Sunday, June 29, 2008

Out Stealing Horses

I loved this novel by Norwegian writer Per Petterson (Petterson is a former librarian and bookseller). It won the 2007 Dublin Impac award, which has honored several of my favorite recent books, including My Name is Red (Pamuk), The Master (Toibin), and No Great Mischief (MacLeod). This award is administered by Dublin City Public Libraries (how cool is that!) and is open to books in any language.

The novel is written as a memoir by Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old man who has isolated himself in the country after his wife's death to settle in to his last days, with only his dog Lyra for company. His story is primarily focused on the summer of 1948 when he and his father spent their last summer together. Remarkably, one of his few neighbors turns out to be a link to that time and place. Trond recounts the events of that year, the people that he remembers, and the secrets that he finally learned about his father.

I was surprised at how much it reminded me of some aspects of Cormac McCarthy -- the spare language, the meticulous descriptions of physical activities -- felling timber, riding horses, rowing boats in the river -- and the beautifully rendered prose about the natural world and animals. This is an especially good book for dog lovers; it makes you want a dog like Lyra. It has flashes of violence, but certainly not McCarthian in scale. It's much gentler and more reflective. The timeline of the things Trond tells you is just out of sync enough that revelations come at intervals, and the novel keeps opening up further and further from what seems to be, at first, a simple tale of a boy's coming of age into something much denser and more satisfying. Lovely.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Books that changed your life?

I've seen widgets on social networking sites that let you list the "books that changed your life," and as much as I love books, it always irritates me a bit -- usually, because what it really means is "what are your favorite books?" Perhaps, if you were so distracted by a book that you walked out in front of a Bunny Bread truck -- that would constitute a book that changed your life. Maybe some people read John Grisham and decide to become lawyers? Could be. So...I put aside my skepticism and started to decide which books I would put in the BTCYL category.

First, a little tangent: We were a reading family growing up. My mom would read aloud to us, and not just when we were tots, but when we were older kids. We had some kind of Golden Treasury of stories that I remember her reading from; but also To Kill a Mockingbird and The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. Even if she didn't finish them aloud, it would be enough to get me started on them, and I would finish on my own. I distinctly remember an elderly lady who sometimes substituted in elementary school, and that was her thing -- she was a great storyteller -- she may have told stories extemporaneously; it's hard to remember. Her name was Mrs. Paris? Parrish? She was marvelous! I don't think I was the only one listening rapt; it was a great treat when she came to watch your class. She was a retired schoolteacher; she must have been in her eighties -- a little, neat, grandmotherly southern lady in a dark dress and a bun, straight out of Eudora Welty.

We were also not terribly picky readers; we read the Encyclopedias, we read pure crap, we read Shakespeare and the Hardy Boys, Harlequin romances and Outdoor Life magazine, and just whatever happened to be lying around. We had the whole set of Junior Classics and fairy tales -- really creepy ones with bizarre illustrations that still seem perverse. (Ah -- perhaps the first book that changed my life, or at least gave me some terrific nightmares.) The Iliad in who-knows-what translation first acquainted me with the stomach-churning nature of violence in sixth grade. I remember literally feeling queasy over some of it. The cruelty of the Gods freaked me out! And this, from someone who has now read nearly the entire Cormac McCarthy oeuvre (so far, thank God).

Gone with the Wind and Little Women might be the first two books on my list, because I reread them, and they were probably the ones that made me want to write stories myself. Every female character I've ever concocted is a version of Jo March or Scarlett O'Hara. It's sort of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, although neither fits quite perfectly into those categories. Now, skipping many, many books later, there are a few more that stand out above the rest.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, the second time I read it, was a strangely consoling companion when I felt truly in need of a Deronda to guide me through. The poor judgment and regrets of Gwendolyn Harleth! Aye, me!

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, which I found purely by happenstance when browsing the shelves of the public library, led me to my Master's thesis topic and opened up a whole new world of literature, which led me, in turn, to at least one job, and indirectly to all the ones I've had since. I hadn't really thought of it that way before, but I think it's true. I never would have read The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien without Fussell, which is reason enough.

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek made me stop taking the natural world for granted, and I started paying attention -- learning the names of things and how they came to be.

And books that shaped my thinking about the Big Issues? Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation and Jim Crace's Quarantine on religion; A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas, and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon on women, writing, race, and politics. McCarthy's Blood Meridian on American myth-making.

I've left out Shakespeare; I know it seems trite, but it's very hard to imagine coming to love poetry, drama, and books without him there in the background, the measure of it all.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Suite Francaise

I just finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian-born Jewish woman whose family fled the Bolshevik Revolution to settle in France. She already had established a reputation as an important French writer by the time World War II broke out. Both she and her husband were arrested in 1942 and were killed at Auschwitz. Their two young daughters were hidden from the French police throughout the war and managed to survive. The eldest daughter, Denise, had saved her mother's notebook, in which she had begun her last work, about the fall of France.

Obviously, the dramatic background of Nemirovsky's life added to the power of the novel, but the novel itself is beautifully, searingly written. She had such a wonderful, clear-eyed view of the extraordinary events going on around her as she began this work, which was practically a real-time setting for the action. The "suite" has two completed parts, "The Storm" and "Dolce," of a planned five parts.

Nemirovsky's focus was on the reaction of various classes of French people to the country's defeat -- not fully recovered from the previous war -- and then to the occupation. Although collaboration with the Germans is a subject, she never mentions the plight of Jews anywhere in the book -- never mentions the existence of the concentration camps. Mostly for practical reasons, she and her family had converted to Catholicism in the years before the war, and she claimed no interest in the Jewish "cause." Some of the correspondence of her husband and friends is included in the Appendix as they tried to find out her whereabouts after her arrest. The horror of what happened is compounded by the fact that nothing they had done allowed them to escape the Nazi racial program, and even though they were aware of the camps, no one seemed to actually realize that being sent to them was almost certain death. The correspondence continued unknowingly even after she had died, and right up until the time her husband Michel was also arrested and sent to the gas chambers. The fact that the French police in Vichy France continued actively to pursue the little girls is a mind-boggling bit of inhumanity. I suppose it's only by examining the individual stories, that it's possible to start understanding the utter depravity of the Holocaust.

One of the striking things about the novel is Nemirovsky's observation of the basest of human instincts coming to the fore during the turmoil she witnessed. From every class of French life -- it became "every man for himself." In a particularly disturbing episode during the first panicked exodus from Paris, she describes some of the refugee women tossing their children aside and running from the German strafing attacks. By contrast, there are some, but not many instances of sacrifice and kindness, but very few characters who manage to retain any sort of moral integrity.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Summer reading

Having gone through a pretty long spell of reading rather lugubriously, I've been on a good run of books. I finished Out of Africa and liked it, but the longer I read the more uncomfortable it became for me. Although Dinesen seemed to have glimmerings that what had happened to the natives was unfair, regrettable even, there is still that annoying sense of Western entitlement to African land -- their right to "make something of it," to school and convert the natives, push them aside to reservations, and pronounce their cultural rituals as barbaric and unhealthy. It was also unsettling to read her blithe accounts of killing lions, iguanas, and whatever other animals came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sort of combining both of my discomfort zones, the local Masai were required to come and ask her (memsahib) to kill the lions raiding their cattle. I guess it would be necessary to place oneself back in the mindset of that time to understand how such incredible sensitivity could exist alongside the arrogance and imperiousness of the Colonial settler.

Next in my stack from the library (I'm so old-fashioned; I get BOOKS -- from the LIBRARY!) was Richard Fortey's Life: the first four billion years. I loved Earth, which was a history of our understanding of geology and plate tectonics. If you want a quick spin through the basics of evolutionary biology via the fossil record and other scientific developments, this is a pretty entertaining way of doing it.

Some of the Amazon reviewers (FWIW) pooh-poohed his style, his lingering over personal anecdotes, and his frequent quotations from poetry, but those are of course, the main points in his favor as far as I'm concerned. If I were a graduate student in paleontology, I wouldn't be using it for a textbook. Why do all these people who obviously already know it all, think he's writing for them? There are times when I think that many people use the Internet only to demonstrate their vast superiority over the rest of us underdeveloped plankton. Well, this multicelled organism quite liked it, especially his explanation and analysis of the "boloid collision" or K-T event, that wiped out the dinosaurs, and all of the controversy over the several theories offered for their extinction.

The book that I just finished was The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan, one of my favorite writers. Wow -- it's the first actual page-turner that I've read in awhile. It's wonderfully creepy and sad and moving. Three teenage "ghosts" of a Halloween car crash have been called back a year later to follow the variously guilt-ridden, obsessed, and devastated survivors of that night. The ghosts are invisible and powerless, mostly grim bystanders to the inevitable drama that is playing out on the anniversary of their deaths. It was very powerful and not without its moments of black humor. It also perfectly captures teenagers' stubborn belief in their invincibility.

I was going to go straight into Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, but after reading just the beginning of it, I think I'll pick something else. It wasn't that it was bad in any way, but I could just tell that it wasn't my cup of tea -- style, concerns, characters -- none of it seemed promising. I have the new translation of War and Peace now, but I think I'll save it for the fall. On the other hand, a frozen Russian landscape might be a great escape as the temperatures look to remain completely unbearable for the rest of the summer!