‘13, rue Thérèse’ by Elena Mauli Shapiro

What an interesting concept for a book! In terms of form, 13, rue Thérèse is unlike anything I’ve read, with the possible exception of Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 bestseller House of Leaves (note to self: re-read that one for a review!). Though Shapiro isn’t easy on her readers—the novel is nonlinear, incorporates photographic images, fraught with footnotes and encourages online interaction—13, rue Thérèse is nonetheless a compulsively readable page-turner. Though not without its missteps, Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel is an exciting debut that I am excited to share with others.

In 1983, Shapiro’s mother salvaged a box of mementos from a recently deceased neighbor’s apartment in the building at the real-life 13, rue Thérèse, in Paris. That recently deceased neighbor is Louise Brunet, whose life is the subject of Shapiro’s novel. The box contains souvenirs of the owner’s life: love letters from World War I, mesh gloves, a scarf, photographs, “stray cash”. Shapiro connects the objects together with her imagination, wielding a beguiling tale of the many mysteries surrounding one woman’s life. As Shapiro proclaims in her afterword, “…[Louise] gave me the stars. I merely drew the constellations”.

What I appreciated most about this novel was the imagination of the author that created it. Shapiro manages to connect each of the seemingly random objects in the box together to create a plausible—if not uncomplicated—rendering of Louise Brunet’s life. Shapiro frames the story with the introduction of Trevor Stratton, an American professor teaching at a university in Paris. Upon his arrival at his new job, Trevor happens upon the very box Shapiro’s mother acquired in 1983 (placed there by Josianne, Trevor’s alluring secretary) and quickly becomes absorbed with its contents. By way of Trevor’s bewitching experience with the box, the reader is captivated not only by Louise’s fascinating life, but Trevor’s, Josianne’s and the many men of Louise’s as well.

While I loved the quirky nature of the mysteries of 13, rue Thérèse, these mysteries caused some problems for me as well. Essentially, there are just too many of them. As the stories of Louise, Henri, Camille, Xavier, Trevor and Josianne begin to unfold, I found the addition of Louise piano student, Garance, and her unique plight, a bit superfluous. While Garance’s set of problems do ultimately push Louise’s plot forward, I couldn’t help but wish that Shapiro had found a simpler way to achieve this and dedicated more time to either Trevor, Josianne or Louise herself.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Elena Mauli Shapiro’s debut. After getting a taste of this unique novel, I look forward to the publishing of more “interactive” books like 13, rue Thérèse in the future.

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

How could I not love The Painted Veil? W. Somerset Maugham is a superb storyteller with a keen eye for human behavior and is at his best in this novel. Through his strangely likeable protagonist, Kitty Fane, Maugham wields a powerful story that triumphs the human capacity for change and redemption.

The Painted Veil opens as Kitty is deplorably caught in the act with her lover, the handsome, shallow government official, Charles Townsend. Over the next hundred or so pages, Kitty’s husband, serious bacteriologist Walter Fane, develops a plan to sever Kitty’s relationship with Townsend and take her away with him to Mei-tan-fu, a cholera-infected province of China, where he has volunteered himself to serve as a physician and researcher.

Uncomfortable as it was to witness Walter’s plan come to fruition, this section of the novel serves another purpose by providing the reader with background information about Kitty’s childhood and her courtship with Walter. Essentially, the beautiful Kitty was bred to wed and ultimately had to settle for a man she did not love due to fickleness and indecision during her period of “presentation.” Kitty’s mother is an ambitious woman whose aim it was to set her daughters up for a life of sophistication she herself was unable to obtain. When Kitty marries the unimpressive academic Walter Fane, she feels slighted, and her affair with Townsend offers her an escape from her disappointing reality.

All things considered, Kitty Fane should not be considered a sympathetic character. However, due to Maugham’s expert pacing and character development, Kitty’s behavior is perfectly logical. Kitty was brought up with the understanding that one’s marriage is the determinate of one’s self worth. And because Kitty’s match was not ideal—both romantically and fiscally—she demonstrates little loyalty to it.

