September 16, 2016

The Decision by Britta Bohler

Title: The Decision
Author: Britta Bohler
Publisher: Haus Publishing
Year: First published 2013; this edition 2015
Pages: 169
Translator: Translated from the Dutch by Jeannette K. Ringold

The German author, Thomas Mann, lived for three years in self-imposed exile from his German homeland as the Nazi regime grew more powerful and influential. Mann never spoke publicly against the Nazi regime during this time, but during a three day period in early 1936 circumstances forced him to decide whether he would speak out or remain silent. Britta Bohler dramatizes Mann's possible thoughts as he wrestles with this historic decision in her short novel, The Decision.

Mann struggled with a complex array of doubts and fears. He was a German who wrote in German for a German readership, upon which he was financially dependent. He had a Jewish wife and a Jewish publisher. He did not arrive at his decision to speak out in an orderly fashion, but in a messy human way, with fear often driving his thoughts.

Through the intimate narrative of the novel, the reader gets a glimpse of Mann and the things that interested and drove him. For instance, thoughts about music and writing ...
"[H]e always remained a musician in his writing. Music is the prototype of all art. The form of the novel is nothing but a composition in words, a symphony of ideas. A work of counterpoint, an ensemble of contrasts and harmony."
... thoughts on exile and asking what it means to be German ...
"What does it mean, a home? A country, a city, a memory?"
... and thoughts about slow travel ...
"... train travel. The slow passing of the world, the gradual changes in the landscape that prepare the traveler for his arrival in new surroundings."
In one scene, Mann is looking out at the night sky and thinking about the speed of light and how the stars shining there may no longer exist. He is doing this instead of attending to work related tasks. I could relate. It is so much more fun to think and wonder than to work.

It was details such as these that gripped me while reading The Decision and the only real complaint about the book that I can make is that I wanted more. I wanted more about "the gap between being an artist and bourgeois life," and "the artist as a pure spirit" with a mystical "cast of mind."

Britta Bohler is no stranger to the struggle between individuals and governments. She is an international human rights lawyer who has defended individuals against the abuse of governmental power and, as such, brings a unique outlook to this three day period in the life of Thomas Mann. I don't know a lot about Mann, but the book has a ring of authenticity and is a psychologically convincing look at a man agonizing over a decision that would cut him off from his homeland and put him at odds with an abusive regime.

"There is so much in a life that is not lived."
- from The Decision

August 30, 2016

Returning to BookTube!

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I've decided to try and revive my YouTube channel after a two year "break." I really did not plan to be gone that long, but you know how these things go once you get out of practice. Come by and say hello and look for more videos in the very near future. I'm not sure what kind of schedule to follow yet, but if you are subscribed to the channel you should see videos when they appear. Hope to see you!

August 23, 2016

In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Title: In the Cafe of Lost Youth
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translator: Translated from the French by Chris Clarke
Publisher: New York Review Books
Year: First published in 2007; this edition published 2016.
Pages: 118

In the Cafe of Lost Youth takes place in the Paris of the 1950s. Paris is known as the "city of light," but this short novel looks into the shadows of that city and the bohemians that wandered it and frequented its cafes.

The focus of the story is a twenty-two year old woman, named Jacqueline Delanque, who quietly arrives one day at the Cafe Conde -- no one is quite sure when she first began frequenting the cafe -- and sticks to the shadows. Who is Jacqueline Delanque? What is her past? Why does she haunt the Cafe Conde? No one knows. She is eventually given the nickname Louki by the other habitues of the cafe and enfolded into that small group; she is, in a sense, baptized or given a "second birth" whereby her past becomes unimportant.

The story is told by four narrators -- the mysterious Louki and three others who are themselves only partially revealed. I believe it is the author's intent to keep his characters shrouded in order to create an atmosphere that is reflective of the Paris he is trying to portray; this may be somewhat disconcerting to readers who are looking for character development and a reason to care about those characters. This tactic does create modest suspense though.

Major themes of In the Cafe of Lost Youth are identity, memory, time, and escape. The theme that stood out to me is that of escape. Louki is clearly trying to escape, but from what or from whom? A sense of discontent, always seeking, never finding -- this is Louki. She is self aware enough to reveal, "I was never really myself when I wasn't running away."

Generally, where there is a desire to escape there is also a search. Again, a search for what? Perhaps we are provided a clue in a small detail. Louki is given a copy of Lost Horizon to read, which she carries about with her and conspicuously displays. This is a book about a search for paradise. Maybe this is what Louki and the other wanderers seek -- an undefined paradise.

In the Cafe of Lost Youth is a melancholy little piece that leaves the characters and the reader without any true resolution, yet I am strangely drawn to it. Perhaps it speaks to my own "lost youth" and the restless need to escape and seek out that indefinable paradise.
"At the halfway point of the journey making up real life, we were surrounded by a gloomy melancholy, one expressed by so very many derisive and sorrowful words in the cafe of the lost youth." -- Guy Debord

Read this book if you are looking for a quiet and moody story that will make you think. Do not expect a tidy plot with resolution or full character development. This is a reflective piece.

August 15, 2016

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

I recently read The Day of the Triffids and wanted to follow up with another John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. Both books are post-apocalyptic novels of the time in which they were written and represent many of the fears and thinking of the mid-twentieth century (at least as I know them from a North American perspective, which apparently aligned at least somewhat with those in Great Britain). Mid-century issues of cultural confrontation, the generation gap, and a geographical shift of power and progress from current locations are well represented in The Chrysalids. One could spend a fair bit of time discussing the use of metaphor as well - deviance and telepathy as metaphors for greater issues - and whether these are still effective means for communicating current concerns.

I would describe the tone of the book as somewhat secularly preachy (is this a thing?), but the book is overall a good post-apocalyptic story that will give the reader something to think about.

January 27, 2016

On Writing and Not Writing

Moon set and sunrise from my porch this morning
I've been lamenting the fact that I don't seem to get around to personal writing anymore. I used to write personal essays and book reviews at Tip of the Iceberg (it's all still there) and then, more recently, book reviews and thoughts here at Terri Talks Books. Lately I can't even seem to write a brief book review. I hang on to this bookish community and participate mainly by tracking my reading on Goodreads, posting photos on my Instagram account, and chatting everyone up on Twitter. Why? I don't really know why. Life. Work related writing. Vague and unexplainable REASONS.

My current read is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey and I am loving it. It seems to speak to my soul in some way. It is about life in all of its joy and lonliness and is supported in this by the setting ... by turns harsh and bleak, and short and fecund. This book reminds me of one I read in January four years ago, Touch by Alexi Zentner, so I went back to see what I had written. I found a thoughtful piece of writing that took me by surprise. I wrote that? Why am I not still writing? Again. You can go back and read the entire "review" if you'd like, but here is how I wrapped it up:
We have our own harsh yet beautiful forests that we walk through; forests that are sometimes tinged with a touch of the magical. Those places that hold memories and perhaps the lingering presence of those we have loved and lost. This is how they live on ... we remember them and we tell their stories; we pass them to the next generation. We walk again in those places where those stories have their beginnings and middles and ends. We can almost see them, feel their presence as though they have left something of themselves behind ... which, of course, they have ...

This little bit of my own writing has at least partially inspired me to "take up the pen" and write something today. I should write more often. I hope I do.