"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Marriage Plot: Not Eugenides at His Best

It's a coincidence but I finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot two days before our 50th anniversary.  The heroine Madeleine Hanna is an English major, much taken by Victorian novels, who eventually heads for an academic career where the marriage plot beloved of 19th century writers will be a pillar of her scholarship.

She has two suitors, Leonard Bankhead, certifiably crazy and possibly a brillliant biologist, and Mitchell Grammaticus, far more sane,  but mad for Madeleine and searching for truth and--possibly--God. She's not exactly an heiress, but money is not problem for her, yet she's at an age when she should get married to somebody suitable.

Put that way, the situation sounds like an updating of something by George Eliot.  The amount of pre-marital sex might upset Victorian readers, although it's clear that a lot of hanky panky went on 150 years ago, as Eliot's 20 year adulterous relationship with George Henry Lewe attests.  Mitchell's spiritual quest, Madeleine's match-making mother, and Madeleine's disatisfaction  with the life she seems headed for would all be familiar to 19th century readers, however.

Eugenides pulls a couple of surprises at the end of the book, which show off his erudition and kick his story into the end of the 20th century.  It also is a fast and fascinating read: I sat up late one night to finish it.  But the book is not as good as his earlier work, particularly MiddlesexThere  he also played with literary form--he said he tried to follow the history of literature in the style he wrote each section--and the novelty of his hermaphrodite main character created a dynanism not found in his new book.

Fifty years ago just before our wedding I read Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure
and Bette Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, both of which give a very negative view of marriage and the possiblity of a good relation between men and women. That I went ahead, and married Lee anyway says something about my hopes for what we could build together. The fact that we're still at it all these years later says even more about what we've been able to do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two State, One State:The Dilemma of Israel and Palestine in Two Books

The New York Times carried a very interesting essay earlier this week by Anthony Lerman, "The End of Liberal Zionism."  This summer's war in Gaza underscores the difficulties Jews who embrace liberal values have with the coalition of right wing and theologically pure interests which now hold sway in Israel.  I've invited my liberal Jewish friends to comment on Facebook, but so far I have no input from them.

So I've returned to thinking about two books read in recent months which gie fascinatin background to the ongoing troubles between Irsaellis and Palestinians.  The first is David Grossman's To the End of the Land and the other is Guy Delisle's  Jerusalem Chronicles: Tales from the Holy City.

The former novel is by one of Israel's best known novelists and tells the story of a woman who through magical thinking tries to stop learning that her son has been killed during the last Israeli conflict with Lebanon.  Rooted in a walking trip the Grossman himself took through his country, it examines how it got to its current sorry state.  Too long by about 50 pages (the book would have profited from an editor cutting out a sentence here and another one there), the novel nevertheless is engrossing on a human level: I understood completely why the heroine covered up the windows on her door so she wouldn't see the messenger of death arrive.  After reading it I also could appreciate much better why Israeli is the way it is today.  My admiration for Grossman only grew when I learned that one of his sons was killed in the final days of the Lebanon incursion.   He
did not succumb to rage at what had happened, but continued to work on his rather measured account.

The second book is a graphic novel that Delisle wrote after  he and his family spent in a year in Jerusalem while his wife worked for Doctors without Borders. It's a view you won't find anywhere else, and a great complement to Grossman's novel.

Grossman, by the way, wrote an eloquent plea in the July 28, 2014 New York Times, that could be an answer to the Lerman's much less hopeful piece.  He concludes as if to point out to Lerman where liberal Jews are now:

"There are many who still “remember the future” (an odd phrase, but an accurate one in this context) — the future they want for Israel, and for Palestine. There are still — but who knows for how much longer — people in Israel who understand that if we sink into apathy again we will be leaving the arena to those who would drag us fervently into the next war, igniting every possible locus of conflict in Israeli society as they go.

