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One From the Archive: ‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

A Love Like Blood is Marcus Sedgwick’s first novel for adults.  He is acclaimed as a young adult author, and has turned his hand to a varied range of subjects within his fiction.  The prologue of his newest offering opens in Sextanio in Italy in 1968, and its beginning is certainly intriguing: ‘Dogs are barking in the night.  He’s somewhere in the broken village on the hilltop opposite me’.  Using such prose, Sedgwick is able to set the scene within A Love Like Blood immediately. 

In the first chapter, which begins in Paris in 1944, the reader is taken into the narrator’s memories.  ‘Paris,’ Charles Jackson explains, ‘was free, and I was one of the very few Englishmen to see it’.  Our narrator is twenty five years old at this point in time, and is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, an experience which he explains threw him straight into adulthood.  It is an interesting technique to begin a book close to the end of the Second World War rather than at its beginning, and it does work well here.  Sedgwick puts across the point that the city is so changed from one week to the next, and the way in which he portrays this information contributes to the strong sense of history which the novel holds.

On a trip to a chateau just outside Paris to view some artefacts with his CO, one of the items which Charles is shown is said to be one of the earliest known depictions of vampires.  He is startled and has to hurtle outside to get some fresh air.  He finds himself wandering into a bunker and there, he witnesses a man ‘drinking’ from a wound upon the body of a young woman.

Throughout, the sense of place and its importance in the grand scheme of things has been well thought out.  The book moves from Paris to Cambridge and back again.  On his second trip to Paris, Charles finds the couple whom he saw in the bunker eating in a busy brasserie, and he decides to follow them.  He is an honest narrator, but there are times at the start of the book in which he seems too preoccupied with himself and his own problems.  Just at the point that this begins to become a little wearing, it stops altogether.

Elements of mystery are tied up with those of horror in the novel, and the way in which the plot unfolds does not feel too dissimilar to that of Dracula at times.  Blood is, of course, a central theme – Charles becomes an expert in haemotology, and there is also the presence of the vampire, for example.  Although some of the elements of the plot are quite other-worldly, it is still, oddly, eminently believable.  Foreboding drips in here and there, and whilst things are able to be presupposed to a point by the reader, there are many surprising moments which aim to throw us off the track.  Sedgwick’s writing is easy to get into, and is not stylistically complex in any way.  Indeed, it does not feel too dissimilar to the style in which he writes for his younger audience.  In A Love Like Blood, he has crafted a great novel, and the plot points have been well placed into the whole so that there is not a dull moment.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George ***

At the beginning of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, fifty-year-old bookseller Jean Perdu is told that he is ‘cashmere compared with the normal yarn from which men are spun’.  The owner of a book-filled barge, moored upon the Seine and called the Literary Apothecary, he ‘could not imagine what might be more practical than a book’.

Jean decided to open his bookshop in order to aid Paris’ citizens, believing that ‘it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books.  They looked after people’.  He says: ‘I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognised as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors.  All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in…  The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end….  Or those birthday motning blues.  Nostalgia for the air of your childhood.  Things like that’.

Jean, a lonely bachelor who is mourning a lost love, intrigues from the very beginning: ‘Over the course of twenty-one summers, Monsieur Perdu had become as adept at avoiding thinking of __ as he was at stepping around open manholes.  He mainly thought of her… as a pause amid the hum of his thoughts, as a blank in the pictures of the past, as a dark spot amid his feelings’.  George goes on to write that he had ‘become extremely good at ignoring anything that might in any way arouse feelings of yearning.  Aromas.  Melodies.  The beauty of things’.  We get a feel for Jean and his sadness immediately: ‘The two rooms he still occupied [in his apartment complex] were so empty that they echoed when he coughed’.

Characters who remain upon the periphery throughout are used as a clever tool to allow us to learn about the novel’s protagonists.  The gossips in Jean’s apartment building at 27 Rue Montagnard are perhaps the best example of this technique.

One of George’s strengths lies in the way in which she builds geographical locations: ‘Over it all drifted the perfume of Paris in June, the fragrance of lime blossom and expectation’.  The Little Paris Bookshop is filled with some lovely and rather thoughtful ideas, particularly with regard to those which shape themselves around literature: ‘We all grow old, even books.  But are you, is anyone, worth less, or less important, because they’ve been around for longer?’

The Little Paris Bookshop is a largely charming work, which has been intelligently written.  George has taken a relatively simple plot and given it depth.  The only thing which let the book down as far as I am concerned is the sheer predictability which a lot of the plot sadly succumbs to.

