Good Books Reign in A Novel Bookstore

A Novel Bookstore cover

The Alex Rider series would not grace the shelves of The Good Novel Bookstore, which is at the center of A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (2009; translation from French 2010). Rather, this idealistic bookstore stocks only “good novels,” perhaps even only “great novels.” How is the stock of books chosen for such an elite bookstore? An “elected” committee of eight submit their top 600 novels—all available in French. And who elected this committee? The two originators of the bookstore concept—Ivan “Van” and Francesca—he with bookstore experience, she with the financial backing.

But wait. We don’t know about the bookstore at all from the novel’s beginnings. Instead, we start with the attempted murders of three seemingly disparate individuals. But then we find that each is a member of the “eight,” the secret committee that passes judgment on what is a “good” novel. As it turns out, the concept of such a bookstore is a major threat to mediocre writers, to their publishers, and to the bookstores that focus on “everything under the sun.” It’s difficult to believe that one bookstore would have such an effect, but several do feel threatened and resort to letters to the editors about elitism and totalitarianism—as well as to physical attacks on the committee members.


Perhaps this does not sound like the makings of a “good read,” but A Novel Bookstore is definitely intriguing and includes not only a social commentary on the public’s reading choices but also the mystery of who’s behind the brutish attacks on seemingly ordinary citizens and also a romance (or two). The two primary characters, Ivan and Francesca, meet at the Meribel ski resort, where he has managed to create a small but select bookstore at a local Tabac, which, in turns, attracts a certain clientele, that tends to lose itself in the selections on the shelves. One of these is Francesca, who recognizes a very well read genius behind the choices. Thoughtfully, they become partners and launch The Good Novel. In the meantime, Van has become besotted with a young woman, Anis, who provides the third major character in the narrative. (The reader will have to decide if she is cheering for Francesca or Anis as Van’s romantic interest.)

A fourth important character is police detective Heffner, who comes on the scene when Van and Francesca learn that three of their committee members have been attacked and know that the other five may be in harm’s way. They convince him to take on the investigation. As in the film The Usual Suspects in which the character of “Verbal” (Kevin Spacey) lays out a tale for the detective (Chazz Palminteri), Van and Francesca lay out much of the plot of the novel in about one-half of the 400 pages by telling what has happened to Detective Heffner. (It’s fortunate that Francesca has a nephew in the police force who can sleuth out a staff member who is known for his literary taste—and thus perfect to take on the investigation.) This flashback mechanism allows for Cossé to advance her plot while filling in the background details.

Who is behind the attacks? And why does a bookstore that sells only “good” novels engender such hate. This is a commentary in part on the contemporary world of publishing—as one publisher says in response to a critique that a recent book is just awful, “that’s not the point.” It’s about profit margins and perhaps catering to a non-discriminating reading audience.

A Novel Bookstore is not only a thoughtful read, but also an enjoyable one. Although it trails off a bit at the end, I recommend it.

A note about the publishing of this novel. First, this is a French novel, and, frankly, I often do not choose to read literature in translation. Native writers may not look at the country in the same way as an outsider, may not reveal the country’s character in the way that an outsider might. But I was intrigued by the description of this novel in a catalog that I truly love: Bas Bleu Books. (Bas Bleu stands for “bluestocking,” historically a women’s literary group in London.) I recommend its catalog for interesting and good reads—as well as for the occasional Nancy Drew t-shirt. (Nancy is an octogenarian as of 2010 but still solving mysteries!) But, I’m also intrigued by the publisher of A Novel Bookstore’s translation, Europa Editions. As a person who looks for books set in particular countries, I was pleased to see a list at the back of this book that specified settings such as the Italian noir work of Massimo Carlotto. It looks to be a terrific source for Road Works. As is the list of books that are included in The Good Novel Bookstore. (To check out the online presence of this fictional “bookstore,” see


Teen James Bond Takes French Alps

Cover of "Point Blank (Alex Rider Adventu...

