October 21, 2016
Throughout my adult years, I’ve sporadically tried to become fluent in French, drawn by an unrelenting desire to converse casually and flawlessly in this language I studied in high school. This has led me several times down the subscription path to French language audio magazines, such as Champs-Elysées and Bien-Dire, as well as to the print magazine Paris Match. Each time I subscribe, I enthusiastically embrace the prospect of French reading and learning, only to abandon the effort shortly after.
One year, I took private French lessons on Saturdays. I hauled myself out of bed for the early morning sessions on the other side of town, feeling more lost than proficient during the brain-twisting 90 minutes of only-speak-in-French conversations and tutorials. The accountability of meeting with a teacher kept me going, and I got to be pretty good. I was able to hold my own in a French conversation with a French-speaking customer in a coffee shop, and I could understand random French blurt-outs in movies. Even so, I let the tutoring go, tired of getting up so early and wanting my Saturday mornings at home.
Lauren Collins’ decision to learn French wasn’t a casual choice, like mine. While living in London as a staff writer for The New Yorker, she fell in love with a Frenchman from Bordeaux. They moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and married. Collins, from North Carolina, opens her new memoir about the challenges of learning French with an uneasy meeting at the Geneva apartment with a chimney sweep arriving for the annual, mandatory cleaning. She fumbles her way through the service call and later tells us she felt untethered and displaced living in a non-English speaking country. “’Language, as much as land, is a place,’ she writes. ‘To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless.’”
Much of her fumbling also occurs in her communications with husband Olivier, who is fluent in English. It’s not so much about speaking French with him as it is about the two of them culturally understanding each other — Olivier’s French literalism butts up against her American enthusiasm. Some of the liveliest moments in the book occur when the two get testy with each other over nuance in meaning, such as when Collins said she would clean the kitchen, and Olivier asked why she said “clean” when she meant “tidy up”.
There’s more to this delightful memoir than personal experience. Collins expertly detours into topics about the nature of language – fascinating topics – such as the controversies of bilingualism in the United States and France; the assimilation of English words into the French language (which the French government tries to stop); untranslatable words and translations gone wrong; and the importance of not just learning the words of a language but understanding its culture, as she experienced with Olivier.
As one would expect from a writer at The New Yorker, Collins’ prose is concise and rich with investigative details. And yet it’s not clear if she ever mastered speaking French. This, of course, I wanted to know about in depth, with all the excruciating moments of confusion. I also wanted to know more about her successes and failures in conversations not just with Olivier but in public. Did she ever become good enough so as not to feel homeless surrounded by French speakers? Does she now think in French? Can she follow conversations and understand French radio and TV?
I recently signed up yet again for another French learning experience, this time with an app that uses Victor Hugo (yes, that Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables) and French-speaking extraterrestrials. They are very funny, smart and definitely not teacherly, which I like. Every day the app sends me a lesson and story, plus personalized corrections — all in French, no English — that take 10 minutes, maybe 15. So far so good. (I think it’s the ET factor that’s making the difference.) Mais, nous verrons si je peux garder avec elle. (We’ll see if I keep with it.)
October 7, 2016
Britain’s Man Booker Prize is given to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom. According to the Man Booker website, contenders must be novels originally written in English and published in the UK in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and published by a registered UK imprint; self-published novels are not eligible.
Below are this year’s six finalists. Two are from the United States. The others are from the UK and Canada. All are available in the US. The winner is to be announced on October 25.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The narrator from Dickens, California, (a city that’s been disappeared, which he’s trying to get back on the map) initiates the unthinkable when he reinstates slavery and segregates the local high school. But hold on — it’s a “biting satire,” according to the publisher’s website, about “a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court … It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality — the black Chinese restaurant.” The New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly listed Beatty’s comic novel among their Best Books of 2015. Also, it won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction.
Hot Milk by Debra Levy
Levy’s previous novel, Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker 2012 prize, is an unforgettable story I recommend. (A family arrives at their vacation villa and finds an attractive woman swimming in the villa’s pool. And from there, it gets interesting.) Hot Milk, Levy’s new novel, promises to be similarly intriguing. Bloomsbury, the publisher, writes on their website: “Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant — their very last chance — in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.” From The Guardian: “This isn’t a long novel, but it is dense in the way a poem is dense, rich with meaning poured into its simple language.”
His Bloody Project
by Graeme Macrae Burnet
This novel had me from the forecasts, portending to be one of those “gripping” novels that hook you ‘til the end. Skyhorse Publishing lays out the book’s premise: “A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?” The narrative is multi-layered, including a collection of documents (e.g., medical reports, psychological evaluations) and the accused’s memoir. Skyhorse describes it as “both thrilling and luridly entertaining from an exceptional new voice.”