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The Book Trail: From Amsterdam to Paris

I was lucky enough to spend a week in beautiful Amsterdam in early March, and am pleased to say that it has inspired me to pick up a wealth of themed reading within my yearly projects forecast for 2018.  I am actually thinking of Reading Cities as my main 2018 challenge, and focusing upon literature from and about my favourite places in the world.

That said, I hope you enjoy today’s Book Trail!  It begins in Amsterdam, and takes us all the way to Paris.

1. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland 9780140296280
‘This luminous story begins in the present day, when a professor invites a colleague to his home to see a painting that he has kept secret for decades. The professor swears it is a Vermeerbut why has he hidden this important work for so long? The reasons unfold in a series of events that trace the ownership of the painting back to World War II and Amsterdam, and still further back to the moment of the work’s inspiration. As the painting moves through each owner’s hands, what was long hidden quietly surfaces, illuminating poignant moments in multiple lives. Susan Vreeland’s characters remind us, through their love of this mysterious painting, how beauty transforms and why we reach for it, what lasts and what in our lives is singular and unforgettable.”‘

 

2. Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman
This richly imagined fiction entices us into the world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. The story is told by Mary’s sister Lydia, as she poses for five of her sister’s most unusual paintings, which are reproduced in, and form the focal point of each chapter. Ill with Bright’s disease and conscious of her approaching death, Lydia contemplates her world with courageous openness, and asks important questions about love and art’s capacity to remember.

 

2765783. The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey
In this passionate and atmospheric debut novel, Elizabeth Hickey reimagines the tumultous relationship between the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt and Emilie Floge, the woman who posed for Klimt’s masterpiece The Kiss – and whose name he uttered with is dying breath.  Vienna in 1886 was a city of elegant cafés, grand opera houses, and a thriving and adventurous artistic community. It is here where the twelve-year-old Emilie meets the controversial libertine and painter. Hired by her bourgeois father for basic drawing lessons, Klimt introduces Emilie to a subculture of dissolute artists, wanton models, and decadent patrons that both terrifies and inspires her. The Painted Kiss follows Emilie as she blossoms from a naïve young girl to one of Europe’s most exclusive couturiers—and Klimt’s most beloved model and mistress. A provocative love story that brings to life Vienna’s cultural milieu, The Painted Kiss is as compelling as a work by Klimt himself.

 

4. With Violets by Elizabeth Robards
‘Paris in the 1860s: a magnificent time of expression, where brilliant young artists rebel against the stodginess of the past to freely explore new styles of creating—and bold new ways of living.  Passionate, beautiful, and utterly devoted to her art, Berthe Morisot is determined to be recognized as an important painter. But as a woman, she finds herself sometimes overlooked in favor of her male counterparts—Monet, Pissarro, Degas.  And there is one great artist among them who captivates young Berthe like none other: the celebrated genius Édouard Manet. A mesmerizing, breathtaking rogue—a shameless roué, undeterred and irresistible—his life is a wildly overgrown garden of scandal. He becomes Berthe’s mentor, her teacher…her lover, despite his curiously devoted marriage to his frumpy, unappealing wife, Suzanne, and his many rumored dalliances with his own models. For a headstrong young woman from a respectable family, an affair with such an intoxicating scoundrel can only spell heartbreak and ruin.  But Berthe refuses to resign herself to the life of quiet submission that Society has dictated for her. Undiscouraged, she will create her own destiny…and confront life—and love—on her own terms.

 

5. Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell 6797515
In the mid-nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiated the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris.  But once there he is confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. But there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group that together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and that supported each other through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace the lively Bohemian life of their time.  His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet—and believed in his work—even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside.  But Camille had her own demons – secrets that  Monet could never penetrate, including one that when eventually revealed would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. For though Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner.  A vividly-rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, Claude and Camille is above all a love story of the highest romantic order.

 

6. The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe
Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. Though they were often ridiculed or ignored by their contemporaries, today astonishing sums are paid for the works of these artists, whose paintings are celebrated for their ability to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape but in scenes of daily life. Their dazzling pictures are familiar?  But how well does the world know the Impressionists as people? The Private Lives of the Impressioniststells their story. It is the first book to offer an intimate and lively biography of the world’s most popular group of artists.

 

5738967. Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir
In this delightful memoir, Jean Renoir, the director of such masterpieces of the cinema as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, tells the life story of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great Impressionist painter. Recounting Pierre-Auguste’s extraordinary career, beginning as a painter of fans and porcelain, recording the rules of thumb by which he worked, and capturing his unpretentious and wonderfully engaging talk and personality, Jean Renoir’s book is both a wonderful double portrait of father and son and, in the words of the distinguished art historian John Golding, it “remains the best account of Renoir, and, furthermore, among the most beautiful and moving biographies we have.”

