This is the fifth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.
Short commentary this time. Right there in the middle, in the shadows, is Gay Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel, which takes place in Aix-en-Provence, France, where I was extremely lucky to spend a semester abroad during my undergraduate years.* In particular, some of the plot hinges around the Celtic ruins at Entremont, which I toured with one of my classes. The book even includes a wolf attack along the Cours Mirabeau, which is hilarious and awesome when considering that my two biggest memories of the Cours Mirabeau include watching the annual student demonstration in support of teacher pay, and the time I was walking north to cross the Cours Mirabeau on a chilly November morning and in my way was a city workman spraying a high-pressure hose on the sidewalks to clean off all the grime and, because this is France, dog poop. He looked up and saw me standing there, trying to figure out how I’d get across the street without getting dog poop sprayed all over me. At once, he turned off his hose, held it up in the air, and offered me a low and most aristocratic bow. “Mademoiselle,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
As a sincere fan of Kay’s work, I actually find some of his other books to be stronger, but I hang onto this one because it unearths memories I would have otherwise dismissed of a place that’s fascinating and beautiful. It adds a delightful layer of imagination to the region’s actual history, which extends thousands of years into the past.
* I recently read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, in which she talks about how her own college experience had nothing to do with studying abroad on her parents’ dime, and everything to do with working multiple jobs so she could pay her own way. “It was all I could do not to sock her in the gut,” she writes of the college friend who had it easier. I didn’t appreciate at the time how lucky I was. For real: apologies to everybody who justifiably wanted to sock me in the gut back then.