Review: A Divided Spy

A novel by Charles Cumming. St. Martin’s Press, Feb. 14, 2017. 356 pages. (Advance hardcover edition reviewed)

Just a few months ago we thought the Cold War was long over, but now it seems to threaten us anew. Ever since John le Carré brought the dark world of spy-vs.-spy into modern popular fiction, it’s been a durable plot standard that has given millions of us many hours of entertainment with a scary side order of education.

Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy is an entertaining and thoroughly Le Carré-ish thriller set mainly in London. It’s the third featuring the ex-MI6 agent Thomas Kell, who in this book is a disaffected ex-agent, desolate because of the death of his girlfriend some months before, when he should have been euphoric because he’s successfully closed an important case.

A Divided Spy is the story of Kell’s hunt for the man, a Russian, he believes gave the order to kill the girlfriend, although he also blames his ex-chief as well.

Spy novels have evolved since Le Carré, not least because readers have evolved as well. Missing from this book is the bitter, hard-edged passion for the good side or the bad side. Instead, the characters are rounder, softer, more like educated Westerners of the Twenty-First Century. They aren’t so willing to break things. (Actually, a couple of them are, but they aren’t spies per se. More would be a spoiler.)

Cumming’s story reminded me a bit of Le Carré’s Carla books, the ones in which Smiley spends his career trying to entice the dark lord of Russian spycraft to come over to the other side. The reason he succeeds bears more than a passing resemblance to A Divided Spy, except that there’s much more of it in Cumming’s book.

And Cumming has taken the opportunity to throw in a terrorism subplot, an important one. What would any modern mystery be without ISIS?

If you read for the simple pleasure of the written word, you’ll find this one worth your time. Cumming’s technique is good — the plot and character elements are all in place, but you have to pay attention. Skip a sentence and you may find yourself puzzled by a character a few pages later. It will cost him a star or two from lazy reviewers, but it makes a better novel. Every word counts.

His ear for dialogue is snappy and the conversations are believable.

Highly recommended.     

Images from Charles Cumming’s website

Book page on Amazon.com

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Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

A novel by Dominic Smith. Macmillan 2016. 304 pages. (Kindle edition reviewed)

Dominic Smith has accomplished one of the most difficult tasks a novelist can take on — He has maintained the continuity of a story that flashes back and forth in time over more than three hundred years, from New York of the 1970s to Holland of the 1630s, and then to Sydney at the turn of this century.cover-the-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos-mon-10-17-16

This outstanding novel tells the story of a painting and its creator, “At the Edge of a Wood,” painted by Sara de Vos in 1636 as a memorial to her daughter Kathrijn, who died at seven of the plague.

By the time you reach the last page, the painting will be an old friend, like one you visit often at the museum or, if you’re Martijn de Groot, an insecure New York lawyer who is the lucky third-generation owner of a golden-age apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum. The painting hangs above the marital bed, to be regarded “while he made slow, contemplative love to his melancholic wife….”

You will know from the beginning that there is no such painting, that neither Sara de Vos nor Marty de Groot existed (although Sara de Vos is based on the first women allowed to become members of the Dutch painters’ guild, a clannish and tight-knit group with arcane rules and rituals. Both will seem as tangible as your neighbor.

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The other main character is Eleanor Shipley, known as Ellie, who is equally real. We meet her as a student and struggling young art restorer who lives in an undesirable corner of Brooklyn. Her tiny apartment, “Set above a Laundromat, has its own weather: a tropical monsoon during business hours and a cooler, drier climate at night.” It is so unkempt that she has allowed no to stranger visit (Marty will be the first). She shops at the store where “period conservators and forgers alike” go for their materials, such as the odoriferous rabbit skin she cooks into glue on her own stove, wondering if the travelers on the Gowanus Expressway look through her window and think she’s stirring porridge instead of melting animal hide.

The mention of forgers is the magic door to the entire story. In brief, impoverished Ellie is hired by a shady dealer to forge a copy of “At the Edge of a Wood,” which is then exchanged for Marty’s original.

The book imagines a turbulent life for Sara de Vos. Her daughter dies of plague; her husband first hides their financial distress then goes bankrupt and abandons her, rather than go to debtors’ prison. Dutch society of the seventeenth century is not kind to women in that situation. They inherit their husbands’ debt, although Sara is lucky. Her husband’s main debtor wants her to work off the debt by painting, which raises the question: Was “At the Edge of a Wood” her last? You decide.

There’s a long section about the odd and manipulative relationship between Marty and Ellie after he learns she’s the forger. An important part of the plot is the atonement both of them owe. Do they deliver?

In an oblique way, it reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, although I had a hard time figuring out which was the Briony figure.

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a novel so much, and longer since I’ve learned so much dominic-smith-mon-10-17-16from one. Dominic Smith, an Australian who now lives in Austin, must have done an immense amount of research in preparation, and it shows, but he escaped the pitfall of making the book sound academic and instead created his own art.

Highly recommended. ★ ★ ★ ★ 

(This review has also been posted on Amazon. I learned of the book from an Amazon marketing email and purchased the Kindle edition.)

Pictures from Dominic Smith’s web site

Book page on Amazon

The miniature Statues of Liberty in Paris

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty in Luxembourg Gardens

Everyone who’s taken a Bateau Mouche ride on the Seine has seen the copy of the Statue of Liberty installed on the Isle des Cygnes, near the Grenelle Bridge. While it is a miniature of the real statue, it’s no tiny thing. It’s 40 feet tall.

For landlubbers, there are (at least) two other good copies of Lady Liberty to be seen in Paris. The sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, donated a smaller copy to the Luxembourg Museum in 1900. Five years later, it was moved outside to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the famed Luxembourg Gardens. It stood there for more than a century, until 2012, when it was moved to the Musée d’Orsay.

A newly constructed bronze replica (photo above) stands in the garden.

There is much more detail on the Musée d’Orsay web page, and on Wikipedia.

A life-size copy of Liberty’s torch stands above the entrance to the Alma Tunnel near the Seine. That was the tunnel in which Princess Diana died, so it has become an informal memorial to her.

 

Review: Joie de Vivre – an American living the Paris life

JoiedeVivreForty-plus years of living in Paris, first as a student then as the wife of a well-known banker and historian, have given Harriet Welty Rochefort the ability to look at both sides of the French-American cultural divide with a sharp analysis that’s both trenchant and humorous.

She’s published three books that I think of as cultural dictionaries. In them, she translates French culture in a way Americans can understand, even if we sometimes can’t quite comprehend. The French are different from us Americans (and from Germans, the only other European culture I know well enough to judge). But at the same time they’re much like us. Or we’re like them.

I met Harriet late last year at one of Patricia Laplante-Collins’s Sunday soirées. Patricia had invited her to be the guest of honor and presenter of a slide show based on her most recent book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing like the French. I also got to meet her husband Philippe, who retired as a banker then went back to the Sorbonne for his doctorate in history, and their friends Ron Rosbottom, the Amherst professor who had just published the outstanding When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, and his wife Betty, a noted cookbook author. (When Paris Went Dark is fascinating, and is on my list to be reviewed soon.)

The Differences

Harriet’s focus is the differences wrapped within the similarities. There are plenty of both, and they seem pretty well matched in plusses and minuses.

An American tourist will generally cast the differences in superficial terms: a surly waiter (some are, most aren’t, and even those warm up if you are nice to them), or fashion. Here’s Harriet’s take on that:

“An American woman might, for example, get the dress, makeup and hairstyle right, but she can’t change her wide-open, trusting, smiling, innocent American face.”

Bingo. And the same goes for her American husband. We stand out, and we need to be conscious of that, since we’re guests in their home.

Dress aside (and that does seem to be less important year by year), the French are known as one of the most pessimistic people in Europe. Harriet’s take on that again:

“After watching the nightly eight o’clock news on France’s Channel 2, I want to immerse my head in a bucket of Bordeaux.”

I watch that newscast, too (it’s on the web at France2.fr. Be prepared to follow quick French) and it does seem to focus on the negatives of the day, but that’s pretty much TV news everywhere these days.

Les Petits Plaisirs

Harriet’s choice of chapters summarizes the culture differences well. There’s an important one on “Romance, French Style,” and one I especially liked entitled “Small is good: Les Petits Plaisirs.” Several deal with the special differences and attractions of French women, and she wraps it up with “How I Became A Little Bit French.”

Joie de Vivre is a charming book, informative at the same time it entertains. I give it five stars. If you’re already a Francophile you’ll enjoy it immensely; if you’re just thinking about a visit you should consider it as well.

Thomas Dunne Books. Kindle edition $11.99, hardcover $19.17. I reviewed the Kindle edition, which I purchased. Its Amazon page is here.

A Red Ribbon award for Last Stop: Paris

Thanks to the people at the Wishing Shelf Awards for awarding Last Stop: Paris its “Red Ribbon Award” and “highly recommended” rating.

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Wishing Shelf is a British organization that manages an annual contest for indie-published books. Its judgments are crowd-sourced — that is, the books are distributed to a group of readers whose scores all go into the final judgment.

