Kaleidoscope - Book Lovers’ Booksby Deepa Gahlot January 23 2016, 3:50 pm Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 46 secs
For bibliophiles, books about book lovers offer an additional thrill…of belonging to a special community that lives its own universe of words.
The idea of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop (translated by Simon Pare from the original German Das Lavendelzimmer) is magical, the book a little less so. How the reader takes the sentimental story of loss, grief and rediscovery of love depends on his/her temperament and current frame of mind; the international bestseller could enchant just as much as it could annoy.
The protagonist is a sad, buttoned-up man called Jean Perdu, who had lost the love of his life, Manon, some twenty years ago, and has shut himself off emotionally since. He runs a bookshop in a barge on the Seine, and calls it the Literary Apothecary, because he believes he can solve people’s problems by ‘prescribing’ the right book for them to read.
As he explains in the book, “ "I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognized as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in, because they are apparently too minor and intangible. The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end Or when you recognize that you haven't got your whole life left to find out where you belong. Or the slight sense of grief when a friendship doesn't develop as you thought, and you have to continue your search for a lifelong companion. Or those birthday morning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that."
His placid life is turned upside down when a new neighbor, Catherine, with traumas of her own, discovers an unopened letter in a table he gave her (because she has no furniture, only “shattered illusions”). Reading the letter leads him to lifting anchor and setting off on a journey down the river, accompanied by his two cats (Kafka and Lindgren) and a successful young writer Max Jordan, who wants to escape crazy female fans (really!) and seek inspiration for a new book. At the back of Perdu’s mind is also the search for a mysterious poet whose work had a deep impact on him.
On the unplanned journey, they meet interesting people, go to a town that has only books at its centre, and, well, life changes for the better. The landscapes they pass through are breathtaking, the food one of their guests cooks on the barge is divine…it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Perdu does find the poet and everybody finds love in a fairytale-like happily ever after ending.
Perdu’s adventures are punctuated with entries from Manon’s diaries, which give hints and finally reveals, why she upped and left him.
The translation tends to make the book sound stilted, but if the story of repairing broken hearts and beating melancholy through books appeals, then this one is charming and feel-good, and studded with words of wisdom. (“The trouble is that so many people, most of them women, think they have to have a perfect body to be loved. But all it has to do is be capable of loving – and being loved.”) Still, it is often contrived and much too sweet, so that it feels like a meal of only gooey dessert.
The best thing about the book is that it has a list of Provencal recipes at the end and also some delightful prescriptions from Jean Perdu’s Emergency Literary Pharmacy—that is, books to uplift the soul. Of these, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is heartily recommended.
Another heartwarming story about books and community spirit so lacking today, is Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.
The protagonist is a lonely, middle-aged widower, A.J. Fikry (of Indian origin), who owns a failing bookshop on an island. He stocks the books he likes, and manages with his meager earnings, living in small apartment above the bookshop.
Each chapter begins with his notes in books he likes; the book snob that he is, he tells Amelia, a publisher’s representative, whom he later falls in love with, “I do not like postmodernism, post¬apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be — basically gimmicks of any kind. . . . I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and — I imagine this goes without saying — vampires.”
He has no friends, except for the local thriller-loving cop, and his sister-in-law; his life is peaceful if uneventful. Then, his priceless first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane is stolen, and a precocious child, Maya, is left in his bookshop. The two events have a life-changing impact on him and make for a book worth reading (pardon the needless melodrama that creeps in) ...a book about the transformative power of words. And, of course, love.
Then there’s Niall Willaims’s Man Booker-longlisted History Of The Rain - the narrator is 19-year-old Ruth Swain, confined to bed in an attic room, because of “something in her blood.” But the tiny room is full of books that her father left for her, which she refers to in her “meandering” narrative, with number, publisher, and edition. At the end, a reader can compile from it a list of must-read classics.
Ruth’s home is on the banks of the river Shannon, in the Irish village of Faha "where everyone is a long story." Her family’s history is strange, with dashes of magic. Like, her grandfather Abraham, running away from his stern religious father, fighting in the World War, being shot by a German, who also saves his life; then, as he is about to give up, the mother of the doctor who treated him, comes by to leave him her son’s legacy, which brings him to Ireland.
He lets the inherited mansion go to seed, as he spends all his time salmon fishing and recording his catches, till a formidable woman marries him and produces four children, including the restless Virgil Swain, Ruth’s father. Virgil goes off to sea and washes up in Faha, where Ruth’s beautiful mother Mary falls in love with him and marries him. Virgil is a voracious reader and poet and in spite of all his efforts just does not make a good farmer. The household runs on miraculously somehow, under the watchful eye of Mary’s mother, Nan. Ruth and her twin Aeney are as happy as can be, even though Ruth’s passion for books marks her as the unpopular girl “too clever by half,” and in a perverse way, also marked for tragedy.
Williams’s tone is part comic, part lyrical; the writing—as Ruth tells it—eccentric with random capitalisation and digressions into the ways of the Irish village inhabited by really good people, trying to cope with global recession, that has not even spared their distant rain-soaked community.
There are sweet characters, like Ruth’s sympathetic tutor Mrs Quinty and her persisted suitor, the gentle Vincent, who is not driven away by her caustic tongue. History Of The Rain is both epic and intimate, and an absolute delight to read, made more so by the rediscovery of the great writers who are scattered through the pages.