Friday, February 29, 2008

February Book Club Discussion: Suite Francaise

For our first Book Club selection, I chose Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

Not only did I find Suite Francaise to be an interesting book, but the story behind how the book was finally brought to light was just as intriguing. After Nemirovsky and her husband, Michel Epstein, were arrested and sent to Auschwitz their two daughters escaped. The youngest of the two grabbed her mothers notebook in the escape, thinking it was her mother’s journal. Neither of the girls had the courage to read what was written within until they decided, 64 years later, to donate it to an organization collecting tidbits from holocaust survivors. Denise Epstein then chose to type the contents for her own records and in doing so discovered it was actually the beginnings of what was to be an epic novel.

Originally meant to be five books long, Suite Francaise has been reduced to two books, Storm in June and Dolce, because of the author’s untimely and tragic death. After reading these first two sections in their unedited form, I am convinced this surely would have been a masterpiece had it been finished.

Of the two books I preferred Storm in June, mostly because I fell in love with the Michauds and because there was more action. Also, because there were so many characters to hate, especially (for me) Madame Pericand. To me, the Pericands personify the French family I’ve been working for during the past seven months. Nemirovsky was able to describe this type of upper class family that feels entitled to everything. The description of her attitude toward her servants on pages 8 and 9 really struck home with me.

One thing I also really liked about this book was that Nemirovsky wasn’t afraid to kill off her characters. Some of them were pretty predictable (and even she questioned them in the notes they found about the book, calling one of the death’s “schmaltzy"), but all the same, I liked that she didn’t try to make everybody live through the war.

I felt like Dolce was too slow moving. But at the same time I think it was reflective of how things really were at that period of time. In Nemirovsky’s notes that followed the book, I could see that she herself was waiting, and during the war it seemed there was nothing to do besides wait and hope for something final.

I have read negative reviews of this book on Amazon. Most of them discuss a lack of solid characters, saying the characters come out very one-dimensional. I disagree. Throughout the book, I felt like I could really see these characters. Yes, perhaps she didn’t go to great lengths to describe each character, instead she allowed the characters’ actions to do the talking.

One thing I would have preferred though would have been to have seen more of the Michauds and other people like them. I felt like there were far too many upper class people in the book, which I think reflects Nemirovsky’s feeling about the way she was treated throughout the war.

One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from Mme Montmort (whose name gets misspelled several times in the book, changing from Montmort to Montfort) on Page 288: “If she drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine, Amaury, the confusion that can be caused in people’s minds when they see virtue practiced by people who are not religious.” (Amaury is Montmort’s husband.)

Overall I found the translation to be good. There were a few mistakes in phrasing and tenses, which showed that the translator was obviously not a native English speaker. Those few errors could have easily been solved though by an editor (if they were a native English speaker). Still, I was amazed at the beauty of the prose, even through a translator. I commend her for doing such a wonderful job.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re at all interested in WWII or French history. This was the first time I’d ever read a book about WWII written from the French perspective and I learned a great deal. I also found it more realistic because it was actually written during the war.

One last note and then I’ll shut up. I found it interesting that Nemirovsky chose not to write in any Jewish characters. That was a huge part of the war, and something extremely close to home for her. I’m guessing she didn’t use any Jewish characters because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to write it objectively. Choosing arbitrary characters from other classes perhaps made it easier for her to deflect her own pain? What do you think?

Also, be sure to check out other blog reviews of this book:
The Book Mine Set

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sophie Kinsella's New Book Out Today!

I have been waiting for this day ever since about September, when I heard Sophie Kinsella was coming out with a new book. Granted, the story line is a bit played out when it comes to romantic comedies - the story of a girl who loses her memory and realizes her forgotten life isn't worth remembering - but I'm sure Kinsella has added her usual humor to make this another best seller for her. Even though the book is out today, I have to wait a couple more weeks to buy it because it's not available in Europe yet.