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ever since its publication in the United States last year, Moshfegh’s novel kept popping up and enticing me to read it – from rave reviews to being a contender for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. When it got short listed for the Man Booker I thought, okay, that’s it, I surrender. My hesitancy was only that I wasn’t in the mood for one more “girl crime” or “wicked girl” book. Now, having read this brilliant novel, I not only see why it received high marks but wonder why it didn’t win more awards. It’s a classic novel, whose perverted narrator is of the memorable kind, like Humbert Humbert (Lolita) or Frederick Clegg (The Collector). In 1964, Eileen works in a juvenile boy’s prison and lives with her constantly drunk father in a mess of a suburban home. Then, an enigmatic woman is hired by prison administration. Eileen wants to please her, and she falls into a dark situation that changes the course of her life. What’s brilliant about this book is the patience the author gives to her narrator, slowly letting her interior story unfold to a highly rewarding conclusion.
All That Man Is by David Szalay
This Man Booker nominee is a collection of nine connected short stories. From the website of the US publisher, Graywolf Press: “Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving — in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel — to understand what it means to be alive, here and now.” A few critics have mentioned running out to read Szalay’s previous novels and, by that, indicate talent not to be overlooked. The Guardian writes: “But if you are unfamiliar with [Szalay’s] work, let me urge you to read him since, on this evidence, he is one of those rare writers with skill in all the disciplines that first-rate fiction requires.”
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien
Of all six, this novel is the one door-stopper at more than 400 pages. But it’s an epic story, and epics tend to warrant the length. From the publisher’s website: “Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations — those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming.” A talented pianist, a brilliant composer and a violin prodigy are among the characters. From the Man Booker website: “It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.”
September 20, 2016
Many readers tell me they start The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and then quickly give up because it’s too confusing. That’s not surprising. In this author’s fourth novel, which he believed to be his best, Faulkner challenges readers by shifting abruptly in time between past and present, let alone starting the book with a demanding first-person narration by the mentally challenged Benjy Compson. The novel is a 20th century classic, the one many believe they should read if they’re going to read or ‘tackle’ Faulkner. I typically recommend Absalom, Absalom! instead because it’s the novel among Faulkner’s great ones that I enjoyed most.
I have doubt, though, about that recommendation. I haven’t read all of Faulkner’s novels. Maybe I should recommend the scandalous, dark potboiler Sanctuary that Faulkner wrote to make money – and that attracted reader attention to his work for the first time. Except readers want to read an important Faulkner novel, just like they want to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. You can’t preen about having read Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as Young Man like you can preen about having read Ulysses – and like you can preen about having read The Sound and the Fury. It’s not escape or an unputdownable reading experience that’s at play here. It’s an accomplishment.
The doubt about my Faulkner recommendation also comes from being fascinated by Faulkner as a person. When I blurt out that I love Faulkner, it doesn’t mean I love his books, rather all that is of him: his life in Oxford, Mississippi, at his home Rowan Oak; his script writing days in Hollywood, working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and film director Howard Hawks; his long road to getting published, the richness of his imagined Yoknapatawpha County, how his work progressed and the effect literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley* had on his reputation; his speeches and essays that speak thoughtfully and intellectually about the human condition; and his individuality.
The last page of William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection, a photography book illustrating Faulkner’s life, tells of a typewritten note appended to the back of a framed portrait of Faulkner taken by photographer Jack Cofield. The note says:
“I once read a statement by Rudyard Kipling (made, I think, in one of his last interviews in London), which I think applies to Bill Faulkner the man as well as William Faulkner the author: ‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’ Bill Faulkner lived up to this principle to a T.”
The Culture Trip’s The Nine Best Books by William Faulkner You Should Read describes the prose of Sanctuary as “considerably more fluid than a lot of Faulkner’s denser novels, and thus easier to grasp for readers less familiar with the author’s particular style of writing.” It describes The Sound and the Fury as “a notoriously arduous and disturbing read, whose often disorienting narration requires patience and persistence.”
In Flavorwire’s The 50 Best Southern Novels Ever Written, eight of the 50 are by Faulkner. No wonder they refer to him as “that titan of American letters.” Among the eight, The Sound and the Fury is called his best novel, while Absalom, Absalom! is called “the greatest Southern novel every written.” That’s enough for me to continue recommending it as the one to read. As for me, I have a desire to keep reading Faulkner, but it has to be the right time. To randomly pick up one of the titan’s complex novels as a next book to read feels like selecting a complex, expensive wine to drink when you’re thirsty. One needs to be ready to read Faulkner.
