Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Mini Reviews: This Side of the Sky, Passing Love & Paris Noire

This Side of the Sky by Elyse Singleton 2002     
Bluehen Books/Penguin

IQ "Old people used to say there comes a time when you remember fifty, sixty years ago as if it were last week, but damn if you can remember last week at all. They were right. Every generation thinks their time is the time and talks about the resent as if it's some stable territory they can occupy indefinitely. Yet when we say now, by the time we get to the w sound, the n is in the past."  Lilian, pg. 8

Lilian Mayfield and Myraleen Chadham grew up in Nadir, Mississippi and they've been friends since they were babies. Nadir soon grows too stifling for both of them, Lilian wants a great education which she can't receive in the segregated South and Myraleen wants an adventure. Circumstances soon arrive that make it prudent for them to leave town and they travel about from Philadelphia to joining the Army and serving in England and then settling down in post WWII Paris for awhile. They struggle financially, learn about love and suffer through some trying times and tough losses, but they always, always, have each other.

  This book took sooo long to get started. I was hoping the girls would run away soon but it felt like it took them forever to decide to leave Mississippi and even then it wasn't really of their own free will. I also felt that parts of the story were implausible and while I was happy that some things occured, other events happened that seemed too coincidental so overall I'm going to say the book could have been more realistic to life. Furthermore I would have liked to get the perspective of August or some other guy to balance out the trio of Lilian, Myraleen and Kellner (a German POW).

 I loved the character of Myraleen, she's a spitfire uttering statements like "once I hate a bastard, I hate him forever. I guess I'm just loyal that way" (pg. 68), who wouldn't love a character like that? I also really liked Lilian, her quiet strength spoke volumes louder than Myraleen's tough dialogue. They have a beautiful friendship from the very beginning and the core of the book, the best part-next to the characters of the cities they pass through-is their enduring friendship that goes through some bumps but always heals. I also loved Mudear, Lilian's mother. Tough as nails but super sweet as well and even though she didn't finish her high school education she's still whip-smart. It's funny, one exchange between Mudear and Lilian stands out for me because it holds truths that still apply today. "Mudear read aloud anything she saw about colored people. 'See there', she'd say. 'Negro Holds Up Store. That's why we can't get anywhere. We don't know how to act.;
'But, Mudear,' I said. 'plenty of white people stick up stores, rob banks. And you don't see a headline saying 'White Man Robs Bank'.
'Got a point. [...] See, that's why I sent you to school, so you could think. Not too many folks can think. A lot can only talk. Better if it was the other way around" (pg. 81).

 The historical details were intriguing as well, especially learning about German POWs. I didn't know German POWs were lent out to farms in America and I didn't know how bad the Russians treated them. This book provided a more humane look and reminds readers not all Germans were Nazi, something that should strike people as obvious and yet it still bears repeating.

  This Side of the Sky is not overpowered by the strong personalities of the places Myraleen and Lilian visit, instead the dominant aspect is the friendship of the girls. They have different dreams but they also want the best for each other and are willing to sacrifice themselves for the other to ge a chance at her dreams, at her own sense of happiness. An attitude like that can only end in good things. The historical details about the treatment of German POWs and the discrimination Black women faced in America and while serving their country in the UK (of course the discrimination was from our own Army, not the English people) during WWII are vividly portrayed. The book is very thourgh in all its description, no detail is too small to be touched upon and while I didn't appreciate that quality in the beginning of the book, my patience paid off.

PS Another favorite quote that lightly touches on Paris aging too "Paris is changing. Pavement replaced cobblestones after students used them to pelt police in the '60s riots. McDonald's arrived in the '70s. Right-wing machinations and Third World immigration have strained the racial climate. Yet the core city is much the same. It's a comfort to grow old in a place that's so much older ,where even the light posts appear to understand. It must be so hard to age in America. A city block can be unrecognizable from one decade to the next, because the cheap plaster and plastic keep getting replaced by new cheap plastic and plaster." pg. 323. Food for thought, I'm going to retire somewhere like the Paris she describes, it may even be Paris!

