Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Courage and Resistance

What makes someone courageous? Is it a genetic instinct or a learned behavior? I often wonder how I would react to a significant threat or test of principles. Such questions are again on my mind after reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. It is as the subtitle describes “A War Story” (non-fiction) set in Warsaw during the German occupation in World War II. The Warsaw Zoo under the direction of Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina was quite well regarded prior to the invasion of the Germans in 1939. But the Nazi ideal of genetic purity included animals as well as humans. So in due course all of the best animals from the Warsaw Zoo were removed for breeding experiments and many of the remainder shot. Many were killed or escaped during the bombings.

Though the Zabinskis were Christian, they had many Jewish friends and acquaintances confined to the Warsaw ghetto. They were able, over the next few years, to rescue over 300 people. Among other ruses, they used the “cover” of gathering garbage to feed the animals, including a fur farm on the property, as a means of communicating with the Polish underground resistance and providing meager supplies to the confined Jews. They were able to use many of the zoo’s cages and connecting passageways to hide those trying to escape. As the Zabinskis were wont to give their animals all human names, it only helped to confuse things they they gave their underground contacts animal names. It seems all the more remarkable that their activities remained undetected by the Germans as they had a very young school-age son. How easily and innocently he could have betrayed them. The risks to themselves were great but as Jan Zabinski is quoted as saying: “We did it because it was the right thing to do.” Yes, but not everyone did it.

Because Diane Ackerman is herself a naturalist, she brings an additional sensitivity to her writing about the animals and the zoo. The zookeeper's residence on the property sounds like a veritable Noah's Ark. That she has done a great deal of research is evident. By her choice she essentially ends the story in 1945 with only cursory mention of the Zabinskis’ lives until their deaths in the 1970s.

By coincidence, in The New York Times Magazine of December 28, 2008, there was a portrait of Irena Sendler who died in 2008. She was a Catholic Pole in her 30s who also smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto between 1941–1943 because, she said, “my heart told me to.” After she was captured by the Gestapo she managed to escape and spent some time as a “guest” of the Zabinskis at the zoo.

Ackerman describes some research by Malka Drucker and Gay Block on the personality traits of rescuers. “Rescuers tended to be decisive, fast-thinking, risk-taking, independent, adventurous, open-hearted, rebellious and unusually flexible – able to switch plans, abandon habits, or change ingrained routines at a moment’s notice. They tended to be non-conformists.” I imagine they felt as Jan did: “I only did my duty—if you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Southern Humor and Heartbreak

“Ellen Foster” was first published in 1987. It was Kaye Gibbons’ first novel for which she won critical acclaim and a special citation by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. “Ellen Foster” is the story of Ellen, the narrator and heroine of this funny, engaging but heart wrenching novel.

Ellen is an eleven year old girl who had the bad luck of being born into a family with a “Big wind-up toy of a man” for a father and a mother whose “skin looked tired of holding in her weak self.” The story is one told with the stark honesty of an eleven year old. Ellen is not always sure what is happening to her but she knows that there is something very wrong with her life. The voice is so authentic that you are sure you are listening to an eleven year old child who lives somewhere in the south in a very bad situation. Ellen is wise for an eleven year old but when she is trying to figure out something she doesn’t understand you can’t help laughing out loud.

Unfortunately there is not a lot to laugh about in this story. It is a moving story of a child, abused and left to her own resources. But one thing Ellen has is resources. When both her sorry parents die she finds herself at the mercy of her relatives, who are mean, petty and abusive. How much can one child take? Ellen’s sense of humor makes reading this heart wrenching story so easy. You really care about this character and want her to not only survive but to be happy. It is fun watching just how Ellen achieves this end. With this end comes Ellen's understanding of racism and the role it plays in the life of a child.

The author did a wonderful job of disappearing into the voice of the young narrator, so believably that you never doubt Ellen’s reliability. The determination of Ellen to leave her past life behind and find one that meets her approval is a story told with humor, honesty, and spunk, by a character that you won’t easily forget.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Married Life

I'm back to Tolstoy's line again - “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“. If you substitute 'marriage' for 'family' it might seem to apply just as well. Phillip Lopate's Two Marriages consists of two novellas about married couples who, other than their common setting of Brooklyn, could not be more different.