 

8. Dawn of the Belle Epoque by Mary McAuliffe
A humiliating military defeat by Bismarck’s Germany, a brutal siege, and a bloody uprising Paris in 1871 was a shambles, and the question loomed, “Could this extraordinary city even survive?” Mary McAuliffe takes the reader back to these perilous years following the abrupt collapse of the Second Empire and France’s uncertain venture into the Third Republic.   By 1900, Paris had recovered and the Belle Epoque was in full flower, but the decades between were difficult, marked by struggles between republicans and monarchists, the Republic and the Church, and an ongoing economic malaise, darkened by a rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism.   Yet these same years also witnessed an extraordinary blossoming in art, literature, poetry, and music, with the Parisian cultural scene dramatically upended by revolutionaries such as Monet, Zola, Rodin, and Debussy, even while Gustave Eiffel was challenging architectural tradition with his iconic tower. Through the eyes of these pioneers and others, including Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Clemenceau, Marie Curie, and Cesar Ritz, we witness their struggles with the forces of tradition during the final years of a century hurtling towards its close. Through rich illustrations and evocative narrative, McAuliffe brings this vibrant and seminal era to life.”

 

Have you read any of these?

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Reading the World: Europe (Two)

The second part of miscellaneous book recommendations around Europe!

1. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Ukraine) 9780141008257
‘A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a “blind” old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive – a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down…’

2. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Ukraine, England)
‘For years, Nadezhda and Vera, two Ukrainian sisters, raised in England by their refugee parents, have had as little as possible to do with each other – and they have their reasons. But now they find they’d better learn how to get along, because since their mother’s death their aging father has been sliding into his second childhood, and an alarming new woman has just entered his life. Valentina, a bosomy young synthetic blonde from the Ukraine, seems to think their father is much richer than he is, and she is keen that he leave this world with as little money to his name as possible.If Nadazhda and Vera don’t stop her, no one will. But separating their addled and annoyingly lecherous dad from his new love will prove to be no easy feat – Valentina is a ruthless pro and the two sisters swiftly realize that they are mere amateurs when it comes to ruthlessness. As Hurricane Valentina turns the family house upside down, old secrets come falling out, including the most deeply buried one of them all, from the War, the one that explains much about why Nadazhda and Vera are so different. In the meantime, oblivious to it all, their father carries on with the great work of his dotage, a grand history of the tractor.’

97800995077893. The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine, Paris)
‘Ada grows up motherless in the Jewish pogroms of a Ukrainian city in the early years of the twentieth century. In the same city, Harry Sinner, the cosseted son of a city financier, belongs to a very different world. Eventually, in search of a brighter future, Ada moves to Paris and makes a living painting scenes from the world she has left behind. Harry Sinner also comes to Paris to mingle in exclusive circles, until one day he buys two paintings which remind him of his past and the course of Ada’s life changes once more…’

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain)
‘The discovery of a forgotten book leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive…Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the ‘cemetery of lost books’, a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out ‘La Sombra del Viento’ by Julian Carax. But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from La Sombra del Viento, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax’s work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.’

5. Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Bosnia) 9780140374636
‘Zlata Filipovic was given a diary shortly before her tenth birthday and began to write in it regularly. She was an ordinary, if unusually intelligent and articulate little girl, and her preoccupations include whether or not to join the Madonna fan club, her piano lessons, her friends andher new skis. But the distant murmur of war draws closer to her Sarajevo home. Her father starts to wear military uniform and her friends begin to leave the city. One day, school is closed and the next day bombardments begin. The pathos and power of Zlata’s diary comes from watching the destruction of a childhood. Her circle of friends is increasingly replaced by international journalists who come to hear of this little girl’s courage and resilience. But the reality is that, as they fly off with the latest story of Zlata, she remains behind, writing her deepest feelings to ‘Mimmy’, her diary, and her last remaining friend.’

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One From the Archive: ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick *****

Brian Selznick calls his debut, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things”.  It was the movie ‘Hugo’ which made me go and seek out this beautiful book – for a book it certainly is – and I purchased the very last copy in Waterstone’s whilst on a post-Christmas shopping trip.

‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

The book was the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal in 2008, the award usually applying only to picture books.  The film also won five Academy Awards in 2012.  I am so pleased that I have a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret to sit in pride of place upon my bookshelf.  Just like the film, it is a thing of beauty – lavishly illustrated in black and white, with attention to detail present on every single page.

The style of the book is so very interesting: “With 284 pages of original drawings, and combining elements of picture book, graphic novel, and film, Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience”.  It is quite unlike anything which I have ever read before, and the mixture of narrative types and techniques works beautifully.

