The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib*****

Anna isn’t eating, and she’s so weak that she faints from time to time. Her husband, Matthias is afraid for her; this isn’t the life they envisioned when they moved from France to the States. She is admitted to a facility for women with eating disorders, and it is that address that gives the book its title. Big thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and my deepest apologies for being so late with my feedback.

I never would have expected to want to read a novel about an anorexic protagonist. In real life, Anna would have offered me her fries and her dessert, and I would have cheerfully accepted them. She in turn would inwardly shudder, my stocky grandma body providing her with a cautionary example of what happens to those that eat such things.

When I was a sweet young thing growing up in the 1970s, there were rumors that some of the girls at school kept their figures slender by throwing up after they’d eaten; a friend and I commiserated over our own lack of self-discipline. We had scarfed down our Halloween candy and not even considered ralphing it back up in the bathroom. Now we could barely fasten our jeans, while those classmates were smaller than we were.

We thought that some girls have all the luck.

It wasn’t until the death of singer Karen Carpenter that anorexia became well known, and even then, it took us awhile to clue in on the details. Because it’s about body image, and yet it isn’t. And Zgheib does a wonderful job of educating the reader using that approachable medium, fiction.

In Paris, Anna was a dancer. When she and Matthias married, she planned to go on dancing professionally, at least until they had children. But when he was presented with a prestigious promotion that required him to relocate to the United States, they packed their things; Anna had expected to continue her career in America, but she was never chosen.

The in-patient facility where she is treated has strict, clear rules about every aspect of daily life, and most of the privileges hinge around timely consumption of the food that’s provided. Anna’s struggle is profound, and her story is moving. Because it’s about food, but not really. She has buried a trauma involving the deaths of her brother and her mother, and she’s channeled her self-hatred into this eating disorder. We catch glimpses of this as she expertly dodges questions raised in therapy. One of the most moving moments, strangely, has to do with a bagel and cream cheese. She’s supposed to eat it, and she throws a pluperfect hissy. She never eats dairy, she says. She wants the vegan option! No dice, honey. But as time moves forward and this difficulty continues, she finally reveals that actually, this might have once been her favorite food. It was so delicious, and it took her such iron self-control to forget its taste. All that work, she thinks, and now it’s ruined. And she is genuinely shattered by this.

Only one sufferer in three recovers from anorexia.

Due to a backlog of galleys, I checked out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the voice actor that reads it is perfect.

Highly recommended.

Pancakes in Paris, by Craig Carlson****

pancakesinparisThe American dream has become harder for ordinary people to attain, but Carlson is living proof that it can happen; yet some of us may need to go somewhere else to find it. In his upbeat, congenial memoir, “the pancake guy” chronicles his journey, from the kid of a wretchedly dysfunctional home—and I don’t use the term lightly—to the owner of Breakfast in America, his own restaurant franchise in France. This title was a bright spot in my reading lineup last month, and it can be a bright spot in yours too. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Is this a thing that any kid in America could have done? Not so much. Carlson has a rare blend of  intelligence, organization, and social skills; above and beyond all else, he possesses unstoppable determination, clear focus, and a work ethic that never flags for one tiny minute until he discovers he is close to working himself to death. Those lacking talent and determination may never reach the end of the rainbow as this author has done; that much is clear. But oh, what fun to share the ride with him!

Given his family’s expectations for him, or lack thereof, it’s amazing he finished high school, and his acquisition of a college education is more remarkable still. But it is his junior year at a state college in Connecticut that plants the seed that will sprout and grow into a way of life; he is invited to spend his school year in Paris. Once he’s there, the tumblers click, and he knows that he has found his people.

As Carlson’s story unspools, he debunks stereotypes believed by many Americans, and a few of them are ones I believed too until I read this memoir. Carlson delivers setting in a way much more immediate than any number of Google searches can provide, but it’s his insights regarding French culture, law, and society that make his memoir so captivating. The prose is lean and occasionally hilarious. He plucks choice, juicy vignettes from his journey all along the way, and this makes us feel as if we are riding quietly on his shoulder taking it all in as he goes.

If you’ve never been to France and don’t intend to, you can still enjoy this book. If you don’t like pancakes or any aspect of the traditional American breakfast, it doesn’t matter. Carlson is enormously entertaining, and so his story stands on its own merits. I am furthermore delighted to see that the only recipe that is inserted into his narrative is actually a joke. A small collection of actual recipes is inserted at the end, and although I never, ever, ever do this, I intend to try one of them out tonight! But even if you skip the recipe section entirely, you should read this memoir. It’s too much fun to miss. The best news of all is that it’s available for purchase right now.

Get it, and read it!

Napoleon: A Life, by Robert Andrews *****

napoleonalifeRobert Andrews has created an historical masterpiece in this massive tome, a biography of Napoleon. Thank you and thank you again to Net Galley and Viking Adult Publishers for the ARC.

Andrews is well known among historians; his scholarship and experience firmly establish him as an expert in the field of European history, especially military history and biography. The recent availability of a vast treasure-trove of primary documents made this biography possible, together with a tremendous amount of work and travel. He visited libraries all over the world and battle sites where Napoleon had been before him, before all of us. (And he set off the alarm in Napoleon’s throne three times!)

How long did this take, I wonder? By the time it was published, Andrews must have felt an overwhelming sense both of loss and of satisfaction.

As for your humble reviewer, I came to read about Napoleon, whose military career, rule, and downfall I had studied only at the shallowest level during my undergraduate years a whole long time ago, through the back door. My field is the American Civil War, but I was intrigued by the number of Civil War heroes (and others) who had studied Napoleon’s methods in detail, and referred to them when creating their own battle plans. What was it about Napoleon?