Cover of Point Blank (Alex Rider Adventure)

And now, for something completely different. When I looked for works set in the French Alps, there was no telling what would pop up. One of the few that came to the surface was Anthony Horowitz‘s popular series featuring teen spy Alex Rider. His Point Blank is located in a Mont Blanc-like setting, cleverly called Point Blanc (but Anglicized in the title). I was familiar with the Alex Rider action/adventure series as I teach a course in Young Adult Literature, but I’d never cracked the cover on one until this trip in France. And the timing for reading this novel was perfect. We have been in Chamonix a couple of times this month already. The inspiration for the Point Blanc Academy, the setting for much of this thriller, must be the stunning Aguille du Midi, reached only by the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car. (Shown here from the hike we took on the “Grand Balcon” in early September.) The Alps must be a favorite locale for Bond type narratives; we noted when going over the Furka Pass a sign that read, “James Bond filmed here for Goldfinger.)

Cable Car to Aguille du Midi at Chamonix

Alex, a fourteen year old school lad in Great Britain, is taken in by M16 when his uncle, a real spy–so to speak–is killed in the previous novel, the first in what has become a very successful series. (Scorpia Rising, the final installment, has recently made an appearance.) Ian Fleming inspired, Point Blank includes the usual suspects: a madman set to take over the world, a strange but very strong henchwoman, the head of M16, the spy, a possible love interest, and M16’s gadget expert. “Q,” the supplier of gadgetry in the Bond stories is Mr. Smithers, who provides Alex with a deadly Harry Potter volume that includes a stun gun in the spine; a CD player that can also be a chainsaw (select the Beethoven CD); and an earring stud that detonates.

The plot is straight out of Boys of Brazil with a bit of Stepford Wives thrown in. Boys of Alex’s age, who are the sons of wealthy or politically powerful parents but who also have a record of misbehavior are being cloned at the mountaintop academy so that they can advance Dr. Grief’s sinister agenda of white supremacy. The emphasis  on blanc is intentional. Alex is planted in this academy and must discover its secret. The “twinned” boys of the Gemini Project are gradually released back to their families, who often are delighted at the transformation to “model” children. (That’s the Stepford tie-in.)

Naturally, Alex employs his range of gadgetry to save the day; a particularly clever moment is when he uses his CD/chainsaw to turn an ironing board into a snowboard to escape. Suspension of disbelief required. Adolescent readers can sign up for special “Intel” at Alex’s site: Although I’m no longer a teen, I found this a fast and fun read. James Bond, move over!

Travel Literature Masquerade

Cover of "Traveling with Pomegranates: A ...

Cover via Amazon

I blame Oprah. The glorification of self-improvement and the importance of personal confession–when perhaps these might be better left to an intimate conversation–have invaded the lives of everyone. Every once in a while, I go wrong in finding travel literature for the road. That certainly is the case for Traveling with Pomegranates, a memoir by Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, novice writer, Ann Kidd Taylor. The book made it onto the list–even though it’s set not only in France but also in Greece and Turkey–because I thoroughly enjoyed Kidd’s novel The Secret Lives of Bees, particularly the wisdom espoused by one of the characters, August Boatwright.

Although descriptions of various cultural sites are included in the narrative, primacy is given to the self reflection of Kidd (who is going through a “I’m-turning-50” crisis) and of her daughter Taylor, who is in depression over a rejection from graduate school. It’s helpful to know that Kidd spent seven years in Jungian analysis, which explains phrases such as “regenerative essence.” Demeter and Persephone are key characters in this memoir, and Kidd and Taylor re-imagine themselves in those roles. Their time in France centers on sites appealing to a feminist women’s groups in search of their inner selves: The Garden of Venus at Baud, a “birth channel-like” Tumulus at Gavrinis in Brittany, the Chapel of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, and a convent at Le Puy-en-Velay.

Much of the narrative is given over to the angst of the two women, what I tend to think of as navel gazing. The New Age jargon wears. This is not the only “travel” book that is truly not about travel. The other major sinner in this category is Elizabeth Gilbert‘s popular Eat, Pray, Love. I deliberately left it off my list when visiting Bali in 2010, but then I was asked so often about it, that I finally caved and read it. Where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him? A good editor is worth his or her weight in gold. (I had the same sense with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Rowling’s later Harry Potter novels–a good editor would have made these much stronger works.) Self indulgent. The Balinese t-shirts perhaps say it best: “Eat, Pay, Leave.”