*Malcolm Cowley and the Nobel Prize: By 1944, William Faulkner was off the literary radar screen. “His seventeen books were effectively out of print and seemed likely to remain in that condition, since there was no public demand for them,” Malcolm Cowley writes in The Faulkner-Cowley File. Cowley, recognizing Faulkner’s neglected genius, brought his literature back into public focus with The Portable Faulkner, published by The Viking Press in 1946, which Cowley edited and introduced. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Speaking of that prize, I recommend reading Faulkner’s short, moving acceptance speech in which he says, “the basest of all things is to be afraid.” His words resonate today, including this famous quote:
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
September 1, 2016
I’ve always been one to love the feel of a book: the softness of an age-old paperback with a loose cover in my hands, or the heft of an epic novel the size of a microwave on my lap. I’m also a sniffer, with an automatic impulse that pulls a book up to my nose, so I can smell the paper. It never occurred to me that pressing my nose into the middle of a book would be considered odd behavior, until a stranger stared at me with an expression of having observed a weirdo.
Given this, I suppose it’s not odd to admit that I spent precious time on a weekend afternoon in search of a more pleasing edition of a book I had started reading and had to put down because it felt too stiff in my hands.
For a long time I’ve been meaning to read Pat Barker’s acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy. When I found a paperback of Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, at a Half Price Books Clearance Sale, I took it as a sign that it was time to begin. This trilogy is considered to be among the best in World War I fiction, right up there with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Of its three books — Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road — the trilogy’s third book was awarded the 1995 Booker Prize.
I was pretty excited to start reading, until a few pages into Regeneration I felt dissatisfied and whiny about the way the book felt: There was no softness of the pages typical to paperbacks and no flexibility to the spine. The cover felt like rigid cardboard. It was like missing the scruffiness of an old shoe or the comfort of a familiar sweatshirt. Silly as it seemed, I stopped reading and drove to the library and then a Half Price Bookstore and then a used bookstore to find a better book. (This may be a bibliomaniac’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)
I’ve rejected a book to pick up a better translation, but this is the first time I’ve driven around town looking for a better tactile experience in a book. The hard-bound library book could’ve worked but, at this point, I gave in to all my pickiness and put it back because I didn’t like the abstract illustration. At Half Price Books, I found a great copy, but there was handwriting and underlining on the pages. At the used bookstore, in the history section, on the very top shelf, I found a paperback copy that worked — the softness, the flexibility and enough of a smell were present. I felt victorious.
And then this: I got to the cash register and told the bookseller that I didn’t like the paperback I already owned. Yes, here I was spending money on yet another copy of the same book. I didn’t offer any details, as I pulled my original copy out of my purse and showed it to him. He reached for it and immediately frowned. He said, “It’s very stiff.” All my feelings of silliness dissolved. I eagerly agreed and then went home to read this great book that felt just right.
July 28, 2016
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Due out next week, this new novel by Alaskan resident Eowyn Ivey is an epic tale set in her state at the end of the 19th century. A husband ventures out on an expedition to explore unknown southern territory and keeps a daily journal. His wife, back home, embarks on her own adventure of discovery by exploring the art of photography. Much that I’ve read about this fictional tale promises an engrossing read.
From the publisher’s plot description: “In the winter of 1885, decorated war hero Colonel Allen Forrester leads a small band of men on an expedition that has been deemed impossible: to venture up the Wolverine River and pierce the vast, untamed Alaska Territory. Leaving behind Sophie, his newly pregnant wife, Colonel Forrester records his extraordinary experiences in hopes that his journal will reach her if he doesn’t return…”
Kirkus Reviews gives the novel a star rating, saying “…this is an exceptionally well-turned adventure tale, rich with Allen’s confrontations with brutal snowstorms and murky underwater beasts and Sophie’s more interior efforts to learn her craft and elbow local busybodies out of her way.”
Publisher’s Weekly also starred the new book, saying Ivey’s fictional tale is “an entrancing, occasionally chilling, depiction of turn-of-the-century Alaska.”
Watch this YouTube video summary of the book, describing it as “a sweeping epic Alaskan tale with just a touch of magic.”
The Golden Age by Joan London
The Golden Age of this new novel’s title refers not to a period of time, rather a polio clinic in Perth, Australia, where teenagers Frank and Elsa fall in love and together face the challenges of their crippling disease, adolescence and the adults in their lives. First published in Australia, The Golden Age has won several literary awards and will be available in the U.S. mid-August from Europa Editions.
My research about this forthcoming book intrigues me not only for its setting and premise but also for Frank’s family as Jewish refugees from World War II Hungary. The story entices with the promises of an involving plot not only about the teenagers but also regarding their parents. From the publisher’s plot description: “Elsa’s mother Margaret, who has given up everything to be a perfect mother, must reconcile her hopes and dreams with her daughter’s sickness. Frank’s parents, transplants to Australia from a war-torn Europe, are isolated newcomers in a country that they do not love and that does not seem to love them. Frank’s mother Ida, a renowned pianist in Hungary, refuses to allow the western deserts of Australia to become her home. But her husband, Meyer, slowly begins to free himself from the past and integrate into a new society.”
Kirkus Reviews says, “Every character, however minor, comes to life in these pages.”
Publisher’s Weekly says, “It is pretty much perfect.”
