This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller - Comments and a Review

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller is the author's reflections on and reminiscences about reading CS Lewis's Narnia books with a lot of history and literary criticism thrown in. A quote from Anne Lamott on the front inside flap praises the book and states "I couldn't put it down."

I had to put it down. But that was just for a while. I was glad when I picked it up again and continued to hear alternate views on the famous children's author. Many people are familiar with the kindly picture of CS Lewis as an Oxford don who would reply to the children who wrote fan letters to him about his Chronicles of Narnia. So often in life, where there's a good side seen by the world there is often a less appealing underside. At least, there are those who like to talk about an underside. And whether you feel their version of the story is accurate is up to you. Perhaps that's why so many biographies are subtitled 'a life.' It's person A's account of another's existence. Person B may write another very different account. Same subject, different lives - life A and life B.

I had heard about CS Lewis's life A: the curmudgeon who converted to Christianity, wrote apologetics for the faith, created a beloved series of kids' books, taught at Cambridge and Oxford and is criticized for his treatment of females in the Chronicles. I hadn't heard of CS Lewis the raunchy incredibly human (ie, flawed) man of life B. Sadomasochistic feelings?

But such a, once more, human depiction of Lewis I was not prepared for. Indeed, more human than one would want it to be. I put the book down; it was too much to absorb at once. Miller does an excellent job painting this layered and complex picture of a real person. This is not a fawning paean to the man, but Miller does give credit when she feels it's due. She goes into Lewis's childhood, a necessity to explain the adult he was, and indepth into the histories of his friend Tolkien and other readers of the Chronicles.

That's perhaps one of the most interesting things about this criticism/memoir/
biography. Hearing about Tiffany's and Pam's experiences as readers of the Chronicles, voices that may have been unheard on this subject if not for their inclusion in this book, is a great part of the pleasure of reading it. Then there are the readers who became famous authors in their own right, like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke and Jonathan Franzen. These many personal accounts of how Lewis affected their young lives and had effects on their older lives are quite interesting.

Miller's own experiences make for an absorbing first few chapters. Then, for a Narnia lover, there's the shock of so much criticism of Lewis: he never matured (an assertion by others that Miller references rather than makes herself), he liked risque stories and jokes, he had sadomasochistic feeling (which he, Miller states, fought), he was snobby. And for each of these assertions Miller makes her case by providing ample background information and weaving it into a readable story with some clever and effective turns of phrase.

Lovers of Lewis will be miffed. Haters will be satisfied. General interest readers will be engaged save for a few dry spots which they may be inclined to gloss over, although information will be lost by doing such.

I am now looking forward to one day reading a literary response to this book. I have six pages of notes. Perhaps I'll write it.

Thanks to Hachette for this complementary review copy.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Hey, it's just a story!

After a brief sabbatical during which I read Anelli's Harry, A History, I am back to reading Miller's The Magician's Book. How different they are! Anelli's book is a paean to all Potter things Rowling-approved. Miller's is genuine criticism in the personal and literary senses.

I keep finding things I want to write about as I read the book. So, on the heels of my humble self-correction below, I thought I'd go back to criticizing.

Consider this sentence from page 158 in the chapter entitled Blood Will Out.

"[The Narnia stories] take place in a dream world where talking beavers bake marmalade rolls despite having no surplus goods to trade for oranges and sugar, commodities that can only have been imported from a warmer land."

Miller then goes on to make several points about the illogical logistics of Lewis's "slapdash creation."

We are talking about children's fiction are we not, or did I miss something? Miller seems to be taking apart the world of Narnia - the fictional world of Narnia - the way a Trekkie dissects the United Federation of Planets. Only for a Star Trek fan that makes sense since it's meant to be thoughtfully considered, a safe way to comment on the real life we all live through the safety of fantasy. I doubt that when Lewis called his story a "supposal" of an alternate world he meant for readers to nit-pick about where ingredients for baked goods came from for Mrs Beaver. He was probably talking about more weighty, theological matters. If you're going to critique so far as the most minute aspects of daily fictional life for these characters, perhaps you've lost the Narnia forest for the talking trees.