"If we do not do this, we will all — Israelis and Palestinians, blindfolded, our heads bowed in stupor, collaborating with hopelessness — continue to turn the grindstone of this conflict, which crushes and erodes our lives, our hopes and our humanity."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Goldfinch: Such a Little Bird, Such a Big Success

Friday I started reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, and I finished the 771 pages on Wednesday evening. That's the fastest I've read a book in some time, which is an indicator of just how engrossing the book is.

There are a lot of nods toward the world s we know it in the story: the precipitating event is a terrorist attack (by whom we never learn) on a great art museum in New York City.  Theodore Decker's mother is killed in the blast, and he is set adrift in the world.  His father has disappeared, his grandparents don't want him, and he is taken in gracefully if reluctantly by the family of a school friend.  A painting The Goldfinch by the 17th century Dutch artist Fabritius is his only ballast: a dying old man incites him to take it, apparently to rescue it from the post-blast fire which seems likely to engulf it.

Sounds rather Dickensian, and, indeed,  the book is full of detail, plot and coincidences in the rousing 19th century tradition.  But there is also much that is purely 21st century anomie described in prose that sings. Just as Fabritius made a masterpiece in the form of a small painting of a tiny bird, Tartt raises a drug-filled mystery (I was reminded of Steig Larsson's trilogy), to something quite beyond genre fiction. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Loving Paris--and Madeline--for 65 Years

Our recent trip to Paris and this show in New York have me thinking about Ludwig Bemelmens and his wonderful book Madeline.

Madeline is the first book I ever borrowed from a library. It was brand new, the year must have been 1947 or 1948, and I saw it in a display of new books. You had to have a library card to borrow and to get a card you had to be able to sign your name, so, dyslexic me, I made my mother help me practice until I got the "Mary" down pat. The librarian let my mother sign my last name, as I remember.

 And I suppose in a way my love of Paris and my desire to travel began there.  The French city is a long way from Walla Walla, WA where we were living, and the vision of a city with little girls living in an old building covered with vines was wonderfully exotic. 

It turns out that Bemelmans wrote the book just before World War II, and his drawings of the pre-war city may have een part of its appeal to adults.  But the story about a brave little girl (was she an orphan? why was she living with all these other children?) captured the fancy of lots of kids then, and now.

Still love the book, and read the French version recently to Jeanne.  I'm happy to report that she liked it, even though France is far from exotic for her.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Love Story from a Muslim Country Unlike the Others

Ali and Nino, Kurban Said's charming love story set in Azerbaijan, took place a hunded years ago.  Ali, a Muslim prince, tells it--how he is in love with Nino, the Georgian princess as World War I begins, how their home town Baku is rich from newly found oil, how a Muslim and a Christian may, perhaps, if they're very lucky, beat the odds and find happiness.  Along with the ups and downs of their romance, we learn a great deal about the politics of the region, Islam, the countries around the Caspian Sea and how close some of them came to being folded into the Western sphere of influence in the earlly part of the 20th century. 

That would be enough to recommend the book, but the mystery surrounding the identity of the author is an added reason to read it. I first heard about the novel when Tom Reiss did a profile for The New Yorker about its author, who may not have been Said, a distinguished Muslim journalist, but an Azerbaijani Jew, Lev Nussibaum who died during the Second World War in Italy.   Or maybe, Reiss suggests,  the book was written by a German noblewoman who spent the end of her life holed up in a castle.  Intrigued, I went looking for the book, but after reading it  I found myself no nearer to knowing the truth.  Azerbaijan, however, appeared on my radar, and I've been following its trajectory ever since.

Oil  continues to float the Azerbaijani economy, and the country--about 90 per cent Muslim--is one of the rare places where fundamentalism seems not to be rising. Ali and Nino is considered a national treasure. A stainless steel sculpture of the pair (above) by  artist Tamara Kvesitadze shows them as two separate figures who slowly approach each other until they literally become one.  The book has been made into an opera in Paris, and will shortly, it appears, appear in an English language film.

Before then, though, read the novel.  The romance is just what you need on a late summer weekend, and the back story will help you undertand what's going on in the world right now.