Lest you think I’ve abandoned writing about books in favor of writing about travel, let’s talk books today. My next blog post will preview a book about America—promise! But today, let’s linger overseas. Let me first tell you about a famous English-language bookstore in Paris called Shakespeare and Company. It’s located across the street from Notre Dame, it has an exquisite selection of books (in English!), and it has a motto to live by (see the photo). And let me now tell you about a book I read about Paris, before traveling to Paris.
Book Club Fiction and Women’s Fiction
Paris by the Book, a recently published novel by Liam Callanan, was given to me as a gift by a family member, upon my sharing that I was planning a trip to said city. Although it’s not the type of book I usually read, I read it before my trip and thereby learned a few facts about the city, and picked up a few additional French words. Paris by the Book is what publishing professionals call “book club fiction” or “women’s fiction.” These labels don’t mean that the book can’t be read outside of book clubs or by men. They merely mean that the book is well suited to be read in women’s book clubs . . . which are a huge source of revenue for the publishing industry.
In such books, there is often a relatable female heroine. And such books often raise issues that pertain to modern women’s lives, without being too inflammatory: issues easily discussable over wine and cheese in someone’s stylish living room. Often, the reader doesn’t need a lot of background knowledge to understand the book, or too much grit to make it through the entire thing; in other words, such books are accessible to a wide audience.
Literary agents with whom I’ve had contact seem to wish that my books were in the “book club fiction” category and/or “women’s fiction” category. Such books sell like hotcakes. When one women reads one, all the women in her circle have to read it, too.
Paris by the Book is indeed an easy read. There is indeed a relatable female heroine. (She is an American woman with two daughters; they all end up traveling to and living in Paris.) And indeed, the book raises issues pertaining to modern women’s lives.
Yeah, I’m a Woman
In fact, the book seemed so relevant to my own life that, upon reaching a certain point, I had a strong reaction. Anger. I was so angry! At a character in the book, yes, but also at people in my real social circles. I had trouble sleeping one night, I was so angry. And upon finishing the book, I immediately gave it to a female friend to read, because I’m eager to discuss it with another woman.
Book club fiction? Women’s fiction? Spot on. And, as my Airbnb host in London said to me, upon my confession that I could not stop crying while watching the play Emilia, “If it provokes an emotional reaction, it must be doing something right.” (I describe the play and my reaction to it here.)
And that’s what art is all about! If I’m reacting, a connection was made. True, other people might react completely differently, or not at all, to the same work. However, if the artwork is making a connection with at least a substantial proportion of its audience, it’s doing its job. It’s expressing something in a format that other humans can understand. It’s communication in the emotional sphere.
Paris by the Book is far from perfect. I agree with the critique of it in this excellent review. But a certain key aspect of the book caused me to react, and this prompted me to think. Why am I so upset about this? wondered I. And I learned something about myself, and others, as a result.
When was the last time you had a strong emotional reaction to a work of art—such as a novel, play, or visual piece? Did you learn something about yourself, or others, as a result?
Would you rather travel this road by motorcycle or foot?
Either way, you might enjoy a book called Born to Run. . . . That is, you might enjoy one of two books, both called Born to Run.
It’s amazing that, when Bruce Springsteen wanted to, for some reason, only seven years after the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall became a runaway bestseller, publish a book with the same title . . . the publishing house actually let him do it!
(That was a joke.)
While these two books are very different—in subject matter and style—their similarities don’t end with the title. Both books, you see, harbor countless pockets of wisdom, interspersed among fascinating stories.
I’d like to juxtapose two quotes from these books that I adore . . . though don’t necessarily fully understand. Both quotes are about the feeling of doing something you love: how it feels to do something so naturally that you become somehow one with it.
Here’s a lesson in running from an incredible distance runner known as Caballo Blanco, as quoted by McDougall:
“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one—you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”
And here’s a lesson from Springsteen in letting the good times roll—while performing:
“I’ve still never regularly quite had the mojo to freely let the ‘bon temps rouler.’ Except . . . onstage. There, strangely enough, exposed in front of thousands, I’ve always felt perfectly safe, to just let it all go. . . . I don’t know why, but I’ve never gotten anywhere near as far or as high as when I count the band in and feel what seems like all life itself and a small flash of eternity pulsing through me.”
I don’t really know what it means to run easy, light, and smooth (though fast makes perfect sense); but if I try, and sometimes even if I don’t try, I feel these things while running. And I don’t really know what it means to dwell amidst pulses of all life, plus a small flash of eternity, while engaged in an artistic, or otherwise skilled, endeavor; or perhaps I do. . . .
The author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston could not find a publisher for her book Barracoon that did not want her to make extensive changes to the manuscript (as I mentioned in my last blog post), and so her book was not released until 50+ years after her death, 80+ years after it was written.
The cause of the disagreement between Hurston and the publisher was that Hurston had written the story of Cudjo/Kossula in dialect. That is, she had transcribed his words as he spoke them (as an anthropologist concerned with preserving the speaker’s voice), instead of “translating” his words to “proper” English (as an author concerned with reaching a wide audience). The former style is more accurate; the latter style is easier to read.
