Thursday, November 30, 2006

Book Report: Cold Day Reading

In the "Texas Weather: Gotta Love It" department, yesterday the high was 80 degrees. It was hot and muggy. Many of my neighbors had their air conditioners running. Right now, it's about 28 degrees (and dropping), with a mix of sleet and freezing rain. Seriously. It's not climate change or anything (yesterday's high wasn't even a record -- the record from 1927 still stands). It's just this part of the world. I remember when I was a kid in Oklahoma how we could be playing outside in t-shirts one day and playing outside in the snow the next. It makes packing for travel at this time of year challenging. You pretty much have to bring clothing for all seasons, because you never know, and even the forecasts aren't always that accurate. This one, however, was on the nose, so I'm prepared. The temperatures dropped amazingly fast yesterday. I took a load of trash out to the dumpster across the street at 5:30 and it was hot (upper 70s). I took another load out (all that cleaning and organizing) at 6:30 and it was too cold to stay out in shirtsleeves longer than to run across the street. I was shivering by the time I got back inside. The temperature dropped something like 20 degrees in an hour.

It's supposed to change to snow around noon, so I may go with it and put on some Christmas music and start my holiday baking. It's on days like this that I'm glad I no longer have a job that requires driving to work. Then again, I don't really get snow days, either, but none of the places where I've worked ever closed for bad weather. You had to take a sick day if you didn't want to come to work on icy roads.

The weather change means I can re-start a seasonally adjusted regular feature. Instead of the t-shirt of the day, we've got the sweatshirt of the day. Today's sweatshirt is "Oxford University," a souvenir from the Best Vacation Ever. In the fall of 2000, on a bit of a whim, I bought a plane ticket to London. I did a little Internet research and decided Oxford would be where I went. I got some very inexpensive lodgings at a bed-and-breakfast, and from there I could catch a train or bus to just about anywhere I wanted to go. I saw lots of locations from Connie Willis's Oxford novels (I'll have to post a photo essay), wandered the most amazing castle, did some hiking in the Cotswolds and explored London. And I drank gallons of tea (the tea really does taste different/better there -- maybe it's the water?).

A day like today seems good for talking about books, and I recently read a really astounding one, Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky (there are various accents and such in her name and that little curly c-like character in the title, but I don't know how to do those in HTML). The story behind this book is worthy of a book, in and of itself. Irene Nemirovsky was born in Russia, and her family fled during the revolution when she was a teen. They eventually ended up in Paris. She sold her first novel at the age of 26, and the publisher at first thought she had to be a front for some famous novelist who wanted to remain anonymous, the book was so accomplished. By the time the war started, when she was in her late 30s, she was an accomplished, rather well-known novelist, and at least one of her books was made into a film. She and her husband and two young daughters left Paris for the French countryside when the Germans invaded in 1940. One of the things she did to occupy herself during this time was write. She was always scribbling in a notebook. Although she was of Jewish heritage, she and her family had never been practicing Jews, and she and her husband had become Catholic, were practicing Catholics and were raising their daughters as Catholics. They apparently thought this would be enough to keep them safe from the Nazis. But when German declared war on the Soviet Union, she and her Russian-born husband became "enemy alien Jews." She was arrested and deported in 1942, and her husband tried everything to get her freed, sending all kinds of documentation that her novels were proof she was anti-Soviet, that although she was born in Russia, she'd left before it became the Soviet Union. His efforts were no good, however, as she died in Auschwitz. He didn't realize this, though, and kept trying until he, too, was arrested and deported. He also died in the Auschwitz gas chambers.

A family friend was able to get the daughters away before they were captured, and kept them in hiding throughout the rest of the war. Before they escaped, the oldest daughter grabbed her mother's notebook and stuffed it in her suitcase, just so she would have something of her mother's to remember her by. She assumed it was a journal and could never bring herself to read it, even though she kept it throughout her life. A few years ago, she decided she ought to donate it to an archive of war-related records, and she thought she ought to type it up for donation, since it was handwritten in very small lettering (paper was at a premium). Only then did she realize it was a novel -- her mother's final one -- and notes for it. So it was finally published, more than 60 years after it was written.

Suite Francaise was originally intended to be a five-part "cycle" of connected novellas, each about a different aspect of the war. Only the first two parts were completed, with some notes about what she imagined would go on to happen with the major characters. She wasn't sure how to end it because that all depended on how the war went, and in 1942 that was very uncertain. The published book contains those first two parts, as well as her notes about the entire cycle and copies of relevant correspondence to and from the author, her husband, and various people in their lives. "A Storm in June" is about the impending invasion and the flight from Paris as various people tried to escape ahead of the oncoming invaders. This segment introduces most of the major characters for the work as a whole. The second part, "Dolce," is about the occupation in one village, and how the villagers interact with each other and with their German occupiers while the war itself seems rather distant. It does come to a conclusion, so it's not as though it ends on a cliffhanger, but by then I had become so invested in the characters that I really wanted to know more about what happened to them. The notes give a vague sort of framework, and from there it's kind of fun to let your imagination play, knowing what we know now about how the war did end.

Even without its fascinating history, this is a really good book. Nemirovsky had an amazing talent for characterization, with the ability to find the few crucial details that give you a remarkably clear picture of exactly who this person is. This is very much a "homefront" novel. It's about how the war affects ordinary people rather than focusing on pivotal historical figures, decision makers, military leaders or even people with crucial roles. It's about families, housewives whose husbands are prisoners of war, farmers, and other ordinary citizens. Even the German soldiers are mostly just homesick kids who had other plans for their lives. These are all people just trying to cope with events that are beyond their control. It's more about human nature, social conventions and how different people react to difficult times than it is about the war itself or even any big issues related to the war. The war is mostly off-stage.

Reading this book made me want to look up the author's other books. This was essentially a fragment of a rough draft, so I'd love to see what her finished, polished books would be like. I love her voice and writing style. Unfortunately, they're long out of print and my library doesn't have any of them. I hope that the success of this book might lead to her other books being reissued (the US publisher is part of Random House, so I may see if I can try to drop a few hints).

While I'm talking about books, we've got another Out of the Blogosphere Entry (the books with sf/fantasy/horror and romantic elements). Inferno by Vivi Anna continues the story of her near-future heroine, Kat. Kat needs to find a scientist rumored to have created an antidote to a deadly virus, but he's hiding out in the violent underground city of Inferno. Her one-time lover Hades will take Kat where she needs to go, but only if she promises to be his, body and soul. You can read an excerpt at her web site. (Note: This one is for grown-ups only -- in other words, it's on the hot and spicy side.)

You know, this may be a good day to read the new Dick Francis book. The sound of sleet on my tile roof and skylight makes for an excellent mystery backdrop.

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