The Girl Who Reads on the Métro
By Christine Féret-Fleury, translated from the French by Ros Schwartz. (Flatiron Books, 175 pages, $22.99.)
This quirky little novel is part fable, part romance, and wholly a love letter to books.
Juliette works in a realty office in Paris with her friend Chloe — an uninspired job that she carries out rather halfheartedly. Her real passion is books — reading them, and spinning stories about the people she sees every morning on the Métro (all of whom are also reading).
And then one morning she gets off at the wrong Métro stop and happens upon a bookstore she’s never seen before. In this dusty place, booksellers don’t sell books — they go out in the world and match books with people who need them.
The perfect job for Juliette, and way better than selling houses.
This strange calling introduces her to a host of interesting characters and opens her up to life. “All the world’s diseases — and all the remedies — were concealed between the covers of books,” Juliette thinks. “In books you found betrayal, solitude, murder, madness, rage.”
Very little of this novel makes sense and even less of it lives in the realm of the possible. It’s a fairy tale. But it’s charming to read, and its central theme — that books can change lives — is indisputable and satisfying.
The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning
By Long Litt Woon, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland. (Spiegel & Grau, 291 pages, $26.)
When Malaysian-born anthropologist Long Litt Woon’s lodestar, her beloved husband Eiolf Olsen, fell over dead in 2010, she was left shellshocked by sorrow, and largely isolated in her adopted homeland of Norway. “There was nothing but blackness,” she writes. “Grief grinds slowly: it devours all the time it needs.”
Relief from months of aching emptiness came slowly, and from a most unlikely place — Long’s growing interest in mushroom hunting, which soon became a happy obsession. She met new friends happy to wander through the Norwegian woods with her, spellbound by the hunt. As peculiar as that may sound to most people, mushroom hunters will understand immediately the peculiar joy of discovering fungi, especially rare ones, deep in the beautiful and mysterious woods. Like bird watchers and rock hounds, mushroom hunters tend to be intense hobbyists, happiest when the weather is gray and wet and they’re in their grubby glory.
For such folk, “talk of fungi crowds out everything else,” Long writes. “Trivial matters such as religion and politics take a back seat.” She also recognizes the abundance of metaphor in mycology. In nature, mushrooms are instruments of death and regeneration. In human hands, they can be culinary treasures or murder weapons. Perhaps most important of all, to hunt for mushrooms, one must go into a deep, dark forest, and then, one hopes, emerge — the most powerful metaphor of all for the passage through grief.
Long is a poetic writer who melds what at first seem to be the most disparate possible topics into a profound and beautiful memoir, and one that is not at all just for mushroom enthusiasts.