‘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



“The Paris Wife” Renews Interest in Literary Heavy Hitters

DetailsIf you haven’t yet heard of Paula McLain’s new novel The Paris Wife then it’s time to tune in. The Paris Wife “brilliantly captures the voice and heart of Hadley Hemingway as she struggles with her roles as a woman – wife, lover, muse, friend, and mother – and tries to find her place in the intoxicating and tumultuous world of Paris in the twenties.”*

And I can vouch. McLain does indeed capture the voice of Ernest Hemingway’s wife, or most certainly a voice of the times. McLain’s language and tone easily transport to a bohemian Paris swirling with artists and poets both over and on the cusp of discovery.

Cover ImageReading one good thing often leads to another, and the joys of connecting the never-ending literary dots is a pursuit of pleasure for the avid reader. The Paris Wife is a testament to this fact and is certain to spark interest in the diverse works that germinated in 1920’s Paris and continue to flourish today.

McLain’s book reintroduces some big-time literary players. Having only recently finished The Paris Wife,  I’ve already sought out Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as well as the works of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound among others. Also, if you are looking for an historical follow-up piece for McLain’s work you might try Americans in Paris by Charles Glass, a deeply researched and highly detailed non-fiction work focusing on American expats living in Paris.

The Paris Wife site is a beauty, so even if you don’t care to read the book you should at least check out the photos of both the Hemingways and the landmarks of their life together. Also, I hate to veer away from solid sources, however, I did get snagged by Paula McLain’s bio spot on amazon, and her personal history is worth the link over. Very intriguing.

Paula McLain received her MFA in poetry from University of Michigan and has published two collections of poetry, a memoir and an earlier novel titled  A Ticket to Ride. The Paris Wife was released just a few weeks ago.

McLain will add her name to an impressive list of authors who have appeared as part of the National Writers Series of Traverse City and will offer a talk and signing at the City Opera House on Thursday, April 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm. More from NLR on this later…

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

*Information taken from the official site of “The Paris Wife”

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Armchair Travel – Destination Paris

Again, work calls so here’s another brief post for your perusal…

Looking for a little Paris without the hassle and expense? Try Gail Vida Hamburg’s HuffPost article Paris on the Brain for a bit of armchair travel. Coincidentally, it was just yesterday that I started Americans in Paris by Charles Glass. This also got me thinking about books I’ve loved that were written on Parisian tableau.

Topping my list, though on a much less serious note than that of Mr. Glass, has to be the work of expat Peter Mayle. While I haven’t read all of his titles, I can confidently steer you toward ‘A Year in Provence’ for a light and charming read. Also, you might recall The New Yorker contributer Adam Gopnik for his witty commentary on French life in the book Paris to the Moon. Either way, you’ll get  good flavor and feel from those who have made Paris their home and written to tell the tale. There’s always great humor in the cultural snafu.

Feel free to weigh in on French titles and perhaps we can compile our own list of les livres superbe, non?

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer