Sunday, August 26, 2012

Used Book Happiness

I've always wanted to do one of those "here's what I bought today" posts with a picture of a pile of books, that I love seeing on other blogs.  So, since I did really well on my most recent trip to Half Price Books, today is the day.  Even more happily, most of these purchases were inspired by fellow bloggers.

On top is Gitanjali, a collection of poems by the Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.  What made it catch my eye was the introduction by W. B. Yeats, in whom I am newly interested thanks to James at Following Pulitzer, who blogged about Yeats recently.

The second book in the pile is a collection of stories by Katherine Mansfield.  Her name has been floating around in my brain since reading Irene Nemirovsky's biography.  Mansfield was a favorite of Irene's.

The third one down is Three Plays of Euripedes, one of which is Alcestis.  I've been wanting to read Alcestis since Jean at Howling Frog Books posted her response to that play

On the bottom is View with a Grain of Sand, a collection of poems by Wislawa Szymborska.  Szymborska is a 20th-century Polish poet who was once mentioned as a favorite by Nancy at ipsofactodotme.  Quite an unexpected pleasure to find this one.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Quick Looks: Recently Enjoyed

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
"I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus, which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? ...I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself."  (From Margaret Atwood’s Foreword to The Penelopiad)

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
"Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym’s richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman’s daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted.  ...The novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires."  (From Amazon)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Kids' Picks: August

Five Minutes For Books is inviting bloggers to share what their children are reading.  Here are some of their summer reading choices: 

Elder daughter (17):  On her break between summer classes, she read a book for pleasure!  And she picked one of my personal favorites:  Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin.  She liked it as much as I do, and asked me to recommend similar stuff.  (Not easy--I've come up with The Penelopiad  by Margaret Atwood so far;  other suggestions are welcome.)

Younger daughter (14):  Is currently interested in 1920s and 1940s settings.  She's reading The Girl is Murder, one of a series of detective stories with a teenage protagonist set in the 1940s, and Vixen, one of the Flappers series, set (yes) in the 1920s.  She says she likes the period settings, but has asked me to recommend something of better quality set in those eras with young protagonists.  She's recently read The Great Gatsby, and I've suggested Alice Adams, (which I love) but nothing else comes to mind.  Suggestions?

Elder son (11):  He's in the middle of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.  I slipped this into his pile,  and he's liking it so far.  Hugely into ghost stories right now, he's also making his way through The Random House Book of Ghost Stories.

Younger son (8):  Recently finished Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.  My fiction hater, he decided to read this only because the Puffin Classics edition we have contains a lot of illustrations!  His recent nonfiction choices include Stealth Fighters and Bombers, U-2 Planes, and UH-60 Black Hawks... you get the idea.  Oh, and I pulled these off the library shelf to make him laugh, and he took them home and read them:  Junk Food by Vicki Cobb, and The Story Behind Toilets by Elizabeth Raum.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Just Finished: The Life Of Irene Nemirovsky

I'm often frustrated, when reading biographies, by how little a biographer can really know about his or her subject.  If everyone who knew them is dead, the evidence is reduced to letters and diaries.  Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, the authors of The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, have, not diaries, but her working notebooks for many of her novels and stories.  These notebooks are both enlightening and frustrating, because they give a detailed look at the process by which she conceived and developed her stories.   But it then becomes too easy, I think, to leap to conclusions about her own character, beliefs, and choices.

Some conclusions, to be sure, beg to be made.  There can be no doubt that Nemirovsky wrote about what she knew best, her own people--nouveau riche Russian Jewish emigres in France in the early 20th century, and, later, the French people in general.  And it does seem obvious that she poured her feelings about her cold, spiteful, and pathologically vain mother into her fiction.  No fewer than three of her novels feature such mothers. 

What is known about Irene Nemirovsky is plentiful, and this biography gives an extremely interesting picture of her life, both before and after her family's emigration to France.  She was born in 1903 in Kiev, a rather beautiful old Ukrainian city with a large Jewish community.  Her father rose from poverty to great wealth as a banker and stock trader.  Her mother apparently married him as a "good prospect."  Both wanted to forget their humble beginnings in the Kiev ghetto, and lived an affluent lifestyle, spending part of every year in the south of France, speaking French rather than Russian or Yiddish at home.

If not for her French governess, Irene would have grown up virtually without love.  Her father, Leon Nemirovsky, seems simply to have been remote, and her mother, Fanny, who had an unending succession of lovers, wanted nothing to do with a daughter who was living proof of her age. 

