On this glorious, sunny morning, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a yummy cinnamon bun from the market as I think about this past week’s reading and listening experiences.
My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, which was written during the author’s retreat from Paris into the French countryside during the German occupation of France. Because she and her husband were both Jewish, they were forced to wear the yellow star that signified inferior legal and social standing. Written under such precarious and terrifying circumstances, we all agreed that it was amazing that she was able to write such an accomplished novel, the first two of the five parts she envisioned would make up the novel, constucted like a symphony and based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. She had access to no resources and wrote in secret, fully aware that she would likely never see the work published, yet she was able to create such a beautiful work, where no bitterness or blame is evident. The first book, “Storm in June”, takes place in June 1940, when residents of Paris are fleeing to remote villages to escape the arrival of the Germans. A cast of characters is introduced, including the Pericands, an upper middle class family with five children, most still at home, but the oldest is a priest in a neighbouring town. Gabriel Corte is a writer who is also trying to flee from Paris with his mistress, Florence, as he laments the effects of war on art and culture, fearing that he would be too old to adapt to a “new fashion”. There is also the Michauds, who both work at the bank and are trying to relocate to the bank’s new site. And Charles Langelet, a single man who loves nothing in life but his possessions, art and sculptures, valuable things which he cannot take with him as he, too, prepares to leave Paris. The events that befall these characters as they try to flee will bring them together in interesting, unusual, and sometimes comical ways, as they struggle to survive, to help one another, to keep family members together, and to care for those they love. Book Two, “Dolce”, tells of life in a French village that has been occupied by Germans. We meet new characters, whose lives are intertwined as they, too, struggle to survive and to create some sense of normalcy while living under most difficult conditions. This extraordinary novel was a hit with all of the ladies who came out yesterday. One member said that reading this book reminded her of her own mother’s stories about when she and her husband were living in German-occupied Holland during WWII, and how they used to be approached on their farm by people from the village who would offer them household items in exchange for food. We talked about the excellent characterization in the novel, that all the characters were believable, that they were both good and bad, and that they all made both sensible and poor decisions. Sometimes they had to be crafty, and sometime they had to behave in ways that were out of character, in order to ensure survival for another day. Written without a sense of bitterness, Nèmirovsky presents a balanced view of the characters, including a very complex, human look at the Germans who were stationed in the village. She presented them as men who are doing a job, even if they don’t necessarily like it. They, too, had real lives, families and careers or ambitions before the war, which interrupted everything for them as well. And the villagers’ interaction with the soldiers is also complex: they appear to be pleasant and co-operative with them, but when push comes to shove, they will deceive them to look after their own people. We noted that, if we had not read the information about the author, we would never have known that this book was written by a Jewish woman who was trying to evade capture by the Nazis; rather, it was written in a style that was accessible to readers today. She offered insightful views of both the Germans and the French, the lower classes and the upper classes, which we thought was due to her wide range of personal experiences, since she moved from Kiev to Finland and then to Paris, and from a lower class in Russia to a higher class in France. Finally, we discussed the two parts, and the way these worked together. Part One, “Storm in June”, introduces us to many characters and sets the stage for the book. Although fleeing Paris, the characters somehow expected things to stay the same, and so made impractical decisions when it came to the preparations for their journey, such as when they packed silverware instead of food. Some of the episodes were almost comical, such as the scene where one group steals the basket of food from another group. This was humourous, but it also drew attention to the fact that, in dire circumstances, people are capable of behaving in unusual, even cunning ways in order to survive. Part Two, “Dolce”, we decided, was a much softer story, as indicated by the title. It focused on the love story of Lucile and Bruno, and the activities of the occupied village. The characters in this part of the book were also willing to take chances for one another. Some of the characters from Part One appeared briefly in this part of the book, so we suspected that, had she been able to complete this book, they would have all come together in the end. We discussed so much more that the points listed above, but these are the highlights of the meeting. I want to thank Marie for recommending that this book be included on the selection list. It was definitely a good choice for discussion, and I probably would never have read it otherwise, and would have missed out on a most amazing reading experience. If the author had not been taken to Auschwitz and had not died in the camp in August, 1942, if she had survived, she planned to write three more parts, totalling 1000 pages, which would likely have been an incredible account of life during that time in history. If you have not yet read this book, you should definitely put it on your list of Books To Be Read.
And I finished listening to This Body of Death by Elizabeth George last week. I’ve listened to it before, but I needed something in a pinch, and since it is read by my favourite narrator, John Lee, and is complicated enough that I wouldn’t remember the details from the last time I listened to it nearly five years ago, I felt it was a safe bet. It has such a complex plot that I will just quickly sum it up here. Inspector Lynley is still on leave after his wife’s murder when Scotland Yard’s Acting Chief Superintendent Isabell Ardery calls on him to help her out with her first case, a test that will determine if she gets the job permanently or not. The body of a young woman, Jemima Hastings, is found in a cemetery in Stoke-Newington, and Ardry’s team is called in to find the killer. Jemima was living in the New Forest until her recent departure from her lover, Gordon Jossie, and her brother, Robbie. When Jemima’s friend, Meredith Powell, conducts her own search into the disappearance and death, she becomes unwittingly involved in a complex plot of deception and murder. It was an excellent listening experience, all 19 parts (that’s over 20hours of audiobook!). I wish there were more of George’s audiobooks available through the library’s free download service, Overdrive Media, but alas, there are only two at this point, and I’ve listened to both of them already, this one twice.
OK, enough about WWII and dead bodies. Time to get outside and enjoy the bright, sunny, warm spring day.
Bye for now...