A Message from Paris?

Have you every had the experience of learning something new or encountering a fact, and then, miraculously, you seem to run into it everywhere?  I have had that experience lately in every book I’ve picked up to read.  The theme I keep encountering is Paris in the early Twentieth Century.  Not an unpleasant place to be sure: the descriptions of a vibrant new art scene, fresh literary voices, radical social ideas…  The first book which brought me to the art world of Paris early in the new Twentieth Century was, curiously enough, called Jerusalem’s Maiden by author Talia Carner.  It is the story of a young Orthodox Jewish girl (Havedi) living in the old city of Jerusalem during the waning years of the Ottoman empire.  It is a beautifully descriptive novel of the girl’s struggle between her God-given artistic talent and self-expression, and her religiously-dictated limited role as a woman in that society.  At every turn, the heroine, Esther Kaminsky,  sees her actions and motivations through the lens of God’s will for her, even when disaster strikes.  How does this bring us to Paris?  In a startling turn of events, Esther finds herself in Paris of the early 19th century, pursing her love of art.  Not wanting to spoil the story for you readers, I pose this question for consideration: How does Paris itself, almost as another character in the story, impact Esther’s decisions?  Despite some problems I had with the novel, not accepting the motivations of some of the characters, it is still a beautiful, lyrical piece of writing and provides enormous fodder for a discussion of some of life’s thornier issues.

The next Paris-themed novel encountered was  Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti.  This non-fiction account of the theft of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting reads like a modern “caper novel thriller” crossed with the best historical account.  It not only gives one a taste of Paris in the very early days of the Nineteenth Century, but provides amusing accounts of all the characters involved in the theft and recovery.  Not least of these was Picasso!  The police prefect leading the investigation, Louis Lepine, was a larger-than-life persona, whose activities during the great Paris flood of January 1910 are also chronicled in the book Paris Underwater: How the City of Light  the Great Flood of 1910 by Jeffrey H. Jackson.  I highly recommend these to get your fill of Paris!

Last in our Parisian tour is a new book of an entirely different nature, called The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures by Caroline Preston.  Why should the kids have all the fun with comic books and graphic novels?  This is a book told in luscious vintage clippings, advertisements, and pictures from the early to mid-1920’s, chronicling a young girl’s adventures towards adulthood during the Jazz Age.  Frankie wins a scholarship to Vassar, has a relationship with an older man, escapes to Paris and meets none other than James Joyce and starts her career as a writer.  The plot unfolds through text and pictures in a stunning new way of story-telling.  A quick read you’ll come back to savor over and over again.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A Message from Paris?

  1. Suzanne

    Really enjoying your blog, wish I had your ambition!

  2. Faith

    Lisa,
    This is wonderful! I’m happy to post my thoughts here, but they won’t be so beautifully phrased.

    I agree with the Paris theme. In my case, it started with my daughter’s Christmas gift of the movie Midnight in Paris, followed closely by The Paris Wife (Paula McLain), which I read for the SHAPE bookclub. Because I’m living over here, I’ve been reading up on all things French, so both of these were preceded by a lighthearted book I got from Amazon called Stuff Parisians Like: Discovering the Quoi in Je ne Sais Quoi by Olivier Magny. This last was a series of short articles on everything from the brand of ice cream Parisians like the best to their favorite photographer, written by a Parisian restaurant owner. Very entertaining, and according to reviews by people in the know, very accurate. The Paris Wife, the novelized story of Hemingway’s first wife and their time together in Paris was interesting and gave a picture of the Paris and the same group of artists and literary figures that was parodied in Midnight in Paris. The character of the wife herself was less satisfying than the setting of the story, but overall, still a good read, I thought. I’m not a fan of Hemingway, so I was a bit fed up with his character, but a couple of the people at the bookclub were fans, and thought the way he was portrayed was pretty accurate.

