Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

Calidris Reads: Less

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Less

Andrew Sean Greer

Read for: A quick and pleasant break from a round of historic novels I’d been ploughing through.

First sentence: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

A while back, I wrote about books that found me on my travels. As a perfect example of this, picture me and my stalwart companion noshing down at a trendy café during a recent trip to Lynnwood, Washington. One wall of the restaurant was covered with shelves and a couple of those shelves housed books, the kind of random mix of used volumes that usually signals a take one/leave one collection. I wasn’t really looking for anything, but as I gazed idly from my table, one book caught my eye.

Only the spine was visible, but it called to me from across the room, seducing me with its soft, retro-turquoise colour and enormous letters L-E-S-S.

Look at me, it whispered. I am beautiful. I am mysterious. I am intriguing. You will love me.

Resistance is futile. Drawn to the shelf like a puppet on a string, I pull down the book. Am I influenced by cover, celebrity endorsements, awards won? Yes (a clearly comical drawing of a man falling through the air while scribbling on paper), yes (Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant, whose work I admire, says she recommends it), and yes (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Wow.).

Good comic novels are hard to find and this one is about a writer who goes travelling. Too perfect, eh? Picaresque is the word that springs to mind (defined by Wikipedia as “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road.”) There are brief but evocative descriptions of the places Arthur Less visits, including Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Italy, Morocco, India, and Japan, as well as accompanying transport: airports, airplanes, buses, and camels.

It struck me mid-way through the book that this might be the first book I’ve read about a gay main character where that is not the central feature of the book. Certainly, Less is gay and has homosexual romantic/sexual adventures throughout, but that’s just one facet of his character among many. In other words, he is a character who is a writer and a traveller and a person turning 50 and a man who believes himself fluent in German when he is not, who also happens to be gay. At least that’s the way I see him. I’d be curious to know what a gay reader would say.

There wasn’t anything about this book I didn’t like. Less the character grows on you: the more you get to know him, the more you like him. His foibles become endearing rather than pompous. I enjoyed the travel tales and I found the writing both clever and engaging.

A good read, whether you’re on a journey or in your own comfy chair at home.

5 knots: Highly recommended (I’m sure the Pulitzer Committee is relieved to know that I agree with their decision.)