The Red Notebook, or Le Cahier Rouge, by Antoine Laurain (for Paris in July 2021)

When Laurent finds a mauve handbag lying on top of a garbage bin, he takes it to the police who tell him they are too busy to help him now; he may come back tomorrow when their office is open from nine-thirty to one o’clock, and from 2 o’clock until seven. So, he takes the bag to his apartment and opens it.

He is greeted with the scent of leather and a woman’s perfume, and immediately I am intrigued. While the French women may not always apply lipstick, they do apply perfume. One of the things that I dislike very much is when an author mentions the word “perfume” without telling us what it is; I was so ecstatic when Laurain tells us it is Habanita by Molinard that I paused my reading to buy a bottle.

My joy continued as I read of each item extracted from this handbag: a black glass bottle of Habanita, a golden fob with hieroglyphics inscribed on it, a little diary/calendar, a fawn and violet leather bag containing make-up and accessories, a gold lighter and a Montblanc ballpoint, along with a red Moleskine notebook. There was also a book, Accident Nocturne, by Patrick Modiano “a novelist whose favorite themes were mystery, memory and the search for identity.” Fortuitously, he had inscribed the book ‘For Laure, in memory of meeting in the rain. Patrick Modiano.’ Now Laurent has a name to help him identify the bag’s owner.

The woman who owned this designer bag was struck on the head when it was stolen from her, and she now lies in a coma at the hospital. We follow Laurent, as he searches for her, and I am utterly charmed at his efforts. He waits for Patrick Modiano in the Luxembourg Gardens to see if he can find more information about the woman whose novel Patrick had autographed. He finds her apartment, and cares for her cat, while she is not even there.

Parts of this novel could be seen as far-fetched, perhaps, but it is an enjoyable read to say the least, and carries me to the heart of Paris which is exactly what I wanted it to do this July.

I read this novel, and Patrick Modiano’s Family Record, for Tamara’s Paris in July 2021.

Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn

Double Blind is about parenting and schizophrenia, relationships and wilding projects (which restore and reclaim natural habitats). In the way that only Edward St. Aubyn can do, he takes what I’ve often thought and forms it into words. With irony and sarcasm, he makes the obscure so abundantly clear that one wonders how it hasn’t been named so plainly before. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

On ecology:

In Francis’ experience, ecological angst was in fact almost universal, but most people found it hard to know what to do other than eat and drink around the clock in a conscientious drive to fill as many recycling bags as possible.

(p. 9)

On timber:

Trees that had withstood the demands of shipbuilding, the Industrial Revolution, and the timber quotas of the Second World War were being killed by improvements in farming.

(p. 6)

On beginning a new relationship:

…it was essential not to leave too much of oneself behind in the hectic rush towards the shining lake that all too often turned out to be a mudflat shimmering with excited flies.

(p. 20)

On social media:

…how pleased he was to be able to quit the hive mind of the internet and wander away, like a rogue bee, from the buzzing subjugation of the colony.

(p. 36)

On the pervasive culture today:

I don’t know when arrested development became a virtue; around the same time as greed and grievance and self pity, I guess. Resentment used to be something folks want to get rid of, now they water it and put it on the windowsill like a favorite pot-plant.

On poets, politicians and protestors:

Poets, the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ were now the acknowledged casualties of literature; politicians seemed to be recruited exclusively from the locked wards of psychiatric hospitals, and protestors, in the absence of poets to write their scripts and politicians to legislate their demands, could only grow more strident and desperate as they vied for attention with the better funded organisations they were protesting against.

(p. 202)

Francis is a naturalist who works at Howorth, a “wilding project” purposed to reclaim nature.

Olivia an adopted woman who is helping her father, Martin Carr, write a paper about schizophrenia. He is a psychoanalyst, convinced that one of his patients, Sebastian, is her natural brother.

Lucy has a newly diagnosed brain tumor and works for Hunter, a loud and extremely wealthy boor turned gentle in his newly found love for Lucy.

It is around these four that the novel revolves, a mesmerizing, thoughtful book about life. I loved it.

Transition

As I let the domain I purchased in 2014 expire, I’ve been weighing my options.

