Monday, January 10, 2022

The Paris Bookseller

The Paris Bookseller
  The Paris Bookseller
Author:  Kerri Maher
Publication Information:  Berkeley. 2022. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0593102185 / 978-0593102183

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was hard not to feel that Paris was the place."

Favorite Quote:  "Not every star is like the étoile polar, chérie. Some are more elusive, more subtle. But they are no less brilliant, no less important."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The store Shakespeare and Company is a bucket list destination for this reader even though the store in existence now is not the store originally established by Sylvia Beach. I relish the opportunity to read a fictional account of the store's history history and the history of its intriguing founder.

February 2, 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Ulysses by James Joyce - the most impactful legacy of Sylvia Beach. The novel was first published in installments as a serial. In the United States, it was deemed immoral and, by some, pornographic. No publisher on either side of the ocean would take on the project until Sylvia Beach. She and many others deemed it art. Her undertaking to publish it altered the world of literature.

This book is the story of Sylvia Beach, of Shakespeare and Company, and of the publishing of Ulysses. It does not cover Sylvia's entire life, but rather the time from 1917 until 1937, the period relevant to these events. 

Much as I find the history intriguing, I find myself not the reader for this particular book. Based on the content of Ulysses and based on Sylvia Beach's relationships at this time, this book becomes graphic at times, and that is just not for me. Much of the history relevant to this story is that of acceptance of sexuality and the differences in that acceptance amongst individuals and across continents between Europe and the United States. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to read some of the same conversations occurring today. However, I still do not need physical descriptions in a book to reach understanding.

The telling of this book is also very much like a history. As the author's note points out, "... I chose to write the novel in the third person because I wanted readers to see things that Sylvia might not." This narrative approach lends itself to that history book feel. Yet, many nonfiction sources exist for this history. I love historical fiction to point me to history, but I still want the emotional, fictional story built around the characters to be the focal point. Too much in the direction of history takes away from the emotional connection to the story.

As a broader third person history, the book also expands well beyond Sylvia's story. There are a lot of names in this book. Some I know. Some I feel I should know. Some I just don't. Many are historical figures, but some are pure fiction as the author's note distinguishes. With this broad number of characters, I find myself occasionally lost amongst the characters. When a name is first mentioned, I am unsure of how closely to pay attention as I do not know who will appear again and what relevance they may have to the story. It is a challenge, and not one I successfully meet through the entirety of the book.

Although I am not the reader for this book, I so appreciate the introduction to this history. I honor the book and the author in words from the book itself. "And I feel nothing but gratitude for the writers who make the sentences. Sentences have changed my life." Thank you.

About the Book

(from the author's website)

Discover the dramatic story of how a humble bookseller fought against incredible odds to bring one of the most important books of the 20th century to the world in this new novel from the author of The Girl in the White Gloves.

When bookish young American Sylvia Beach opens Shakespeare and Company on a quiet street in Paris in 1919, she has no idea that she and her new bookstore will change the course of literature itself.

Shakespeare and Company is more than a bookstore and lending library: Many of the most prominent writers of the Lost Generation, like Ernest Hemingway, consider it a second home. It’s where some of the most important literary friendships of the twentieth century are forged—none more so than the one between Irish writer James Joyce and Sylvia herself. When Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses is banned, Beach takes a massive risk and publishes it under the auspices of Shakespeare and Company.

But the success and notoriety of publishing the most infamous and influential book of the century comes with steep costs. The future of her beloved store itself is threatened when Ulysses’ success brings other publishers to woo Joyce away. Her most cherished relationships are put to the test as Paris is plunged deeper into the Depression and many expatriate friends return to America. As she faces painful personal and financial crises, Sylvia—a woman who has made it her mission to honor the life-changing impact of books—must decide what Shakespeare and Company truly means to her.

About the Author

Kerri Maher holds an MFA from Columbia University. She was a writing professor but now writes full-time. She lives in a Boston, Massachusetts suburb with with her daughter and dog. She is the author of The Girl in White Gloves, The Kennedy Debutante, and, under the name Kerri Majors, This Is Not a Writing Manual: Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World.


From THE PARIS BOOKSELLER published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Kerri Maher.

Sitting at her little desk in the Palais, Sylvia kept catching the scent of dust and lavender that reminded her of A. Monnier—the shop and the woman, both—and every time she buried her nose in her sleeves to find the source of it, she found it was always elusive.

She couldn't help thinking that this distraction was just one more sign she was not destined to be a writer, despite the fact that after all the reading she'd done in her life, everyone around her, from her parents and sisters to her oldest friend, Carlotta Welles, just assumed she would be one.

"There's a Walt Whitman in you," her father told her every time she brought home another high mark on a school essay. "I just know it."

But essays were not poems, or novels. When she tried her hand at verse or a story, it came out all wrong. She adored Whitman. To try to be anything remotely like him—or Kate Chopin or any of the Brontë sisters, for that matter—almost seemed an insult. It didn't help that as she grew older, she began to prefer the writers she saw successfully continuing Whitman's legacy, singing so startlingly of themselves and the world that she would sometimes complete one of their works and lie awake half the night wondering, How do they do it? How do they reach inside me, put their fist around my very soul, and rattle it in its cage? It had been like that with Chopin's The Awakening especially, and also with James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Oh god, she felt a roiling stew of lust and admiration and jealousy thinking of both those novels. The exquisite honesty with which they wrote about bodies and their cravings, and the guilt and consequences of those cravings, using words strung into unsettling sentences that embodied the very nature of the character's inner turmoil, made Sylvia sweat in her sheets.

Could she ever write so bravely, knowing her minister father, whom she loved dearly, would read every word? It was one thing for him to quietly accept her spinsterhood, and perhaps even her discreet sapphism—for he'd never encouraged her to marry and he'd never questioned the friendships she'd had with women, which after all had run the gamut between entirely platonic and, rarely, heart-wrenchingly intimate—but it would be quite another thing for her to write about her desires with the kind of honesty she admired in the new writing she was starting to see in the more progressive journals.

Could she write about her own deepest longings with abandon, without abandoning herself? Could she help fill the pages of her favorite journal, The Little Review, which its editor Margaret Anderson had boldly left entirely blank in 1916, publishing twenty-odd white pages with only an editorial saying that she was no longer willing to publish good enough writing; everything she published had to be true art. Art that would remake the world. And Sylvia believed with all her heart that this was the purpose of art—to be new, to make change, to alter minds.

She recalled her mother's reply to her father's suggestion about Whitman: "Or maybe she'll be the next Elizabeth Cady Stanton." Why did her parents have to pick such big shoes for her to fill?

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