Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Beginnings: Narrow Road to the Deep North

Rose City Reader invites us to "join me every Friday to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires."

"Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have travelled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida in the August of the first year of Jyokyo among the wails of the autumn wind."

Sigh.  This so makes me want to walk in the misty mountains of Japan in the autumn wind and write my impressions in the form of haiku.  Especially since it's 104 degrees where I live right now and likely to stay that way for the next several months...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Verse

Another poem to go along with Bloodlands:  Czeslaw Milosz was a Lithuanian/Polish poet who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and, after the war, worked as a cultural attache to the (Soviet-controlled) People's Republic of Poland in Paris.  He defected to France in 1951.  

A Task
by Czeslaw Milosz

In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Just Finished: Bloodlands--Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, is, in the author's words, "a history of political mass murder."  In a region that includes eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and western Russia, which the author calls the bloodlands, the Nazi and the Soviet regimes between them murdered fourteen million people.  This number does not include deaths in battle;  these people were murdered as a result of either Soviet or Nazi government killing policies between 1933 and 1945.

The bulk of the book is taken up with outlining this history.  It's worth outlining, as separate from the battle deaths of World War II, because over the course of twelve years, "...mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region."  Snyder further contends,

Today there is widespread agreement that the mass killing of the twentieth century is of the greatest moral significance for the tweny-first.  How striking, then, that there is no history of the bloodlands. 

Stalin's plan to turn the Soviet Union into a modern industrial state in the early 1930s led to the decision to wipe out the peasants of the Ukraine and nearby regions.  When agriculture was collectivized and peasants deported to labor camps (the Gulag system), food production dropped, and grain quotas were not met.  The farming class as a whole was blamed, and all farm produce was seized, causing the death by starvation of over five million people.

In 1937 and 1938, in the Great Terror, another nearly 700,000 peasants and ethnic minorities who had survived the collectivization disaster were were blamed for it and executed by shooting. 

In 1939 the Germans and the Soviets simultaneously invaded Poland.  Between them they murdered about 200,000 Polish civilians, mainly the educated classes, in an effort to prevent organized resistance.  They also deported one million Polish citizens to the Gulag and to German labor camps, and put Polish Jews into ghettos in Poland.  Tens of thousands more died in these camps and ghettos.

In 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, intending to starve or work to death its peasant class and colonize the land with German farmers.  They were not successful in this aim, but they did starve to death several million prisoners of war and civilians.

Hitler's desire to remove all Jews from Europe evolved from plans to resettle them in Siberia or Africa, to deportations eastward, to mass executions.  Beginning with mass shootings, then using mobile gas vans, and finally dedicated gassing facilities, the Germans killed between five and six million Jews.  They also killed between 100,000 and 300,000 gypsies by the same methods.

These are numbers that are really too big to comprehend, and Snyder knows this:  "The sheer numbers of the victims can blunt our sense of the individuality of each one."  A strength of the book is his extensive use of victims' diaries and survivors' memoirs in an effort to convey lives and personalities that were lost--the real suffering behind the numbers. 

In the final chapter, "Humanity," Snyder examines theories of cause and effect.  He compares the Nazi and Stalinist systems, and how they separately and together destroyed so many lives.  He discusses Hannah Arendt's theory of modern alienation resulting in totalitarian systems, but doesn't accept it as a complete explanation for what happened in the bloodlands.  He reaches no ultimate conclusion about causes, but frames his history of the bloodlands as a necessary and overdue first step in understanding.  Before we can understand why, we must accurately understand what happened:

But before we draw such theoretical conclusions, about modernity or anything else, we must understand what actually happened, in the Holocaust and in the bloodlands generally.  For the time being, Europe's epoch of mass killing is overtheorized and misunderstood.

Mixing It Up

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Top Ten Books On My Summer TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's topic is "Top Ten Books on the Summer TBR List."  Any summer list of mine will generally include  books that I plan to assign to my various children next fall.  So that means some ancient literature.  My list will also include books for the two challenges in which I'm currently participating:  Mixing It Up and the Classics Club.  And there will be some I'll read just because I want to.  So, here is my tentative top ten, in no particular order except as they occur to me:

1.  The Aeneid by Virgil.  I'm very interested in reading this, having read the Iliad for the first time last year.  Last year I also read Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin, which is a retelling of the Aeneid from the point of view of Lavinia, a character who only merits a few lines in Virgil's epic.  Lavinia was so beautiful that it made me want to read the work that inspired it. 

2.  Metamorphoses by Ovid.  Metamorphoses is a verse treatment of classical mythology.  Although I read it in college, I've retained almost nothing.  A fellow homeschooler who is fluent in Latin raved about Ovid on a message board some time back, sparking my interest. 

3.  The Five Books of Moses, translated by Everett Fox.  This has been recommended as a translation that really captures the flavor of the ancient Hebrew, and some of the drama of that civilization.

4.  Bhagavad Gita.  It's part of the founding epic (the Mahabharata) of Hindu civilization and religion, and a masterpiece of Sanskrit literature that should be read by any student of ancient history.  I know nothing else about it but am eager to experience it.

5.  A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.  I'm already more than halfway through this book, but I expect to be reading it thoughout the summer (it's enormous).  A wonderful epic of families and politics in 1951 India.  Both intimate and panoramic.  I'm loving it so far.

6. Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  Basho, medieval Japan's pioneer of Haiku, recorded, in poetry and prose, his impressions of the landscapes and wildlife on his journey through Japan in search of spiritual enlightenment.  I'm just about to start reading this book, and am so looking forward to some dreamy poetry.

7.  Last Tales by Isak Dinesen.  Dinesen is one of my favorite authors.  Her stories combine gothic atmosphere and magical realism in nineteenth-century Scandinavian settings.  Mystical, whimsical, sometimes heartbreaking, and often creepy--what's not to like?

8.  A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I discovered this author a few months back with his earlier novel An Artist of the Floating World, a subtle and ironic story set in postwar Japan.  A Pale View of Hills is set in 1980s London, but is told in flashbacks to the same era. 

9.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  A Victorian classic with a strong feminist bent, and hopefully moody and atmospheric like the other Bronte sisters' works.

10.  Coriolanus by William Shakespeare.  I want to see the Ralph Fiennes movie, but not without having read the play.  So the play goes on the TBR list. 

My first reaction on looking back over this list is that there is no way I'm going to read all these books in the next ten weeks!  I predict that I'll read maybe half of them.  But it's something to shoot for. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Just Finished: A Long Way Down

Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down is a funny book about suicide.  That's how it was described to me, and it's an accurate description as far as it goes.  But it's a lot more than funny, and it's about a lot more than suicide.

On New Year's Eve in London, four people, unknown to each other, separately decide to commit suicide at a popular local suicide spot.  Their mood of desperately wound-up courage is broken by the presence of like-minded strangers, and, somewhat irritably, they sit and talk.  Eventually they leave the roof together.  The book is comprised of their individual and collective adventures as they fumble their way back into the world of the living.

The fun of this book is in the voices:  Martin, a disgraced TV personality, Maureen, the mother of a profoundly disabled son, JJ, a guitarist whose band has broken up, and Jess, a drug abusing teenage girl from a dysfunctional family.  You might well ask, where is the fun here?  All I can say is, these people's observations of each other and of themselves are often hilarious.  They alternate between merciless analysis and boneheaded schemes to solve each others' problems. 

Without any sentimentality, characters are revealed, understanding is gained, help is offered (not always with good results), and each character begins to chart an alternate way forward in life. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Book Journey hosts this weekly meme.  As she says, "This is a great way to plan out your reading week and see what others are currently reading as well… you never know where that next 'must read' book will come from!"

Still reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and probably will be for quite some time.  It's a chunkster, but a good one.  Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder is more than halfway finished;  tremendously interesting and sobering.  

I've started two new books since my last "It's Monday!" post.  Geheimnis Am... Holunderweg by Enid Blyton is my current German-language reading.  After toiling through Die Verwandlung, I needed a bit of a mental rest, and this one is really much more my speed.  It's a YA mystery from about 1970, and I'm quite enjoying it, partly for the nostalgia value and partly because I don't need the dictionary to read it!

The other new book (well, new to me) is Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down.  Recommended to me as a funny book about suicide, it is witty and sarcastic, not at all sentimental, but not mean-spirited either.  Highly improbable but totally believable, and I'm hooked.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Just Finished: David Golder

When I see a book by Irene Nemirovsky that I haven't read, I grab it, as they've not all been published in the US yet. (I've posted before about how much I enjoy her work.)  So I came across a British edition of David Golder a couple of weeks ago in my favorite used bookstore, and snapped it up.  

Set in Biarritz and Paris in 1929, this is Golder's story.  A wealthy elderly Jewish businessman, David Golder has a wife and daughter who live for pleasure and luxury.  Their interactions with him consist solely of requests for money or complaints about not being able to afford a new diamond necklace or a new car.  His wife does this shrewishly, his daughter coquettishly.  He hates his wife and adores his daughter, even as he understands that she does not love him.  He gives them everything they demand, every time.

This has been his family life until two crises occur, almost at the same time.  The stock market crashes, bankrupting Golder, and he has a heart attack.  At this point in the story, I was expecting the focus to shift to the wife and daughter, perhaps exploring how they would cope when their expensive lifestyle went away, and how their relationship with Golder might evolve.

But it isn't that kind of story.  The focus and point of view remain Golder's.  The wife and daughter remain pretty much the same people, casting about for other men to support them.  Now I began to be fascinated with Golder's character--how would he change, what direction would he take, as a result of the upheaval of his life?  We start to get some backround;  his early life, his marriage.  With these details came, for me, a tenderness toward this character, who was portrayed initially as not a particularly nice man.  The choice he ultimately makes about what to do with the remaining months of his life is movingly told, and the book here becomes quite a page-turner.  As he drags himself through his last weeks, will his heart hold out long enough to see his plans through, and is this really what he wants to do?

The Classics Club

Friday, June 1, 2012

Book Beginnings on Fridays

Rose City Reader invites us to "join me every Friday to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires."

"Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block?  Of course I can explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block.  I'm not a bloody idiot."

(From A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby) 

Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down was recommended to me by a relative as a surprisingly funny book about suicide.  This opening does set a witty, sarcastic tone, and if you're going to read a book about suicide, it helps if it's witty and sarcastic, right?