    About Jerusalem Maiden: I read Jerusalem Maiden right along with the rest of the book club. Found it very interesting. Of course, I knew nothing at all about that sect of Jews. The author did a good job of showing how Esther’s life was defined and circumscribed by the faith of her community. The rabbi lectured her early in the book, “The weight of not just our future, but of our history is on your shoulders–” I can’t imagine being defined by the community like that. It gives me a very claustrophobic feeling. Of course, you could look at it the other way and say that you’re never in doubt of your identity, your path, where you fit in a community like that. I have to say, though, that Esther, as a character, frustrated me greatly. I loved the author’s descriptions of her art, and her process of creation – but she just kept destroying everything she made. The last time, when everything was ready for her exhibition, nearly drove me crazy. If I could have, I would have reached into the book and taken the ax out of her hands; then given her a sedative so she could calm down and think rationally.

    I just finished Vanished Smile this evening. I must say that this was a very satisfying read. I love history, and I love mysteries, and thought this was a successful blend of both. I really didn’t know anything about the theft of the Mona Lisa (and can’t believe I didn’t!). I saw the Mona Lisa in 1981 or 82, can’t remember which. I’m sure there wasn’t any special security beyond a glass case around the frame on the wall and a velvet rope to keep you from approaching closer than about a 1 ½ to 2 feet. I guess there’s no poetry in my soul. I didn’t fall in love, or feel like she was looking deep inside me, or any of the other poetic (rubbish?) that the author reported people had written about her. However, I found it very entertaining to read about. I really liked the story of the scam involving the Comte de Valdefierre (did I get that right?). Even though it probably wasn’t the truth, it was a wonderful story.

    There’s one more book I read, set almost entirely in Paris – The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. Believe it or not, I never read The Name of the Rose. This was my first Umberto Eco book, and will probably be my last. It was a very strange and even repellent story. I’m not even sure why I finished it. Its one redeeming feature in my eyes was that it was set in the St. Germain des Pres quarter in Paris, and I had just spent most of a day there in November. Of course, the story was set about 100 years ago, but that just made the descriptions of the area all the more interesting. I definitely do not recommend this book.

    I would agree with Lisa that Paris is almost a character itself in all of these books, and the main character in the movie. Things happen in these works because the people are in Paris. Parisian history, both real and imagined in literature, is so rich that incredible stories can be set there with very little problem of suspension of belief. Just setting something in a particular time period in Paris calls up a whole host of associations in the readers’ minds, before the author even gets to the story. Of course, that could be a problem if you’re an author… And those of us with a degree in French literature can’t get enough of Paris, naturally. Eh bien, Sandy?

    Faith

  3. Margaret

    That IS a strange sensation, isn’t it? Like when you learn a new word, suddenly you hear it used by random other people several times in a day or two when you could swear you’d never ever heard it spoken before. The dots that were connected for me with Vanished Smile were the devious methods for expert counterfeiting of old masterpieces (previously discussed in The Girl with the Pearl Earring) and the recurring theme of the obscenely nouveau riche entrepreneurs in America, who created a huge market for forgeries (they also–among many other things, of course–created a market in matchmaking for British aristocrats of failing wealth (described by Bill Bryson in his book about the history of the rooms in a house). I loved the bit about fleecing the Americans with things lke antique beds that Queen Elizabeth (or Empress Josephine or Cleopatra or all three!) had slept in. And about the arrogance of the likes of Valfierni believing that they were providing a “service to mankind” by selling convincing forgeries..

    I really liked Scotti’s writing, AndI learned a lot! I never noticed before that the backgrounds on the left and right are so mismatched! And who knew the Mona Lisa once had eyebrows?! Thanks to Carolyn’s postcard, I also saw that the “most luminous” point in the painting is indeed dead center at her heart. Was amazed that it took Leonardo as long to paint ML as it did Michelangelo to do the entire Sistine Chapel. And that Picasso was quite an idiot: fine if he was all about inventing a new way of painting, but not to recognize [allegedly] the greatness of Leonardo da Vinci’s work even if it wasn’t his syle???

    And hmm, so art forgery, not spying, is the world’s second oldest profession?!

    I noticed the author regularly referred to the painting as “Mona Lisa,” rather than “THE Mona Lisa,” sort of personifying it. Did she also maybe fall a little bit in love with the subject, like so many of the people she described in the book? My only complaint with this book is that I wish she hadn’t pointed out that the enigmatic smile, which has consumed the lives of so many art experts and not-so-experts, might just have been the result of the subject’s attempt to hide icky teeth!

    Margaret

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