Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 : Mom and Me Review

Find it via these links at Indiebound or Amazon,
(sample Prose's prose there too) or at your local bookseller.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an historical fiction, based loosely around a single surprising bit of information that Prose stumbled upon at a museum exhibit:  the tuxedoed woman in the famous Brassai photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”, is the French athlete Violette Morris who was an Olympic hopeful and auto racer in the ‘30’s yet later wound up working for the Nazis.  (More details would spoil some of the plot, but you will be surprised at the historical events she had a despicable hand in.)

My Take:
Told in a polyphony of voices, the novel explores how its characters attempt to shape others’ perceptions of them through written language and how biographers imperfectly impose their own agendas on their subjects, all in the context of artists and bohemians carousing in pre- and WWII Paris.  But Prose’s main thematic concerns appear to be how “evil” people are formed (and /or how a particular pairing of people exacerbates innate or learned personality traits to the point that they’re exhibited in choices most would consider to be “evil”) and how people justify their own action or inaction in the face of evil.  This is not new territory for her, but if it is for you then this book would be a good fit for your TBR list. 

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 would be a worthy read for:
·          Those who admire confident storytelling and clean, sometimes elegant or slyly humorous prose
·          Those tolerant of characters who have many flaws but are also unique and multifaceted
·           Those who relish WWII historical fiction
·           Those who wonder about good and evil, power and sexuality
·           Those who enjoy the interplay of fictional forms such as letters, newspaper articles, journal entries, chapters from fiction-within-a-fiction books, etc.

I happen to meet all the criteria above, so I did find this weighty new novel thought-provoking.  Personally, I adored Prose's earlier novel A Changed Man, which explored some similar issues in a different way and was, to my taste, more focused and compelling plot-wise.  Try either novel, and absolutely buy a copy of her excellent non-fiction Reading Like A Writer – it’s a resource you will use over and over again and delight in every time.  (Best reading list ever!)

Mom's Summary:
Lou Villars is an athlete, a cross-dresser, a spy: an individual who seems always to be moving through life without any plan. When her circumstances change, she moves on to whatever is in her path, her inevitable option. Each of these options leads to a more involved and dangerous life and ultimately to her death. The story develops slowly as it is told in many voices: those of a Hungarian photographer, of an American ex-patriot, of a biographer, of a baroness/patron of the photographer, of the photographer’s model/wife. Each sees Paris, their intertwined lives and the occupation by Hitler’s army in different ways.

Mom's Responses:
One voice I wished had been used was that of Lou Villars herself; sometimes it felt disconcerting not to see from her viewpoint rather than that of all her ‘observers’. But maybe that is one of Prose’s objectives—alerting the reader to how differently or for what reasons we humans view events in our lives as we do.

I was struck by an observation Lionel, the American ex-pat writer, makes as he ponders his relationship with Suzanne: “How much simpler life would be if we were wise enough to stop at the first blush of romance, the start of a business transaction or of a casual friendship. If we knew enough to pause and think: this is as good as it gets. Everything will go downhill from this moment on. So once again our instincts are the opposite of what they should be, propelling us forward exactly when they should be holding us back.” (36-37 in the ARC) Thought –provoking….

Not my favorite book at the start and still not my favorite when I finished it. However, there is much to appreciate about the achievement, sometimes with humor, of Francine Prose in developing a complex story that propels the reader onward toward finding the destiny of characters, like them or not.

Thanks as always to TLC Book Tours for offering us this opportunity to review such a thought-provoking book.  Check out their link to discover what other bloggers thought of it, and do offer your thoughts in the comments below.


Francine Prose's author page at Harper Collins is here.
She's a prolific essayist and reviewer in addition to having penned scores of non-fiction, adult fiction, and YA fiction books.  Google her!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Risk : Poem In Your Post

The Risk

All the lovers, denying, pretending
they didn't know what was
coming. I knew ahead I might lose you.
Your coat sleeve, presences, topography, pricked my
recognition, through soul, a
lost stability.

Path to light, that angles darkness,
our lying in the grass on a
mountain, hoisted biographies in the fragmented clouds
we watched, it was clear as the winds
that changed them. Face of
fate, that didn't

either have to be.  Our incalculable
harmonies, bodies' lithe fabrication, seascape,
weather, mountains, the luck
whatever of place. Fulfillment swathed like
ammunition in the breeze,

your familiar warm shoulder, prescience -
so good there was nothing to say,
just the right pages turning,
beyond the storm, threat to our love,
their harbor risk.

                     - Jane Mayhall

At times, poems that I don't entirely fathom still move me, perhaps in part because their innate, near-animate power needn't be fully explicated or interpreted to be appreciated.  This one strikes me that way: accessible as a whole, but not so easy to parse as one might expect, given its universal theme and quotidian imagery.  

Perhaps you grasped all its nuances right away?  Or does one particular line or stanza reveal itself to you whole?  Please share your insights in the comments.

For more on Jane Mayhall (1918-2009) visit Knopf's page about her last collection, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day.  Be sure to click on the "author q and a" link: Mayhall's musings on her life history are fascinating, particularly if you - like me - admired Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, as Mayhall's biography parallels Mattie's in some regards.  Mayhall gained recognition late in life and wrote some of her best poems - like this one - in her eighties. Heartening indeed.

And once again, let me recommend you sign up for next year's poetry month offerings from Knopf.  The emails are free, and I guarantee you will (re)discover fine poems and poets if you do.


Hamlet with Yorick's skull, photographed by Sue Shaw of the Cloud Appreciation Society in England.  Catch the connection?

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