Sunday, February 23, 2014

I tried, Moby-Dick

I will read anything.  In the olden days I'd grab a volume from the World Book Encyclopedia and read J-K.  Nancy Drew, War and Peace (not at the same time). Every MAD magazine I could get my hands on.  Thomas Hardy novels in high school that were so brooding and gloomy they felt like, well, high school.

The point is - give me anything.  And one day I thought, hey, I've never read Moby-Dick.  Adventure, danger, obsession with revenge, life at sea on the whaling ship Pequod.  I'd read and enjoyed the Patrick O'Brian books (Master and Commander, etc.).  Moby-Dick would be exactly the same.

Except it wasn't.  The language was difficult - it was like the Emperor saying to Mozart, "Too many notes."  Moby-Dick had too many words.  Sloggable words (okay, sloggable isn't really a word, but that's what Moby-Dick felt like).  And oh so much description of whaling.

Now, while discoursing of sperm it behooves to speak of other things akin to it, in the business of preparing the sperm whale for the try-works. First comes white-horse, so called, which is obtained from the tapering part of the fish, and also from the thicker portions of his flukes. It is tough with congealed tendons- a wad of muscle- but still contains some oil. After being severed from the whale, the white-horse is first cut into portable oblongs ere going to the mincer. They look much like blocks of Berkshire marble.

It never quite clicked.  But I didn't give up.  Like Ishmael I clung to the Queequeg coffin of a book until I was rescued.  And then I walked down to Pequod (what the founders of Starbucks originally wanted to call their coffee shop) and had a chai latte.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Titles - The Inextinguishable Symphony

My husband got me The Inextinguishable Symphony after he'd heard the author, Martin Goldsmith, talking about it on National Public Radio.  I added it to my book pile, but the title... Inextinguishable Symphony.  Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Try to say it out loud.  Hard, right?

Eventually I picked it up.  My husband knows I read a lot of books about World War II and the Holocaust (if you haven't read The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn, go to Amazon and order it right now).  So ignoring the title, I decided to give The Inextinguishable Symphony a try.

Why did I wait?  It's a glorious book, an extraordinary book.  Like The Lost, by focusing on a few families affected by the rise of Hitler in Germany and the eventual Holocaust, that somehow makes the events more personal, relatable, and horrible.

The book is "A true story of music and love in Nazi Germany."  It's about Mr. Goldsmith's parents, Günther and Rosemarie.  How they met playing in the Kulturbund orchestra, fell in love, and eventually made their way to the United States in 1941.

I didn't know the title of the book referred to Symphony No. 4 by Danish composer Carl Nielsen.  I'd never heard about the Jüdische Kulturbund, a Jewish artistic organization set up (with help from the Nazis, believe it or not) in 1933 after Jews were no longer allowed to perform in Aryan theatres.  The Kulturbund had an orchestra, they put on operas and plays and showed movies - but only to Jewish audiences.

The chapter where the orchestra performs Mahler's Resurrection Symphony (Symphony No. 2) will take your breath away.  If you've never heard it, here's a version from YouTube (  I don't want to say more about the performance of Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, the Inextinguishable, but that chapter is amazing as well.

As you might imagine, not every member of Günther and Rosemarie's family was able to escape from Germany.  But there is something so life affirming and positive about this book - how music and art and love, in spite of everything, are inextinguishable.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Titles - An Officer and a Spy

Spoiler alert.  This is the ending.  Paula is working at the factory and Zack shows up in his dress whites, picks her up and carries her away as everybody claps and cheers. And Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes sing "Up Where We Belong."

No, wait.  That's An Officer and a Gentleman.

An Officer and a Spy is a thriller written by one of my favorite writers, Robert Harris (Fatherland - what if Hitler had won WWII?).   An Officer and a Spy is the Dreyfus Affair told as a novel and that might sound dry and boring, but with someone like Mr. Harris telling the story, it's a book you can't put down.  Like reading All the President's Men and saying to yourself, "Wow, how far up the chain of command does the conspiracy go?"  It's that kind of excitement - what happens when an innocent man, Alfred Dreyfus, is sent away to Devil's Island for treason?  There are lies and cover-ups, an occasional unexplained death, all as one man, Col. Georges Picquart, tries to find out the truth.  

But the title.  An Officer and a Spy - help me, please.  How do I get the image of Richard Gere and Debra Winger out of my head?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Re-reading a Book?

"Why are you reading that again?"  My husband thinks it's crazy to re-read something when there are so many unread books sitting around the house.  But some books are fun to revisit, like Gone with the Wind, required reading for girls growing up in Virginia.  It's got war and sex and Scarlett O'Hara kicks butt (in her selfish, fiddle-dee-dee way).  Sure, you know exactly what's going to happen, but that's the cool part - you're excited about what's coming next.

A few years ago we watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman and liked it very much.  I'd read the book when I was younger and thought it was... well, dull.  Back then I was into spy books with car chases and gun battles.  And George Smiley - meh.  But after seeing the movie, I read the book again and to my surprise, thought it was great.  Middle-aged me fell in love with middle-aged, un-glamorous, brilliant, yet plodding George Smiley.  He wasn't so dull after all.

