January 23, 2013

Recent Winter Reads

For a blog with "Reading" in the title, and for a broad with an English degree, it's funny how much I dread writing book posts. I'm not a great reviewer. I either get all tongue-tied and blocked, or revert to my college days and construct a thesis and proper conclusion. On the other hand, reading and thinking about books remain a big part of my life, one that's supposed to be a big part of this space.

 So I'm keeping it brief and killing a lot of birds with one post by including a number of  two recent books I enjoyed.

First up is The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer.  I don't know if I'd have picked this up if it had been more obviously labeled a "Holocaust book," but the Holocaust looms as the tragedy at the novel's heart.  (I picked it up because I loved Orringer's first book, a short story collection.) This was good, long, juicy read. Set in Paris right before WWII and Hungary during the darkest days of the war, it's both a very romantic and involved May-December love story, and also a testament to family ties.
Although I knew it existed, it was interesting to read of the anti-semitism prevalent in France and other European nations during this period, not just in Germany/Austria.  Andras Levi, the protagonist, is a talented young man from rural Hungary thrust into the culture and sights of Paris when he arrives to study architecture on scholarship.  An errand to deliver a mysterious letter from a wealthy matriarch back in Hungary to an address in Paris leads Andras to Klara, a Parisian ballet instructor who is several years older -- and far more experienced. Their relationship and romantic struggles take up roughly the first half of the book, so it's enjoyable for their relationship alone.

Once Andras loses his student visa and is forced to return to Hungary, the war and the Nazis take on a much larger role in the story, and we see how events affect not only Andras, but his brothers, his fellow students, and of course, Klara, who returns to her native Hungary despite the secrets and violence that had led her to be exiled from her homeland. Sound complicated?  Well, at 600+ pages, there's plenty of time for all to be revealed.

Next, something completely different: Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman.  Moran is a journalist and pop-culture maven in her native Britain. I guess this book of feminist essays was published to wide acclaim/discussion in the UK a couple years ago, but is still a bit undiscovered on this side of the pond. Or maybe I've just been clueless.

Either way, I enjoyed Woman very much and laughed out loud frequently.  It's very British, very breezy, and not at all a "serious" look at the current state of feminism. On the other hand, I read that she was inspired to write the book because of her sister, the type who lives on British welfare, eats junk food, and has no ambitions beyond keeping close tabs on celebrity gossip.  God knows there are too many of those types of women everywhere in the world, and so as a rallying cry to young women to get the hell off the couch,  it's a good start.
I loved what she had to say about fashion:
"Women are judged on what they wear in a way men would find incomprehensible -- they have never felt that uncomfortable moment when someone assesses what you're wearing and then starts talking down to you, or perving you, or presumes you won't "understand" the conversation -- be it about work, parenting, or culture -- simply because of what you put on that day."
"And so, for a woman, every outfit is a hopeful spell, cast to influence the outcome of the day. An act of trying to predict your fate, like looking at your horoscope." "When a woman says "I have nothing to wear!" what she really means is, "There's nothing here for who I'm supposed to be today.
 The talk goes deeper than clothes -- there's also a brilliant (to be British) treatise against the whole modern phenomenon of assuming a Brazilian should be as standard and expected as clipping your toenails. (Sadly, for my husband, I happen to agree.)  The book is a memoir of sorts, organized chronologically by Moran's own experiences. Chapters are named, "I Start Bleeding!"  "I Become Furry!" or "I Encounter Some Sexism!" to "I Get Married!" The last two chapters, on her decision to have an abortion as a married mother with two children, and on aging and the way women spend money on altering their faces (while men don't) are brave, bold, and still funny.

My main takeaway is in the Epilogue, when Moran writes on how for millenium, women have concerned themselves with how to BE, and how to master their image (be sexy, be motherly, be good, be "one of the guys" be a goddess, be a muse) rather than on what we should all DO.  What we need now, is to get out there and DO STUFF.  Action over image.  Bloody brilliant.

I've read more over the last month or two, but look at how long just these took! Good lord.  I should do these re-caps much more often, at the rate I go through books. 

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