However, what makes this novel great is Kitty’s ability to grow and change. Kitty’s self-confidence and sense of worth is destroyed by her actions. Yet surprisingly, she accepts responsibility for her actions and looks to improve circumstances for future generations of her family. I sympathized with Kitty at her lowest moments and rooted for her as she picked herself up and found a way to start over despite everything that had happened to her.

Overall, I really loved The Painted Veil, one of Maugham’s many classics. Due to the many favorable reviews of the movie adaptation I look forward to seeing it sometime soon.

‘Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)’ by Mindy Kaling

What do you read when there is no time to read? My husband and I are wrapping up a move from our apartment into a house, and there has been very little time to read, let alone a place to do it. These are the times I reserve for celebrity memoirs: fast-paced, readable and easy to pick back up after the cable guy/movers/new neighbors are out of the way. This time I opted for The Office writer/actress Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns), a funny treatise on romance, dieting, the creative process, and pretty much everything in between.

In order to pay homage to Kaling’s penchant for “pliests” (“a piece with a list-y quality”), I will conduct this review in the same fashion.

Why I enjoyed Mindy Kaling’s book:

KALING IS HONEST
It’s easy to tell when a writer, especially a memoirist, is being honest his/her thoughts and experiences. Though Kaling takes pains to stress that Kelly Kapoor, the boy-crazy narcissistic customer service rep she plays on The Office, is not a close iteration of her actual self, it takes an understanding of one’s own faults to play a character like Kelly so convincingly. Kaling’s understanding of her own hypersensitivity to actual and perceived social slights—as evidenced in chapters like “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back”—allows her to play Kelly Kapoor with hilarious accuracy.

IT IS LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY
After reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants last year, I had doubts about whether Kaling’s book would be as funny. I mean, come on, this is Tina Fey, creator of 30 Rock and former co-host of Weekend Update we’re talking about here. Alas, I was wrong. I attempted to read passages of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me out loud to my husband a few times, and more often than not, I couldn’t even get through them without dissolving into laughter. The “JLMP” section in particular will ring hilariously true to any female reader who once frustrated Cheesecake Factory servers by ordering one slice of cheesecake and a few diet Cokes with her girlfriends in junior high.

THE GOSSIP
Let’s face it, the reason we read celebrity memoirs is to get the gossip. And thankfully, Mindy Kaling delivers by offering readers a peak into the behind-the-scenes world of The Office. Readers get a feel for the set (not very glamorous), what the actors are really like (as cool as they seem), and a few amusing references to Mindy Kaling’s love/hate relationship with Rainn Wilson, better known as Assistant (to the) Regional Manager Dwight Schrute. There isn’t anything too juicy here, but Kaling treats readers to what feels like a true behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work with such a unique group.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading Mindy Kaling’s memoir and recommend it to anyone needing a break from more serious reading.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark

I tend to avoid short novels. I’m either in the mood to work through a collection of short stories (with their clearly defined stopping points) or spend a good chunk of time with a big, meaty novel. Muriel Spark’s classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, has taught me that the novella deserves a place in my reading life as well. Strange and concise, Spark’s best-known work offers a unique perspective I had yet to encounter in literature, and one that I am now glad to have read.

Miss Jean Brodie is the unconventional teacher of ten-year-olds at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a stuffy Catholic school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1930s. At first, Miss Brodie’s unorthodox teaching methods are relatively harmless: she selects six girls—the “Brodie set”—to serve as her “crème de la crème” as she encourages them to appreciate Beauty and Culture by escorting them to concerts and museums and reading Jane Eyre aloud to them. However, once the girls graduate from her tutelage to the Senior School, Miss Brodie’s behavior becomes increasingly inappropriate and serves not the girls’ well-being, but her own selfish aims. Though one of her own ultimately betrays her, the girls of the Brodie set are forever influenced by the lessons they learned as teenagers from their Machiavellian instructor.

What I loved most about this concise but psychologically complex novella is the fresh perspective that it offers. World War I shocked the United States and Europe with the barbarity of its violence and the unprecedented number of casualties the new style of battle bred. As a result, a myriad of new voices emerged from the war telling stories that American and European literature had never heard before. Amazingly, the experiences of the women affected by the decimation of so many young men have largely been ignored. The story of Miss Jean Brodie helps to remedy that deficit.