As I thought about writing this particular blog entry, aware that these two books might well be others’ favorites, I pondered why I had such a visceral reaction to each of them. I’m a fan, for instance, of women’s writings, such as Carolyn Heilbrun‘s Writing A Woman’s Life or her The Gift of Life, which, by the way, talks about the wonderful freedom of turning 50. (An aside: the late Heilbrun was also Amanda Cross, her pseudonym for writing delicious academic mysteries such as Death in a Tenured Position.) But those books were clearly marked as philosophical explorations in women’s writings. Not as travel literature.

Likewise, I’m well aware that travel may often be about self-discovery. Huck Finn came to understand that “I cannot tell a lie” through his journey with Jim. Likewise, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, and Pippin all undertake journeys in order to find meaning and significance in their lives–in the tradition of the bildungsroman in which a young person “finds” himself or builds character.  What is the difference? Perhaps it’s the interaction with others rather than the interior monologues that tend to be so personal and intimate. As August Boatwright says in Kidd’s novel, “Most people don’t have any idea about the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life  we don’t know anything about.”

And, there are aspects of other people’s lives that I would prefer not to know about.  I like my travel literature to be about travel.


At Home In France

I’m not going to pretend that living a couple of weeks in a country makes one at home although one can certainly feel at home. My primary goal in living in France this fall was to be able to walk to the village boulangerie, purchase our daily baguette (or ficelle in our case, which is a smaller version), and be recognized by the owner.  I had thought a minimum of three weeks in one village would be necessary for this to happen, but even a week would suffice although the two weeks that we are in our Gite will be “just right.”

Flowers and Blue Shutters in Arnand--on my walk to the Boulangerie

When I’m doing the advance research for my reading lists for travel, it’s part of the joy of planning the trip, looking for those books that will enrich the trip, and it also helps anticipate the journey itself, which is an important part of the enterprise. I am still in horror when I recall a fellow traveler on a tour in Egypt who interrupted our guide who was giving a lecture on Akhenaten to ask, “Are we talking BC?” That a traveler would invest literally thousands of dollars and not arrive in country better informed?

Books for the journey must be chosen carefully as it’s the library that will be available. (Recall that I am not a Kindle user yet.) Thus, it’s with a great deal of pleasure when I open a volume and have that refreshing sense of “just right.” And, it’s remarkable how often a book fits the exact moment of the journey. After finishing L’Affaire by Diane Johnson, I was not sure which one of the ten or so books that I had packed to pick up next as no one was set in the Alps as the previous one had been. Finally, I settled on what looked like a fairly quick read, At Home in France by Ann Barry (1997). She fell in love with the countryside of the department Lot, which is next to the more popular Dordogne. (We were in Dordogne in 1996, and I can attest that it is a part of the French countryside to which we hope to return, not only for its prehistoric caves such as Lascaux and Pech Merle and its medieval castles such as Beynac, but its fabulous food and landscape.)

Cover of "At Home in France"

Cover of At Home in France

At Home in France might be described as a “gentle read” in that same classification as the Miss Read novels set in English villages. It has a soothing pace about it. The book is not as funny as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (1991), but it has a heart-warming cast of characters, such as the neighbors who are on hand during her bi-yearly visits of one to two weeks and who look after her tiny house perched on a hill in Carennac (classified as one of France’s “most beautiful villages”) when she is at her day job at The New Yorker or the New York Times.

There are the usual food searches, like finding the perfect bread. (I can attest already that even in about 10 days’ time, we have settled on a baker in our own village and have spurned inferior bread found in St. Jorioz although the boulangerie there is much more upscale and larger.)  Or trying out fishing. There are also rather surprising personal revelations in which she ponders with a childhood friend whether it’s likely either of them (both single) will ever be engaged in a romance again in their lives. (They are both early 50s when they have this conversation.)

