It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

March 27, 2009 at 4:02 am (Uncategorized)

I started reading The Book Thief last week, and then realised I needed to put it down for a while and break up my Nazi Germany reading. I feel like there’s been a lot of WWII strewn in my path recently, and it does start getting me down. When it comes to mining the Furher in fiction,  where oh where are the fields full of flowers and gentle springtime frolics a la The Sound of Music? As much as the Von Trapps need a von slap, you have to give them points for skipping round the carnage sunny-side up. Not that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a WWII novel per se. Ostensibly it concerns itself with a little boy trying to make sense of his father’s death on September 11, 2001, half a century away from Hitler. But there’s a terrible parallel story told separately by Oskar’s grandparents, and yes, the war remains, throughout the novel, incredibly close. 

The novel has been sitting on my shelf for months now. I bought it secondhand, and had intended reading it when it first came out back in 2005. Time and reading lists, they do so get away… I’d finished my Dorothy Parker biography, I’d done with Amsterdam, I needed more than Obama’s Audacity of Hope to get me through the night, so I whipped Foer off the shelf and got stuck in. I thought the precocity of the nine-year-old-child conceit would irritate me as the too-young voice in the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas irritated me (there’s nothing worse than adult writers underestimating child narrators), but it didn’t. I think the first few pages do creak on this front, but Foer very quickly finds the rhythm of Oskar’s speech, and very soon I was caught up in it, hearing the child’s voice very clearly and – even more important – believing it. Oskar charms everyone he meets throughout his adventure across New York, and he certainly charmed me. Maybe these meds are making me teary (or these pretzels are making me thirsty…), but this novel moved me to tears on several occasions. 

There’s also, conveniently, a multimodal element to Foer’s novel that speaks to my own inclinations. Throughout the novel, photography is incorporated to powerful effect, as well as some hand-drawn colour pages (test sheets for pens and permanent markers) and marked-up corrections (red circles around typed text). The way these visual components interact with and extend the story proper is of great interest to me, and I think Foer’s done an impressive job weaving the different narratives and different modes of narration into a coherent and heartbreaking whole. I plain old loved the novel, but it did make picking up The Book Thief, similar in some parts of its experimentation, a little difficult. So I put it down and picked up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway instead, thus successfully forging a complete change of pace. It too is proving innovative – there are no chapters – and I’m starting to enjoy it after rather a shaky start. I was doing something that never bodes well: reading the same line over and over. And over and over. I’d come to, shake my head, grip the sides of the book and tell myself to focus, damn it, focus! It’s never good finding one’s mind wandering out of the world of the novel and into the next room…I wonder what’s happening over there… or there… Not ideal. But that drifting feeling seems to have passed, and I’m happy to report that Mrs. Dalloway is coming round for tea and cupcakes over the weekend and we’ll get much better acquainted then.

I know you’ll forgive me if I do just mention that my friend – the lovely Karina Machado – has just had her first book published, a non-fiction title called Spirit Sisters, which is a collection of stories exploring the paranormal experiences of everyday Australian women. I went to the launch last night in a bookstore on Clarence St, and it was packed. I only found out then that Karina was on one of the morning shows yesterday – Kerry Ann – with one of the subjects of the book, and I have to say, my gut feeling (even though of course I’m biased, Karina is one of life’s sweetest cherubs and I want her to take over the world) is that this book will go gangbusters. It’s a catchy title, it’s got a really appealing, intriguing cover, and the fact is, most women I know do have a latent curiosity about this sort of stuff even if they’d never ever come out and say in company that they “believe” (I am including myself here). I don’t know if I do believe, but I know the idea of ghosts and spirit life fascinates me. Not enough that I pursue it in any measurable fashion, but enough that I sit forward and listen up if a friend tells me the strangest thing happened… I love the possibility. It’s frightening and comforting in equal measure. Has anything remotely paranormal ever happened to me? Not that I don’t think of as simply the dreams of a child with an overactive imagination. Just dreams, nothing I have seen as an adult or in daylight. So I don’t “believe,” but that doesn’t lessen the shivery pleasure of allowing myself to wonder. And I know I’m not alone – I expect Karina’s book to fly off the shelves, but I very much doubt a poltergeist will come forward claiming responsibility.

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7 Comments

  1. Jenny said,

    LOVE that last line!

