Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE RED BALLOON by Albert Lamorisse

About a year ago, I started tweeting out Paris reading recommendations each Tuesday, counting down to the launch of my novel, Paris by the Book. No one is more surprised than I am that I actually kept to this schedule for a year -- though I mostly chose books that I had already read and loved, I included some new titles, too. It made for a lot of reading--a lot of wonderful reading, because it took me back to Paris with each turn of the page.

My personal dogeared copy, preserved by my mom all these years.

My personal dogeared copy, preserved by my mom all these years.


And now we've reached the grand finale, with a book that's also a movie--The Red Balloon. In fact, purists may fault me for even discussing the book; for them, The Red Balloon, or in French, Le Ballon Rouge, is a movie first and last. But the book is how I came to know, and love, the story of a little boy and the magical balloon that follows him for a brief spell around Paris. (I still have my copy--pictured here--that I received from my godmother ages ago.) And for Lamorisse, the book was its own artistic endeavor, one envisioned from the start--he shot his own stills while shooting the movie. And while it's the same story, not everything syncs up; there's a photo or two in the book that's not in the movie. 

The photos are also, for the most part, black and white. Color printing was trickier and more expensive then. Or that's one reason. I have to think, though, that he wasn't entirely displeased by this stricture. The palette of film is also largely gray. Even though it's shot in color, the film resists color in almost every frame. 

Save for that balloon. It's enormous and impossibly perfect. In the lowest-tech of special effects, Lamorisse inflated an orange balloon inside the red one during filming to make the color especially vivid. That, plus a coat of shiny lacquer, absolutely work, as anyone who's seen film or book can attest.

Though the film won a golden palm at Cannes when it first came out, it's far better known in the United States (where it won an Academy Award for best screenplay) than it is in France. Whenever I tromp around the neighborhood, Ménilmontant, where it was shot, I see few signs that the neighborhood understands its legendary status.

The Red Balloon is what first took me to Paris. It's what keeps taking me back. It's a mythic Paris, beautiful but also gritty, and in that sense, I think truer to the heart of Paris than any other book or film I know about the city. I know, a grand claim. But it's a grand film. And this has been a grand year of reading. Thanks for traveling with me.

Everyone in and around Milwaukee, please attend United We Read 3/29

We take just a brief break from our Paris reading recs to bring you word of an exciting edition of UWM's longstanding student-faculty reading series, United We Read. Taking place 3/29 at 7p at Boswell Books, this edition features an all-star lineup: Mollie Boutell, Su Cho, Erich Wegeneke and Brenda Cárdenas. 


Tues. Paris Reading Rec: Ludwig Bemelmans

My second-to-last entry in my year-long list of Paris reading recommendations is devoted to Ludwig Bemelmans. Unlike my other Paris reading recs, I'm not going to recommend just one of his books, but all of them, especially the ones he wrote (as the characters in my novel Paris by the Book put it) "for grownups."

Bemelmans (1898-1962) wrote and illustrated one of these most famous children's book series of all time, Madeline, but that work represented a relatively small part of his life. He was a serious artist who worked in oil paints near the end of his life, and throughout his life, he was in constant demand as an illustrator for magazines--he drew dozens of New Yorker covers--and advertisers. He opened (and closed) a number of restaurants, and was an indefatigable traveler. (The Beinecke Manuscript library at Yale University has a small cache of his papers, which could double as a display of hotel stationery purloined from around the world.) 

He was, at heart, a sketch artist--equally skilled in 'drawing' with both brush and typewriter.  A great place to get introduced to these sketches (both verbal and visual) is his anthology, Tell Them It Was Wonderful. It collects fragments of memoirs from throughout his life, but what attracts me most (of course) are his essays set in France. One, "The Isle of God," recounts an episode when Bemelmans found himself in a hospital during an otherwise idyllic summer vacation. A little girl was recuperating from her own illness in the next bed over and together the two of them dreamed up stories about the cracks in the ceiling. One thing led to another, and Madeline was born. (Look in the Madeline book for its own take on ceiling cracks!)

Another favorite essay of mine is "La Colombe." In the 1950s, Bemelmans went to France on assignment for the late, great Holiday magazine. While in Paris, he befriended a number of clochards--the term translates to 'homeless' but not quite--and followed them to a bar they frequented in the shadow of Notre Dame. He was charmed. So much so that he bought the bar and began an expensive process of renovating it, top to bottom. 

