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Hey baby, your library or mine?

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Last night the girls and I had a lovely dinner with friends in their back yard. (The friends in question were providing me with week-night sustenance and adult conversation while my husband is off yukking it up in DC at the Frye Institute, lucky man.) And when the kids had pushed around their rice and Butter Chicken long enough, they all left the table to go amuse themselves. Greta read a graphic novel over Simon’s shoulder; Ingrid helping Phillip super-soak the van–thus revealing a great deal about their characters, I am sure.

As the adults were talking about the kids and their reading habits–two of them have gone through phases where they read the Harry Potter novels over and over again–we revealed that one of the three of us re-read things as a kid, the other two did not. I did not, and generally do not, re-read books. Even books I really, really like. Why is that?

Part of it is, I think, related to Dale’s recognition that there are only so many days in a lifetime and you can’t get to everything you want to read. That being the case, re-reading takes away time you could spend with another NEW and EXCITING book. Or maybe it also has something to do with why I dislike revising so much–I’m done with it; moving along now.

As a pre-teen, in my truly voracious reading years, I read for volume with a side-order of sensation. Gothic horror novels, Daphne DuMaurier, fantasy novels, under the covers with a flashlight until 2:00am. I remember reading David Eddings Belgariad series when I was in 6th grade. I loved those books to the point where I would ignore food and sleep to get back to them. I’ve never gone back and re-read them, though. Not then and not since.

A book from which you derive great pleasure is a special treat.  If you have invested enough of yourself in a book to let it reveal a bit about your own hopes and dreams to you, the book itself can function like a time capsule. A bit of my 12-year-old self is in those David Edding books. I am certain that the Harry Potter books contain a bit of Greta’s self-understanding, as well. I was–and am, I think–wary of revisiting that time and place in my life for fear of disappointment, disillusionment, what-have-you.  While the Belgariad owns a place of esteem in fantasy literature, would I like it if I read it at age 41? Would I have liked it at 16? I loved it at 12 and knowing that I loved it then is enough for me. Don’t push your luck; you may find out that book you loved in 8th grade is really poorly-written genre fiction. (Which reminds me, I read Christina Crawford’s tell-all memoir about her mother Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest, in that same phase. Ugh. I can’t imagine revisiting THAT one!)  Maybe your 12-year-old or 16-year-old self is not somebody you want to keep company with right now. Puberty is awkward and the desperate reading of early puberty sort of has that awkward tinge about it, too, for me.

All that aside, however, I have re-read some books. As a literature professor, I generally have to re-read (or at least skim and consult my copious notes) each book I teach each time I teach it. The same is true for things that I am writing about for publication. My professional reading does not often resemble the voracious reading of my younger years. I read slowly, underlining and making notes, and try to understand the system that structures the book. This reading is fun, too, but it isn’t the reading with abandon that I did as a kid.

There is, however, one non-professional book, or collection, rather, to which I return annually to re-read for pleasure. The Art of Eating contains MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets, How to Eat a Wolf and other texts. As a writer she benefited from a treasure trove of experience from which to draw: a young ladies’ finishing school, marriage and move to France, unhappy married life, love affairs, moving to Switzerland, and what seem to be millions of fabulous meals–there should really be a biopic! Her writing is lovely, whether she is on about food or love of the interstices of the two. The Gastronomical Me makes me feel at home. I think there is a bit of my grown-up self in that book and, happily, it is one to which I do not remind turning again and again.

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Written by Jennifer

June 6, 2012 at 9:50 am

Duddy, oh Duddy

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As part of my pledge to myself to blog my leisure reading for you, dear Readers, I am going to write about The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordechai Richler. This book has been on my “to-read” list for ages, largely because of the volume of German-Jewish literature I was reading for research and teaching and my need to expand my knowledge of diaspora Jewish literature beyond the German. Business + pleasure = Richler.

A year or two ago, I read Barney’s Version by Richler and it took me a while to get into it. I thought perhaps this was because I didn’t have the necessary Richler/Montreal/Jewish/Canadian literary or cultural background to “get it.” And eventually Barney and his tale grew on me: he was a sheister, a shady businessman, a wealthy man who came by his wealth honestly sometimes and dishonestly, too. Duddy is the original Barney. Or, as a friend here put it: The rub on Richler is that he writes the same novel over and over again every four or five years or so. To this verdict I can only amend: the protagonists age as Richler himself does. Duddy the grubby St. Urbain urchin who schemes to buy land up north morphs into Barney, the middle-aged Montreal Jew with a cabin in the Quebec north woods. And I’ll grant Richler a pretty compelling plot line, if one that is rather well-worn in the pages of twentieth-century literature.