To Kill a Mockingbird is another example.  Most of us read that when we were young and identified with either Scout or Jem.  (I was totally Scout - growing up in a small southern town, idolizing my father.  I even had bangs.)  Reading it when I was older and married with children, made me relate more to Atticus.  I wondered how Atticus felt about the loss of his wife, about raising two children on his own.  How hard was it for him to take the Tom Robinson case when he knew it would impact his children? Things I never considered when I read the book the first time.

The books stay the same, but we change.  We can re-read to enjoy something familiar, something that's given us pleasure before.  And we can discover new layers, new details we missed the first time around.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Princess Bride

The movie is great.  Have you read the book?

What's it about?  Lots of reviews use this quote: "Fencing.  Fighting.  Torture.  Poison. True love.  Hate.  Revenge.  Giants.  Hunters.  Bad men.  Good men.  Beautifulest ladies.  Snakes.  Spiders.  Beasts of all natures and descriptions.  Pain.  Death.  Brave men.  Coward men.  Strongest men.  Chases.  Escapes.  Lies.  Truths.  Passion. Miracles."

(William Goldman can write anything.  Books, movies.  Read Marathon Man and never go to the dentist again.  Read The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway and it will change the way you think about theatre in New York.  I could go on.  And on.)

The set up of The Princess Bride - young William Goldman is sick and his father reads him The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern, a famous writer from Florin.  One problem.  There is no S. Morgenstern.   There is no Florin.  Years later grown-up Mr. Goldman has his wife, Helen, a psychiatrist, get the book for their son, Jason.  Guess what?  They're made up, too.

Just like the abridged (the "good parts" version) of the S. Morgenstern The Princess Bride.

And if the story of Buttercup and Westley and Inigo Montoya and the six-fingered man (I could go on and on again) isn't excellent enough, Goldman interrupts the novel (in red print in some editions) to explain why he's taken out certain sections of the original.

Even if you've seen the movie, it's worth it to read The Princess Bride.

(All the parentheses in this post?  Inside joke if you know the book.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Killer Show

Killer Show by John Barylick is about the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed one hundred people when a pyrotechnic display ignited foam insulation around the stage as the band Great White began to play.  It's an unsettling book - so many mistakes were made by so many people.  Over the years the building had been remodeled, but inspections didn't take place.  Some exit doors were sealed (so patrons couldn't sneak in or out).  When a neighbor complained about noise, the new owners installed polyurethane foam bought from the neighbor, who - what a coincidence - worked for a foam company.  The foam was flammable.

Pyrotechnics weren't supposed to be used by bands performing at The Station, but they were.  When the fire broke out, some patrons tried to exit the overcrowded club through a door by the stage, but were turned away by a Station bouncer.

The book is well-researched and the author writes movingly about the victims and survivors.  One of the most disturbing things about the Station fire is how quickly it happened.  Within five minutes the building was engulfed.  And because a local news cameraman was on the scene (ironically filming a piece about nightclub safety), you can watch his video on YouTube.  But be prepared - it's horrifying.  And horrifying to think that this was a tragedy that could have been prevented.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Edith Wharton is the Bomb

When I was in school, we didn't read Edith Wharton.  I'd heard of Ethan Frome, but the idea of - spoiler alert - attempting suicide by sledding into a tree didn't put it at the top of my book pile.

Years later a friend mentioned Edith Wharton and I admitted to never reading her.  My friend said I was an idiot and go get The House of Mirth immediately.  (She said "idiot" in a nice way.  I think.)  Okay, The House of Mirth is incredible - set in high society New York around the turn of the century, Lily Bart tries to choose between love and money.  It doesn't go the way she'd like.

After binge-reading every Edith Wharton I could get my hands on (except Ethan Frome), I was surprised at how witty much of her writing is.  I assumed it would be dry and bloodless.  Wrong.  And she brilliantly skewers her familiar aristocratic world. The women in her books feel timeless - yes, men and women weren't exactly equal a hundred years ago, but there is an almost contemporary spirit to most of her female characters.

The Custom of the Country is one of my favorites.  Undine Spragg (best name ever) comes to New York determined to succeed.  She marries multiple times, has affairs, she's kind of a manipulative hot mess - but somehow you still root for her.   The book is sly and funny and epic and very entertaining.

If anyone would like to encourage me to read Ethan Frome, drop me a line.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

In Cold Blood

In 6th grade I heard my parents talking about In Cold Blood.  It sounded interesting. So the next time I went to the library, I added to my stack of books.  The librarian shook her head.  "Do your parents know you're checking this out?"  "They won't care," I said.

The librarian told me I'd need a written note from my parents.  Which naturally only made me want to read it more.  With the note in hand, I practically waved it in the librarian's face.  Told you so, I wanted to say.

My parents hadn't read In Cold Blood yet.  I'm sure they thought - how scary could it be?

It was damn scary.  It was stay awake all night because you know people are going to break into your house and kill you scary.  What was I thinking?  Reading a book about the murder of a family of four in a small town?  I was in a family of four.  I lived in a small town.  If the Clutter family could be murdered in Holcomb, Kansas, the same thing could happen to the Hamilton family in Staunton, Virginia.

Parts of the book haunted me for years.  When I read it again as an adult, it scared me as much as it did when I was in 6th grade.  It's beautifully written, true crime literature.

But don't read it at night before you fall asleep.  Trust me.