Although I'm not usually a huge fan of Chick Lit - in fact, Kinsella is the only Chick Lit author I've read and liked - I've found a book blog that focuses only on girly books. So, if this is a genre that interests you, or if you want something girly without it being a steamy romance novel, check out the Candy Covered Books blog.

Monday, February 25, 2008

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

In My Sister's Keeper, Jodi Picoult brings to life the questions of stem cell research and genetic engineering through the book's main character, Anna, and her family. Anna, at age 13 has given bone marrow, stem cells and blood to her older sister Kate. And now her parents are asking her to give Kate a kidney as well. After all, it's what Anna was born to do.

When Kate was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia at age 3, her parents decided to have another child, genetically engineered to be a match to Kate and hopefully to save Kate's life.

Now, 13 years later, Anna is tired of being a pin cushion and is seeking legal action to keep her parents from making her give a kidney - which may save Kate, but puts Anna's life in danger.

When I first heard about this book, I couldn't understand how anybody wouldn't do everything possible to try to save a family member, but after reading this book I felt I really understood how that type of decision could be made, although it would be difficult. Picoult does an amazing job of showing this from everyone's perspective, including the defending lawyer's position.

There were a few cheesy parts in there, and some predictable story lines, but for the most part I found this book to be a well-written and captivating read. And it made me cry, a lot, so it gets a high rating. Also, I found it difficult to believe that Anna was only 13 in the book. Her thoughts and actions seemed much more mature than that of any 13-year-old I've ever met. It was the one thing that kept stopping me throughout the book, but I just had to accept it and move on.

All in all I really liked this book. It got me to think about a subject I've never given much thought to. It also really made me think about what it must be like to be a parent trying to save a child with leukemia, and it made me wonder at what point they should give up.

Other blog reviews of this book:
Dog Ear Diary

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I normally post new reviews on Monday, but I don't know how much time I'll have tomorrow so I'm posting it today. Sorry there haven't been many blogs lately. My internet hasn't been working and I've been working way too much. I'll try to get book news to you again soon. Now for the book review...

In a land ravaged by nuclear war, we find a father and son who have managed to save not just themselves, but their humanity. The son was born just after war sunk the world into a nuclear winter. He never knew the world with animals running wild and plants blooming and dying with the seasons. He's also never known a world where humans don't fear one another.

In the world where he grew up, ash is constantly clouding the horizon, humans hunt each other for lack of any other available food, and masks are worn in attempt to postpone the inevitable radioactive poisoning from the atmosphere. And the only person he can trust is his father, who is using the last months of his life moving his son south, where it is bound to be warmer and hopefully safer.

The story follows the two on their journey down the road. Their run-ins with other humans are often graphic, with the father turning at one point to see a headless infant roasting on a skewer. The descriptions of falling forests, barren land, and starving people can seem hopeless at first, but in the end we see that the one thing that was never lost was a sense of hope.

Throughout the story the father tells the son the difference between good guys and bad guys, pointing out that they themselves are the good guys. The two, no matter how long they have to go without food, will never stoop to eating other humans. In teaching his son this, the father tries to preserve the son's humanity.

The Road is a quick and interesting read. The punctuation is a little weird, missing apostrophes and commas, along with quotation marks, but it makes the book a quicker read and even might be symbolic of the loss of culture and education. I haven't read other McCarthy books, so I don't know if the punctuation is a trademark of his, or if it was for this book alone.

I'd recommend picking this one up though. It definitely wouldn't have caught my eye if it weren't the book club selection here in Paris last month. I'm glad it was chosen though and I'd like to read more of McCarthy's work to see what it's like.

Other blog reviews of this book:
The Book Mine Set
She Wrote, He Wrote
Reading Reflections

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

I can sum this book up in one conversation I had with a French friend:

Me: "Hey, so I'm reading a book by Marguerite Duras..."
Them: "Oh no! No! You can't be reading Marguerite Duras. It's terrible."
Me: "But I didn't even tell you which book I'm reading."
Them: "It doesn't matter, they're all terrible. Please tell me you aren't trying to read it in French. Not even native French speakers can understand it when it's in French."

And the conversation went on like that. And it's true. I sought out the advice of my French friends after I had already started reading this book because I was having such a difficult time getting through it. I thought maybe it was just a bad translation, but apparently that's just how she writes.

The Lover reads as though Marguerite Duras had a loose-leaf journal that she accidently dropped, or maybe threw against a wall, then picked it back up, not bothering to see if pages were missing or if it was in the correct order, and had it published. She goes from being age 52 in one paragraph to being age 8 in the next. Without a main timeline until the last few pages of the book, The Lover was a confusing read. To add to the confusion was the fact that very few of the characters were named.

The book is autobiographical, talking about the author's time spent in Saigon during the 1930s as a French colonist. During that time she had a Chinese lover, which was unheard of at the time, both because of the racial difference and because of their different social classes (she was poor and he rich). To the other people in the book, including her mother, this made her a prostitute, using him for his money.

Despite my dislike for the book, I did find a few passages I enjoyed, including this description of the dry season in Saigon: "The light fell from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency, in torrents of silence and immobility. The air was blue, you could hold it in your hand. Blue. The sky was the continual throbbing of the brilliance of the light." (Page 86).

Aside from a few lovely passages, I don't understand how this was Duras' most acclaimed work. Perhaps it was the sex scenes, which may have been scandalous in her time. I really don't know. What I do know is this book was barely more than 100 pages and it took me nearly two weeks to get through it. Also, I found the afterword and information about Duras' life to be more interesting than the book she wrote about her life. I'd have preferred to have read a biography written about her than to have read this book.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday Cravings

First up this week we have Natalie Angier's The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Not exactly a new book, but new to me. It came out in May 2007, but I didn't discover it until I stumbled across an old The New York Times review of the book. I am always looking for books that can explain science to me in easy terms. I like science, but sometimes it's a little much for my brain to handle. Last year I thought I'd finally found the perfect book, when I picked up The History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, but I was wrong. Bryson's book was still a little too snoozerific for me, so I'm going to try this one and see if it's any better.

Second on my list for this week is Kara Zuaro's Indie-rock cookbook, I Like Food, Food Tastes Good. Although not really a book to read per se, this book sounds really interesting to me. Zuaro compiled on-the-road recipes from touring bands to put together this book. One such recipe is for a veggies sausage and peanut butter sandwich, submitted by Death Cab For Cutie. Read more about the book and its contents here.

Lastly, I offer you Beautiful Children from first-time author Charles Bock. This has been hyped up big time in The New York Times, but is getting mixed reviews on Amazon, where people either love it or hate it. There seems to be no middle ground for this book depicting Sin City in all its seediness. No, it's not the Sin City of tourists, it's the Las Vegas most people would like to think doesn't really exist. The book centers around a 12-year-old boy who goes missing. It's told from the perspecitves of his distraught parents, himself and the people he meets along the way. Bock, the son of pawn shop owners, grew up in Las Vegas and is intimately familiar with the unflashy part of the city. I think it might be interesting to see Las Vegas from an inhabitant's standpoint, rather that a visitor's (my usual viewpoint there). I think it's worth checking out. I just hope it's not as bad as some people are saying.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Author News: David Sedaris, Kanye West

A couple of little tidbits for you today.

First, David Sedaris has renamed his new book yet again. It is now expected to be called When You Are Engulfed In Flames, but Publisher's Weekly reports that the title is likely to change again. What isn't expected to change is the release date, which is scheduled for June 3, followed by a 29-day book tour of 29 cities. You can check if your town is on the list here. I'm super excited about this, as I've loved the two Sedaris books I've read. The only disappointment is that I still haven't gotten to Dress Your Family In Cordouroy and Denim, and he's already got another book to add to the list! Yikes!