The Nix by Nathan Hill
The page count on this debut novel clocks in at more than 600 pages. Such a size always provokes me to consider if the investment of time will be worth it. I’m leaning toward a big YES for The Nix, given the positive forecasts and also for this comment by Kirkus Reviews: “There are hints of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys as Hill, by way of his narrative lead, wrestles alternately converging and fugitive stories onto the page, stories that range from the fijords of Norway to the streets of ‘Czechago’ in the heady summer of 1968.” I loved Wonder Boys. The protagonist in The Nix similarly is a college professor and stalled writer.
From the publisher’s plot description: “It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson … hasn’t seen [his mother] in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime [throwing rocks at a presidential candidate] that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.”
As did Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly gave the novel a star while The Huffington Post listed The Nix among 2016 summer books not to miss. New York’s Strand Bookstore lists the forthcoming novel among the 16 books we can’t wait to read this summer.
July 21, 2016
Six Four has caught my attention not as much for the story as for the fact that it sold one million copies in six days in Japan, according to its publisher (via The Guardian). Author Hideo Yokoyama is hugely popular in Japan for his crime novels and often likened to Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author who penned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. From The Independent: “Like Stieg Larsson, with whom he has been (unhelpfully) compared, he is a driven workaholic and, like the late Swedish writer, suffered a heart attack after working continuously without breaks for many hours.”
The plot of this immense book (640 pages) is typical crime-novel fare. In 1989, a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl was kidnapped, ransomed and murdered. The killer was never identified or found, and the Japanese public neither forgot nor forgave the botched investigation. In 2002, Inspector Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s family on the latest anniversary of the crime. Mikami is the police press director. He takes a look at the case file and discovers an anomaly. From the publisher’s book description: “He could never imagine what he would uncover. He would never have looked if he’d known what he would find.”
From what I’ve read about the book in several publications, much of the story is spent delving into police bureaucracy, hierarchy, procedure and corruption. While such detail can be antithetical to what one would expect in a page-turning crime thriller, it sets this book apart. Reviewers agree time invested in the long story is well worth it, claiming readers will find themselves involved, gripped and rewarded. The Guardian calls Six Four a “binge read.”
The Times Literary Supplement writes,“The denouement is surprising, but there are no neat endings to the various strands of this well-written epic tale, which reads beautifully in Jonathan Lloyd-Davies’s translation. Six Four is far more a monument to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese bureaucratic life than it is a simple detective story.”
The Japan Times writes: “Yokoyama’s strength lies in his portrayal of the police: the stifling hierarchy, the politics and duplicity Mikami has to navigate. In true police-procedural fashion Six Four takes its time to reach its conclusion, all the while fleshing out characters who are headed for a denouement that is as original as it is ingenious.”
The Guardian writes: “The plot would grip in any language but, for readers in the west, there is extra fascination in Six Four being not just a police procedural but a guide book to Japan. Some of the local details – such as the cops’ repeated concerns with ‘losing face’ – might have been rejected by an English writer on Japan as too stereotypical. Other material, though, is educationally exotic.”
All of this fascinates me and, given the time, I’d jump into this book for the adventure of it. The Guardian writes: “It’s very different, in tone, narrative and style, from almost anything else out there.” I don’t often read that – or say that myself – about a book. Six Four is Yokoyama’s sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It’s not been published by a U.S. publisher, but it’s released in Britain by Quercus, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies. You can order it online. Maybe by the time – and if – it arrives in the U.S., I’ll have reading space and be ready for it.
June 23, 2016
It’s always fun to check out what the literary community believes is “best in show” for novels. Here are three major international awards and their winners, recently announced.
International Dublin Literary Award
Akhil Sharma wrote seven thousand pages over twelve and a half years to produce his 224 page novel Family Life. The story is based on the author’s own experience, according to an article he wrote for The New Yorker. (The article reveals the technical difficulties Mr. Sharma encountered writing the book.) Nominations for this award, formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, are received from public libraries in cities all over the world. Family Life was selected from 160 contenders nominated by librarians in 118 cities and 43 countries. The prestigious award recognizes both writers and translators. Mr. Sharma is the third American author to win the International Dublin Literary Award in its 21 year history. Here’s the plot summary of his novel, from the publisher’s description: “Growing up in Delhi in 1978, eight-year-old Ajay Mishra and his older brother Birju play cricket on the streets, eagerly waiting for the day they can join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more—until tragedy strikes. Young Ajay prays to a God he envisions as Superman, searching for direction amid the ruins of his family’s new life. Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.”
Man Booker International Award
The 2016 Man Booker International Prize has a new focus this year – to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction in translation. The prize money, divided equally between the author and the translator, is now awarded annually for a single work of fiction. Prior to 2016, the Man Booker International Award highlighted one living writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage and was announced every two years. The 2016 award went to South Korean author Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. The novel’s spare prose tells an unsettling story of a woman who, after a disturbing dream, stops eating meat. Her husband and family react with shock, anger and disapproval, as if Yeong-hye has committed an unforgivable crime. What unfolds is a difficult family story about Yeong-hye’s emotional demise and her family’s controlling abuse and angry incomprehension. From the Man Booker International Award website: “As her rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing, and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.”