I remember reading Huckleberry Finn for the first time—as a former high school English teacher, I have read it many times—and experiencing confusion and frustration when encountering Mark Twain’s rendering of the character Jim’s speech. I must have been halfway through the book before it finally dawned on me that chile meant “child” pronounced without the “d” sound. I kept reading it as “chili” (meat and beans in a bowl) or “chili” (a hot pepper) or “Chile” (the country) . . . none of which, needless to say, made any sense.
When I read Barracoon, I had no trouble with Hurston’s rendering of Cudjo/Kossula’s speech. I very much enjoyed reading the story in dialect, and I concur with her instincts to tell his story that way.* Then again, I am an experienced reader with two degrees in English. I wonder how well I would have been able to follow the story had I read it in my teens, or not pursued English degrees.
I am curious what you think about the following passage. Here Cudjo/Kossula describes his life as a 19-year-old, just before his town was raided and he was captured:
“I stand round de place where de chief talk wid de wise men. I hope dey see Cudjo and think he a grown man. Maybe dey call me to de council. De fathers doan never call me but I likee very much to be dere and lissen when dey talk. . . . I likee go in de market place too and see de pretty gals wid de gold bracelets on de arm from de hand to de elbow. Oh, dey look very fine to Cudjo when dey walkee dey sling de arm so and de bracelet ring. I lak hear dat—it sound so pretty.”
How easy or difficult did you think that passage was to read? What do you think about books that make extensive use of dialect?
*In full disclosure, I made a similar decision when writing my unpublished novel The Water-Creatures . . . and may well face the same consequences as Hurston . . . if not worse.
When I saw that the great Zora Neale Hurston had a new book out—her being deceased being not at all an impediment to this, and perhaps even, sadly, a furtherance—I rushed to buy it.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is very different from the other work I have read by her, the superb literary novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Barracoon is an anthropological work of nonfiction, and the making and publishing of it is quite a story in itself, covering vast tracts of space and time.
The slave trade was officially abolished by the U.S. in 1808. Despite this, ships were still making their way to the West African coast to trade goods for people as late as 1860—more than 50 years after the slave trade had been outlawed, and only one year before the outbreak of the Civil War. During this time, Africans on the coast were still raiding interior villages, capturing people, and housing them in barracoons—the term means “stokade”—to be sold as the slave ships arrived.
The last known slave ship, the Clotilda, sailed in 1860. The hero of Barracoon, known as either Cudjo (his American name) or Kossula (his African name), was captured at age 19 and survived the middle passage on that last slave ship. He was enslaved in the U.S. until the end of the Civil War in 1865, which occurred only a few years later. When he was freed, he lacked the resources to sail to Africa, to which he very much wanted to return.
Fast forward more than 50 years to 1927: Zora Neale Hurston, having learned that the now 86-year-old was the last known living person who was born in Africa and sold into U.S. slavery, visited him at his home in Alabama and recorded his story.
Hurston completed her manuscript in 1931. However, she could not find a publisher that did not wish her to make drastic changes with which she did not agree. When she died in 1960, the manuscript was still unpublished. Fast forward more than 50 years (again!) to 2018: Her book is finally published, and the voice of Cudjo/Kossula—the voice of someone who experienced the middle passage as a person sold—is finally being heard. This is vitally important and amazing because, as Hurston explains in her introduction, there are countless texts about the slave trade written by people in power, but not by people they exploited:
“All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.”
Now, this year, after so many 50+ year intervals, we finally have some words.
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The Collected Schizophrenias Esmé Weijun Wang
Your Duck Is My Duck Deborah Eisenberg
Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari
Milkman Anna Burns
Under the Banner of Heaven Jon Krakauer
Waiting for Bojangles Olivier Bourdeaut
A Mind Unraveled Kurt Eichenwald
Eugénie Grandet Honoré de Balzac
The Body Keeps the Score Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
The Bookshop Penelope Fitzgerald
Digital Minimalism Cal Newport
The Sisters Brothers Patrick deWitt
Dare to Lead Brené Brown
My Year of Rest and Relaxation Ottessa Moshfegh
Almost Everything Anne Lamott
Born to Run Christopher McDougall, Bruce Springsteen
The Ladies’ Paradise Émile Zola
The World Beyond Your Head Matthew B. Crawford
All the Birds, Singing Evie Wyld
Barracoon Zora Neale Hurston
Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury
Home Fire Kamila Shamsie
The Weather Detective Peter Wohlleben
Play It As It Lays Joan Didion
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck Mark Manson
Convenience Store Woman Sayaka Murata
Perfect Me Heather Widdows
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace Patty Yumi Cottrell
Why Buddhism Is True Robert Wright
What Is Real? Adam Becker
Kudos Rachel Cusk
The Days of Abandonment Elena Ferrante
F*cked Corinne Fisher & Krystyna Hutchinson
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine Alan Lightman
Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf