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I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?

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The particular hell-on-earth that was Nazi Germany is the topic of a book by Hans Fallada, called Every Man Dies Alone, written in 1947, but only recently translated and available in English. Coincidentally, I also just saw the Tarrantino film, Inglorious Basterds, which  takes a look at the same period in a radically different way, part Hogan’s Heroes, part bloody horror movie. One interesting overlap was Fallada’s episode about an actor who became Goebbel’s pet for awhile; in the movie, Goebbels the film buff takes over a theater in Paris to show a Nazi propaganda film- leading to the bizarre, revenge-fantasy climax of the movie. It was interesting to read in the book about the ordinary Germans who supported Hitler in 1932, lost a son in the war, and came to despise the regime and its policies.  Based on an actual working-class couple who developed their own brave and pathetic anit-Nazi propaganda scheme – depositing laboriously produced hand-written postcards around Berlin in the hopes of tapping into a groundswell of rebellion- the book depicts the suffocating oppression and atmosphere of fear and mistrust, and the sense that only the worst of humanity could survive and thrive, like cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust.  (Nearly every one of the postcards was promptly turned into the authorities.)  The very ordinariness of the heroic couple, the inner journey of the official assigned to their case, the ebb and flow of the fortunes of those living in a nightmarish world build to an agonizing climax. The book is slow to get going, and at times awkwardly written (or translated), but the end is gripping and suspenseful.  Currently, I’m listening to a Teaching Company Course on Hitler’s Empire.  I am just getting to the part in 1932 when Hitler wins the election, and I think of Fallada’s couple, saying of Hitler: “He sure pulled our chestnuts out of the fire in 1933.”  The book includes an appendix with pictures of the actual couple and the chillingly efficient Nazi documentation of their case.  In addition, there is a fascinating biography of the author, as the New York Times book review describes him: “a troubled man in troubled times.”

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Kindling

I already decided that I don’t want a Kindle (you know that electronic book-reading thing that you get from Amazon); however, I thought I would try it out while on vacation with a kindle-owner.  I read part of a New Yorker, but found that it wasn’t quite the organic experience that I’m used to – the cover wasn’t in color and was essentially meaningless, the cartoons were separate from the articles, plus the little sidebars didn’t show up, although they’re probably in there somewhere.  I like to read the magazine back-to-front sometime, or skip an article and go back to it, which wasn’t as easy as with the actual magazine.  Of course, I probably wasn’t utilizing all of the tools that are available, like search and bookmark.  One cool feature is the built in dictionary.  I also read part of a book, which was enjoyable (The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society –this has to be the worst title ever).  It’s weird not to know what page you’re on, but you always know what % of the book you’ve read.  I am always searching back through a book to find a memorable phrase or passage and Kindle lets you bookmark, which would save a lot of time.  Of course, the big plus is taking it on vacation – I lugged 2 hardcovers and 3 magazines in my backpack, whilst they had a world of books at their fingertips.  (Of course, you don’t want to take it to the beach!) The power is intoxicating, just one click and you can be reading a new book instantly (your credit card information is saved for ease of ordering).  For me, that power is also a negative.  I feel like my reading budget would instantly become a problem, especially since I tend to rely on the library for my reading and listening.  From a totally self-serving point of view, it is too bad that the Kindle reader can no longer lend one a book; if you borrow someone’s Kindle, they usually must be otherwise occupied, and it also creates a gift-buying problem for your friends or family members with Kindle; I could always fall back on a book as a gift, but now I guess a gift certificate to Amazon will have to suffice.  Thusfar, I only know two Kindle-owners and haven’t see anyone else sporting one in public places, but with the competition increasing, perhaps the price will come down and Kindles and other devices will become more prevalent.  This leads me to a final, admittedly minor, quibble:  if everyone on the plane or train is reading a Kindle, you really have no way of discreetly peeking at what they’re reading, which for me is one of the joys of travel.

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The Help

I finally read The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  It was a compelling read, with much suspense and a real sense of the danger that Aibileen, Minny and the other maids were courting through their covert writing project.  The beating and blinding of one maid’s son for using a white bathroom provides a serious counterpoint to the ridiculous notion of the Junior League President that all households should have separate bathrooms for the help, ‘for sanitary reasons.’ One felt that even Skeeter, the young white woman who persuades the maids to tell their storis, might be in serious trouble, but there is also a sense of change trickling down, even to the provincial backwater that Jackson seemed to be. One of the strengths of the book is an undercurrent of national and even local events – of social upheaval on many fronts – hearing a Bob Dylan song, learning of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. This premonition of the future is most poignantly expressed when Aibileen says goodbye to ‘her last white baby’, Mae Mobley, and has a visionof the modern world that Mae will inhabit. (In the fictional book, “Help”, that is being written by Skeeter and the maids, the editor declares that the best section is by Sarah, Aibileen’s pseudonym, and her voice is the one that I remember most from the book.)  The ending was a bit patched together, with Skeeter heading off to New York, her Mother apparently not dying, and the maids piecing their lives back together somehow.  While not entirely believable, the interwoven stories from different viewpoints works pretty well; however, it is disconcerting to have one chapter, the Junior League benefit where so many of the plotlines come together, suddenly in the third person, with an omniscient narrator telling us what different people were doing and thinking.  I also wonder if it would have been a better book with just two viewpoints –  Aibileen’s and Skeeter’s; it would have been harder to write but I think it would have been a stronger. All in all, though, the writing was good, with many insights into actions and motivations and a lot of humor. Elizabeth not recognizing herself in the book was perfect!  So, between, the topic, the times – early sixties in the South–and the characters, it adds up to a good, even an important book, well worth reading.

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Whilst traveling (has anyone else noticed an increase in the use of ‘whilst’?), I like to check out what my fellow passengers are reading.  A lady in the Charleston airport was in the early pages of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga; she also had the latest book by Pat Conroy (South of Broad) in her bag, which happens to be about Charleston, but she said it was awful.  On the plane between Newark and Boston, I spotted a woman in a window seat who was near the end of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.  I hear from reliable sources that this is a must-read, but haven’t gotten hold of it yet.  On a weekend trip to DC at the end of September, it seemed that every other person was reading Dan Brown’s just-released novel, The Lost Symbol.  I read his first book and I’m pretty much done with him, but I realize they have a certain amount of entertainment value and make pretty good airport books.  As for me, I devoured The Likeness, by Tana French, which had the same gripping psychological suspense as her first (In the Woods).  I think I liked the first one a little better, but this was still a good read with an irresistible premise and quite a few of the same characters.  I also read a little mystery called The Book of Murder by an Argentinian author, Guillermo Martinez, whom I recently discovered by listening to a book on tape called The Oxford Murders.  He has a cool, dispassionate style, with clever plotting, subtle insights into human behavior and a touch of magic realism.  One of our hosts was reading The Beautiful and the Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I have to confess I have not read.  My traveling companion was reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts for possibly the third or fourth time.  I used to reread books too, back when I didn’t feel so obsessed with time and how it runs out…..

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On aging and death

I  used to trick myself by adding a year or two to my age by way of becoming used to the idea of being 40 and then 50.  So, recently, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I am actually turning 52, not 53.  The term over-the-hill is a bit of a joke bringing to mind silly Hallmark greeting cards; however, as with most cliches there is a kernel of truth in the saying, because there is a time when you do feel yourself cresting, that you’ve gained a certain high spot from which to look forward and back (I’ve been trying desperately to find the passage in Netherland (see previous post) that describes this feeling but I can’t seem to locate it).  You see the accumulated years behind you, but the road ahead is dim and shadowy.  You realize,for the first time, the finiteness of life, that yours is going to end.  Not to be morose, but it bears thinking of, for the illusion of immortality is surely what causes cruel and senseless behavior, is what is behind inertia and inevitably our disappointments in ourselves.  While rereading “How Proust Can Change your Life,”by Alain de Botton, he quotes Proust’s response to a newspaper editor’s question of how one should live if a calamitous event were foretold and a certain number of days only remained.  Proust answer was essentially that we all only have a certain number of days and that the calamity of death awaits all of us and should daily inform our actions and goals.  Coming to terms with death is tricky as what can be accepted intellectually may not really feel true to us on the quotidian level.

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Netherland

After reading descriptions of Joseph O’Neill’s new novel Netherland which talked of it as a post 9/11 novel, I was not really interested in reading it and that is the reaction of most people when I attempt to describe the book in reference to that date.  However, after hearing the author interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air, I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did.  It touches on the events of September 11, 2001, only in the most delicate way, so that the mind that fears pressure on a sore spot is put at ease.  The story is a somewhat dark, yet dreamy (and occasionally funny) meditation on adulthood, national identity, parenting, marriage and life, but again the touch is light.  The main character, Hans is struggling with the dissolution of his marriage and the death of his Mother, which among other things including Cricket, make up the book’s several threads. The comparison to The Great Gatsby seems apt, but is not overstated (the reference to Daisy brought a smile).  In the end, I found myself flipping back through the book for certain passages that resonated as when Hans describes his own tendency toward dreaminess and mystery resulting in him “stepping around in a murk of his own making” and his concern about his own son and how to “ensure that he does not grow like his father, which is to say, without warning.”  Speaking of his confused state of mind, he adds, “I still have no firm idea whether my own descent into disorder was referable to an Achilles heel or whether it’s a generally punishable folly to approach life trustingly — carelessly, some might say.” I’ve been thinking lately about the fate of dreamers and pondering how one might possibly fit into this life, the answer seems to be not very well or only by luck.

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