August Book Reviews With Chloe Blades
Paris Match by John Von Sothen (Profile Books, 2020)
American John von Sothen knew that French actress Anaïs was the woman for him because she said, bah, we can always get divorced when he asked her to marry him. How romantic is that? Now two decades on and he’s an integrated member of the 10th arrondissement with two Parisian teenagers, and has the credentials to immortalise his experience in a memoir on being an expat in France. He got a taste for French living when he was nine and strolled along a promenade in Cassis surrounded by a sea of topless women. Upon returning to America he believed he was sexually maturer than his peers, scoffing at Playboy, for example, because ‘the boy changed that summer’. He saw that sex needn’t be leered at in private; it was out there on a tiny beach in a country far away, and one day he’d live there and prosper and have all the sex he wanted. As an adult who’d just landed in France, he was immediately disappointed. “It was grey and cramped and the people weren’t as topless as I wanted them to be. I was only at the baggage claim of Charles de Gaulle Airport, but still”. This is a book packed with charm and will make you fall in love with the French (if you haven’t already) as it holds a magnifying glass to their unique customs and the farcical challenges foreigners have fitting in. Von Sothen is an erudite observer of the human species and he maintains a fine balance of self-deprecating humour and authority. A brilliant read.
The Inverts by Crystal Jeans (Borough Press, 2021)
This had me at ‘filthy and hilarious’. I read the first chapter tucked in the nooks of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, opening with “they were quiet for a while, sipping their drinks and smoking, Bart’s leg draped over Bettina’s. Two empty champagne bottles lay on top of the bedsheets, dripping out their dregs onto the purple silk,” which sparked an idyllic albeit unrealistic vision of one in Bordeaux. Bettina and Bart grew up together; they’re best-friends and are both rich, charismatic, headstrong, young, and gay. Set in the roaring Twenties, their sexualities are something society won’t accept, and they enter into a ‘lavender marriage,’ carrying on with their extra-marital indulgences behind closed doors. Ladened with promiscuity, cigarettes, champagne and sex this novel takes a surprising turn into scandal, betrayal and murder. The Inverts is a raunchy exploration of queer love that’s a funny, foul-mouthed work of entertainment made for the unoffendables.
Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann (Galley Beggar Press, 2021)
If you’re interested in an antidote to life’s woes and the world’s politics then look no further. Booker Prize-shortlisted author Lucy Ellmann corrals some of the most controversial topics, from the environment to Trump, and whips them into shape with satire, outright rudeness, and brutal honesty. In one essay titled ‘Third Rate Zeros’, Ellmann argues that now Trump, a “dumb as a rock, all talk, wacko, zero-chance lying liar, phoney, nut job, clown, fraud, con man,” is gone, we need to repair the worldwide neurological damage he’s done. She asks if we can we stop belittling him by concentrating on his farting in public (because “everyone’s entitled to an alimentary canal”) and instead on him sending immigrant children to concentration camps and losing track of their parents. There’s also an enlightening analysis of the Little Houses books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and how her family’s hardships, economic measures, and nomadism have a renewed relevance post-Covid and Brexit. It’s mighty clever. Maybe you’re thinking these are far too depressing and serious for me! But actually, like any good tragicomedy, each essay is uncomfortable yet electric with wit, and her thoughts are vitriolic and unafraid, and they explode onto the page like they’ve been held captive for years. She’s undoubtedly this years most refreshing voice.
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (New York Review of Books, 2017)
It seemed sacrilegious not to read this 1950s cult classic when in Paris. According to the New York Times, Elaine Dundy once complained that critics failed to credit her heroine’s orgasm in The Dud Avocado as an important first step toward the frank treatment of female sexuality in fiction. Clearly Elaine’s a woman ahead of her time just like her heroine, Sally Jay Gorce. Gorce is a hedonistic American actress in Paris who’s uncle is setting her straight by shipping her off to Europe and financing her days of fun-filled debauchery. She’s an alluring, vivacious woman with pink-dyed hair who wears evening gowns in the day, attracting aristocrats and actors alike who she ends up in wacky sticky situations with. Dabbling with a charming psychopath and falling for married men and ‘citizens of the world’ at cabarets, this is a woman who’s lasses-faire approach to life and contagious joie de vivre might be more valuable than actual work-worthy credentials. It’s a sharp tongued and abrasive stream of consciousness overflowing with humour who’s voice echoes that of the iconic Fran Leibowitz. Gore Vidal even said it’s 'one of the funniest books I've ever read’ and I concur. We all need a good laugh right now.