As a young woman when the war began, Miss Brodie, like many women, suffered the loss of her fiancé. Also like many other women of her time, Miss Brodie is unable to secure another prospect and dedicates the abundant energy of her young adulthood—her “prime”—to the education of the girls she instructs at the Marcia Blaine School. However, the loss of her fiancé, and thus the family life she had surely imagined for herself, tinges Miss Brodie with a bitterness that cultivates the manipulative, selfish behavior she exhibits. Miss Brodie’s actions are disturbing, but her motivations are realistic considering her experiences, and therefore surely worth telling.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a strange but intriguing book. The length and contents of the novel seem perfectly suited for film adaptation so I look forward to checking out the movie soon!

‘The Sportswriter’ by Richard Ford

As a twenty-six-year-old female, I am probably not the target audience for the male mid-life crisis novel, which, since its boom in the 1980s, is essentially a genre all on its own. But, alas, like the novels of Philip Roth before it, I loved and related to Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. Despite its measured pace and oftentimes frustratingly flawed narrator, The Sportswriter reveals elements of truth in the human condition that make it essential reading.

Despite the death of his eldest son, recent divorce, and self-imposed departure from Real Writing for a gig as a sportswriter, Frank Bascombe is pretty content. In fact, when the novel kicks off with Frank meeting his ex-wife at the gravesite of their deceased son on what would be his thirteenth birthday, Frank maintains the idea that “Tomorrow like all tomorrows could still be a banner day” (181). However, over the course of the novel, which takes place over Easter weekend 1983, Frank’s dreaminess (i.e. his “male” penchant for self-imposed alienation) begins to prevail over this optimism. As the events of the weekend go on (“and on and on” as some critics have said!), Frank experiences a range of events: a heartwarming meeting with his young son, a break with his vanilla-flavored Texan girlfriend, and a tragedy involving a fellow member of the Divorced Men’s Club. And as real life would have it, it is questionable whether or not Frank can find meaning in any of it.

What I loved most about this novel is the truth it reveals regarding the natural struggle we have as humans (and Americans especially) to reconcile our desperate need for human interaction with our innate discomfort with the “touchy feely”. Frank, like many of us, craves human interaction, but—modern man that he is—detests the “full disclosure” mentality that breeds it. This discrepancy is most clearly illustrated in Frank’s relationship with Walter Luckett, fellow member of the Divorced Men’s Club. Walter is like Frank in that under normal circumstances, he is just a regular guy with no desire to reveal his sensitive side to his fellow man. However, after his wife absconds to Bimini with another man, normal circumstances are negated and Walter desperately attempts to connect with Frank on a more emotionally intimate level. Unfortunately, however, Frank is not equipped to contend with such intimacy and refuses to provide Walter with the connection he so desperately requires.

While I believe I would love this novel for its content alone, The Sportswriter has a great deal to offer in terms of its style: specifically, its mastery of dialogue. Narrated entirely in the first person, Frank Bascombe’s voice is observant, analytical and entirely his own. But at the same time, the novel’s many examples of dialogue are depicted with a mastery that reveals a great deal about the other characters solely through their manners of speaking. For example, based on Frank’s perspective alone, the character of Vicki is a sweet Southern belle, all but begging Frank to whisk her off to suburban matrimony. However, via her polite-but-firm Southern intonations, she is, in fact, a fully realized woman who understands that she has too little in common with Frank to take her relationship with him any further.

Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter was a truly a great read. It is a testament to its quality that I cannot wait to check parts two and three of the trilogy out from the library as soon as possible!

‘The Lower River’ by Paul Theroux

This is the latest from Paul Theroux, the renowned travel writer whose travel writing I have regretfully never read. Having never encountered his fiction either, I was banking on Theroux’s stellar reputation when I purchased his new novel in hardcover. Unfortunately, however, The Lower River, was a bit of a disappointment. Theroux’s phenomenal writing ability saved the novel from abandonment, but ultimately, its flaws zapped the enjoyment out it.