Passing Love by Jacqueline E. Luckett 2012
Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group

IQ "But I will tell you this-adventure is only a word. Don't be so fixed on findng, live and in that the adventure will come." Ruby, pg. 296

Nicole-Marie Roxane Handy has a serious case of Francophilia but until the death of her dearest friend she hadn't had the courage to visit Paris on her own. The death of her beloved friend kicks her butt into gear and she heads to Paris, leaving behind her Alzheimers-ridden father, her mother who is now more of a caretaker than a wife, and the marriage proposal from a man who is married. While exploring Paris Nicole finds an old photo of her father, he never spoke about his time studying in Paris and he doesn't remember it anymore but the photo is inscribed to a beautiful young woman who is not Nicole's mother. Nicole grows determined to discover the identity of this young woman and her connection to Nicole's father.

   We learn that the young woman is Ruby and she alternates chapters with Nicole. Ruby lived in Paris in the 1950s and my-oh-my it was a glorious time. Jazz clubs were beginning to open and there was a solid community of Black Americans. Towards the end the book does drag a bit. But it's ok because I wasn't ready to leave Paris just yet anyway. It does start off slowly but again I was content to meander through Paris with Nicole, but I did get bored with all the Mississippi  parts (that's where Ruby was from. I feel like its always the same family issues with books set during the 1920s-40s about teenaged girls in small towns, they wanna go off and explore but their super-protective mothers stifle them until they runaway. Eh-yawn). Also while I loved Arnett, I didn't understand his relationship with Ruby. The author started off seeming like one way and then all of a sudden Ruby & Arnett were pledging eternal devotion to each other, it came out of the blue since I was convinced he was going to drop her any minute.

 I liked Ruby, I may be one of the few people who actually liked her. I didn't mind that she was selfish and at times downright unlikable, she had spirit and as Nicole observes "a flash of that young, willful woman who dared to change her destiny. Reality hadn't met Ruby's expectations; she took what she could and stayed with it" (pg. 286). I do not love Ruby due to her current lifestyle but I respect her attitude towards life and I admire her resilience, she was devoted to Paris and everything French. She learned the language and the mannerisms, she learned about the entire culture and that must have been very hard to do living on a shoestring budget and constantly having to work. Plus Ruby knew her flaws. She didn't try to change them but she didn't try to conceal them either, in her old age she is comfortable with who she is and she makes very few apologies. Ruby is quite a character and I would love to meet her. Her advice she gives that I included as my Incredible Quote is excellent and something that makes complete sense but I feel like many people don't know that little bit of wisdom. It's one of my favorite book quotes, hands down. Living life is an adventure, no need to go search one out (that's ok too but people shouldn't feel like failures if they haven't had some grand adventure as long as they still took risks). Nicole didn't have as much of a lasting impression on me as Ruby did but I didn't dislike Nicole. I found her a bit boring at first simply because I never understand why people are afraid to travel but I grew fond of her too. I thought it was a good choice for the author to make Nicole 56 and show that it's never too late to have romantic travel flings (or serious relationships ;) The details about Black people in Paris and life in Paris in general during the 1950s are exquisite.

  Passing Love features lovely romances with surprising twists and adds a fresh spin to the classic tale of discovering one's past. It becomes immediately clear that this is not the average coming-of-age-by-discovering-family-secrets story simply based on Nicole's age and the way she goes about her search. I loved the title, its deceptively simple. As the story develops so too does the title, taking on many different meanings. I firmly intend on buying this book as my own reminder to visit Paris, when I do I intend on visiting all the places mentioned, exploring Black Paris. A new favorite.

Paris Noire by Francine Thomas Howard 2009                       Amazon Encore

IQ "She lapsed into the patois that was Martinique because it allowed her to relax into herself. She could speak proper French if she took a mind to the task. It wasn't even difficult. After all, it was De Gaulle's French she spoke every time she left her apartment and strolled the winding streets of Montmarte. Even General LeClerc could speak no better French than she when she taught her sixth grade class. Not that those ruffians from Morocco, Senegal and Algiers would know the difference anyway. She sighed. Who was she to think such thoughts? Wasn't she born and bred in Martinique, herself?" Marie Therese pg. 2

It's the liberation of Paris! The year is 1944 and Marie-Therese Brillard and her children Collette and Christophe are swept up in its exciting aftermath. They each find romance but with very different people. Colette with a white Frenchman, Christophe with the married wife of a Free French fighter and Marie Therese with Monsieur Lieutenant, a Black American soldier. These romances will not all end in happily ever-after....

