Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (audio)

lovers at theAgain I took way too long to listen to the whole of this audiobook, which might hinder my review a little. But it worked out rather well: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an engaging story, that covers a number of years and is told from a number of perspectives. This might have been confusing when broken up over such a long time as I took with it, but it wasn’t. Instead, it felt like it helped me dip in and out more easily: lots of time passed for the characters too in between my visits to them, so it felt natural, if you see what I mean.

The time and place setting are in the title; or rather, the title of the book is the name of a photograph, taken in 1932. The story remains in Paris (with one brief sojourn to the countryside nearby), covering the years before and during the German occupation. Several characters relate events from different perspectives, including an American writer whose voice is heard through the books and articles he writes about life in Paris at that time; a Hungarian photographer in love with Paris, writing home to his parents; a French girl who is the girlfriend of the writer and then the photographer, writing a memoir which is to be destroyed upon her death; the wealthy French woman who is the photographer’s patroness, writing her own memoir; and a woman, a couple of generations later, writing the biography of the notorious Lou Villars.

Lou is at the center of this novel, although she has no first-person voice: we only know her through the eyes of others. She had an unhappy childhood; was taught to lift weights by the nuns; had a promising athletic career until her coach tried to rape her; worked at the Chameleon, a nightclub for cross-dressers; became a professional racecar driver; met and was awed by the Fuhrer; became a spy for Germany and a torturer for the Gestapo. She is a French cross-dressing lesbian athlete, passionate about France and Joan of Arc, an unhappy woman easily swayed by those who flatter her. She is both a representation of Evil and a complicated question about how a person gets that way.

Prose’s many narrators create interesting questions, too. Are any of them, in the end, reliable? (Questions about the truthfulness of one in particular will be raised in the final pages.) There are many layers to this novel: the beauty and tragedy of Paris before and after the Nazis arrive; the fallibility of human nature; the visual arts (our famous photographer does much of the symbolic work, joined occasionally by Picasso); the challenges faced when any of us seeks to represent the past.

This is a fictional story but based in part on real people. The Hungarian photographer is based on Brassai, who took the picture called “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” which is described in the novel under the title “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932″ and, obviously, serves as the keystone image of the book. The American writer is based on Henry Miller. The real people are simply starting points, though, along with the powerful, mysterious photograph which titles the novel. The story itself is an imaginative work, deeply intricate in its telling (all those narrators!), and compelling. I was intrigued, and certainly recommend Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 as enjoyable and thought-provoking. The audio version very appropriately uses various narrators for the various voices, complete with accents, and was a great way to experience the book.


Rating: 7 cigarette lighters.

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble

A young American Indian woman’s existential questionings and daily life on an Oklahoma farm will appeal to fans of historical fiction and personal narrative.

maud's line

Early in the 20th century, the U.S. government assigned plots of land to the American Indians displaced by Oklahoma’s statehood. Maud Nail’s day-to-day life on her family’s allotment is consumed by guns, dirt and chickens. She cares for her men–a dangerous, unruly father, aptly named Mustard, and a sensitive, thin-skinned brother named Lovely–as well as the extended family whose allotments neighbor hers. They recently survived the flood of 1926-27 that covered Oklahoma and much of the Midwest, but the difficulties don’t stop there. Margaret Verble’s first novel, Maud’s Line, details the year in which Maud makes several large choices that will affect the rest of her life.

A peddler in a brilliantly blue covered wagon first captures Maud’s eye with his good looks and his books. He gives her a copy of The Great Gatsby, and she can’t stop thinking about those bobbed haircuts and dresses above the knee. Though she loves her family, Maud desperately wishes she could move on, live in a different world. But as she begins to be caught up in a nascent love affair, her family’s troubles demand her attention. Two men from the family that has long feuded with hers are murdered, and Mustard has to leave town in a hurry. Lovely falls ill, and then, more troubling still, seems to be losing his mind. And Maud’s occasional, erstwhile boyfriend then makes a claim on her, just as she is struggling with the biggest dilemma of all.