The bummer of reading Duddy for me, though, was that I enjoyed Richler’s craft more than I enjoyed his story. He is a good writer; he draws his characters well; I felt I knew a couple of them and saw what the others represented in the social fabric of the narrative. But the story itself, the plot, just tired me out. The title is a surefire giveaway that this story is entirely Duddy’s own and follows his development (or aging, as Duddy doesn’t really develop at all–he remains a selfish teenager at heart) from the selfish vantage point of his own wants and needs. Duddy is unconcerned with the Yvette, with Vergil, with his peers as he forges ahead with his plans to impress the men in his family. Mom, of course, is dead. Aunt Ida is, maybe, crazy. Women . . . they are so inessential to the drama of the male psyche. I grow weary of such narratives.

Marie Kaschnitz, Ruth Klüger, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein–there are women writing “Jewish” fiction in Germany, Austria, and the US that doesn’t focus on the feminine experience of being the marginalized Jew. (Of course, Klüger and Goldstein and others do remark on the marginality of the female Jew within the observant Jewish community itself.) I see the characters in Kaschnitz’s prose, or in Goldsteins, as being more fully rounded, more accessible (to me?) than the penile-focussed, artist-as-a-young-man characters offered by Richler, Biller, Roth, et al. I tend to reject out of hand the contention that women write for women, or are better understood by women, and men for men. I think my benchmark of good writing is prose that allows any reader to see into the characters, to see the universal in the specific example the author has crafted. As a woman reading, I resent being excluded and marginalized by the text as it comes into being.

So, up on my feminist soap box, I saunter off to read some Margaret Atwood. G’night, Ladies.

Written by Jennifer

August 31, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Surrender

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Over at npr.org, Linda Holmes has written an essay calling for all of us NPR listeners (and New Yorker readers, and so on) to recognize the fact that we will never be able to read everything we want to. Nor will we be able to listen to or watch everything on our cultural bucket lists. It is just plain numbers, she says. (How many books can you read in a month, how many months will you live if you live to be 85, what number does that give you? It’s not enough)

Holmes differentiates reactions to this realization into two categories: culling and surrendering. In the former, people take a determined stance to reduce what they consider worthy of attention: I will not watch TV, it is all trash. And while “The Real Wives of Orange County” is likely no great loss to them, they may have really enjoyed “Mad Men” or old Poirot mysteries on A&E or the Superbowl. They won’t know, though, because they have culled TV from their cultural consumption. Dale’s previous post on all the books he won’t read falls (somewhat shakily) into this category: Jane Austen is not worth his time. (Don’t throw things at him. I know she’s a good writer but I am also pretty convinced he can live a happy existence without reading Pride and Prejudice.)

Surrender is the strategy Holmes herself appears to advocate. In this frame of mind, we are completely aware that WE ARE GOING TO MISS SOME GREAT SHIT and we just have to be ok with that. So, for example, if Dale dies without having read Die Blechtrommel or Doktor Faustus (both of which he will not, he tells me, ever read), that does not make him a less-well-read individual. He just knows that there is a finite amount of literature he is going to ingest and he wants to enjoy what he does read and not beat himself about the head and shoulders for not reading Thomas Mann’s greatest novel.

Holmes reminds us that being “well read” is not a destination at which you arrive. It is a process. Are you interested in the cultural production of the world in which you live? How big is that world? I feel compelled to know a bit about what is going on in contemporary German literature, as well as on the US literary market. My desire for an expanded world reduces, in pure page volume, the percentage of what I can know of each. If your cultural wold is the American Midwest in poetry in the twentieth century, you can probably hope to read most of its literary output before you die.

As a professor of literature, I have a bit of difficulty with the surrender notion. We in black, with our Foucault oder Bhaba tucked under our arms, are generally more inclined to talk like the cullers: who me, watch sports? ick. Not worth it when I could be reading Kant. Surrender implies that we know that we cannot know everything and that someone out there will have read more of x, y, or z than we and then we aren’t experts after all and aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. . . . . . .

But deep down inside I have surrendered to the knowledge that I’m just not going to get to it all, nor should I try. I want to always be reading something and am very pleased that the past year or so has meant a return to pleasure reading for me. I’m working through the books that I bought at the MLA, as well as some genre fiction, and have started writing a story of my own. (shhhh) And, in solidarity with Dale, I will now list the Books I Will Not Read (with a healthy side dish of Books I Have Given Up On):

Tolstoy, War and Peace (I brought this with me to Hamburg when I spent my junior year of college abroad. My logic was: I will miss reading English but don’t want to pay a premium for buying British paperbacks. I’ll bring THIS GINORMOUS book and it will tide me over for months and months.) Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know squat about Russia in the nineteenth century and was totally confused about why they were all speaking French and how in the hell in Napoleon get there, anyway? I gave up about 1/4 way through it and know that I just can’t bear to trudge through all of those pages again.

