Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Paris Library - by Janet Skeslien Charles

Numbers floated round my head like stars. 823. The numbers were the key to new life. 822. Constellations of hope. 841. In my bedroom late at night, in the morning on the way to get croissants, series after series - 810,840,890-formed in front of my eyes. They represented freedom, the future.
So begins the story of Odile Souchet who thinks in Dewey Decimal numbers. She is thrilled to get a job at the American Library in Paris in 1939 where she can put both her library degree and her ability to speak English to good use. She has always loved books and the library, a place she frequented with her aunt as a child.  

Her job becomes a lot more challenging when Nazi's occupy her beloved "city of readers". The subversive librarians (including the aptly named Miss Reeder) find ways to continue to provide books and services to their Jewish patrons, even after the library is closed to them. Nazi's also looted libraries as well as the private collection of "prominent Jewish families" Additionally, censors regularly blacked out news from the daily papers making the sharing of knowledge that much more difficult. "Fake news" in the form of rumors also shakes up the library as a "sanctuary of facts" as patrons share misinformation with each other. 

Shushing is of course a time-honored tradition in libraries (at least as far as popular culture is concerned). While I will admit to having shushed a few exceptionally loud library users (usually university administrators) I have also, ironically, been shushed myself by people trying to study in the library, just as librarian Odile was shushed when she "screamed with joy" after returning to the library after 10 days of being away and seeing her brother's girlfriend Bitsi (who was also the children's librarian). In one passage Bitsi is described as "holding an open book over her head, like it's a roof" as if she is telling "the children that books are a sanctuary".

The story oscillates between Paris during World War II and Froid, Montana in the 1980s. Virtually all of the passages I marked while reading this are in the sections that take place in France. The only exception comes very late in the book. Lily, Odile's young neighbor storms "Dad's wife took away Forever!...She said Judy Blume writes 'smut'.' Censorship is wrong!" To which Odile responds "So is throwing a fit instead of sitting down to have a conversation...You should ask Ellie what she fears." She goes on to explain that "Ellie's scared the book will put ideas in your head, scared you'll want to experiment with sex." Lily retorts "I read Out of Africa and disn't establish a coffee plantation in Kenya!" I of course agree that censorship is wrong. I also agree that having a conversation is better than throwing a fit.

Friday, September 10, 2021

My Brilliant Friend - by Elena Ferrante

This coming of age story follows best friends Elena and Lila as they grow up outside of Naples, Italy in the 1950s. The two girls are the smartest in their class at school. While Elena is provided the opportunity to continue with her formal schooling beyond grammar school, Lila realizes that she must continue her education at "the people's university" - the public library. She figures out that she can borrow a lot more books than would normally be allowed by procuring library cards for everyone in her family, and then using them only for herself. Everyone in Lila's family is later invited to the library to be honored for being such avid readers. It would appear that Lila, her brother, mother, and father have come in first, second, third, and fourth for the most books read. Elena is also invited to the recognition ceremony for coming in fifth. No one from Lila's family (including Lila) comes to the ceremony and Elena accepts the awards for all.

The first book in a four-part series. This has also be adapted for television  - currently available on HBOMax.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021