Be Frank With Me — Book Review

Be Frank With Me PB coverIf I’m planning on reviewing a book, I try not to read any reviews until after I’ve posted my own thoughts. Not only do I find that many reviewers include too much information about the plot, I don’t want their opinions or language to influence mine. You would think that it’s possible to ignore what others have said about a book, but I find that words and phrases from other reviews burrow into my mind.

And that’s what happened with Be Frank With Me, Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel — out in paperback today. When the book was published last winter, reviews popped up everywhere, and I gave in and read quite a few of them. Almost every one used the same adjectives to describe Be Frank With Me: charming, witty, original, and poignant . . . which are exactly the same ones I’d use to describe this book, which also possesses a rare quality : it’s not depressing. Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows that while I relish “depressing” books, I’ve found that many readers are constantly, and often in vain, searching for books that are uplifting, but still have some substance. This is the book for them, and for anyone who enjoys a smart, funny novel with quirky characters.

Frank Banning is a nine-year-old boy who’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, brilliant, and obsessed with classic movies: “Pinocchio, the eponymous Academy Award-winning film released in 1940 by the Walt Disney Studios, s one of my favorite animated movies.” His mother, M.M. (Mimi) Banning, wrote Pitched, a Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning masterpiece, when she was a teenager but hasn’t published another novel since. Having lost her fortune and facing losing the copyright to her book, Mimi is under the gun to write a new novel, since “good, bad, or indifferent, it would be a best-seller.”

Along with a large advance, Mimi demands that her publisher send an assistant to her Los Angeles home (which is, significantly, made of glass) to help manage all aspects of her life while she finishes the book. Mimi, who is cantankerous, to say the least, requires that her assistant possess these qualifications:

  • No Ivy Leaguers or English majors.
  • Drives. Cooks. Tidies.
  • Computer whiz.
  • Good with kids.
  • Quiet. Discreet. Sane.

Enter the narrator, twenty-four-year-old Alice Whitley, private school math teacher and computer store employee, who thinks she’s been hired to keep Mimi on track and email drafts of her novel to her publisher in New York, but soon learns that she’s not an editorial assistant, but a companion to a brilliant and lonely little boy with special needs. In a way, the novel turns out to be a coming-of-age story about Alice, who is wiser and more perceptive than she knows.

Much of what happens in Be Frank With Me is implausible; to begin with, would a publisher really send an assistant (with no editorial experience) to live with a reclusive, has-been author? To enjoy this book, readers must suspend disbelief and go along for the ride — and it’s a very entertaining ride, full of surprises. The book is worth reading just for Frank — he’s a one-of-a-kind, and a completely believable. Learning that Alice is twenty-four, Frank comments:

Dr. Abrams says that’s when the prefrontal cortex usually finishes developing. That’s the part of your brain that controls impulsivity. According to her forecast, by the time I’m twenty-five I’ll be old enough to know better. If we’re lucky. It might happen later, when I’m thirty. Or never. Some people’s prefrontal cortexes mature earlier than others. Women’s, mostly. Debbie Reynolds was a teenager when she made Singin’ in the Rain, for example.

Johnson says that Frank’s character was inspired in part by To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Boo Radley. After rereading To Kill a Mockingbird when her daughter was assigned to read it at school, Johnson, who’d been a writer most of her life but had never written a novel, came up with the idea of a novel “about a writer, one, who’d written about an oddball kid and then ended up having one of her own.” It’s a peculiar coincidence that Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, when Johnson had already finished her book about a famous author writing her second novel.

Fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and The Rosie Project will enjoy Be Frank With Me . . . as will film buffs. The paperback version, sent to me by HarperCollins, includes a seven-page Be Frank With Me “Guide to Film Viewing.”

What Would Emerson Read This Fall?

9780804172707Several days ago, a reader left a comment on the “In My Stack” page of this blog, urging me to read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. I was a little confused, since I read that unforgettable book more than a year ago. Shouldn’t I have removed it from “In My Stack” and included it in “Read in 2015”? Then I looked at the books I’d listed on “In My Stack” and realized that I hadn’t updated the list in years. Oops! (And by the way, I still think A Little Life should have won the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.)

So I wiped the list clean and started a new list of books that are In My Stack, with the intention of updating it every season. It’s hard to face the fact that it’s just not possible to read every book that catches my eye.

The three “practical rules” for reading, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, are:

1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
2. Never read any but famed books.
3. Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakspeare’s phrase,“No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

Emerson’s third rule is easy for me to follow, but the first two pose problems. Whenever I read an “old” book, I feel like I’m missing out on all the exciting new books of the season. And although I read plenty of books that have received publicity, awards, and critical acclaim, I also like to find hidden gems that haven’t received the love they deserve. I do have to acknowledge that Emerson has a point. Books that stand the test of time are worth reading. So I’ve added Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to my fall list, because so many people whose opinions I trust have recommended it.

Two books that I didn’t add to my list, because I read advance copies earlier this summer, but that I highly recommend adding to yours are Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (on sale September 13; full review to come) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (on sale September 6). Commonwealth is very good, although my favorite of Patchett’s novels remains State of Wonder.

9780670026197A Gentleman in Moscow is absolutely wonderful — one of the rare books I read slowly towards the end, because I just didn’t want to finish. It’s a hard act to follow, and every book I’ve read since has seemed vaguely second-rate in comparison. The “gentleman’ of the title is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat born in 1889, who is sentenced  by a Bolshevik tribunal to lifelong house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. The Count’s life is spared, unlike so many others of his class, because a poem he wrote struck the revolutionaries as sympathetic to their cause.

In a Publishers Weekly interview, Amor Towles says: “As awful as the crimes of Stalinism were, the vast majority of the Russian population was trying to survive, to love, to have a sense of purpose.” The Count — whose life before the Revolution was spent, in his words,”dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”, and who is accused by the tribunal of being “a man so obviously without purpose” — is able to live a purposeful, and even sometimes joyful, life as a prisoner at the Metropol.

A Gentleman in Moscow contains all the elements that make me fall in love with a book: a beautifully constructed story connected to historical events, an appealing and multidimensional protagonist, and a sharp and engaging writing style that inspired me to underline dozens of passages. Frequently, Towles addresses the reader directly:

Popular wisdom tells us that when the reel of our concerns interferes with our ability to fall asleep, the best remedy is the counting of sheep in a meadow. But preferring to have his lamb encrusted with herbs and served with a red wine reduction, the Count chose a different methodology altogether.

I’ll leave it to you to find out what his methodology was. If you’ve read Rules of Civility, you already know what a smart and entertaining writer Towles is — perfect for page-turners and page-huggers alike. A Gentleman in Moscow will certainly be on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

What will I read next? The following books are “on deck”, but that could change any time.

9781101947135Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (available now)
Homegoing, which has drawn raves from my coworkers, covers 300 years of African and American history, beginning with two sisters from Ghana, one who is sold into slavery and one who marries a British slave trader.

Shelter by Jung Yun (available now)
I need a good page-turner in the mix, and several bloggers who often share my tastes loved this book, which is rooted in the 2008 housing crisis.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyugen (available now)
A must-read — it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

cover-mischlingMischling  by Affinity Konar (September 6)
This debut novel, about identical twins at Auschwitz, has been receiving a lot of buzz (including a blurb by Anthony Doerr), and I can never read enough about World War II.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan (September 13)
McEwan is one of my favorite authors, and his new book sounds weird but interesting: it’s a murder mystery, inspired by Hamlet, told by an unborn child.

9780385535731Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard (September 20)
Millard is one of my favorite nonfiction authors, and I’m fascinated by Winston Churchill, so I’m excited to read Hero of the Empire.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (September 20)
I can never resist a book about a bibliophile, and this one packs a double punch: the main character is a librarian who becomes a bookseller.

d28652364b8b57aceef0d93cf2791343Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (October 4)
I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette and can’t wait to read Semple’s new book.

Let me know what you think I should add to (or subtract from!) my fall list.

 

 

 

 

What’s a Page-Turner, Anyway?

I just came across an article by novelist Edan Lepucki, published in the Guardian a couple of years ago, with a catchy title: “Are you a page-turner or a page-hugger?”. Lepucki, recounting her days as a “very persuasive bookseller”, notes that some readers want a fast-paced, exciting story, some “long for a book’s language to give them pause, to slow them down with its rhythms and surprises”, and others (like me!) are “somewhere in the middle”.

I don’t need an action-packed plot, although I always enjoy well-timed, believable twists and turns. I need to feel that I’m learning something, whether it’s factual knowedge or an understanding of human nature. The books I abandon are poorly written (and that includes those that are pretentious, trying too hard to be “literary”), or their characters and situations don’t ring true. It doesn’t matter to me whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, as long as there is a sense of authenticity. And of course, some books just turn out to be boring, even though they push all the right buttons. (Sorry, Wolf Hall.)

Here are a half-dozen books published this summer that kept me turning pages, including a history book, a memoir, murder mysteries, and psychological thrillers.

9780345544803The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
If you’re a fan of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.

AllIsNotForgotten-WendyWalker-CoverAll is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
Walker, an attorney who specializes in family law, has written a disturbing and thought-provoking psychological thriller about the possible moral and legal implications of PTSD treatments, currently under development, that can erase memories of traumatic events. After fifteen-year-old Jenny Kramer is attacked at a party in her Connecticut suburb, she’s given a drug that obliterates her memory of the crime. I can’t say more without revealing key plot points, but if you like your fiction really dark (think Herman Koch), this is the book for you. Jenny’s psychiatrist, who narrates the book, reminded me of Koch’s vaguely sinister narrators.

0eb9d787dee2a96bd84e58dd82b1e459You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
When I read an article on crime fiction in the Wall Street Journal that said Abbott’s “books are driven as much by intricate character development and rhythmic sentences as they are by plot”, I immediately brought home a copy of You Will Know Me. Set in the world of competitive gymnastics, Abbott’s eighth novel is a page-turner by anyone’s definition. Sixteen-year-old Devon Knox — and her parents — have their hearts set on the Olympics when a crime in their tight-knit community of gymnasts, parents, and coaches threatens to destroy their dream. I’d never read anything by Megan Abbott before, but now I’m hooked.

9780385540599We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley
When Catherine West, the veteran of two broken engagements, meets William Stockton, the handsome son of old family friends, she thinks he’s the answer to her prayers. But is he? He seemed pretty creepy to me right off the bat, but Catherine ignores the warning signs — some subtle, some not so subtle. This debut novel — a very entertaining “beach read” —  is fun to read not so much because of its plot (which veers between predictability and ludicrousness), but because of Catherine’s voice, which is singularly funny.

9781101947012Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home by Pauls Toutonghi
The title makes this book sound awful, I know — sort of like a hokey Reader’s Digest article. But trust me — it’s a lovely book, about much more than a lost dog. Virginia Marshall, brought up in an abusive home, wants to be the kind of mother she never had. After her adult son, Fielding, loses his dog Gonker on the Appalachian Trail, Ginny and her husband, John, devote every waking minute to helping Fielding find his beloved dog. I couldn’t stop reading this book, even though I knew from the title that Gonker would be found.  The author, who’s also written two novels, is the brother-in-law of Fielding Marshall.

y6481The Lost Girls by Heather Young
In 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans disappears from her family’s lake house in northern Minnesota, and the mystery is never solved. Two generations later, Justine inherits the decrepit house from her great-aunt Lucy, Emily’s older sister, and brings her two daughters there to escape her controlling boyfriend. Young does a masterful job connecting the present-day story and the story of the summer of 1935, building suspense that kept me reading late into the night. The New York Times says: “For all the beauty of Young’s writing, her novel is a dark one, full of pain and loss. And the murder mystery that drives it is as shocking as anything you’re likely to read for a good long while.”

What page-turners have you read this summer?

 

 

What to Read Next — August 2016

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
Henry James

Guess who turned up on my front porch last Saturday afternoon? A person claiming to be the Fuller Brush Man. Who will be next? Maybe a peddler in a horse-drawn cart? That has nothing to do with my list of great books to read this month, but I just thought I’d share. I hope you can squeeze in a few more peaceful, book-filled summer afternoons. Here are some of my recent favorites, both fiction and nonfiction:

coverAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is the first news story I remember following. The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Hearst family fortune, the concept of “Stockholm Syndrome”, F. Lee Bailey’s courtroom theatrics — they’re all just as fascinating to me today as they were to me as a 13-year-old. Jeffrey Toobin masterfully sifts through all the craziness of Hearst’s kidnapping and time as a fugitive to create a portrait of an era, and of a very young and malleable woman.