I chose that little paragraph as the Incredible Quote because its one of my favorite parts (obviously) because it provides some insight into the time period and Marie Therese's frame of mind without being direct. But it also illustrates a characteristic of this novel that I detested and that is "oversharing". The reader already knows based on the first sentence in that paragraph that Marie Therese has some connection to Martinique. There could have been a better way to make it clear that she was born and raised there then by having the speaker REMIND herself where she grew up. Something as simple as "Who was she to think such thoughts, she an immigrant herself?" And then obviously the reader would think 'huh since she speaks in the patois of MARTINIQUE than that's where she must be from'. Thus the awkward sentence that ends the paragraph in the IQ has been avoided. Sadly that happens a lot throughout this book, characters practically hurt themselves trying to show off their knowledge about WWII and the events occurring in their country. The problem is, they repeat things to other characters that they should have already known. I get extremely annoyed when authors use characters as history teachers, i.e. they spout off facts or ask dumb questions that HISTORICALLY they would have already known the answer to. Here's an example, "Collette. Maman. The sentries. The ones that always march by the boulangerie at least twice a night to make sure we're all inside the bakery and not sneaking out to help the Resistance. They...." (pg. 6). Why not just send at "The sentries"? Because Marie-Therese and Collette should already know what Christophe is talking about, the author should be able to find another way to explain what German sentries do in Paris than just carelessly insert it in Christophe's dialogue. 'Oversharing' (as I call it) like this happens throughout the duration of the book. Another issue I had with this book is Collette. I'm not sure why the author even included her. If you read the back cover. you would think the story is told in alternating points of view or that at least Collette gets some story time. Nope. She's simply a vehicle for the mother to wax on and on about the dangers of dating outside the race. BUT WE LEARN NOTHING ABOUT COLLETTE. This infuriated me because she was mentioned all the time but I finished this book unable to even tell you the name of her Frenchman. It would have been nice catch a glimpse of their romance. Especially since it was never clear to me if they would have faced prejudice, my guess is no but that's based on other books I've read about the French treatment of Black people (see above reviews) I wouldn't be able to back that guess up based on only reading this book.

 Even though the book did a terrible job of presenting historical information, I loved the scenes at Glovia Johnson's house. She's a beautiful, wealthy, glamours, seductive Black American woman living in France and she hosts salons at her homes, both Blacks and whites visit her legendary salons. They seemed like a lot of fun and Glovia Johnson was my favorite character because she was at least interesting. The rest of the characters were spineless, except for Marie-Therese who had some backbone but was drab. Glovia Johnson literally plays the field, as in she bed with German soldiers and influential French people depending on whose in power in order to keep up her luxe lifestyle. She has little shame but that's ok because she's very sweet and clever. I do not want to just complain about the IQ, I also chose it because it provides a glimpse at how people viewed Black immigrants which was a perspective I found fascinating since it is rarely discussed. Immigrants from the Caribbean looked down on Black Africans as did white French, but the white Frenchmen(and women) loved Black Americans. "Marie Therese struggled to hide her nervousness. Her French had to be correct even though this American spoke with the most atrocious accent. That is, when the chanteuse bothered to speak French at all. Still, she was one of them, and all Paris loved that accent coming out of the mouths of America's black emigres. If only it were so for the Africans and West Indians" (pg. 11), sentences such as those made me appreciate the book a little bit more.

 Paris Noire does a service to the world of historical fiction (and books as a whole) because it talks about a time period that most people are very familiar with but offers a perspective that has not been explored. The lives of Black people in France before, during and after WWI all the way to the 1950s has always intrigued me since they faced so little discrimination. But this book points out that French love for Black people only extended to Americans. The book was very disappointing but I had high hopes for this book and that was part of the problem. Perhaps if my hopes had not been so high I would have liked it better as fluffy-tragic romance novel. Instead I expected some intense, lightly romantic, in-depth historical fiction. The fact that the character of Collette was completely ignored bothered me immensely as did the tendency of the author to have her characters speak awkward dialogue simply to provide historical information. I wish it had been about Glovia Johnson instead. It was just ok.

Disclosure: Bought