Ellis Hock is having a late-life crisis. At sixty-two, Hock’s marriage has ended, his business has failed, and his daughter has essentially disowned him. Finding rare moments of happiness in the company of a friend-of-a-friend’s pet python, Hock reminisces about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, the most joyful time in the nearly elderly man’s life. Impulsively, Hock buys a plane ticket and takes off for what he believes will be a rejuvenating visit to Malabo, the remote Malawian village he once served as a volunteer.

As it happens, the visit doesn’t go according to plan. The villagers are starving, the school Hock assisted in constructing is in shambles, and the young village chieftain is a tyrant. Hock quickly realizes his former paradise has entrapped him, and he must orchestrate a plan of escape if he is to survive. Coupled with Theroux’s skilled prose, it is this question of whether or not Hock makes it out of Africa that kept me reading until the end.

The most disappointing aspect of this novel concerns Theroux’s beat-you-over-the-head use of symbolism. As any fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald knows, proper use of symbolism can transform a piece of fiction into something truly transcendent; but wielded poorly, it can be insulting to the reader. The symbol most detrimental to the work is Zizi, the sixteen-year-old attendant assigned to fulfill Hock’s every desire, representative of Africa’s innocence and potential during Hock’s Peace Corps days. Zizi is used so strictly as a symbol that she ceases to exist as a believable character. Not only is she devoid of a distinct personality, but her actions toward Hock are implausible, and quite honestly, a little creepy.

What is done effectively, however, is Theroux’s scathing criticism of the celebrity-endorsed charity culture that supports many Africans’ basic needs. Sympathetic everymen from more economically robust countries provide the monetary support for well-intentioned charities to orchestrate helicopter drops of food onto starving mobs of Africans, a public that is resentful of the treatment but simultaneously needing the provisions. The result is a violently embittered populace, champing at the bit to take advantage of Hock, the vacationing American with pockets stuffed with kwacha notes (i.e. money).

Despite its flaws, I am glad I read The Lower River. I learned a great deal about Malawi, a country I previously knew nothing about, and am now motivated to compare Paul Theroux’s fiction to his much revered travel writing.

‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Ever read a book compulsively over a few hours only to finish thinking, “that was just OK”? That was my conundrum of an experience with Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 debut The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides’s innovative narrative structure and unique plot had me deeply engaged, but in the end, the novel’s allegorical nature left me unsatisfied.

The Virgin Suicides charts a group of teenage boys as they obsessively monitor the actions of the five Lisbon sisters, their neighbors in a modest suburb of Detroit. The boys’ fascination is first a product of the sisters’ beauty, but their obsession escalates when Cecelia, the youngest, commits suicide at a party the boys attend. The novel relays the events that follow over the next year, culminating in the suicides of the four remaining girls.

One cannot provide an adequate commentary on The Virgin Suicides without a note on its construction. The action of the novel is relayed to the reader in the first person plural, nearly twenty years after the events actually take place. The novel has the feel of an amateur police procedural, complete with pieces of evidence referred to as “Exhibits” throughout. While I normally find it difficult to engage with a book that lacks a distinct narrative presence, the group narration in this novel feels appropriate, effectively portraying the “otherness” of the Lisbon girls as they self-destruct.

While the plot and narrative technique of the novel kept the pages turning, I ultimately had some trouble grappling with the extreme situations it details. Over the course of the relatively slim volume, five girls commit suicide (over the course of seven attempts), a fourteen-year-old is subjected to several occasions of statutory rape, and a group of hot-blooded teenage boys altruistically watch over their beautiful, female neighbors seeking to rescue them from their despair. While all of this makes for a hauntingly unusual read, the dramatic events of the novel begins to feel like allegory instead of a genuine portrayal of the real experience of having one’s innocence destroyed.

Finally, a word on the fish flies. As the child of suburban Detroit myself, I recall firsthand the surreal effect these smelly, fishlike insects can have on the neighborhood as they cover its every surface for a few irritating weeks each summer. Therefore when these nuisances invaded the Lisbons’ neighborhood, I understood viscerally that they were to be read as a sign of disaster ahead. As a reference point, here is an idea of what these insects are capable of:

Overall, I truly enjoyed the time I spent with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. It wasn’t perfect, but it is certainly deserving of the praise and high profile film adaptation it has garnered.