Archives For Books

30-SECOND BOOK REVIEWS

John Pearce  —  November 21, 2018

Updated Nov. 20, 2018, with these new books:

ON TYRANNY: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder (non-fiction)

FLY BY NIGHT (Jammer Davis Thriller Book 2), by Ward Larsen (thriller)

THE FIFTH RISK, by Michael Lewis (non-fiction)

If you’d like to suggest a book for review, use the “Contact Me” link in the menu above.                        John Pearce

ON TYRANNY, by Timothy Snyder (non-fiction)

When I was looking for background on Hungary for my latest novel, Finding Pegasus, I turned to Timothy D. Snyder, a Yale historian with the sort of sparkling resumé most academics can only aspire to.

He is a scholar of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. He can speak, write, or read eleven languages, and has been quoted as saying that if you can’t read Russian you can’t really do much research in that part of the world.

His works are not turgid academic volumes, especially the little book that is his most recent, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It’s more of a cookbook of ways to foil tyranny.

Here’s a sample, from his first rule: Do Not Obey In Advance:

  • “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”

He recalls that when the Austrian chancellor gave in to Hitler, the local Nazis, acting on their own, took the steps that decided the fate of Austria’s Jews. “The anticipatory obedience of Austrians in March 1938 taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible,” he writes.

And from his Rule #5, Remember Professional Ethics:

  • “When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.”

Please read the whole thing. It’s a little heavy on Hitler examples, but he was the mold for all modern authoritarians. The entire book is only 128 pages, so it won’t take long. You’ll have time to read it twice.

Recommended without reservation

Tim Duggan Books (Penguin Random House), 2017. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased.

Nov 15, 2018

FLY BY NIGHT, by Ward Larsen (thriller)

Fly by Night is my first Jammer Davis book, and won’t be my last. I found it on one of Amazon’s promotional emails (which almost always offer a wealth of good books) and read it in two evenings.

Frank (Jammer) Davis is an ex-F16 jock, now on leave of absence as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the government department that investigates transport accidents of all sorts but is most visible when an airplane goes down.

He’s a widower and his only daughter is spending several months with friends in Norway, so he’s receptive when his old boss Larry Green meets him after a rugby match and asks him to go check out a crash in Sudan. It’s not just any crash – it’s a highly secret CIA drone called Blackstar, which has disappeared somewhere in the desert near the Red Sea.

The CIA had decided it crashed into the sea, but recently got word that it was hidden in a hangar outside Khartoum. The hangar is owned by a sketchy charter airline that flies around Africa carrying cargo that may or may not be legal.

Jammer takes the job and hops a plane for Khartoum. Larsen does a nice job of developing a stable of interesting characters: a fellow fighter pilot he was instrumental in having cashiered from the Air Force; a mysterious imam connected somehow to the Sudanese military; various young men fluttering around the imam and Islam like moths around a flame; and Dr. Regina Antonelli, an Italian doctor volunteering in a desert clinic with whom Jammer comes close to having an affair.

No spoilers here, but the plot is plausible, which is important to me. A tinpot general with designs on becoming president of his country is willing to kill a bunch of people in a way that would cause maximum international political upheaval.

The depth of his aviation knowledge is impressive, no surprise since he’s done many of the jobs he has Jammer doing, including fly high-performance fighters and investigate air crashes.

Jammer comes through in the end, but Larsen misses no opportunity to write another cliffhanger. He knows how to do it.

Recommended.

Oceanview Publishing, 2018. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased.

Nov 19, 2018

THE FIFTH RISK, by Michael Lewis (non-fiction)

When Barack Obama was inaugurated, he and the thousands of new officials who came into government found that George Bush had gone out of his way to make their transition easier. They had prepared binder after binder of background information, set up desks for the Obama transition team, and generally worked to make everything go smoothly. Obama appreciated it and determined long before the election he would do at least as much for his successor, Democrat or Republican.

So on the morning after the election, Obama appointees sat ready for the advance guard of Trump appointees they were certain would arrive, asking questions, trying to learn the business, preparing themselves to run the country. The Obama transition team had sent thirty to forty people into the Energy Department alone, so that was the demand they planned for.

They waited, and they waited. At last some transition-team members appeared, but they showed an extraordinary resistance to learning anything from the old guard — Rick Perry spent less than an hour with Ernest Moniz, the outgoing Secretary of Energy. In a strange twist, he would up running the Energy Department after saying during the Republican primary debates that Energy was one of the three departments he would eliminate, except he couldn’t remember the name.

Lewis recounted the transition story in several departments, but he focused on Energy because, despite its pacific-sounding name, is one of the most important of the cabinet agencies. Half of its budget is devoted to the care and feeding of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In eight years its National Nuclear Security Administration collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs, Lewis writes.

“Across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found,” Lewis writes. “The few places they did turn up, they appeared confused and unprepared.”

THE BOOK’S TITLE comes from an interview Lewis did with John MacWilliams, who ended his time at Energy as Chief Risk Officer. Lewis asked him to name the issues that, in his view, were the five most significant risks.

At the top, of course, is an accident with nuclear weapons. There have been close calls but no completely misplaced H-bombs.

After that, McWilliams said, would come North Korea. Iran would be in the top five, as would the national electrical grid, the outdated system that distributes electricity around the country.

The fifth risk? Project management. In other words, failure to run the department — and by extension the entire U.S. government — correctly.

 

This is one of the clearest outlines of why the government had the problems it had in the early days, and still struggles with Puerto Rico in the hurricane’s aftermath. It’s worth reading if for no other reason than to be reminded that when an important organization has poor leadership it will have poor results, and when its role is mission-critical, the side effects of those results are likely to be serious for a lot of people.

 

Highly recommended.

W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased.

Nov 19, 2018

 

 

TAILSPIN, by Steven Brill (nonfiction)

Steven Brill launches his monumental work Tailspin with a question that goes to the core of Americans’ self-regard: Is the world’s greatest democracy and economy broken. But the metrics we normally depend on to measure the health of the body politic all seem to point in the wrong direction. Public engagement, satisfaction, confidence, voter turnout and the touchstone of the future, parents’ confidence that their children’s lives will be better than theirs — none of them is on the uptick. What went wrong?

A lot of things, but the one Brill holds most responsible is the broad move of the 1960s and later to consciously widen the base of the American upper class. Not the historic upper class based on inherited money or social rank, but the new upper class based on merit. Even now, when we see the results of our efforts to seek out and educate the smartest of our young citizens, we seldom (until now) hear the downside. The new rich are confident they got that way on their own, and they have very little interest in passing the fruits of their success on to those less fortunate. They have risen to the top and pulled up the ladder.

Brill, who points out willingly that he is one of the beneficiaries of the merit system, spends 400 pages detailing what happened, who did it, and offering his prescriptions for correcting the situation.

This is a must-read book.

BROWN LORD OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Walter Macken (novel)

One of the great duties of literature is to hold a mirror up to change, whether it is change in the characters, change in the land, change in society as it is wrenched out of one epoch into the next. This book does that, and held my interest from the night Donn Donnshleibhe left the mountain, bailing out of his own wedding feast to escape his guiltless but pregnant bride, his domineering and merciless father, and most of all, to escape the Mountain, the village on the West Coast of Ireland where 1939 could just as well have been 1839.

He returned sixteen years later to find nothing changed, except the beautiful teen-aged girl he met weaving daisy chains on the side of the road, and learned in short order that she had the mind of a young child and was the daughter he had never met. He returned to stand briefly at his father’s death bed and to meet the wife he’d abandoned to go off to war, from which he returned with a pocketful of medals and the scars of a machine-gun bullet and a knife on his chest.

Young Donn, now no longer young, found a village of abandoned cottages, which the people he’d known had left for America. Against his will, he took up his father’s mantle as Lord of the Mountain and brought electricity and running water, against the resistance of the old-timers, and dances to entertain and keep the young, against the resistance of the priests.

The story is a complex look at a society hangs together, but just barely, always at the risk of crumbling when the strong central figure faces his own personal tragedy and may not be able to overcome it. Read the book and figure out whether Donn succeeded.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (nonfiction)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been a force in American journalism for almost twenty years, gaining exposure steadily with his articles in well-known journals, but he jumped instantly into the front ranks with his long 2014 cover story in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” From that time on he became more than just another good journalist translating one segment of American to another, but in my view the preeminent interpreter of what it’s like to be black in the country today. That issue has taken on considerably more heft since November 2016.

This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. I put off starting it mainly because epistolary family stories are low on my priorities list, but I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago and found I couldn’t put it down. It’s a short book, a 155-page letter from an anguished black father to his young son, so I finished it in one night. I missed something importat by waiting so long.

If you are concerned about the direction race relations are taking in the United States, when there are “some very fine people on both sides” — and those on one side are showing the swastika and its predecessor, the Othala Rune, plus many versions of the Stars and Bars — then I suggest you read this book. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, it will help you understand the unfortunate and continuing fallout of America’s original sin.

CENTENNIAL, by James Michener (novel)

I have been a fan of James Michener for as long as I can remember. He of the long, graceful sentences, the deep and wide historical perspective — and the long, long books, of which Centennial is one, at 1,100 pages. And the Kindle edition I bought last month throws in a preview of Hawaii for good measure. My iPad’s Kindle app estimates the reading time at 14 hours. It didn’t take me that long, but reading Michener, or even re-reading it after a couple of decades, is nobody’s one-day job.

This is a novel, as Michener points out in the author’s note, but it reads like history. But some of it goes back before the days of written records, and much of it presents Michener’s research, which led him to characters like Lame Beaver, the Arapaho warrior he invented to illustrate the state of constant war among the tribes. Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome makes an appearance, as do Fort Laramie and the South Platte River, both important parts of the development of the western territories.

Centennial is a fictional Colorado town, but it will seem familiar to anyone who grew up in the Western United States at a certain time in the Twentieth Century. Read the book. Enjoy it. And plan on a review soon of Caravans, Michener’s timeless story of timeless Afghanistan, a topic of considerable current interest these days. I thought it was even more interesting than Centennial, but that may be because I knew less about Afghanistan than the development of the American West.

If you’re a fan of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone novels you’ll have a special interest in reading Berry’s introduction.

[cn-social-icon]
The genocidal Bosnian war of the nineties has faded from Western consciousness. Not many people remember the brutal days when Sarajevo had to hang a curtain so snipers could not target civilian pedestrians, although anyone who was paying attention then remembers the pictures of those who didn’t escape, lying in the streets. The memory has faded along with the physical damage, and the region has once again become a tourist magnet.

But as Andrew Turpin knows very well and demonstrates clearly in his second Joe Johnson thriller, The Old Bridge, the horrors of that war and the fratricide that accompanied it are still a dark presence. The continuing war crimes prosecutions in The Hague remind us of that whenever they appear on the front pages.

The old bridge was, and is, in Mostar (map), which is in Bosnia and Herzegovina just 45 miles from Sarajevo. It crosses the river Neretva and was destroyed by tank fire precisely as Turpin outlines in his prologue. International sponsors rebuilt it, using old techniques and methods as much as possible, and it went back into service in 2004. (The Wikipedia page is fascinating.)

Turpin’s hero is Joe Johnson, a capable former CIA agent who ran afoul of his superiors and turned to freelance war-crimes investigations. This book tells of a dossier dating to the war that was thought to have been destroyed, but maybe wasn’t. If it’s found it will cause acute embarrassment in high governmental circles of the United States.

On the way to a very satisfactory resolution he takes us on visits to interesting places and introduces a compelling cast of characters. Other reviewers have dealt nicely with the plot.

Like Turpin’s first thriller, The Last Nazi, this story moves at a fast clip. The interaction between characters is good. I read it in one session and look forward to finding time to read his third, Bandit Country.

Another resource: Turpin wrote a detailed and fascinating summary of the background to The Old Bridge as part of his email list recently. I suggest you read it. It will provide a richer background to the story he tells in the book. You can find it here.

Highly recommended. (I read the Kindle version, which I purchased.)

To PREVIEW the book, click here.

♦♦♦

Andrew Turpin is a British writer who  worked for many years as a business and financial journalist before becoming a corporate and financial communications adviser with several large energy companies, specializing in media relations.

He originally came from Grantham, Lincolnshire, and lives with his family in St. Albans in Hertfordshire. His very nicely built website is andrewturpin.com

♦♦♦

A note about my own books

Amazon recently selected my first novel, Treasure of Saint-Lazare, for Kindle Prime Reading, which it calls a program “for its most engaged readers.” As a result, the book has vaulted upward in the sales rankings and landed firmly on several best-seller lists, the most prominent of which was the Action and Adventure list, where it reached #9.

It reached #2,000 among all paid Kindle books, the highest since it was first published in late 2012 (there are about two million ranked books. so that made me very happy indeed).

The third in my Eddie Grant series of Paris thrillers will be available in coming months. It’s not formally named yet, but it will be in my editor’s hands in a couple of weeks. Once again you’ll meet Eddie Grant, his beautiful wife Aurélie Cabillaud, their friends, Paris, and two new characters, both marine engineers in Miami who find themselves in Paris after a very narrow escape when their sailboat is bombed in Biscayne Bay.

Part of the action is set in Miami, much in Paris, and part in the caves of Hungary. There are politics, romantic walks through Paris, and the usual amount of romance.

If you’d like to join the Readers’ Group to learn when it will be available, or volunteer to be an early reader/reviewer, please click this link or the one in the box below. I’d be pleased to have you on the list, and you can unsubscribe any time.

I invite you to follow my blog, Part-Time Parisian. There, I post reviews like this one talk about my books, plus whatever other shiny bauble attracts my attention.

