Mini Reading Reviews

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I’ve been reading, as per usual, but not with the usual abandon, I’m afraid. My injured eye is *still* bothering me, and I’ve been ending the day resting it more than usual. It’s really been rather a bane to my existence, but in the big scheme of things, it’s manageable in the end. Plus – my doc and I are making progress, so I’m hopeful that this is temporary.

Anyway, so life has been moving a bit slowly, but the vision issue combined with the lassitude of late summer makes for not many blog entries about books read. For the two that I have recently finished up, they were good reads, but not astonishingly fascinating enough to write book reviews. To wit, here are two mini reading reviews. As always, these tiny review-lettes don’t necessarily mean that the titles were bad. Sometimes, you can have a good read and still end up with not much to say, so they fall into that category.

Mrs_ MiniverMrs. Miniver – Jan Struthers (1939)

This was a reread to get another title into the ongoing Century of Books and was quite fun. It’s a collection of newspaper columns written by Struthers and describing life for her and her family during the outbreak of World War II in England. Fairly lightweight covering topics such as buying a diary and going to dinner parties, this was more a palate cleanser than anything. If you have a Monkey Mind and need something to read that you can pick up and put down with ease, this would fit the bill. This was a good read, despite the gamble of rereading, and did remind me of how hard life would have been at that time and how easy life is nowadays. Plus – epistolary. Swoon.

Here’s a paragraph from Mrs. Miniver which mirrors my own attitude towards learning:

The structure of our life — based as it is on the ever-present contingency of war — is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old.

Moving on…

still-life-with-breadcrumbs-tpStill Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

A domestic novel that’s fairly straightforward in its narrative arc, this was a fun non-challenging read. (Plus – off the TBR.) It’s about a female fine art photographer who leaves NYC to live in a rural village, rents a slightly tumble-down shack, meets village residents, and a bloke, and it all runs smoothly from there. Nothing too strenuous, but just a nice fairly easy (I might say even cosy in a way) read.

I’m also in the middle of some pretty funny essays collected together in a book called “I See You Made an Effort” by comedian Annabelle Gurwitch. Gathered around the theme of aging and reaching the milestone birthday of 50, it’s an entertaining E-Z read that has some sly wit in it every now and again.

Another reread gamble, but this one paid off, for the most part. Good if you like your humor sly and quick-witted, and you’ll be able to relate to her essays if you’re now a woman of a certain age. 🙂 (I do recommend that you read this in bits and pieces, as opposed to solid front-to-back. It can get a little same-y after a while if you do it solidly. Still fun, but just not as good a reading experience.)

So nothing too mind-blowing. More of just pottering around, really. Life is good… I hope yours is as well.

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A Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1946)

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“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Nietzsche

So, I finally picked up “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy,” Viktor Frankl’s mesmerizing autobiography about his time and thoughts when he was captured as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, one of the most notorious concentration camps in Germany during WWII. I’d been meaning to get to this for a very long time, but I felt that I needed to psych myself up to read it as I know it was not going to be an easy time.

Now that I’ve finished it and can reflect back on the experience, I see that it was a tough read in both the subject matter and also the philosophical discussion that is in the second half of the book, but it was hard mainly because it was true – that people had treated each other in this manner. What. The…. ?

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna during the 1930’s when Hitler came to power and instigated the horrendous concentration camps that tortured and killed millions of Jewish people (and others) at the time.

It’s a time that I find incredibly hard to understand as it’s so completely removed from anything that I would choose to do (I hope), that there seems so little overlap between the life I choose to lead and the lives of the people who ran these camps. It’s easy to judge over time and distance, but I hope to god that I would have tried to stop this whole genocide if I’d had the chance, but who’s to know? The human condition is a strange one at times.

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Back to the book: it’s basically a book in two parts, the first part detailing the three years of his life (and those of others) when Dr. Frankl was picked up and sent to Auschwitz, and then the second half, which is more of a philosophical discussion of how he made sense of the whole ordeal and came up with his school of treatment called logotherapy.

It’s an intense read, and if you’re feeling remotely sorry for yourself when you start to read this, I can almost guarantee that you will have your perspective shifted by the time you finish it. How could one compare the minor trials of life today with the lives of these prisoners who had *nothing*? Literally nothing.