  2. Grad said,

    I read The Book Thief earlier this year and wrote a post on my blog about my experience. It took me awhile, but I did eventually get into it and loved it – loved the characters. The story itself left me morbidly depressed and gloomy. I wanted to pick up something just plain fun right away, but I was slightly haunted by The Book Thief and stumbled around for awhile. Next comment, when I was in college, my sister and I got places as dancers in a Summer Stock production of Funny Girl (10 years of ballet paying off). We were coming home very late after rehersals one night, I was driving. I stopped at a Stop sign, and as we sat there, I imagined an accident ahead of us. I had a vision of a car veering across its lane into ours. After sitting there a couple of seconds too long, my sister asked me what was wrong. As I made a left hand turn, onto a side street, I tried to tell her about this “vision.” Before I could finish, a car coming from the opposite direction veered across our lane and hit a tree a few feet from us. We missed getting hit by seconds…the seconds I sat at that Stop sign watching the “vision.” I’m not mystic (or nuts – I hope) but I have never been able to explain that incident. I am certain, however, that it saved our lives.

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    Interesting books–and I’ll see if Spirit Sisters is available on this side of the pond. I’ve had those kind of experiences. As a small example, I knew when we’d receive both of our daughters. The timeline in international adoption is vague. In the case of our older daughter, the Chinese embassy was accidentally bombed by the Americans shortly after we got our referral. There were demonstrations in China and all travel by adoption groups was delayed. We were told to expect to travel at earliest in mid-July, more likely end of July. But I was telling my husband we had to rush and finish painting because we’d travel in June. And so we did. Then, knowing all the ropes, we were able to get through our paperwork in record time for our second child, expecting to travel in the spring. There were all sorts of odd delays, the file languishing on the desk of a part-time person at the Ministry office and so on. When it was clear that early spring wasn’t going to happen, I said to my husband–you’ll see, we’ll get her on Yom Kippur. That is the most important Jewish holy day and I’d never quite felt that my first novel had ended. You see, every chapter is told from a different character’s point of view, ending with the midwife in labour. In the final chapter, told from her perspective, she gives birth…on Yom Kippur. The book ended for me when I was in China, yes on Yom Kippur, receiving my second child in my arms.

  4. doctordi said,

    Thanks, Jenny, I did allow myself a little chuckle over that one, I must admit…

    Grad and Lilian, both such interesting personal stories of what I would probably call extra-sensory perception (ESP), something so many people experience at one time or another. I used to be friends with someone who was very sensitive to this kind of thing – call it intuition if ESP makes you uncomfortable, but she was never wrong. If she ever called me, even now, and said “Don’t go,” I wouldn’t. I just wouldn’t. Grad, I am SO glad you stopped. Lilian, what a beautiful happy ending.

  5. Pete said,

    I also struggled with The Book Thief for the same reason – I just couldn’t stomach another book about WWII and the Nazis. Will have to find it again and give it another try. No ESP experiences here to relate, although one that springs to mind is when my mom was very ill as a 3 or 4-year old girl, she saw an angel at the foot of her bed, basically telling her that it wasn’t her time to go just yet. It’s easy for me to put that down to a feverish imagination but it was a very powerful experience for her. Also interested in the other books you mention (and my first response was “Oh my God. Look at all the books Di is reading, and blogging about!”). With my birthday coming up, I have to prime the family with a few possibilities.

  6. litlove said,

    Hello, tres chere! It’s lovely to be catching up with your wonderful posts. I had a period of reading Holocaust texts to teach them (Elie Wiesel, Jorge Semprun) and after a very short while that kind of thing is hard to take. I had a student once who had just finished a dissertation on them and when I suggested it must have been hard, his eyes filled with tears and said he’d been afraid they’d f****d him up completely. I’ve looked at The Book Thief and I’d like to read it, but not just yet. Have I recommended Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher to you? Apologies if I am repeating myself, but it uses photographs and text in really interesting ways, and it’s beautifully written. Ooh and how was the Dorothy Parker biography? I think she’s an interesting woman and would like to read more of her or about her.

  7. doctordi said,

    Pete, they are so distressing, aren’t they? I’ve felt physically ill reading about the war. I just need some recovery time before I too pick up The Book Thief again. A dead boy in the opening pages was just too much for me after little Oskar. Yes, hand over that list to family and friends for a birthday haul! Such a good idea!

    Litlove! Bonjour! How we’ve missed you around these parts! Welcome back to the blogosphere. I hope the break was restorative in the extreme. No, you aren’t repeating yourself, you haven’t mentioned The Shadow Catcher. Brilliant, will add it to the burgeoning list… I enjoyed the DP biography…very accessible and lively if not the most scholarly work – it’s called You Might As Well Live, from a very famous line in one of her acerbic poems. I read her collected works last year and am fascinated by her to a slightly unhealthy degree.

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