9781594633164The After Party by Anton DiSclafani
I enjoyed Anton DiSclafani’s debut, The Yonalohsee Riding Camp for Girls, and The After Party is just as good — it’s what I’d call a smart beach read. Both books focus on wealthy young women constrained by the mores of their times — Yonahlosee is set in the 1930s, while The After Party takes place in 1the 1950s. Cece Buchanan, raised to be a Houston socialite, struggles to maintain a friendship with the mysterious and beautiful Joan Fortier, even when Cece’s obsession with Joan’s secretive behavior threatens Cece’s marriage. DiSclafani writes beautifully, with insight into her characters and their world, and her story keeps the reader guessing. The After Party is perfect for readers who enjoyed The Help. There’s a subplot involving Cece and Joan’s maids, and the Houston housewives are reminiscent of the Junior League ladies in Jackson, Mississippi. (And by the way, when is Kathryn Stockett going to publish another book?)

9780399165214Siracusa by Delia Ephron
I’ve loved Delia Ephron ever since the early 1980s, when I discovered How to Eat Like a Child and Other Lessons in Not Being a Grown-Up. I remember thinking that it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. Siracusa has some humorous moments, but it’s more of a psychological thriller than a comic novel. Two couples — one with an odd 10-year-old daughter, Snow — decide to vacation together on the Sicilian coast. This turns out to be, for many reasons, a  really bad decision. I listened to Siracusa on audio, and I was so absorbed in the story that I almost didn’t mind being stuck in traffic. (For more on Delia Ephron and her book of essays, check out Those Amazing Ephron Sisters.)

9780399562600Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
In a last-ditch effort to help their special needs daughter, Tilly, the Hammond family follows child development expert Scott Bean to rural New Hampshire, where they help him set up a family retreat called “Camp Harmony”. Tilly’s younger sister, Iris, and mother, Alexandra, take turns narrating the story of the Hammonds’ decidedly unharmonious attempt to begin a new life. Carolyn Parkhurst’s writing is gorgeous, and even though her plot is a bit predictable, it doesn’t matter. The reader senses what’s going to happen, but wants to see just how it will unfold. I loved the whole book, but particularly the chapters that Alexandra narrates, which are exceptionally moving and authentic.

9780812992731Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich (available August 9)
If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is the book for you. “Patient H.M.” was Henry Molaison, a young man who was lobotomized in the 1950s in attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The surgery resulted in a near total loss of short-term memory for Henry. Over the next fifty years, he was the subject of many experiments.  According to Psychology Today:

Of course many other patients with memory impairments have since been studied, including a small number with amnesias almost as dense as Henry’s, but it is to him we owe the greatest debt. His name (or initials!) has been mentioned in almost 12,000 journal articles, making him the most studied case in medical or psychological history.

The twist in this book is that the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery was Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the author’s grandfather. Luke Dittrich provides a fascinating and personal viewpoint about the medical ethics involved with his grandfather’s career, as well as the changing attitudes towards mental illness during the 20th century.

9aa87bf69c0f444ba807ae412001d027Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
The older I get, the more likely I am to fall asleep while reading in bed at night. This smart and very suspenseful thriller kept me reading well past my bedtime. A plane crashes minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, leaving only two survivors. Was one of the people aboard responsible for the crash? Told in alternating perspectives, the story is a puzzle that most readers won’t be able to solve until the very end.  The reader can tell that Noah Hawley, the author of four other novels, is also a screenwriter — the short chapters, narrated by many different characters, end with cliffhangers, and the dialogue is sharp.

y648Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
If The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? had a baby . . . it might look something like Be Frank With Me. Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel is delightful, original, and just plain fun! M.M. (Mimi) Banning, a quirky and reclusive author (sort of a mashup of J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee) is struggling to complete her second novel. She needs help with her equally quirky son, Frank, so her publisher sends a young woman, Alice Whitley, to be Frank’s nanny and Mimi’s gal Friday. Complications ensue, but like all comedies, the ending of this one is very satisfying.

9780393241655_300The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood (available August 9)
After her husband walks out on her, Ava North joins a book club that holds a monthly discussion about “the book that matters most” to a particular member. The other members all choose classics, but Ava picks an obscure, out of print book that turns out to have greater significance than she could have known. The Book That Matters Most is a book lover’s delight, full of surprising plot developments. It’s also a moving story of friendship and the connections between mothers and daughters.

 

 

 

Summer 2016 Paperback Picks

9781594634024 (1)The number one search term that’s led readers to Books on the Table over the past eighteen months is “Girl on the Train paperback release date”. That query led thousands of readers to a post from April 2015, 10 Spring Paperback Picks. In that post, I tried to identify the elusive quality that makes some books sell like crazy in hardcover while others — just as appealing — languish on the shelves. I mean, The Girl on the Train — supposedly one of the fastest-selling hardcover novels for adults in publishing history –was fun to read, but I’ve read plenty of similar books that disappeared from bookstore shelves in no time at all.

Hardcover books have a very short shelf life. Publishers accept returns from bookstores after three months, and if a book hasn’t sold in that time, it’s taking up valuable space and it’s sent back. Most unsold hardcovers will go to purgatory in a warehouse while their fates (a remainder store? the dreaded shredder?) are decided. If the authors of those books are lucky, their books will be released in paperback and reach a much wider audience.

Some terrific books you may have missed in hardcover are out in paperback this summer, just in time to read during the dog days of August.

a-window-opens-9781501105456_hrA Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
This book touched my bookselling heart — it’s sort of a mashup of Goodnight June (Sarah Jio) and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It’s the clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture. Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books, the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time. (See full review here.)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Our Souls at Night is a beautiful and sad story, made sadder by the fact that Kent Haruf died shortly after completing his final edits on the novel. Haruf’s books are all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado and focus on everyday people and their need for connection with each other. The New York Times says: “His great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length. I read the book in one afternoon and had to slow myself down so I could appreciate the plain yet poetic language.

9780544715264Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos
I read this book last summer and thought it was absolutely wonderful, but I feel like no one else read it in hardcover. Language Arts explores many of the same themes as Our Souls at Night, especially the themes of loss and human connection. How do you connect with someone you love who doesn’t have language? Charles Marlow, an English teacher and a lover of the written word, is the divorced father of an adult autistic son. His daughter has just left for college, and Charles is desperately lonely. I don’t want to say too much about his book, because it’s full of surprises.

The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart
If you’re in the mood for a well-written page-turner, don’t miss this novel about two lonely women in the isolated college town of Sewanee, Tennessee who are both hiding painful secrets. Jennifer Young and her 4-year-old son move in near 91-year-old retired nurse Margaret Riley, and Margaret soon becomes obsessed with digging into Jennifer’s past. The New York Times says “Both women, whom we come to know in great depth, are guarding secrets and neither can afford to make friends . . . Stewart never relaxes her tight focus on these complex characters.” Stewart based the novel in part on her grandmother’s experiences as a World War II battlefield nurse.

y648Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Yet another book that deserves a second chance in paperback, Crooked Heart is “a wonderfully old-fashioned, Dickensian novel, with satisfying plot twists that invoke the flavor (and scams) of wartime London” (New York Times Book Review). A precocious 10-year-old orphan is evacuated during the Blitz — and is placed with a couple of marginally successful con artists. Darkly humorous yet poignant, this book is Roald Dahl for grownups.

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alex Kershaw
I am fascinated by the French Resistance, and Alex Kershaw’s Avenue of Spies is a worthy addition to my collection of World War II books. It’s not on a par with In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, but it’s still a riveting story: an American family, living in occupied Paris, shows unusual courage in the direst of circumstances. American physician Sumner Jackson, his Swiss wife, Toquette, and their son, Phillip, are given the opportunity to leave France when the French surrender is imminent, but they elect to stay and join the Resistance — while living almost next door to the Parisian headquarters of the Gestapo.

y648-1The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
One of my favorites of 2015, The Hummingbird deserves to be widely read. The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, this novel is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring. I loved the multiple story lines (including a book within a book) and it’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity. (For a full review, click here.)

All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell
Caroline Angell’s debut novel, a paperback original, is a coming-of-age story about Charlotte, a gifted musician who takes refuge in a babysitting job with a prominent family on New York’s Upper East Side, after she is betrayed by a fellow composer. Tragedy strikes her employers, and Charlotte must make difficult decisions about her future. I loved this novel’s authentic portrayal of young children, as well as its glimpse into the world of musical composition.

The sequel to the tearjerker Me Before You, After You, came out in paperback last week. I haven’t read it yet, but my mother just finished it, and says it’s a worthy follow-up. What paperbacks are you packing in your beach bag?