Selznick’s blurb, too, is beautiful:

“Orphan, clock-keeper, and thief, twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric girl and her grandfather, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.”

Hugo and Isabelle look out over Paris

The novel takes place in 1931, ‘beneath the roofs of Paris’.  Selznick has woven in the true story of French filmmaker Georges Melies, and has created fictional elements alongside to build his very inventive plot.  His sense of place is sublime, and I love the way in which the story was told, making use of its glorious Paris surroundings throughout.  Hugo’s world is so well evoked.

Hugo Cabret is one of my favourite child characters.  He is so very determined and so headstrong, and he is also incredibly industrious.  I love the way in which he looks after himself and is able to fend for himself in such a large city.  I adore the levels of his curiosity, and the way in which he will work at something until it is fixed and he is satisfied with the result.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is exquisite, and it is truly a work of art.  The entirety is enchanting, and its characterisation perfect.  The pace which Selznick has stuck to works marvellously with the unfolding story, and the book and film are certain to charm both children and adults alike.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ by Emile Zola *****

Prior to this, the only Zola which I had read was a marvellous little novella entitled The Flood.  I was encouraged to read The Ladies’ Paradise when I saw Astrid the Bookworm wax lyrical about it on her Youtube Channel. I searched high and low for it and finally found it on a trip to Waterstone’s Picadilly at the very end of November.  I willed it to come out of my book choice jar immediately, and had to wait until the very end of December for it to do so.  I began to read it the novel on New Year’s Eve, and as I finished it in January, I counted it as my first novel which was read in 2014.

‘The Ladies’ Paradise’ by Emile Zola

I was so captivated by The Ladies’ Paradise from the outset.  First published in France as Au Bonheur des Dames in 1883, the novel tells the story of the rise of department stores in Victorian-era Paris.  In the insightful Oxford World’s Classics introduction, it is said that Zola was given the inspiration to write such a novel after witnessing the rise of Le Bon Marche, one of the city’s most famous department stores.

I did not realise until I had finished the novel that The Ladies’ Paradise is actually a sequel to a novel named Pot-Bouille, which features the same protagonist, Octave Mouret.  The Ladies’ Paradise stood alone marvellously, and it did not matter at all that I had not read the previous novel – nor any of Zola’s other Rougon-Macquart series (this is the eleventh book), for that matter.

Brian Nelson has done a marvellous job with the novel’s translation.  The extra information which has been included in the edition, too, complemented the novel beautifully.  There are maps showing the location of the department store and the main settings of the novel, a select bibliography, and a chronology of Zola’s fascinating life.

The scene was set immediately, and it has left me longing to go back to Paris.  Each and every scene, building and character which Zola turned his hand to describing were truly stunning – so vivid, and dripping with colour.  Whilst this novel is a relatively quiet one in terms of its plot, the way in which Zola cites the foundations of such a store in Paris and how it grew to such dizzying heights has been so well imagined.  The social history has clearly been so well considered.  The characters which Zola uses to people his store – nicknamed The Ladies’ Paradise by all – felt so realistic, and I was particularly enchanted by his main female protagonist, Denise.

The Ladies’ Paradise is an exquisite novel, and parts of it really made me smile.  It was a book which I struggled to put down, and would happily have read it until the clock chimed midnight on New Year’s Eve if we weren’t hosting a party to celebrate.  I cannot wait until Monsieur Zola and I are reacquainted.  I sense that there are some real gems in store to encounter.

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‘Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940’ by Shari Benstock ***

I spotted this book in a tiny little Cambridge bookshop whilst I was in the process of hunting for Viragos, and even though it was not part of the Modern Classics list which I am working my way through, I just had to read it.  Some of the authors which Benstock touches upon here rank amongst my favourites (the marvellous Colette and Anais Nin), one amongst my least favourites (Edith Wharton, with the exception of her marvellous novella, Ethan Frome), and a couple of them I had not even heard of.  Within the book, Benstock covers many different elements: homosexuality, thoughts of feminist critics, why the authors chose to move to Paris in the first instance, the notion of art and artists, modernism, experimentalism, and so on.  The entirety is split into sections which seem to be made up of essay-length works, all of which consider one of the elements or authors in question.

The prose style in Women of the Left Bank tends to veer towards academic, and it is therefore not the easiest of non-fiction books to immerse yourself into.  Whilst it is very interesting, it does feel a little heavy going at times, possibly due to the plethora of quotes which have been placed at every possible juncture.  It is probably more enjoyable to dip in and out of, rather than to read it all in one go as I did.  Overall, it was a little too much of the ‘let’s all go and burn our bras’ strain of feminism for my liking, but it was most interesting nonetheless.

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