• Friday, October 27th, 2017

Nina George was born in 1973 in Bielefeld, Germany. In 1991 she left her studies before finishing high school and worked in catering before becoming a freelance journalist, a columnist in magazines and a managing editor for a wide range of publications.

Nina George is a prolific writer; she has published novels, mysteries and non-fiction as well as many short stories. Her work consists of books written under different names: Nina George, Anne West and Jean Bagnol. In 2012 and 2013 she won the Friedrich Glauser prize. The Little Paris Bookshop made its author famous when it became a best-seller. It was first published in German in 2013, in English in 2015 and has been translated into several other languages. In May 2015 Nina George was elected to the board of German Pen and is now an official adviser for the topic author’s rights.

Nina George and her husband, the writer, Jens Johannes Kramer, live between Hamburg and their cottage in Concarneau in the Finistère department of Brittany in north-west France.

The protagonist of The Little Paris Bookshop, Jean Perdu, is a book lover. He is a “peculiar” fifty-year-old bookseller, whose bookshop is inside a barge, moored on the river Seine in Paris, which he named “Literary Apothecary”.

Perdu believes in the power of reading to cure the ills of the spirit and that it is “the only remedy for countless, undefined afflictions of the soul”. He always finds the appropriate book for each of his clients according to their needs and their moods. He has books “about growing old, about contracting an incurable disease, about dying slowly, quickly, alone somewhere on the floor of a hospital ward”.

Perdu admits to one of his clients that he would “rather write an encyclopedia about common emotions; from A for Anxiety through to Z for Zealous”. Nevertheless, the “literary pharmacist who writes prescriptions for the lovesick” is helpless when facing his own heartbroken, inconsolable problem.

Manon from Provence, Jean’s love of his life, parted from him twenty-one years previously, leaving him a farewell letter while he was asleep that Jean never had the courage to open. Since then he has been unable to keep his liveliness from decelerating. However, his destiny shifts the day Catherine, the forsaken new neighbour in his building, whose husband left for a younger woman and to whom Perdu feels attracted, hands him Manon’s unopened letter and encourages him to open it.

Finally, upon reading the twenty-one-year-old letter, Perdu uncovers Manon’s terrible secret, which will fill him with intense sorrow and self-reproach and will trigger his quest for self-discovery as well as self-healing. He realises that he has to undergo a series of actions before making a new beginning.

He decides to travel to Provence on his barge with his two lodger cats, Lindgren and Kafka, leaving Paris, his customers and Catherine behind. As the barge is about to depart, an acquaintance, the young, acclaimed author, Max Jordan, jumps onto the barge to travel with Perdu. Jordan wants to escape the pressures of fame and publicity caused by his first successful novel. During his voyage, Perdu takes a forsaken, eccentric, Italian cook, Salvatore Cuneo on board to save him from his undesirable chasers.

While sailing to the south of France, Perdu and Jordan pass by rivers and canals and several locks, at the same time as having entertaining, stimulating conversations on various subjects. They visit charming places, they come across and meet interesting people, while savouring delicious local food. On their way they pass places like Saint-Mammés, Montargis, Briare, the Saône and the Loire, passing Chalon-sur-Saone, arriving in the book town of Cuisery going all the way to Bonnieux, the birthplace of Perdu’s beloved Manon and continuing to Lourmarin, Aix en Provence, Sanary-sur-Mer where Perdu decides to stay.

Perdu revisits his past and nurses the guilt he feels over Manon’s long-unopened letter, the contents of which implored one last visit before her death at the hands of cancer. He grieves and goes through periods of doubt before making peace with himself and adapting to a new life without Manon, but with his new love, Catherine.

The Little Paris Bookshop has multiple themes: the magical effect of books, the wallowing in the food of the mind and spirit as well as the tasty food for the pleasure of the body. There is also a genuine friendship, regrets over missed opportunities, mourning over lost love and how to overcome it to make a fresh start. The description of breathtaking picturesque sceneries is an essential component in the story.

The idea of a ship loaded with books came to the author when she was sailing to New York on the ocean liner, Queen Mary II, which has the world’s most extensive floating library of eight thousand books.

