December 29, 2016
Over the years, I’ve given books to friends who come to my house for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a joy for me and them, this book carefully selected and then placed on the table to function as their place card. Below are the selections I made this year and the reasons behind my decisions.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
I’ll start with a misfire. It’s not the book you see here. This actually was my first choice, but I second guessed myself and instead gave Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air. With Kalanithi’s book being front and center in the media and on bestseller lists, I knew I was risking that my friend would already have read the book, and indeed she had. That was the misfire, i.e., not listening to my gut instinct. With my first choice on hand, I was able to get it to her the next day — Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, focused on the literary life and religious faith of mid-20th century writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. I thought my friend, an entrepreneur and ordained minister, who enjoys deep, thoughtful topics, would find many pause-worthy moments in Elie’s acclaimed work that The New York Times described as “a freeze frame from another era of the perennial search for truth.”
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I always look for an absorbing novel for this friend. She’s one of those readers who will stay up all night to find out what happens next. She tells me she must plan her reading so as to miss not just sleep, but also appointments or anything else that would get in the way of The End. And so this novel, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and penned by the lyric Alaskan native author, came to mind for its intrigue of an unusual child’s presence in the lives of a struggling couple. Jack and Mable are trying to make a life together in 1920’s frontier Alaska when the snow child comes into their lives, but is the child fantasy or reality? Ivey released a new novel this past summer, To the Bright Edge of the World, but I selected her first novel because my friend is a specialist in early child education. I thought the combined mystery and child focus would deeply absorb her.
Upstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
Oliver is a popular poet whose beautiful words, philosophies and insights transport readers into the natural world and its wisdom. Among forests, rivers, ponds and fields, she presents a kind of peace and acceptance that transcends the hysteria of modern life. An example is her poem “Am I Not Among the Early Risers” in which she writes: “What will ambition do for me that the fox, appearing suddenly / at the top of the field, / her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine / has not already done?/” Oliver’s new collection of essays seemed like a no-brainer for this friend who loves poetry and the outdoors. These essays have been gathered together as a sort of autobiography, with Oliver reflecting on the natural world, as well as topics from childhood and her adult writing life. As much as I knew my friend would enjoy the book, though, I afterwards wondered if I should’ve reached for something more unexpected. Oliver’s essays are a best-seller, like Kalanithi’s memoir, and while my friend hadn’t read it, upon opening it, she recognized it. Is there more magic in receiving a book that’s completely unknown?
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Speaking of bestsellers, here’s another one. I tend to avoid the bestseller list because it is the go-to source for many when they want a book selection – and the list is so limiting, given the phenomenal choices beyond it. Alas, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phenomenal book also came to mind. I selected it for a friend who read Hillbilly Elegy and loved it. I don’t believe she’s an avid, even frequent reader, and so I thought giving her this important, highly lauded book about ideas of race would capture her attention. Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it’s like to be black in America today. It’s universally described as “required reading.” Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and came in as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Here is another friend whose reading habits I believe are spotty, at best, and by that I mean it’s possible she doesn’t think to read, except maybe when someone hands her a book. Given the Kennedy family story continues to fascinate this nation of readers, I thought this new biography of a lesser-known Kennedy daughter — sibling of the famous Jack, Robert and Ted, her brothers of political fame — would capture my friend’s interest. Rosemary Kennedy was intellectually disabled and kept as a family secret. It’s a tragic story that is the reason her Kennedy relatives established and supported government opportunities and resources for the disabled. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, author Kate Clifford Larson said of Rosemary: “She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate … but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn’t ask.”
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Finally, a classic autobiography chosen for a friend who has become an avid reader, one who keeps a list of books to be read, frequents the library and reads every day. She posed a challenge in that I know she reads this blog, and so I didn’t feel I could select from anything I’d written about here. Likely, if it was a good match, she would already have it on her list. I’ve given her literary novels she has loved and not loved so much (yet she has read every page); and then, I remembered she loved Friday Night Lights, a book I recommended a while back. I took that non-fiction cue and immediately this beloved memoir by Nabokov came to mind for its nostalgia, beautiful writing and Nabokov’s insight into his Russian childhood. It struck as a perfect combination of literary style and a true story that my friend would enjoy. From the Humanities article Why Nabokov’s Speak Memory Still Speaks to Us: “After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away.” I hope the same for my friend.
November 22, 2016
The first page of Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir may put you off for its darkness. She confesses she has changed, that she is no longer the cheerful person she has been throughout her adult life (she is now in her late 80s). There’s no bitterness, she says, rather a recognition she knows what’s happening. “I don’t belong here anymore,” she writes. “Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will. I’m slowing down.”
The book is only 100 pages, and she’s not writing it to you, the reader. She’s writing to her father, and that keeps the emotional burden from pulling you in too close. It’s like secretly overhearing Marceline talk to him in the next room, safely hearing difficult material without demands. So I wouldn’t put the book down just yet.
Marceline is a Holocaust survivor. When she was 15 years old, she and her father were arrested by the Vichy government’s militia at their château in southern France and deported to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. While the book is concerned with telling a Holocaust story, it is also firmly in the realm of doing what books do so well: putting us in someone else’s life to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.
Marceline’s one-way conversation with her father, who never returned from Auschwitz, accomplishes this with meaningful clarity. She tells her father about her time in Birkenau, with particular emphasis on the small note he managed to get to her via a messenger. She remembers only the salutation and closing, not the essence of the message, and that torments her. She recalls the time they saw each other, when she marched by his camp. And she explains how she left Birkenau, spent a short time at Bergen-Belsen and then worked in a factory at Raguhn near Leipzig, Germany. When the war ended, she describes walking toward the Americans in Prague, and away from the Russians. “Where were you? All I could think about was you. But I didn’t try to find you among the others. That’s not how we’d be together.”
The effort here is not a capturing of facts, rather an intimate sharing. She knows her father will understand her life, when so many others have not understood it. That’s particularly true about coming home to a mother who wanted life to continue normally for Marceline, with a wedding and children. “If you had been there, you wouldn’t have been able to bear her questions, you would have told Mama to be quiet. You also would have told her to let me sleep on the floor. She didn’t want to understand that I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed anymore.”
The adult years take Marceline into a career as a documentary film-maker, giving her purpose, and she finds a deep connection with her second husband, giving her the love she needs. In the last pages of the book, there is concern that “everything is getting tense again,” referring to “threats that sounded like echoes from the past” and “policemen outside of synagogues but I do not want to be someone who needs protection.”
This is profoundly moving literature, with the last pages expressing a trust Marceline brings to her telling of the story. This trust allows her to be vulnerable — and us to be immersed in an important life story. “When I talk to you, I don’t feel consoled. But I release what is clasped tightly in my heart.”
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.)