Five Things About Me: 46 47 48 49 50.

46. I couldn’t tell you precisely why, but I find World War II utterly fascinating.  When I was in Amsterdam not too long ago, Keith pretty much had to drag me out of the Dutch Resistance Museum.  And this was after we had been there for more than three hours.

47. I don’t think, in the past five years, that a day has passed in my life where I haven’t eaten some cheese.

48. Much to Keith’s and my parents’ combined chagrin, I have no interest in money — by this I mean investing, CDs, IRAs, bonds, stocks, whatever.   I can’t help it; it all makes little sense to me, and if I have someone taking care of it for me, what’s the big deal?

49. I had a very scientific method for selecting the paint colors in my apartment.  I didn’t just choose colors I liked or thought went well together, I chose ones that both Keith and I look good in.  I figured that we’re going to be “in” the shades the most, so we may as well look our best.  My favorites are the blues in the living room (“December Eve”) and bedroom (“Bayside”), both by Behr.

50. This isn’t very “cool” to admit but here goes: I’m not really into Thanksgiving, mostly because I don’t really like turkey.  What I do like are the sides, though the kind of sides my family has aren’t even remotely traditional.  I’ll tell you more about that in a few days, I promise.

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.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky.

suite-francaiseIf you want a feel-good, happy-time novel, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française is not for you.  After all, the author’s story itself is so utterly tragic, and one so closely tied to the book that the reader can’t help but think of Némirovsky while turning the pages.  Here’s why:

The Ukrainian-born Némirovsky planned for Suite Française to be a five-part novel portraying life in France during the German occupation, which began in June of 1940.  With parts one and two (“Storm in June” and “Dolce,” respectively) complete, Némirovsky then loosely sketched her plans for part three (“Captivity”) and considered titles for parts four and five (“Battles” and “Peace”).  Before she was able to begin working on “Captivity,” however, Némirovsky was arrested for being “a stateless person of Jewish descent”; a month later, she died at Auschwitz.  Both the manuscript and Némirovsky’s notes survived, as did Némirovsky’s daughters Elisabeth and Denise.  Denise, the eldest, took her mother’s writing with her into hiding, thinking the notebook was merely a diary, and one too painful to read.  Fifty years would pass before the two sisters would discover their mother’s novel-in-progress, which would then be considered to be one of the first works of fiction written about World War II.

As if that’s not heartbreaking enough, then we have the remaining parts themselves, which tell the story not only of life during the Nazi takeover, but also of the invasion as well.  With “Storm in June,” Némirovsky introduces us to an epic cast of characters spanning a myriad of class distinctions; they join the masses fleeing Paris with the hopes of evading the advancing German forces. There is the bank manager who takes the precious promised space in his car from his two employees and gives it instead to his cosmetics-loving mistress and dog.  We have the beaux-arts collector who ranks his acquisitions higher than his countrymen, only to trot speedily down a tragically karmic route.  There’s the trusting priest who shepherds orphans out of trouble, only to have them turn on him, and his patriotic younger brother who abandons his family to join the army even though he has yet to come of age.

Via incredibly sparse language (some of which must be credited to translator Sandra Smith), Némirovsky’s characters endure the impossible turbulence of a terrified exodus — only to skate onto the uneven ice of occupation.  In “Dolce,” Suite Française slows its pace to reflect country life in the pastoral village of Bussy, where a German garrison is billeted.  Some characters overlap from “Storm in June,” such as a docile adopted farmer’s daughter married to a fugitive, but Némirovsky produces even more personalities: the incorruptible aristocrat whose son is incarcerated in a German prison; her emotionally-conflicted daughter-in-law; the officer assigned to their house; the affectionate cook who works in the kitchen.

That’s just in one house.  Némirovsky gives equal coverage to the other villagers, creating a story that I can only describe as miraculous.  Think about it — Némirovsky wrote Suite Française as it happened, meaning the events her characters endured were the same that Némirovsky herself endured, almost simultaneously.  In a sense, the novel is an example of in medias res; we are thrust into the middle of the action just as the author was.

The tragedy, of course, is that Némirovsky was unable to complete the novel, but there’s more to be mournful of than simply that.  My edition contains two appendices; one is devoted to Némirovsky’s notes on the story she would never finish, the other is reprints of letters to, from and about the author.  In her last letter, she writes to her husband and daughters, “My dearest love, my cherished children, I think we are leaving today.  Courage and hope.  You are in my heart, my loved ones.  May God help us all.” Through his correspondence, we learn that her anguished husband searches for Némirovsky until he too is deported to Auschwitz after securing hiding places for Denise and Elisabeth.

I’ll end this with the last two paragraphs from the beginning of Suite Française, which I urge all of you to read.

Still at some distance, great guns were firing; they drew nearer, and every window shuddered in reply.  In hot rooms with blacked-out windows, children were born, and their cries made the women forget the sound of sirens and war.  To the dying, the barrage of gunfire seemed far away, without any meaning whatsoever, just one more element in that vague, menacing whisper that washes over those  on the brink of death.  Children slept peaceful, held tight against their monthers’ sides, their lips making sucking noises, like little lambs.  Street sellers’ carts lay abandoned, full of fresh flowers.

The sun came up, fiery red, in a cloudless sky.  A shell was fired, now so close to Paris that from the top of every monument birds rose into the sky.  Great black birds, rarely seen at other times, stretched out their pink-tinged wings.  Beautiful fat pigeons cooed; swallows wheeled; sparrows hopped peacefully in the deserted streets.  Along the Seine each poplar tree held a cluster of little brown birds who sang as loudly as they could.  From deep beneath the ground came the muffled noise everyone had been waiting for, a sort of three-tone fanfare.  The air raid was over.