Maud’s Line is filled with evocative glimpses of violence, viscera, yearning and the brusque but communal caring of family. In her unadorned writing style, below the violence and hardship on the surface of Maud’s life, Verble crafts a story filled with nuance and quiet conflict. She exhibits a talent for characterization: each individual is carefully and distinctly fashioned, so that Lovely’s girlfriend and the members of Maud’s extended family, for example, shine brightly in even the briefest of appearances. Maud herself is finely wrought, caught between the values she’s been raised with–and the people she loves–and a hope for a different life, one with electricity and hygiene in place of dust and blood. One of the greatest strengths of Verble’s novel, set on her own family’s land allotment, is the delicate interior conflicts produced by Maud’s deceptively simple life. Propelled by its own momentum, Maud’s Line pulls the reader along until, amid daily privations and small tragedies, Maud has the chance for the first time to choose for herself what her future will hold.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 guns.

Madeleine’s War by Peter Watson

A nuanced marriage of military history and romance, set in a secret British resistance unit during World War II.

madeleine

Peter Watson (who wrote Gifts of War under the pen name Mackenzie Ford) entertains with Madeleine’s War, a novel of World War II romance and intrigue starring fictional characters but with a historically accurate background.

Matthew fought on the ground in France with a secret British resistance unit until he suffered a severe injury. In his new role training fresh recruits, he meets Madeleine, a beautiful, talented French-Canadian woman determined to contribute to the war effort. Matthew’s job is to train Madeleine for intelligence and sabotage before she parachutes behind enemy lines. Her superior officer, he is not supposed to fall in love with her, but the two nonetheless embark upon a passionate, short-lived affair, before she is sent to France and disappears.

Despite its title, Madeleine’s War is told from Matthew’s perspective, leaving the reader as in the dark as he is after Madeleine vanishes in Nazi territory. He is then left to track her down–out of both love and duty, which sometimes conflict. The plot then twists again as Matthew is given an uncomfortable mission of his own to carry out.

Watson’s expertise as a historian lends credibility to the context of this story: in his afterword he states that the geography, training procedures, technologies and secrecy he portrays are all based on fact. Matthew and Madeleine and their colleagues are Watson’s own creations, painted with a rosy, romantic glow but also exposed to the glaring realities of war. Romance fans and war buffs will be equally pleased with the result.


This review originally ran in the June 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Full disclosure: I got this tattoo, below, after reading this piece by Kingsnorth. (It’s more complicated than that, and Kingsnorth did not supply my first exposure to the green man, for the record; IMG_5964but he was a significant inspiration.) If you poke around his website, and his larger presence as a writer, you’ll see that he’s written a good deal about the Norman invasion of 1066; and now, a novel (released last year in Kingsnorth’s native Britain). But there is something different about this book: it is written in a “pseudo-language,” a hybrid between the Old English of the time in question, and the language we speak and understand today. Somewhat in the spirit of the “Landspeak” article I recently posted, Kingsnorth feels that the language in which we express a thing changes the thing being expressed: in other words, it matters.


wake

I am on board with the concept, but I confess, it would be a mistake to underestimate it. The Old English-ish language is a challenge, and casual readers will be dissuaded. It is worth the effort, however. The story inside is riveting and, yes, improved in tone by the impassioned voice of the narrator in his native tongue (or a slightly more readable version thereof). Pro tip: try reading aloud to get the full flavor, and to hear cognates come clear.

I have a few lines for you today that struck me especially, and which are almost understandable.

the fugols that sang here was the fugols i cnawan and the heofon was the heofon of my cildehood and for a small time i felt that my heorte had cum baec to where it sceolde always be. the mist cum round the secg cold as we walced saen lytel and sounds colde be hierde that was lic the sounds of my eald lands when i was still a man

Or, in my own translation,

The birds that sang here were the birds I knew, and the heaven was the heaven of my childhood, and for a small time I felt that my heart had come back to where it should always be. The mist came round the sedge, cold, as we walked saying little, and sounds could be heard that were like the sounds of my old lands, when I was still a man.