Miller's readable prose does reveal some things about Lewis that, perhaps, we'd rather not know. Perhaps. So maybe I should be grateful for these silly asides which take the focus away from weightier issues like sado-masochism and prejudice. After all, it did give me material for another post. And the reference to marmalade rolls did provide delicious imagery. But, hey, this truly belongs under the 'it's just a story' heading.

Oops! A correction...

Perhaps it's the congenial spirit of the season or perhaps it's months of linguistic study - probably it's just the desire to set a wrong to right - but I want to amend something I made quite a snobby little point of last year when I reviewed a book called Me and Mr Darcy by Alexandra Potter.

How can Potter write Me and Mr Darcy, I asked? Not only is there vulgarity contained within this novel, the author has the grammar wrong! My, what a snotty-nosed little critic I was! mistake!

After all, why not Me and Mr Darcy? Do you see a verb there? I don't see a verb there. For all I knew or know this phrase has been picked out of a sentence in which it functions as an object, like, That nervy blogger is writing about me and Mr Darcy, again - a sentence in which 'me and Mr Darcy' is the object of the preposition 'about.'

Oh, Ms Smith - fourth grade English teacher - I should have known better! Did you not teach me grammar if not modesty and sense? With hubris I entered adulthood and stayed there for quite a while culminating in a moment of public criticism in which I implied that this author, poor Ms Potter, doesn't have a proper hold on sentence construction! Like it even matters!

Obviously, if the narrator of the book were saying 'Me and Mr Potter got a thrashing from that blogger again,' then the grammar must be amended by changing the objective 'me' to the nominative 'I.' (And maybe you would want to transpose the two subjects for the sake of politeness.) But who cares?

First, this is the stuff children's grammar lessons are made of. Why pick into such a trivial thing when commenting on a novel, especially when point number two is coming right up. That is, why criticize a paperback with the charge of rudeness when all you have is a noun phrase floating around on its cover? Grammarians of the world, you're obviously not reading my blog if you let that go.

So, I hope I've shown proper contrition for my presumptuous assertion of last year.

One last thing: I may have given off the itsy-bitsy teeny-tiny little suggestion that the book's not very fun. - Oops. - It was actually quite entertaining if a bit bawdy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

To add to my Goodreads bookshelf or not - That is the question or, I didn't read the whole book. My bad.

I had big expectations for Harry, A History, The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli. But I 'read' only half of it and skimmed the rest. Now I'm left with a dilemma: Do I add it to my Goodreads bookshelf or not?

While I've only read two of the Harry Potters, I have always been intrigued by the Potter phenomenon. I follow the magazine articles. I watch the news segments on television. I was there at midnight for the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows release. I respect the love readers have for the series even if I don't quite fully understand the fanaticism which at times can seem a bit odd. But let me not sell myself short; I like odd. I prefer to think I am a little odd.

So when I say that the Potter phenomenon intrigues me I do not mean the way a med student specializing in psychiatry is 'intrigued' by his first patient. No, Potterology is fun. But I have found the actual Potter books too dark which helps to explain why I haven't read them all. Imagine a baseball fan who likes all the accoutrements of the game - hotdogs in the stands, the hats, three-quarter length sleeve shirts with a big number on the back, the crack of the bat, the sports column - but for some reason can't make it through an actual game. That's me. At least that's me in reference to Harry Potter. (And baseball, too.)

It's perhaps because of this that I pooped out when reading Anelli's book; it was too detailed for me and better suited to die-hard fans. I had hoped for more of a balance between Anelli's life and Potter stuff, that the book would be about where the two converge. So it was this in-depth reportage, or the knowledge that I had many, many books on my to-be-read-list, or the fact that it was about 2 o'clock in the morning and I still had half the book to go that made me zip throught the last chapters. I also skipped the chapter entitled Rocking at Hogwarts - not literary enough. I'm tough to please.

Technically, I haven't read the entire book. I think it's wise to skip now what I might find very engaging after having read the Potter series. But I feel so familiar with this book that my urge to share my opinion MUST be satisfied. Furthermore, I want to place it on my Goodreads list. I wanna! I wanna! I wanna! I wanna! So I guess I will.

