My senior year of college, I took a class on the Oulipo, a group of (predominantly) French writers who used constraints to test the limits of their story telling. Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler was one of the Oulipian works my professor assigned us. I decided to revisit this book a couple of weeks ago, because, if I’m honest, I didn’t actually read it in class (my undergraduate thesis took priority over an Honors elective.)
It’s difficult to describe this book in a succinct way. The best description I can give you is this: Calvino wrote this book specifically for readers, for those of us who love books. If on a winter’s night is a bit complicated because it’s divided into multiple stories. At the beginning, you, the Reader, begin to read If on a winter’s night, unfortunately, you find your copy is bound incorrectly with another book. And thus your quest for locating the real copy begins. On your journey, you meet other Readers, and begin other books which you will never finish.
Calvino’s work is an interesting read, although it may be bothersome to those of you who can’t stand to leave a book unfinished (in this book, you’ll start nearly a dozen books and only finish one.) However, if you love reading for reading’s sake, then try this book out.
If on a winter’s night a traveler. Italo Calvino, L &OD Key Porter, 1982 (first published in 1979).
To be honest, this book never stood a chance with me. Why? Because when a historian (me) reads a fictitious account (The Paris Architect) that takes place in her field of knowledge (Vichy France,) she is bound to be overly critical. Here’s a quick look at what I liked and didn’t like about this book.
- The premise was interesting. An architect creates hiding places for Jews in Paris under Nazi Occupation.
- The protagonist was complex. Lucien Bernard hadn’t seen work since WWII began. Desperate for money, he agrees to design a hiding place for a wealthy Jew in return for a large sum of money and the promise of a huge commission. Bernard isn’t particularly likable in the beginning, having no compassion for his fellow man suffering at the hands of the Nazis. His story is similar to other’s from the Holocaust; initially, Lucien was a war profiter who capitalized on other’s sufferings. However, much like Oskar Schindler, he realized the importance of helping the Nazis’ victims and became a staunch ally to the Jews.
- The author, Charles Belfoure, is an architect. His knowledge of building techniques really shine in this book and provides exceptional details that help the narrative.
- Some of the history wasn’t right. His description of Vichy, Jewish deportations, and the Resistance are in line with Vichy scholarship. However, he mentions Maurice Papon in passing and makes two claims that aren’t true. First, Belfoure states that Papon was an architect. In two years of studying this man (I wrote my thesis on ol’ Maurice,) I never found any indication that he was an architect. Papon had an extensive career as a civil servant, but that’s it. Second, he claims that Papon was involved in the Parisian police during WWII, that’s simply not the case. Papon was in charge of the Jewish Question division in the Bordeaux area during the Second World War. While it is true he organized Jewish deportations, he did not do so in Paris. In fact, he did not become chief of police in Paris until after the war.
- Belfoure’s writing needs some work. His choice of words does not fit with the 1940s, and that really bothered me.
- He introduced too many characters and groups. Belfoure got a little carried away with his characters. Vichy is a multi-faceted topic and it’s best to just focus on one aspect. Belfoure introduced the Gestapo and the Resistance, as well as multiple Jews who needed hiding, and nearly everyone in that network. Pair that with all the architectural lingo, and anyone reading is bound to feel overwhelmed. The parts with the Resistance didn’t add much to the story and could have been left out. There were several characters whose stories never got a conclusion, which left the book feeling unfinished.
Another Thing to Note:
The descriptions of Gestapo torture are very graphic. If you aren’t used to reading that type of content, it may be best to skip over it.
I can’t say that I was completely disappointed with The Paris Architect; it was a fast read and I couldn’t put it down. However, more editing and fact-checking would’ve taken this book from 3 stars to 4.
The Paris Architect. Charles Belfoure. Sourcebooks. 2013.
When I was about seven years old, my grandparents took a chartered bus tour to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. They brought me my very own red-haired Anne doll, as well as a copy of Anne of Green Gables. On days my grandparents picked me up from school, I insisted my grandmother put on the 1985 two-part film. Anne of Green Gables was one of my favorite heroines growing up, and, in a spell of nostalgia, I chose to re-read the book a few weeks ago.
Anne of Green Gables, for those of you who haven’t had a chance to read it, is about an orphan girl who is (mistakenly) adopted by an older brother and sister. The book chronicles her adventures in Avonlea, a fictional town on PEI, and is a classic coming of age novel. I thoroughly enjoyed going back to Green Gables once again to watch Anne accidentally get her bestie drunk, become resolute in her endeavor to be the top in the class, and surpass everyone’s expectations.
When I was younger, Anne’s ambition in school motivated me to study more, while her love for reading inspired my own. This time around, Anne’s decision to decline a scholarship to college in order to care for her adoptive mother helped me realize that it’s okay to channel your ambitions in places you didn’t plan to. Sometimes life happens, and things go awry, but there’s always something to look forward to. Thanks, Anne, for once again sharing a very important life-lesson.
So how about you? Do you love Anne of Green Gables? Is there a book from many years ago you reread and learned something new from?