The first story, “The Stoic's Marriage”, is written as a series of journal entries made by Gordon, a pudgy forty-something bachelor who discovers love with the beautiful Rita, an attractive Filipino whom he meets when she becomes the home health aide to his dying mother. His early entries rhapsodize about Rita's perfection, but as the months roll on things become much more complicated. You've heard of the 'unreliable narrator'. I guess I would categorize Gordon as the clueless narrator. The reader figures out long before he does that Rita may not be all that she seems. But Gordon plugs on confidently, explaining his hilariously cockeyed theories as to why Rita's motives are pure. His relentless stoicism in the face of all his setbacks is amusing and heartwarming.

In the second story “Eleanor, or, The Second Marriage” we meet Eleanor and Frank (a play on the Roosevelts?) who seem to be the couple who have everything. They live in a large Brooklyn brownstone, hold satisfying jobs, and have a circle of interesting friends. This is the second marriage for both, and they pride themselves on having evolved into partners who can truly love and understand each other. The story takes place over the course of a July weekend during which they hold an impromptu dinner party for an assortment of friends and family. Eleanor prepares a “simple meal” involving individual Cornish game hens, a zucchini vegetable terrine, wild rice with scallions and cranberries, hors d'oeuvres, hot biscuits and sun-dried-tomato bread, mesclun salad, Greek olives, chutneys, cheeses and two desserts. It's hard not to hate her, isn't it? I'm hoping the desserts were store-bought.

By the time Monday morning dawns, it is clear that Eleanor and Frank are really not much better than Gordon in understanding the workings of a marriage. All their sophistication doesn't save them from its pitfalls; if Gordon asks too few questions, Frank asks too many. Lopate does a masterful job in these two disparate tales of showing the many and varied difficulties of married life.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A (Bad) Grammar Lesson

Years ago, decades in fact, in the first year of our book group we read Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. In the 25 years since, we have never discussed reading another of her books. Many of the more recent ones have been mysteries involving a cat. But she has been a prolific writer and when I saw a slim volume The Sand Castle in the library I decided to see how she had developed as an author – a bad choice but not for the reason that I would have expected.

On the surface this is the story of a day’s outing to the beach on the Chesapeake Bay in 1952. The travelers are two sisters (known affectionately as Juts and Wheezie, more formally as Julia and Louise), Juts’ 7-year old daughter Nickel and Wheezie’s 8-year-old grandson Leroy. Apparently the sisters and Nickel have appeared in some of Brown’s previous books. To describe Nickel as precocious is being too kind: she is a brat, repeatedly teasing and frightening her cousin, no doubt sensing his special vulnerability due to the recent death of his mother.

The title comes from the magnificent structure that engages them all, although the children are restricted to hauling sand and water while the sisters act as architects and engineers. The sand castle comes complete with flags and a drawbridge, not like any that I ever built as a child.

Perhaps because the book is so short and because I hadn’t read any of the previous books in which these sisters appear, I just could not understand them – particularly Juts. On the one hand she has taught Nickel a refinement of manners almost unheard of today. Here is Nickel speaking: “ “Are you hungry?” I’d learned not to ask for food but to politely ask if the other person needed some.” On the other hand, not only does Juts smoke cigarettes herself, she introduces them to her daughter (“Gotta learn to do it” - remember Nickel is 7 years old) and has a vocabulary of swearing and cursing that is unrestrained in her daughter’s presence.

But none of that is the reason for my criticism. What really upsets me is the bad grammar: from a well-known author and a respected publisher Grove Press.

Here is Nickel again: “ “Well…” Mother fudged, since she didn’t want Leroy and I to know what a devil she was…” This was the first instance. When I got over the shock I tried to think of a reason that Brown would make such an obvious error. Perhaps, as this is Nickel speaking, she Nickel at age 7 might make this mistake, hence Brown wrote it this way.

But when it happened again, I was in despair. Here is Julia speaking: “ “I don’t know, kid. When you’re little—seven or eight is still little compared to Wheezie and I,” she said…”

Am I missing something here? I know that people make this grammatical mistake all the time but is that a reason to reinforce the error in print? An author of Brown’s stature would serve her readers better (and not have alienated this one) by writing the dialogue in a way to avoid the problem. So, that’s what I will remember about this book, not the lesson of a family coping with an early death or a child’s harsh introduction to the realities of the adult world.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Anna's Best Books for 2008

I was inspired by Charlotte’s list of Notable Books for 2008. It has been a challenging and exciting year as we created our blog and wrote our thoughts on the books we were reading each week. So it is fitting that we should pick our favorites and share that list with our readers. I choose three fiction and three non-fiction books I have read and blogged this year. My Three Fiction Choices are:

“Out Stealing Horses“-by Per Petterson This wonderful book makes every list, including The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, because it is a beautifully written, wonderful story about a man who has lived his life and is looking back to the last summer he spent with his father and wondering what really happened.