At Home in France is in the genre of the expat who takes up residence in a foreign country (although Barry is clear from the first that she never intends to reside permanently in France). She opens the book with a quote from Gertrude Stein, “That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really.” I’ve mentioned already Mayle’s book, but there’s also French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy by Jeffrey Greene, which I read in advance of this trip to get “in the mood.” Rosemary Bailey’s My Life in a Postcard is set in French Pyrenees, a title from an earlier reading list for travel. Michael S. Sanders’ From Here, You Can’t See Paris: Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant was a gift to a friend–more of a comment on a political joke but still a good read on southwestern French countryside. One of my very favorites not only for its narrative but also its recipes: On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town by Susan Herrmann Loomis. (In fact, I’ve given it as gifts to several friends, two of whom had brunch at Loomis’ during a visit to France.) Buying a Piece of Paris: A Memoir by Ellie Nielsen is in the book bag, waiting to be read when I’m actually residing in Paris in November. (I cheated though and read master blogger David Lebovitz’ The Sweet Life in Paris early as it’s packed with practical advice about being an American in Paris.)

House books are very helpful in getting at the culture of a country or city, which is revealing to the traveler. Later, I’ll share more such “house” books such as A House in Bali and The Caliph’s House (Morocco).

Readers who turn the last page of At Home in France discover that its author, Ann Barry, died in 1996. Because I look at copyright information before starting a book, I was already aware that the author and narrator had passed away as the copyright is held by “the estate of Ann Barry.” Unfortunately, Barry passed away from cancer when only 53. Knowing the fate of the writer made the reading all the more poignant although no less enjoyable. What good friends Barry must have had to bring this memoir to publication.


France 2011: L’Affaire

In my first post, I talked about a reading list for a trip made in 1994 in the Southwest USA. Fast forward to the present, September 2011, in the French Alps, Haut-Savoie to be specific. I am in Europe for four months, which required much research to choose the right books to pack for the trip. (More on the wisdom of packing hard-copy novels versus Kindle later.) We are in a Gite in Doussard, which is at the foot of Lake Annecy, a beautifully blue lake that is a mecca for para-sailing and also tourists, which is why we did not venture here until post July/August high tourist season.Cezanne famously stayed and painted here at the Lake.

Cezanne "Lac Annecy"; photo of the lake today

For those who don’t know about Gites, these are wonderful accommodations, most often the rural locations and typically older buildings renovated for guests. The concept of Gite celebrates the patrimonie (history) of the area, and is a brilliant idea. I first learned about Gites in 1995 when looking for accommodation for a sabbatical leave the following spring. A colleague, Professor Savoie (how appropriate for a professor of French!) clued me into the Gite concept. We found a lovely one near Beaune in Pernand-Vergelesses, a wine village on the Cote d’Or in Burgundy. The building itself was an old barn, wonderfully renovated for an apartment.

Our sojourn in Doussard is for two weeks, the minimum time that I felt required in order to feel at least somewhat “at home” in a French village, which I translate in to the following: daily walking to the boulangerie for the lunchtime baguette, getting to be known at La Poste, being familiar with the surroundings. It means that we’ve hiked locally to cascades (waterfalls) just a couple of kilometres from where we are living, and that we can fairly well breeze through the round-abouts.

But what to read to kick off this adventure? Because we knew we were hiking at Chamonix/Mont Blanc, I chose Diane Johnson’s 2003 novel L\’Affaire. Although I was unfamiliar with her work, she is the author of the very popular Le Mariage and Le Divorce. The main character, Amy Hawkins, is a young entrepreneur who has made a bundle when the start-up company she and friends inaugurated is sold. She decides that she needs “culture” and thus goes to the French Alps for a ski holiday, to be followed by French cooking classes.