I spent most of the afternoon rereading the eight years of posts I wrote when my blog was hosted by Blogger (2006-2014). They were glorious years. I was filled with the joy of having a voice, of beginning a blog, and sharing my love of reading. I was teaching full time, my son lived at home, and so interspersed with bookish posts were many posts of a personal nature.

Then, when I went to WordPress, it seemed I fell into a crowd of exceptionally erudite bloggers. They broadened my venture into translated literature, and participating in the Shadow Jury for the International Booker Prize has been a highlight of my reading year for the past seven years.

But, somehow I ceased writing about personal things. I didn’t tell anecdotes or record many observations. I have had no witty story from my classroom in the three years since I retired. It’s no wonder my blog has become tiresome to me. It would be easy to say, “It’s because I’ve been blogging for fifteen years,” when actually, I think the truth is closer to, “I’ve been writing about mostly books for the past seven years.”

So, I’m not sure where I am as my blog loses its domain and transitions to the free site (dolcebellezza2.wordpress.com). Parts of me want to read freely, without composing a review as I go. Other parts of me are reluctant to lose the stories we’ve shared about our lives, or the casual discussions about the books we’re reading and the things we’re doing.

I know one thing: I am not brilliant enough to offer only book reviews. We have professional sources for that. All I can offer is my opinion on what I’ve read and a more frequent glimpse into the life I lead. I think I would like to share that with you, and visit you more to see what it is that you’ve been up to…

The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky (Read-along Part 3)

Throughout the Japanese novel, Bullet Train, the insolent main character is searching for the answer to one question: “Why is it wrong to kill people?” Even though I was telling him throughout the pages, he never arrived at the correct answer. He didn’t know as much as the coachman, driving Dmitri, knows.

No coachman, do not run them down! You must not run anyone down, you must not spoil people’s lives; and if you have spoiled someone’s life – punish yourself…if you’ve ever spoiled, if you’ve ever harmed someone’s life – punish yourself and go away.

That’s true, dear Dmitri Fyodorovich, you’re right there, one mustn’t run a man down, or torment him, or any other creatures either, for every creature has been created…

(p. 412)

How ironic that Dimitri says “you must not spoil people’s lives,” this after he has attacked Grigory in the garden, and is hastening to get Grushenka before anyone else takes her for his own.

“Now listen and understand: in an hour the wine will arrive, appetizers, pâté, and candies – send everything upstairs at once.” (p. 415)

There seems to be a rather wild, chaotic party when he arrives at the inn where Grushenka is entertaining; no amount of wine, or conversation, or song can give them any peace. Worse yet, at the end of the evening, just as Dmitri and Grushenka were professing their love for one another, Mitya is arrested for the death of his father.

“My version, gentlemen, my version is this,” he began softly. “Whether it was someone’s tears, or God heard my mother’s prayers, or a bright spirit kissed me at that moment, I don’t know – but the devil was overcome. I dashed away from the window and ran to the fence…Father got frightened. He caught sight of me then for the first time, cried out, and jumped back from the window – I remember that very well. And I ran through the garden to the fence…(p. 473)

While Mitya vociferously denies anything to do with the death of his father, I wonder how exactly it is that he died. At whose hand? The fact that Mitya has three thousand roubles, fifteen of which he claims to have sewn into a sort of “amulet” around his neck, also makes him suspicious to the authorities.

Because his story rambles, because he has no proof for his innocence, Dmitri is arrested and tried for his father’s murder. He goes unresisting, because even though he insists he has not killed his father, he wanted to kill him in his heart.

I read Part III in one day, yesterday afternoon, as it became ever more interesting. I’m enjoying it more than the first time I read it over a decade ago, and I can see how rereading it again for a third time would shed even more illumination on what Dostoevsky has to say. Certainly it is not limited to the plot alone, for far deeper than that are his explorations into morality, humanity, and why it is that we do the things we do.

I cannot wait to finish Part IV and be reminded of how he ties it all up. Thank you, Arti, for this most wonderful read-along.

Find Arti’s post here.

The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (“Where shall I go?…For a Jew the entire Reich is one big concentration camp.”)

