by Zoe Heller
2. Doors Open by Ian Rankin
3. The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
4. An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
5. The Night Villa by Carol Goodman

And if you haven't written down the dates, here they are again--Amy Bloom on the 24th of September and Cara Black on the 25th. Readings start at 7pm!

jeudi 11 septembre 2008

I finished Sea of Poppies yesterday just as they announced the Booker Shortlist. And guess who made it in the shortlist? Amitav Ghosh! Hah! Vindication maybe for the long hours I spent on his book. But lest you get the wrong idea, I was happily enslaved by Sea of Poppies and towards the end, could hardly tear my eyes off the page.
It tells the story of a group of disparate strangers, brought together by fate in the guise of the workings of the British Empire in the Far East to one place, the Ibis. The Ibis is an old slave ship, newly out fitted for its new purpose of trading opium from India to China. But before it commences its opium journey, it must first transport a group of slaves destined for the islands of Mauritius.
With this premise, Ghosh carefully lays in place the stories of the principal characters. There is Deeti, with the clear gray eyes of a witch who loses her husband to opium addiction and is forced to flee her abusive brother in law. Paulette Lambert, an orphan who seeks a way of returning to Mauritius, her mother’s birthplace after she learns that she is to be engaged against her will. Then there is the disgraced Raja Neel Halder, who unwittingly loses all his property to his British partner Benjamin Burnham. And finally there is Zachary Reid, a free mulatto man seeking to make his fortune in the Far East. Despite their different stories they are all forced to flee their circumstances and somehow end up in the Ibis. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the weaving together of these different tales might well seem implausible, even contrived, but such is Ghosh’ skill that he is able to do so in a perfectly convincing way. It is to our benefit that he takes his time to tell each tale so that they blend together seamlessly. There is also a strong narrative structure that propels the story forward. Length ceases to matter as the story takes you irresistibly along. Don’t be put-off by the shipping jargon and free use of the Bhojpuri language. This is an epic and addictive tale and you will be swept along.
More than the engaging story however and the irresistible narrative, what really elevates Ghosh’ work is the way he perfectly captures the sense of displacement that is engendered by colonialism. He is able to describe in heartbreaking detail the callousness with which the British overlords enriched themselves at the expense of their Indian colonies. Set in the 1830’s when opium was the primary trading good of the British, these were the days when Indian farmers were forced to grow poppy, and only poppy. For me, what was most galling was the idea that the natives were supposed to be grateful for being on the receiving end of civilisation and religion as brought to them by the British. But at what price?
As Deeti puts it “in the old days, the fields would be heavy with wheat in the winter, and after the spring harvest, the straw would be used to repair the damage of the year before. ..But now, the factory’s appetite for opium never seemed to be sated. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers making them sign asami contracts. It was impossible to say no to them.
Little wonder then that hundreds would be forced to take desperate measures to save their lives and their families, even such measures that would take them far away from all that they know and love. One of the most beautiful passages in the book comes almost to the end, when the characters have crossed the line into the Black Water, the great unknown…"How had it happened that when choosing men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”

mercredi 10 septembre 2008

September Readings

Today we had a surprise visit from author Cara Black who just arrived in the city. She is in town for a series of readings including one at the Red Wheelbarrow. Folks, its time to write this date down---Cara Black at the RWB on Thursday the 25th of September 2008. Cara is the author of the hugely successful Aimée Leduc mystery series which are set in various arrondissements of Paris.

For the other surprise of today, we are happy to announce that Amy Bloom will also be coming to do a reading of her latest book Away at the RWB. Her date with us is Wednesday the 24th of September.

We hope to see everyone on these dates! Keep reading the blog for further details on these events.

mardi 9 septembre 2008

A Merde Encounter

Penelope always says that sooner or later all authors come through our doors. Our recent author visitor was none other than Stephen Clarke whose new book Dial M for Merde is hot off the press! In this latest installment, Paul West becomes embroiled in a plot to kill no less than the new French President. It sounds like good rollicking fun and fans are sure to enjoy the latest in the hugely successful Merde series. Get your signed copy while you can at the RWB!

Here's Stephen with another one of his books...

mardi 2 septembre 2008

In 1770, the Viennese court was held in thrall by the exploits of the Mechanical Turk, a chess playing automaton. His creator was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Mechanical Turk was a royal sensation and even embarked on a tour to better display his prowess. From such historical basis, author Robert Lohr ( and ably translated by Anthea Bell) has crafted a historical novel about the Turk and his creator, von Kempelen. It is now a well accepted fact that the automaton was a clever hoax but not much is known of the person behind the Turk. Where it deviates from historical fact is a murder for which the Turk comes under suspicion. If that were not bad enough, the hapless victim is the Baroness Ibolya Jesenak , von Kempelen’s former lover. Naturally it is the Turk and Von Kempelen, who fall under much suspicion.

Lohr distinguishes his novel by the rich imagery and vivid details with which he infuses his prose. Viennese court life and life of the nobility in Pressburg (now known as Bratislava) are skillfully depicted. He captured my attention immediately with the wealth of details with which he presents his story. Even more than the period details however, what really captured me was the theme of struggle between science and religion which was of foremost concern during those times. Von Kempelen (the Pressburg Promethus, as Lohr cleverly calls him), the creator of the machine was indisputably at the forefront of a movement which threatened the religious institution. A great deal of the frenzied prosecution directed against him stemmed from the fear on the part of the religious institution that he represented a great, if not mortal, danger to the institution. For the clergy, “the chess playing Turk represented a presumption in the face of God’s creation.” A gauntlet thrown with such audacity must be addressed in no uncertain terms. There is a particularly wonderful passage in the book which perfectly captures this mighty struggle. It is the scene where von Kempelen is summoned by the Primate of Hungary and Archbishop of Gran (or the Pressburg Zeus to von Kempelen’s Promethus). They enter into a duel of words where Promethus is forced to defend his thinking automaton before Zeus. If only for this part alone, the book is elevated above the usual run of the mill historical fiction.

lundi 1 septembre 2008

Happy Birthday Wheelbarrow!

Today (the 1st of September) marks the 8th birthday of your favorite English bookstore in Paris. Yup, the Red Wheelbarrow just turned another year older! Hooray! Let's raise a toast to many many more years to the bookstore which has come to mean so much to so many people.