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle”-by David Wroblewski This story about a boy who can’t speak and the incredible bond he has with the fictionalized breed of dogs that his family raises is a joy to read. Again the writing is so good and the story is gripping, with a haunting Shakespearean theme.

“The Things They Carried”- Tim O’Brien writes a fictionalized version of his tour in Vietnam. You feel as though you are right there with these young men who lived and died as they fought that endless, unpopular war.

My Non-Fiction Choices:

“The Year of Magical Thinking”- Joan Didion writes about the absorbing details of the year she lived after her husband suddenly died. Her candor and strength are a joy to encounter. It is an unforgettable personal journey.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”-Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French “Elle”, suffered a massive stroke. He could only move his left eye lid yet he devised a way to write a stunningly beautiful story of the survival of the human spirit.

“The Things That Matter”- Edward Mendelson has written an exploration of how seven classic novels teach us about life. It is inspiring to read how he connects these wonderful classic novels to the stages of life we all encounter.

Happy New Year and Enjoy Reading in 2009!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Advice from Maureen

Maureen Corrigan is always giving me ideas. She's the book critic on NPR's “Fresh Air”, so if I happen to have a pencil handy when she's talking I will scribble down her suggestions and file them away. Later, when I'm searching for something to read, I'll pull out the list. But by that time I've lost all memory of why she recommended a book. Was it a beach read? A murder mystery? A gift suggestion? I have no idea. But I decided to try one anyway – The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam. The cover said it was the winner of the Whitbread award, so I reasoned that it couldn't be too bad.

The book consists of a series of letters written by Eliza Peabody, an imaginative but isolated resident of posh Rathbone Road in South London, to her unseen neighbor Joan, whom she hardly knows. Initially these short notes seem to be the work of a patronizing busybody exhorting Joan to buck up. But by page five Joan has apparently fled and Eliza's letters become longer and longer as she describes her life spiraling out of control. Her husband has left her, she barely knows her neighbors, her only friend is a young man dying of AIDS in a hospice where she volunteers.

It soon becomes clear that Eliza is an unreliable narrator. Are the odd anecdotes, sometimes sad and sometimes hilarious, that she relates to the mysterious Joan in her long rambling letters really true? Or is Eliza losing her grip on reality? Gardam does a masterful job of describing the tipping point between sanity and madness where Eliza seems to be teetering. Slowly the roots of Eliza's unhappiness begin to emerge, and she changes from being eccentric, self-righteous and downright annoying into a sympathetic character, all without losing her quirky sense of humor.

I might quibble a little with the tidiness of the ending, but I did enjoy Maureen's choice.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy Birthday, Jane!

For a time, thanks to a gift from my friend Diane, I was a card-carrying member of the Northern California chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. In additional to the national organization there are about 60 regional groups (including Northern California) almost all of whom have some sort of celebration of Jane Austen’s birthday – which happens to be today December 16th (in 1775)! Completely by coincidence I have just finished listening to an audio recording of Austen’s Mansfield Park. My listening time is almost all centered around my running time and these last few weeks have been delightful thanks to this recording. While there is a plot, the novel was much more interesting to me for the portrayal of English manners. And while the heroine is Fanny Price, I was more interested in Austen’s portrayal of some of the other characters namely Fanny’s two aunts Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris.

Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price, are sisters. Mrs. Price married for love but has ended up living in poverty, the mother of nine children with a drunken husband. Lady Bertram is married to the wealthy owner of Mansfield Park and Mrs. Norris is, at the time of the story, the widow of the former chaplain of Mansfield Park with reduced financial circumstances. The only resemblance between Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris is that each is completely self-absorbed. Austen’s descriptions of them are gems of character analysis and writing.

When Fanny is eight years old, Lady Bertram agrees to take Fanny in to be raised with her own four children. Fanny is treated as the poor relation (especially by Mrs. Norris) except by one of the sons, her cousin Edmund. Most of the novel occurs when Fanny is eighteen and is occasioned by the visit to Mansfield Park of Henry and Mary Crawford (brother and sister to the wife of the current chaplain of Mansfield Park) and Mr. Yates, a friend of the elder Bertram son. So we have 4 Bertram siblings, cousin Fanny and 3 friends, all single and of approximately the same age. I’m sure you can guess where the plot is going - although it takes several twists and turns.