It’s not an easy read, but how could it be when one considers that topic matter? What’s amazing is that anyone survived long enough to walk out of the camps when the final day of freedom arrived. (You’ll need to read Frankl’s description of how some of the prisoners reacted when the gates of the camp were first opened…. It’s incredibly powerful to read.)

So, Frankl discusses his ideas on the meaning of life for himself and others, and concludes that life has meaning to be found in every moment of living and that it never ceases to have meaning, even when one is suffering profoundly.

This is the concept of “tragic optimism” — that no matter how terrible life can be, it only ceases to have meaning when there is no hope for change in the future. Once the hope is gone, then life is over – that love is the ultimate and highest goal that (hu)man can aspire to.

To me, the book seems to be about the importance of deriving meaning from suffering – that one suffers only so that you should learn from it to be a better person and if one loses sight of that goal, then one is doomed. If one feels a sense of control over one’s environment, then you will fare better than those who are physically strong but do not have that sense, and the existential angst that people may feel at some point in their lives is due to the lack of personal agency they may feel in their lives.

I’m not sure. It’s hard to write about this clearly without babbling and sinking into a morass of blather, but it seems to me that perhaps the key to a good life is to serve others. If one looks outside oneself to help someone else, therein lies the meaning of life.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

I urge you to read this for yourself and to draw your own conclusions. My vague personal ones are above, but I think this book is too important for you to try and draw your conclusions from my version of things. It’s a hard book, yes, but it’s an extremely important book and frequently in the top ten lists of influential books for people. It’s an astonishing read. Don’t miss it.

 

Vanishing – Gerard Woodward (2015)

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One of the largest (page count) books* that I’ve read this year (which is one of the reasons why it took so long to finish this sucker), this was a pretty good book overall. I didn’t have the stellar experience that I’d had with one of Woodward’s books before (see my review of August here), but I think some of that can be attributed to the time and energy required for my new job responsibilities combined with the fact that the plot was really pretty complex – both of which made the read quite demanding at times. I ended up picking it up and putting it down in small spurts when I think that the best way to approach it would be to attack it in huge long sections. (“It’s not you. It’s me.”)

Photo credit: Pan Macmillan (Charlie Hopkinson).

Photo credit: Pan Macmillan (Charlie Hopkinson).

The plot is set close to the outbreak of WWII in England where protagonist Lieutenant Kenneth Brill is being court-martialed for possible treason linked with his making drawings of a classified location. Emotions were very high for everyone at this point in history, and so authorities were easily triggered by even the most seemingly innocent of actions. (In fact, the location was a hamlet called Heath which was actually destroyed during this time frame to make long runways for the war effort. It later became known as Heathrow Airport. Huh. Whooda thunk.)

So, LT Brill is arrested for drawing this classified construction site, and we, as readers, are then taken back and forth in time to explain how Brill ended up in this position of being court-martialed. For the remainder of the book, Brill’s life is covered in detail and, as the trial continues, we learn of his childhood in this particular rural area and then his later years. This alternating narrative between past and present is what makes the book benefit from those extended periods of immersed reading I mentioned previously, and that was exactly what I couldn’t give the book during my last few busy months.

With these few and far between snippets of reading time and with the large cast of characters along with the time flip-flops, I often found myself rather confused about who was doing what when. (A confusing plotline was not helped by a couple of the main characters having remarkably similar names.) Another point that started to weigh rather heavily was the not-very-subtle (I might say “blindingly obvious”) hints of repressed sexuality in the detailed sex scenes. Please – if I read one more mention of someone’s “loins”, there’s going to be trouble.

So, in the end, this book presented itself as more of a vanity project for the author and actually nowhere near as good as that read of one of Woodward’s earlier works. I’d recommend that you start with August and go from there. This was not Woodward’s best work. (However, don’t let this stop you. It might be right up your alley if you like that sort of thing.)

* See the Scary Big Book Project for more on big books and how I tend to fear them….

(Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.)

Raving over Ravilious…

I have recently been exploring the world of artist Eric Ravilious who was an early to mid-century English painter. I think he came across my radar through one of the large museums in London (or somewhere) having a big retrospective and various bloggers had seen it and mentioned him. I have seen his work elsewhere, but hadn’t connected it with the same guy, and I am just in love with it. Very charming, very *English*, it seems to me. Some may argue that they seem a bit trite, but I love them. They simply remind me of quiet afternoons in the English countryside rambling through the fields or sitting by the river when I was younger. A very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, if you ask me.