And if I’m really honest here, I’m going to just clump all sorts of Russian literature together and say: won’t get to it. Someone told me to read The Master and Margarita a couple summers ago (blog post here) and I enjoyed it. But it didn’t make me yearn for more.

I’ll also agree with Dale on Faulkner. If any of you read my post on The Sound and the Fury, you’ll know why. Ick.

Autobiographies of any political figure, ever. Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Rumsfeld, whoeverthehellyouare: I don’t care. Reading what you would have to say about the world would spike my blood pressure. I also don’t need to read Master & Commander-style narratives that talk about the political or military exploits of those who never got around to writing their autobiographies.

Any book with the words “chicken soup” in the title, unless it actually involves a dead chicken and a pot of water with veggies.

I am sure there are more. Oh yes, I am sure. But right now I’ve got to run and read more Sookie Stackhouse 🙂

Written by Jennifer

April 20, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Where all the kids are above average . . .

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I’ve been reading Swedish crime fiction. Along with the rest of the Western World, I’ve read two of the three books in the Stieg Larsson “Girl” series. As I mentioned earlier, these are good page turners and, unrelatedly (maybe) very violent. I’ll read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest just for the hat trick, but I’m rather over Larsson. The reasons why have been explained in so many other venues, it really isn’t my place to repeat them. I believe it was Joan Acocella in the Jan 10th issue of The New Yorker who laid it out the best: his stories are good but his writing is atrocious. I can only imagine what these looked like before the unsuccessful editing job.

So, to keep in the vein but aim for tighter prose, I read The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. Mankell’s cop and his police narratives obviously served as a source of inspiration for Larsson and I can see why. They’re well written and seedy all at the same time. What strikes me though, especially as I being listening to an audiobook of The Pyramid by Mankell, is their joint interest in the decline–or decay–of the liberal Swedish welfare state and an abiding concern with what kind of Sweden will take the place of that mythical Nordic land where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average. (props to Keillor)

Since you can all go read Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell for yourselves, I won’t go into the details of their concerns with the welfare state’s demise in Sweden. They are concerned about crime, about fascists, and about how Sweden is changing. At one point in The Fifth Woman, Kurt Wallander opines that Sweden is changing for the worse. Sweden used to be a country where people darned socks and now it is not. People throw away worn out socks and this disposable society also means that people are more likely to get tossed aside, as well. The care for fragile things, the investment of one’s time in simple things (like repairing a sock that was likely hand-knitted) have no place in the current, fast-paced, materialistic world, in which the individual is concerned with him or herself alone and not with the welfare of the entire tribe.
When I read this, I immediately thought that Sweden is becoming more American. The USA invented the disposable, one-size-fits-all culture of commerce and slowly but surely have been importing it all over the world since the end of WWII. Poor Sweden, one is inclined to think. Of course, Sweden makes its own decisions and their immigration policies, tax policies and the like have just as much influence on the changing face of their nation as any sort of Americanization creep I might posit.
This past summer, when we were driving across Germany and France with the kids, I got to thinking about how Germany today is not the same country I lived in for the first time 20+ years ago. There are the little things–like the fact women shave their armpits and legs and deodorant is stocked in drugstores–and then there are larger things, too, that are harder to name that just make it feel “different,” or, really, more American. I pondered this for a while and came to a rather different conclusion than “the US, through its media and military, are infiltrating the rest of the world in the attempt to turn everyone into us.” The source lies elsewhere, methinks and it is arrogant of me to assume that my country has anything to do with changes in western European democracies. We are a superpower and stuff, but let’s not assume tooooo much importance, shall we?
Germany and its politicians are full of laments about the  “state of things today.” Angela Merkel has famously declared that the multicultural experiment in Germany has failed. Several years ago there was a political kerfuffle about the CDU’s demand that immigrants commit to the principles of Germany’s “Leitkultur,” (or dominant culture). These things sound horrible and call up images of Germany’s repulsive xenophobic, racist past. But perhaps these people are merely responding to that same feeling that I have when I think about the Germany of 25 years ago. The country has changed. The relatively homogenous culture of the past, where all shops were closed on Sunday (the Lord’s day), people swept their sidewalks, hung lace curtains in their kitchen windows, and used plastic gloves to handle fruit and veggies in the supermarket before putting them into their cart is impossible to maintain in the face of growing immigration and, let’s not forget, more porous borders with other European countries.
It isn’t Americanization that I see in Germany, it is globalization–or, perhaps more accurately–the growing pains of a country that is become an very unwilling melting pot. Demographic changes related to immigration and urbanization, coupled with the deregulation of large sectors of the economy have changed the face of America radically since the end of WWII–and this change has been more aggressive and more pronounced since the Reagan era. These changes are now confronting Europe, as their economies begin to look more like the US economy and less like the social welfare states of the previous century. Since these changes go hand in with increased immigration in Germany, it is easy to lump them together causally, but I just don’t think that is justified. Germans don’t darn socks anymore, either.