Wishing Shelf posted the results on Amazon today. You can see the full score and review of my novel at this page.

My favorite among the brief reviews was this one, from a woman who identified herself only as age 55: “Fantastic twist at the end. I liked this book a lot. The cover is also excellent. When I was half way through I realized I needed to read the first book to understand what was going on. So, I bought it on Amazon, read it (also very good) and then everything became clear. Full of fun – and nasty characters and well-plotted.”

Last Stop: Paris continues to sell briskly on Amazon. It has a rating of 4.6/5 stars and almost always ranks among the top 5% of the million-plus books available in the Kindle market.

 

Watch an Intoxicating Vision of Paris

I use the Feedly app to bring in blog posts and RSS feeds from altogether too many sites, but one I always appreciate is Slate.com. Tonight, Feedly brought in an extraordinary, atmospheric Paris video.

This one is exceptional – three minutes of Paris that, and I can testify to this, is spot on. At one time or another I’ve seen every single scene shown in this remarkable video. It’s enchanting, and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack.

Watch and enjoy.

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Shaping the finale of Last Stop: Paris

End of the line - the bank of the Seine, with Île Saint-Louis in the background
End of the line – the bank of the Seine, with Île Saint-Louis in the background

TWO YEARS AGO, when I had hardly started the writing of Last Stop: Paris, I was casting about for a good location to set the climactic, resolving scene. I needed a crowded urban site (not hard to find in Paris) where I could set a car chase that ended in the Seine. At the time I wasn’t sure that’s how the book would end, but it made more and more sense as I worked through the writing and revision of the manuscript.

Île Saint-Louis has long been one of my favorite walking haunts, even though it’s very crowded during during tourist season. The architecture is marvelous and historic, the shops are fun if not practical, and there are more than enough places to stop for a coffee or an ice cream, as my character Jeremy Bentham says in the opening chapter.

So the Île it would be. Starting the scene there would bring a certain roundness and sense of completion to the story because the first scene is set there as well. So, after hours of pacing its streets and quais, in the summer of 2014 I found my site.

I make a lot of photos of Paris, especially the parts that seem like they’d be good “characters” in a novel. Actually, that describes pretty much all of Paris, which is why I have thousands of JPGs stored in the Google cloud.

These are some of the photos I used in constructing that last scene.

Shoppers enjoying the day when a pistol came sailing out of a car window
Shoppers strolling on the sidewalk when a pistol came sailing out of a car window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eddie's near-miss when Khan was merging onto the Pompidou Expressway
Eddie’s near-miss when Khan was merging onto the Pompidou Expressway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chase led around the City Hall, then down to the Pompidou Expressway
The chase led around the City Hall, then down to the Pompidou Expressway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Stop: Paris is the sequel to Treasure of Saint-Lazare. Both are available on Amazon. The story will flow better if you read them in order.

[Books] “Young Once,” by Patrick Modiano, “Marcel Proust for our time”

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 9.04.38 PMWhen Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014 he was virtually unknown outside France. He is a prolific author, with 30 books published in French, but very few had been translated into English. Yale University press promptly picked up several of them for American publication, and now Amazon teems with Modiano offerings.

The Kindle edition I read was promoted by the New York Review of Books, which supports many old or under-read novels that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.

I knew nothing of Modiano when the Nobel award was announced, but I started looking around among his works and settled on Young Once (original title Une Jeunesse), for several reasons, not the least of which was that the New York Times called him “Marcel Proust for our time.” I am not inclined to argue.

Young Once is a coming-of-age novel set in the postwar years, with its roots deep in the small and not-so-small cons and tricks the Parisians employed to stay alive during the German occupation. Modiano’s own father skirted the edge of the Resistance, more involved in staying alive than in making a political point. The father of his protagonist was a bicyclist of some note who rode at the Vel’ (for Vélodrome) d’Hiver, the Winter Stadium best known as the collection point for French Jews rounded up for deportation in 1942. It was part of one of the buildings left over from the World’s Fair that ended in 1900 and is remembered with a plaque near its location, which is just a few hundred yards from the Eiffel Tower (Google Maps).

The charm of “Young Once” will be obvious to anyone who knew Paris in the ’60s. I was there early in the 1970s, when not much had changed, and the book brings back the memories of dark streets, cheap hotels, and neighborhood restaurants where a good lunch could be had for less than a dollar. Despite what you read about the “Trente Glorieuses,” the glorious thirty years of rapid recovery after the war, times were still tough. In 1960 the Marshall Plan had only been operating for ten years, and it takes longer than that to recover from a national catastrophe that cuts 70% from GDP.

