Connect with us

Books

A fascinating tale of Paris and literature in early 20th century

If you love books and sexual freedom you’ll adore ‘The Paris Bookseller’

Published

on

(Book cover illustration courtesy of Berkley)

The Paris Bookseller
By Kerri Maher
c. 2022, Berkley
$26/336 pages

In LGBTQ bars, men dance with men and women kiss women. In artistic neighborhoods, straight people dine and drink with their queer friends. Queer couples and throuples are among the leaders of the avant-garde. Yet, there’s some repression. Books are banned.

You might think such goings-on can only be found in a present-day gayborhood or cultural hotspot. 

But, this isn’t just a 21-century tableau. It was the scene a century ago in Paris where queer and hetero artists and writers, flirting, dancing, making art, drinking, dining and partying together, created some of the most acclaimed writing of the 20th century.

At the center of it all was Sylvia Beach and her bookshop Shakespeare and Company.

The Paris Bookseller,” a new novel by Kerri Maher, brings us into the creative, diverting world of Paris from 1917 to 1936. Many titans of modernist art and literature thrived there (often before they were famous) – from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound to Andre Gide to Paul Valery to James Joyce. Some were French. Others were American, British, Irish, or Canadian expats.

Sylvia Beach, a bookish American lesbian, who loved Paris, writers, books, and especially, her bookshop, was the friend, librarian, sometimes publisher, hand-holder – den mother – of this community.

Maher has given readers a fab work of historical fiction. Much has been written about Joyce, Stein, Hemingway and their gang. But comparatively little has been written about Beach, who lived from 1887 to 1962.

Beach lived openly for years with her lover and business partner Adrienne Monnier, and published Joyce’s groundbreaking novel “Ulysses,” which had run into censorship.

“The Bookseller” is a fascinating tale of the day-to-day life of Shakespeare and Company, the cultural hub, that nurtured the post-World War I generation of writers and artists.

Told from Beach’s point of view, the novel brings us inside Beach’s solar plexus as she delights in cafes and literary readings; strokes Joyce’s cranky ego and, later, with Monnier, faces the economic hardships of the Depression.

Beach was born in Baltimore. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and her mother supported women’s suffrage. Beach had two sisters – Holly and Cyprian, an actress who was also a lesbian.

In 1901, Beach moved with her family to Paris when her father was appointed assistant minister of the American Church in Paris. She lived in Princeton, N.J., for a time when her father was a minister there.

She then lived in Spain and worked for the Red Cross’ Balkan Commission of the Red Cross. As a volunteer in World War I, she did arduous farm work in Touraine, France.

But Paris had captured Beach’s heart. “Nothing  compared to Paris,” Beach thought on her return to the City of Light, “not knocking on doors with Cyprian and Holly and Mother for the National Woman’s Party in New York; not her first longed-for kiss with her classmate Gemma Bradford; not winning the praise of her favorite teachers.”

If you like novels that make your heart pound with tension every nano-sec, “The Paris Bookseller” may not be the book for you. There are no severed heads. Gertrude Stein takes a few digs at Beach. There’s some snark. Monnier and Beach privately refer to Joyce as the “crooked Jesus” because he can be so annoying. But no knives are taken out.

Yet, “The Paris Bookseller” in its cozy, elegant way has more than its share of drama. It feels relatable to today – when increasing numbers of books are being banned.

Because being gay has been decriminalized in France since the French Revolution, LGBTQ people could live openly in post World War I Paris.

Yet there was a backlash against this freedom.

“Ulysses” was banned because it was thought to be obscene. Against this backdrop, a century ago, on Feb. 2, 1922, Beach published “Ulysses.”

Maher deftly engulfs us in the exaltation, joy, pain, and financial difficulties that Beach endured in dealing with Joyce and publishing his masterpiece.

If you love Paris, cafes, books, difficult geniuses, sexual freedom and censorship battles, you’ll adore “The Paris Bookseller.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Books

New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular