Ten years after Sylvia Beach had to close her legendary Paris bookshop, another American ex-patriate, George Whitman, opened Le Librairie Mistral in a tumble-down 16th-century building on the rue de la Bûcherie. When Beach passed away in 1964, he renamed his “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” in her honor. Now run by his daughter and celebrating its 65th anniversary, the place has hosted tens of thousands of writers and, since these literary guests—aka Tumbleweeds—were welcome to stay indefinitely if they did a few hours of work for the store, read a book a day, and left a note, has almost as many stories to tell. Shakespeare and Company, Paris (DAP, $34.95) tells these stories decade by decade in rich collages of photos, poems, letters, and more. A book made for browsing, this volume recounts the store’s own life and times as well as inaugurating its new English-language publishing venture, headed by Krista Halverson. A former managing editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, Halverson guided the magazine’s art direction and worked with guest designers, experience she’s put to excellent use as editor of this sumptuous album of pictures and spirited anthology of testimonials left by writers ranging from James Baldwin to Ray Bradbury, Allen Ginsberg to A.M. Homes.
The 2015 death of Nobel laureate Günter Grass deprived the world of one of its most intriguing and controversial literary minds; Grass memorably mixed myth and political reality, and especially appealed to readers intrigued by what it meant to be a German citizen during and immediately after the Nazi era. Now available in English, Grass’s final book, Of All That Ends (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28), is as apt a swan song as you might expect from so large, yet so humble, a figure as Grass. Following a string of late-life autobiographies, this book is a series of vignettes, poems, and Grass’s own pencil drawings. The pieces flow loosely from one to the next, and cycle back through a stream of lyrical images (the coffins in which he and his wife will soon lie, his beloved typewriter, the one original tooth still left in his mouth). In the end, it’s a bittersweet, melodious glimpse of Grass’s life in the twenty-first century, which ranged from watching social media from afar to lamenting Germany’s dominant stance in the EU to (as in his earlier work The Flounder) letting loose some of the most evocative writing about food you’ll find anywhere. No single volume can contain Grass’s whole, magisterial spirit, but this is a beautiful distillation.
John Aubrey (1626-1697) lived through the English Civil War and the Great Fire of London. He knew Thomas Hobbes, Christopher Wren, Edmund Halley, and Isaac Newton. He was a founding member of the Royal Society. But after his death, he was considered a gossipy eccentric. It took years for his manuscripts to be organized and edited; eventually, Brief Lives, was recognized as a landmark literary work. How do you write the life of a man who transformed biography by including unvarnished details? Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge historian and biographer of Robespierre, does it in John Aubrey, My Own Life (NYRB, $35) by letting Aubrey narrate those details. She searched his papers for autobiographical passages, annotated and arranged them chronologically. Through his own words, we learn about Aubrey’s childhood in an affluent Wiltshire family and his plunge from privilege to hardship in his twenties when his father died. Scurr lets Aubrey reveal his fascinations with science, educational theory, ancient British history, and architecture. He loved village traditions and the innovation of coffee houses. He berated himself for not capturing all he saw. Then there were the money woes, an engagement gone spectacularly wrong, reliance on friends for support, sketching ancient churches, describing (and theorizing about) standing stones, and talking, always talking, to anyone, regardless of social status. He had deep feelings for friends, and never let political and religious differences interfere. He wanted to be remembered through his words. His works could have shared the fate of the old manuscripts he saw used to line pie pans—but eventually his books appeared and his biographical approach was appreciated.