Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Capturing Paris

Please visit Barrie Summy
for a full listing of other March book reviews.

Photographer: Olivier Ffrench

I have an almost-reverance for the idea of the right book for the right reader at the right time.

A few years ago, when I was doing a lot of reading research, most of boiled down to this idea: Anyone can become an enthusiastic reader if they are introduced to the right book. Enthusiastic reading = frequent reading = better reading . . . and on and on in a circular equation.

Of course, all books aren't created equal -- nor will they be loved equally by those who read them. At any given time, I will have a number of books on the go -- and some will be read avidly, some fitfully, and some will (truthfully) eventually be abandoned. But no problem . . . because I am always surrounded by books and my book-reading will probably never catch up to my book-hoarding.

If I am away on holiday, though, my book choice is far more crucial. I just cannot stand to be without a book -- even if it is only ten minutes of solitary waiting time in a restaurant. (That happened to me yesterday, but it was fine because I had Clotilde Dusoulier's excellent Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook with me.) When an avid reader is isolated from bookstores, libraries and their own personal stash, it is extremely important to get the book right. It is a delicate, complex, nay even mysterious, process.

A few notes about holiday reading: I don't like trash, but the reading level shouldn't be too challenging, either. (Being away from home/routine has many inherent stressors anyway, and you don't want to be tussling with inpenetrable reading material.) The right holiday book is thoughtful, but not inponderable, convoluted or nonsensical. Some people like escapism, but I like a book which will bring me back to myself. I think that travel has a tendency to open up cracks in a person . . . and so I want a book which might shed some light on whatever issues I am grappling with at the moment.

All of this is lengthy, but necessary -- to my mind, at least --preamble for introducing Capturing Paris, by Katharine Davis. For me, it was the perfect February Half-Term (visit friends in New York and go skiing) novel. It was easy to become absorbed in, and to pick up and put down again, and it contained lots of food for thought -- but only the easily digested kind. I finished it in the late afternoon, lying under a quilt, bathed in the soft blue light of lamplit falling snow. My setting had a quiet beauty, and so did the setting of the book.

The protagonist of the novel, Annie Reed, is a middle-aged wife, mother and poet -- and I'm going to suggest that this novel will probably mostly appeal to middle-aged women. Its subject is mid-life crisis: not the sort of crisis where you want to go out and buy a Porsche, but the kind of crisis which is brought on by mostly unavoidable life shifts. A husband loses a job, a child moves away, emotional certainties are threatened. Of course, anytime there are cracks there will be opportunities . . . as I mentioned before. This is a novel about having the opportunity to redefine yourself. Even as Annie loses pieces of her old life and sense of self, she is gaining interesting new ones. Another theme is the process of discovering, or rediscovering, one's creative self. Annie is emotionally attached to the idea of Paris as the source of her creativity, and part of her journey is figuring out to what extent that is true.

One of the chief pleasures of the novel is the Parisian setting -- and it is obvious that Davis can describe Paris from an insider's point-of-view. There are many delicious descriptions of Parisian life -- particularly of food, and its place of importance in this culture. Perhaps I will enlarge the book's intended audience a bit: middle-aged women will like it, and so will Francophiles, and so will foodies.

I cannot separate this book from another kind of provenance: it was given to me by my dearest friend in Houston. I had a hunch that dear friend had found this charming book at her favorite book-buying place, and it turned out that I was correct. River Oaks Bookstore: It is the kind of independent bookstore which earns the loyalty of its readers, partly because of its carefully edited selection and partly because of its personal service. You can describe the reader to Jean, and she will make thoughtful recommendations.


Sarah Laurence said...

It’s a fun concept: right book/right time. I love how much care you put into your choices down to the bookstore. Middle aged women who like food and France, hmm, sounds familiar. Thank for the recommendation!

julochka said...

you make me want to read it and i'm not at all a francophile...but what interests me most in this post is your statement that travel opens up cracks in a'll just have to write about that in the near future. i find it very intriguing.

i agree completely that one must have the right book along when traveling. i've on several occasions taken something too dense and ended up buying something in the airport bookshop because zizek was just too much for the plane ride. that is how i discovered mma ramotswe during a long layover in bangkok, so it's not all bad...

i'll stop rambling now, but do promise that you'll explain what you mean about travel opening up cracks...


Alyson (New England Living) said...

I love that concept too. I totally agree. I'm usually careful about picking a certain book for a certain time and place. Right now I'm reading "The Glass Castle" since I, myself, am delving into writing my own memoirs.