The result was disastrous, financially and otherwise. The opening night party arrived before the plumbing did, so Bemelmans hired two limousines--one labelled, "Mesdames" and one "Messieurs"-- to spirit women and men who needed a bathroom to nearby apartments. Still, it was a grand party, and how could it not have been with Bemelmans at its center and extensive murals (now relocated to a Rhode Island hotel) on the walls. 

The bar has changed hands many times since, but you can still go there, sit down, have a glass of wine, sample their paté. The address is 4, rue de Colombe, but you'll also know it by the bas relief dove (pictured below) on the side of the building. The legend goes that early on in the building's life--in the 13th century--two doves had taken up residence here. The male dove went off one day to look for food, and when he returned, the building had collapsed, his mate somewhere inside. He circled for days, weeks, years after, searching for her. 

Is the bas relief dove a homage to him, or her? Or to Bemelmans, who died too young? It's impossible to say, though my novel, in its way, is about this mystery, about what it means to lose someone and subsequently search for them. When I visited the bar not too long ago, I was surprised to find a plaque on the side that listed all the building's most important dates, going back to the 1200s. There was, gratifyingly, an entry for Bemelmans, but, hauntingly, the notation indicated that he'd sold the bar quickly, not because of plumbing woes, but a "chagrin d'amour." A heartbreak. Who broke his heart? A lover? The bar? Paris?

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines..." -- perhaps, but nothing in Bemelmans's extraordinary life was so orderly. 


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Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain


The end is looming for my year of Paris reading recommendations, about which I'm sad -- but for the fact that I've saved some of the best titles for last. 

I'm not the first person to rave about Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, which came out in 2011, and I won't be the last. It's a remarkable book, in no small part because it avoids (as I failed to do at the end of the first paragraph) clichés while exploring a subject that's riddled with them. It's hard to write about Hemingway, or worse, write like Hemingway, without the result coming off like caricature. (And even when it's intended as caricature, as was the case--I think--in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, it's still ruinous.) 

But McLain's novel, about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, doesn't ring a false note. McLain's Hemingway sounds like Hemingway but a real--even the real--Hemingway. What's more, her Hadley, who narrates the novel, sounds fully real, fully alive, as well. Hadley was at Hemingway's side during his early Paris years and his earliest successes (and failures) as a writer. She's famously remembered as the woman who tucked all Hemingway's manuscripts into a valise and then lost them on a train from Paris to Geneva in 1922. 

That episode is sensitively portrayed here and many others besides--here's Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, all of them--and not for a minute do such appearances feel forced or inauthentic. 

I think that's because of what McLain works hardest to do here is not necessarily capture an 'accurate' portrait of famous writers and their lovers (though I found everything perfectly accurate) but rather an accurate account of two people from the Midwest who fell in love and then embarked on the adventure of their lives.

Even though I knew how it ended--McLain's novel is fiction, but again, she sticks to the facts--I still found myself hoping that things would work out. Not only for Hadley's sake, but Ernest's. Hadley would marry once more, and live, out of the limelight, until age 87. Ernest married three times more, and committed suicide at age 61. To my eye, the novel makes a case that his best years were those with Hadley. No argument here.


Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick

I had planned to post about another Paris novel today, but didn't finish it, because my fellow opera fan broke her arm playing soccer last night. In honor of her, then, I'll post about one of her favorite Paris books, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. A sensation when it first came out, it still is some 11 years after its debut. The story of young Hugo, who lives behind the scenes of a glorious Paris train station long lost to history (Gare Montparnasse--the new one in no way resembles the old), it's part comic strip, part novel, but all art. Almost as fun as reading it is watching someone else read it--you can see, in real time, the spell his pages cast. 

When my family and I visited Paris a few years back, this was one of the books we "mapped". If you'd like to see the results of our map (and our other Paris children's literature maps), they're all collected on this part of the website. As with Madeline's "old house in Paris covered with vines," the magnificent clock at the heart of Hugo doesn't exactly exist -- but with enough imagination, the one at the Musée d'Orsay will more than do. Bon voyage!



I post a Paris reading rec each Tuesday, just parce que...

During the year leading up to the publication of my novel, I've been posting a reading recommendation for a different Paris book each Tuesday. Novels, nonfiction, even guidebooks; in print, out of print. It's all here, and on Twitter tagged #parisbythebook. See links below for the latest.

Books recommended so far (in roughly, but not quite, chronological order of when I first tweeted about them; capsule discussions above or over at Goodreads): TIME WAS SOFT THERE, Jeremy Mercer; A FAMILY IN PARIS, Jane Paech; PARIS I LOVE YOU BUT YOU'RE DRAGGING ME DOWN, Rosecrans Baldwin; THE ONLY STREET IN PARIS, Elaine Sciolino; THE JOURNEY THAT SAVED CURIOUS GEORGE: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey, Louise Borden; ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr; SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY, Sylvia Beach; LE DIVORCE, Diane Johnson; PARIS IN FOUR DAYS, A. Leconte; THE BOOK OF SALT, Monique Truong; THE PIANO SHOP ON THE LEFT BANK, Thad Carhart; THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS, Gertrude Stein; "Equal in Paris," James Baldwin; DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON, George Orwell; MADAME DE TREYMES, Edith Wharton; PARIS WAS YESTERDAY, Janet Flanner (Gênet); WITHOUT RESERVATIONS, Alice Steinbach; MEET PARIS OYSTER, Mireille Guiliano; ADELE AND SIMON, Barbara McClintock; CURIOSITIES OF PARIS, Dominique Lesbros; MY PARIS DREAM, Kate Betts; THE PARISIANS, Graham Robb; A CORNER IN THE MARAIS, Alex Karmel; THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, Jimmy Charters; THE RED NOTEBOOK, Antoine Laurain; PETITE ANGLAISE, Catherine Sanderson; PARIS WITH CHILDREN, Kim Horton Levesque; SUITE FRANÇAISE, Irène Némirovsky; THE DEATH OF NAPOLEON, Simon Leys; THE MISTRESS, Philippe Tapon; "Rue de Lille" (THE COLLECTED STORIES), Mavis Gallant; THE DUD AVOCADO, Elaine Dundy; THE LIGHT OF PARIS, Eleanor Brown; BIG BLONDES, Jean Echenoz; REPORT FROM A PARISIAN PARADISE, Joseph Roth; QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, Alexander Chee; THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, Brian Selznick.

Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Alexander Chee

It's a long story as to why, but my 10-year-old and I listen to opera on Fridays on the way to school. Turnadot. And Fridays because "Nessun Dorma" is too much for a Monday. 

So it's true that I was an easy mark for Alexander Chee's extraordinary QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, given the opera that courses through the novel, and the fact that so much of it takes place in and around 19th century Paris. But anyone would -- and should -- fall for this epic tale. 

Chee has said that he based his protagonist, Lilliet Berne, on the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, who, in her life's last act, toured the United States with consummate showman PT Barnum. But Chee is also clear that Berne is wholly his own creation, and the result is wholly remarkable. The book is 500-some pages, but it's hard to imagine telling this story in a shorter length, given that it traces Lilliet from the Minnesota prairie to the circus, Paris, a brothel, the royal court, London, and beyond. She has servants of her own, she loses everything. She falls in and out of love with men who try to craft the narrative of arc of her life for her--in one case, literally--and navigates a series of poisonous friendships.

Berne is a "falcon"--an opera singer who possesses a rare and delicate voice like that of Cornélie Falcon, who enjoyed a famously influential, and famously brief, career.  But Berne's voice on the page never wobbles. It's careful and sure; occasionally vulnerable, but its survival--and Berne's--is never in doubt. 

I will never stop marveling at writers who can write a long novel, and even more so those who distill in so much research along the way without a word of it ever feeling researched. And--well, let me skip to the point. Opéra national de Paris's production of La Traviata closes tomorrow night. You still have time to get there. And if you're coming from the US, you've got an 8-10 flight ahead which is just enough time to get deep into QUEEN OF THE NIGHT. Enjoy the trip. 

Reading list for the Charles Allis Museum event

On February 22, I did a talk at the Charles Allis Museum that focused on a few selected items from my year of Paris reading recommendations. Here they are:

-Graham Robb's THE PARISIANS

-Eleanor Brown's THE LIGHT OF PARIS




-Albert Lamorisse's THE RED BALLOON

Tues. Paris Reading Rec: WE ALL WENT TO PARIS, by Stephen Longstreet

I'm as helpless in libraries as I am in bookstores, if not more so. I've yet to leave a library without a book in hand, and frequently it's not the one I was looking for at all, but rather one that caught my eye while I was en route to another title.