I love the sense of place and of belonging to a place – which is one of the losses of the Norman Invasion, in Kingsnorth’s telling – and the tone of mourning. Try it again in the original text. Go ahead. I know I threw you into it in the middle, but a full book of this actually comes to be quite compelling, if you can put in the effort.

Stay tuned for my positive review to come.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

The fictional portrait of a real-life, rough-edged, hard-drinking “Mother Teresa” on New York City’s tough streets in the early 20th century.

saint mazie

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (The Middlesteins) brings to life a true historical figure–movie theater proprietress Mazie Phillips–as a fully realized, full-color, unlikely hero.

They called her Queen of the Bowery. She was bottle-blonde, busty, husky-voiced and crude; she was a self-described good-time girl with a gruff manner, partial to men and drink. But she was also a humanitarian, though she would never have admitted it. Attenberg’s inspired story takes the form of a historian’s fictional collection of material: entries from Mazie’s diary, excerpts from a draft of her unpublished autobiography and interviews with descendants, acquaintances and local experts on New York City’s past.

Mazie begins her diary on her 10th birthday, in 1907. She is new to New York City; her older sister, Rosie, has rescued her and the youngest, Jeanie, from domestic violence in Boston. The three sisters form an odd but lasting household with Rosie’s husband, Louis, beloved of all three. From this day forward, Mazie remains in the city, drinking through Prohibition, assisting the wounded at the Wall Street bombing in 1920, and pinching pennies to help her neighbors through the aftermath of the 1929 crash.

Saint Mazie‘s structure establishes an evocative tone of both ancient history and immediacy. Mazie’s love affairs and friendships are wrought with sensitivity and nuance; Nadine, the barely-named researcher behind the story, surfaces with rare, delightful hints to her own personality and motivations. Mazie’s life is compelling, heartrending and irresistibly paced, but it is Attenberg’s subtle storytelling decisions that make this novel unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the June 2, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 postcards.

Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon

The model for a famous Manet nude is exquisitely fictionalized as a young woman voracious for experience.

paris red

“That day I am seventeen and I am wearing the boots of a whore.” So begins Maureen Gibbon’s Paris Red, a novel of art, love, sex and survival in 1860s Paris. Victorine, the red-haired narrator, is not a whore herself; the boots were a gift. She works instead as a brunisseuse–silver burnisher–along with her best friend and roommate, Nise. The two sometimes pick up men, though, and this new one, Eugène, is different from the others: he wants them both. Unlike Nise, Victorine pursues experience headlong, wanting to feel it all, and it is she who wins Eugène’s devotion. In the process she puts ambition above friendship, losing Nise, choosing instead a position as Eugène’s model and muse. She purchases oils and pastels for him, poses for sketches and paintings, and luxuriates in the role of his lover.

Paris Red is a sensual, luscious novel, filled with tastes, smells and sounds, as well as colors. Eugène is actually Édouard Manet, strolling the streets under a false name, but Gibbon’s focus here is Victorine, the real historical model for Manet’s Olympia. She finds a home for her passion for color in his studio, and plays model-actor in Eugène’s world, while also learning about–and never losing–herself.

In powerful, vivid prose, Gibbon (Thief) pulls her reader into a sensory Paris that cuts across class lines, painting a strikingly intense and intelligent young woman in Victorine. The overall effect is erotic, but also clever and perceptive, a remarkable glimpse into a moment of art and time. Readers will never view Olympia the same way again.


This review originally ran in the May 8, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 apple fritters.

Maximum Shelf: Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 2, 2015.


church

Leslie Parry’s debut novel, Church of Marvels, is set in 1895, in phantasmagorical New York City, and stars a weird, lovable cast. Four protagonists share the spotlight in alternating chapters: recently estranged twin sisters Belle and Odile, orphaned loner Sylvan Threadgill, and the mysterious Alphie.