 

 

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France — Book Review (and Giveaway)

I realized what a remarkable stroke of luck it was to have lived in a place that was home to one of France’s greatest structures, the Château of Fontainebleau. In my mind, the idea of France remained closely aligned with that great sprawling mass that embodies so much French history. it was both part of the local landscape in my boyhood and — something I understood only much later — a supreme repository of French style, taste, art, and architecture.
Thad Carhart, Finding Fontainebleau

9780525428800Every parent remembers listening politely (or at least pretending to listen) to their children’s long-winded plot descriptions of their favorite books, movies, or TV shows.  As a grade schooler, my younger son had a more succinct way of conveying this information. He described everything in terms of its parentage. I asked him for some contemporary examples, and he offered these: If Lord of the Rings and The Sopranos had a baby, it would be Game of Thrones . . . if Jaws and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition had a baby, it would be The Shallows. (Is there a potential party game in this?)

So . . . if Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Neither Here Nor There had a baby, the result would be Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France. Thad Carhart’s narrative is a captivating blend of memoir and history, filled with the author’s appreciation and understanding of French culture. He and his wife returned to the land of his early childhood twenty-six years ago, raising two children in Paris and making frequent visits to Fontainebleau.

Four-year-old Thad Carhart arrived in Fontainebleau, a provincial town of about 20,000 an hour away from Paris, in 1954. His father was a staff officer at the NATO command, whose offices were in the Château de Fontainebleau. Whatever his responsibilities entailed — and the reader doesn’t hear much about them — they couldn’t have been much more daunting than what Thad’s mother faced. May Carhart, trained nurse, gifted seamstress, and talented artist, moved five young children across the Atlantic into a large, imposing maison de maître. Despite its seventeen rooms, which included two kitchens and a wine cellar, “the house left much to be desired for a family of seven when modern appliances had already flooded postwar America.”

I’ve read countless books, fiction and nonfiction, that take place during and between the two World Wars in Europe, but very few about postwar Europe. Carhart’s portrait of France in the 1950s is one readers rarely see, where the wounds of the war are still fresh and the country is just beginning to become a modern consumer society. His special gift in Finding Fontainebleau is showing us midcentury France through the eyes of a young child. Carhart’s stories about visiting the beaches of Normandy, watching puppet shows in Paris, attending French kindergarten, and camping on a farm near the southern coast are filled with insight into the French character — and plenty of humor.

How, I asked myself in the opening chapters of the book, could a young child retain such clear and detailed memories? Carhart, who learned to read and write in French before he became literate in English, answers that question in his chapter about his experiences in a French classroom:

It wasn’t until many years later that I understood how much the intensity and newness of everything made me acutely observant. The utter necessity of learning French was akin to plunging into a fast-moving river and having to swim. I learned to watch and listen and name everything as if my life depended on it, which in a way it did — at least my social life. My memories from this time are correspondingly vivid . . . There are many things I recall with greater precision from this tender age than, say, from the first year after our return to America.

The French have a phrase, les mémoires des lieux, which means “the memory of the place”. This reflects, I think, what Carhart calls the “deep reverence of the French for sites that embody important parts of their history.” The Château of Fontainebleau is a national treasure that is in an ongoing state of preservation and restoration. Carhart interperses chapters about his family’s experiences in France with chapters about the history (from the 12th century to the present) of the Château, emphasizing his deep attachment to the Château “as a place that symbolized a certain idea of France itself, and of French attitudes.” The architect in charge of the Château, Patrick Ponsot, allowed Carhart behind-the-scenes access to the restoration project. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Carhart says his book is “not about me or the Carhart family, but it’s meant to be about France. It’s the attitude that although the French are still proudly part of a republic, they will do anything to retain the château and its heritage in the name of all the citizens.” As Ponsot says, “‘How can we know the past if we don’t save some of it?””

Carhart has written two other books —The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, which was an absolutely delightful work of nonfiction about how buying a used piano led Carhart to rediscover his childhood love for music and helped him connect with his Paris neighborhood, and Across the Endless River, historical fiction about Sacagawea’s son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. All of his books, he says, are concerned with “cultural dissonance . . . the intersection of dissimilar ways of life.”

I savored every page of this book. It even helped me brush up on my French history, although I’m still confused by all those kings named Louis. The book made me want to visit Fontainebleau, or at least eat a warm baguette. Fortunately, I have plenty of French wine on hand. I wonder if kindergarteners in France still learn math by counting wine bottles? One of the math exercises Carhart recalls was: “If my uncle brings two bottles of wine and puts them in the cellar with my father’s five bottles, how many bottles of wine are there in the wine cellar?”