Baileys Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize)
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s annual international book award for fiction written by a woman. According to the award website, founded in 1996, the Prize was set up to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world. This year’s winner — The Glorious Heresies written by Irish writer Lisa McInerney — is about life on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Set in the dark, underbelly of the city of Cork, the story brings together several misfits after a murder, including a 15-year-old drug dealer, his alcoholic father, a prostitute and a gangland boss. From the publisher’s press release: “In this gritty, darkly comic novel, McInerney crafts a twisted web of shifting loyalties and betrayals while interrogating notions of salvation, shame, and the legacy of Ireland’s past attitudes towards sex and family. She quietly explores money, violence, and the unbreakable bonds we form with each other through the story of one accidental murder and its rippling effects on five people who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society.” From a review in Britain’s Telegraph: “The Glorious Heresies is a spectacular debut … Tough and tender, gothic and lyrical, it is a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart.” The Guardian’s more tempered review says “the energy level flags in the final third of the book, as the characters keep repeating the same patterns of behaviour to less compelling effect.” The book is scheduled for release in the United States in August.
June 9, 2016
David Foenkinos’ astonishing new novel tells a fictionalized true story of the life and artistic work of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish German girl who lived from 1917 to 1943. It’s a familiar Holocaust story told with exceptional difference — the narrative is a vertical stack of sentences that breathe intensity and authorial passion. “Her life has become my obsession,” this experienced French novelist tells us. He saw an exhibition of Life? or Theater?, Charlotte Salomon’s autobiographical artwork, and became overwhelmed with soul-reaching connection. “I am an occupied country,” he confesses.
The novel begins with Charlotte’s namesake, her mother’s sister, who exited life without warning by jumping off a bridge when she was 18 years old. Thirteen years later, Charlotte’s mother is affected by the same depressive condition and consequence. Charlotte is left to be raised by nannies and a father devoted to his medical career. He marries again to an opera star, who brings joy and the cultural life of Berlin into their home. Charlotte falls in love with Albert, her stepmother’s voice coach, and attends the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
Except, it is the 1930’s when Hitler comes to power. Charlotte is robbed of deserved recognition at the Academy. Her father is taken away by Nazi officials and then returned, broken and unequivocally aware of the danger to his Jewish family. Charlotte is sent to live in southern France with her grandparents, despite her hysterical resistance. At the train station, her lover Albert whispers in her ear, “May you never forget that I believe in you.”
The author interjects himself into the narrative in a way that heightens our sensitivity to the story. The effect is mesmerizing, drawing us into his passionate desire to know everything about his subject. He visits Charlotte’s childhood home and grade school in Berlin, her refuge in southern France and the office of a doctor who treated her. The doctor, recognizing Charlotte’s artistic genius, tells her she must paint, despite the world’s darkness. It is the 1940s. Charlotte has endured and escaped an internment camp for Germans and suffered the loss of her grandmother, yet another suicide. She secludes herself and creates hundreds of paintings with text and music that becomes Life? or Theater? When completed, Charlotte gives it to the trusted doctor for safekeeping, declaring to him, “It is my whole life.”
Not long after, Charlotte is denounced anonymously to the Nazis. She’s sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she dies at the age of 26. Her father and stepmother survive the war, and in 1961 produce a catalog and exhibition of Life? or Theater? Briefly, Charlotte Salomon becomes famous. In 1971, her parents bequeath Life? or Theater? to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
To experience Charlotte’s artwork in Life? or Theater? is to understand the author’s passion and –after reading the novel — to feel more deeply this piercing, tender story.
The paintings are accessible on the website of the Jewish History Museum under Special Collections. The image above is captured from the museum’s online exhibit.
Charlotte by David Foenkinos is translated from the French by Sam Taylor.
May 23, 2016
A little over a week ago, during a post-presentation Q&A, a woman from the back row said she loved the current Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and then she asked if I could recommend another good book for her. The request silenced me. It always does, that ask by a stranger for the title of a good book. And yet, I expect myself to be able to casually toss out answers.
When independent bookstores flourished, the bookseller, over time, got to know a patron’s reading tastes and could provide personalized recommendations for good books. Today, Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s automatic “matches” of what you might like to read, based on past online book searches and purchases, is the impersonal opposite — their technology lacks the ability to capture nuance in reading desire and taste.
For me, making recommendations for strangers is a shot in the dark. Without knowing the person’s reading patterns and history, I don’t have a feel for what works for them in a novel. Is it the drama and romance? The captivating, complex characters whose fictional stories are unforgettable? The tension of the World War II European setting? Is it violence and intrigue or moving relationships? I’ve had many successes but also many failures in trying to take that shot in the dark.
