Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: Review

memoirs of a dutiful daughter

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

Philosophy’s gravitational wave is coming, and will move across her life . . . 

Beauvoir’s mother was a fundamentalist Catholic and required subservience to that worldview. She did her best to inculcate her daughter with its tenets and practices, emphasizing the safety it provided, to women in particular. That safety and stability, supporting the structure of family life, also required an abstinence from thinking, curiosity, and freedom (though all were subverted in various, subconscious, ways).

Religion pervaded Simone’s existence as she faithfully went through an education at a Catholic school, believed in the efficacy of confession, and the power of prayer. But, slowly, the pervasiveness began to recede, as she observed and questioned ideas and ideals, and learned of other worldviews through her own efforts. Autocracy, with its companion hypocrisy, became apparent at the school. She read books that were banned by her mother, finding them in a relative’s home. A young boy named Jacques gave her books to read, which she gladly accepted. The loosening hold of religion was caused as well by her recognition of its superficiality in those who professed the greatest belief. One who had been her confessor betrayed her confidence. And then, in her personal life, she discovered prayer failed her.

Ultimately, religion was not imbued within her, but was mostly an external accretion. She took some time to grow and break the accretion with a conscious choice. The accretion had been porous, partly due to her inquiring mind, and possibly, partly to her father who was not a believer. He was a person who wrapped himself in fantasy. Their financial, social, and inter-family circumstances, revealed the inadequacy of such a life. Her mother’s tolerance of her father’s non-belief raised questions. Was her mother only with her father because she had no choice, as a woman, in that time and place, to survive and bring up children with a modicum of stability? And so he was simply an accommodation, an appurtenance, with no further value than the earthly usefulness he provided? On the other hand, and I think Beauvoir sensed this, he was her mother’s outlet, her portal to moments of freedom. In him she could release her rebellion. 

Once she had broken with religion, creating a separation from her mother, Beauvoir felt free and ready to start a new life. Her struggles were not over, though; they had just begun in earnest. Simone was still living at home while pursuing higher education, trapped in an atmosphere of denial and obedience. Restlessly, she walked the city streets, which she had been told were off-limits, looking for new ways to be, for places and people to try out her new-found freedom. She never thought, she said, to go into the cafés. Instead, she went further, into clubs where she and her friends Zaza and Stepha indulged in sexual licentiousness and vulgarity, and met people who lived on the margins.

Her relationship with her childhood friend Jacques had changed over the years. She began to consider him as a potential husband. He was elusive, though, and her misgivings about him grew. He would not be her intellectual equal, even though he had helped her on her way at crucial times in the past. She knew she was supposed to seek the stability of marriage, but after much confusion, she realized her hopes were a mistake. Marriage was not for her, she concluded.

Beauvoir had some character flaws that come to light here. She idealized Zaza and Jacques, and obsessed about them, only to learn later they had not thought about her much at all. During these experiences, however, she was working through social questions. These people aided her as well in her philosophical education. But her idealization was over the top, which she acknowledged in the case of the teachers who had once inspired her. She also thought of herself as superior to the unwashed masses. Her revels in the clubs as a teenager and young adult are not unusual. Her crush on her childhood friend wasn’t either. She was different in the talent she had for abstract thinking.

She was honest about her idealizations and her snobbery. At one point, she noted she “loved to be loved,” and was surprised to find herself not being lauded outside her family, but instead, banished from society. She wrote with irony about her “insane optimism” in response to ideas and causes, and how this only added to her solitude. Her philosophical conversations and social analysis with other girls and women made me think: thank you! We read, think, and are concerned with the great mysteries, including questions of rebellion and living a worthwhile life, with authenticity and freedom.

Her greatest mission was to pursue an education, first compromising to study for a teaching job, but finally, to study philosophy. At the same time, she was engaged in community efforts to bring education to working class and poor people. The inspiration for this came from a leftist teacher and speaker. With refreshing humor, she related how, eventually, she lied to her mother about going to this volunteer job, only to really go to a film, ballet, or one of the clubs.

