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.