Saturday, June 28, 2008

This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski

I picked this book up at the library because A) I am always interested in holocaust literature and B) it was written originally in Polish, by a Polish (not Jewish) survivor of Auschwitz.

This is a series of short stories about life in a concentration camp, but they capture a side of camp life that is very rarely portrayed.

Borowski was a Polish "political" prisoner in Auschwitz first, then later in other camps. His short stories focus on impossible situations that forced people who wanted to survive to behave in unnatural, and ultimately soul-destroying ways. I was reminded of Night by Elie Wiesel, because one of the things that struck me from that book was the unnatural relief Wiesel felt when his father died, because he would no longer have to exert energy toward helping him. At 17, the guilt and grief over his own feelings, mixed with his natural grief at losing his father, were overwhelming.

Similarly, Borowski dramatically shows how "survivors" had to shut their eyes to the suffering of others and even contribute to it in some ways, in order to stay alive. One story tells of a game being played by some of the prisoners on a field. During the course of the game, hundreds of people walk past them on a nearby lane, headed for the gas chambers. Apart from an occasional glance at them, they generate no interest or pity, only mild curiosity about how many people will die during the game. That kind of detachment was necessary to continue to exist from day to day under such dreadful circumstances.

Borowski's stories show some of the usual holocaust horrors--the gas chambers, the trains, the selections, the cruelty of the Nazis--but they also shed light on the less-often-seen brutality of the prisoners themselves, as they bargain, cajole, cheat, lie, and betray in order to survive. After reading these stories, I felt that Borowski despised the camp survivors, including himself. Ultimately, he did not truly survive the camps, but committed suicide about five years after the end of the war.

You can read a bit more about him if you'd like. These stories, though fiction, are based on Borowski's real camp experience, and they are not for the faint of heart.

Here's a link to wikipedia if you're interested in learning more about Borowski, who was fairly well known in Europe at one time, although I think less so in America (I never heard of him).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Things I Could Have Blogged About, But Didn't

Euro 2008

For the unitiated (99% of the population of the US, I am sure), this was (and is--still ongoing) the European "football" (soccer) championship. You might wonder why such a topic would appear on this blog, and so might I. It would be accurate to say that this athletic tournament, which I am quite capable of overlooking entirely until it is a distant memory even in the minds of ardent fans, was violently called to my attention in a manner impossible to overlook, similar to the way in which it would be difficult to overlook a sharp left to the chin.

It all started so innocently. We were celebrating our 20th anniversary this month, and I managed to convince my husband that it was an event noteworthy enough to warrant a wee bit more attention than our anniversary usually merits. I managed to convince him that we should actually go away by ourselves for a few days, and while my original destination of choice was London, the gasping-for-breath dollar dictated that we look for something closer to home. Okay, fine, we live in central Europe, and there are many worthy destinations within our reach--how many, I don't even want to think about now, but Prague, Budapest, and Salzbug merited at least a brief look. However, in the end, we chose Vienna. I've never been, and I've always wanted to go, and who needs a better reason than that? The dates of our trip were determined 20 years ago, since we got married June 11, 1988, and that's what we were celebrating.

We arranged for childcare, purchased train tickets, reserved a hotel, researched museums and points of interest on the internet, printed maps of the city and public transportion, packed our bags, and headed off to Vienna, blissfully unaware that Euro 2008 even existed, let alone that it was going to be the first thing to welcome us when we got there.

Really. As soon as we got off the train, helpful personnel thrust little booklets into our hands with "Euro 2008" written on the cover. Euro 2008? Soccer championships? Vienna is hosting the European soccer championships RIGHT NOW, and soccer fans (notorious for being loud, boisterous, and violent) are flocking to Vienna this minute? It really was a bit of a shock, although getting tickets for the city transportation, finding the right trams, and reaching our hotel were our immediate concerns.

Within a very short time we discovered the following:

1. Some streets were closed and some trams and buses rerouted, making following the transportation map we had tricky at best.

2. All the museums and buildings we planned to visit were precisely in the district marked "fan zone" in the helpful little booklet we received at the station.

3. The clincher--the last day of our visit coincided with the soccer match scheduled between Austria (home country, where we were) and POLAND (the country we left behind so we could visit Someplace Else).

For the most part, we did what we wanted to do and saw what we wanted to see. It was a little strange, that last day, to hear more people speaking Polish around us than we would have heard in Krakow, but one can over look these things. Our train home was delayed an hour and a half, as it was arriving full of soccer fans ready for the evening game, but we were fervently grateful that our plans took us home that day instead of the next, when said (by then disgruntled) fans would have been riding too.

Did you know (ha ha) that Poland is hosting this tournament in 2012? Can I come visit you?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Reading Log, May 2008

This is a somewhat belated list of the books I completed in May. As will be seen, May was a month of book-gluttony at a level that I am not capable, or desirous, of sustaining. June's list will likely be shorter.