Belle and Odile’s mother was the indomitable and fabled Friendship Willingbird Church, a runaway who at age 14 dressed as a boy to fight for the Union army, and later established her own circus theater on Coney Island, called the Church of Marvels. After the Church caught fire and Friendship died in its embers, Belle (ever the adventurer) left for the city with a secret that readers must wait for and wonder about. Odile stayed behind, wondering herself at her sister’s abandonment. Belle writes home: “You, dear sister, have always been the brave one, the good one, the strongest of all.” But Odile is not the brave one, and her sister’s letter illuminates nothing about Belle’s new life.

Sylvan Threadgill earns his wages as a night-soiler, cleaning out tenement privies on the Lower East Side. He moonlights by competing in fights that take place and are bet upon in back rooms and on the docks. In the novel’s opening pages, Sylvan, at work one night, finds an unusual treasure in the filth: a baby girl, pale and green-eyed, “with a small nose and a dimpled chin like a pat of butter someone had stuck their thumb in.”

Alphie is an undertaker’s wife with a scandalous past who awakes one morning, disoriented, to find herself imprisoned in the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She is desperate for rescue, sure that her husband will come, sure that her plight is another evil trick of her mother-in-law’s.

These four characters occupy separate stories for much of the book, and are joined by a colorful supporting cast. There are actors from the sideshow: a boy who is half girl, a girl with four legs, the man who throws knives at Odile as she rotates slowly on a wheel. There is the woman Sylvan turns to for help with the baby, and the very different woman Belle turns to for a very different sort of help. A strange parade of children who dwell underground put on a show for Odile when she reaches Manhattan, with implications she takes personally; Alphie’s fellows, from her past life, shed a harsh light. This array is completed by the baby Sylvan liberates. An orphan himself, he is unable to turn away from her stark need. But a part-time pugilist who was never parented himself makes an inapt caretaker for a newborn.

However fantastical they may be, these eccentrics do not populate a fantasy, but a realistic, heartbreaking and sympathetic story of resilience and connections lost and found. Appropriately, the action of the novel begins with Odile’s breaking character. She had found familiar if uncomfortable circus work with another theater company following her mother’s death, but now leaves to pursue Belle, a journey that leads her into underground opium dens, a hothouse flower nursery curated by an enigmatic woman, and the back alleys of the tenement district. She finds an unlikely ally in her hunt for her sister, just as Belle finds her own, “in this city [where] the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows.” In chapters alternating among third-person perspectives, we track the movements of the four protagonists as they close in, geographically and philosophically, on the end of their individual and shared stories.

Parry’s central players are each mysterious and multi-layered, and readers will receive shocking new intelligence in the final pages of this masterful novel. In gradually, teasingly unveiling myriad deceptions, Parry shows perhaps her greatest strength.

The atmosphere she evokes is both whimsical and grotesque. The gruesome, appalling asylum, roiling with violence and refuse, and the babies abandoned in privies paint a brutally harsh picture. But the free-wheeling circus performers and the Church family history contribute a note of fancy. Alphie’s life story in particular provides a showcase for this dualism, where horror meets magic–she once worked on the street as a “penny Rembrandt,” painting men’s faces with great skill to cover up the bruises and sallowness of their dissipated nights, so that they could go home to their respectable lives. Church of Marvels demonstrates fascinating characterization and atmosphere as well as a riveting plot.

The bizarre and fanciful world contained in New York City at the turn of the last century is a playground for Parry’s magnificent, alluring prose. These enchantments make Church of Marvels memorable. But it is the compelling characters, both larger-than-life and poignantly real, that exhibit beauty, wonder and distress, and will most beguile readers in the end.


Rating: 7 swords swallowed.

Come back Wednesday to read my interview with Leslie Parry.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 456 other followers

%d bloggers like this: