Pack Your Bags: We’re Going to France!

I suffer from chronic wanderlust. Unfortunately my passport sports a sad (small) number of stamps. The best balm for unrequited travel love is reading about your preferred destinations! Our Travel section is highlighting France for the month, and in that spirit, I thought I’d start a new series here spotlighting some great reading lists for different foreign locales! Let’s commence with the Cité d’Amour: Paris!

Metronome: A History of Paris from the Underground Up

by Lorant Deutsch

A look at the history of Paris from pre-Roman times through present day oriented by the stops of the French Metro. Did I mention the author is a well-loved French comedian? Yeah this is the best way to suck up Parisian history.

Les Petits Macarons: Colorful French Confections to Make at Home

by Kathryn Gordon and Anne E. McBride

Vacations are half sightseeing and half gorging yourself on er… sampling the local cuisine. I’m still trying to master making these traditional French delicacies at home, and this is the best cookbook I’ve ever found for them!

The French Cat

by Rachael Hale

Even if you’re not a cat person, which I absolutely am, you can’t help but fall in love with the dreamy light, French locales, and hopelessly French swagger of these felines. The story of Hale’s relocation to France is also told alongside these lovely photographs.

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl

by Debra Ollivier

There are countless books focusing on the inherent chicness of French women and the ways we clumsy and brash Americans can emulate their style. I prefer this one because it illuminates the fact that there is not a cookie cutter type of French woman.

Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France but Not the French

by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

Why do we dream about kissing our true love atop the Eiffel Tower or shopping on the Left Bank after spending a morning exploring the Louvre but continue to malign the snotty, spineless Frenchman in our comedy? Read this insightful cultural study and find out!

Stuff Parisians Like: Discovering the Quoi in the Je Ne Sais Quoi

by Olivier Magny

This tongue-in-cheek guide is spot on. Equal parts laugh-out-loud and envy-inducing.

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance

by Marilyn Yalom

I picked this book up earlier this year and couldn’t put it down. Fascinating study on why we associate the ultimate wooing with the French.

A few other notable titles:

- Brandi

Substantial City

     by Casey O’Neilconquest

Filmmaker Werner Herzog’s unique blend of outrageousness and understatement, enhanced by that sublime Bavarian delivery, makes it difficult to choose a favorite quote. Open to any page from Conquest of the Useless, and you’ll find something like this:  “4 June 1981: The camp is silent with resignation; only the turkey is making a racket. It attacked me, overestimating its own strength, and I quickly grabbed its neck…slapped him left-right with the casual elegance of the arrogant cavaliers I had seen in French Musketeer films…and then let the vain albino go.”

But my favorite quote—arguably more surprising than slapping around a turkey—comes from his interview with Henry Rollins. “Los Angeles is the city with the most substance here in the United States,” Werner tells us, “Period.” Rollins squirms in his chair in response, and I know he’s not alone.

There was a time when I would have shared Rollins’s disbelief at Herzog’s claim. But while Southern California might have more than its share of horrors, my mind was changed forever by getting to know two of the most otherworldly institutions on the face of the planet. It can be no coincidence that they find themselves kindred neighbors on the 9300 block of Venice Boulelvard in Culver City.

overlookThe Center for Land Use Interpretation is “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived.” What this means in practice is that it’s “a relentless curiosity machine focused on the intersection of humans and the Earth’s surface.”  CLUI is a powerful organism—simultaneously local and national, equally vast and minutely focused. Matt Coolidge and Sarah Simons are the driving forces behind CLUI, and their book Overlook gives a sense of much of their work. But what alerted me to the truly magical depths of CLUI was their VHS library, where I stumbled across footage of Mr. Coolidge wandering through smashed storefronts amidst looters during the riots in 1992, sifting through the detritus of a jet crash in a forest, and standing on a hillside beneath a picturesque British Columbia bridge, reading the artifacts from a hurled briefcase, its contents exploded across the landscape in a dramatic transformation from private to public (there is mention of “threesomes and moresomes”). But however you experience the work of CLUI, your thinking about land and humans will be changed forever.

mr wilsonAnd as if that isn’t more than enough for a lifetime of exploration, there is The Museum of Jurassic Technology right next door. In his classic nonfiction work Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler introduces us to the overwhelming phenomena on display at the Museum. Rows of microscopes illuminate iridescent mosaics made by arranging scales from butterfly wings. An exhibit about a bridge engineer and a classical singer leads to a geometric model for the dynamics of human forgetting. A gallery upstairs displays striking portraits of the worlds first astronauts, all of them Soviet canines. There is also the stink ant of Cameroon, and the horn of Mary Davis of Saughall. Last but far from least are John Paul II, Goofy, and Napoleon—all sculpted out of human hair, small enough to fit in the eye of a sewing needle.

Hagop Sandaljian created the three microminiatures above with an unusual technique, timing his movements between heartbeats so the pulse in his fingertips wouldn’t interfere. He talked of his “invisible labor,” a concept that couldn’t be more appropriate for the Museum as a whole. Conceived and sustained by the superhuman work of countless unseen hands, it exists as a naturally wondrous being, as if it was planted in West Los Angeles by some benevolent extra-terrestrial force. It’s an installation at the intersection of dreams and truth, a place that couldn’t be more appropriate for the city of Los Angeles as a whole.

adr“It’s wonderful to see,” Herzog continues, “ how the dreams of the world are somehow organized and manufactured here.” Matthew Specktor’s novel American Dream Machine recently brought Herzog’s words to mind, and it drove me to gather  these thoughts about Los Angeles. Starting with a man—who may or may not be George Clooney—puking in a ficus plant outside a men’s room, American Dream Machine laces itself through two generations of Hollywood, centered around the nearly indestructible figure of Beau Rosenwald, a talent agent who alternately masters and is mastered by the cutthroat machinations of the motion picture industry. It’s a universal story of parents and children dealing with ambition and failure and death, but it gains extra velocity from its surroundings. These are the men that enable Hollywood to conjure worlds out of thin air, a strange and risky labor bringing both astronomical success and catastrophic failure. What better setting for a novel could there be? And isn’t every great novel just a new way to manufacture the world’s dreams?

Sundays In: Half Empty

Silly, really, is how it feels. Ridiculous, even, the way I get so caught up in the lives of a fair few authors with whom I forget I am not personally acquainted. It’s a strange, one-way street of revelation, isn’t it, reading? While the question is one for the ages, and one perfect to begin a new column, there is something hollow about beginning with death.

When I woke to the news of David Rakoff’s passing, I could not identify the cold grip on my ribs, like my gut was devouring itself. There on the screen before me, the world-weary smile frozen to the face of a brilliant essayist, critic, actor, and reader. His face wouldn’t change in my mind from that moment, but his voice lives on, a clever rasp of self-effacing wisdom. A colleague and dear friend of Rakoff’s, David Sedaris, once wrote that the voice of Reason sounds in his mind like the voice of Bea Arthur; I must say Reason more closely resembles Rakoff to me.

First reading Half Empty, I discovered Rakoff late, in the summer of 2010. Over coffee and pastries on the patio of Madison Park bakery looking out toward Lake Washington, I recall learning the hysterical importance of strength in the face of adversity as Rakoff eviscerated Jonathan Larson’s seminal musical Rent. It was the beginning of arguably the strangest year of my life to date, one in which I would acknowledge myself for the first time as a whole person. But that would come much later, and it was as I read Half Empty that I first remember the inkling, the glittery suggestion of a future in which I might be a writer half as fearless and gay as him.

That fall, University Bookstore brought Rakoff to Town Hall, and my friends recognized him only after he opened his mouth. They were all This American Life this, and “testosterone episode” that. It was there that the full scope of his illness impressed upon me, what I had egregiously overlooked in his essays. And when my boyfriend and I watched TAL live in a movieplex this spring, and saw Rakoff stop reading an essay abruptly to dance, one arm heavy and tucked cumbersomely into the front pocket of his jeans—I was again reminded.

Tenacity is a writer who composes as events transpire. Compassion is one who leavens them with humor.

I think all we ever knew of David Rakoff’s illness is what he chose to reveal in his essays, yet in the auditorium at Town Hall many asked about the Hodgkin’s, the remission, the treatments. For many of us cancer is a lingua franca, a language that breeds empathy and knowing because it is so rampant, but Rakoff never relied on it to connect with any of us. Instead he wrote with humor, often dark and sharp, but a humor nonetheless that reminds me at least that familiarity is not bred exclusively by loss or hardship, but by bravery and generosity.

Though it seems a cruel irony that I will be seeing Rent at the 5th Avenue this week, when I look back at these brief two years I’ve known Rakoff’s work, it feels a little less silly to tear up every time I see another magazine or blog or tweet paying respects. No, it feels more like saying thank you.

“Sundays In” is a new bi-weekly column written as the experiences of one reader to another. While much of the week might be filled with work and errands, there might just be one afternoon to enjoy the pleasure of reading. For this bookseller, “Sunday” is Thursday.

Spring Booknotes from our Staff – Memoir and Essay

The Lifespan of a Fact
by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (Norton)

Is it acceptable for a writer of non-fiction to alter the facts of an article in order to make it more readable? After an essay written by John D’Agata had been accepted for publication by The Believer magazine, it was handed over to one of their fact checkers, Jim Fingal. This book is the correspondence between the two men over a period of seven years. It includes the original essay plus their correspondence, which is often terse, passive-aggressive, and amusing. The book itself is short (a mere 123 pages) and worthy of long table-pounding, fist-pumping discussions on the ethics of journalism. -Jillian

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The Guardians: An Elegy
by Sarah Manguso (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The life of Harris—close friend to writer and poet Sarah Manguso—could read like so many faceless deaths of the mentally ill: after years of suffering from schizophrenic breakdowns for much of his adult life, Harris finally surrendered in a violent, public way. In The Guardians, Manguso pulls her beloved friend from the obscurity of “an unidentified white man” with this personal and moving elegy. Writing with the distinct gifts of a poet, she introduces us to her friend as she knew him and illustrates the oftentimes inadequate ways we have of expressing love and the “insufficiency of explanation.” -Molly

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
by Jeanette Winterson (Grove)

Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, told the story of a young girl’s abusive childhood dominated by a fanatical, Pentecostal, adoptive mother with a special fondness for the Apocalypse. This memoir, written twenty-seven years later, fleshes out the details of those harrowing early years and leads us through the breakdowns and breakthroughs of the second chapter of her life. In her boldest stroke, Winterson, determined to vanquish the ever present shadow of her early abandonment, embarks on a quest to find her birth mother. This is a gripping, fierce, and deeply moving memoir of a woman in search of her own truth. -Laurie

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The Mountain and the Fathers
by Joe Wilkins (Counterpoint)

Joe Wilkins grew up in a water-starved stretch of eastern Montana known as the Big Dry. With his new book, he returns to the unforgiving landscape of his youth in a series of wistful vignettes culled from vivid, often violent childhood memories.  The Mountain and the Fathers is a wonderfully rendered portrait of starkly beautiful rural life and a haunting search for what it means to be a man in the American West. Wilkins is a poet; his eye for detail is clear and he writes with the narrative grace of high lonesome prairie wind. -Matthew

Booknotes, the newsletter of The Elliott Bay Book Company, is written entirely by bookstore staff. It represents a sampling of recently published books that we have enjoyed reading. We appreciate every opportunity to assist in finding books to meet your interests.

Booknotes from Our Staff

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House)

Foodies, rejoice! Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of the highly acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, has served up one deliciously riveting memoir. Beginning with childhood memories of her set designer father’s elaborate goat roasts, Hamilton takes us on a rollicking ride through the rocky shoals of adolescence, a solo trek through Europe (where her memory of a simple Grecian meal informs her future restaurant’s vision), a stint as a kid’s camp cook, seduction via homemade ravioli by an Italian man who becomes her husband, and summers in Italy with her new Italian family. This is a first rate tale of a food lover’s journey. -Laurie


Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead)

There is nothing funny about the colonization of a South Pacific archipelago. People died, diseases spread, ancient traditions and artifacts were damaged or lost altogether. Yet Vowell, arguably one of American history’s most popular commentators, still manages to put me in stitches as she captures uptight New England missionary attempts to Christianize the naked Hawaiian nation, right through its eventual installment into American statehood.

Vowell favors humor, both dark and dry, to recount the pitfalls and culture clash of Manifest Destiny. I only regret she didn’t teach every history course I almost dropped. -Dave



BOOKNOTES, the book review of THE ELLIOTT BAY BOOK COMPANY, is written entirely by bookstore staff. It represents a sampling of recently published and forthcoming books that we have enjoyed reading. We appreciate every opportunity to assist in finding books to meet your interests.

Holiday Recommendations from Our Staff

Essays

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec

The premise is exactly as it sounds: Georges Perec, on a bench in a Parisian square, methodically recording everything he sees, attempting to capture “that which happens when nothing is happening.” On paper, it appears so simple. In practice, absolutely impossible. Which is precisely the point. A desperate and hilarious meditation on the unstoppability of time. An elegant reflection of the everyday and all its complexity. -Matthew

 

A Seventh Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr

First published in 1975, this book at first glance appears to be a study of male migrant workers in Europe, illustrated by photographs.  It is much, much more. As in all of the collaborations between Berger and Mohr, the photos and the text carry equal weight. These glimpses into the struggles and predicaments of the immigrant worker illuminate the complex and often brutal relationship between market forces and personal survival, and also, as Berger says in the new introduction, has now become a kind of “family album,” which has taken on new meanings over time. An arresting and elegant work of art. -Casey O.

 

The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and “The Practice of the Wild” by Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison

Whether considered a book accompanying a film or a film shadowing a book, this is a deeply companionable project featuring esteemed poets, each a veritable living treasure, walking, talking, breaking bread. The greater focus, in talk and images, is on Gary Snyder’s life and work. Now eighty, the child of a farm in Seattle’s Lake City, he has helped articulate an ethos of place, purpose, and poetry that is deeply ingrained in Seattle and the Pacific Coast. Jim Harrison, a marvel in himself, is a splendid, often jocular partner, parrying poems and fragments with Snyder, exploring the roots and shoots of work, philosophy, the particulars of plants, animals, paying attention. This “etiquette” is life being lived so fully, so far. -Rick

 

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

This book begs all of its readers to devote time throughout the day to the full and deeply pleasurable act of reading. Remember the authors you’ve cherished throughout your life? The characters you’ve admired, emulated, or even loathed? Reconnect with them. Books serve as markers of certain periods of our lives. When revisiting an old favorite, not only will it be a different experience than that of the first reading, but memories from one’s own past will bubble up and mingle with the text. The Lost Art of Reading is a short and gentle reminder to avoid being overwhelmed and distracted by all the information that is at our fingertips. So sit down, breathe deeply, and enjoy this delightful book. -Jillian

Pleasure & the Pessimist: Suggestions from the Experts on How to Deal

David Rakoff’s third collection of personal essays, Half Empty, opens with such dry wit, “We were so happy. It was miserable,” that I couldn’t put it down until I was staring at the blank pages at its back. Opening on the turn of the 21st Century, Rakoff takes a skeptic inquiry toward freewheeling optimism and decadence, a position he and psychologist Julie Norem like to call “defensive pessimism”, and I, sidesplitting.
 

So aggressive is Rakoff’s sense of humor that he takes Jonathan Larson’s bacchanal bohemia of Rent to task over its whimsy that a true artist wouldn’t pay rent. His line of thinking is wicked, wary of indulgence, and critical of pleasure to the point of neurosis. I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is clarity to his writing that is at once effortlessly hilarious and painfully true. The world, essentially, is funny because there is so much to fear, so much to hide from, so much to ridicule.

As opposed to recently passed essayist Barbara Holland, whose entire career, it seems, was the spearhead for the contingent in favor of dying indulgences, simple pleasures like gravy and using people. But Holland is not a free spirit the way you might think. She is most certainly a curmudgeon. Take, for instance, her perspective in 2000’s Endangered Pleasures on sharing coffee with friends (good, fresh coffee, not instant), “Pleasures shared are pleasures heightened—not to mention the happiness of showing others that ours are more refined than theirs.”

She is not one to rant at length, but made a name for herself by standing up for driving beltless, for bingo night, for pampering, and for disasters. Holland’s world is ours for the taking, a veritable cornucopia of pleasure just waiting to be had. It’s funny though, had their paths crossed, I think David and Barbara would have been friends. I don’t think they are all that different. Much like Rakoff on Larson, Holland rebuts the famed Virginia Woolf logic that a woman must only have “a room of one’s own,” stating, “No, Ms. Woolf. A job.”

Rakoff’s defensive pessimism hones in on details; contingency planning boasts nothing less. Holland praises the details, the small things, the “casual, private fun” endangered by the moralists, the alarmists, the nutritionists, existentialists, and so on. No, theirs are not divergent perspectives, but convergent. After all, it becomes quite clear that pleasure at another person’s expense is the most universal pleasure we have.-Dave