At the time of the Russian Revolution, after a series of shocking pogroms, Leon moved his family out of Kiev, first to Finland, then Sweden, and finally settled them in France.  During her lonely adolescence, Irene discovered the pleasures of literature, particularly modern French writers, devouring Proust, Stendhal, Maupassant.  She took a degree in literature and for a few years lived independently from her parents, studying and enjoying the lifestyle of a flapper. 

Irene began selling comic stories about young flappers to magazines, and eventually met and married Michel Epstein, also the child of Russian Jewish emigres.  Her literary career took off in 1929 with the publication of David Golder, whose characters seem to be modeled on her family.  For the next ten years or so, she wrote prolifically, her stories and novels serialized in magazines.  She bore two daughters who remember her as a loving mother.  And finally, the tense months under German occupation, her arrest and deportation, and her death in Auschwitz.

This is an amazing and heartbreaking story, but, as with most biographies I read, I'm tantalized by what can't be known about a person from documentary history.  What were Irene's real feelings about Jews and her own Jewishness?  Her depiction of the Jewish characters in David Golder is brutally unflattering, even stereotypical.  But authors write (hopefully) honestly about what they experience, and Irene's family milieu was not a happy one.  How much of David Golder was accurate observation, and how much was exaggeration born of hurt?  She is quoted in an interview saying that she would have toned the book down had she known what was ahead in the way of Nazi persecution.  Would that toning down have represented a more, or less, realistic picture of the Jews of her family?

And why, really, did she embrace Catholicism in 1939?   No evidence of spiritual feelings is given up to that point in her life.  But she knew that in the eyes of the French as much as the Germans, converting would not make her "not a Jew."  Was she craving the comfort of religious faith, which she had never known, at an increasingly insecure and frightening time?  Was she grasping at straws, hoping to seem less offensive in the eyes of the increasingly anti-Semitic French right-wing press, which she relied on to publish her work?

What was the last month of her life like?  Obviously we know what she would have gone through at Auschwitz.  The camp records show that she was there for about a month before she died of typhus.  But I wanted to know what this writer would have produced from that experience, as she produced stories from the other experiences in her life.  She left behind no story to tell us about that.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What Is Your Favorite Classic Book?

The Classics Club's August meme asks this question:  what is your favorite classic book, and why?  I had to think a bit, because, ultimately, that question is unanswerable.  I have current favorites (witness my Suitable Boy lovefest), but "favorite classic" means something more, I think, something that withstands the test of time. 

So I'm going to settle on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as my favorite classic, not because I think it's the greatest book ever written, but because it looms large in my consciousness.  I first read it in high school, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  The wit, the irony, and the frequent priceless lines, of which here is a sampling:
An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth.  From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.--Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.
Elizabeth's courage did not fail her.  She had heard nothing of Lady Catherine that spoke her awful from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtue, and the mere stateliness of money and rank, she thought she could witness without trepidation.
Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.
This is one of the few classics I've re-read multiple times over the past thirty years, and I am not much of a re-reader in general.  It opened up the possibility of having genuine fun with a classic, leading me to try others on my own, on top of what was assigned at school.  It comes to mind first when I think "favorite."  I guess that makes it a good choice for favorite classic,  right?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Just Finished: Geheimnis Am Holunderweg

Children's books are about the right level for me when it comes to reading in German.  Even with no familiarity with the story, I read Geheimnis Am Holunderweg without using the dictionary once, and it seems to be aimed at preteens or young teens.  For purposes of improving my German, reading this book was light years more helpful than my recent slog through Kafka, in which I had to look up every other word, which caused me to frequently lose the author's train of thought.  There were plenty of words in this book that I didn't know, but the simple sentence structure and story line made it easy to figure out meanings from context, without slowing down.

The edition I read was printed in 1970, and set in a small German town.  (Holunderweg is the name of a street, and the title translates  as The Secret of Holunderweg.)  I initially assumed that this was a translation of a work by the famous English children's author Enid Blyton, but the German setting made me wonder, and so I did some googling.  Although I couldn't find any reference to this title in particular, apparently there were many books, and series of books, written by French and German authors in Blyton's style and using her name, either with or without permission.  This would seem to be one of those.

In the course of my googling I also learned that many of Blyton's books were full of racial and gender stereotyping and later editions were usually edited to remove insulting references to blacks.  And apparently in many of her books in which groups of children had adventures and solved mysteries, girl characters were excluded from the more dangerous events, and always did the cooking/cleaning up for the boys.  This issue did come up in Geheimnis Am Holunderweg.  At one point the oldest boy tells the two girls that they may not come along on a midnight search for some stolen goods because it would be too dangerous for them, and the girls willingly comply.  I don't know which seemed more anachronistic to me--girls happily taking orders from boys, or twelve-year-olds running all over town unsupervised day and night rather than being driven to activities and play dates by their parents!