Friday, December 26, 2014

Paris over the Centuries

Sometimes when I'm picking an audiobook to play on my drive back and forth to work, I find myself gravitating away from any title with too many discs, especially since I get most from the public library. I remind myself of students who, when picking a book for an assignment, go for the shortest--often a mistake.

During December, though, I picked up Edward Rutherford's Paris.  I have intended to read other books of his--London or Sarum.  He had, after all, come highly recommended, and I always loved a good epic-style story spanning centuries in one place.  This book fit the bill perfectly.

Once I got started, I wondered what had taken me so long. This book stays in Paris, following several families back and forth between the Middle Ages and post-World War II.  Rutherford has an aristocratic family crossing paths with a family of wealthy merchants, a working class family, a Jewish family, and another family on the edge between legal and illegal activity.  The storyline studies the roles of class and religion, always complicated, often changing.

Since I teach British literature, I feel relatively knowledgeable about that part of history, but this book helped me to fill in the blanks of French history--even European history in general.  Instead of following a purely chronological order, Rutherford moves back and forth between centuries, with the family names as constant threads.

Having traveled to Paris and other parts of France with students twice several years ago, I especially loved revisiting places I had visited.  The characters visit Sainte Chappelle, one of the loveliest spots in the city, a jewel box of a church, once reputed to display many holy relics. As they moved through Versailles, the Louvre, along the Conciergerie, along the Champs Elysees, I felt as if I were time traveling.

In one of my favorite story threads, one of the young men in the story works first on the Statue of Liberty, then on the building of the Eiffel Tower.  Along the way, I learned so much history--without ever feeling as if I were being taken to high school.  These stories were alive with the human beings that lived them--not just dates and place names. I had no idea, for example, that when Hitler came to Paris, he had wanted to go to the top of the tower, but the elevator cables had mysteriously been cut.  Rutherford takes his poetic liberties here as he places fictional characters against his historical backdrop.

Reading Paris reminded me why I had once loved all of Michener's books and the historical novels by Follett.  Now I need to take my copy of London off my shelf. As soon as I get through my Christmas gift books.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas Stories Worth Reading--Again and Again


Christmas vacation may not allow even a sliver of the reading time afforded by summer vacation, but so many people I encounter look forward to the possibility of a little time to read, amid all the shopping and other turmoil of the holidays.  My holiday traditions include some Christmas stories to which I return again, usually pushing them onto my friends and family as well.

I was first introduced to Truman Capote's lovely short story "A Christmas Memory" when I was student teaching, and I've read it every holiday since. Usually, I find some way to share it with my students too.  Anyone who loves Harper Lee's  To Kill a Mockingbird has to love this story too.  It's so easy to picture the story taking place in a town like Maycomb, Alabama. I   picture Buddy, the narrator, as Dill--not the actor who played him in the movie--but the Dill inside my head.  

Few stories strike all five senses the way this one does--the scent of the tree, the icy cold water through which they wade, pushing the rickety old baby buggy, the copper smell of pennies as they count the fruitcake money.  I still can't get through the final scene in a faraway November without a lump in my throat.

Not all my favorite Christmas stories are tender and touching.  For years, I have gotten a perverse kick out of "The Gift of the Magi Indian Giver" from an early collection by Steve Martin, Cruel Shoes.

No Christmas would be complete without David Sedaris' "SantaLand Diaries," just one of his hilarious pieces in Holidays on Ice.  The first time I read the story, I was administering a semester exam, and I laughed so hard I disturbed the students during their testing. The only thing that rivals reading this story is listening to Sedaris reading it himself.  Nonetheless, he is such a master of tone that I hear his voice when I read anything he writes.  When "Santa Santa" insists that elf David sing "Away in a Manger," he channels Billie Holiday and belts it out. 

Since I always love those stories told from another point of view, Tom Mula's Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, the story of Marley's redemption after returning to warn his old partner Scrooge, has been a favorite too.

This year I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Joseph Bathanti's new collections of essays Half of What I Say Is Meaningless after he read from it an account of being asked to read a Christmas story to children at the public library early in his marriage, using the poor judgment of reading a story he hadn't previewed, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Fir Tree."  As is true of most live Christmas trees, the story does not end well.

I'm eager to see which story finds me this year.  I don't have much time left to find it, but I hope it will be one I want to read again and again.


Monday, December 8, 2014

R.I.P. Kent Haruf

Too often these days, when I go online I find that another favorite author or poet has died.  Today, before I had time to wake up completely, I saw a message that Kent Haruf had died.

I discovered Haruf almost by accident. I hadn't heard any mention of his novels--I thought--but I picked up the audiobook of Eventide for listening as I commuted to work.  The story was so simple, so subtle, I was almost underwhelmed at first.

Then something happened in the story--no spoilers here--and I found myself driving down the road sobbing.  Most people who know me can attest to the fact that I am not much of a crier.  Tender heart. Dry eyes.  In this story, though, something happened to a character that touched me most because of the effect on another character.  Only after I finished this lovely book did I find that it was the sequel to Plainsong.  Both books center around a young girl who becomes a single mother, but the characters I loved the most were two brothers--both single--who worked together on their farm.  At the request of a local teacher, they took in this girl whose family had thrown her out, and they cared for her until her baby was born, even though they had no experience at all.

In the second book Eventide, the young girl goes to college, taking her child with her, but maintains a relationship with these two gentle men. Haruf brings readers into Holt, Colorado, and introduces them to the ordinary but unforgettable citizens who live there. 

In his last novel Benediction, set in the same town, the characters of these two books appear in the background.  I felt a bittersweet pang of remembrance at each mention.  Now I feel a strong urge to look for his other works, just to be sure I haven't missed a gem.

In the meantime, as I'm gathering a stack of books for a friend who just returned her last stack I lent her by mail, I know I'll have to be sure to include Plainsong. It's one of those rare books I feel comfortable recommending to all of my reading friends.