All the while she experienced extreme loneliness, the sense she didn’t fit in, as she roamed the streets, studied alone in the library, and attended class at the Sorbonne. When and how did she meet Sartre? If you don’t want to know until you’ve read the book, then don’t read the rest of this review!

She longed for intellectual dialogue, for someone who could challenge her, for someone who was her superior. One after another, intellectual companions came along, and fell away. Slowly, the dim-witted men of great intelligence realized they had met their match. One was a member of Sartre’s “group.” He referred her to the group, telling her Sartre had found her interesting. She threw all her arguments at him, and he refuted them. Well, this was what she had been looking for. But as we know, and so did he to his credit, she had something to contribute, which he could not, and this kept an interest and tension between them that fueled continuous thinking and dialogue.

Her relationships with a parade of men and women who were questioning the old ways were fascinating. Each one brought a different point of view and beliefs. The story often comes back to her relationship with Zaza, who also had a restrictive mother. She tried to be a good friend, although Zaza’s mother disapproved of her. At the end of the book, Zaza died of a sudden illness, after some years of failing health. She said of Zaza’s death, “We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.” This sounds eerily similar to the Jesus-Hercules stories of sacrifice for the betterment of the people. Or was it survivor’s guilt? In any case, Beauvoir had managed to free herself and create her own life. 

And so the wave of human questioning and knowledge goes on.

Advertisements

Without The Veil Between: Anne Brontë – Book Review

Without The Veil Between

Without The Veil Between Paperback

Without The Veil Between Kindle

Early in Diane Denton’s book the young curate, William Weightman, says to Anne Brontë: “You must find such satisfaction in being able to capture those moments the rest of us let slip away and sometimes aren’t aware of to begin with.” This is an essential part of Denton’s own gift. With this ability she is able to enter the world of a shy artist who lived in the shadows of her father, brother, and sisters, and in the light of a determined and insightful intellect. Anne Brontë set herself a more difficult task than her famous sisters, Charlotte and Emily. She was on a course of an artist whose subject was her life. Making this even more difficult, she sought to achieve emotional and mental stability.

Denton shows us the tensions in the austere home of the Reverend Brontë, the hopes for and disappointment in his drunken son, Branwell, and the longings of the three sisters for a more fulfilling life. The sisters’ books are populated with people who live large lives, with secret loves, deception, greed, passion, and loyalty. In this setting, quiet Anne makes her own way, exploring human relationships with a keen sense of morality and ethics. As a governess she has to be with people all day, at their beck and call, and can barely aspire to more. But as a true Brontë, she does aspire. Brief moments with the young curate open her heart to the possibility of love. And she dreams of opening a school with her sisters, and being in charge of her own life. William’s sudden death from cholera plunges her into depression, but she concentrates on duty and endurance, and calls on her faith.

On return to her father’s home, Anne witnesses Branwell’s descent into drugs, sexual escapades, and fantasy. Denton writes, “To reside within the dissolution of principles and proper behavior without being party to it meant that constant vigilance was required, which left little time or inclination for make-believe.” Anne realizes she will never be comfortable at home, able to escape into her writing as Emily has. She believes she will never be useful in society or at home unless she pursues a “well-cultivated mind and well-disposed heart,” and “have the strength to help others be strong.” Denton indicates these are the real-world issues she explores in her writing.

Denton builds the story of Anne’s young life gradually, taking us through her thoughts and experiences as she matures. The tempo steps up with the three sisters together again at Haworth, after having been separated for a few years. Charlotte has an idea for a book of poetry featuring all of them. Emily balks, and Anne mediates between the two, securing Emily’s participation. I found this one of the most fascinating parts of the book. The dynamics among these three gifted women sizzles on the page. Descriptions of Charlotte and Emily are haunting in their excellence. Each woman changed literature and the way in which women were viewed in society. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been called one of the first feminist novels.

The book roars through the tragedies of Branwell’s and Emily’s deaths from consumption. Through all of this Anne faces reality with determination. She has come to believe she was meant to be “an observer, and given … a quiet skill to extract lessons from what she saw. There was truth to be told, warnings to be issued, patience and prudence to instill in young women.” She depicted people and society with realism, not romanticism. This book made me wonder what Anne Brontë’s influence would have been had she lived to reach full maturity. Sadly, she died soon after her sister, Emily.

In Without The Veil Between, Denton’s writing has reached its maturity as well. I kept copying excerpts and pasting them in a file for me to read, enjoy, and think about later. Whole passages are beautifully written: meticulous, poetic, luminous, and powerful. The ending, echoing the title, is especially brilliant. I can’t think of anyone better suited to bring us into the world and the life of the sensitive, creative, and quietly courageous Anne Brontë.

Visit Diane Denton’s blog

A Moment of War – Book Review

A Moment of WarLaurie Lee’ s evocative, authentic voice rings across time to bring us into a pivotal moment of the 20th Century. Spain is at war with itself, but that war is also the spark that signifies the beginning of a greater tragedy. How insidious are the cold-blooded calculations and miscalculations that led to World War II! 

In A Moment of War, the young British idealist, Laurie Lee, sets out to revisit and defend the country he came to know a few years before while on a long rambling excursion into the heights and depths of Spain, described in his previous book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. 

As he writes of his solitary and stubborn trek over the Pyrenees: “I was at that flush of youth which never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible. I felt the seal of fate on me, and a certain grim intoxication, alone in this buried silence.”

What he finds is confusion, people appearing to be what they’re not, hunger, cold, and random brutality. The international volunteers are not trained and not armed. They are held in desolate places, starving and suffering from the cold and boredom. Every so often a speaker rallies them and they raise their fists, ready to fight and die in the fight against Fascism. Lee underscored the absurdity of the situation, and its likely uselessness, as he said: “Did we know, as we stood there, our clenched fists raised high, our torn coats flapping in the wind, and scarcely a gun between the three of us, that we had ranged against us the rising military power of Europe, the soft evasions of our friends, and the deadly cynicism of Russia?”

He saw this and yet: “But in our case, I believe, we shared something else, unique to us at that time – the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which might never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass slaughter closed in.”

The savagery of modern technological war caught the Spanish government by surprise. Franco, who led the rebels, and was allied with Hitler and Mussolini, had no qualms about letting them use Spain as a testing ground: “Then there the firebombs, calculated, dropped on the old town and the poor. The Luftwaffe was clinical. Franco had said that he was willing to wipe Madrid from the earth rather than let it remain ‘in the hands of the Marxists’ so he gave it up to Luftwaffe.”

In the end, after months of hardship, Lee is taken on a wild ride to the front, when the war has turned in Franco’s favor, and many are getting out or getting what they can. He finds himself dumped, with a few others, with no idea where he is or where the enemy is. While he and a Russian and a girl try to find shelter, several men come toward them. A short struggle ensues. Lee takes the rebel soldier’s weapon, shoots and kills him. He then runs away with the few stragglers. On his way out of Spain, he wonders: “Was this then what I’d come for, and all my journey had meant – to smudge out the life of an unknown young man in a blur of panic which in no way could affect victory or defeat?”

Before he left Spain, he was arrested as a suspected spy, for the third time, and jailed again. Each time he was thrown into terrible conditions, the first time in a pit, and the last time in a filthy prison with crowded cells. Each time he is saved at the last moment by someone who recognizes him and has the authority to free him. Twice he is close to being executed before this happens. This is a story of war’s senselessness, subversion and exhaustion of human feeling.

The last time he is saved by Bill Rust, the editor of the Daily Worker, who gave him the task of sorting cards with the names and addresses of five or six hundred British and Irish volunteers. “Many – more than half – were marked ‘killed in action’ or ‘missing,’ at such fronts as Brunete, Jarama and Guadalajara. Public schoolboys, undergraduates, men from coal mines and mills, they were the ill-armed advance scouts in the, as yet, unsanctified Second World War. Here were the names of dead heroes, piled into little cardboard boxes, never to be inscribed later in official Halls of Remembrance. Without recognition, often ridiculed, they saw what was coming, jumped the gun, and went into battle too soon.”

This is the review of A Moment of War on Amazon.