The Case of Jennie Brice by Mary Roberts Rinehart -- An audiobook mystery (Librivox!), most interesting to me because it was set in Pittsburgh, and I grew up near there. Very twisty ending!

The Cat Who Saw Stars by Lilian Jackson Braun -- A reread, very light reading, which includes talk of knitting, wool, and homeschooling. And UFO's.

Emma by Jane Austen -- Yet another reread, but just as good as ever. I never grow tired of Jane Austen, and whichever one I happen to be reading is my favorite. I love them all.

The Lost Boy by Dave Pelzer -- Nonfiction, the sequel to A Child Called It, about an abused child. This book is about his time in foster care, which, although he had a lot of issues and fears to work through (a lot of messed-up thinking from his earlier abuse), was mostly a positive experience that eventually helped him to "make good."

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton--Audio book at Librivox, read by Elizabeth Klett (the best). This was a very well-told story, but hard to explain. It's the story of a young man in a fairly out-of-the-way New England town. He has dreams and desires, is a pretty sad story. However, the writing (and Elizabeth Klett's reading) are fantastic.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen -- Another reread, which I picked up as soon as I finished Emma. I didn't read any Jane Austen at all in 2007 (something that hasn't happened for ten years), and I guess I am making up for it this year. Once I got started, I just couldn't stop. No one can stand up to multiple readings like Jane Austen. It was probably the 8 or 10th time I've the book.

Small Island by Andrea Levy -- This book won the Orange Prize in 2004. It was also fantastic, and one of the few books I blogged about properly when I read it.

They Met in Moscow by Rosemary Timperley--Published in 1966 (the year I was born!), this is the story of a tour group in Moscow. It is not a mystery, not an adventure story, not a thriller or romance. It is just a story about a random group of people, thrown together, against the background of a very interesting city at a very interesting time. I always prefer character-driven stories to plot-driven ones, so the book held my interest although it was not "great." I live in a former Iron-Curtain country, so any books that deal with life behind the Iron Curtain or communist-era interests grab my attention anyway.

The narrator is the most interesting character in the book, although she is never named. She was a well-known, highly acclaimed English actress until an automobile accident disfigured her. A great deal of plastic surgery was required, but her appearance is clearly not altogether normal. She is very lonely and misses her life on stage dreadfully. She sees the world as a stage, and views everyone's actions in light of a theatrical performance, making her narration rather dramatic. I couldn't resist writing this much, but I hope I haven't made anyone really interested in reading it, because I'm afraid it was probably never published in the US.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh--I've never read this before, and like some other 20th century literature I've been reading, I don't think I would have cared for it much if I had. This was definitely a book worth reading, and worth writing about at greater length, and maybe I'll do that.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro--This is the third book I've read by Ishiguro (and I will read more). All of his books have some things in common--a single narrator, a sort of passionless, detached tone of narrating even the most emotional situations, and that "unreliable narrator" quality which lets you in for a surprise at some point. I don't think I'd classify Ishiguro as a "great" author, but he's really, really, really good.

I also had another book that I started an abandoned in May: Daughter of Jerusalem by Sara Maitland. This is not my kind of book. At all.

And that makes ten books read in May. If I maintained such a pace, I'd read 120 for the year, which would be sort of extreme, even if some of them are audiobooks.

Howard's End by E.M. Forster

I could just say this book blew me away, and it would be true, but it wouldn't be much of a blog post.

I listened to the book at Librivox, which I highly recommend, as always--especially anything read by Elizabeth Klett, and this book was.

Howard's End is a house, and the action of the story flows around it, although very little of it actually takes place at Howard's End.

The story is a sort of tapestry, weaving together the lives of three families, from three different levels of the emerging British middle class. The Basts are the lower-level working class--getting by, feeling the need of a bit more culture, seeking interaction and taking advice from those they perceive to be their superiors. The Wilcoxes are a well-to-do family with money made in the colonies. They are can-do people with money to spare, more practical than sentimental. And finally, there are the Schlegels, whose inherited income gives them time to devote to art, music, culture, books, and Causes.

Howard's End is pieced together like a puzzle--bits of the story interlock with other bits, and some things never do seem to fit. Sometimes the characters behave the way you expect them to, and other times, they don't--just like real people. The ending is shocking and unsettling, making the story rather unforgettable, I think.

I must confess that this is the first book by E.M. Forster that I have completed. I have attempted some of her stories before, but I don't think I was ready to read them. I know full well that I would not have enjoyed or appreciated this book 15 years ago. However, I am sure it will not be the only E.M. Forster I read--I'm looking forward to more of her writing, although I'm in no hurry.

For the past several months, I've been reading some 20th-century "classics" that I never got around to reading before, and it has been a surprising pleasure.