Written by Jennifer

April 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

A Commonplace Book

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Synchronicity. Serendipity. Something in the air.

I am (we are) taking a seminar at our UU titled “Making Time for the Inner Life” and in the course of the seminar we were asked to find (or develop) a mantra or a poem that reflects some core belief or aspiration we hold. I have a pretty contentious relationship with poetry. I don’t read it for pleasure, generally speaking, but I teach it often enough that I feel pretty competent when it comes to analyzing poems and breaking them down in order to talk about the interrelationship between structure and meaning. Mantras are completely foreign to me. I don’t meditate. (Maybe I should.)

So over the weekend, I mulled over what a poem or mantra for me might look like. I almost immediately thought of the final lines of E.B. White’s children’s classic Charlotte’s Web: “She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I love that ending! It refocuses the entire story for me, making Charlotte’s whole tale one of writing and words as much as it is one of friendship and love. (duh?) As a mantra, those lines remind me of the (sometimes nascent) qualities in myself that need attention and celebration.

As I was mulling on Charlotte’s exemplary qualities I clicked on my friend Phil Nel’s blog Nine Kinds of Pie. Phil is a children’s literature scholar, Crockett Johnson expert, Dr. Seuss explicator, etc. etc. His blogging this week is on the old practice of people keeping “commonplace books.” These were personal, handwritten collections of poems, quotations, recipes, notes, things to remember and reflect upon that people kept back before everything was copied and scanned and filed away. Phil listed many quotations from literature–not all of it children’s lit–for his first commonplace book blog post, but not my E.B. White quote. However, his first commenter did mention it–thereby cementing in my own mind the rightness of my new-found mantra.

Now I find myself inspired a bit. I have a lovely little blank book I received as a parting gift from friends in Germany. It is full of lovely paper and will make a perfect little companion, to fill with things I want to remember, think of, and reflect on. I may not follow Phil’s lead and list them all on the blog, but I will share my second and third quotations with you here, to follow up on E.B. White.

The last lines of Leonhard Cohen’s “I Have not Lingered in European Monastaries”

I have not lingered in European monasteries
and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights
who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;
I have not parted the grasses
or purposefully left them thatched.

I have not held my breath
so that I might hear the breathing of God
or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,
or starved for visions.
Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.

I have not worshipped wounds and relics,
or combs of iron,
or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.

I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.

I appreciate the joyful secularism of the sentiments here. Many ways to come in contact with the divine have been celebrated in religion and literature. From medieval ascetics to the sweaty middle aged in pursuit of the runner’s high (guilty), the assumption is that one has to defeat or subdue the body in order to nourish the spirit. Cohen’s last lines here celebrate the joy to be found in our corporeal existence, which, let’s face it, can be pretty awesome.

The final quotation to find its way into my commonplace book this week is from Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s novella Die Judenbuche (The Jew’s Beech Tree), published in 1842. The story is about the awkward intersections between moral right and wrong and legal right and wrong and is framed by an excursus on that topic. She sets the stage for the story’s moral dilemma with the following words:

“Denn wer nach seiner Überzeugung handelt, und sei sie noch so mangelhaft, kann nie ganz zugrunde gehen, wogegen nichts seelentötender wirkt, als gegen das innere Rechtsgefühl das äußere Recht in Anspruch nehmen.”

(Trans: “For he who acts according to his convictions, however deficient they may be, can never be quite lost, but nothing is more soul-destroying than invoking external laws in defiance of one’s inner sense of right.”) Short translation: follow your convictions, even when you do not have to. This appears to be a platitude but for the addition “even when you don’t have to.” Even when no one is looking (not even god, natch)

What would be in your commonplace book?

Written by Jennifer

November 4, 2010 at 8:37 am

Posted in books, German, life

A three-hour tour . . .

