Saturday, January 29, 2011

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky

This is an extremely moving book; the knowledge that the author perished at Auschwitz makes it all the more affecting. Irene Nemirovsky's older daughter possessed the manuscript for many years without realizing what it contained; she thought it was a diary, and thought it would be too painful to read. Instead, she found two of a planned series of five novellas about the German Occupation of France.

These two short novels contain vivid descriptions of both the flight from Paris during the invasion, and life under Occupation in the countryside. They seem contemporary; events and reactions that could as easily take place today. I love that the stories do not just illuminate the struggles between nations, but differences in class. Life as a refugee is, not surprisingly, easier when one is rich and well-connected.

The stories are linked but separate, some characters appear in both. Events are seen from several points of view, which gives a great perspective on the whole. War is the central event in the book, but it is also a lens that brings each personality into focus. The characters and their reactions to their situations are, in the end, more interesting than what is happening to them.

Several of the reviews I read, like this one from the New York Times, that marvel at Nemirovsky's ability to write so reflectively about devastating events as they transpire. Doubly amazing as she was in constant danger of being arrested and separated from her young children. This did, alas, come to pass, and she was at Auschwitz for only a month before 'dying of typhoid', likely a Nazi euphemism for being gassed. Her husband soon followed.

I generally skim biographical data that accompanies novels, but this story was so interesting and heartbreaking that I read quite a it. The translator, Sandra Smith, is clearly devoted to the subject of her work. The appendix includes vast amounts of research and many contextual explanations, as well as photocopies of the manuscript itself.

I put off reading this book for a long time, because I thought it would be depressing and dated. I was happily surprised to find that it was neither.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Raising Ourselves: A Gwich'in Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River, by Velma Wallis

Velma Wallis' mother was not planning to have children, because she knew what the life of an Alaskan mother looked like. She ended up having 14 of them, bowing out of motherhood well before they were old enough to do without her.

This is a heartbreaking story of a culture in transition. Fort Yukon in the 60's is probably like a lot of native towns in that era. Modernity has brought white bread and alcohol, and nothing a whole lot more useful. Velma loses her parents and most of her siblings to the bottle. At 13, she and her brother take over the household, caring for their 4 younger siblings while their mother battles alcoholism. At 15, she moves out to the family land (by herself) to live by trapping, as her ancestors did. I am in awe of what she went through by the time she hit voting age.

My overall impression is of a family united by love, but ravaged by addiction and poverty. The book could use some further editing, and is not what you'd call finely wrought. I was riveted, though, by this view into the life of an American girl not so far from my own age, but a world apart in terms of culture and opportunity. A good book for when you're feeling whiney - you will definitely get over yourself..

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blood Brothers, by Richard Price

Do teenage boys really talk to each other this way? If so, I have just developed a new love for teenage boys...

This is Richard Price's first novel. It seems evident that author himself is young, not far removed from the choices his protagonist is making. Stony DeCoco (yes, yes, possibly the best name in fiction!) is wonderfully real, and engagingly communicative with both his friends and family. What a great window into both an era and a neighborhood. I felt as though I was actually holding my breath during most of this book; Stony is right on the verge of turning into the adult he is going to be, and it's hard to tell which way he's going to go.

Very nicely told; the dialogue is particularly good, and you can just see that Richard Price is also coming into his own. I like it when authors write about their native places, it always makes me want to know those places as intimately as they do.

This book reminded me that there's a lot going on under the surface of seemingly unremarkable people, maybe especially in teenagers. Stony is such a dude, with such a loving and tender side. Very nicely told, the dialogue is particularly good, and you can just see that Richard Price is also coming into his own.

Here's an interview with Richard Price. He sounds just like his characters.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Peace Like A River, by Leif Enger

It's not easy to write about an angel and not sound saccharine - at least I assume it's hard, since so few people are successful at it.

Here's an odd thing about this book. I couldn't decide, upon picking it up, whether I had read it, or just had it on my to-read list for a long time. Pretty shortly into the first chapter, I decided that I had in fact read it. And really liked it. But at no point in this rereading did I find myself thinking "Oh, yeah, now I remember what happens." In fact, I didn't remember the ending at all; it was brand new to me. And yet it's a really great book, with memorable characters and an interesting plot. Which means either that I am closer to full-onset senility than I thought, or the book is just a tiny bit miraculous.

The novel tells the story of a year in the life of a family of extraordinary people, told from the perspective of its most ordinary member, 11 year old Reuben. His father is a gentle man inclined to produce miracles, his 9 year old sister writes epic poetry and runs the household, and his 16 year old brother is a level-headed and kind dispenser of vigilante justice.

The book is set in the early 60's and shows an America just on the cusp of modernity. There are still wide open spaces in which a man can hide from the law indefinitely. Technology hasn't yet made many inroads, and rural life is not so different than it was 30 years before. I loved the descriptions of the Western landscape, and the sense that this story hangs right on the edge of a whole new era, not only for the characters, but for the world.