This photo (above) seems rather unlike what his biographers say about him (nice and gentle, optimistic etc.) so perhaps he was doing his best “moody artist” pose for this one…

And an interesting article about Eric Ravilious from the Guardian.

He was also an Official War Artist during WWII (and the only one who was KIA), and yet his pictures from that period have been described as domestic more than war-like.

Here is a link taking you to an exhibition from that time.

And then, to keep this post slightly bookish in nature, I am also reading this one about him:

Lovely color plates in this one to drool over…

Coventry – Helen Humphries (2008)

A short novel that emphasizes just how much a role chance can play in one’s life at different times. “Coventry” is set in the twentieth century and begins at the start of WWI, veers to WWII, and then moves even further forward to the 1970’s, but the connecting thread is that of Harriett and Maeve, two women who are linked through their friendship over the years as it waxes and wanes.

Harriett, really the protagonist of the book, is a young girl of eighteen at the start of the book. She falls in love with a boy just about to enlist in the army, and it’s a marriage his parents do not approve of. New husband Owen is killed just two months into the war, and it’s a loss that Harriett does not ever get over really. After leaving her husband at the station before he leaves for training and never to be seen again, Harriett runs into a young artist called Maeve and they make a fast friendship for one afternoon, living life with abandon (such a relief after the pressure of goodbye!)… The two new friends promise to meet up a few days later, but life gets in the way and they lose touch with each other.

It’s now World War II and Harriett is covering a night shift of fire-watching for her elderly neighbor. She ends up being on one of the roofs of the old Coventry Cathedral, watching for incendiaries and other bombs that the Germans would likely drop on the city as it was an important industrial center. In the course of the long night, Harriett ends up learning much about herself, reconnecting with a lost friend, and losing part of her
heart …

The majority of the novel is centered on this one night of endless relentless bombing of Coventry, and how Harriett and new (young) friend Jeremy end up sticking together to reach a shelter and family. This is really well done – the descriptions of the characters and how they react to the non-stop onslaught of bombs that rain down on top of them, how familiar buildings and streets are changed in an instant to an unrecognizable landscape, and how close death comes to them both. This is pretty intense, and if you read it at one sitting (as I did), it will completely suck you in with its details of life under continuous random fire. How do you know where it is safe?… You don’t. You just do your best. The writing also impresses on you, the reader, how your home/sanctuary can also turn into your grave through the unpredictability of outward forces (i.e. bombs in this case).

Such nerve-wracking conditions will, of course, affect the intensity of your relationships and Harriett and Jeremy, despite their age difference, end up being more than friends. However, will they both make it through the night, and will he ever find his mum to make sure she is safe?

As things progress and the two characters run all over Coventry trying to find safe harbor and his mother, Maeve (the friend from long ago in WWI London) is re-introduced to the story and has a parallel storyline to Harriett. The two threads are woven in and out of each other’s stories, and by the end of the novel, it’s all in one tapestry.

This book is also about memory, and how it can be the one constant in life at times. Both Harriett and Maeve end up losing a loved one, and this, perhaps, is the connection that they have to keep them in touch with each other over the years despite all the changes that occur as life progresses.

Humphreys has done a good job with this novel, making it exciting and unpredictable and yet quite literary at the same time. There were some great comparisons done in a subtle way: Coventry Cathedral was pretty much destroyed by the bombing, but the people of Coventry kept the wreckage and rebuilt the new cathedral to embrace the old architecture as a memorial. This intricate dance of old and new was quite frequent throughout the story: the elderly people who had lived through the first war, and the young who perhaps wouldn’t make it through the second, the destruction of old buildings and the emergence of new…

The story was also bookended in a way, with Humphreys describing a swallow both at the beginning and the end, using it as a metaphor to show transience, grace under pressure, continuity… A very nice touch.

Overall, a super read and I will be on the lookout for other Humphreys books. I think she will be good.

I remember visiting Coventry Cathedral in between breaks of a swimming match there (as the pool wasn’t too far away).  As is usually the case with adolescent tourist visits squeezed between races, I didn’t fully appreciate what the cathedral represented at the time, but I know if I ever return to Coventry, I will be heading straight there.  I can
only imagine the feelings of the people of Coventry when they learned that their 600 year old cathedral had been bombed… Something of such perceived impermanence destroyed in hours.  I bet that was a shock to the old system.

Here is the website for Coventry Cathedral if you’re interested in more info.