First of all, I have to say that while I enjoy satire, sometimes it is a bit difficult to recognize at the get-go. This comes from having been reared to revere literature, particularly classic literature, so as an English major in a university in Missouri, I had some difficulty in getting the point when reading “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, “Rape of the Lock,” by Alexander Pope, or Tristam Shandy by Sterne. Okay, I was more alert when presented with a novel such as Shamela, a rather obvious take-off on Pamela. Eventually, I’ll catch on as in Swift’s work when he finally lets the cat out of the bag and notes that he’s had it on good authority “from an American,” that a two-year old child makes a “delicious ragout.”

So, thus, I am reading L’Affaire and thinking, “Is there a sympathetic character to be had in this story?” Well, no, not actually. This is all about social commentary, and it is rather biting! French, British, American. Each one comes in for a slicing and dicing. It seems light-hearted at first, in spite of the fact that two of the skiers at the upscale resort where Amy has retreated have been buried in an avalanche, leaving a toddler as well as Kip–the wife’s 14 year old brother (who may be the sole sympathetic role). Will the couple of this May-December romance survive? What will happen if the elderly husband passes in France as opposed to Great Britain? How will the inheritance laws of each country affect who gets the estate, which becomes important to the current family as well as to the two children of a former marriage, not to say also to the illegitimate French daughter of a one night stand. And, there are plenty of potential beaus for Amy, too. Which one will she choose.

The story moves from the ski hill to Paris, where Amy continues her self-improvement plan, learning how to make a souffle and finally getting rid of the Heidi hairdo at the urging of her French adviser. It all becomes quite humorous and ironic when it becomes clear that no one is to be taken seriously, and it ends on a laugh out loud round up of future events. A mild thumbs up for it as a good read but certainly a good start to a sojourn in this neck of the woods.


Reading for the Road

10th Anniversary edition (1985) from Dream Gar...

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I think it was 1994 when I first began a concerted effort to structure a reading list that fit the geography of my travels. We were heading from our home in northern Utah to the Santa Fe opera, car-camping much of the way and stopping at archaeological sites en route as planned by my Anthropology professor spouse. I’m a Professor of English so making book lists for classes is not uncommon; however, this was the first time to construct a list that would fill about a two weeks of travel time.

So, first, Utah. I knew immediately that I finally would be able to crack open Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire, a book that had grown in importance for me as I listened to undergrad student Jared Farmer talk about his own writing project on Glen Canyon Dam(med/ned).  Wonderfully evocative book! And that was followed by his The Monkey Wrench Gang, alternately laugh-out-loud funny and sad. When Doc carries with him to his trial at the novel’s end The Book of Mormon, it was superb satire.

Abbey is a slam dunk, easily recognizable, but a lesser-known work is Levi Peterson‘s The Back Slider, a novel set in southern Utah about a young cowboy, who is concerned about his ever-present lust (which would seem natural but is forbidden in local culture) and his brother, who is so affected by the strictures to avoid sex that he mutilates himself. Perhaps one has to live in Utah to understand this novel entirely, but what is a book if it’s not to take us “worlds away”?

As we moved from the petroglyphs of Sand Island near Bluff, Utah to Hovenweep and Mesa Verde, the literary landscape changed to a mystery by Nevada Barr set in the ruins of the National Park: Ill Wind. It won’t be surprising that has we continued south to Chaco Canyon and Bandelier that Tony Hillerman came on the scene with his Sacred Clowns. The Indian Country map that AAA publishes is a great resource for reading the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn stories. Believe me, the sacred clown black and white figurines made a whole lot more sense after reading this novel.

We arrived in Santa Fe, which is a natural for Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, a novel that I had read as an undergrad (when we debated the important choice of the preposition “for” as opposed to “to” in the title). The primary point of the trip was to attend the fabulous opera produced in the outdoors, and certainly The Barber of Seville (with the title character cleverly outfitted in a red and white striped costume reminiscent of a barber pole!) exceeded expectations. But the main take-away message of the trip for me was how much richer the experience when augmented by literature set in the landscape where we traveled.

Since that time, we’ve been to a lot of places, domestic and foreign, and each time, I’ve done the research in advance to pack a small library of books that fit the territory, keeping a journal about them and the local territory. I’ll be writing about these Road Works–books for the road–that have enhanced my travel and may be helpful to others who also like a good read set in the locale.