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Given the number of days and weeks under the bridge since the marathon, I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say that neither Dale nor I had seen the (very small) text in the race registration materials mentioning the very challenging course, or the fact that finishers’ t-shirts boast that it is the “toughest in the North.” Ouch, ouch, ouch. But I did not lie down on the trail and give up. Yay me and thank you to my pacer.

Today, my thoughts rest on some of the other experiences I’ve had in Germany this summer, while traveling with my students. At several museums and sites the language institute or I had requested the services of a tour guide, in English, to share some of the highlights of the site and/or its collection with the students in a more masterful way than I, an interested non-expert, could. After two summers of these trips, I have concluded that a good tour guide is hard to find.

A brief rundown of the types of sites we visited:

The Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin; The Jewish Museum in Berlin, The Stasi Museum in Berlin, Martin Luther’s house in Wittenberg, the city of Wittenberg, the city of Weimar and the Goethe Haus in Weimar, and the Buchenwald Memorial site.

All of these are major tourist (and research) attractions in Germany (albeit for very different audiences) and advertise their thematic, guided tours more or less aggressively. Most of these places, the Stasi Museum being an exception, rely on freelance tour guides who are affiliated with, but not employed by, the city or the museum/institution. I think this results in some pretty spotty standards for guides and those of us using their services roll the dice and take our chances. My students and family have heard my rant about the very-sub-par guide we had at the Jewish Museum and I have already grown tired of telling that sad tale.

Here, though, are my Dos-and-Don’ts of giving group tours:

DO:

  • Personalize the tour to the group requesting it. A group of German retirees and a group of American students need and want different things in a tour.
  • Make eye contact with your group and engage with them as a person.
  • Convey your passion/interest in the place or institution you are introducing.
  • Speak intelligibly for your audience.
  • KNOW YOUR FACTS. And do not spread your own personal interpretation of history as fact. (I’m looking at you, Buchenwald tour guide who said “no one entered the SS intending to kill people.”)

DO NOT:

  • Direct your erudite comments to the group leader, attempting to impress.
  • Give the same tour each and every time. You will wind up sounding like a bored church-goer saying the rosary.
  • Play the “I know something you don’t know” or “fishing” game with your group, in a lame attempt to create some sort of group pedagogical vibe. Asking questions that have only one answer, or test the group’s knowledge of your area of specialty, are insulting and make you look vain and annoying.
  • Name drop, insert jargon, or otherwise imply that you and the group are part of some inner circle to which, in reality, only you belong. Again: insulting.
  • Bring your own perverted fantasies of historical figures’ sexual proclivities into the tour experience (fortunately, here I’m cribbing a colleague’s horrible tour experience last summer).
  • Tell the group how a given installation/monument/artwork will make them feel, and then double-check afterwards to make sure they felt the “right” emotion.

Let it be stated here and know that every single tour guide I have ever had at the Stasi Museum, in over four visits to the place, has been excellent and interested and appropriate and interesting and on and on. They rock. Wittenberg also gets above-average grades all the way around. Perhaps it is telling that the sites with the most historical baggage involved–The Jewish Museum and the Buchenwald Memorial–have had the spottiest tour guides. Complex narratives and complex personal and family histories perhaps conspire to make for uncomfortable group experiences?

Written by Jennifer

July 30, 2010 at 11:19 am

Posted in German

Fridays are for Lists

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In case any of our few, but cherished, readers are under the impression that we’ve moved the authorship of this blog entirely to the half of our family residing in Germany—–I’m still here. I even read Dale’s posts and think about writing my own. Obviously I do not actually write these posts. However, I will share with you a list of the things I have thought about blogging but have not:

  • Benadryl. If you plan on taking a small person on a transatlantic flight, get some NOW. One dose, 45 minutes before takeoff, and voila! Kid sleeps, you rest, and everyone shows up on the other side of the pond in good humor and ready to play.
  • Kids skiing. Small people, bundled up in snow gear and ski goggles, hitting the small slopes and practicing on moving-walkway-style ski lifts and t-bar carousels. Awesomeness.
  • Emigrating. Should we?
  • Dog. Should we?
  • On being a pedestrian. Where there are sidewalks and storefronts, I will gladly walk. Open expanses of ick (being defined as parking lot, industrial area, empty lot) reduce the psychological comfort of walking through a city.
  • On being a pedestrian in the snow. Walking in a snowy city is easier than driving in a snowy city. Added features–you know where every dog in town does their business; the slush on the floors of public transport is deep enough for kids to drown in. You have an excuse to wear every knitted item you packed.
  • Tenure: lookin’ good.

Written by Jennifer

January 8, 2010 at 3:47 am

Posted in German, Kids