Second, I saw that Kanye West is going to be releasing a book and I had to wonder: Is anyone going to actually buy this book to read it? I think it's interesting that now if you're famous, no matter what you're famous for, you have to have a book about you. Really? Are you that interesting? I doubt it. Oh, and he also is going to have his own search engine called How hilarious is that? Sorry Kanye, but I don't think you'll be beating out Google anytime soon, especially with a name as uncatchy as that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

This Just In: Frey Writes Fiction, Banned Book Author Held in New Zealand

There are two things that caught my eye in book news today. The first was an article in The New York Post about James Frey's new book, which is scheduled to be released in May. Frey hasn't really released any details about the book, but there seemed to be an overemphasis on the word FICTION. Coincidence? I think not.

The second was an article about the author of an assisted suicide guidebook, who was detained in New Zealand after being caught at the airport carrying a copy of his book, which was banned there because it could be used as a how-to guide for suicidal readers. After being held at the airport for more than two hours, Phillip Nitchske (AKA Dr. Death) was allowed to leave carrying his copy of The Peaceful Pill Handbook. According to the Waikato Times story, the book had been altered and therefore was not considered a copy of the book banned by the Australian government. My questions: Do they have this guy on terrorist watch or something? Or do they just have extremely good airport security there and check the titles of every book being carried by passengers?

P.S. Apparently the book has been banned on Amazon as well because I had to look up Nitschke's own site in order to get the image of the book cover.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Songs Without Words by Ann Packer

When Ann Packer released her first book, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, it was one of my favorite books of the year. It was a book that really brought out my emotions. I cried and cringed with the character in the book. And I’ve been hoping for years Packer would write more great books. It finally happened in September 2007 with the release of Songs Without Words, a book about a family whose teenage daughter attempts suicide. The book is told in vignettes from each family member’s perspective, including the mother’s best friend, Sarabeth, whose mother committed suicide just before the two friends entered high school.

Seeing the situation from each perspective was interesting and showed just how deeply a suicide attempt can affect every person involved, not just the person who tried to take his or her own life.

I enjoyed the book, although it started off quite slow in the beginning. As I got through the book though, I realized the slowness in the beginning was necessary because it allowed us to like and connect with each of the characters before we saw them fall apart. However, even knowing the background of her character, I found Sarabeth to be unsupportive and whiny through most of the book. I really was quite irritated by how selfish she was throughout the book and I was surprised that she and Liz, her best friend, were so easily torn apart when the suicide attempt happened. I would have almost rather have had her out of the story completely than to have her extra story line be part of the book. After awhile I just wanted to skip over her vignettes.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this book was that it’s set in Northern California, where Packer lives. It has also been my home for nearly 15 years, so the book was able to really come alive for me as I saw the characters driving down familiar freeways and eating at familiar restaurants. It also helped me to feel a little less homesick, which was nice.

All in all, this is a book worth reading, but I have to say I was a little disappointed after waiting five years in such anticipation for another Packer book.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Book Cravings

There are a lot of books on my list of "Books to Read" this year. Unfortunately, that list keeps growing as I read reviews of older books and new books get released. This week, the books that I'm craving the most are:

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. I've been hearing a lot about this book, but was putting it off because I thought it would be as long as The Omnivore's Dilemma, his last book. Then I saw the book yesterday at Shakespeare and Co. and discovered that it's only about 250 pages long. I can definitely read this one quickly and finally get a taste of Pollan's writing. In Defense of Food has been summed up in seven words: Eat food, less of it, more plants. I don't know if Pollan intended it to be a diet book. From what I've read, it's actually about getting people to understand that food isn't evil. It's all the processed crap we eat that's making us unhealthy. If we were to eat more whole foods, well, we'd likely be a lot healthier. I think it will make for interesting reading, and maybe get me motivated to keep with my Parisian diet once I get back to California.

