See, we just got back from a weekend at Little Sebago Lake with Keith’s family; they’ve been renting the same house for the past thirty years, and I’ve been going up for the first week in August for the past nine years or so. This year, Keith and I only stayed for a weekend, but that didn’t stop me from taking part in my favorite lakeside activity: reading.
Wanting to be prepared, I brought more books than articles of clothing — it wouldn’t be possible to get to each one during the stay, but I’m a really moody reader and knew I’d appreciate the variety, even if it meant I wouldn’t make my way through even half the stack. Here’s what I read:
I am fascinated by World War II, and so will greedily consume any- and everything related to it — including, I’m not ashamed to say, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which I’ll be watching later this summer. Jenna Blum‘s debut novel Those Who Save Us both is and isn’t about the Second World War; it’s also about guilt, love and the relationship between mothers and daughters.
Since emigrating to Minnesota, Trudy’s mother Anna has never discussed her experiences in Germany during World War II with anyone, particularly her daughter. Now a German history professor, Trudy begins interviewing other German Minnesotans about their lives during the 1930s and 40s. What she records changes Trudy’s opinion of her mother irreversibly.
Those Who Save Us swaps its narrative back and forth between Trudy’s present-day existence and Anna’s past. Normally, when I read a multiple-character stories I find myself drawn more to one individual than the other, but Blum writes both mother and daughter so compellingly that I’m unable to pick favorites.
It’s difficult to discuss much of the plot without giving everything away, but what I can elaborate upon is, albeit briefly, what Anna did to ensure she and young Trudy survived the harsh times of World War II Germany. Unwillingly, Anna takes a lover: the Obersturmführer of Buchenwald. To say their relationship is strained and tense is an understatement of absurd proportions — though the exact same words can be used to describe the dynamic between mother and daughter. Happily, Blum allows her characters to earn their peace authentically; not once do their revelations — and, in time, the novel’s conclusion — seem forced.
I was talking on the phone with my friend Amee the other night; during our conversation I confessed that I’ve always wished I could stand on a street corner in New York during the late 1950s and early 60s, and just people-watch.
“Imagine,” I said dreamily, “women wore hats and gloves, and got their hair set…”
Women do all this and more in Rona Jaffe‘s groundbreaking first novel, The Best of Everything. Published in 1958, the book is has influenced modern-day television shows as disparate as Sex and the City and Mad Men (a personal favorite). Through the five fresh-faced secretaries featured in The Best of Everything, the reader gets an incredibly authentic view into a very distinct period of American life — especially considering Jaffe wrote the novel when she was in her mid-twenties and working as an associate editor at Fawcett Publications.
Under no circumstances would I call Jaffe’s work here literature, but I will enthusiastically refer to it as compelling and engrossing reading. I will also say it was oddly prescient — the women in The Best of Everything find themselves embroiled in situations that my friends and I (and our friends’ friends, and theirs, and women everywhere) still encounter today: men issues, work issues, friend issues, parent issues. Luckily, the creepiest part of the book — blatant, unabashed sexism — seems mostly outdated.
One day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have a little walk-up in Paris, except we’ll call it a pied-à-terre, where I’ll live with Keith and our two dogs named Virgil and Geraldine, and I’ll wear stripey bateau-neck tops with quarter-length sleeves and dart in and out of bakeries and market stalls with my basket of groceries, and each night Keith and I will walk the dogs along the Seine.
You know what they say about girls being able to dream.
In the meantime, David Lebovitz‘s anecdotal cookbooky memoir The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious — and Perplexing — City will have to tide me over.
If you’ve not read Lebovitz’s blog, start reading it now. It’s funny, observant and full of fool-proof recipes — and his book is more of the same. My only complaint, for lack of a better word, is that Lebovitz’s choice of chapter-concluding recipes don’t necessarily pertain to the tales he spends the previous pages telling, which isn’t a bad thing, of course. I just wanted a bit more continuity. Though with instructions on how to make a plum and raspberry clafoutis and pain d’epices au chocolat, I’m kind of a jerk for being so nitpicky.