A Gentleman In Moscow: A Review

A Gentleman In Moscow

This is a modern form of the tales of Scheherazade, and not a work of historical fiction. In both Arabian Nights and A Gentleman In Moscow, there’s a telling of a series of stories while imprisoned, with the principal question lingering: will the storyteller ever be free? Many stories reoccur throughout the narratives in repeating motifs. They include historical facts, poems and songs. The author of this book mentions, in sly passing, Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” That stayed with me, like the tinkling of that dinner bell, heard only once, but resonating with meaning. And finally, we human beings tell ourselves stories while all the time our lives move inexorably toward the end.

This book has an architectural character, with layer upon layer – story upon story – perfectly suited to a story of a life spent in a hotel. These stories, told by the raconteur Count Alexander Rostov, wind through the hallways, up and down stairs, onto the roof, into the cellar, and through all the rooms, bringing him into contact with the diverse population to be found in a hotel.

What interested me most was the emphasis on poetry. Poetry, he says, is always a call to action. He seeks out the poetic in life, and he gains stability and meaning from it. He notes the tie to action in his friend the poet’s case, and this friendship connects him actively to the plight of those less fortunate. Without this connection, this involvement, with the truly oppressed, Rostov is a cardboard cut-out of a person, less human by far than a Former Person.

The book is written in proper prose, reflecting its subject, who lives with a heightened sense of propriety within the limited scope of his class, of honor, and a defined code of conduct. Within that framework he makes adjustments. His occupations, though he doesn’t call or recognize them as such, are to read, reflect, dine, and discuss. He avoids bitterness through action, using his skills and his wits, and through self-reflection (so necessary for survival with dignity). He “sparked” conversations, and had “an instinctive awareness of all the temperaments in the room.” His ability to engage with other people is his saving grace (as with Scheherazade).

Glimpses of the changes taking place in Russia appear in the form of a friend and a girl, both of whom become exiles in their own country. Neither will compromise, while Rostov does make what appear, to the other person or people involved, to be compromises. He has a different kind of courage, grounded in sureness of his identity. The destruction of personal identity is going on around him throughout the book. Historical and cultural identity is being revised. Would survival be easier for members of the aristocracy when all is taken away from them, or for peasant farmers who are suddenly enfranchised (or promised enfranchisement) but never owned anything, except a few hard-earned possessions, never had time for contemplation, and for whom the life and health of family was a continual struggle?

While many of the life lessons in the book are not unique or original, they are very pertinent to the story. Of them, I thought this one of the more relevant to modern life. “From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family.” But our possessions are “invested” with memories and give us solace – but “a thing is just a thing.” Rostov learns to “expunge them from his heartache forever.”

We can’t hold onto our homes, our possessions, even our families, because they can all be gone in a minute, or a decade; all we can do is keep our noble sense of purpose intact within ourselves and act accordingly, but with the good sense to increase our chances of survival.

Ultimately, this book is a modern fairy tale, which is most clearly illustrated by its ending.

This is the review of A Gentleman In Moscow on Amazon.

A Man Called Ove: A Review

A Man Called OveIn A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman writes about people who are at odds with modern rules, and he does so by ignoring, even flaunting, modern rules of writing. And it was glorious! Wonderful! He portrays people who don’t fit into society as it is presently constructed, so it makes sense he tears up the rules when writing about them. In this way he can tell the story of the old-fashioned Ove, for whom the rules are an undue burden, and the immigrant Parveneh, who recognizes the rules but for whom reality is a very flexible thing.

What are these rules of writing? Let me name a few. First, there’s the prohibition against using similes and metaphors. How did this start? From what I can tell, George Orwell said, don’t use similes. Now this has become orthodoxy. Backman deals with this by exchanging the word “like” with “as if” and “as though.” These phrases animate the simile and are usually effective. There was a point, though, in the beginning, when the as ifs and as thoughs sounded as if a thousand flies were buzzing in my ears. On occasion, these were much too lengthy and sounded contrived. But I give him credit for his determination in giving the reader both similes and metaphors.

The other rules all writers will recognize. Don’t use “ly” words. Don’t use words other than said, such as exclaim, shriek, and god forbid, wail and protest. Laugh is not a synonym for say. Don’t use it instead of say or said. Backman does all these unabashedly. But wait, there’s more. He changes tense for no apparent reason. He addresses the reader. He uses phrases. When he references tech devices, cars, and other mechanical instruments, he doesn’t concern himself with endless explaining of what they are. Oh, and he uses exclamation points! Even when the character is screaming. Love it! What? What’s happening? Just this: Backman runs over the lines, kicks the box around, and lets us care about the people in his stories.

Is the book perfect? No. The storyline is repetitive. A Man Called Ove could be called A Man Called Over and Over Again. Each chapter is a retelling of the same issues, but not always with much movement forward in the story. He relies on thematic sayings and symbolic scenes which are borderline preachy. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so much fun to read.

I ask you, what is that called? That’s Called Good Writing.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont: A Review

Mrs Palfrey

The truth about aging is a subject we want to avoid. Elizabeth Taylor confronts the truth with sensitivity and honesty, stripping away the platitudes about the golden years and showing us the reality of life for an older person in contemporary Western society. The individual is rendered meaningless the more they are removed from the family group, and even when included there’s a sense of alienation. In spare sentences without false emotion, Taylor gives us a heart-wrenching picture of Mrs. Palfrey, a woman doing her best to keep her dignity. The writing has a vibrant eloquence, and was a joy to read.

Taylor deftly portrays Mrs. Palfrey as tough in a British stiff-upper-lip way. She refuses to be isolated, and seeks friendship, with mixed results, as others her age are totted off to nursing homes or live in their daydreams. Her one success is the relationship with a young man who goes along with the lie that he is her grandson. He does this in exchange for the material he finds for a book he’s writing, but not entirely one suspects, as his own relationships are unstable. She goes along as well since refuting it would cause more consternation and she’s able to at least have a relationship. It’s her refusal to go quietly that causes her to fall, quite literally. Is it better to sit and wait for death, or to die rushing to meet someone, to do something? This is a question all who live to a ripe old age will ask themselves.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont on Amazon Kindle

Book Review: Stalingrad—The Loneliest Death

StalingradThis is my review of Christoph Fromm’s book, Stalingrad—The Loneliest Death, about the battle of Stalingrad in World War II, told from the point of view of German soldiers.

This powerful story rips the façade of honor and glory from war while meticulously exposing its true nature. Fromm’s book is a no-holds-barred dissection of the machinations of megalomaniacs, the complicity of ordinary citizens, the myths of war, and the lies we hold dear at a terrible cost.

In the beginning, the young German Leutnant Hans von Wetzland and his small band of soldiers believe this attack will follow the time-honored rules of warfare. Very soon, though, they discover that atrocities are being committed against Russians, including civilians. Because the Germans have committed these atrocities, they’ve destroyed any expectation of being treated humanely by the Russians, who respond with equal savagery. As the grim reality of Stalingrad sinks in, the soldiers find any advances or moments of peace are quickly followed by brutal retaliation or fatal mistakes by their own side.

Fromm vividly depicts the moral challenges each soldier in this group faces. He also shows that people with greedy and evil, as well as those with generous and good intent and actions, meet similar fates in the hell of war. Having human feelings can lead to fatal results, but also offer the only way out, although it’s a slim chance of survival. The images of freezing weather, hunger, illness, small acts of kindness, egregious acts of evil, hand-to-hand combat, and the senselessness of it all, are told from multiple points of view within this group, and are unforgettable.

While describing the horrors of war, Fromm delivers much beautiful and effective writing: “Shells and bullets tore to shreds not only the body, but the senses and the spirit, too.” And: “Figures swayed in the glow, as if in slow motion, as if some sadistic deity were holding back the passage of time for his own pleasure.” And: “Everyone had their own way of weeping.” There is also humor, bitter and obstinately humane. These far outweigh repetitious descriptions and unlikely chance meetings, as well as occasional grammatical errors.