Understated Writing

The story is simple and the writing is understated (in Damion Searls’s expert translation):

Louis Memling, not yet 20, is discharged from his national military service and takes up with a shady character, Brossier, who promises him what he wants most: waterproof shoes with thick crepe soles, and an overcoat. His new friend provides them.

While Brossier is out of town on one of his mysterious business trips, Louis meets Odile, a painfully timid girl who lost her job in a perfumerie for shoplifting a few lipsticks, but has ambitions of being a singer. Her first patron helps her cut an audition record, then kills himself. She, a minor, is picked up at a police roadblock and forced to be bait for a rapist. In desperation, with no friends and two francs less than she needs for her coffee, she goes to a café, where Louis finds her. From then on they are inseparable.

Brossier finds Louis the job he promised, as a night porter at a questionable auto-rental company. It soon turns to money-laundering (remember: this was the time of international capital controls and there was no EU). The first trip, to England, goes well.

It’s a subsequent assignment that changes the course of Louis and Odile’s lives. A felony, plus the passage of time, turns them from petty criminals into substantial citizens with a house in the Alps, far away from France.

Modiano became known in the United States as the co-writer of “Lacombe, Lucien,” the 1973 film about the French Milice (the French branch of the Gestapo), co-written by Louis Malle, who directed.

Young Once: Highly recommended for Paris lovers and fans of sparsely written, penetrating literature. Originally published, in French, in 1985. NYRB edition March 2016.

I read the Kindle edition, published by NYRB Classics, which I bought from Amazon at this page. $9.99. Also available in paperback.

Related sites you may enjoy:

NYRB

Patrick Modiano Wikipedia page

Patrick Modiano: the Nobel Prize-winner nobody had read (The Telegraph)

The Unforgotten: Patrick Modiano’s mysteries (The New Yorker)

Patrick Modiano, an Author of Paris Mysteries, Keeps His Own (The New York Times)

Goodreads reviews

Kirkus review (which gets the time of the action wrong)

About the Author and translator (from Amazon)

Patrick Modiano was born in the Boulogne-Billancourt suburb of Paris near the end of the Nazi occupation of France. He studied at the Lycée Henri-IV and the Sorbonne. As a teenager he took geometry lessons with the writer Raymond Queneau, who would play a key role in his development. He has written more than thirty works of fiction, including novels, children’s books, and the screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien. In 2014, Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Damion Searls has translated many classic twentieth-century writers, including Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elfriede Jelinek, Christa Wolf, Hans Keilson, and Hermann Hesse. For NYRB Classics, he edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861 and has translated Nescio, Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Alfred Döblin, and André Gide. He is currently writing a book about Hermann Rorschach and the cultural history of the Rorschach test.

Author interview on BookGoodies

BookGoodies, a well-known site for promoting books, was nice enough to do an interview with me this week. For your general edification, you can find it here.

Here’s one of the questions they asked — how I write. (If you’re not up on the lingo, a “pantser” is someone who creates the plot as he goes. Nobody is 100% pantser or 100% outliner — I create detailed outlines that are usually overtaken by events.

If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts, I name some of the most interesting software I’ve found.

Tell us about your writing process.
I’d like to be an outliner but I generally wind up being a pantser, because the process of writing sparks off many of the ideas that wind up in the finished work.

My main tool for information-gathering is Evernote. I tuck factoids about places, people, and things in it, organize them by book and character, then turn the notes into my rather detailed sketches. I keep those in Scrivener.

When I’m ready to write, I use an outliner (usually Tree, a neat horizontal outliner for Mac) or Scapple, the mind-map app from Scrivener. From there I start the writing process.

The first draft is longhand, but thereafter the manuscript lives in Scrivener. I edited on double-spaced printouts.

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Is it the same size, or what?

Optical illusions have long been a key part of the magician’s toolkit. Here’s a really good illustration of how and why they work.

BBC Academy trainer Mark Blanc-Settle hit the Twitter jackpot with a tweet on the “Jastrow Illusion” — the mistaken impression (embedded in magic tricks since time immemorial) that two objects that APPEAR to be of different sizes are in fact the SAME size. He had more than 3,000 retweets.

He uses the illustration of curved sections of a model railroad track, but you can find others as well.

Here’s the video he tweeted (the link is to Slate, where I found the story):

Here’s his Twitter page, which has further discussion of the illusion:

And here is Wikipedia’s explanation of the Jastrow Illusion

Enjoy.