While the novel is generally noted for its satire, there are some serious reflections. Toward the end of the book, when Sir Thomas Bertram is disappointed by the actions of several of his children, he reflects on his failure as a parent in the children’s education and wonders if he is to blame – a passage to resonate with many parents in any time and place and financial circumstances.

Having enjoyed this book so much, I think it is time to renew my membership.

Download a free audio recording of Mansfield Park

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Charlotte's Notable Books of 2008

The year is coming to an end, and Best Books of 2008 lists are appearing in many publications. So I decided to create one of my own, choosing my favorites from among the 38 books I have blogged this year. I tried to limit my list to three, but I found it hard to whittle down my choices. So I compromised with a top three and three more honorable mentions. In no particular order, here are my top three:

Last Night at the Red Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
(Closing Time) – because its sympathetic portrayal of a day in the life of restaurant manager Manny DeLeon is a touching ode to the working man.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (Office Life) – because Ferris perfectly captured the zen of office life with humor and honesty, and did it all while writing in first person plural.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (God's Frozen People)– because I was blown away by Chabon's ability to create an entire alternate universe.

The runners-up are also terrific:

Lush Life by Richard Price (Neighborhood Crime) – because I love cop stories and Price's dialogue is fantastic.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Transplants) - because each story is a little jewel.

Time Will Darken It by Will Maxwell – (Revisiting an Old Friend) - because Maxwell's prose is so beautiful.

Happy New Year - read a good book in 2009!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mister Pip

New Zealander Lloyd Jones has written a superb and unusual tale for any book lover's consideration. Winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Prize, Mister Pip is a story narrated by Matilda, a 13 year old girl living in a small village on an island in New Guinea during a brutal civil war in the 1990's. Helicopters hover, power goes out, teachers have fled, and both government and rebel troops of boys surround the village. Only one white man, Mr. Watt's, remains, becoming their teacher with dreams of making the classroom a "place of light". Mr. Watt's has an abiding love for Dickens and one particular book, Great Expectations. He reads to the children to provide an escape from their dreary days, to set their minds free, to encourage them to allow their imaginations to flourish. The children are enthralled by the story, especially the character Pip. When the rebels mistakenly assume that Mr. Watt's, identified as Pip, is a spy, the tale darkens and devastating events occur. "Just as Great Expectations changes Matilda, instilling in her a moral code, so the environment in which it is read changes the book." Faced with a crisis, Mr. Watt's must spin a tale that combines elements from Pip's life, his own, and that of the beleaguered islanders. Despite the heartache and horror that are contained in the story, there is considerable charm, humor and power in this book.

Jones writes in a lyrical way and has a wonderful ear for the earthy aspects of village life. Some people are "silly as bats" and "argue like roosters". He mentions characters with big bums. Despite devastating events in the story, the author makes it clear that he has great faith in literature and it's power to effect change and offer solace. That's what contributes much to create a memorable book. This book stands alone quite well but I think it would be an ideal book to read along with Great Expectations, to form the basis of a stimulating discussion.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Finding the Past

“The Clothes on Their Backs” by English author Linda Grant was short listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. The heroine of this involved story that spans over sixty years is Vivien Kovacs. Vivien is the daughter of Hungarian Jewish refugees who escaped from Hungary before the war and found themselves in London. The ladies of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service found the Kovacs a flat in the staid Benson Court where they, almost literally, hid for fifty years. Vivien’s father was a master craftsman in the backroom of a gold and diamond jeweler, and her mother rarely left the flat. They never mentioned to Vivien that they were Jewish.

As a lonely, only child Vivienne “floated through time and space…. Until I was ten I was completely unaware that I had a relative”. The doorbell rang one day and a voice on the other side of the door claimed to be Vivien’s father’s brother. But Vivien’s father angrily cried. “Go away or I will call the police”. With that introduction Vivien had an infamous, evil uncle.

Vivien finally escapes her life at Benson Court by going to college where she meets and falls in love with the quintessential tall, blond, English boy. The residents at Benson Court send Vivien and her new husband off on a honeymoon to the French Riviera where her beloved Alexander dies on the second night of the honeymoon as the result of a ghastly accident. Vivien returned to London and Benson Court and fought depression as she wandered the streets of London. One day she finds herself in Regent Park sitting next to her uncle "The Face of Evil". Her uncle is a criminal who used woman to make his fortune and then became a notorious slum landlord who landed in jail. Vivien and her uncle form a bond as she agrees help him write his memoirs. He tells the story of his wonderful childhood with Vivien’s father and their parents in Hungary, of how Vivien’s father and mother left and he stayed to be imprisoned and tortured. He gave Vivien a past, which her parents had denied her. Sandor Kovaks' story is sad, funny and dramatic, and probably the best part of the book.