The publisher, Viking Books, is giving away one copy of Finding Fontainebleau to a Books on the Table reader. Please leave a comment, and I’ll draw names on July 31. Bonne chance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to Read Next — July 2016

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date . . .
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)

It doesn’t seem possible that the Fourth of July has passed and the days are getting shorter. The stacks of unread books in my house keep growing bigger. When I finish a book, I have a hard time deciding what to read next. Every book looks enticing . . . but  what if there’s a better one in the pile and I’m wasting my precious summer reading time on something so-so? It’s almost a relief when I’m obligated to review a book, because the decision is made for me.

Here’s a list of books that I’m very glad I decided to pluck from my piles, and that I recommend for summer reading:

26893819The Girls by Emma Cline
The New York Times calls this book — one of the most hyped novels I can recall — an historical novel, and I guess it is. Inspired by the Manson murders of 1969, The Girls is a coming-of-age story of a young girl who joins a California cult with a charismatic and violent leader. Random House beat out 11 publishers in an auction to acquire this novel, reportedly paying 25-year-old debut novelist Cline at least $2 million in a three-book deal. (For a fascinating look at the business side of publishing, check out Betting Big on Literary Newcomers in the Wall Street Journal.)  Cline’s writing is extraordinary, keeping me  enthralled from the first page to the last, but I kept finding myself comparing events in the novel to actual events — finally tracking down my old copy of Helter Skelter, written by Victor Bugliosi, who was the lead prosecutor in case against Charles Manson.

9780812998009Look at You Now: My Journey from Shame to Strength by Liz Pryor
This memoir about a young girl from a prominent family whose parents send her to a state-run “home” for unwed mothers that’s actually  a juvenile detention center, kept me up late at night — and broke my heart. I’m in awe of the author’s kind and forgiving spirit. Don’t miss this book, especially if you enjoyed The Glass Castle.

27209487Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
If I were making a list of novels about WASPs behaving badly, this book would be this summer’s entry. While at their summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, Fern and Edgar learn that their fairy-tale existence will soon come to an end — there is no more money. They make a series of bad decisions that have disastrous results for their children, who turn out to be more resilient than anyone would have guessed. Perfect for fans of Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements.

27209486Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Emma Straub’s The Vacationers was one of my favorite beach books in 2014, and Modern Lovers is just as clever and entertaining. (It’s “too deftly and thoughtfully written to be relegated merely to the beach,” according to the New York Times Book Review.) The novel takes place during one summer in Brooklyn, and like The Vacationers, it focuses on two middle-aged couples with children who are facing crises in their relationships.

e154e143a09fb5375bdd73ba157c6882The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
Jane Hamilton is one of my very favorite authors, and it’s been seven years since her last novel. The Excellent Lombards is well worth the wait. It’s a jewel. The story, like so many others I’ve read recently, is about a young person growing up and finding her place in the world. Mary Frances Lombard (“Frankie”) enters a grade school geography bee, learning from her teacher that “‘everything about the place where you live determines Who You Are'”.  Fun fact: like the characters in her book, Hamilton lives on an apple orchard in Wisconsin.

9781101875940Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
If you liked Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, you’ll love Sweetbitter — a roman a clef that takes place behind the scenes in a trendy New York City restaurant. The author, who worked in restaurants for many years, told NPR that as she was waiting tables, she would often wonder “if the guests had any idea of the rich life that is going on behind the scene, and the drama and the sexual tension and the sadness and the joy and the friendship.”

9781466884656If I Forget You by Thomas Christopher Greene
The author of The Headmaster’s Wife, one of my favorites of 2014, is back with a story of lost love. Henry Gold and Margot Fuller fall in love as students at a small college in upstate New York, only to be separated by forces beyond their control. Many years later, they meet again on a New York street and begin the painful process of reconnecting.

9781101994825Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
Wolf Hollow is one of those rare children’s books that truly is a must-read for all ages — destined to become a classic. Lauren Wolk’s Annabelle, like Harper Lee’s Scout, is a young girl who learns the world is very complicated. But this book is much more than a junior To Kill a Mockingbird, as some reviews have implied. It stands on its own as a beautifully written coming-of-age story.