I'm not quite middle-aged, but that book sounds interesting to me. I always find stories of life shifts and redefining oneself so fascinating.

Where were you in New York? You were in my neighboring state. So, you were kind of my neighbor for a bit. :)

D.A. Riser said...

Hey Bee - I love what you said about the right book at the right time for the right person. Too true!

Stacy Nyikos said...

Finding the right book at the right time gives a rush much like when the stars align. I read "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" right before going to Rome for the first time with my husband. It was so much more organic, walking through the Vatican Museums with the dramatic story of Michelangelo - troubled genius, diva, superb sculptor - running through my head. Loved it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This sounds like a wonderful book although any book or movie with Paris in the title is an easy sell.

flowrgirl1 said...

Great post! Im one of those strange people that loves to read but rarely picks up a book and finishes it. I read Diane Ackermans book, 'Cultivating Delight', but it took me two years! Its like i have a.d.d. or something. The shorter the chapters the more i will read! I will count the pages to see how much more i have to go in each chapter! If its long i will put it down. Its probably why i love magazines so much. Even then i still find the shortest articles first.

I love to read and am really trying to become a "reader". I just have to work at overcoming my strange behaviors.

Pam I Am said...

What I particularly like about this review is that you've given us the flavor of the book without giving much at all away of the plot.

I hate when people do that.

I too have more books hoarded than I will read in a lifetime. And I've recently begun to embrace your rule about abandoning books if they just don't do it for me. I put Oscar and Lucinda aside because, in the death throes of the Bush administration, I just couldn't handle a book about someone with a crackpot vision of religion.

However, I've also learned over the years that sometimes the reader is not ready for the book. The time is not right. (This is similar to but also slightly different from your comment about matching the right book to a holiday.) So I'll hold on to O & L and maybe there will be a better time for me to explore that one. And while I started to tell a story here about the timing of books, this comment is already getting long. It would be better discussed at my own blog. And that I shall do in the next few days.

Sigh. Time to go add another title to the Amazon shopping list!

Pam I Am said...

I see your link for the book takes us to the Kindle store.

Does this mean you have a Kindle? If so, do you have a review for that?

She said...

ooooh! I love the River Oaks Bookstore! I rarely miss Houston, but there are some places that make my heart leap!

I agree that we must find the right book for the right reader, and I spend a lot of time helping my students find books that work for them. It is also my belief that many of them don't read because they simply haven't found the right book! My classroom is filled with nearly a thousand books that I've bought throughout my years as a teacher.

I often see myself as a match-maker! I take my work of matching kiddos to books very seriously! If I can get them hooked, then I know they'll be hooked for life!

I will check out CAPTURING PARIS.

Colour Me Happy said...

I love how you distinguished the 'holiday book read' it's true, not good to be without your book for even 10 minutes! Love it!

tangobaby said...

I loved relating to this post, as I realized some of my predilections through your words. In my younger years, I felt compelled to finish every book I ever started, like there was some imperceptible badge of honor for doing so. It took me years to get over that, and not feel guilty for not finishing a book, although I still will never dog-ear a page.

Normally, my francophile tendencies are fed by memoirs (Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon is a favorite) and history books, but perhaps I'll look for your book and see if it will work for a lunchtime read. Like you, I cannot enter a restaurant without a book in hand. I have purchased so many books just to have a companion at lunchtime.

Thanks for the great post.

willow said...

My book reading will never catch up on my book hoarding, either, Bee! I am known to read chapters randomly here and there from the nest of books stacked around my desk. It's a kind of grazing. Some books I read straight through in a matter of hours. Blogging has most definitely cut back on my time spent reading.

My dream of flea marketing in France will come true. Someday.

Bee said...

Sarah - You would like this book a lot . . . and it is a "first book." I noticed, when I looked at her website, that her second came out last month.

Julochka - I didn't actually mention that she was an American in Paris; you could empathize with the bi-cultural aspect. As for the "travel opens up cracks in a person:" I sort of tossed that off, but I've been thinking about the idea a lot. I'm working in the direction of a poem . . . hope something will emerge.

Alyson - I read The Glass Castle last summer when I was in New England . . . and also A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel -- which is another great memoir. I love them both; in general, I prefer memoir to biography because I like a strong, distinctive "voice." I'd love to know how your memoir is progressing . . . I've missed you, A.