I’d appreciate a mention on your favorite social media platform. You can use these links:

[cn-social-icon]

 

[cn-social-icon]

I came late to this amusing and informative book, I’m sorry to say. It’s an amazingly detailed compilation and exploration of what the French would call curiosités or choses insolites but it’s also a broad cultural overview. It’s an example of the best of a certain type of book designed to explain France to English-speakers.

Between A and Z you will learn there are more than twenty-five varieties of garlic grown in France, and that the guillotine was designed by a doctor shortly before the French Revolution as a more humane means of execution. Attaching his name to it horrified him, and his family rechristened itself to escape the shame.

From Absinthe to Zidane

On the way to Zinedine Zidane you will make obligatory stops at Mata Hari, the legendary Dutch dancer executed as a spy (she was really a double agent) near the end of World War I, and a longish section on the history of restaurants, before ending with the entry for Zidane, the former soccer star. He used to be best known for the infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final (which I saw on TV in Paris and will always remember), but he’s since become a respected soccer coach for Real Madrid.

Piu Eatwell is an Oxford graduate now living and writing in Paris, according to her website. She’s written several other books I was aware of but have not reviewed, including They Eat Horses, Don’t They, The Truth About the French, a well reviewed outline of the stories behind the myths Anglophones believe about the French. I found all of them on her list at Amazon.

F is for France was mismarketed, in my view. It should have been sold as a book of much broader general interest, like David Downie’s work, instead of a cabinet of curiosities. But I’m glad I came across it again. For a lover of France and Paris it is both an entertainment and a reference work. It will stay in my library.

My first exposure to F is for France was an advance reader copy I downloaded from Netgalley in 2016 and promptly forgot. When I ran across it again (while I was preparing Netgalley to support the publication of my next novel in a few months), I bought the Kindle version, which is the edition on which this review is based.

[cn-social-icon]

Review: A Divided Spy

John Pearce  —  February 6, 2017

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

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.

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

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.

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

ribbon2

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.

 

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.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 9.41.57 PMOpening Peter Steiner’s new novel The Capitalist was like visiting an old friend in his quaint

cottage in the Loire — comfortable, relaxed (with a glass of good wine) and confident you’re about to hear a great story.

I came to Peter’s books with The Resistance, when he presented it at the American Library in Paris. His protagonist, Louis Morgon, is a retired (not by choice) CIA spook and sort-of diplomat who settles in the small French town of Saint-Léon-sur-Dême, which, in his depression after being fired and divorced, he chooses in a very simple way: he gets off the plane at De Gaulle airport, hitches up his backpack, and starts walking south. When he gets to a place he likes, he stops and settles in.

In The Resistance he bought a long-abandoned house where he found a stash of World War II pistols used by the Résistance, thus the title. I reviewed that here.

By now Louis is getting older. He’ll never see 70 again, but he’s accumulated a deep network of friends, including the local policeman (Renard) and a lover (Pauline), who play outsized roles in The Capitalist. Over the years in Saint-Léon-sur-Dême he’s become an accomplished painter, a skill that plays an oversized role in the resolution of the story.


Thomas Dunne Books. Available in Kindle ($12.99) or hardcover ($19.84) editions  ****


I don’t know Peter Steiner well, in fact hardly at all. I met him that one time in Paris and exchanged emails with him, and he was nice enough to write a blurb for my novel Last Stop: Paris. I do know that he lives part of the year in France, and have to think that informs his descriptions of village life, just as my time in Paris informs my writing.

He’s been in the creative world for a very long time, mainly as an acclaimed cartoonist for The New Yorker, then as novelist. Remember the one from 1993, captioned “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog?” That was Peter’s, and it’s the most-reproduced cartoon in the magazine’s history.

Morgon’s bête noir is St. John Larrimer — “he pronounced his name SIN-jun in the English manner,” a little touch that tells you everything you need to know — a mini-Madoff who succeeds in fleecing all his money management clients. The most tragic of them is Pauline’s brother Jean-Baptiste, an unaware man who decides it’s easier to send his clients’ money to Larrimer than to manage it himself, so it’s gone. Unfortunately, he told them he was the manager, which turns out to be illegal, and his way out is to slit his wrists.

Pauline, her family and friends are seriously hurt, not least by the money they lost, and Louis is furious. As he has in the past, he determines to do something about it, and he does.

Stick with it through the first couple of chapters, which deal with some of the collateral damage of the excessively enthusiastic capitalism that marked the first few years of the century — it’s what James Michener called “weeding out the ribbon clerks.” Don’t be one of those and you’ll be amply rewarded.

The plot is complicated and tricky, and the best tradition of this kind of novel it’s very hard to tell if the good guys win or lose. I think I know, but I suggest you form your own opinion.

(This review is based on an advance uncorrected proof furnished by the publisher.)

Peter Steiner's most famous cartoon

Peter Steiner’s most famous cartoon