Next on my list is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I ordered this book on Amazon a few weeks ago, but unfortunately international shipping takes a bit longer than normal. I'm desperate to have this book in my hands. The World Without Us is a scientific look into how nature would react if humans were to go extinct. I'm fascinated by this concept and am interested to know exactly what type of research was tapped in order to write authoritatively on the timeline for the destruction of cities by plants.

Lastly, I'm waiting, quite impatiently, for the release of Sophie Kinsella's new book, Remember Me? I am the hugest Sophie Kinsella fan so even though the story line seems a bit played out (girl gets amnesia, falls in love with someone other than her original lover, discovers life is better than it was), I'm still waiting excitedly for it. Kinsella is one of the few chick lit writers who I don't want to strangle after reading one of her books. The reading is always light and funny, which makes them a quick read, without making all women seem ditzy or bitchy. Can't wait.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

English books in Paris!

Finding English books in Paris was difficult at first, but now I've found a couple of cute little booksellers, and even bigger bookstores, that carry a wide selection of books written in English. My favorite is The Village Voice, a cute little shop in the St-Germain-des-Pres area. It's a touristy area, which I usually avoid, but I find myself there almost weekly now to get new books to feed my habit. They have a huge selection, a knowledgeable staff and they have new and just released books.

My favorite thing about the store though is their author readings (pictured above is an author reading done there by Michael Chabon), which can seem more personal than at some of the bigger bookstores because the space is much smaller.

Today I finally visited another one of these wonderful little bookshops for English speakers, Shakespeare and Co. There I found books stacked on every surface, just as in The Village Voice. They also have a number of author readings and a good selection of books. But I found the store a bit too crowded. Perhaps it was just because it was a Sunday, but I think it was also likely due to the store's fame and the fact that it is just across the street from Notre Dame.

Anyway, for those of you who are in Paris, or who are thinking of visiting, here are a couple of places you might want to check out if you want to get a good book in English:

The Village Voice
6 rue Princess
75006 Paris

Shakespeare and Co.
37 rue de la Bucherie

The Red Wheelbarrow
22 rue St Paul

Tea and Tattered Pages (used English books, yay!)
24 rue Mayat

Gibert Joseph
(not a huge selection, but you can't beat the prices)
boulevard St Michel

Also, I've been told WHSmith is good, and the American Library. I've never been to either so I can't fully recommend them.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Introducing February's Book of the Month: Suite Francaise

It’s February first so that means it’s time to introduce our book of the month. This is our first selection, chosen by me, however I would like your input for future selections. Please feel free to e-mail me at bexadler AT yahoo DOT com with any suggestions you may have. Or, of course, you can leave them on the comment board. Also, if you could let me know you plan on reading the book in the comments below, that would be fab.

OK then, on to the book:

Somehow from the reviews I read, I got the idea that Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise was autobiographical. Somehow I thought it was her journals discovered 65 years after her death and put into print. But after reading the inside cover I discovered that it was actually a novel based on real events. We’ll never know how she intended it to end though because Nemirovsky only wrote the first two parts of the book before she was shipped to Auschwitz, where she later died.

Here is the information from the inside cover of the book:

“In 1941, Irene Nemirovsky sat down to write a book that would convey the magnitude of what she was lving through by evoking the domestic lives and personal trials of the ordinary citizens of France. Nemirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 prevented her from seeing the day, sixty-five years later, that the existing two sections of her planned novel sequence, Suite Francaise, would be rediscovered and hailed as a masterpiece.

Set during the year that France fell to the Nazis, Suite Francaise falls into two parts. The first is a brilliant depiction of a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion; the second follows the inhabitants of a small rural community under occupation. Suite Francaise is a novel that teems with wonderful characters struggling with the new regime. However, amidst the mess of defeat, and all the hypocrisy and compromise, there is hope. True nobility and love exist, but often in surprising places.”

I hope you’re all as excited about this book as I am. And, as I said above, please feel free to send suggestions for future book of the month selections.