As for NY, we were far from you -- nearer Buffalo, on the eastern side. But someday I will make it to Conn.!

I think that you would like the book . . . because even though you aren't properly middle-aged, you have an old soul.

D.A. Riser - Thanks! and thanks for stopping by.

Stacy - I loved your example - so beautifully detailed. Sometimes the right book is about the time/place; sometimes the themes/ideas; sometimes just the mood it evokes.

Pattinase - I agree! Paris does give the book a lot of charm -- and that is actually part of her theme. Is a beautiful life dependent on place?

flowrgirl1 - blogs sound like the ideal format for you. Don't you think that many of them are like miniature essays or memoir? I like Ackerman a lot - must look up that book you mention.

Pam I Am - I hope that you will write a post about some of the ideas that my review sparked off for you. I have, many times, put a book down . . . only to fall in love with it years later (when the time - or maybe I - was ripe).

Oh, and I don't have a Kindle. I didn't even know what that was until I followed my own link and looked into it. I have no idea why it was part of the search.

SHE - You lived in Houston? I want to know more. I came to Houston in the early 90s to go to grad school at Rice U. I've lived there on and off.

Did you follow the link for "the right book . . ."? It links to a book called "Making the Match" by Teri Lesegne. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Also, I used to teach 6th grade reading and I STILL haven't gotten rid of my classroom library, much to my husband's irritation. (But I may need those books again someday!)

Colour Me Happy - So you are one of those too?

Tangobaby - Yes, I always felt compelled to finish books, too. Turning 40 has helped me let go of that . . .
LOVED the Gopnik book. I read it in Italy -- on HOLIDAY!

Willow - Book grazing! So true! Book snacking is cute, too.

You MUST have your own flea market/stall in Paris someday. I am desperate to take the new fast train from London to Paris.

Imogen Lamport said...

I'm so with you, hate to be away from something to read. I have to say that since I had kids I no longer have the concentration to read the 'hard' books, so my fiction choices tend to be lighter. I do spend a lot of time reading books of my trade.

My brother's girlfriend is a great example of right book right time - she is dyslexic and had never read fiction, my brother challenged her to read 10 books, if she still didn't like reading after that then he would never hassle her to read again. She started reading, and came across an author she liked, and has become an avid reader ever since.

linda said...

I was off to buy an art book today on amazon(I give them so much money!) and will definitely add this to my list...I am a middle aged francophile woman from way back! I wish the local bookstore had not closed and more keep closing-it's very depressing but I live so far from a town or city, it's almost always online anyway...

I have several books going at one time, being a bit ADD and just liking books too much to read just one...I feel very disorganized in my reading however, because of this long held habit, and I am always telling myself to read and finish this ONE first before I start THAT one but I never do wait...I also usually read a book backwards, which is very weird, I know, and then sometimes, I will again read it forward~I don't know what label we can attach to that one...dyslexic doesn't quite fit the bill....

oh, I'm so long winded, I do apologize...thank you for the recommend and also, thank you for your sweet comment...I will take it to heart and write what I want, when I want and if it's about the pain in my rear end, then so be it! ;)

linda said...

just one more thing that MUST be said~~I adore your banner!!


Beth said...

Just came from Barrie's site. I love this Book Review idea - a book lover's delight.
Capturing Paris sounds like the right book for this reader...

Gifted Typist said...

Agreed on the right book at the right time. I'll look that one up. I think it fits for me right now

Anonymous said...

The best holiday reading for me was, one summer I read the entire works of Jane Austen. Perfect.


Alyson (New England Living) said...

I missed you too! I became pretty internet adverse over the last month.

Yes, come to CT someday! Would be a pleasure to meet you. :)

Anna said...

Bee this is really cool post about reading. You said: 'At any given time, I will have a number of books on the go -- and some will be read avidly, some fitfully, and some will (truthfully) eventually be abandoned.' - I am the same.

I also carry book with me, but you know I for some reason don't have time to read a single line when I am on the go, my timing is so calculated, lol.

Anna :0

Barrie said...

Like you, I cannot be without a book. And I also pick certain types of books for holidays. And only paperbacks (in case I lose it). Thank you for this review. It definitely appeals to me!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Another one for my list (though might bump this one up to the top). And perhaps a good excuse for hopping on the Eurostar for a weekend of delicious food and delicious reading in the delicious Springtime gardens in Paris? Ooolala!

Frog in the Field said...