I came out of my temporary stupor with an answer for the woman in the back row, sharing with her two novels that came to mind and are personal favorites. I qualified the answer, explaining Stoner by John Williams could lack the level of drama she might want (although it’s an international best-seller) and Mapuche by Carl Férey might be too violent (its plot draws from Argentina’s violent time of the “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983). Ever since that brief exchange, however, I’ve felt as if I didn’t provide a thoughtful enough response — because she mentioned Doerr’s novel, and I could’ve used it as my starting point. I could’ve tried for an “automatic match” à la online book-selling. And so…
Dear Woman in the Back Row,
I’ve pondered your request, considering what I could have otherwise suggested for you to read. Here are three novels I’m thinking you might enjoy. They have a World War II connection, which might appeal to you, since you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See. They’re not new books, but ones from the past known to have captivated many readers. Maybe you haven’t read them.
Winds of War by Herman Wouk is the first volume of Wouk’s popular World War II epic. It mentally kidnapped me during a long-ago summer, and I think back to that time fondly, reading Wouk’s novel on a commuter train, during lunch hours and by the pool, lost in the story. From the book’s description: “Wouk’s spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events — and all the drama, romance, heroism, and tragedy of World War II — as it immerses us in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very center of the war’s maelstrom.” The second novel in the epic drama is War and Remembrance.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize, focuses on protagonist Claudia Hampton as she lies dying in a London hospital bed,remembering kaleidoscopic fragments from her past that recall her life as a newspaper correspondent, historical novelist and mother. At the center is her memory of a brief love affair in Cairo, Egypt, during World War II, with a British tank officer on leave. While not on the level of “spellbinding,” as is Wouk’s epic, it’s nevertheless a moving, memorable story that also captivated me.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is based on the true story of a working class couple who lived a low-profile, non-political life in Berlin during Hitler’s years in power. When their only son was killed on the German front lines during the war, they became resisters. From the book’s description: “With nothing but their grief and each other against the awesome power of the Reich, they launch a simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.” Acclaimed WWII espionage novelist Alan Furst blurbs the dust jacket on my copy of the book: “One of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II. Ever….Please, do not miss this.”
April 28, 2016
Early on in my reading of Rob Spillman’s new memoir, someone asked me why it was written. She didn’t ask what it was about but instead went to the heart of what we expect in a memoir — that compelling tragedy, dysfunction or adventure driving the writer to share, hopefully, a page-turning shocker or an engaging seducer. All I could think to say in answer was that All Tomorrow’s Parties is a coming-of-age story, which doesn’t really answer why the memoir was written. It also doesn’t offer much incentive to grab the book and start reading.
Nuala O’Faolain, in the introduction to her 1996 best-selling memoir Are You Somebody?, tells of being approached by people scrutinizing her face, thinking they recognized her, and asking, “Are you somebody?” This happened during the 10 years she wrote a column for the Irish Times, and her photo accompanied the column. When a publisher asked her to turn her columns into a book, she considered these small brushes with fame and used the question for the title of her book:
“I’m not anybody in terms of the world, but then, who decides what a somebody is? How is a somebody made? I’ve never done anything remarkable; neither have most people. Yet most people, like me, feel remarkable. That self-importance welled up inside me. I had the desire to give an account of my life. I was finished with furtiveness. I sat down to write the introduction, and I summoned my pride. I turned it into a memoir.”
Rob Spillman, according to O’Faolain’s comments, isn’t “a somebody.” He’s the editor of Tin House magazine and editorial advisor for Tin House Books (a publishing house that turns out terrific novels, I might add). His memoir takes us on a journey of self-discovery during an interesting time in history, and while this may not be the stuff of a remarkable life, it’s pleasant to read.
Born in 1964 to American musicians, Spillman spent his childhood 200 miles behind the Iron Curtain in West Berlin; however, All Tomorrow’s Parties begins not with childhood, but with the 25-year-old Spillman attending a rave in East Berlin with his wife Elissa. This is after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before reunification. In alternating chapters, we go back and forth between this young adult time and his childhood and teen years. We learn that Spillman’s mother left when he was four years old, and Spillman’s constant exposure to his father’s career as a passionate pianist immersed him in the artistic life. Concert halls became his playground. But the father and son didn’t stay forever behind the Iron Curtain, leaving West Berlin when Spillman’s father accepted a position at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The young Spillman reconnected with his mother, staying with her during the school year in Baltimore, and then with his father during summers, attending the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Spillman’s deep yearning to live a life driven by an artistic passion — as his father was driven by his passion for the piano — thematically threads together the years. So, too, does his desperate want to be considered a Berliner, setting him apart in the United States and giving him a place to call home. Pain, confusion, failure and rebellion dominated his youthful American years. The teen-aged Spillman sailed through high school with academic excellence only to flunk out of college. He describes this time as living in “a drunken, womanizing haze.” During his time in Europe with his wife, the 25-year-old Spillman attempted to live a Bohemian life, lingering over but not committing to a half-baked novel. He thought returning to East Berlin during the historic changes of 1989 would define him and make him real, but that’s not what happened.
