‘Paris in the Present Tense’ is a Stunner

Paris in the Present TenseAvid readers know that when time for leisure reading is limited, solid book choice is crucial. Imagine then how pleased I was to have selected Paris in the Present Tense from the shelves of my local public library. I’m drawn to books about Paris, though many end up being too weak or sappy to push through. I can assure you, however, that this is certainly not the case with author Mark Helprin’s latest work.

Paris in the Present Tense revolves around Jules Lacour, a seventy-four-year-old cellist who has seen much in his lifetime. War, love, and loss have left Lacour with a pragmatic view of his remaining years, yet determined to provide his daughter and her family with choices of freedom that he never had. Paris is their home, but as acts of racial violence escalate Jules is sharply reminded of his war-torn childhood and the carnage left in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Jules’ perceived responsibility to right the wrongs of racial hatred lead him to a moment of violence that changes the trajectory of his quiet, disciplined life in ways unimagined.

Paris in the Present Tense is a deep and beautifully written novel. Whether it was author Mark Helprin’s intention or not, the movement of this story is propelled by the character of Lacour’s cello itself. Jules’ music plays an almost mystifying role in Paris in the Present Tense, and gently carries the story through to its final crescendo. The harmonies and dissonance of Lacour’s relationships – work, love, family, and life – seem to lift from the pages, creating a mystical presence that permeates each passage regardless of setting.

And then there’s Paris. Helprin must have an intimate relationship with this magnificent city because he is able to lay it down so well. Jules takes us with him as he daily navigates the Sorbonne, the Seine, les petits cafés, and his routes through the city’s majestic gardens. “In spring the trees of Paris bloom so lightly they seem to float on the breeze,” Lacour regards. “In summer, its deep green gardens often shade into black and an orange sun revolves in the air like a crucible risen from a foundry. In winter, white silence in the long, treed allées and not a breath of wind. And in the fall bright colors and deep blue sky roll in on cool north winds.”

I loved this book. All of it. Paris in the Present Tense has a lot to offer, but as a recommendation I do feel it demands a certain age of its reader. Jules’ reflections on the passage of time and his unyielding – if not bizarre – ambitions to preserve his remaining family show a desperation that perhaps only a parent (or survivor) might understand. The book is truly beautiful, but some passages might strain the less patient reader. Where some might savor Jules’ deep thoughts on the various stages of life and love, others might get muddled down in his challenging, thicker thoughts. That said, this book definitely worked for me. I’m new to Helprin’s literary style and it hit the right note. While some passages took extra effort (and a dictionary), there is a quick, underlying pulse that keeps you engaged to the very last page.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Other Strong Parisian Reads – remember to buy from your local independent:

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The Greater Journey by David Mccullough

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle – French series if you’re looking for something lighter



Titles Dropping in December

December is upon us already. In addition to the Christmas book and gift set annuals, here are some new releases slated to appear this month…

December 1:  Mastering the Art of French Cooking Boxed Set by Julia Child

December 1: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

December 1: U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

December 1: Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson (author of Three Cups of Tea)

December 8: La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

December 14:  Witch & Wizard by James Patterson, Gabrielly Charbonnet

December 15:  Too Much Money by Dominick Dunne

*December is typically not a big “new release” month. However, here are a few of the many links to various “Holiday Gift” lists.


New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2009

Just the Right Book Full disclosure: I know nothing about this site but it looks interesting. I found it linked on the Publisher’s Weekly site.

Amazon Gift Ideas

Barnes and Noble Bestseller Holiday Gift Books

-Post by Megan Shaffer

The Shame of Literary Price Wars

It is hard in the current economic twist not to dive for the lowest prices.  With our pockets painfully aware of rising costs and the question of job stability, it seems that books wouldn’t top the list of concerns. However, being a lover of literature, the latest Predatory Price Wars have become a matter not only of concern for me, but also a matter of pride.

I was not born with a head for business. The upside of this simple fact is:  if presented with enough repetitive information, I can at least give a layman’s interpretation of certain business operations. What follows is my take on the current “Price War” in the retail market, and why it is relevant to anyone who shares a common concern and dignity in American literary culture.

It started a few weeks ago when Wal-Mart launched a price war with Amazon.com. Inc.  With their new online book site, Wal-Mart announced it would carry select new hardcover titles for under $10; a price that is truly unheard of. Unable to take this lying down, Amazon shot back with a competitive price, ultimately bringing the price to a staggering $9. Somewhere in this game, Target jumped in with similar pricing.

Shouldn’t I be happy?  Initially I thought this a dream come true, but as a knot began to form in my gut, I realized that this corporate competition was an outrageous bastardization of literary culture and a damaging hit to many fine book outlets already reeling from the recession.

Why not go with the flow? Ultimately, this corporate contest will leave me at the mercy of these sparring money-mongers. My understanding is that Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Target have projected a financial loss for themselves in order to corner the market and bring other book retailers to their knees. For Indie stores as well as big chains like Borders, this will be the end of the road. The shame of it is, once cornered, these corporations can then SLAP any price on a title because they will have no competitors.

I love independent bookstores for their enduring authenticity, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying a browse around Borders or Barnes and Noble with a hot cup of joe in my hand as well. Features, author appearances, and mere literary conversation are an integral part of the book buying experience. How embarrassing that it has come to this tagging of the titles.

Not everyone puts a price on culture. In fact, some countries enact laws to prevent it. According to The New York Times, France prohibits book retailers from pricing books below cost, thus preserving the spirit of the art while leveling the playing field.  Shouldn’t we do the same for the mere preservation of our own dwindling offline retail institutions? Who will expose us to new authors? Who will contribute to the proliferation of genre and composition?  Ultimately, who will lift the chins of burgeoning authors doomed to be held by the confines and parameters of writing for mere mass-market appeal? What a sacrifice. What a shame.

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