Saturday, August 13, 2011

S'more books

So much reading this summer. This is how I imagined adulthood when I was about thirteen.  I feel really good about wrapping up the last two just in time to start school, too.  All day today I've been nesting--as I scrubbed the grout in my kitchen I realized I was having the same panicked, frenzied feeling I felt before both babies arrived:  if I can just get everything ready in time, it will all be perfect.

I'll wait for you to stop laughing.  That's a real thing, right?  Get everything clean and finished before school and then the year has to be awesome?  Oh it isn't?  Sigh.

So here are my last two summer book reviews:

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Suite Francaise has been in my Kindle Wish List for some time.  I wasn't sure how heavy it was going to be, so I was putting it off.  I knew I wanted to read it though.  Last month at a barbecue my teaching partner said she had just finished it, however, and she loaned me her copy.  I figured that meant the time was right.

It's hard to talk about the book without talking about the author's life;  I'm confident that her life story would make an equally (if not more) compelling book in and of itself.  Nemirovsky was Russian-born and Jewish; she had been living in France since the 1920's and had published several novels before World War II.  She intended Suite to be a five-part fictional series detailing life in Nazi-occupied France.  She and her husband were both arrested and sent to their death at Auschwitz before she could start the third part.  Suite Francaise is composed of those surviving first two pieces.  Nemirovsky's young daughters were moved around the country for their safety during the occupation--they survived, as did the manuscript of the novel.  It was not until decades later that one of her daughters began to transcribe her mother's notebooks and discovered her last work.  The book was published in 2004.

As I said, it's hard for me to think of this book separately from its author.  I'm so intrigued by Nemirovsky's will to write--that will that made her scratch this novel out in microscopic print to save paper--that will that kept her writing even as her life began to be threatened.  I also can't separate the clarity with which she writes of her own time period from what I imagine to be her own experience.  It gave a different feeling to the novel.

This book is good.  It's written so well.  A million times as I read it I had to remind myself that this was a lightly (posthumously) edited version of a first draft.  That blows my mind.  It doesn't read as a complete work, but knowing that it was going to be incomplete before I got into it meant I got something different out of it.  It felt like bearing witness to the author's life (and her work), but also to the lives of the type of people she wrote about in her novel.  One thing that I struggled with as I read was my lack of knowledge about this specific area of WWII.  I know the basics, but I will admit to not having considered the lives of the French as the Germans began to invade and then assume their space.  I was interested in the exploration of what it means to fear but then also to navigate complex human relationships with someone who will be in your town or home for the long term.  I liked that it made me think beyond my ordinary assumptions about the war and how people reacted to it.  I think in many ways our collective vision of WWII is something like Saving Private Ryan and while that's part of it, the war can't be reduced to any one thing.

The first part of the book, I liked less than the second.  If the first half was prelude to the originally imagined longer work, it would have had a different effect.  As it was I didn't feel like it had cohesiveness to it.  This is not to say it was bad, but it was more a study of character in short, pithy bursts.  It felt a little distant.  To borrow the author's musical metaphors, it was like the overture of a longer piece of music.  The second part had a more singular theme to it, so it was a more enjoyable read, but it too was still a very specific look at how and why people act the way they do.

My recommendation:  If you're the kind of person who values the act of writing or the kind of person who understands reading to be a way to witness someone else's life, then you should read it.  I don't think this book is for everyone, but I am definitely glad I read it.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Speaking of history about which I am completely ignorant... let's talk about 15th century Florence.

So, yeah.  The Birth of Venus has been patiently waiting on my iTunes for years.  I downloaded the audiobook a long time ago, I think after reading The Other Boleyn Girl or The Girl With The Pearl Earring, thinking it would be along the same lines.  It was, kinda.  It is not nearly as good of a book as either of the two I just mentioned.  It was a work of historical fiction woven through some choice moments in 15th C Flo, like the rule of Cosimo di Medici, the rise and tyranny of Savonarola, the Bonfire of the Vanities, and plague.  Good ol' plague.  All of that was interesting.  (Sorry for all the Wiki links, I am an unashamed researcher at the University of GoogleIt.  Better to know than not, right?)

The book centers around a precocious 14 year old girl who wants to paint, never marry, and speak her mind.  Imagine for a moment how that works out for her in the 15th Century in Florence.  Not so good.  So instead of skipping off into the sunset to paint frescoes and live the single life, she gets hitched to a much older man without realizing that he's really her brother's lover and the whole thing is a cover to keep all three from being arrested or killed.  Gasp.  None of that was so bad, even.

This book wasn't as awesome as it could have been, though.  I was listening to it while I was running and in some ways it was great for that.  Not very complex, not too hard to follow... but after a while I realized that it lacked any complexity.  It had a lot of description and some interesting dialog, but it was disappointing.  Some of it didn't make a lick of sense at all and I wasn't clear exactly why a few things happened.  The title is only referenced in a tiny little tangent, and that bugs me.  Insignificant.  Boo.  Things I didn't like so much:  1) The characters used all kinds of modern slang.  Fail.  2) Lots of sexytime (not necessarily an issue, by itself) that was described in way way way way way too much detail for me.  Multiple times I was past someone and be embarrassed about what was in my ears.  After a while I began to wonder if I'd accidentally downloaded some bodice-ripper of a Harlequin novel.  I still don't know, but this wasn't exactly haute literature.

My recommendation:  Pass.

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