The book’s title comes from a 1967 song by The Velvet Underground, and it aptly captures a chasing of self, as if tomorrow holds the answer. For Spillman, when the answer finally arrives, it’s shallow. He fails to go deep into his enlightenment, and it comes across as all too common; however, the answer does bring him home. Back to the question I was asked in the beginning about the book, having finished it, I would respond as I did originally, but I would likely refer to O’Faolain’s commentary about writing a memoir and being a somebody. O’Faolain certainly proved you don’t have to be celebrity or tragedian to have a memoir-worthy life, but you do have to have something more than shallow enlightenment.
April 8, 2016
In the early 1840s, a young Walt Whitman worked as a journalist and wrote average fiction, poetry and editorials that, according to debut author J. Aaron Sanders, were “overwrought, sentimental, and derivative.” Not much later, in 1855, Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, poetry that upended the classical metered schema and now holds a place of significance in the canon of literature. Sanders takes a fictional pen to imagining what those gap years could’ve looked like. In doing so, he’s created a fast-paced, compulsively readable historical mystery set in 1843 New York City with Whitman as protagonist and sleuth. It may feel odd to think of the esteemed 19th century literary figure as a young journalist pursuing truth in a murder case, but it works, and tremendously well.
Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery opens with the public hanging of Whitman’s friend, Lena Stowe, who’s convicted of murdering her husband, Abraham. Our protagonist knows neither would have done what New York City officials and police put forth as fact – that Abraham murdered his mistress Mary Rogers and tossed her body in the Hudson River after he learned she was pregnant and botched the abortion – and that Lena murdered her husband in a jealous rage. Even to the public, it appears to be a clear-cut case, but Whitman believes Abe’s death is connected to the resurrectionists, grave robbers with whom Abe conducted business.
Abe and Lena ran a medical college for women. Like all medical school directors at the time, they needed cadavers for anatomical dissection. The only way to get the cadavers was via Samuel Clement, a strongman in the criminal bodysnatchng trade. Adding to the difficulty for the Stowe’s medical school, the practice of dissection was considered sacrilegious, causing morally outraged people to protest at their front door. It was believed a dissected body could not resurrect to heaven. Abe attempted to push through legislation that would provide a legal way for medical colleges to acquire cadavers, which would put Clement out of business. That, according to Whitman, screamed motive for Clement to murder Abe. As Whitman travels down the rabbit hole of discovery into this underground world of the resurrectionists, he puts his life at risk, and that of his editor and dear friend, Henry Saunders.
Speakers of the Dead includes historical figure Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate medical school in the United States, and also the famous writer Edgar Allan Poe, who in reality attempted to solve the true, sensational New York City Mary Rogers murder with his stories. In the Author’s Note to the book, Sanders writes: “The problem for Poe was that, by the time he published the trilogy of stories, new theories about the death of Rogers had emerged, rendering Poe’s own theories useless.” Sanders cleverly imagines a very drunk Poe collaborating with Whitman one night in a cemetery in a scene that quickly becomes an entertaining hot mess.
Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery may cause Whitman scholars to roll their eyes, but for the rest of us, it’s colorful mystery reading filled with secrets and gross misdeeds that keep the light on well into the night. Whitman’s romantic interest in Henry Saunders adds emotional drama, while his fearless approaches toward corrupt politicians and criminals adds edginess. Meanwhile, public protests rage before the Stowe’s medical college where Elizabeth Blackwell and other female medical students continue to study after the Stowe’s deaths, and they fear for their lives. Along the way, Mr. Whitman, journalist, poet and sleuth, gets closer to the truth of what really happened to Mary Rodgers and Abraham Stowe, during his energetic, vilifying and surprising investigation.
March 23, 2016
The bookshelf here beside me contains many of the paperback classics I read in college. I’ve kept them all these years of my life, packing them up and moving them wherever I’ve gone. You’d recognize them — Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Robert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Dickens’ Hard Times, Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of MidLothian, and on I could go. But what’s missing on these shelves are the science fiction classics I read: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and others I can’t recall. I think I gave them away or left them behind somewhere.
I never leave books behind. My double-stacked shelves and books on top of books on top of books on top of tables are a testament to that, but science fiction isn’t what I like to read. So why did I recently pick up Charlie Jane Anders’ new book, a sci-fi fantasy, All the Birds in the Sky?
What I’ve learned from reading Anders’ science fiction fantasy novel (which I enjoyed) and other science fiction I’ve tried and enjoyed (Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear) is that I’m okay with science fiction as long as there’s not a new world I need to understand with a tongue-twisting vocabulary of geographic labels, human class hierarchies and referential touch points that don’t stick with me. The previously mentioned books didn’t have that. The Southern Reach Trilogy, in fact, captivated me.
A couple months ago, I asked Mark, a manager at Half Price Books who often joins the WOSU book show, to recommend a science fiction book for me. Mark reads a lot of science fiction, and he handed me Neil Stephenson’s popular novel Snow Crash, which The New York Times said is “brilliantly realized.” By page two, I’m reading about the arachnofiber weave of the Deliverator’s uniform, the Giga Highlands and a Burbclave, which cause my reading mind to stumble and freeze. (Darn it!) For perspective, I tell myself, I suppose this is similar to someone wanting to read one of those classic novels I listed above but choking on Victorian prose or falling asleep over it. To make the point, I’ll just type in here the first line of The Heart of Midlothian: “The times have changed in nothing more (we follow as we were wont the manuscript of Peter Pattieson) than in the rapid conveyance of intelligence and communication betwixt one part of Scotland and another.”)
All the Birds in the Sky smoothly rides on uber technology, which includes an intelligent super computer, emotional robots and an antigravity machine. It also engages the mystical, with a parliamentary tree populated by talking birds sitting in council. The story begins with an overwhelmed, young witch named Patricia Delfine, who understands what they’re saying and also struggles to understand her powers. She befriends the super-smart Lawrence Armstead at school, a geeky, bullied boy who’s invented a time machine that jumps ahead two seconds, so he can escape the bullies’ torments. This middle school section of the story lacks provocative intrigue and falls short in texture and energy compared to the rest of the book, when 10 years later, the two friends come together again in San Francisco. Patricia consorts with other witches, and Lawrence creates a wormhole generator that opens a pathway to infinity. His boss wants to assure the preservation of the human race in case of a doomsday scenario. Patricia’s full powers come into play when that day arrives, going to war to destroy Lawrence’s gravity-defying machine because it will tear a hole in the earth and destroy the natural world — those creatures whose languages Patricia understands. Meanwhile, these two protagonists who are at odds with one another are also in difficult love.
Even though Anders wrestles with global catastrophe and ethical issues, she doesn’t take herself or the robots and super machines too seriously. There’s plenty of humor, and the story sparkles with inventiveness. In the end, everything wraps up believably, and not too neatly, either, which makes the story even more credible. And so, I’ll add All the Birds in the Sky to the list of science fiction I’ve read and enjoyed, but you won’t find it on my bookshelves. I borrowed it from the library. And Snow Crash? That’s right here, tempting me to try it again before I next see Mark, and return it.
March 10, 2016
A philosophy book may cause some to shrug with indifference, but Sarah Bakewell has a knack for making big ideas and their thinkers fascinating and readable. She achieved such excellence and readability with her book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne In One Question and 20 Attempts At an Answer about Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne is best known for perfecting the essay as a literary genre.
Last week, Bakewell’s new book arrived with a focus on existentialism.
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Others received rave forecasting reviews, with Library Journal issuing the verdict: “Highly recommended for anyone who thinks.” An interesting cast of characters populates the book, aside from those in the long title, including political theorist Hannah Arendt, authors Iris Murdoch and James Baldwin, and more. From the publisher’s website:
“Interweaving biography and philosophy, [At the Existentialist Café] is the epic account of passionate encounters — fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships — and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.”
You can read a short excerpt here. Bakewell’s How to Live, by the way, won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.
Soon to be published is what strikes me as a quirky and potentially fascinating anthology of childhood infatuations with celebrated media stars or iconic characters. Contributors in Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush include Carrie Fisher, Stephen King, James Franco and Jodi Picoult, plus others. Crushes range from Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie in the 1960s Dick Van Dyke Show to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.
Here’s the opening for Jodi Picoult’s contribution, when she’s six years old and running away from home:
“I stuffed a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and a change of clothes into my pillowcase, I scrawled a note for my mother and left it on my bureau. Then I sneaked downstairs and slipped out the back door into the smothering heat of an August night, intent on running away to be with the one person I was certain would appreciate me.
“The note read: I have gone to live with Donny Osmond. Don’t try to come after me.”
If existentialists and media crushes don’t interest you, perhaps Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England for 44 years, will. Author John Guy writes about the Tudor queen, daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, at the height of her power using new archival material.
“In this magisterial biography of England’s most ambitious Tudor queen, John Guy introduces us to a woman who is refreshingly unfamiliar: at once powerful and vulnerable, willful and afraid. In these essential and misunderstood forgotten years, Elizabeth confronts challenges at home and abroad: war against the Catholic powers of France and Spain, revolt in Ireland, an economic crisis that triggered riots in the streets of London, and a conspiracy to place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on her throne. For a while she was smitten by a much younger man, but could she allow herself to act on that passion and still keep her throne?”