Before I head there to do that, though, here's a few thoughts. I read a comment online that went something like this: 'At least now I know I'm not the only nerd out there!' But it sounded so mean.

I'll acknowledge, the fervor and ardour with which Anelli and her Potter-mates treat the series seems, um, unusual. But Anelli makes a good point on page 209. She states of the fans, her friends, that,

"All of us led other lives...with families who didn't understand how we could love anything as much as we loved Harry Potter, who even, at times, made fun of us...but then would spend six hours shouting themselves hoarse at a football match, and five after that shouting themselves hoarse at each other as they discussed the same game."

It's true, isn't it? People can recite the score of the '56 World Series of baseball and who ran how many home runs in the same game. Culturally, this is okay. But somehow fervent discussion of Harry Potter makes you a nerd. Painting your face the colors of your football team is okay. But dressing like Hermione isn't.

Anelli's account of her own passion for Potter, the detail with which she relates the purchase of the fifth book in the series, the way she felt with the book in her hands, her dedication to the Potter website she devotes so much time to all seem to be unusual things to 'fess up to if, for instance, she were trying out for most popular girl in homeroom. But it's refreshing and lovely to hear someone speak so freely about their love for a 'nerdy' subject; quite obviously, it comes from the heart. Brave. Or naive. Perhaps Anelli has no idea how she might sound to some. It's wonderful to hear someone reveal
in such an unabashed way parts of her personality that others would hide, that people who never grow past their high school snobbery wouldn't understand.

Here is the power of much of the book, the confessional, honest tone it has. More personal moments and fewer dry facts may have kept me reading. (But, then again, so may have more familiarity with the series
on my part.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I wonder as I wander or, I'm pensive as I peruse

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller is a weighty piece of literary criticism, not in the sense of being so scholarly that a casual reader wouldn't want to approach it, but rather because it calls into question a figure from children's literature who is very dear to many. This is, of course, the author of the Narnia books, C.S. Lewis.

To a lot of people, Lewis seems to be a curmudgeonly figure from history, a kindly and nearly lifelong bachelor who wrote stories for children and responded when his young fans penned letters to him, a man who literally wrote the book on Christianity (or at least a really famous one) with his Mere Christianity, a sort of meditation on and explanation of his faith.

Certainly, this image is preferable to the flawed individual who emerges from the pages of the first half of The Magician's Book. There's nothing new in being imperfect. Most of us know we all belong to that club. But a benign and almost purified light is so often thrown on Lewis. The tales of Narnia are moving and lovable and crystallize so much of what we imagine Lewis to have been; it is, therefore, difficult to stomach an ambivalent take on the spinner of these tales.

As a lover of Narnia I think I am not alone in wishing that Miller's book could be a happier criticism of the series. Not being a Lewis scholar I am not qualified to say which view of Clive Staples is the more accurate one. I can only express the heaviness that is causing me to put aside this book for a time while I recoup my fortitude for the rest of it. A fun romp through a reader's imagination would have been more fun.

But it wouldn't necessarily have been more thought-provoking. So I must acknowledge that the issues brought up thus far in my reading of this book (like prejudice, misogyny, crafting a story that spreads religious doctrine) are important to discuss. And they are discussed well; that is, they are thoughtfully represented, appear professionally researched and spiced up with references to works of literature and talks with readers and writers. In addition, the author delivers what she promises in the subtitle; she tells us of her relationship with the Narnia books - her Narnia adventures - as she gives us a memoir of this significant portion of her reading life. Readers like to read about readers, so this is most welcome.

The title of Miller's book does identify her as a skeptic, so it should come as little surprise to anyone that there is criticism here. And this, I have found in scanning reviews from other sites and blogs, has prompted bloggers to caution Narnia lovers that they may not want to read The Magician's Book lest it affect their own further experiences of the Chronicles.

How can anyone dare to say that any particular book is one not to be read or, conversely, must be read? We can just guide a little, give some suggestions. And keep in mind any suggestions I give are based on my thoughts at the midpoint of Miller's book. So let me tell you this way, if I were talking about pastry I'd say don't expect meringue; realize that it's more like fruit cake. Be prepared to eat, taste and digest. And then do it again.

And when I do it again, I'll be back with my final thoughts on The Magician's Book.

Thanks to Hachette for this complimentary review copy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A couple of unimportant thoughts have occurred to me...

and I've decided I'd share them.

On movies...

All right. After reading a post on one of the sites I regularly peruse, I discovered that the 1970s version of Little Women I usually snobbily eschew was actually an entire mini-series. It starred Meredith Baxter (of Bridget Loves Bernie) , Susan Dey (of the Partridge Family) , Eve Plumb (of The Brady Bunch) and William Shatner (of Star Trek), as well as others. Now, when I had first heard that there had been an adaptation with Baxter and Dey I wasn't impressed. As much I had enjoyed The Partridge Family, there was something unexciting about seeing Laurie portraying characters that had such an essence of their own. It's like I thought that somehow these actresses would carry their sitcom roles into Little Women with them and drown the nineteenth century New England characters in 1970s schmaltz.

But here's the thing: It had occurred to me years and years ago that Little Women should be made into a mini-series. Since I'm partial to British productions I thought, the uniquely American nature of Little Women notwithstanding, that they would ideally be the ones to film it. They do it so well and well is how I wanted to see it done.

I'd love to see a new production of Little Women, despite the fact that I have liked all the previous ones I've seen. But as I doubt that any producers are reading my blog and thinking, This Jemima person really wants a new film so, gee whiz, let's go out and make a movie!, I'm thinking I'll have to settle for the new-to-me 70s version. And you know what? I watched a couple of clips online and it looks good! I'm even getting enthusiastic about the era of the production. It will be fun to see these actors in these roles, like seeing good friends in their old home movies, except the production values look quite nice in this production. And, really, schmaltz or not, those 70s shows were good.

Further on movies...

Just in case any producers are out there reading my blog, I'd like to pitch a film idea. Starving writer with baby in tow writes novel amidst the clattering cafe's of Edinburgh, nervily sends her manuscript in to fledlging publisher, and a literary star is born.

No, of course I didn't just make that up. That's the J.K. Rowling story. But reading a new book called
Harry, A History, The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, And Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon by Melissa Anelli, the account of the birth of the Harry books seemed new to me and I thought, What a great story! This is going to be filmed someday when we're all old! So, golly gee, I wanted everyone to know: I THOUGHT OF IT, FIRST! And to the Harry Potter people, two things: (1) You're welcome, and (2) Remember, it's J-E-M-I-M-A at GBBS. (I'm available for screenwriting, as well.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comments on The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer

I closed this book with a sigh. It was a heartily sighed sigh. It was a swoony sigh. Well, I had just finished a Georgette Heyer novel, so I suppose it was the appropriate sigh.

This is not a book you tell an Oxford don you're reading. It's not one they'd understand. You wouldn't tell your intellectually snobby friends either. They'd tease you.

But do not make the mistake of thinking this is a badly written book. No, no, dear reader; this is a picture painted with skill and clarity. I recognize these characters. Some might say they're recycled from other works of fiction on screen or even the page. They might be right. They probably are. But it's not easy to reconstruct in print a celluloid character. And even if other writers' pens have created such personalities, the subsequent author can't just say, "You know, this character is a fop. Think Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde." The author has to apply the dyed oils to the canvas with dexterity. And Heyer does this well. Take the character Nicky, an endearing upper-crust university student more interested in fun than scholarship. He's a cousin, of sorts, to the title character and, here, gives her a compliment.

"By Jove, Cousin Elinor, if that gown is not the most bang-up thing I ever saw! You look all the crack!"

Now, c'mon. Don't you know just by this utterance what sort of character, or caricature, we're dealing with? Yeah, it's over the top. And I certainly don't know if anyone ever spoke like that, but it does paint that picture, does it not?

The Reluctant Widow is a Regency mystery with a touch of romance about a woman who becomes entangled with a likeable upperclass family when she gets into the wrong carriage at the inn where her stage-coach has dropped her off. Thus begins a story of humor and intrigue and some ineptitude (Nicky has a big role.)

The book, written in the 1940s, may or may not be accurate when it comes to language, but the author does seem to know a couple of things about the Regency period, dropping phrases like phaeton and nuncheon, and sometimes using the singular form of the verb 'do' in constructions where today we would use 'does.'

There are copious descriptions of meals and one does not mind spending a day with the personages populating the book. They are ensconced in the cozy estate of Highnoons and seem to enjoy each other's company. I did want, however, more chemistry between the two who are meant for each other, and some romance sooner, too. That, in my opinion was desperately wanting.

Why then did I sigh so swooningly at its conclusion? Well, because that's when Heyer unveiled the real romantic parts. Don't get excited; it's just a proposal. But it's lovely. I would have liked more adventure, too, than the brief bit we get, similarly, toward the end of the book. (The widow can drive a phaeton like Danica Patrick drives a race car.) And I have some scruples about the ethics of the main characters after the resolution of the mystery but, remember, they're likeable.

It's not surprising that Heyer has a reputation of being a bodice-ripping writer. The heroine's "bosom" had already "swelled" twice by page 75. But this was to show her indignation and nothing else. An odd way to express it, but whatever. If you like this brand of word play, you might well, indeed, enjoy The Reluctant Widow.

You just might find it's a bang-up thing.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for this complementary review copy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Just a bit off-topic (but just a bit)

Last weekend, I watched the supposedly last in a series of adventure movies starring Noah Wylie, Bob Newhart (yes, Bob Newhart in an adventure series) and Jane Curtin. Called The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice, it intrigued me because of (you guessed it!) the librarian angle. That and adventure are not often paired. Now, I had heard of the first movie when it began, missed it and had forgotten about it. I had no idea that there was now a series, though I fairly bounced with enthusiasm when I found out it was still around.

Well, I'm smitten. Not so very smitten that I don't see flaws, but bitten and smitten by the idea of a librarian with the derring-do of Flynn (Wylie's character) who is a bit nerdy but awfully capable of holding his own quite impressively in brain work and physical encounters. What an idea! And to think it saw the light of day as a television film. I can't imagine that is this day and age of gritty gore, where writers seem to sit around tables in passionate discussion about how they can bring disturbing images into their programs, that such a film could be a feature (i.e. cinema) film. That it was produced on TV, the haven of grit and gore, is unbelievable. As far as cinema is concerned, it doesn't seem to have the modern-day uber-adult quality required for that venue.

So it seems a bit anachronistic in that sense. But it was made. And, it was made three times at that. Somewhere out there someone seems to need some old-fashioned action-adventure-mystery. I can't vouch for the first two films as the Judas Chalice is all I've seen. But this third installment, despite its flaws - some might quibble with the revival of Cold War overtones (after all, why isn't it the Americans who seek the chalice's strength and rejuvenatory qualities?) - it seems so innocent.

Though there's blood and darkness, it's relatively sanitized and it's all done in such a fantastical context - truly it's a fantasy - that it does not have the same effect a crime drama has. It's the kind of film that used to be made and taken semi-seriously, enough that people were willing to suspend their disbelief for a while for the fun of the ride; nowadays, we're just too sophisticated, aren't we? We laugh at such childish things. We've internalized coolness so much, made it such a mainstay of our personalities that we don't even realize it. We don't see when it's rearing its ugly head and preventing us from betraying our other more realistic qualities. Isn't genuineness so much nicer?

Now, the Judas Chalice, at least, was a bit intense for younger viewers, a bit too scary and a bit too sexy at one point. It could use some tweaking to get its target demographic decided. But I like the mixture of the childlike and the grown-up, so I wouldn't want it to be made too slickly and strictly just for one personality type.

And, in smaller ways, making this movie charming was the retro clothing, Wylie's sense of humor, the thoughtful ending, the direction of Jonathan Frakes and simply just the aforementioned concept of a swashbuckling librarian. It's so seldom that a successful Hollywood star makes a throwback of a film like this that kudos go out to Wylie, though I have no idea if making a throwback was, indeed, his intention.

So, there it is, off topic a bit but still within the realm of bookishness. Now why hasn't a series of paperback adventures begun?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rambling post

Here begins the ramble:

I'm reading and reading and reading. And yet, there's so much more to read! Sort of a luxurious problem to have, really. I'm not complaining, just trying to muster up the speedy reading of my youthful days from so many, many years ago. I could wax poetic about the slowing-down that my brain has done in its adulthood, but I'm not in the mood to rhapsodize about minutia, oddly enough.

I just sort of felt like chatting about some of the books I've got going now. I'm feeling pretty solid now, like one of those tennis players steadily winning game after game within a set and pumping fist victoriously in air rallying herself onwards. I mean I just finished The Journal of Helene Berr and, before that, a foreign language book (yea!), and prior to that Giants by John Stauffer; so, I'm on a roll. Game won.

Right now, I'm reading My Lady of Cleves, A Novel of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes and my first ever Georgette Heyer, The Reluctant Widow! I shall soon have the latter finished and ready for comment. Shortly thereafter, My Lady, will be appearing on these "pages" with its own commentary. These two were review copies from Sourcebooks and things are looking pretty good for them. I'm very intrigued by developments in Widow, (is it a ghost story?), and am finding the account of Elinor's settling in to her new home quite pleasingly cozy.

So, what else is there? Dum-di-dum (taps fingers while thinking) - Oh yes! I haven't discussed my like/dislike relationship with used books yet. I tend to love to go into used book fairs, buy a bunch, and then end up giving them away since I love a clean, crisp book rather than dog-eared copies that who knows who has taken into the bathroom with them. Please understand, I think it's wonderful that people recycle their books and that out-of-print copies are available in used bookstores and through ABEbooks, etc. But I'm a bit squeamish and that squeamishness generally ends up getting the better of me. There are exceptions of course like the one dollar Gone With the Wind I got from the year it came out, though it's not worth anything. Believe me, I checked.

Despite, these ambivalent feelings I could not resist buying two used books for one dollar each the other night. One, called Lenten Lands, by Douglas Gresham, is about CS Lewis. The other, is Charles J. Shields Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, which I've been wanting to read. My justification for these purchases was that if I were to take them out of the library I would probably end up owing a fine of more than the dollar I paid for each and, thus, good economics allowed me to freely buy them with good conscience. And, judging by my recent $7.50 library fines, I was right.

About those fines, I feel so ashamed. What a waste. There is, at least, one consolation. And that is that the fines go to that wonderful establishment so important to individuals and societies in so very many different ways, the public library. So, instead of being ashamed, maybe I can consider myself a noble patron of the arts because of my fines? Yeah, I'm going with that.

So, now I've extolled the virtues of the public library system, supported it financially, discussed literature and used an athletic metaphor. Job done tonight.

Here ends the ramble.

It depends!

Thank you so much to all who participated in the latest poll! The unanimous verdict seems to be that music may, or may not, be an enjoyable part of bookstore visits. Everyone picked the 'It depends' choice. I find my readers are a most diplomatic group, indeed!

Monday, December 1, 2008

On translation of texts

The translation of literary works is not an issue I've seen discussed too often in periodicals and sites about books. But reading The Journal of Helene Berr has made me think about it.

Do you translate the exact words that are on the page or do you translate the essence of what is being said? In other words, do you translate the letter of the language or the spirit of the language? Probably, you do both. If so, how do you strike the balance? I imagine you do it gingerly and with great sensitivity.

Translation does not get a lot of attention and translators don't get a lot of press, but when the last English version of War and Peace came out I think translators got a moment in the sun. I heard the translators interviewed on the radio (NPR, probably) and, if I remember correctly, they talked about that delicate process of conveying same nuances in the new language as exist in the original. Sounds like a job requiring a love of the intracies of language and the discussion of such.

I may not have thought too much about this whole issue of translation if I hadn't been struck particulary by one sentence in Helene Berr's book and generally by her impressive skill with language. On page 94 of the edition which was released in the United States this October, a sentence appears which if I am right may contain a misplaced modifier - the placement in a sentence of an adjective or other modifier which creates ambiguous meaning. This is the way the sentence reads in the translation:

"My sense is that the irrevocable is coming to pass; I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people who are leaving me again."

Here, my question is with the word 'again.' Does the sentence mean 'I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people again who are leaving me?' Or does it mean, 'I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people who are leaving me now as they have left me before?' No indications are given in the text to assume the second. The first is highly sensible and it is what I assume was meant. But it makes me ask, why would a skilled translator decide, in a sentence which expresses such a clear idea, to place a modifier in a spot which creates so obviously such ambiguity? My question is not a criticism of the translator, David Bellos, but a sincere example of curiosity. Was there something ambiguous in the original French that prompted this? And, if so, why was there no footnote to acknowledge this for the confused reader?

I think this question could prompt a lovely discussion on the translation of texts. If only one could find a translator with whom to discuss it!

New poll!

I've added a new poll. And this one has to do with bookstore music. It was prompted by a discussion I found on another site's forum which I ran across and which suddenly brought to my attention that not everyone likes music in bookstores. I'd never thought about it. And then recently I heard a complaint in a bookstore, something about "rubbish" and "blaring." So, what side of this contentious issue do you fall on? Feel free to comment, too.

Where I discuss a unique verbal expressiveness (but use a lot of cliches to do it)

I'm reading The Journal of Helene Berr which is, as its name indicates, the diary of a woman named Helene. She is a real person who lived and died and wrote during the second World War and I'm a little over a third of the way through this disturbing personal account of the Holocaust. Helene is very endearing to any lover of words and literature; her life centers around her university community and books, as well as music and, of course, the devastating events of the times in which she lives. It is a quick read, very conversational. Helene has an effective way with language; hard-to-express ideas are conveyed precisely and with deceptive ease. She hits the nail on the head but with a light touch. (I don't know how much of this is due to the fact that the journal has been translated from French - was the writing as expressive in the original? - but the translation factor will be discussed in another post.)

Those times at which we experience an ephemeral feeling or thought, the kind that dissolves in your mind the way a snowflake dissolves on your palm, it can be difficult to find words to express what we have just gone through. It may be harder, though less fanciful, than catching lightning in a bottle. But Helene seems to have the touch for it. I have found at least three instances of phrasing that have the power to make me put my book down, stare off, and think.

Consider these three.

On page 83, Helene talks about the odd way a person's perceptions change from night to day. After describing some of the horrible things that have occurred, Helene writes,

"It grabbed me in the dark, but it never comes to me during the day. In the daytime, life forms a crust on top of thought."

Just a lovely example of the kind of simplicity she employs to convey a complex thought. If it were me writing in my journal I might just say, 'You know how things seems different in the day than in the night? It's like that.' Helene writes abundantly better.

Then there's the example on pages 78-79 in which she describes truly fathoming her current circumstances and then, suddenly, losing the sensation. She writes of realizing what she already knew - that her father was imprisoned - upon reading his correspondence from the internment camp.

"But it hit me when I reread passages from his postcard...I realized how empty his new life was...Yet as I looked at the postcard I still could not grasp the reality....And now I've lost it again. No, I've got it now, suddenly in the dark: between the Papa of home and the one out there who wrote this postcard, a gap is yawning open."

She records her thinking process as it happens and does it in a way that makes you feel you're watching the thoughts in her mind.

Finally, that feeling that you have when things aren't going well and what was friendly and loved by you previously is friendly no longer, she describes in a passage on page 82 about her family's garden.

"...the rest of the garden lived its separate life, as it must do when we are not there. I can no longer manage to commune with it, to feel that it loves me and welcomes me. It has become almost indifferent."

So the garden is unfeeling or, rather, it has only apathy; it grows in bad times as well as good. But also it bears the personality which we imprint onto it, not necessarily one of its own; so what is a lovely and happy thing to us one day, is not lovely or happy the next and what enriches our lives at one moment does nothing for us the following moment.

It can be difficult to read such well-done writing as this. It's hard to get to the end of a book when you put it down every few pages and stop to wonder. But it's worth it in order to have ideas put into words that have always hovered in your thoughts but have not been given shape.

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