Anne of Green Gables. L.M. Montgomery. Bantam Books (Classics,) 1982. First published 1908.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Young Adult fiction. For some reason, once I went to college, I felt that YA wasn’t sophisticated enough (it probably had something to do with befriending several literature majors.) Anyways, I found this book through Pinterest, and decided to read it without really knowing what it was about.
The Program is a dystopian novel set in nearly present-day America. Teen suicide rates have skyrocketed and the government, in an attempt to save the young generation, formulate The Program. While their intentions seem noble, The Program “rehabilitates” suicidal teens by tampering their memories. Instead of sending the teens to grief counseling or having a psychiatrist treat them (many have lost friends or family members to suicide,) The Program removes their memories completely. When the young folks return to society, they are not the same people they were before, having lost large chunks of their identity and experiences.
The book follows Sloane who, months after her brother’s suicide, finds herself closely monitored by The Program. She and her boyfriend, James, fear they will be taken at any moment. and that, if taken, they will not be able to hold on to each other and they will return unable to recognize each other.
Much to my surprise, this was an exciting read for me. The writing was good, the plot was interesting, and the pace was fast. The one problem I had with the novel, and with a lot of dystopian literature in general, was the lack of background. How many children have gone into The Program? Were other methods tried? Why did the government think tampering with people’s minds (the books alluded to lobotomies) was preferred over counseling and psychiatry? How large was the suicide epidemic? What types of treatment do they plan for adults who have also experienced grief? Hopefully, the sequel will offer insight into these questions.
The Program. Suzanne Young. Simon Pulse, 2013.
In light of the recent national debate (and violence) over removing Confederate statues, it was a rather timely decision to read Desmond Tutu’s work on reconciliation and collective healing. Tutu is one whose work I’ve admired for quite some time, and I was happy to finally delve into one of his books.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Desmond Tutu and his work, he was the Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa, and is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1984.) He’s a theologian, a human rights activist, a professor, and was a major opponent of the South African apartheid (think of a religious Nelson Mandela.)
The premise of this book is that societies must actively seek reconciliation after human rights violations have occurred on behalf of their government. Tutu’s work outlines the endeavors of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) of which he was a member. The TRC provided a platform for the victims of apartheid to share their experience while offering amnesty to the perpetrators in exchange for their confessions and apologies. Rather than punishing those responsible for the apartheid, Tutu argues that having them publicly confess and then pardoning them laid a solid foundation on which South African society could be built.
Overall, Tutu’s book is truly moving. He offers many well-chosen examples to illustrate life for Blacks under the apartheid state, while also recounting the proceedings of the TRC. His work offers both an overview of the South African apartheid and the theological justification for forgiveness in times of atrocity.
No Future without Forgiveness. Desmond Tutu. Image, 2000 (first published in 1999).
This was one of those books I pretended I’d read in college. Friends and professors mentioned it in discussions, my roommate often quoted it. In short, I assumed that it was a ground shaking piece of literature because the people to whom I look up seemed so entranced with it.
A few weeks ago, I was at the library without my trusty list of books I want to read. I both love and hate walking into a book shop or library without my list because I tend to go rogue, selecting books that I normally would never find, thus lengthening my to-read list. I picked up the only copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s book, figuring I could get through it that weekend. The short blurb intrigued me, since the book was set during WWII.
Overall, it wasn’t bad. The writing style is very simple and the book isn’t terribly long. The part that absolutely drove me mad was the narrator, which I found to be unreliable. (I know some people who love unreliable narrators, but I personally do not. I like to trust the narrator in order to feel more invested in the story.) There were constant time jumps, which I normally like, but these didn’t seem to add much new insight. The ultimate takeaway I got from the book was that war is bad, yet it is, in some ways, ordinary and mundane. And often the people who return from war come back fractured or broken in ways other than physical.
So am I glad I read it? Sure. It was quick, the style was simple, and I can now say I’ve read it. Would I read it again? Probably not, but I might try another of Vonnegut’s work. Will it go on my favorite books of all time? Nope.
Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Delacourt Press, 1994 (first published in 1969).
Hey guys, I’m back! I know I’ve been gone a while, but I’m finally reading on a more consistent basis and wanted to share the book I finished last week.
This one by Tom Franklin had been on my list for over a year. I found it in one of those Pinterest lists of books you wouldn’t be able to put down. Crooked Letter takes place in Mississippi and flips between present-day and flashbacks to the 1970s.
Essentially, it’s the story of a man, Larry Ott, who was suspected of murdering a teenage girl when he was a younger. While he never confessed to the crime, and was never charged, the residents of his town ostracize him. So it’s no surprise that when a young college girl disappears from the county forty years later, Ott is accused of the crime. Silas Jones, the police constable who knew Larry when he was younger, leads the investigation of his former classmate. The two men’s stories intertwine as they discover secrets of their shared past.
That’s all I can tell you without spoiling the book. While I can’t say it was the most thrilling crime novel I’ve ever read, I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who wants a quick read with mostly sympathetic characters.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Tom Franklin. William Marrow, 2010.