I have watched every episode of the show Parks and Recreation, many of them twice. And yet I never remembered Leslie Knope talking about Galentine’s Day. What is Galentine’s Day? Well, as Leslie says, it’s ladies celebrating ladies. A day, right before Valentine’s Day, when you recognize those special female friends, or “gals,” in your life. The friends who have supported you through thick and thin.
Coincidentally, I’m seeing a friend tonight. A friend I admire and a friend who is dear. A friend who has helped me along my writer’s journey and even helped me venture out into related ventures. We’re meeting up for drinks before attending a celebration of a local Seattle writer who, sadly, passed away this last December.
Seattle Author and Teacher Waverly Fitzgerald
Waverly Fitzgerald wrote historical fiction, mysteries, nonfiction, and more. She was a pillar in the Seattle literary community, having taught at Hugo House, the Hedgebrook retreat, and various conferences. Though I didn’t know her, I’d attended Sisters in Crime meetings, a writer’s organization she volunteered for. I always admired that she wrote about nature and was an advocate for the environment. Especially urban ones. But in December, she unfortunately died at the too-early age of 68 from illness. A huge loss to the Seattle writing community.
So when my friend asked if I wanted to meet up before attending a celebration of her life, I eagerly said yes. That the date coincides with Galentine’s Day makes it even better. Though the giving spirit of Waverly Fitzgerald is gone, I think she’d approve of two friends celebrating Galentine’s Day by attending a book reading in her honor.
Paris in the Dark struck me as the quintessential literary thriller. It has both fine prose and an intriguing plot, a novel that reminded me of Ken Follett’s earliest work, combining the quiet narration of Alan Furst and gradual tightening suspense of John LeCarré. This is the fourth in Robert Olen Butler’s series of spy novels, putting Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb square in the middle of World War I in Paris. An American journalist by day, Cobb poses as a German-American one by night as he steadily uncovers secrets of the war strategy while embedding himself with military ambulance drivers. It’s an atmospheric story that doesn’t disappoint.
I’ve only read Robert Olen Butler’s more literary work so discovering this book was a nice surprise. He certainly knows this era of history and military machinations though he deftly weaves in details so that the effect is a seamless narration by a character who could have certainly existed in this era. There was no superficial or rushed research here.
Written by a Man for Male Readers?
Overall, the narrative sports a masculine tone: logical, chilly, distant from emotion. We get a lot of Cobb’s reportage of the what and where, even his interior thoughts, but we don’t get a lot of feelings. Cobb’s voice is on the removed side. And I imagine that might disappoint some. Still, I liked Cobb and wanted to see him succeed. He wasn’t a jerk or an antihero, just a stoic character who carries out his spy duties with understated dignity.
What I also appreciated was Olen Butler’s way of deepening characters by showing their humanity. He subtly weaves in their finer qualities and dark flaws. No character is too one-sided as they can sometimes be in thrillers. And the plot is not too straightforward either. As the book progresses, Cobb moves closer, bit by bit, to his target of a German bomber, but as he does the plot thickens and twists. Things are not as simple as they first seem. That the story ends in a thrilling climax makes it an all-the-more satisfying read.
In the end, I recommend Paris in the Dark for readers who like novels set during the first World War and don’t mind a quieter, more discreetly intriguing story.
Tracy Chevalier has published a book about apple trees and I’m jealous. I saw it a few weeks ago in my local, independent bookstore, Third Place Books. (I know I’m a bit late in noticing.) Multiple copies were nested in a large endcap display, sporting images of red apples, in all of its bulky, cardboard glory. The title is At the Edge of the Orchard. Wow, I thought. This is about a man growing apple trees. My book is about a man growing apple trees. Oh my God, Tracy Chevalier has thought up my idea. She’s written my story. Tracy Chevalier has written and published a book about apple trees before I have. And she’s published it because, unlike me, she has an awesome contract, several published books, and a glowing reputation! Ack, I’ll never have a chance to share my story!
Then I came back down to Earth.
I am not Tracy Chevalier. She is not I. I do admire her though. Her use of language constantly blows my mind. It’s insightful, economical. Her plots are thoughtful. Her knowledge of history, immense. And how she has used these tools again and again to create unique books that only she can write impresses me.
A Different Perspective
After my feet were firmly planted back on the bookstore carpet, I thought, Well, that’s a positive. Anyone bringing the natural world to the reading masses is good. Anyone sharing a passion for apple trees is doing us plant nerds a favor. I don’t have a shot in heck of landing Tracy Chevalier’s agent, but I left the bookstore, knowing that agents I do pitch will be more familiar with stories about trees. It legitimized what I think and do.
Now, as I read At the Edge of the Orchard, I smile. Her book is historical fiction for one, set in the 1800s and deftly done, while mine takes place in contemporary Paris and launches from a speculative question. Her story is about family, the frontier, America, the hardship of survival. Mine, to some degree, is also about family but my protagonist dominates the story. Her characters are survivors of early America, mine are multicultural, urban professionals. What we do share is the language of apple trees and reality of growing them. We share the idea of plant exploration, seed collection, the business of propagation. But ultimately, these are only pieces we share, not entire stories.
So, after a blip of jealousy, I feel excited. If and when Harvesting the Sky is published, I’ll share another, more important piece with Chevalier, that of the published realm. What a thrill it would be.