Tag Archives: literature

‘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 Bookshop of Dreams

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE by Laurence Cosse

If there was a ever a book that expressed the collective booklover’s dream world A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is it.  Two literary zealots, Francesca, the socialite, and Ivan, the nomad, discover one another in a bookshop outside of Paris and decide to open the ideal bookstore.  The concept of the store, The Good Novel, is simple: the store will be stocked solely with tastefully good novels via an ingenious selection process allowing eight worthy contemporary writers, unaware of each others’ identities, to each select 600 titles that will, without fail, be in stock.  Financed by Francesca’s inherited small fortune, the bookshop hits the ground running and immediately attracts a horde of devout followers.  Surely every reader of this book, myself included, imagines him/herself as a part of that horde.

However, the success of this bookish utopia does not last.  Sub-par writers fueled with envy, publishers motivated by greed and critics driven by pure sloth all stand to fail as The Good Novel succeeds and as a result, they retaliate en force.  These retaliations, beginning with seemingly innocuous op ed articles and graduating to full blown attempted murder, are the conflict at the center of the novel.  However, the novel is ripe with other thematic elements: romance and fantasy included.

For me, the weakest element of the novel was the romance.  Ivan, The Good Novel’s middle-aged primary bookseller falls head over heels early on with Anis (a self-imposed nickname for Anne-Isabelle), a woman with a troubled past who is nearly half his age.  Possibly it was the age difference that threw me, or maybe the characters’ contrived loner lifestyle we are constantly reminded of, but the romance between the two, for me, fell completely flat.

However, the portion of the novel dealing with the history of the bookstore and the mystery surrounding the characters and crimes was completely engaging.  Cosse conjures a store with an intricate makeup and backstory that is both sensical and ideal to her readers.  The Good Novel is any booklover’s dream shopping haven and I found myself constantly jotting down authors and titles to sample.

A final point of note on A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is the narrative style.  Conveyed in first person, a narrator not fully revealed until the final stages reminds the reader of the personal connections one has with a bookstore of this conceptual magnitude.  The narrator imposes its presence at times and pulls back at others, but ultimately adds a great deal to the final product.  The narrator becomes a new characters whose history and positions the reader cares about and is interested to discover.

A NOVEL BOOKSTORE is a treasure for any lover of good books.  Not only is it an indulgent treat in a fantasy bookshop setting, but a persuasive treatise on the state of for-profit publishing today.  Via the fictional haven The Good Novel, this reader is reminded and encouraged by her passion for good books.

On Manners and Literature

CAKES AND ALE by W. Somerset Maugham

If there is one thing I’ve learned about W. Somerset Maugham from reading CAKES AND ALE (my first from said author) it is that he is one of the best storytellers I’ve encountered.  Maugham’s narrator, writer William Ashenden, tells the true story of the recently deceased and highly revered writer Edward Driffield.  Alroy Kear, a mediocre writer with an admirable acumen for social leverage, is tasked by Driffield’s conservative second wife to write the authorized biography of the deceased’s life.  Kear and Mrs. Driffield, however, operate satirically within the social structure of the time and take great pains to ensure the end result depicts Ted Driffield as the well-behaved literary giant his peers wish to remember him as.  Primarily, they wish to effectively omit the impact of Driffield’s tumultuous first marriage on his eventual largesse.  Via his personal remembrances, however, the narrator tells the true story of Driffield and his salacious first wife.

Under normal circumstances, the life of Edward Driffield could be viewed as tragic.  As a matter of fact, Driffield lived in obscurity with a relentlessly unfaithful wife until she finally left him completely.  Driffield went on to achieve commercial success but it became increasingly clear that his creativity left along with Rosie, the infamous first wife.  However, despite the grim circumstances, Maugham’s ability to satirize the customs of the time render the book much more lighthearted.  In fact, the passages of young Ashenden’s first encounter with the Driffield couple in their hometown of Blackstable are very funny, replete with Ashenden’s indignation at the young couple for their lack of respect for social propriety.

The satire, however, does not end with poking fun at the manners of the time, early 20th century England, that is.  Just as effectively, the satire extends to the social aspect of the literary profession.  Supposedly, Driffield, the prolific writer who fictionalized his home town is representative of Thomas Hardy, and more amusingly so, the social climber and mediocre-at-best writer Alroy Kear is Hugh Walpole.  While Maugham denied these exact names, the fact is, the social aspect of the literary profession of both past and present is on full display in CAKES AND ALE.

W. Somerset Maugham’s CAKES AND ALE is a quick read, due in part to my edition’s large margins, but a fulfilling one.  It is a recommendation for anyone interested in reading about the tawdry side of literature.