Over the past few weeks, I had the pleasure of listening to four books that I dowloaded onto my iPad. I discovered that I can download books for free from my public library through a program called Overdrive. A transatlantic flight, a drive to and from Canada, and the beginning of weather that allows me to walk to and from work has given me enough time to do plenty of listening. Some of the books were very good, some were just OK, but all were about France.
The Nightingale, by Kristen Hannah – This huge best-seller is set in France during World War II. Viann and Isabelle Rossignol are very different sisters, neglected by an alcoholic father. Viann takes an active role in the Resistance from the beginning, whereas Isabelle protects her family, even if it means helping the Nazis. The family last name, Rossignol (ross-ih-gnoll) means “nightingale” and it is Isabelle’s codename in the Resistance. (Using one’s own name as a secret identity seems to be a good way to get caught – just a thought.) Everyone’s loyalties and beliefs are tested in wartime France and some secrets are better never disclosed. The writing of this book is just so-so, but it’s meant to be optimistic rather than historically accurate. I would give it a B and recommend it as a beach read.
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell – This was Orwell’s first book, published in 1933. It is a memoir following Orwell’s experiences living in poverty in the two great capital cities. In Paris, Orwell works in the kitchen of a hotel and then a restaurant in the company of a friend who is a Russian émigré. His tales of an appalling lack of hygiene in hotels and restaurants will have you hoping that things have changed since 1933. In London, Orwell lives as a tramp in a series of homeless shelters called Spikes. The quality of the writing is excellent, but I was startled by the casual attitude to horrendous antisemitic remarks made by many of the characters. I would give it an A-.
The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan – This novel cleverly weaves together two true stories. The first story is that of Marie van Goethem, the actual model for Edgar Degas’ famous sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen Years. Marie was a Petit Rat, one of the apprentice dancers of the Paris Opéra. Her sister, Antoinette, becomes the lover of Émile Abadie, while the two were extras in Émile Zola’s play l’Assommoir. Abadie and a colleague are subsequently conviced of murder and become the subjects of another Degas work, Criminal Psysiognomies. I think Buchanan did a wonderful job of weaving a compelling tale using real people, genuine works of art, and creating a believable scenario in which they all could have met. I also thought she was very deft in creating two distinctive “voices” for the sisters through grammar and vocabulary. I would give it an A.
The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris, by Chris Ewan – As a kid, I loved the TV show To Catch a Thief. This book reminds me of that series. It makes no pretentions to be great literature, but it’s an enjoyable whodunnit mystery, set in the city I love. Professional thief and writer Charlie Howard finds himself set up by art thieves who try to slip a noose around his neck for murder. Howard and his literary agent sidekick foil the bad guys. I would give it a B+ as a mystery novel.
What’s on your bookshelf, real or virtual, these days?