Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The dark side of Paris, by way of San Francisco

April 9, 2008

San Francisco-based mystery writer Cara Black‘s Paris-based heroine is half French, half American. It is only fitting, since Cara seems to perpetually have a foot in both cities.

Cara was just in Chicago, on tour to promote the eighth book in her acclaimed mystery series set in Paris, Murder in the Murder in the Rue de Paradis [An Aimee Leduc Investigation]. We’ve known her for years now and have attended a number of her readings, but she still manages to surprise us with at least one new story about her lifelong connection to the City of Light. This visit was no exception.

As a teenager, she fell in love with the writings of Russian born, Paris-based writer Romain Gary. She fell in love the way only a teenager can, actually writing a letter to the author in care of his publisher.

Gary wrote her back. And as any [platonically] lovestruck teenager would, she took his home return address written on the back of the envelope as a personal invitation. So at age 18, on a backpacking trip around Europe, she found herself somewhat timidly ringing his doorbell.

He answered. She blurted. He closed the door. But just as she was about to leave, the door opened again and Gary appeared with his jacket. He walked her down to his corner café, where an espresso and a cigar were already waiting for him on the bar. When the bartender glanced at Cara, Gary simply said, “She’ll have the same.” So it was this intrepid 18-year-old was introduced to Romain Gary, espresso and cigars all in the course of one afternoon in Paris.

That is the level of intimacy her novels achieve with the city. Beginning with her first, Murder in the Marais, she has concentrated on a single neighborhood or arrondissement with each book. [Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements—we Cara fans are hoping that means there are another dozen adventures to come for Aimée and her dwarf business partner René.] Cara drills deep in her research for her books. She walks the neighborhoods, talks to shop owners and concierges and eavesdrops on conversations, sometimes inserting herself into them and being led on adventures by her new friends. And yes, I’m talking about the author here, not her sleuth.

She also makes friends. In the police department, the morgue, among retired inspectors… all in an effort to get it right. And get it right she does. So much so that one of her books, Murder in the Sentier, has just been published in French! This would be akin to a French writer setting a novel in New York, for instance [as a native, not a visitor], and nailing the mood, the details, the soul of the city so completely that an American publisher would think there was an audience for it here.

The Aimée Leduc Investigation series. Cara’s protagonist runs a computer security firm. She has spiked hair [they’re set in the ’90s], a Bichon Frisé named Miles Davis and a taste for spike heels and bad boys. [Cara’s eyes always light up when she says this last part.] Although her business is kind of dry and techy, the adventures she gets drawn into are almost never business related or for paying clients—much to the chagrin of partner René. They are, however, invariably exciting.

The books each stand alone, but are best read in order. There’s an underlying story arc involving the mysterious disappearance of Aimée’s mother when she was just a girl. With each book, Aimée discovers a little more about her, but feels she knows even less. Even Cara doesn’t know how this will resolve itself.

So collect the whole set. You’ll find the complete list at Cara’s website. You can even order books through her husband Jun’s San Francisco bookstore. You’ll also find a link to her Paris blog there. No photos yet, but quick stories and links to news stories. I’ll work on her regarding photos.

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Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.

March 26, 2008

book-chair.jpg

What can I say? We’re library geeks. This stack is some of the materials Marion and I currently have checked out from the Chicago Public Library. By our standards, it’s a modest pile. Marion is a voracious reader; I’m a guy with good intentions. Inevitably, my eyes are bigger than my literary stomach, and many books return unopened. Again, what can I say?

We’ve always been library geeks. In St. Louis, librarians knew us and our children by name. We used to get invited to librarian-only parties. [To balance things out, I’d like to say here that we also used to get invited to staff-and-musician-only parties thrown by the crew of the Broadway Oyster Bar.] Daughter Claire has picked up the torch; she works in a library.

Growing up in St. Louis, I was blessed with access to an excellent library system [it was recently ranked second in the nation, in fact], and I discovered it early. Many of the city’s branch libraries were grand beaux arts structures, with ornate columns, profuse ornamentation, grand stone staircases and massive, heavy doors—especially to an eight-year-old on the skinny side. Beyond those heavy doors was a quiet sanctuary, elegant, ordered, cool in the summer and invitingly warm in the winter. And books. Mountains of them. Miles of them. All free for the taking—well, the borrowing. Even though I didn’t know the term business model back then, I wondered how they could possibly do this. Obviously, I was equally naive regarding taxes.

I only knew that they somehow did manage to do it and that, with my library card, I was in the club.

Anytime you have a great idea like this, everyone wants to take credit for it. As Wikipedia tells us, “Many claims have been made for the title of ‘first public library’ for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true ‘public library’.” In ancient Rome, Greek and Roman scrolls were available to readers in the Roman baths; but these weren’t lending libraries—scrolls couldn’t be checked out.

benjamin-franklin.jpgIn the United States, Boston lays claim to the first town library, established in 1636. But most give credit to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first lending library. You have to wonder where he found the time. One of the nation’s founding fathers, he was also a printer, an author, satirist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

For all the press Gutenberg gets for his printing press and how it brought books and knowledge to the masses, books were still very expensive, especially in America, and not readily available even to those of moderate means. In 1731, Franklin and a group of friends formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was set up as a subscription library; individuals bought shares, and the money was used to buy books. Members could then borrow books, making it possibly the first lending library. It is still in existence today, now operating as an independent, non-profit research library.

But with the Internet, do libraries still matter? Do books, for that matter? One word answer: Amazon.com. One of the most successful businesses on the whole worldwide web is a book store. And yes, the marketing of books is changing. Life for independent booksellers like our friend Jun, who runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books in San Francisco, is more challenging than ever. But drop in any book store, independent or big box chain, and you’ll find people hungry for books. You’ll find us there too. Some books you just need to own, to flip through again and again. To just take pleasure in knowing that you own it.

You don’t have to own everything, though. In this acquisitive culture, I’m not sure everyone gets that. Our good friend Laura told us of discussing books at work. When she mentioned finding something at the library, her colleagues laughed. Not derisively—just in that confused, it-would-never-occur-to-me sort of way.

But that’s the beauty of libraries. They’re a great place to kick the tires on a new author or be pleasantly surprised by something that catches your eye as you get the library crick in your neck, scanning titles sideways. There’s also almost a perverse anti-ownership pleasure in knowing that others have read this book before you, and many more will read it after you do, part shared experience, part recycling smugness.

So, yeah, we’re library geeks. And perhaps geekiest of all, on more library visits than not, I silently thank Ben Franklin.