Linda Grant has written a story with many layers and diverse characters. The main theme of this story is that things and people are not always what they seem to be, and it sometimes takes strange twists of fate to reveal what the truth is. The plot and the writing make for a very enjoyable, although sometimes convoluted, novel.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Revisiting an Old Friend

It's easy to get caught up in reading the hottest new authors and forget about old favorites. Recently as I surfed the web I found a reading group whose favorite book was William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It. Our group read and enjoyed two Maxwell books in the late 90's, but I had completely forgotten about him. It was time to revisit an old favorite.

The book's epigraph is a quote from “Artists on Art”, a book about landscape painting technique. It advises artists to add enough white to their paint mixture to produce a bright tint: “it must not be dark; on the contrary, it must be rather on the light side because time will darken it...”. And at first Maxwell's novel seems to be a bright charming landscape painting of the Midwest in 1912. Lawyer Austin King, his wife Martha and daughter Abbey live in Drapersville, Illinois in an innocent time when people still traveled by horse and buggy, had iceboxes on their back porches, and dropped in for visits without calling first.

When the Potter family, relatives of Austin's from Mississippi, arrive for a self-invited visit Martha is dismayed and Austin is sheepish, but it does not seem that this minor inconvenience could disturb the tranquility of the household. But slowly the presence of these visitors begins to take its toll. Austin, trying to please everyone, unable to express his feelings to his wife and unwilling to recognize the ulterior motives of his relatives, begins to lose all that he holds dear. His attempted kindness towards the Potter's daughter Nora, who harbors a burning crush on the older man, succeeds in harming them both. Again and again characters fail to understand each other, with unfortunate results.

Maxwell's prose is spare and elegant. The picture he paints of Elm Street and its residents is precisely and lovingly rendered. Behind the lace curtains he shows us the yearnings of characters trapped in the prim landscape of Drapersville. Maxwell's pace is measured; his story moves slowly in a way that seems to correspond to the time in which it takes place, a time not far into the twentieth century. He takes time to let you experience the changing of the seasons, the ebb and flow of small town life. But his plot can suddenly turn a corner and surprise you as well.

Revisiting William Maxwell reminded me once again of his wonderful talent for exploring the simple, sad moments we all experience in life.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Birds of a Feather

It has always seemed to me that people who are interested in birds and bird-watching are not just "interested" but "passionate", more so than other people with other interests. So I picked up Joyce Hinnefeld's novel In Hovering Flight in hopes of getting a better insight and understanding into this passion. The principal characters are Addie, a bird artist; her husband Tom, a college professor of ornithology; and their daughter Scarlet, named as you can guess for the Scarlet Tanager. They live in southeastern Pennsylvania. Hinnefeld is a college professor (of writing) in Bethlehem, PA (write what you know).

Addie met Tom when she was a college student in the spring of her senior year in his Biology of the Birds class. This gives the author the context for introducing samples of field journals, anecdotes about John James Audubon, descriptions of the local habitat, some poetry about birds and even "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." (Can someone please explain to me what that means?) The class also introduces Cora and Lou (Louise) who will be Addie's life-long friends. Although Addie's life isn't that long. She dies in her late fifties in the first chapter surrounded by her husband, daughter and these two friends.

The narrative voice alternates among each of the three family members; and the events jump back and forth in time from the college days to the time of Addie's death. Along the way Addie becomes quite radicalized by the destruction that she sees to her beloved birds and their habitat from environmental pollution. How would you feel as a teenager (Scarlet) if your mother (Addie) were being taken off to jail or had to go into hiding as a result of her protest activities? It's not surprising that for a period in high school Scarlet leaves home. But she moves in with the family of her mother's good friend Cora.

And this brings me to the aspect of the book that in the end captured my interest more than the birds. Scarlet knows that Addie, Cora and Lou have remained friends since college but she has never really understood all of the forces that bind them together. As the events of their shared history are brought to light, I was reminded again of how fortunate we are if we have (women) friends of long standing.

Now I think that I will call the local chapter of the Audubon Society to learn more.