The Written World Revisited


After a wicked bout of writer’s block and an overall feeling of malaise, I was inspired by two separate moments this weekend.

First, on Friday, I decided to make a shopping list in advance of a trip to the grocery store. My husband was pleased with this uncharacteristic foresight on my part, hopeful that it would reduce the risk of me bringing home random impulse buys, such as five different types of cheese, or the odd eggplant.

What happened next intrigued him. Setting my iPad on the table, I reached over to lift my netbook and grab the notepad beneath it. I then rummaged through various drawers and shelves in search of a pen. “You’re going to make a list on a piece of paper?” he asked incredulously. “It’s the best way to do it.” I replied, as if the most obvious logic had escaped him.

Fast forward (right through a VERY whirlwind, beer-spattered St. Patrick’s Day) to earlier today, when I managed to catch up on some blog reading, social networking, and general internet stalking. Perusing my newsfeed on Facebook, I stumbled upon my friend Lesley’s post about something to do with the East End Book Exchange.

I have known Lesley since college. She was a fellow traveler during my time in Europe and a cohort in our race through the Vatican, amongst other adventures. I’d been mildly monitoring Lesley’s posting on this topic over the past few months, and finally my curiosity got the best of me. After some additional probing of the world wide web and an exchange of messages with Lesley, I gleaned that she has gone and started her own small business — an independent used bookstore — in pursuit of a very specific dream — to make books more available to people.

These events may seem unconnected, but they sparked in me a couple of thoughts.

1) It is SO easy to just not write anymore.

First, the pen and paper are becoming obsolete, illustrated by my husband’s marveling at my use of them to make a shopping list. Next, it will be the keyboard, as my iPad has shown me… It is very easy to flip through apps and bookmark items, but impossible to type without misspelled words and grammatical errors. And I say that as an English major. The exercise of forming a sentence and putting it on paper, or on a screen… it’s just often easier to avoid the effort altogether.

2) It is equally easy to never buy an actual book.

I have already written about my love of books, so I promise this is not a repeat… Writing issues aside, I love my iPad for the ability it gives me to read everything — the news, magazines, blogs, tweets, posts, and yes, books — all in one place. Visually and functionally, it has changed my way of obtaining and processing information. But to Lesley’s story and the concept of the book… What is lost in not having the actual, physical, thing?

I grew up with books stacked precariously on every level surface in my room. I worked in the library in college, stowing away in a remote corner of the third floor to leaf through pages as I filed. My first date with my husband was a trip to a local bookstore to wander the sections and point out things that interested us. Books serve as decorations and paperweights; they kill spiders; they are folded, bent, scribbled on, and hidden away when the story gets too scary. The aesthetic quality of a book is not something that my iPad can replicate, and despite all the exciting technology, I wonder what we are missing in this most recent modern shift of having everything at our fingertips, yet nothing tangible.

What does it all mean? I am no closer to having an idea. But it’s nice to be writing about it again!

The Written World

For as long as I can remember, I have loved books.  As a child, I hoarded them in my room, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Anne of Green Gables to my brothers’ old Choose-Your-Own-Adventures.  In grade school, I feigned illness so that I was sent to my aunt Francie’s house, where I could sit in my uncle’s big comfy armchair and read from a pretty leather-bound collection by the front window.  I exchanged favorites with my cousin Eileen and raced her through Little Women to see who could finish the biggest book in the school library first.  (After a long time coming to Jesus, Neen, I can finally confess to you that I skipped twenty pages towards the end to secure my victory). 

I spent four years in college studying them, countless hours leafing through them in libraries and bookstores, and many a late night unable to put them down.  Like wine, books make the world rosier, more familiar, easier to appreciate and understand.  They are companions with whom I will spend a lifetime…

I had a father-in-law who loved books as well.  My husband would argue that he loved to buy them, and that it was my mother-in-law who actually read them.  Whatever the facts may be, the truth is that I now think of him when I think of books.  His memory is an extension of that rosy world, as are the homes he welcomed me into in Dublin and Westport – homes that were fittingly chock-full of books.

Tomorrow he will be gone four years.  As happy as I am that he is a part of my book world, we continue to miss him terribly in this one.

– Bridget

Suite Francaise

As promised in a post last week, ThisWine’s first book review is on Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.  As opposed to my earlier post, I have actually read the book at this point, and I managed to come up with a few feeble insights.

But first, a quick summary.  The book is actually made up of two “movements”.  The first, entitled “Storm in June”, tells the story of the evacuation of Paris on the eve of the Nazis’ arrival in June 1940.  The second, “Dolce”, takes place in 1941 in a small village during the Nazis’ occupation of France.  There were a few more movements planned for the novel, but the work was never completed (see below).  Each movement follows the experiences of several sets of characters – soldiers and former soldiers, women and children, farmers, bankers, writers, aristocrats, and even a priest are all introduced and observed as they struggle to endure the war.

Now for my commentary…

1)  This book is extremely well-written.  While I would not call it an easy read, given the subject matter, I will say that it was still easy to get caught up in the pages for hours.  Nemirovsky sets the scene clearly, yet takes care not to let setting or actions overtake the real focus of the novel, which is the people.  If you allow me to sound a little crazy for a moment, it is like she sets her sights on one of her many characters and picks that character up like a suitcase, then proceeds to dump all of the contents of that suitcase on a table.  She picks up each item and analyzes it, turning it over, examining it with a magnifying lens, hitting it against the table to test its strength.  Then she methodically packs everything up back into the suitcase and throws the suitcase into the overhead compartment so that she and the reader can continue the journey.  Nemirovsky is a master at the art of characterization.

2)  This book is infinitely sad.  I’m not pulling a spoiler when I say that there isn’t much happy news for any of the characters.  Reading this book forced me to take a hard look at what life must have been like, and must be like, for inhabitants of countries at war.  You read of the mother whose son is lost in action, the wife whose husband is a prisoner, the married couple who lose their spots in a car leaving Paris, forcing them to walk.  You read of the man who steals petrol from a fellow traveler, the farmers who lose their ability to harvest when the Nazis requisition their horses, the woman who rushes her family out of their house during a bombing, only to realize she forgot her invalid father-in-law.  You read these lines, which of course break your heart, but they also inevitably lead you to wonder, “What would I do?”.  The sadness of this book is that people actually went through it – it’s all real, and there is no way to take the edge off it.  The story is harrowing.

Despite all that, I can’t help wanting more.

3)  It is unfortunate that this book is unfinished.  Irene Nemirovsky was arrested and taken to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died.  She had completed first drafts of “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” and she kept a journal that laid out plans for the remaining sections of the novel.  Her daughter, who was only a child at the time that her mother was arrested (and who escaped imprisonment by going into hiding), kept the manuscripts with her throughout her life.  The book was finally published in 2006.  In its entirety, I am convinced that Suite Francaise would have been one of the great works of literature in the 20th century.  I wish it had been completed, if nothing else, because I closed the book wishing for some redemption.  The story is more terrifying because it has no ending.

… So there you have it.  A serious attempt at a very serious book.  I may need something a bit more light-hearted after all that.  Stay tuned for Peter Mayle up next.

– Bridget