So it goes with Stephen Longstreet's WE ALL WENT TO PARIS. Published in 1971, my first impression of it was that it was an earlier, chattier version of Adam Gopnik's AMERICANS IN PARIS, an anthology of Americans writing about their days in Paris.

But WE ALL WENT TO PARIS turns out to be something entirely different--and so, too, Longstreet.

The book is a series of biographical sketches, ranging from Ben Franklin to Richard Wright, written--and illustrated--by Longstreet. He spends a good deal of time on Gertrude Stein, of whom he memorably says, she "seemed to preach 'Don't go home, and all is forgiven.' Paris as a modern American cultural outpost owes much of its popularity to her." 

But it's when Longstreet's own autobiography leaks into the text that I was most intrigued. Because Longstreet (1907-2002), knew Stein. And Joyce. And when he returned from Paris, Longstreet collaborated on a film script with "Bill" (William) Faulkner, his carpool buddy, a B-movie for Ronald Reagan. Longstreet, it turns out, was the author of more than 100 books, a screenwriter, and an artist best known for his portraits of jazz artists. He lived, and painted, in Paris in the 1920s, and that may be why those chapters in this book devoted to artists--including more than a few whose names would otherwise be lost to history--are the most affecting in this volume.

WE ALL WENT TO PARIS is definitely worth leafing through--and so is the life of Stephen Longstreet. His Los Angeles Times obituary is respectful; his Independent (UK) one a bit sharper; but leave it to Yale University, one of at least three institutions that holds portions of his papers, to reveal this in its Finding Aid:

Longstreet wrote both novels and non-fiction works. Most of the latter were not reviewed kindly, with reviewers questioning his accuracy of content and reliability of sources. Perhaps his most notable hoax was Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam, by herself, edited and with an introduction by Stephen Longstreet (1970). He claimed to have received a manuscript memoir from Kimball (1854-1934), a well-traveled prostitute and New Orleans madam, tried in vain to find a publisher for it in the 1930s, and then held on to her manuscript when she died. After citing it as primary source material for his own books Sportin' House: a History of New Orleans Sinners and the Birth of Jazz (1965) and The Wilder Shore: a Gala Social History of San Francisco's Sinners and Spenders, 1849-1906 (1968), Longstreet sold the manuscript to Macmillan Publishing. Kimball's autobiography received positive notices in newspapers and mass-market periodicals, but academics found too many close parallels in narrative and language to the works of Herbert Asbury (1889-1963), and shortly, both the text and the madam were found to be Longstreet's fabrications. The Wilder Shore itself was then revealed to have been paraphrased from Asbury's book The Barbary Coast (1933).

Did Macmillan feel burned? Not at all. It published WE ALL WENT TO PARIS just three years later. Who knows how much of it is fabricated? Its devotion to Paris seems entirely authentic.

Gertrude Stein, by Stephen Longstreet

Gertrude Stein, by Stephen Longstreet

Tues. Paris Reading Rec: POSTCARDS OF A LOST PARIS

Who says a coffee table book needs to be the size of a coffee table? This small volume is bigger than a stack of postcards, but not much bigger, and is all the more delightful for being so small. 

Postcards of a Lost Paris focuses on the work of Eugène Atget (1857–1927) a French photographer whose images you've likely seen even if you didn't know they were his: black-and-white photos of an almost always eerily empty Paris that seem to feature a thousand (more than 50, anyway) shades of gray. Indeed his photography--and the work of photographers who copied him--is so familiar it can feel cliché. 

That's what makes this book so fresh and fascinating. A series of postcards featuring the "little trades" or petits métiers of Paris, it represents (as the book's introduction recounts, "more or less Atget's only publications during his lifetime [though they] were created near the beginning of his career, long before he was “discovered” in the 1920s and raised to the status of the poetic chronicler of the fragility of time and place."

The photos themselves are beautiful. The content, though, is fascinating. The newsstand on the cover is a familiar enough little trade--but old ladies selling lace? A rolling "couper des chats" wagon (where you could have your cat spayed or neutered or their tail clipped)? I'm reminded of a scene from The Red Balloon where a man, hunched over, marches up the street in Menilmontant carrying long, narrow panes of glass on his back: a sidewalk glazier. But that's a story for another Tuesday...


Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WALK IN THE WORLD by John Baxter

I have traveled through Paris every way you can: bus, Métro, taxi, RER--I have even driven a car in Paris, which is exactly as terrifying as it sounds. 

But when I visited last spring, I decided to try something new--for 96 hours, I'd only use human-powered transit to get around. That meant a lot of Vélib' bikes (which were scarier, but more fun, than driving that car) and, of course, walking. Over the course of one day, I walked and biked Paris from the Bois de Boulogne to the Bois de Vincennes, looping up and over Montmartre. It must have been 20 kilometers. I was sore after but happy, too. There'd been so much to see I'd not paid attention to my feet for a single minute. 

There are many walking guides to Paris, but few as charmingly avuncular as Baxter's. He's an affable host and ready raconteur, and while this book does sketch out some walks, it's even more fun to read with your feet up in a chair, especially when Baxter gets to talking about cooking. He is incapable of being uninteresting (and if the stories he tells aren't enough just read his Amazon bio, which has enough adventure and twists for a dozen authors). Marchons!

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Tues. Paris Reading Rec: BIG BLONDES, Jean Echenoz

Quite some time ago, I reviewed Jean Echenoz's novel BIG BLONDES for the NY Times. A send-up of thrillers and celebrity culture, it's not specifically a Paris novel--though it does spend plenty of time there--and it's not easily classifiable satire, either. As I note in the capsule review (which I resurrect below), it's often quite broadly played -- the big blonde of the title, Gloria Stella, is just one of many characters with too-apt a name -- which is why it's only after the remove of some years I realize how stealthy and sly this book is. To be fair, it took France some time to catch on to Echenoz, too: he didn't receive the Prix Goncourt, France's oldest literary prize, until a year or two after I wrote this review. I'm sure there's no connection. (This novel can now be found in a newer edition of three short Echenoz novels helpfully titled, THREE BY ECHENOZ. As a bonus, read this witty and smart take on Echenoz by Mary Hawthorne)

Delightful and decidedly goofy, Jean Echenoz’s novel BIG BLONDES (New Press, $22) has one at its center — the fleetingly famous chanteuse Gloria Stella (nee Gloire Abgrall), who fled from the public eye upon the suspicious demise of her agent-lover. Her seclusion is complete until a trash television producer named Paul Salvador picks up the trail while in pursuit of his two abiding interests: ‘’What ever happened to?’’ celebrity stories and the blondes of the book’s title. When Salvador’s private detectives begin closing in, Gloire reacts with feral rage, hurling one of her pursuers off a cliff and leading the rest on a chase from Paris to Sydney to Bombay. In Mark Polizzotti’s translation from the original French, Echenoz’s modus operandi is parody played so broadly it occasionally borders on farce; he delights in savaging mass media cliches like television docudramas or action-adventure movies. Though these are not new or difficult targets, Echenoz dispatches them with gleeful silliness. He doesn’t spare his own work in the process, using sporadic asides to treat his novel as cavalierly as any of his other subjects. ‘’We already know the deal,’’ he writes at one point, ‘’so let’s get this over with quickly and move on.’’ What’s not to like about such a considerate author?
— NYTBR, 1997

Tues. Paris Reading Rec: REPORT FROM A PARISIAN PARADISE by Joseph Roth

Joseph Roth was born in what was then Ukraine in 1894. It took him 39 years to get to Paris -- he immigrated there from Germany in 1933 -- but once he did, he decided he'd found himself in, indeed, a paradise. 

Roth is best known for his novel, Radetzky March (1932), though Americans may be more familiar with him through two collections of columns he filed for various newspapers: one, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933, which details the Nazis' rise, which the prescient Roth feared from early on; and today's recommendation here, Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925–1939. 

Roth's translator, the indefatigable Michael Hoffman, has spent decades translating Roth's work. He describes these newspaper and magazines items as "a type of thoughtfully florid journalism that even in German goes by a French name: feuilletons (little leaves, or little sheets), for which Roth's own understated definition was 'saying true things on half a page.'"

In the book's title essay -- which is about a basement bar named Paradise -- Roth can hardly get into the club without being distracted by its neon sign, which is a blue

close to violet. It's the blue of blue pansies, and of the first morning mist to wreathe itself over a plowed field. It's the blue of vivid dreams and of cigarette smoke. It's not the blue of heaven or of the Mediterranean. You see how hard it is to describe a color.

Very sly, very Roth: you see how hard it is, but then again, he's done it very well. 

The book is not all flights of fancy. Eventually the Nazis that Roth fled in German come to advance on France. Anti-semitism simmers. Roth's longtime consolation, alcohol, begins to destroy him (it would eventually kill him, just days before the Nazis arrived in Paris). 

You can't judge a book by its cover, but the title here is telling: "Notes on a Parisian Paradise" is the title of the English edition. The German edition takes the name of another, late-life piece that Roth published in 1938, just six months before his death: "In The Bistro After Midnight." Equally poetic as the American title, and set in yet another bar, except this time all is darkness and dismay; the piece is largely a transcript of the sad musings of the crowd hanging on until closing time at the neighborhood bar. At one point, one of the men shouts, "No more conscience in the world!" Roth observes

...everyone laughed. They thought heh'd had a few--and he had. Anyway, it's typical of people today that when they're drunk and they hear the truth and they recognize it, still they try to tell themselves it's only the wild talk of someone drunk like themselves.

But it wasn't wild talk. The piece was published on November 11, during Kristallnacht. 

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Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown

What is it about the light in Paris? I joked a few weeks back about a sub-theme of Parisian literature -- or maybe the theme of Parisian literature -- being real estate, but truly, its chief theme is, was, always will be, light (which may be another way of talking about real estate -- again, I'm thinking here of the Mavis Gallant story I talked about a couple weeks ago). 

Bestselling author Eleanor Brown catches that light on every page in this beautifully braided story of a contemporary woman in a loveless marriage, Madeleine, who discovers her grandmother Margie's diary, only to see her grandmother suddenly in, well, a new light. Decades earlier, Margie, abandoned by the young relative she was supposed to chaperone, found herself navigating Paris all on her own -- and falling further for Paris with every step. 

Which is about how readers fall for this book. Moving back and forth in time, from Madeline to Margie, we encounter two women forging new lives for themselves even as their old lives attempt to entangle them ever further; parallels abound. What I particularly liked about this novel was how deliberate, and thus, real, it was. I used the word "suddenly" above, but the truth is, there's nothing cheaply sudden about this book. There are dramatic events, but Brown is careful to show us how people change, by degrees, over time. It's deeply engrossing, and deeply satisfying. (Not for nothing: so are the descriptions of food and drink throughout.)

Also deeply satisfying, and embodying many of the themes above (I'm not sure why I'm all about themes today; must be because I'm sitting at my desk in the English Department) is Brown's lively anthology, A PARIS ALL YOUR OWN, an anthology of women writers on Paris. 

A final word for the final word, actually the Afterword, in Brown's novel: don't skip to it, but don't skip it, either. It's fascinating and perfectly, perfectly put.


Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE DUD AVOCADO by Elaine Dundy

The only dud about Elaine Dundy's 1958 novel THE DUD AVOCADO is, for me, the title. It refers to one Sally Jay Gorce, the book's 20-something narrator, who is anything but a dud. Not for one page, one paragraph, one word. Gorce's romp through Paris (and various neighboring geographies) is frequently funny, occasionally moving, but steadily zany. Modern reviewers compare her to Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City, and there's plenty of sex and eye-rolling and men behaving ineptly. It should all lead to the readerly equivalent of a hangover but, with the exception of that title, none of it feels forced. Dundy's Gorce is vital and vulnerable both with an eviscerating eye that she trains on everyone -- including herself.

Dundy, a onetime actress, said that she based Gorce's adventures on her own. In an afterword to the 2007 NYRB edition, she writes, "When people ask me how autobiographical the book is I say all the impulsive, outrageous things my heroine does, I did. All the sensible things she did, I made up." (It's worth reading the afterword just to see her recount all the raves she received: Irwin Shaw, Terry Southern, Gore Vidal, Ernest Hemingway...Groucho Marx?)

There's not much of a plot to speak of--it's more of a this-happened-then-that affair, until the end, when a wide variety of loose ends are tied up in various nutty ways. But that's not what you read it for. You read it to find out what happens to a young woman, robbed of her passport, who has to stay in Paris until its found.  Whether or not you have your own passport, Dundy's Paris is worth a visit. 

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