Generally, my advice to those contemplating reading a lengthy biography is to get the basics down first, but I didn’t follow my own advice here. I had the opportunity to get the ARC at the end of November, and it was now or never. I decided to plunge in, poorly prepared though I might be. When I was finished, I found I had bookmarked or made notes in over 700 places in this 926 page work. So whereas I won’t use all of my references, I can truthfully say that there is no filler, no fat. If you haven’t the patience for almost a thousand pages of Napoleon, then don’t go there, but for heaven’s sake don’t pretend that more is included here than is necessary for a thorough, scholarly, yet interesting treatment.

Having said that much, I also have to confess that I struggled somewhat with the ARC. My knowledge of European geography is pretty basic. I know where most of the countries are, what their climates are like, and for the most part, where the borders are located. When we morph into the Napoleonic era, I really, really needed maps, and that’s the price one sometimes pays for an ARC: your “map” is [map insert] noted. There will be a map; I don’t get to see it. So I gamely brought myself to my desktop for the first four Coalition Wars, and was lucky enough to find an interactive map that gave me part of what I needed to know. In some places, Andrews explained what took place so well that I could see most of the battle inside my head. But as of the fifth coalition forward, I quit trying to find my own maps when I couldn’t follow the action, and just read what was in the book.

All told, Andrews corrected some misperceptions I had developed regarding Napoleon. My own view had been that there was a heroic French Revolution, followed by what are usually termed “excesses” by the Jacobins who began the Revolution. (Today these en masse trips to the guillotine would be called atrocities.) But could the whole thing be salvaged? It seemed such a terrible waste to have a popular revolution, throw out not only a monarchy but one unusually lacking in decency toward the peasants and urban poor of France, and then have it all come tumbling down. And it also seems like a waste to have an autocrat take over. This was my perspective before reading Andrews’s biography.

Though his approach is both scholarly and balanced, Andrews offers a positive portrait of Napoleon, whom he treats with a fond, almost affectionate narrative. He points out that Napoleon kept the Bourbons off the throne for over twenty years, and it’s true that they returned in 1815 after Napoleon’s first abdication. Things got really ugly then. And he also points out that Napoleon’s career was unusually complicated. The point is well taken.

For example, who invades neighboring nations, overthrows their leaders, presumes to rewrite their constitution without consulting anyone that lives there…yet bestows upon them more civil rights than they have ever had before? And who else would insist in his terms for peace not only remuneration so that he can pay his troops and the annual benefits of military widows, but also demands that great works of art, privately owned, be turned over to him…whereupon he places them in a gallery where all visitors can enjoy them?

Mind you, the man is no Robin Hood. Far from it! He makes it clear from the beginning that he has no use for the ‘hoi polloi’, and whenever he ceases privately held property, he also sees to it that the previous owner is compensated.

The word “hubris” is often applied to Napoleon, and if not him, then who? Andrews argues that he might have been successful…if only. And there’s the rub, right? Because initially, he and his troops travel fast and hard. In the beginning, he asks nothing of them that he would not do himself. His opponents, on the other hand, are spoiled and effete. They travel with vast amounts of personal baggage and servants. They can’t move until they personally have this, that, the other. And in the end, that is the guy that Napoleon becomes.

The text is made more lively throughout with quotations of Napoleon himself, a prolific writer and a brilliant, articulate speaker.

The chapters are organized according to place, generally speaking, and this is very useful when the reader needs to go back and fact-check.

Andrews argues that Napoleon’s autocracy-as-meritocracy might have been successful if he had applied the standard to all of the dynasties he created after toppling their rulers that he applied to France. Nepotism created endless problems, and though Napoleon somehow thought that he personally might make up for the failings of his relatives, there is only so much one man can do. The many, many worthless siblings and other relatives he installed as instant royalty drained his resources and made problems that didn’t have to happen. His first wife, Josephine, was such an obsessive spender that one hates to think of the number of children under age six who might have lived had the wealth been more widely distributed.

Napoleon’s most loyal base of support was within the military, but he fought so aggressively that too many soldiers died, and the backlash was bound to come sooner or later. Yet the military base he so depended upon wanted him back again after just ten months of Bourbon reign.

Could Napoleon have been successful if he had left the Iberian peninsula alone? If he had avoided attacking Russia? Napoleon himself, upon looking back while in exile during his last years, recognizes that trying to best Britain, with its unstoppable navy, was folly; yet he certainly kept them busy for a good long while.

At one point, he reflects that if he had known he would end up defeated, he could have made different choices. He would like to be allowed to emigrate to the United States; who knows, he could have founded a state there! And here, my jaw drops as I imagine that instead of selling the Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the USA) to the USA via President Thomas Jefferson, he had decided to settle it. But being Napoleon, would it have even stopped there, I wonder? He hated Britain and had nothing against US rulers; maybe he would have been able to kick the British out of Canada instead of fruitlessly attempting to rout them from their homeland.

Suddenly I can see how Andrews has become spellbound by what might have been. He has spent a lot more time with this material than I have, and it’s starting to affect me, too!

I know that some of those who read my reviews are teachers. I don’t see this as high school material; a small portion of it could be selected for honors level seniors or community college students perhaps, but then you have huge books to buy in order to use just a portion. I don’t see even the most gifted teenager sticking it out from start to finish. Though the narrative is engaging, the definitive biography is epic .It requires patience and dedication on the part of its readers. Developmentally, most young folks in their late teens and early twenties just won’t be there yet.

But if you are in doubt, buy one copy and read it yourself, then pass it around a little bit and see how it goes. Likewise, if you are homeschooling a truly extraordinary teenager that you think would gobble this up, buy it, read it (because you can’t home school anyone using a text you have not personally read), and then if you still think it may work and your student is game, give it a try.

All told, the price you will pay for this remarkable single volume biography is nothing compared to its worth in your own library, even if only used as a reference source.