All the essential characters in the story are different and well depicted. Each one in their way and style is seeking love and companionship. After going through periods of readaptation, they eventually become content and at peace with themselves. As for Manon, we learn about her personality through her diary, which is interspersed between the chapters.

This story is for people who believe in the power of books and how books can be one’s best friend as well as one’s best healer and support in hard times. Although dark, touching and at times poignant, this engaging novel is a hymn to life and an ode to love. It ends on an encouragingly optimistic note, conveying that life wins and “la joie de vivre” prevails.

• Friday, September 29th, 2017
Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951. She first went to a private preparatory school before moving to Queen Anne Grammar School for Girls in York, where her parents ran a medical and surgical supplies shop. After graduating from school, she left home to study English literature at Dundee University in Scotland. Following her masters degree in 1974, she researched a postgraduate doctorate on American Literature but failed her PhD oral (viva voce) presentation. She taught at Dundee before taking several jobs throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, including working as a chambermaid in order to survive with her two daughters.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Kate Atkinson’s first novel, was published in 1995 and won the 1995 Whitbread Book Of the Year Award. It was such a big success that it has been adapted for radio, theatre and television, of which Atkinson wrote the screen-play herself. It was labelled at the time of its publication by the press as an “anti-family” novel. Nonetheless, it was a bestseller in many countries and was translated into several languages.

Kate Atkinson is a short-story writer, a playwright and a novelist. She has received several awards for her work and was awarded an MBE (Member Of The British Empire) in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. She now lives in Edinburgh in Scotland.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum begins with the brief statement of the eccentric, witty, Ruby Lennox: “I exist!”, after her conception at midnight in 1951. Ruby Lennox is born into an English middle-class family and is the youngest member of the Lennox brood. She is the main character and narrator of this family saga.

Her father, George, is a philanderer and her mother, Bunty, who is bitter and resentful about her marriage, daydreams about how her life could have been with another, better husband. The tyrannical Bunty is void of emotions save irritability.

Ruby has two sisters, the plain-looking, rebellious and melancholy, Patricia and the headstrong, manipulative, self-centred, bad-tempered, Gillian. They all live in an apartment above their parents’ pet shop in York in England.

The story that Ruby recounts with great lucidity and British black-humour, despite several tragic deaths occurring, goes briefly over the two world wars and extensively over the history of her family. She relates her mother’s unhappy, disappointing married life, her grandmother and going back as far as her 19th century great-grandmother, the beautiful, delicate, Alice who leaves her husband and young children along with the countryside life and poverty and runs off with an itinerant French photographer.

Three generations of women seeking happiness and freedom from their servile, suffocating matrimonial life. Marriages which were contracted more for convenience than for love or any kind of attraction. All the women in the novel dream of a better life. Ruby draws accurate lively images of the trials and tribulations of the dozens of her characters.

The author intertwines past and present events, going back and forth in time by adding footnotes, not necessarily in chronological order, between the chapters. An original technique of narration. She also describes the different, sometimes awkward, relationships between the characters as well as the recurrent patterns of unhappy marriages that seem to run in the family over the decades, explaining that the present demeanour of some member of the family takes its roots in the past.

After their parents’ death – father George, having had a heart attack following sex with a waitress at a family party, and mother Bunty’s demise in 1992, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Patricia and Ruby, who have been dissatisfied with their own lives and are now adults and with children of their own, decide to break their family’s recurrent, ill-fated pattern for the sake of future generations of the family.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum is a multi-layered story, not lacking sharpness nor surprises and revealing a well-kept secret towards the end, discretely hinted at in various parts of the novel.

This family saga is presented in a form of “shambolic”, fragmented accumulation of memories. Atkinson claims that her novel is not autobiographical. In one of her interviews she becomes emotional when talking about several similarities between the novel and her own childhood. She mentions her recollection of growing up the same way as her protagonist in the centre of York, above her parent’s shop.

Atkinson says: “The novel is a hymn to my relationship with the city, constructed out of history, memory and nostalgia”. As for the title of the novel, she says that after writing a few chapters, she dreamt that while she was alone, wandering and frightened in the dark in the rooms of the Castle Museum in York, “objects sprang into life”. Upon awaking, she decided “that dream was called Behind The Scenes At the Museum” and said to herself: “of course, that’s what the novel should be called”.