You're so right, the book has to suit the mood. My daughter gets infuriated with me when I say I'm just not in the right frame of mind for certain books. She of course reads around five at a time!

Bee said...

Imogen - your anecdote about your brother's girlfriend underscored what I truly, truly believe: there IS something for everyone. A lot of reluctant readers have been changed with just one book.

Linda - Your comment about reading books backwards stopped me in my tracks. Now I've heard about peeking at the ending . . . but this is a new thing entirely! It is rotten to feel poorly, but at least you can READ from bed (there is always a silver lining). Oh, and thanks for the banner compliment. It is the wallpaper in my study. An 18th century print from Cole & Son.

Beth - Oh, I definitely think that you would like this book. I'm pretty sure it would speak to you.

Gifted Typist - Please let me know if you get around to reading it.

Julia - Yes, that IS perfect summer (or anytime) reading. I reread Persuasion every year.

Alyson - I'm going to send you an email . . . I've been thinking about you a lot.

Barrie - Avid readers are always more alike than they are different!! (Paperbacks are essential for holidays. This one fit into my purse. I guess that I should have mentioned that.)

JAPRA - Maybe we should organize a-women-only-weekend-in-Clothilde's- Paris. What do you think?

Bee said...

Anna - Well, having a book with you is a security blanket of sorts. You don't necessarily have to use it!

Frog - I love that your daughter is an indiscriminate reader!

Dave King said...

Enjoyed reading your thoughts almost as much as the review. Agreed wholeheartedly with your concept. i, too, tend to have several books on the go, not all of which get finished. I just assume they did not meet the criteria of the concept. Sometimes, years later, I will take down one of the unfinished books and read it avidly from cover to cover. The only caveat I would offer is that whether it is the right book at the right time may depend to some extent on the other books being read. Good post.

Reya Mellicker said...

I agree, trying to read even a great book at the wrong time just doesn't work. And like you, if I don't have a book to read I feel lost.

Right now I'm halfway through Savage Beauty a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I won this book at Willow's blog drawing. She chose the perfect book for me to read at this moment in time. Very cool!

Fantastic Forrest said...

I'm not ignoring this. Just taking some time to think about it. Brilliant comments take time, y'know?

Anne said...

I wish I had known about River Oaks Bookstore when I lived in Houston! Or rather, I wish I had known that it was so good. I drove by that little strip mall almost every other day on my way to Central Market, but never checked out any of the shops. Now I wish I had.

Capturing Paris sounds right up my alley, seeing as I am both a foodie and a francophile. I'll make a note to look for it the next time I'm at the bookstore down the street.

Maggie May said...

I can't wait to read this- I AM a francophile.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Okay, here is my brilliant comment. Why are you (presumably) sympathetic to Annie and accept her need to explore the idea of Paris to develop her creativity, yet (seemingly) less receptive to April's need to break out of the stifling confines of her life in RR?

Whew. That was one ugly sentence. Hopefully you've known me long enough to know how my twisted mind works, and can get what I'm trying (ineffectually) to say.

I mean, there's no talk here of burning one's fingers with matches. Yet there's a similar attraction to gay Paree. Am I nuts to see a connection between the two books?

I guess I need to read Capturing Paris to better discuss this. Off to the bookstore.

Oh, and I LOVE Clothilde Dusolier's writing. I was really angry at myself for missing her Portland appearance recently. Stupid me!

Bee said...

Dave King - The idea that the time is not ripe for certain books always intrigues me. I have put down books for years . . . and then come back to them with great interest.

Reya - I liked Savage Beauty a lot. (How lovely to receive that from Willow!) Knowing more about Millay's upbringing fascinated me. She always seemed so fragile, but then I realized that someone who was raised in Maine by a single mother had to have steel inside.

FF - Yes, I do realize that. We need a symbol that says, "I am thinking hard about this right now . . .".

Anne - Of course, you aren't even close to the middle-aged bit! I wonder if the dilemmas/musings of this protagonist would appeal to you?

Maggie May - You would like the poetic bits, too.

FF - An interesting question! I AM sympathetic to April's yearning for something "more" in her life, but she destroys so much in her desire for something that is never more than intangible. Annie has lived in Paris for 25 years . . . and thinks of the place as her true and chosen home. Annie carefully weighs the needs of the other people in her family against her own, while April is just crashing around. (Where are the children???) The books couldn't be more different temperamentally, but there is an interesting parallel in the sense that Paris seems to symbolize an artistic/creative awakening for the central female characters.

Anonymous said...