When I was still teaching, Code Red drills were added to the Tornado and Fire Drills we routinely practiced. The idea was to learn to protect ourselves from an armed intruder.

One day there was the signal for such a drill while I was finishing a break, and I slowly returned a book to the library and got a drink from the fountain before heading back to my room. Suddenly, every single door on every single floor was shut and locked. The classroom doors…the teacher’s lounge…the office. There was no where for me to go, no where for me to hide, and I found myself foolishly looking into the eyes of a policeman trying to explain my predicament: I hadn’t taken the warning seriously.

I have never been more frightened at school.

When I read of Otto Silbermann trying to find a place to go, after the Germans have come to his apartment, and the typically polite concierge at the hotel asks him to leave, I was reminded of that terrible feeling: having no where to go for safety.

Throughout the novel is searching for an escape. His fear and justified paranoia are ever increasing, for while he has a suitcase of money from the business he sold, he has no haven. He is separated from his wife, and his son; the later was utterly unable to procure tickets for his parents to get out of the country. (I am reminded of my own son’s often ineffective efforts and am strangely comforted.)

I can sense how closely death is nipping at my heels. It’s just a matter of being faster. If I stop I’ll go under, I’ll sink into the mire. I simply have to run, run, run. When I think about it I’ve been running all my life. But then why is it so difficult all of a sudden, now that it’s more necessary than before? Greater danger ought to bring greater strength, but instead it’s paralyzing, if the first attempts to save yourself fall through. (p. 146)

The Passenger is the best book about the terror the Nazis created in Germany that I have ever read, other than Anne Frank’s Diary. I highly recommend this book, written by a young German man in his early twenties, which has recently been rediscovered.

DolceBellezza.net Is Expiring

On August 9, 2021, the domain that I have bought and mapped to my WordPress blog is expiring. I no longer choose to to pay for this, and so I am letting my blog fall back to the free site WordPress offers.

Should you wish to find me there, the new address will be:

Dolcebellezza2.wordpress.com

I do hope you will visit me there so we can continue our bookish conversations!

Madam by Phoebe Wynne

This place is all about traditions, honor, rules…which means what? Turning a blind eye when things go wrong? p. 166

The girls at Caldonbrae Hall have a “strange ugly destiny.” Rose doesn’t know this right away, but she senses that something is wrong from the moment she is hired as a new Madam. All the female teachers are addressed as Madam, the males as Sir. But perhaps that is one of the least innocuous rules that are enforced at this strange school.

Rose teaches Classics, and she gradually pulls her class of girls into the fascinating stories of mythology: Diana, Daphne, Medea (and even Lucretia, who ironically enough is featured in my last post). In a way, this is a fitting subject for the girls to study, for their lives are equally subject to cult and ritual practices.

I found myself likening this book to Rebecca, and once again, The Secret History, but sadly it falls far beneath their power. Once again, I have read a book which I had eagerly anticipated that failed to deliver the satisfaction I sought.

Finally, a Bullet Journal That Works For Me

I have tried for so long to create a bullet journal which pleased me. I drew lines on a Moleskine, I added sketches to a Leuchtturm1917, I searched Instagram for images so that I could bullet journal properly.

What is “properly”? I have discovered that it is the way that works for me, not copying someone else. I cannot draw like Frederica (@feebujo). I cannot use Zebra mild liners to box off my pages into colorful segments. I do not want to record my Mood or Self Care.

The best way for me, as I finally discovered, was to open this Mother and Child leather journal which was made in Italy. It is to use my Mont Blanc Meisterstück, both so special to me that I have never used either one although I’ve owned them for decades. (What was I planning, to “save them for the wake” as my father says?)

My plan is to keep the pages simple. Clean. And significant to me. I have a spread for thankfulness, for my Bible reading plan, for books I’ve both received from publishers and read. Of course, there is a calendar too, laid out across two pages as my writing has always been a bit on the large side.

Someday I may return to my beloved Midori Traveler’s Notebooks. But for now, I want a book which can hold all I want to write: plans, dreams, memories, events. And, I am finally using the beautiful stationery I have acquired in which to do so.

