On Library Books.

I love the library. Growing up, I was the girl whose mother refused to drive in more than once a week. If I had been able to drive at seven — or see over the wheel, or reach the pedals, or drive stick — I would’ve gone down every other day.

Luckily, I don’t live with my mother anymore (though I still don’t know how to drive stick).  I can bring myself to the library as often as I like, and since I’ve gone a little crazy requesting titles that sometimes means a few days in a row.  I’m serious when I say “crazy.”  Let’s put it this way: the last time I went in, the librarian was surprised I was only borrowing five books.

Those five brought my stack of borrowed books up to twenty-three, all of which I lugged up to Maine with me this past week.  My goal was to get through half, and even though I didn’t, I came pretty damn close with eleven (more on those specific titles in a later post).

I’m not taking bets on how fast I’ll be able to read through my stack, but I will tell you that if I feel strongly about any of the titles, you’ll be hearing about it.

Oh, and here’s my new thing with reading: if I’m not captured by the end of the first page, the book goes back.  There’s just too many books out there to read, and sometimes I just have to act like a mercenary.

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Three Books, Two Days, One Lake.

This is what my summer has been like so far:  Maine, Maine, Maine, Maine.

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:

Those Who Save UsI 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.

The Best of EverythingI 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.

The Sweet Life in ParisOne 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.

Gone Fishing.

(Well, that’s kind of a lie, since I’ve never fished for anything but compliments.)

The truth is, I’m heading out of town and shall be Internet-less, so I’ll be in touch when I get back…

Keith’s family has been going up to Little Sebago in Maine for over thirty years; we’ll join them for a few days. While I don’t have the same history with the place as Keith does, I’ll say this with absolute certainty: there are few things in the world like lying in bed on a summer’s night in front of an open window overlooking a lake, listening to the loons and the frogs and the soft slap of the water against a boat, and feeling the cool and steady breeze against the tiny bits of skin you have purposely left out from the warmth of your many blankets for that very purpose.

I highly recommend it.

Then there was that one summer when:

  • Keith dove off the dock and swam such great lengths underwater to come up beneath a duck; he came so close to grabbing her little orange leg. The squawks she made…
  • we took the boat to this massive rock at the other end of the lake; we climbed it and threw ourselves off, and I let myself plummet all the way down and ended up scratching the tops of my left foot on the iron-rich lake bottom. When I came up my foot was torn and bleeding and stained yellow.
  • we went to the fish hatchery and it was the first time I had ever seen a moose. I was surprised because it looked just like the moose from If You Give a Moose a Muffin, minus the cardigan.
  • after a rainstorm, Keith and I took the flashlights and went for a walk on the lake road and counted up to twenty-seven tiny little frogs and toads that could have fit comfortably on the surface of a quarter.
  • the night Keith and I brought a blanket out onto the beach and while we were picking out constellations, I saw shooting stars for the first time.

And then there was that first summer, when I first drove up to the house. That night, we went into town to go to Dairy Queen, and on the way back, Keith suddenly turned off the headlights and only the faintest light came from the track indicator on the CD player. Still, it was so dark I couldn’t tell when the car started and the outdoors began. It was like we didn’t exist.