After months of struggle against lack of food, clothing, and shelter, and merciless slaughter on both sides, the soldiers begin to realize things have gone terribly wrong. They discover officers who are corrupt, selfishly pragmatic, or incompetent. Their previously held beliefs break down beneath the weight of betrayal and unbridled brutality. A turning point comes with the realization they have been abandoned by Hitler. As an army in defeat, they are to expect no support from their leader. Instead, they are being sent to their deaths.

One soldier, Gross, who is attuned to the irony of the situation, says, “You thought Hitler was clearing out just Jews and Bolsheviks? Wrong. The Führer does the whole job. Now it’s the German soldier’s turn, and next it’s the German people!”

When the soldiers comprehend that all is lost, they rebel, and try to survive as best they can. Some rant about Hitler and the generals. Others realize they have been duped by propaganda. But many knew full well what they were going along with. Some are disgusted by their Hauptmann who still believes in the myths of war, or chooses to do so in order to salvage some sense of meaning. Young von Wetzland mutters, “It’s all been a lie.” All “his life it was untruths he had loved, and the more he knew them to be untruths, the more he loved them; and he loved them with a lust that could not be satisfied…” One by one each soldier reaches his breaking point.

As Fromm writes, “The calculations came in hundreds, thousands, the noughts multiplying; the horror of the death count would stretch the ability of those left behind to imagine and to feel pity, would stretch them to destruction as had the shells the bodies. How could anyone determine the fitting degree of mourning for more than a million dead, men who had perished for just one ruined city, when the ordeal for just one man alone was impossible to measure?”

This is war without mercy or honor, where courage, sacrifice, and morality count for nothing, as every action fails to improve the situation, leads to more destruction, and finally, loss of hope. In short, this is warfare on a grand scale which exposes its inanity. Anyone who is concerned with the survival of humanity as we glide into the future—whether unheedful or willingly supportive of the real motivations and consequences of war—should read this book.

Amazon Review                                                          Facebook Page: World War II True Stories


I received a copy of this book from the author. This is a voluntary review. While I’m not an avid reader of war novels, I am interested in the causes and outcomes of World War II, which I think are still relevant today.

The Inflatable Buddha: A Review

The title in Hungarian is Tövispuszta, the name of a fictional village near Budapest. The descriptions of what happened to people living under fascism and then Soviet communism are stark and illuminating. It’s a cautionary tale as we move into the 21st Century with its manifestations of a dystopian world.

This book is much more than a history lesson. It’s a story of how our allegiances and alliances, set against our grounding in what we experience in daily reality, including personal relationships and sense of community, plays out in modern times. This is the story of three boys, Pál, István, and Dávid, as they grow to adulthood and old age. Each one comes from a different social and economic background, and has beliefs formed by experience in their particular families as well as in the village. In each life humor and love occur along with hints of madness and sorrow. They are swept up in the turbulent socio-economic and political changes of the early and mid-20th century. They have to make decisions they determine best for them, their families, their country, and ultimately what they hope is on the side of the greater good. Each one has a moral and ethical sense, which tempered or informed by a survival instinct, is at the heart of their major decisions. And sometimes they make choices that put their freedom and their lives in danger. At the same time these exact same choices are necessary to give them a chance to survive, with or without integrity.

Several women play large and equally interesting roles. Elza is adopted by a Jewish family after found wandering in Budapest and taken to their home in Tövispuszta. She is passionate and independent. Then there is Lucky Gizi, another wonderful character, steadfast and resourceful. She is both lucky, and unlucky, to be married to István’s father. These and other female characters give the story much greater depth.

Kepes takes the characters through the decades of change. World War I “had left people hungry, defeat had left them bitter, and the disintegration of Hungary had humiliated them.” Word of worker and peasant power came with soldiers returning from the Russian front. Inequality between the landed gentry and peasant farmers threatened to blow up into armed conflict. By the 1930s, with Russian communism on one side, and German fascism on the other, Hungarians struggled with a choice of futures. By allying with Germany, some Hungarians believed their country could take back territories ceded to Czechoslovakia after World War 1. Other Hungarians were attracted to communism as a hoped-for improved form of socio-political arrangement. People in the small village took different sides. Some simply tried to survive. Kepes makes it clear that no one—the educated or uneducated, idealistic or pragmatic, rich or poor—escaped harm in the ensuing conflicts.

Another current was anti-Semitism. The Jewish people were blamed by the Nazis for tainting the strong native character of Europeans. Even though, as the author shows with ironic amusement, Hungarian families had tangled ethnic and racial roots, this prejudice became part of the nationalistic movement. The mass killing and deportation of Jews is told in the context of the characters’ lives in chilling detail.

The book has its flaws, but it shines in those episodes where the personal stories take center stage. Some of the most moving stories are about the Jewish family in Tövispuszta. The father’s abiding faith in human compassion is powerful. Although it doesn’t save his life, he faces reality with courage and makes his life positive, so much so that one of the boys, now a young man, is moved to punish his killers and publicly honor his memory. There’s a twist at the end in the tale of one of the other boys, in which his choices are re-evaluated by his family and country, but I don’t want to give too much of the story away.

The Germans and the Hungarian Arrow-Cross were brutal, but the Soviet-backed communist leaders practiced a pervasive and corrosive control of people’s lives. People were imprisoned and tortured for having said the wrong thing or spoken to the wrong person. Then years later they were released and re-instated to their jobs and position, only to have it later taken away again. Under both systems, children were removed from families, names were changed. No one was safe. Personal control and responsibility, and the sense of community, were under siege. Who could be trusted?

While I was reading I wondered at the concerns of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Hannah Arendt. Can evil be institutionalized and made the norm? Apparently it can, to a certain degree and only with popular complicity, for months, even years. Even then its destructiveness is terrifying, though it must be endured as part of the daily reality. Anyone who has experienced brutality knows it’s not banal. Then, sometimes sporadically at first, but always eventually, evil breaks out of efforts to contain and distribute it. But in those moments when it terrifies most, it begins to lose its power. To read this book is to remember those who have gone before in this struggle, and to see how they responded. While cruelty and oppression have often won the day, we can also see the perseverance of people toward what Sartre said is the most fundamental aspect of being human: freedom.

My Review of Dogbone Soup

dogbone-soupThis is a wonderfully engaging and thought-provoking story. Bette Stevens’ young boy growing up in poverty in 1960s America, reminds me of another child, adrift on a raft on a mighty river, and the issues illuminated by that author of social stigma, individual resilience, and integrity. Huckleberry Finn is also poor and an outsider, and yet becomes a symbol for the equality of all humanity, and the finer spirit in all of us, in Mark Twain’s hands. I felt a similar quality in Stevens’ distinctive book.

Stevens’ skill with dialect also makes this book unique. She doesn’t overdo it, but lets it flow like spring water, or rain in the forest. Her descriptions take you into the scene and the characters’ minds. I felt I was in the family’s cabin, fishing by the river, riding a bike into town, being bullied and ostracized, and ashamed of a parent’s bad behavior. This book is a rare treat. I highly recommend it.

See the review on Amazon

Book Review: Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight by Jo Robinson

From the beginning, Jo Robinson’s world of fantasy and harsh psychological realities in Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight held me in thrall. This is a story of an interior life, as Donna, the main character, struggles to break free. She is trapped in a loveless and emotionally abusive marriage by a narcissistic husband. For many years she has poured her love and hope into her garden. And it is in her search for seeds for her garden that she meets Elvira, an extraordinary woman, who shares her interest. These gardens flow from the spirits of the women into land-shaping, and life-shaping, manifestations. They are touchstones, as the story evolves, for many lives. Elvira visits Donna, which very few others have managed to do, and sees Donna’s fantastic garden. Elvira has an impressive garden of her own, in town, with a café catering to people who are in transition from divorce, job loss, or death of a loved one. One of the ways they heal is by working with elderly people who live alone.

51p+WiVpzAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Donna begins to connect with Elvira and her friends, and gradually reveal to them what she has been creating for so long in the icehouse of her isolation. But her husband has other ideas. Will she succeed? Her story is a testament to the resourcefulness and tenacity of the human spirit in its drive for freedom, and the greatest human act and experience of freedom, which is love.