Do you keep a journal? Do you save your lovely notebooks instead of writing in them? Is there a system that works for you? I would love to know.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides (Book 5 of 20 Books of Summer, and such a disappointment)

I put this on “Hold” at the library even before it was first published; I have great hopes for books touted as being the most anticipated thriller of the season, but by now I should know better. (Gone Girl, I’m speaking to you.)

The Maidens has all the potential for an interesting read. Reminiscent in some ways of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, there are Ancient Greek letters, snippets from Tennyson and Euripides, and quotes written in black ink on the back of postcards left under doors or tucked into the edges of mirrors. There is a privileged society of “maidens”, who dote on Professor Edward Fosca; one by one they are found viciously stabbed to death.

Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian


One of the postcards was an image Mariana knew: a painting by Titian – Tarquin and Lucretia…Mariana pulled the postcard away from the board. She turned it over. There, on the back, was a handwritten quotation in black ink. Four lines, in Ancient Greek…Roughly speaking, it says…’The oracles agree: in order to defeat the enemy and save the city…a maiden must be sacrificed – a maiden of noble birth – ‘“

Alex Michaelides points so significantly to Fosca being the murderer, that we know it can’t be him. I plowed through the rather poor writing, and deliberate manipulations, following the group therapist Mariana as she walked the streets of Cambridge where her niece attends. It seems a little bit odd that this therapist inserts herself into solving the series of murders, only annoying the maidens, the professor, the police, and me.

I make it a point never to believe anything written by the New York Times, which said:

Alex Michaelides’s long-awaited next novel, ‘The Maidens,’ is finally here…the premise is enticing and the elements irresistible.” 

The New York Times

Instead, I adhere to Kirkus reviews, with their most succinct summary of all:

Eerie atmosphere isn’t enough to overcome an unsatisfying plot and sometimes-exasperating protagonist.

Kirkus

Bullet Train (20 Books of Summer #3)


Kimura was an alcoholic. But, when his six year old son was pushed off the top of a department store building by a student, he became sober and determined to do anything possible to help his son who lay in the hospital on a respirator. Now he is held hostage on the bullet train by the student who pushed his son.

Lemon, who likes Thomas the Tank Engine, and Tangerine are two idiots who were given directions to rescue Minegishi’s son while bringing the ransom money in a small black suitcase. They were to rescue the boy, and bring back the ransom money, which seemed simple enough to them. Except, one of them put the suitcase of money in the luggage compartment, and when he went to retrieve it discovered the case is missing.

Nanao, who professes perpetually bad luck, wrestles a man named Wolf on the train. Nanao tries to protect himself as the train unexpectedly lurches, and Wolf’s neck twists. Suddenly he is dead, and Nanao props him up in a seat as though it will appear he still lives.

Such is the opening of the novel, a rapid-fire chain of events where men interact and each one’s plan is thwarted. Then, I learn of the background behind each story, and what seemed like trite action from a film becomes more meaningful.

It seems that each one is held by the power wielded over them by the ruthless Prince Satoshi, or just the Prince. A young schoolboy, with features making him seem soft and almost feminine, he is actually the most evil character of them all. He has no conscience and actually enjoys both manipulating and hurting others.

The Prince turns to looks out the window, just as a Tokyo-bound Shinkansen hurtles past in the opposite direction, so fast it’s nothing but a blur. The whole train trembles. He feels a quiet thrill at the overwhelming speed and force. Against a giant metal object traveling at more than two hundred kilometers an hour, a human being would be powerless…And I’m just as dangerous. I may not be able to move at two hundred kilometres an hour, but I can destroy people just the same. A smile appears, unbidden.

Although the book read more like an action film than a novel, I found myself intrigued. I had to read on to discover the connection between these men, and the powerful rich Minegishi who had hired them. I read to see if the Prince would reign or succumb to power stronger than his.

(A photo I took of the Shinkansen while in Tokyo, 2018.)

Kotaro Isaka is a bestselling and award-wining writer who is published around the world. He has won the Shincho Mystery Club Award, Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Japan Booksellers’ Award, and the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize. Bullet Train is his US debut. It will be published by Abrams Books on August 3, 2021.